Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

New! Lecture on 23rd May at Bush House, 44-46 Aldwych on my book 'The Lies We Were Told' with discussion from Rachel Shabi and Aeron Davis. Book here.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Is Brexit still possible?

My last post was about how Labour should move from supporting Brexit to supporting Remain, because there is no chance that their kind of Brexit deal either being approved by parliament or attracting majority support from voters. This holds before and after any elections.

You may think Labour should support Remain simply because it is the right thing to do. I have written many posts saying exactly this. But many within Labour, including crucially Corbyn himself, do not agree. This is why we should also think about whether supporting Brexit is a feasible strategy, which is what my last post does. The post also shows why supporting Brexit will now lose Labour votes.

But the logic of that post also applies to any deal, including the government’s own. There is always a blocking group of MPs made up of a combination of Brexiters and uncompromising Remainers, and if the deal ever squeezed through parliament there would always be a large majority of voters who would hate it and take their anger out on the government.

May tried relentlessly to get her deal through without any support from the Labour leadership. I cannot see how events might conspire to help her in the period before she leaves. Indeed the success of Farage will embolden the Brexiters, particularly as they are close to getting a Brexiter as Prime Minister. Unless Corbyn wants to commit suicide on behalf of the Labour party, May’s deal is the proverbial dead parrot, with the government as the shopkeeper.

The only chance she had was to make serious compromises with Corbyn in the negotiations. Doing something that could split her party is not something she would do. Even with a joint deal the numbers look tight if there is no second referendum attached, The number of Conservative MPs who voted for her deal the first time they voted was just under 200. That rose to 277 by March, but with Farage as background and a general aversion of Tory MPs for ‘doing a deal with a Marxist’, the number could be more like the first vote than the last.

Among 246 Labour MPs, perhaps 120 would vote against a joint deal because it didn’t include a People’s Vote. That leaves around 125 who would vote for a joint deal. The majority needed is 320. It is close, but perhaps not large enough to get all the Brexit legislation through. If a People’s Vote was included that would probably be a stable majority, but in that case the deal would easily be rejected by a combination of Remainers and Brexiters.

Would a Brexiter Prime Minister make any difference? How could it? It would increase the size of the Brexiter block. The idea that the EU will substantially improve their deal with a Brexiter as PM is pure fantasy. Brexiters will play the long game: hope to gradually increase their number in parliament, and to win an election with a big enough majority to get No Deal through parliament. A Conservative party committed to No Deal is the only way the Tories have to neutralise Farage.

This all suggests that Brexit in any form based on Article 50 is just not possible. A May-Corbyn deal was the best shot, but I don’t think either side are prepared to do it at the end of the day. Yet no one will admit that Brexit is stuck with no obvious way forward. It may require a new Prime Minister to admit the inevitable. They have a big incentive to do so, as at the moment Brexit has brought normal government to a halt.

What about the EU - will they want to go on extending Article 50 again and again? At some point they will issue an ultimatum: no more extensions so agree a deal, revoke or leave without a deal. That will certainly ‘stress test’ the analysis above. Will that persuade enough MPs to agree a deal? If it does not MPs will vote to revoke. The most likely outcome of this stress test is a vote for a referendum and a request to the EU to allow time for one, which they will give. Any referendum will be won by Remain unless parliament is foolish enough to put No Deal on the ballot, because Brexiters as well as Remainers will campaign against it.

So Brexit is stuck, with no foreseeable way to successfully implement it. I have waited some time before writing a post with this conclusion. I have kept saying this is wishful thinking and something unexpected will turn up to make Brexit happen. It still could, but I suspect Farage is the final straw. It seems odd writing that Brexit is on its deathbed, in a coma but with no chance of recovery, when a year ago the Remain cause seemed hopeless. The thing everyone under estimated was the way Brexiters themselves would effectively kill Brexit.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Labour’s Brexit policy is long past its sell-by date

Labour cannot bring the country together with any kind of deal because a large majority will always hate the deal they have done.

Most people think about Brexit as a binary divide. While true in terms of Remaining or Leaving, this framework is misleading when thinking about any Brexit deal. A better model is to think about three different groups. The first comprise Remainers who see no value in compromising over Brexit. The second is made up of people who will be satisfied with nothing less than a complete break i.e. No Deal. Finally you have a group, that includes some Remainers, who would be prepared to accept some kind of Brexit deal that falls short of No Deal: the compromisers.

The size of the compromiser group may vary depend on how hard the deal we are considering is. As the deal becomes softer it loses some Leavers to No Deal and gains some Remainers. But in no case does this group of compromisers come close to being a majority of the population.

Exactly the same divisions apply to MPs in parliament, although the exact proportions may be different. This is why it is so hard, and perhaps impossible, to get a majority in parliament for any type of agreement. It is why any type of agreement is likely to fail It will be blocked by some combination of uncompromising Remainers and No Deal Leavers, who together will form a majority. This also applies to No Deal, which will be blocked by the other two groups. The only option that has any chance of getting a majority in a referendum is Remain, because both uncompromising and compromising Remainers will vote for it.

The reason we have these three minority groups when it comes to any deal is twofold. First the 2016 referendum did not specify the type of deal that people were voting for, and indeed the Leave side suggested a variety of deals. This is why compromising Remainers are wrong to think they ought to compromise. 2016 did not provide a mandate for any particular form of Brexit and could never amount to a blank cheque for any kind of Brexit. Leavers voted for one of the variety of deals suggested at the time, which all involved more money for the NHS and the EU giving us the benefits of membership without the obligations. They most certainly were not voting for no deal at all.

Second, the Brexiters have realised along with many Leave voters that the only way the UK as a whole can avoid being bound by EU decisions is to leave with no deal at all. Unsurprisingly, the EU will not allow the UK to stay in the Customs Union and Single Market when the UK can also decide its own tariffs and regulations. Brexiter ideas of negotiating a free trade deal with the EU has been spoilt in their minds by the EU’s (and anyone who cares about peace in Ireland) insistence on a backstop. In time I suspect they will embrace a limited Northern Ireland backstop, but for a variety of reasons they are not there yet.

It is the reality of these three minority groups that Labour’s current Brexit stance fails to recognise. They cannot bring the country together with any kind of deal because a large majority will always hate the deal they have done. This is the basis for my argument that they could never get agreement for any kind of Brexit if they were the government. They would be opposed by Conservatives and many of their MPs in parliament and in any referendum (which parliament would force on them if they didn’t choose to have one themselves) they would lose badly. The only possible (but unlikely) exception to this rule is a deal between Labour and the government without a public vote attached that might just scrape through parliament. Even in this case the deal would be hated by most people in the country and both parties would be punished for it.

The upshot of all this is that no one, including Labour, can enact Brexit. Their current policy is simply a non-starter for very good reasons. Their policy did make much more sense in 2017. At that point it was not clear that the Brexiters themselves would scupper any kind of deal. But during 2018 that became clear, and at that point Labour should have acknowledged reality and changed its policy to embrace not just a People’s Vote but also the Remain cause.

The main excuse for Labour supporting something that cannot happen is to keep the votes of Leavers. The argument goes that if they supported Remain they would lose seats in the old Labour heartlands. Embracing Remain might win them a few votes, but in seats they have comfortable majorities in already. At the end of the day most Remainers will vote Labour whatever its Brexit policy because they want the other things a Labour government would bring.

In 2016 and 2017 that argument had some force. However it is no longer valid. Let’s take the Remain side first. There is CHUK which explicitly aimed to capture disaffected Labour voters on the Remain side. The fact that CHUK contains former Conservative MPs will limit their appeal to Labour voters, but they do pose a threat to the Liberal Democrats. The LibDems are as a result likely to stress their more radical side, which makes them more appealing to Labour voters. The days when their history as part of the Coalition government was a millstone around their neck are dying, as recent polls show. Finally you have the Greens, who are likely to look increasingly attractive as the perceived threat of climate change grows.

In it certainly true that if Labour embraced Remain they would lose some voters who support Leave. But comparisons with voting patterns in 2016 are now out of date, because more Leave voters have changed their minds than Remain voters. Crucially, minds have changed predominantly among Leave voters who find their financial situation difficult, who are also likely to be Labour voters. This was confirmed by a recent UCL study.To quote
“Of Labour voters who chose Leave in 2016, fully 18% have changed their minds and say they now prefer Remain as their top outcome. In contrast only 4% Conservative Leave voters have changed their mind. One reason might be differences in economic circumstances between Leave voters in the parties.”

Peter Kellner now estimates that in Leave areas Remain supporters now outnumber Leave supporters three to one. That is a huge margin. It means that seats that voted Leave in 2016 are more vulnerable to switching Remain supporters than if Labour loses Leave supporters.

None of this would matter of it was only Leave supporters who were likely to forsake Labour, with Remain voters staying loyal. But poll after poll has shown the opposite is true. To quote from the UCL study again:
“For Labour, at least a fifth of their voters in every region say they are going to vote for a different party – and in every region defecting voters are overwhelming plumping for parties holding a definite Remain position (assuming the bulk of the “Other” vote is likely to be Green, particularly in London and Scotland). Only in Wales is Labour losing significant voter share to UKIP and the Conservatives, and even that is outnumbered by those switching to Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and Others. The picture is particularly stark in Scotland where almost half of Labour voters are intending to vote for a different party, mostly the SNP. In London too, the Labour vote could be hit hard by a shift to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.”

This is confirmed by polling analysis after the council elections.

Does the rise of the Brexit party change any of this? In fact it reinforces it. It splits the Leave vote, which reduces the impact any switching from Labour by Leave supporters as a result of adopting a Remain position would have.

Would Labour lose too much face if it moved to support Remain? I don’t think so. The story they should tell is that the 2016 referendum has been respected because all the government’s resources, and Labour’s energy, have been devoted to trying to find a form of Brexit that a majority could accept, but it has become clear that a feasible deal does not exist. In particular there is no possible way of getting parliament or the country to support the kind of Brexit Labour prefers. As a result, Labour will now unconditionally support the Remain side.

The logic of the argument I have put forward would also be as, if not more, consistent with revoking Article 50. That would avoid the anger at not including No Deal in any referendum question. No Deal cannot be an option. To make it so learns nothing from the 2016 referendum. One of its lessons is don’t put to the people options that MPs know would be a disaster for the country, and with a rabid Brexit press and broadcasters that balance facts with lies we cannot trust the people not to vote for this disaster. The argument for revoking is that the country has already wasted too much time because Leavers cannot decide on the Brexit option they want, and we need to move on.

As Tom Kabasi argues, a campaign based on making Brexit about priorities rather than about staying in the EU or leaving is likely to be a winning strategy. People are fed up with Brexit, and they do not want it to dominate politics for years ahead. If Remain supporting Labour could convince voters that Brexit will be never ending and that we need to move on they can win the debate.

Will Labour move towards a position where it supports Remain of its own accord. The logic I set out has been clear for some time yet they look unmoved by it. That is why many Remain supporting Labour voters will continue to vote for Remain supporting parties into the indefinite future. The hope is that Labour, if it will not move through analysis of the true situation, will do so because of the fear of losing Remain supporting votes.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Lecture on The Lies We Were Told

Too busy to write a post today, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to publicise my forthcoming lecture and discussion on my book. Its at Kings College, Bush House, 44-46 Aldwych, London at 7pm on 23rd May. I’m lucky to have Rachel Shabi, contributor at the Guardian and Professor Aeron Davis, Deputy Head of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University of London to lead the discussion. The lecture is organised by The Progressive Economy Forum, and further details are here.

In the lecture I want to focus on three big lies told by politicians but also aided and abetted by the media. By big I mean lies that led to profound changes in most peoples lives or how we are governed. The first was austerity, where most of the media ignored mainstream economics and pushed the nonsensical idea that we should reduce the deficit in the middle of a recession. The second was the 2015 election, where the slowest recovery for centuries and unprecedented falling real wages were sold as a strong economy. The third was immigration, where scare stories in the right wing press fueled fears in parts of the country that had seen very little immigration. Together with similar disinformation about the EU, this culminated in Brexit, where one part of the media acted as propagandists and the other part balanced truth with lies.

These lies did not come out of nowhere. They were part of what I call neoliberal overreach, by which I mean using political deceit on a grand scale to pursue neoliberal ideas. William Hague when leader of the opposition talked about the UK becoming a ‘foreign land’. Neoliberals had no interest in curbing immigration beyond its ability to capture votes. Once in government you had austerity, which used deceit about the imperative of reducing the deficit to shrink the state. I discuss the extent to which even Brexit can be included as neoliberal overreach. Deceit requires lying to the public in a major way, which was only made possible by the support of the right wing press and the broadcast media turning a blind eye.

It is free (of course) but you do need to book your ticket here Hope to see you there, .

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Why are we governed by incompetents?

In 2016 Boris Johnson and Michael Gove narrowly won the referendum on EU membership. It turned out they had no idea how to turn their victory into a concrete policy. They had dismissed every potential difficulty as just more ‘Project Fear’, and it became clear they were not just doing this just because it was effective rhetoric. They had not throught through any of the major problems that implementing Brexit would create. They looked rather shocked when they won, realising that these problems airily dismissed would now have to be resolved.

Cameron resigned, and the Conservative party needed to choose a new Prime Minister whose main preoccupation would be negotiating the terms of our exit. Their choice was Theresa May, who was known from her previous job as being non-collegiate, slow to adapt but obstinate in the views she held. These were almost the exact opposite of the qualities needed in any negotiation with a more powerful neighbour. Perhaps knowing this, she chose David Davis to handle the details of negotiation, a man who had the charm that May lacked but who had no interest in the details, in part because he clung on to the belief that the EU would cave at the last minute.

If we cross the Atlantic, then the story is the same but more so. The hard part is thinking about an issue or decision where Donald Trump has displayed any competence. Most recently he tried and failed to appoint two people, Stephen Moore and Herman Cain, to the board of the central bank, where their main qualifications were, respectively, that their predictions were always wrong, and they ran a Pizza company.

You could perhaps put all this incompetence down to the exceptional peculiarities of Brexit and Trump. But May also appointed as Northern Irish secretary someone who didn’t realise voters there voted along sectarian lines. Chris Grayling, after his disastrous privatisation of the probation service, then awarded a Ferry contract to a company that had no ferries, and so on. A key campaign theme of the Republican party in 2016 was to repeal Obamacare, but once Trump was elected and they had control of Congress it turned out they had no idea what to replace it with.

Nor did this incompetency suddenly emerge out of thin air in 2016. David Cameron implemented a policy of cutting public spending in the middle of the worst recession since WWII, leading to the slowest recovery in centuries. He allowed his minister for health to implement a fundamental reorganisation of the NHS that turned out to be a disaster, at the same time as his austerity policy starved the service of funds. Of course it was also David Cameron who made a commitment to hold the EU referendum in the first place under terms that were most favourable to the Leave side. .

Simon Kuper, in a brilliant article in the Financial Times, has an interesting explanation for this epidemic of incompetence. He writes how leaders like Macmillan, George HW Bush or Clement Attlee had their formative experiences in fighting WWII, while Lyndon B Johnson, Bill Clinton, and John Major had a visceral experience: of poverty. They knew in their bones that government mattered. He goes on
“But both countries have now fallen into the hands of well-off baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 - the luckiest members of the luckiest generation in history. These people had no formative experiences, only TV shows. They never expected anything awful or unknown to happen. They went into politics mostly for kicks.”

I’m sure Kuper is right that if our current leaders had had the strong formative experience of living with poverty or living through WWII their behaviour would have been different. In particular they might have thought twice about using populist tropes like ‘the will of the people’. But surely being ‘the luckiest members of the luckiest generation in history might be a necessary but not sufficient condition for being incompetent.

An interesting example here is Tony Blair The son of a barrister, he attended a school in Edinburgh that is sometimes described as Scotland’s Eton *** and went to Oxford University. Together with Gordon Brown he presided over an administration that championed evidence-based policy. A clear example was the decision in 2003 not to enter the Euro. The Treasury spent a year researching the pros and cons of joining the Euro, consulting widely with outside experts. The 18 background studies that effort produced are excellent examples of literature reviews or, in some cases, applied research. Although Blair was predisposed to favour entry, he was content to allow the evidence the Treasury produced to persuade him not to join.

There is of course one glaring exception to this record, and that is Iraq. The war was the idea of Bush Jr, and it was a nonsensical response to 9/11. Most of the evidence at the time suggested that there was no connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and that although the war could be won keeping the subsequent peace would be very difficult. Blair followed Bush because of a simple but tragically incorrect idea, that the close UK-US alliance had to be preserved at all costs. He ignored domestic advice about the problems any post-war period would create.

The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 was not flawless by any means, but it terms of competence it is clearly better than what came later. It is hard not to see that evidence based policy protects you from many, but not all, policy mistakes. Cameron made the commitment to a referendum in 2013 because the political imperative was to stop the rise of UKIP and possible defections from the party. The evidence were opinion polls at the time, which suggested that Leave could easily win. At a deeper level he should have realised the influence a very pro-Brexit press could have, and also that his own immigration missed targets and the rhetoric that he himself had used to justify them would beat economic forecasts in voters minds..

An ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence. Indeed most right wing think tanks are designed to turn the ideology of neoliberalism into policy based evidence. It was this ideology that led to austerity, the failed health reforms and the privatisation of the probation service. It also played a role in Brexit, with many of its protagonists dreaming of a UK free from regulations on workers rights and the environment. It is why most of the recent examples of incompetence come from the political right.

A pluralist democracy has checks and balances in part to guard against incompetence by a government or ministers. That is one reason why Trump and the Brexiters so often attack elements of a pluralist democracy. The ultimate check on incompetence should be democracy itself: incompetent politicians are thrown out. But when a large part of the media encourage rather than expose acts of incompetence, and the non-partisan media treat knowledge as just another opinion, that safegurd against persistent incompetence is put in danger.

Postscript 08/05/19 It has been pointed out to me that at the age of 10, Blair's father had a stroke and lost the power of speech for over 2 years, meaning he could not work and his family fell on hard times. So here too Kuper's point may apply.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Labour Remainers can no longer trust Corbyn not to do a deal with May

I have argued in an earlier post that it is highly unlikely that Labour could get Brexit through parliament after winning an election, because the Tories will unite to oppose it, and they together with Labour Remain MPs would defeat it. The NEC recently agreed they want a People’s Vote on any Brexit that the Labour leadership disagree with. So the only way that Labour’s current policy might allow Brexit without a People’s Vote is if the Labour leadership come to some accord with Theresa May and her government.

The general expectation has been that a deal between May and the Labour leadership on Brexit is pretty unlikely. With many senior ministers focused on who will succeed May as Prime Minister, any deal with Labour is likely to see May’s cabinet collapse. The same should apply to the Labour side. The Tories are suffering because they are totally split and take the blame for not delivering Brexit. Why would Labour want to take joint ownership of this toxic project? Even if May and Corbyn could agree, the chances of any deal getting through parliament without a People’s Vote also attached are slim.

But May has nothing to lose, and unfortunately the reality as a result of Tuesday’s NEC decision is that Labour Remainers cannot trust Corbyn over Brexit. The argument before the 2017 election that Corbyn’s stance was just triangulation, or an attempt to shift the debate on to ground where Labour have an advantage, no longer holds because opinion has shifted to Remain, and a recent UCL study shows the switchers are predominantly Labour voters. The same study shows that for Labour, at least a fifth of their voters in every region say they are going to vote for a different party – and in every region defecting voters are overwhelming plumping for parties holding a definite Remain position. As Peter Kellner points out “Labour voters in Leave areas now back Remain by a margin of more than three to one.”

The excuses for Labour’s equivocation have therefore melted away. It looks more and more that Corbyn wants to avoid an unqualified commitment to a People’s Vote because he wants the path clear to do a Brexit deal with the government. That is obviously not in the interests of Remain voters. It is also a huge hit to his brand: the leader of principle who will give power back to Labour members. Remain voters' obvious response is to vote for one of the clear Remain parties. This is what seems to have happened in the local election today, and it will happen again in the elections for the European parliament.

There are two objections to Labour voters doing this. The first, and more powerful, is that seats in the European Parliament matter, and the more left leaning MEPs there are the better. If Corbyn is unsuccessful in doing a deal with the government, or if that agreement collapses, then this is a real cost. The second argument is that not voting Labour makes it more likely Farage will win the election. But as I have argued elsewhere, its votes not seats that matter in that election. Labour voters are going to keep forsaking their party as long as their commitment to People’s Vote is less than 100%.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Buses are about redistribution, productivity and a greener future

Labour’s policy for buses is a key part of reversing the impact of neoliberalism on transport since the 1980s. It is redistributive: it helps those who cannot afford to drive to work. Nearly half of all bus journeys are taken by those who have no car, and two thirds of those who travel on buses have an annual income below £25,000 per annum. But it is also a brave policy. By far the most popular mode of transport is by car (or van), and the policy will be portrayed by opponents as putting road building at risk. .

The money recently promised by Labour will mainly go to undoing another impact of austerity. Outside London fares on commercial routes are set by bus operators. Local authorities can provide subsidies for routes that are socially important but not commercially viable. Local authority-supported services outside London have halved in vehicle mileage since 2009 as austerity has squeezed local authority budgets.

But Labour also plan to change the way buses are run outside London. Bus operation was privatised by Mrs Thatcher in 1986. Yet privatisation has in most cases failed to bring the benefits of competition. Largely as a result of a long-term process of consolidation through merger and acquisition, the UK bus industry is highly concentrated with three businesses (Arriva, FirstGroup, and Stagecoach) dominating the sector. Head-to-head competition between operators is uncommon, producing what is effectively a monopoly.

The market failure in this case may be the ability of a large bus operator to stifle any competition by temporarily cutting prices or increasing frequency. That makes the routes unprofitable for a time for the large bus company, but it is also unprofitable for the new entrant. As the financial resources available to the big company are much greater, they have the ability to kill off or take over any competition.There is no regulator preventing this kind of unfair competition.

With new entry unlikely to happen because of the possibility of such threats, the large bus companies can do what every unregulated monopoly does: raise fares and reduce services. That is good for profits and dividends, but bad for passengers. The large bus companies make good profits, and the passenger gets a more expensive or less frequent service. Since 2009, for example, the average price of riding a bus has increased in real terms by over 15%, while the cost of using a car in real terms has hardly changed.

There is a vicious circle here. The cost of running a bus is largely independent of how many people use it, so if usage declines firms put prices up, which in turn discourages passengers. But one important area has seen bus use rise rather than decline, and that is London.

The system in London is rather different from the rest of the country. Contrary to common belief, Transport for London does not own its buses. What it can do that local authorities elsewhere cannot is set routes and fares, with private companies bidding to run each route. That avoids the high fares that come from monopoly, and it also makes it easy to establish a common ticketing system which is absent in places like Manchester. The system used in many European countries for their bus services is similar to London. An important advantage London has is that there is effective competition between bus companies to bid for tenders on routes, which helps keep costs down and maintains efficiency that might be lost in a completely nationalised system.

The success of London compared to most other areas of the country suggests the neoliberal ideal of a bus system free from government ‘interference’ does not work, and local control over routes and fares can provide a better service. It is a classic example of where economics, which recognises the social costs of monopoly, beats a neoliberal ideology that is often blind to the dangers of monopoly. This is why Labour also plan to encourage areas outside London to re-regulate bus services, and support the creation of municipal bus companies that are publicly run.

While a comparison between London and elsewhere shows the dangers of private monopolies charging too high a price for services, is there not a danger that if local government can set fares it will tend to set fares too low? I don’t think this is likely to be a major issue because of two other problems (what economists call externalities) with a profit-based bus service. If people use many cars rather than a single bus this increases congestion and pollution.

Anyone familiar with large towns and cities during rush hour will know what a nightmare congestion can be. Buses can reduce congestion by persuading people not to use their cars. Basic economics tells us that the congestion externality justifies subsidising bus travel or taxing cars. Exactly the same point applies to CO2 emissions and pollution. In this respect underpricing bus travel can be advantageous.

Unfortunately the experience of UK cities suggest that cheap fares alone may not be enough to prevent congestion. In addition congestion outside London may be having a serious impact on the productivity of our cities, as well as increasing pollution and CO2 emissions.

Tom Forth writes about a recent study that starts with a puzzle. In many countries large cities tend to be more productive than small cities, and economists explain this by talking about agglomeration effects. However this pattern does not seem to be true for the UK if you exclude London. Another way of putting the same point is that UK cities outside London are not as productive as they should be.

The study then looks at transport times to the centre of Birmingham, where the transport system is mainly based on buses. At peak times, when congestion is high, bus journey times into work can double on bad days, and anyone using a bus route has to plan for bad days. So if we think about the effective size of Birmingham in terms of a reasonable time to get to the centre, the city shrinks substantially.

This study shows that as long as cars are free to come into the centre those travelling on buses also suffer. Birmingham is using this study to target investment in bus lanes, which provides a partial answer. Park and ride schemes can help too. Another approach is to again follow London and introduce a congestion charge, but this will only be politically feasible if alternatives are easy, cheap, frequent and reliable.

If we look at cities in France, the big difference with UK cities is metros. Lyon has 4 lines, while Lille and Marseille have two lines each. Birmingham and Manchester have none. Last week I visited the French city of Rennes, population 215,000, that has one metro and is building another. Manchester has a good tram network similar to Lyon, but Birmingham has just one and Leeds none (compared to three in Marseille and two in Lille).

In short, cities outside London lack the transport infrastructure that can make them work productively, but also in a way that reduces CO2 emissions and other forms of pollution. One difference with France is how money is provided. In France every city larger than 100,000 people has a ten-year transport plan, with significant national investment in five-year allocations with ten-year strategies. In the UK cities are good at the strategies and visions but cannot secure funding to realise them.

Once you have well functioning cities you need to provide easy connections to nearby towns. Towns flourish when they are well connected to dynamic cities. Many will argue that this kind of local investment is money better spent than HS2, but I don’t think we should think of these as alternatives. Cities that link quickly to other cities are likely to be more productive, and France’s TGV network puts the UK to shame. The UK has underinvested in non-road transport infrastructure outside London for decades, and we need to make up for this quickly to create a more prosperous and greener future.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

How the media can frame our understanding of elections

What will the European elections mean for the future of Brexit? We know that Remain is clearly ahead in polls and has been for some time, but an actual election has additional validity. What better to focus on the EU issue than elections to the European parliament. So quite rightly everyone will be looking to the result to gauge popular opinion.

There is only one problem. The obvious thing to look at is votes cast, because these are unaffected by a voting system that penalises small parties. There are three main pro-Brexit, anti-People’s Vote parties (Con, Brexit and UKIP), five anti-Brexit, pro-PV parties (Green, LibDem, CHUK, SNP and Plaid) and Labour. Although Labour is officially a pro-Brexit party, it is likely something in excess of three quarters of those who vote for Labour are anti-Brexit.

But as I have written before, the media will focus on Nigel Farage. What is also almost certain is that they will focus on seats won rather than votes. As Ian Dunt writes

“Sure, Remain might end up doing as well as Brexit parties in the popular vote, but it won't matter. That's not how journalists think and it's not how Westminster thinks. They care about who wins: how many MEPs are returned and from which party.

I can confirm, based on a twitter conversation with a journalist for a major broadcaster, that this is exactly how they will behave. They will focus on the large number of seats Farage wins compared to the small number of seats that the anti-Brexit parties win in England and declare a victory for Brexit. This journalist even said it would mean the death of a People’s Vote.

Now if this was all about the UK’s representatives to the European Parliament, then of course it would be right to focus on seats. It seems likely that had the Greens, LibDems and CHUK cooperated they would win more seats each than if they fight each other. But if you are trying to assess what the vote means for popular sentiment on Brexit you should look at the vote. Ask any pollster. But the media will to a large extent ignore this.

The only defence for the media’s approach is that politicians will also focus on seats. But will they? I think the truth is that the political parties that do well in terms of seats will do so. Those that do well in terms of votes will focus on votes. In particular the winner in terms of seats will make a great deal of fuss about that fact. The media loves to focus on winners for understandable reasons. The problem comes in letting this focus spill over into statements about issues where its votes not seats that matter.

Suppose the result in terms of votes and seats (excl Northern Ireland) is something like this (not a forecast, but just reasonable numbers to illustrate my point):

Labour 27% Seats 23

Pro-No Deal parties 28% Seats 25

Conservative 14% Seats 10

Anti-Brexit 31% Seats 12

Suppose Farage gets all of those 25 seats. He will be the winner, and we will see celebrations by him everywhere. But does that imply that a People’s Vote is dead? Of course not, as PV parties will have won 58% of the vote. Does it imply we should leave with No Deal. Of course not: no deal parties have only 28% of the vote, which is less than the anti-Brexit parties. Can we trust the media to make these points? I suspect not.

It is depressing how people internalise media behaviour. I have read countless tweets, articles and podcasts saying that the failure of the three anti-Brexit parties to cooperate is a huge mistake, because it will damage Remain’s cause. This is from Remainers themselves, not their opponents, and Remainers who know how the media behaves.

Why is it so difficult for the media to focus on reality, rather than make up a false truth that is sympathetic to certain politicians and newspapers. Maybe the reason is just bias - a bias imposed by the partisan press that too often sets the agenda. Maybe it reflects the media’s obsession with parliament and MPs, where MPs from Remain parties are few in number. Maybe it reflects how the media sees elections as horse races were only the winner matters. None of these reasons are good, so it is a shame that so many people internalise the media's framing rather than challenging it.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

When people warning about incipient fascism are criticised rather than laughed at is the time to worry about incipient fascism

I’m old enough to remember left wing demonstrations in the UK when ‘fascist!’ was a standard chant. On most occasions back then it was a ridiculous accusation, and as such it was rightly laughed away. But times have unfortunately changed. With authoritarian regimes in some East European countries, Trump’s election and subsequent behaviour, and far right parties gaining ground in other countries, fears of a return of something like fascism are no longer a laughing matter.

When Andrew Marr interviewed David Lammy a week ago, he suggested Lammy talking about appeasement of the ERG in the same terms of Hitler or apartheid was “unacceptable”. Not ludicrous but unacceptable, and by implication something Lammy should apologise for. Quite rightly, and so refreshingly for a Labour MP in the glare of TV lights, Lammy was having none of this. He said his comments were not strong enough. When Marr protested that these were elected MPs he was talking about, Lammy reminded him that the National Socialists had elected MPs. In 1932 they were the largest party in the Reichstag.

Nigel Farage is not an MP, but the BBC seem happy not just to give the launch of his new party considerable airtime, but also to do so in an uncritical manner. After the BBC had chosen the soundbite from his speech about putting the fear of god into MPs for what they had done to us, no one was given airtime to warn about how dangerous that kind of speech was, and that one MP had been murdered by the far right, another plot foiled and about many other serious threats to MPs. I think it is fair to say that the launch of the Brexit party was news and had to be covered, but to provide no kind of critical balance whatsoever was a strange decision.

Discussions of incipient fascism go in the wrong direction when direct comparisons are made to fascism in the 1930s. Equally ticking off check lists of signs of fascism just beg the question of how many ticks mean we should be worried. There is no generally accepted definition of fascism. We need to be more analytical, but also to update the analysis to the circumstances of today.

Much of the academic discussion of this issue takes place under the umbrella of studying populism. I think this is a little unfortunate, because the populism umbrella can be spread very wide to include any political party that challenges an existing party political structure. If you are interested in incipient fascism a better conceptualisation of populism is expressed by Jan-Werner Müller. You can tell a populist by whether they claim to represent ‘the people’, which is certainly not all the people, but instead just the ‘real people’. The real people quickly becomes those that support the populist leader. The others, especially immigrants or minority religions or races, just do not count, or worse still are ‘saboteurs’ trying to thwart the ‘will of the people’. Populists of the Müller type will be strong on nationalism, as well as threats from within and without. Intimidation and violence against opponents is never far away. Populists will talk about the elite that has been leading the country astray, and how they as leader has to constantly battle against this elite, even though they themselves are often part of that elite.

I think a critical aspect of Müller’s account is that populists are prepared to overturn the institutions of pluralist democracy if they believe they are frustrating what the populist leader perceives as the will of the people. Authoritarian populist leaders deny the necessity of democratic pluralism, such as an independent judiciary or an independent media. The people, as expressed through the populist leadership, takes precedence over all other elements of pluralist democracy, and these elements must be made to bow before that will or be replaced by those who embody that will.

A clear example of what Müller is talking about is Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. He has pledged to create an illiberal state like Russia or China. Perhaps as a result, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a 2015 EU summit dispensed with diplomatic protocol to greet Orbán with a "Hello, dictator." To further this aim he has gone about controlling the media and courts either directly or through placement of allies, with complete success. This together with a lethal combination of extreme nationalism, scaremongering about migrants and antagonism against Muslims and Jews keeps him popular. NGOs have been attacked, which has led to legal proceedings by the European Commission. A host of public bodies like its fiscal council, the central bank, and the national elections commission, have been abolished or their independence limited. An international university in Budapest has been forced to close down.

Yet Hungary is still a democracy in the sense of having reasonably genuine elections. When occasionally the opposition does win a local election, Orbán unleashes the full might of his nationalist, enemies at the door, enemies within narrative at them. With almost total control of the media and civil institutions, he can make life very difficult for the opposition. He won his last election with ease.

I would argue that this is the incipient fascism of today. It is possible that Orbán’s nationalism and control of the media and other parts of the state will allow him to maintain total control for many years. If at some point in the future a unified and effective opposition does arise, we will see if Hungary moves back to democracy or to something worse than the elected dictatorship it now is.

It is also easy to see many of the traits of a Müller populist in Donald Trump. He is impatient with the constraints of the judiciary, and is more than happy to fill vacancies with barely qualified or unqualified individuals who will do what he wants. He plays up threats from within and without. He has a penchant for dictators in other countries. He endlessly criticises the ‘fake news’ that comes from an independent press, and instead favours the Republican/Trump propaganda that comes from Fox News. When asked whether he was concerned about death threats that followed his disgraceful attack on one of only two Muslims in Congress he basically said no. His own Republican party provides no check on his actions.

But in what sense can any of this be applied to the single political project called Brexit? The ERG are a disparate group of MPs, whose common cause is to push for the most extreme form of Brexit. There is no single authoritarian leader among them. So can Müller’s concept of populism still apply to this project and some of those who push it?

Let’s begin with what happened shortly after the 2016 vote. That referendum did not specify how we left or under what circumstances Article 50 should be triggered, but May decided that she uniquely understood what the referendum meant and parliament did not need to be involved. The Prime Minister wanted to start the Article 50 process without consulting parliament. The issue went to court, and when three judges decided parliament did have to approve the decision, the Daily Mail described them on its front page as enemies of the people.

The Brexit press and those promoting Brexit frequently talk about the will of the people, thereby excluding the 48% who did not vote for it. Indeed Remainers are often accused of sabotaging Brexit, and being the elite that those carrying out the will of the people have to defeat. EU citizens living here are effectively ignored, and were not even allowed to vote in the referendum. When the costs of Brexit are mentioned, we will often be reminded of how the British stood alone in WWII and came through the hardship of war. This is nationalist imagery at its most potent and dangerous. At one point the Daily Telegraph managed to find common cause with the authoritarian regime in Hungary and the far right in the US by scapegoating the same wealthy Jew for his ‘plot’ to stop Brexit.

To sum up, Brexit and those that push it have displayed almost every element of Müller style populism. I have not even needed to refer to links between various Brexit politicians and the German AfD, Steve Bannon and various far right groups. Or about law breaking in order to win the vote, and the lack of enthusiasm shown by the police in investigating this. Brexit displays the same populist characteristics that you see in Victor Orban or Donald Trump. Add the violence that Brexit has inspired and the pro-Brexit right encourage with their talk of treason and we have every reason to warn about incipient fascism, as Michael Heseltine pointed out.

It is also naive to imagine that all this will stop if we end up leaving the EU. Steve Bannon is creating a network of far right parties that will use immigration and islamophobia to undermine existing parties and then pluralist democracy. Islamophobia has already been employed by the Conservatives in trying to stop Sadiq Khan becoming mayor of London. Brexit of the kind proposed by May will undermine living standards for working people that have hardly grown for a decade. This stagnation, coupled by unfettered and growing inequality, is the kindling that Bannon and his network hope to set alight.

In my view this has become so dangerous partly because the political centre fails to see it. The Brexiters are appeased by May rather than isolated as John Major did. Those termed political moderates fret about the leader of the Labour party as much if not more than incipient fascism. I cannot quite decide whether the BBC is just blind to all this or elements within actively promote it. A lesson of history is that the far right is at its most dangerous when it is appeased by a centre that is more concerned about the threat from the left.