Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 12 April 2019

Why have pundits got politics so wrong since 2015?

I have just read a paper called “Political science, punditry, and the Corbyn problem’ by Peter Allen, a Reader in comparative politics at Bath. It reflects on how most pundits, including some political scientists, got Corbyn’s initial success and then survival completely wrong. I will not attempt to summarise the paper here. It is well worth reading. I am going to take it as read that many pundits did get Corbyn completely wrong in 2015 and 2017. This has nothing to do with whether the left ascendency is a good or bad thing, but just the failure of pundits to see why it was happening.

Allen notes a kind of epistemic snobbery “‘whereby people who do not meet the above criteria of political inclusion are not seen as worthy participants or contributors in political discussions, or whereby their political opinions are devalued in some way”. It was a kind of “othering” that I felt personally when I joined Labour’s Economic Advisory Council. I was told, by people who I respect, that my academic standing would be harmed if I joined the group. It was if I had decided to give economic advice to the BNP rather than the Labour party.

Part of this represented a longstanding dislike by the centre and centre-left of the left in the UK that stems from the political battles within Labour in the 1980s. Andy Beckett tells some of the story here. There was a lot wrong with the Labour left at that time, and Labour leaders from Kinnock to Blair found they could gain a certain credibility by attacking both the left and the unions. Indeed some of those who attack the left today were part of the left back then, and now see the error of their ways. The Labour left came to be seen as generically toxic.

As Allen notes, another element in this failure to understand Corbyn was a belief in triangulation. In the world that takes triangulation as the theory rather than just a useful model with limitations, moving sharply to the left when a party of the right wins an election makes no sense. But why were the same pundits not already noting that the theory of triangulation had broken down, because the Conservative party from 2010 to 2015 had moved sharply to the right and yet had won a general election? This is what the rest of this post is about.

Allen does not mention austerity specifically, but I think misunderstanding austerity plays a large role in failing to see how far right the Conservatives were moving, and therefore Corbyn’s rise in 2015 and Labour’s gains during the 2017 campaign. If you look at what the Coalition did collectively there can be no doubt about what was going on. The hostile environment, privatisation of the NHS, demonisation of those on welfare and so on. Yet perhaps all of these things could be explained away individually if that is what you want to do: continuing Blairs policy on the NHS, responding to popular opinion on immigration and welfare. The dominant narrative, at least to begin with, was of Cameron the moderniser.

The clearest indicator of a rightward shift was austerity. It should have been clear by 2012 if not earlier that the recovery was stalling. Thatchers experiment with austerity had been brief and was quickly reversed, but Osborne was not for turning. We had for the first time since WWII a government attempting sustained austerity during a recovery phase of a recession. Perhaps too many placed their faith in City folk that told stories of imminent bond strikes, so they believed deficit reduction had to be done. But when interest rates on government debt started falling curious academic minds at least should have begun to smell a rat. Did pundits not notice that the majority of economists were against austerity? This is a genuine question rather than a rebuke, because you had to do a little research to find out they were.

Once you miss the rightward move of the Coalition government, and note that it would have been worse still but for the Liberal Democrats, then you also fail to see that Labour from 2010 to 2015 had been following a triangulation strategy and failed. Did pundits put everything down to Miliband’s unpopularity? Once you understood that Labour had moved to the right and lost, then Corbyn’s victory should have come as no surprise, as I argued here before the result.

Understanding the deep damage that the austerity policy did to the country means that it is hardly surprising that under a left leader opposed to austerity the Labour party should attract half a million members. Too many pundits talked about this in terms that applied to the Labour party in the 1970s and early 80s, but this was a danger for rather than a description of the mass movement that Labour were becoming.

There was one feature of received wisdom that seemed to be holding true, however, and that was that Labour led from the left would be defeated decisively in any general election. Poll after poll suggested this was true. I was told too many times that the left were only interested in controlling the party (how surprising) and not interested in winning elections. It was nonsense of course.

As soon as Labour's position in the polls started rising in the middle of the campaign I suggested that Corbyn’s unpopularity before the campaign told us more about the media than anything else, but I’m not sure this is accepted by most pundits. Many will blame the Tories bad campaign, but what that showed us was that May and her team were pretty bad at doing politics, which was something that should have been clear given the evidence if the media had been doing its job properly. But underestimating the role of austerity is important here too.

Austerity was, after a time if not initially, designed to shrink the UK state. And it succeeded. Attitude surveys tell us that is very unpopular, with less than 10% of the population wanting lower taxes and spending. So a party proposing the opposite, with a tax financed fiscal expansion that was at the heart of the Labour campaign, was bound to be popular on that account. Again the Labour surge was a consequence of a media that preferred talking about Labour divisions and personalities rather than policies, so Labour's policy stance came to voters as a surprise.

Thus in my view the failure to see austerity for what it really was is crucial in understanding why pundits got Corbyn so wrong. However I would be fascinated to know how some of those same pundits themselves account for this failure, and whether they see my account having some validity or not.


  1. There must be something in the austerity argument, but had the Election been a wholesale rejection of the government's economic policies we might have expected a much stronger surge of support for Labour similar to that seen in the late 1990s. Labour's gains were fairly modest by past standards - what made them significant was that they destroyed May's workable but small majority. Labour has since struggled to secure a sustained lead even though austerity has continued. How far domestic economic policies influence the next Election will depend on timing. An election this year would be most likely be a Brexit election, but an Election in 2022 more likely to see domestic economic issues be much more important, assuming the Brexit outcome had been finally settled. Labour could still win by default through a Brexit related division in the centre right vote, provided we do not see a similar division in the centre left vote.

    1. "Labour's gains were fairly modest by past standards - what made them significant was that they destroyed May's workable but small majority."

      That coupled with the fact that Labour, the Liberals and the SNP voted to kill off the Boundary Commission review in 2013.

      If those parties had not frustrated the legitimate democratic process, then there would have been no need for an election in 2017. Or if that election had been held with the new boundaries then the recent voting in Parliament would have come out quite differently.

      For example with a legitimate constitutional Parliament, the vote to reject no Deal Brexit under any circumstances would almost certainly have gone the other way.

  2. My thoughts from across the pond. Here in the states some folks who voted for the current holder of the oval office have been hurt by his policies. They have exclaimed: "He's Hurting The Wrong People!!"
    Maybe your supporters of Austerity are sure it is hurting the right people?

  3. A puzzle for commenters. In a FPTP system, parties can seek a governing majority in two ways: winning over swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum, or firing up the enthusiasm of the base by underlining differences with the main rival party. You would expect the choice to be sensitive to the average turnout. Where this is high (New Zealand), your base votes anyway and centrism looks the better bet. Where it is low (USA), extremism holds the edge. But the theory does not seem to work in the UK: a high-turnout polity, but with a partisan divide widening, as in the low-turnout USA. What am I missing? Third parties like UKIP or the DUP? Fund-raising?


  4. There are in my view too many trusting people in this country that just believe that right wing politicians of all colours can be trusted.

    Corporate power is at the heart of everything that happens today - if we look at all the trade deals that are so say being negotiated by governments around the world, the first thing to notice is who in their right mind would sign up to these when it clearly rigs the system to the diktat of large corporations - who tell us that they are not social enterprises, nor have any responsibility to anyone except their share holders and the company. Yet politicians elected to serve the interests of people, sign up to these deals in so say the interest of the country.

    The impact of corporate power has been one of holding a gun to peoples heads stating that if they don't accept the standard of living they dictate then then will upsticks and go anywhere else in the world to get what they want, which of course they have been doing for over forty years now, which is why Britain now relies on the service industries to earn a living rather than manufacturing.

    Lowered living standards doesn't give people confidence in the establishment to sustain them, and the system itself alienates the very people that they say they need support from. In truth Neo-Liberalism is a means to transfer wealth and power away from ordinary people and hand state assets into the private sector, all of which means that ordinary people no longer matter, and just those in the centre who are slightly better off and will vote to keep the establishment Neo-Liberal parties in office. The rest are then governed by the principles as outlined by Professor Mark blyth who says " the bottom 30% of the population don't matter to the Centrist parties, as the votes lie in the centre ground, those with money (who also vote), the rest have to be policed to keep them in line, they have to have their behaviour changed, We are going to nudge you into better patterns, as Americans say, which is a paternalistic and patronising state of affairs, Which is no longer the the situation where the warm embrace of social democracy works arm in arm in solidarity with the working classes, they are there to be excluded in their housing estates and policed so that the middle classes can feel secure and gain all the advantages of private education, against the rest which they don't care about because they don't want to pay taxes for anyway.

    This as he says has nothing to do with Brexit or the EU but is about the 1% the elite and those parties such Libdems and New Labour that sold these people down the river.

    Unless these middle class people recognise that, they will continue peddling along in the treadmill set up for them, not being any the wiser at the end of it.

    We also learned this lesson soon forgotten by greed and avarice during the great depression, expressed by Josiah Stamp:

    Famous Sir Josiah Stamp Quote
    “Banking was conceived in iniquity and was born in sin. The Bankers own the earth. Take it away from them, but leave them the power to create deposits, and with the flick of the pen they will create enough deposits to buy it back again. However, take it away from them, and all the great fortunes like mine will disappear and they ought to disappear, for this would be a happier and better world to live in. But, if you wish to remain the slaves of Bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, let them continue to create deposits.”

  5. The nature of punditry is the abilty to be 100% wrong, 100% of the time and still be accepted as an authority.

    1. A second career in Economics awaits?

  6. I wonder if another element of the failure of pundits to call things so badly is that there's been a seismic shift in the political landscape. Like an earthquake, the tensions underlying the surface have been building for several decades, the crash was maybe the earthquake - and policy since the aftershock.

    The rightward lurch of the Conservative Party didn't arrive from nowhere. Anyone with a weather eye on the rise and rise of the US right has had growing concerns for the past decade. It's appalling ideology, completely shameless dishonesty, a media mainly owned by other true believers, climate change denial and destructive social and economic policies were cloaked for a long time by our belief the US right were "stupid". We failed to recognise they had declared war on "socialism", a word that for them meant any form of state sponsored wealth redistribution, be it health care or welfare. Their ambition is an anything goes economy where only money rules.

    Once the patterns were spotted it was easy to see there was a global element to their agenda. Thatcher's Atlantic Bridge was a cosy dating bureau for the rightest of right wing young hopefuls to organise love ins with their US counterparts, Murdoch controls Australian Media, owns Fox and his News International stable in the UK. And we see the same policies, climate change denial. hostility to immigrants, conservative social policy being used as a political weapon in The USA, UK and in Australia - if you've been following the detail of the current Aussie election campaign you will have already witnessed stupid on a Trumpian scale.

    WE can equate, the Tea Party and UKIP as artifacts created to drag the agenda to the right, we see austerity, fracking, coal mines, even coal fired power stations, absolutely acts of criminal stupidity bought and paid for by the extraction industries - We've twigged that privatisation never was about efficiency and was always about putting tax streams back into private hands - and we've woken up to a whole lot more of this stuff.

    10 years ago I wouldn't have written a word of this for fear of being thought some kind of conspiracy nut - 5 years ago I couldn't believe no one was talking about it - I think by the time it got to 2015 it was becoming a regular topic on the left. This isn't the old left of trades unions and workers rights. This is a new left that recognises that we face a true existential crisis, that our relationship with our own environment is fundamentally compromised by red in tooth and claw capitalist can't.

    Support for Corbyn flows from a different kind of left - one that's evolving to deal with a very different kind of capitalism. I suspect the pundits are too deep in their pre-earthquake world view to understand our determination to not allow privileged, ignorant new aged fascists to lead us off a cliff edge - resistance to Brexit is just a beginning!

  7. You are right to focus on triangulation but I am not sure you are using the right notion of triangulation, if I may so suggest. It is rather a misnomer.

    You are referring to a political tactic used when one leader/party has to admit that it has been defeated over a particular primary issue. Clinton/Blair realised this over Reagan/Thatcher economics and moved onto the same space occupied by their opponent - Brown adopting Clarke's budget. And,then,opening up a new front (in their cases campaigning on personality) safe in the knowledge that their economic policy front was no longer vulnerable.

    Those who could not see the popularity of Corbyn once the stump had begum and was being covered by the media (the Rep People's Act is critical here too) also did not fully see the 2010 result where Cameron used this triangulation tactic by coming onto the Blair campaigning personality offer. Both Cameron and Clegg in their 2010 manifestos and spring budget voting did not challenge strongly Brown/Darling.

    Why austerity post May 2010? Austerity was a double edged issue for the Coalition. Long term it pointed the way to a smaller state as you suggest. This was also a Laws/Clegg ambition. (The Coalition worked as a Quad/Sextet. Although Alexander was there after Laws' resignation the Quad was soon after extended to include Laws [and Letwin?]. There was a process for issues that the Quad disagreed over to be referred to a settlement process. I don't think this was ever used.) Both Leaderships were smaller statists.

    The second side of austerity? It revived public fear of Labour on the economy (a reaction which Smith/Blair/Brown/Darling had spent close to 20 years putting to sleep). Clegg had not been around in the 1990s when Labour and the Lib Dems focused their attention on watching every poll for the figures on the 'do you trust Labour on the economy' question. Why was Ashdown so focused on this question? Many sitting LD MPs, elected in 1997 and 2001 relied as much on Tories voting tactically for them as Labour supporters voting tactically. By siding with the Tories, and bashing Labour on economic management post 2010, LDs lost tactical supporters on both flanks.

    Pundits? Require expertise. Skin in the game destroys objectivity. Commentators require an audience and a patron. That is, they have skin in the game. It is actually a requirement. They are campaigners. They are based in the village of Westminster. Changes threatens their positions. For many left-leaning commentators social mobility has destroyed the roots back into communities and life chances destroyed by austerity. Of course they would get Corbyn's support wrong. They shared little with those who would support him and their personal interests lay against his.

    These thoughts are sent as a contribution to your thoughts. I am not seeking publication. I hope they are of some value.

  8. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

    Pundits have been wrong about politics since time immemorial, since they lack both a head and a heart.

    Vested interests do not want to see the likely scenarios that will eventually falsify their tightly-held empirical beliefs: critical thinking is hard work.


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