Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 31 May 2019

The response to the European elections will define politics for some time

When I woke up on Monday morning and saw the European election results, I wrote this tweet
“Woke up to a triumph for Remain. On latest vote count from BBC, UK clear Remain 40.3%, clear No Deal 34.9%, Lab 14.1% Con 9,1%. Clear Remain even just beat No Deal Brexit in England. If that is not the headline you are seeing, it is another example of Brexit bias I'm afraid.”

For the next two days I got hundreds of messages telling me I was delusional (or worse), and often including a funny picture rather than any kind of argument.

Here is Farage doing exactly the same thing to exactly the same point on television. It is what people like him do when they have no answer. Here is the BBC making the same point, but badly because they mislabel No Deal parties as just pro-Brexit. Both Labour and the Conservatives are pro-Brexit.

Of the responses to my tweet that contained more than half a dozen words, the desire seemed to be to argue that Remain had not beaten abstract Leave. Indeed they had not. According to Ashcroft’s exit poll, 50% of voters backed Leave and 46% backed Remain. The reason why Leave won is obvious if you look at the age breakdown of who voted. In these kind of low turnout elections the old are more likely to turn up than the young, and this was no exception: only 3% of those who voted were between 18 and 24.

Why did I call the Remain vote a triumph? The Brexit party vote was neither unexpected or remarkable. It was clear from the start Farage would get nearly all the UKIP vote, and that he would also capture voters who want Brexit and were fed up that the Tories had not achieved it. He also got a few Labour votes. What was unexpected and I think remarkable that the Remain parties won so many votes. Previously I had hoped that the combined Remain parties vote might equal the combined Brexit party and UKIP vote, so I thought the actual performance was tremendous.

Did it matter that more Leave than Remain voters turned up? I cannot see why. What will shape politics in the months to come is the Tories reaction to Farage’s success, Labour’s reaction to Remain’s success, and whether this victory leads the Remain parties to cooperate in the next general election. The other important point is that abstract Leave totals mean less and less, given the chances of a Brexit deal passing parliament any time soon are zero. Their main relevance right now is whether those voters when faced with a No Deal Brexit back it or prefer Remain.

I have written recently about how the Tories are likely to respond to these results. Labour have already responded by making their support for a referendum unconditional, but they have not said that any referendum would contain a Remain option and they have certainly not said they would always support Remain. Corbyn’s dream of a Labour deal remains alive and party policy, and he seems not to have realised that he could never implement it. Whether what they have already done is enough to win back enough Remain voters in any general election seems 50/50 at best, so their current stance certainly puts an election victory at risk.

Before anyone mentions seats in the North East, according to Ashcroft 15% of European election voters who voted for Labour in the 2017 election voted for the Brexit party. An amazing 45% of Labour voters in 2017 voted for combined Remain parties. That 3 to 1 ratio matches what opinion polls have been saying, but it is one thing to say it to a pollster and quite another to break in many cases a habit of a lifetime and actually vote against Labour. And to those who say Labour cannot desert its heartlands, what about those in the North East that want to Remain? Ashcroft suggests that 42% of voters in the North East think they voted Labour in 2017, and 38% of voters in the North East want to remain in the EU. See this post on how attempts to attract Brexit voters in Brexit constituencies are more likely to push away the considerable number of Remain voters in those constituencies.

Labour’ choice is do they keep being a Brexit party and stay an opposition party with a romantic dream of becoming once again being a party of the working class, or do they follow their voters and members and become a Remain party that can win an election and actually do something for the working class. The European elections showed up a fundamental imbalance. Brexit is the policy of both major parties, so no major party supports Remain, and that is a vacuum that will be filled. (The Tories got punished because they failed to deliver Brexit.) Hence Labour should support Remain.

Right now we want a Labour leadership that is actively campaigning against a No Deal Brexit, telling people how a No Deal Brexit Britain would become an impoverished and powerless satellite of the USA like Puerto Rico but with a tax haven status for the rich. We do not want a Labour leadership who spend whatever air time they get explaining what their Brexit policy actually is.

If Labour think things can only get better, they may have already inspired what could be a sea change in any general election. The lesson for the Greens and the Lib Dems is that if they cooperate they could do remarkably well in a future general election, particularly if the Conservatives go for No Deal and Labour stay a Brexit party. Cooperation would involve the LibDems giving way in some seats where both they and the Greens are strong, but in exchange being the only party of Remain in most other seats.

If that happened, it would be a disaster for Labour. I have made it no secret that I believe the next government must be a radical party that can challenge neoliberal hegemony and also do something about the sorry state of our media, and I do not think the LibDems are there yet, although they are moving back to their traditional left of centre position. I therefore view anything that could stop the next government being Labour as a disaster. It would be tragic if that was to happen as a result of Brexit.

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Now is not the time to try to lessen the anger of Farage and Trump devotees

The EU Referendum is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest.

The big event for me personally this week is not Theresa May finally giving up or explicit Remain parties easily beating explicit No Deal parties in the European election. It was the belated launch of my book to nearly 500 people at Kings College London in an event superbly organised by the Progressive Economic Forum. But don’t worry. This article is not going to be an account of that meeting or a summary of my book, but an attempt to give a fuller answer to a question from that meeting.

The questioner had just witnessed at first hand the passion of a Brexit party meeting, also well described by John Harris, Sky’s Lewis Goodall, Owen Jones and other journalists. She asked what can be done to diffuse that anger? Thinking about the answer I gave afterwards helped me understand more clearly the overall strategy implicit in much of what I write. This does not focus on the people who attended first UKIP and now Brexit party meetings, but instead the less committed voter who voted for Brexit, the classic marginal voter if you like. Let me give you an example of something that is discussed in the book but using a new chart, from the Berkman Klein Center.

It shows the number of sentences in the US mass market media on different issues (source) during the 2016 election period. This is not just Fox News, but also reflects an odd obsession by publications like the New York Times or Washington Post about Clinton’s emails. (Some of the current administration also use their private email to conduct official business and it is hardly mentioned.)

A recent video in Vox by Carlos Maza explains brilliantly one reason why this happens. What Fox News does time and time again is create a story out of very little and obsess about it. The non-partisan media feel obliged to cover it to disabuse the right wing image of a liberal media. You can see exactly the same thing happen in the UK where the right wing partisan press often sets the agenda for our broadcasters. You can see it after the European elections, where the broadcasters focused on seat totals for the party that hopes seats will not be taken up rather than the 40% or more who voted for explicit Remain parties compared to less than 35% who voted for explict No Deal parties.

Trying to stop the non-partisan mainstream media from doing this might influence the marginal voter (as I note in my book, more voters trusted Trump rather than Clinton before the election), but it will not influence those who attend Trump or Brexit party rallies, who consume Fox news or believe the right wing UK press. You might persuade the non-partisan broadcast media that their practices lead to bias and should stop, but doing something about the partisan media and the economic and social issues that are their lifeblood requires political change.

You will only get that political change by changing the mind of the marginal voter, because it is much more difficult to change the mind of a Trump or Brexit party supporter by rational argument, or by trying to expose who Trump and Farage really are. Trump once boasted he could shoot someone in 5th Avenue and not lose his core support, and that is not far from the truth. Showing Farage’s background and income and associations will likewise do little to influence his core following.

This is why so many who voted for Brexit are prepared to Leave with No Deal. As Kirby Swales writes in a joint NatCen and UK in a Changing Europe report:
“The EU Referendum was highly divisive, highlighting a wide range of social, geographical and other differences in Great Britain. This was less a traditional left-right battle, and more about identity and values (liberalism vs authoritarianism). It is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest.”

The underlying causes that are the fuel behind Trump and Farage are not exclusively non-economic, but deindustrialisation due to globalisation is a small part of the economic story. I have talked elsewhere about the growing divergence between the towns and the large cities since the 1980s. In the US you have the same thing, but it is talked about as a rural urban divide. This is the result of a new source of economic dynamism in service and IT dominated industries that is actually assisted by the diversity that those in the towns and countryside find threatening.

To bring more of that wealth out of the cities requires abandoning neoliberal platitudes, and so requires radical political change. But a large part of the fuel behind the Leave vote and Farage and also Trump is not economic, but instead reflects a clash of values and culture. It has been noted many times that many Leave voters have a deep nostalgia for an imagined past, and this is coupled with a desire to bring back hanging, corporal punishment and reverse other aspects of what we call a liberal society.

Anti-liberal views may have deep psychological roots, roots that may also be linked to being attracted to authoritarian figures, which in turn goes with irritation with a pluralist democracy. If these people are calling the shots, a pluralist democracy is fragile. Here the partisan press can be important at legitimising these authoritarian and anti-liberal views, as is appeasement by centre and left politicians, but it would be a fantasy to believe they would go away in their absence.

The extent of social change in the UK and elsewhere over the last 60 or more years is perhaps unprecedented. Here the left and liberal ‘elite’, as their enemies refer to them, have been outstandingly successful. But as James Curran argues, liberals and the left in the UK have hit strong headwinds on the question of race, with he suggests a stubborn 25% of the population expressing racist views.

I like to stress the importance of beliefs about whether immigration causes lower real wages and puts more pressure on public services (probably not and the opposite is true, respectively), but once again this is something that influences the marginal or changeable view on immigration. There will always be a core where hostility stems from racist attitudes. Again a two stage approach makes sense. You focus on changeable views by providing facts and an alternative narrative, so you can elect a left liberal government. Only then can racist views be stigmatised and income and spatial inequality reduced to help the ‘left behind’. We can also, as Maya Goodfellow pointed out at my book lauch, start telling a more accurate history that goes beyond WWII.

An interesting question is how much we should worry about those still spooked by the rapid pace of social change. We know that this is concentrated among those over 60, but is this a cohort effect of those brought up in the repressive 50s who were untouched by the 60s revolution happening in the cities, or is it some inevitable consequence of age? If it is the former, perhaps the best policy is containment until the problem goes away.

The upshot is that I don’t think liberals or the left, who are in opposition in the UK or US, need to worry too much about convincing those who go to Trump or Farage rallies. What we do need to worry about right now is that those same people have been given power with the help of appeasement and an unbalanced media. As we watch the sickening spectacle of Brexiters choosing our next Prime Minister what we want above all else is to take power away from these people. Changing minds, if it is possible, can come later.

Saturday 25 May 2019

On the use, or not, of expertise by government

I will write some thoughts, next week when I have had a chance to collect them, following an excellent PEF book launch two days ago, with great discussion from Ann Pettifor, Aeron Davis and Maya Goodfellow and a packed audience. In the meantime, as spring turns to summer, I wanted to write about something else.

In a recent post I ask why we were governed by incompetents, and I related that to ideology, which in recent times means neoliberalism. But I think it is a little more than working in a neoliberal context, because I say that the Labour government often did try and do evidence based policy. Not always. I mentioned Iraq but there are other examples, but in comparison to Conservative governments they did evidence based policy a lot. The difference is while the Conservatives had neoliberal zeal, Labour were prepared to intervene in the market, particularly to help the poor. A good example was the minimum wage, which was set by a specific body who aimed to keep it at a level that did not cause significant employment loss.

The Coalition government of 2010-5 contained Liberal Democrats who did often check the neoliberal zeal of Conservative ministers. But they often failed to do so, and one example was abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in England. (The rest of the UK kept them.). It was part of their programme to abolish red tape. The argument was that although Thatcher had spared the AWB in her bonfire of wages boards, the minimum wage made it redundant.

I have spent a lot of my life on or near farms. When we moved from London to rural Sussex some 36 years ago I still remember vividly two conversations. One was with a farm worker. I had already noticed the unsocial hours they regularly worked, and I asked him about it. He told me how when his son was born he worked so much that he hardly saw her during the first three months. It was just a bad time of year from the farm's point of view. I guess I remember that conversation so well because we had quite recently had our first child.

What the AWB did and what the minimum wage doesn’t is regulate pay for anti-social of excessive hours. But what about market pressure from labour scarcity? The other conversation I remember was with the owner of the same farm. He was complaining about how hard it was to get additional labour when he needed it. He told me how far he had advertised but it was still difficult. I suggested he try raising his hourly wage. He laughed and said he couldn’t possibly. Those in his local farmers group would stop speaking to him if he did that.

Farming is a classic monopsony, where firms can fix wages well below the market clearing level. The ability of farm workers to find work elsewhere is limited, particularly when employers operate a cartel on wages. The farm I lived on back then was typical: I have watched farm workers working late at night and weekends everywhere I have lived near farms.

Abolishing the AWB allowed farm owners not to increase in nominal terms payments for anti-social or overtime hours on existing contracts, such that they gradually wither away in real terms. It allows farmers not to offer any of these type of payments on new contracts. Some farmers may even have tried to abolish these payments on existing contracts. The governments impact assessment calculated that AWB abolition would lead to a substantial transfer of income from farm workers to farm owners.

I wrote about the abolishing the AWB in 2014. I later had a conversation with a SPAD about their decision. He told me the level of analysis in my post was well above anything he had seen in government when the decision was made. You might think the policy was not surprising from Conservatives, who have a close relationship with the National Farmers Union (a farm owner’s club), but there was no attempt to get even the simplest of evidence, and a very short consultation period for this decision.

This illustrates a neoliberal zeal to abolish regulations, with the inevitable transfer of income from the poor to the rich, without even thinking about making a serious attempt to look at evidence on this issue. In the absence of evidence the LibDem Coalition partners chose not to fight a battle on this issue. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have retained their AWBs. The Labour party opposition have pledged to reintroduce them in England.

Tuesday 21 May 2019

The political consequences of Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage, as leader of UKIP, was critical in making Cameron commit to an EU referendum. As a key player on the Leave side in the referendum he helped gain a narrow victory. Conservative Brexiters then turned a vote for a negotiated deal with the EU into a headbanging demand to leave without any deal at all. When that failed to be agreed by parliament Nigel Farage re-enters the picture talking about humiliation and national betrayal and demanding a No Deal exit. The political consequences of Farage have already been immense, and they do not look like they are going away. What further havoc is he likely to cause?

With the exception of the EU referendum itself, his influence has nearly always been through the Conservative party. It will be through the threat he poses to Conservatives in the future that will define his greatest influence now. Although Brexiters will never admit this, they must be hoping that Farage decimates the Conservative vote in the European elections. The Brexit party have announced no policies beyond a desire to get on with Brexit, by which they mean leave with No Deal. His support is not that surprising given the even larger support for No Deal in the polls. If you think its unusual for so many to abandon the Conservative party you are also probably still wondering how so many people could vote for Trump.

Brexiters will argue that they have to move their own party’s policy from leaving with some kind of agreed deal to leaving without a deal (perhaps after another fruitless attempt to negotiate away the backstop), otherwise Farage will seriously damage their vote in any general election. They would be correct, particularly if Labour drop their pointless desire to negotiate a Brexit deal of their own. One Brexiter has even suggested an electoral pact with Farage, where they divide up Westminster seats between them.

The candidates for the next leader of the Conservative party will be falling over themselves to appeal to a membership a majority of whom favour No Deal (see here and a recent Times/YouGov poll). That process may itself lead to some kind of commitment to No Deal and not to hold a People’s Vote. But MPs and Conservative party members will also be thinking of selecting someone who can match the charisma of Farage. If he survives the preliminary votes by MPs, Boris Johnson may seem an irresistible choice. He is currently the clear front runner in a recent poll of members.

It is possible that whoever was elected, and whatever the commitments they made during their campaign, might try and steer some kind of middle course between the two wings of the party. But Farage would always be waiting to call betrayal and attract Tory votes in the forthcoming general election. The only escape route I can see is to change the backstop back to its original form, where it only applies to Northern Ireland. Whether that option could get through parliament is unclear. As the DUP are bound to end their arrangement with the government in those circumstances, a general election would have to follow.

If instead the new Prime Minister did commit to No Deal, the issue is whether they could get that through parliament. With the current set of MPs that seems unlikely. Nevertheless they will see it as their only chance of making Farage go away. The Conservatives have dug a deep hole for themselves, and they will believe that the only way forward is to dig some more. That policy would lead to defections or resignations by some MPs, but the leadership and other Brexiters would take that as an opportunity to replace them with Brexiters in due course.

There is one possibility which in normal times we would not even think about but which unfortunately we now have to. That possibility is that the government led by someone like Boris Johnson decides to leave without any deal without consulting parliament, using the 2016 referendum to say that the people are more important than parliament. My understanding is that technically they could do so, but it would be a constitutional outrage in most MPs eyes. Parliament would almost certainly find some opportunity to give voice to their objection, but what if the government took no notice?

A major constitutional crisis like this means many things could happen. It is possible the EU would not accept the withdrawal unless it was approved by parliament. Parliament could refuse to pass any legislation associated with withdrawal. Having to worry about such things illustrates how far along the populist road (in the Jan-Werner Müller sense of the term) we have gone.

It is more likely that the government would settle for the long game, with the hope that through time and a General Election it could get enough MPs to get No Deal through parliament. If the EU loses patience and refuses an extension, the government could call an election talking about bullying from the EU and turning nationalist rhetoric to maximum volume.

Could a Conservative party pushing a no deal exit ever win a general election? If the election took place after parliament had revoked Article 50 or a referendum had chosen Remain, voters would soon decide that they really didn’t want to go through the process again. Indeed the longer we stay in Brexit limbo the more people will prefer to forget about the whole thing. That and a slim majority would put some pressure on any new leader to hold an early election.

Could a recently appointed Conservative Prime Minister beat Labour in an early election? It is not impossible, particularly if the Labour leadership are still clinging to a belief that Brexit should take place. But I also think it is rather unlikely. Boris, like May, is a good foil for Corbyn, as this poll suggests. Those who think a Prime Minister should be serious rather than a buffoon will tend to choose Corbyn. More people would rather Remain than leave without a deal, including some Conervative voters. As John Harris points out, the young middle class of suburban England many of whom voted Remain are learning how not to vote Conservative. On non-Brexit policies Labour will win the cities hands down, and attract many in more traditional heartlands.

How did the Conservative party find itself in a position where its only slim chance of winning a general election is to embrace a policy opposed by most of business and which will inevitably have a very serious impact on the economy? The first blunder was of course the decision to appease UKIP and Tory Brexiters by promising to hold a referendum. The second was a failure to pin down the Brexiters to commit to some form of leaving before the referendum. The third was to fight a terrible campaign. But even then a wise leader would have seen the gift that having a leader of the opposition who wanted Brexit presented and gone for a conciliatory Brexit, which would have at least allowed a Withdrawal Agreement to be passed by parliament. In fact Theresa May did practically everything wrong, including adopting the fateful ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra.

The bigger picture answer is that we are seeing the consequence of what in my book I call neoliberal overreach. It was the Conservative party and its supporting press that began the long process of whipping up anxiety about immigration. It was a Conservative government that embarked on sustained austerity during the worst recession since the war that lead to the slowest recovery for centuries, and it was they who erroneously blamed immigration for the resulting collapse in public services and real wages.

When you flirt with the tools of the far right and encourage the fears the far right play on, you are in great danger of getting into bed with them. Farage’s work on the EU is nearly done, but he will be ready and waiting for the next nationalist cause he can take up, and any future Conservative Prime Minister will be too weak in electoral terms to resist his siren call. The Conservatives have only have themselves to blame for playing with fire in the first place.

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.