Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Journalists’ own pact with the devil

While Dominic Cummings is no genius, he does have a good understanding of how the UK media works, and therefore how to manipulate it. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most obvious is to use privileged access in return for uncritical coverage. This is how it works.

One of the prizes journalists most aspire to is being first with the news. To get an ‘exclusive’ story. In the political world the biggest generator of news stories is the government. This gives the government the potential to act as the devil to which journalists can sell their souls to. The value of access increases when the government reduces the amount of information it supplies for free in other places like parliament. The price journalists pay to be given privileged access to news, or more generally some insight in government strategy, is to report what is fed to them without the critical eye that this same journalist might normally apply to this information if it was released publicly.

Of course not all journalists are prepared to do this. But if their personal views are sympathetic to the government, or more importantly if their employer likes to take lines that are helpful to or supportive of the government, it is much easier to sell your soul in this way. It is a phenomenon that all journalists understand, and it is an art that all governments practice to some extent. What is now clear is that Dominic Cummings is willing to buy as many souls as he can to counter bad news or his own mistakes.

The result is that some journalists that have not sold their souls have begun to speak out about what is going on. One is (not surprisingly) Peter Oborne, who details here (HT Jon) many of the (often false) stories that Cummings has generated which have allowed the press and the BBC to hide bad news for the government. (Short interview version here.) Perhaps more surprising is this from Adam Boulton of Sky News, who effectively supports Oborne and adds another example from the BBC. He writes
“In 25 years as Sky News' political editor I never sought favours and was never given them, perhaps because I worked for challenger companies rather than the legacy duopoly of ITV and BBC. I am expressing a personal view here, not speaking on behalf of Sky News. But I can confirm that I and my Sky News colleagues still work with the same "no favours" impartiality.”

My personal impression that Sky journalists are better in this respect than the BBC in particular is backed up by the latest Ofcom survey (figure 11.5), where Sky News does better than the BBC on being accurate, trustworthy, and particularly unbiased. However such surveys may be distorted by the huge campaign in the Brexit press to suggest the BBC is biased.

That journalists from particular right wing newspapers act as agents for a right wing, pro-Brexit government should hardly be a surprise. You only need to look to the same newspapers' coverage of the Johnson domestic incident earlier this year to see this in operation. But these newspapers power becomes much stronger when the line they take is not contradicted by the broadcast media.

The BBC is who really matters here, as it is watched by far more people for news than Sky, which makes what the BBC does much more important than anything Sky does. The importance of the BBC is underlined by a new report by Dr.Richard Fletcher and Meera Selva for Oxford’s Reuters Institute. It shows that Leavers are less likely to use non-MSM sources than Remainers. Equally, few Leavers rely on their pro-Brexit newspaper alone: they also typically watch the BBC. Indeed 51% of Leavers say the BBC is their main source of news, with just 30% saying their main source comes from online, while the equivalent figures for Remainers is 38% and 45% respectively. This is not too surprising given that Leavers tend to be older and Remain voters younger.

The report interprets the importance of the BBC for Leave voters as implying they get their news from one impartial source. I would dispute that. Of course the BBC is not a shameless propaganda organisation of the kind we see in the Brexit press, but instead it works to support the Leave case in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways. Many of these are detailed by one of the best Brexit commentators around, Chris Grey.

I have argued many times before (see here for example) that during the referendum the BBC acted in a way that was very helpful to Leave by treating their (obvious) lies as opinions, to be balanced against the opinions (which happened to be truths) of the Remain side. The BBC most often excluded experts, and when they were included they were balanced with someone from the Leave side. This is a view shared not only be nearly all economic, trade and legal experts, but also some journalists e.g. Peston quoted here. That continued after the result. Claims made by the Leave side, and by the government, that were at least questionable would often go unquestioned.

Some of this comes from simple ignorance. The BBC has some very good journalists who understand the issues around Brexit, like like Katya Adler who reports on the view from Brussels, but most prime airtime is given to political generalists who at least appear not to understand the issues involved. I remember the moment that Johnson finally got his deal with the EU. Laura Kuenssberg gushed that few people had thought it possible to get a deal, while it was left to Katya Adler to explain that Johnson had essentially just accepted the first proposal put forward by Brussels over a year ago. No one asked why Johnson had effectively accepted a deal that his predecessor had said no UK PM could make.

Some of this apparent ignorance comes from perceived necessity. The pressure from the Brexit press and Leave politicians on the BBC is relentless, and there is little to balance this on the Remain side. The obvious conclusion that too many BBC journalists draw is that keeping out of trouble means not giving Leave politicians a hard time. Some acute media observers like Roy Greenslade conclude that the BBC does a great job standing up to this pressure, and of course given this pressure it could be a lot worse, but I think it does take a toll.

The structural problem can be stated fairly easily. The Leave case is essentially fantasy. Beyond a concern about immigration the Leave side have nothing that can justify the great harm they intend to inflict on the UK economy. Yet when the Leave side talks about taking back control, few BBC journalists ask obvious questions, like what EU law that the UK voted against are the Leave side objecting too, or how can trade with countries we hardly trade with compensate for the trade we will lose with the EU? If the BBC allows the Leave fantasy bubble to remain unpricked, you are in effect giving credibility to that fantasy, which is to support it. Another way of making the same point is that the BBC has allowed the Leave side to control the Brexit narrative for three years.

Unfortunately the BBC’s problem goes beyond being cowed by fear of the Leave side, or the liberal guilt that Grey mentions. There is little doubt that some of those now working in the BBC are, consciously or otherwise, pushing the Leave cause. For example Question Time sometimes has audiences that are clearly unbalanced towards Leave, while its selection process is supposed to produce a more balanced audience. The number of appearances of Nigel Farage has raised questions.

A more specific instance was the BBC’s shameful attempt to first ignore and then attempt to rubbish the evidence on the Leave's referendum spending scandal, discussed in detail by Peter Jukes here. Or the unmediated coverage of Farage’s Brexit party launch that was the last straw for one BBC war reporter. Or Humphries on their flagship political radio programme. Or the reluctance to interview non-politicians involved in successful legal challenges to the government. Or the publicity they gave to recycled 'Economists for Free Trade' nonsense. And so on.

The BBC has an obvious way of refuting these claims. They could explain their behaviour over issues like 2016 referendum spending. They could commission independent research that looks at the kind of issue that I mention here. Just quoting YouGov polls that obviously reflect the Brexit press campaign against the BBC does not remove the evidence that the BBC is shifting its reporting in response to that pressure and in some cases actively supports the Leave side.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Brexit is a denial of economics as knowledge

A well known Brexiters said it was almost worth doing Brexit because of the anger I feel about it. He is right about the anger. The prospect of Brexit has filled me with the same horror as austerity did. The connection between the two is obvious. Both involve subjecting the whole country to a policy that basic economic ideas tell you will do nearly everyone harm.

We have seen nothing like this in my lifetime. The only person to try austerity (by which I mean fiscal consolidation in a recession) was Thatcher, and the policy was reversed (not stopped, but the consolidation was undone) within two years. Every government, and especially Thatchers, has pursued regulatory harmonisation and tariff reductions to increase trade. Now in just one decade we have seen both austerity for seven years and an attempt to dramatically increase trade barriers.

Imagine you were a doctor, and the government had appointed anti-vaxers to key positions who proceeded to reduce the vaccination programme. How would you feel as more children fell ill. Imagine you are a climate scientist and your government says it does not believe in man made climate change and encourages coal production. You don’t have to imagine of course, because exactly that is happening in the US and elsewhere. And you can ask the doctors and the climate scientists how they feel about it.

What we have seen since 2010 in the UK is the equivalent for economics. I would argue that this is no accident, but comes from the same source as climate change denial and anti-vaxers. Some people may not accept that comparison, and argue that economics is not a real science or some-such. And I agree that with austerity they had ammunition from within economics itself. There are still some macro economists around, nowhere near a majority but because they say things right wing politicians like they are ‘prominent in the public debate', who deny the validity of what Keynes wrote after the Great Depression. But we see the proof that Keynes was right today: a Great Recession followed by a limp recovery as the government squeezed demand. A minority of academic economists supporting austerity was no reason to largely exclude the views of the majority of academic economists, and all the evidence is that their views were almost completely excluded from the broadcast media. 

There is no such ambiguity with trade. We know trade between two people benefits those people because otherwise the trade would not happen. The very basis of the economy is trade. Every day we go to work we trade our labour for goods that go to someone else. Our work represents specialisation that allows everyone to benefit. If we had to produce everything we consume ourselves we would be much poorer.

This is why governments try to encourage trade agreements between countries to make trade between them easier. Greater trade is like technical progress, because it allows countries to focus on producing things they are good at producing. Now it is possible that such agreements, although they make the country better off, may not make everyone in the country better off. But every academic trade economist agrees that getting rid of the EU Customs Union and Single Market will make almost everyone in the UK a lot poorer. (Patrick Minford, whose analysis has an uncanny habit of always supporting hard right policies, is not a trade economist.)

Brexiters know this, which is why they came up with the idea of global Britain. It is a farce, which can be refuted in at least two ways. First, every analysis based on academic research I have seen suggests the gains from trade deals with other countries outside the EU come nowhere near the loss due to less trade with the EU. Nowhere near. Second, if you want good trade deals with other countries, the best way to achieve them is to get the EU to negotiate them on your behalf, because the EU is more experienced and has much more clout in any negotiations than the UK. That is why the EU has so many trade agreements with other countries. 

All this knowledge about the impact of trade on productivity and incomes was dismissed by Brexiters with two words: Project Fear. All the knowledge that Keynesians have accumulated for 80 years was dismissed with a few more: the government has maxed out its credit card. Others have dismissed the knowledge of doctors and climate scientists with similar home-spun homilies.

Yet many, including many in the media, still refuse to think of economics as knowledge. People who wouldn’t think twice about saying a fall in the supply of coffee will raise its price say all economics is just dressed up political opinion. People who would not dream of ignoring doctors just because they cannot predict when you get a cold say all economics forecasts are worthless. Of course there are some things, like whether the Euro was a good idea in economic terms, where there are pros and cons and therefore economists’ views may differ or change. But the evidence that making trade substantially more difficult with our immediate neighbours will be harmful is so overwhelming that only 1 in 22 UK economists disagree. I have yet to meet an economist who specialises in trade who disagrees. 

So when a woman on Question Time said we just do not know what will happen after Brexit, she was repeating an idea pushed repeatedly by the Brexit press and implicitly supported by most broadcasters. The BBC accepts that climate change is happening (most of the time) because that knowledge comes from ‘proper scientists’. The BBC does not accept that Brexit will make the UK worse off in economic terms because it is knowledge predicted by economists, and they think economics is not knowledge.

The right in the UK and US are now set on a course where they are prepared to defy science itself for their own interests. But this can only succeed when some of those who think of themselves as in the centre let them. In this case it has been allowed to happen in part because political journalists and those above them at the BBC decided economics where the overwhelming majority of economists agree was not knowledge but just another opinion. As I have spent my working life examining how economics can improve policy choices it is hardly surprising I find that simple ignorance outrageous.

Friday 18 October 2019

Is this good for Johnson, whether he wins or loses?

I have no idea whether Johnson will get his deal through on Saturday. As the broadcast media is obsessed by headcounts I will leave it to them. What I will say is that the idea that MPs will be taking a decision that has a profound influence on everyone in this country (in which will do such serious economic and political damage to the UK) on the basis of only two days of scrutiny with no assessment of its impact is just absurd, and typifies everything that is wrong about Brexit.

Who knows why Johnson changed strategy during or before his meeting with Varadkar. Maybe it was fears about security in Northern Ireland after No Deal created a border. Maybe he always had the idea in mind of going back to the EU’s original plan to keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and Single Market. It seemed to be the obvious thing for Johnson to try, as I suggested in August. Maybe the suggestion came from Varadkar. But whatever it was, there is a huge irony in where we are now.

What Johnson has agreed to is basically the first deal the EU proposed. It is a deal that May said no UK Prime Minister could accept, and the deal condemned by Johnson a year ago. The backstop has now become the deal. No wonder Varadkar looked so pleased after his meeting with Johnson, and no wonder European leaders look so pleased when the deal was finally agreed. Of course the EU could agree to something they had already proposed.

Why has the ERG apparently agreed to this, when they said they could not possibly support it first time round? Unfortunately (or perhaps not) I cannot put myself in ERG shoes and answer that question. What does annoy me is when the BBC’s political editor praises Johnson for having got the EU to drop the backstop, when in reality he has forgotten all ideas of alternative arrangements and made the original backstop the deal. Indeed the BBC in lavishing praise on Johnson, and failing to point out his earlier rejection of almost the same proposal, is doing its bit to get the deal over the line on Saturday.

If Johnson fails on Saturday to get parliament to vote for his deal, he has got himself a very strong Brexit line to take into any General Election. Winning a General Election has always been Johnson’s prime goal. Before that walk among the trees with Leo Varadkar, Johnson’s election strategy had been to formally argue that he could get a deal (to keep Tory MPs on board), but hope a sufficient number of Farage inclined Leavers took this to mean he would leave with no deal.

Johnson's new deal is also a better election strategy. Few English voters care about Northern Ireland, regrettable though that is, and so they will feel no qualms about giving Johnson enough MPs to drop his DUP alliance. For Leavers, the idea of voting to get Brexit over the line will seem irresistible. Of course if Johnson does win and gets his deal through parliament Brexit will continue in the form of negotiating an FTA, but we will be out of the EU.

The risk that Johnson always had in actually finalising but not passing a deal is that Farage would convince enough voters his deal was not true Brexit and that they should therefore vote for him. However I suspect that will be very hard for Farage with this deal. What part of the deal can Farage use to convince Leavers it is not a real Brexit? As I noted above, talking about the EU annexing Northern Ireland is unlikely to impress most voters.

Does it make sense to hold a People’s Vote (PV) on Johnson’s deal vs Remain if Parliament can find the votes for that? Here the calculation is very simple. Unlike the PVs I talked about in earlier posts, which would have almost certainly led to a Johnson boycott, it will be much harder for him to boycott a vote on his own deal. However much he says that a second vote betrays the first, running away from a vote on your own deal just looks bad. So I suspect we would get a proper PV, even if Johnson resists it in many ways beforehand.

The main reason he will eventually agree to it is that he thinks he can win. He may well be right. Remainers should not put too much faith in the small majority in polls of Leave versus Remain. It could well be 2016 all over again.

Alasdair Smith goes through some of the lines that Johnson/Cummings will take. It is classic disinformation of the type that some of us can still remember from 2016. They will claim that the deal ensures that Britain will be free of EU laws and regulations, and now free to strike trade deals of our own. In reality this is true only if the UK does not sign a trade deal with the EU. Trade deals are all about harmonisation of tariffs and regulations, and there is no way the EU is going to harmonise on anything other than their own.

Nor is abandoning a level playing field made real until it comes to negotiating a FTA with the EU. The EU will certainly insist on one if there is tariff alignment, because tariffs are the EUs weapon against a country undercutting the EU by lowering standards. The reality has always been that complete sovereignty, in the sense of having nothing to do with EU laws and regulations, is only true if the UK is prepared to avoid an EU FTA completely. Indeed that possibility remains open to Johnson with this deal. If he does not get any FTA's this deal will morph into No Deal, except that Northern Ireland is safe.  

The alternative to a PV is an election, which parliament is sure to get. If Labour forms a government after that election then it is almost certain Brexit is dead. The Tories will vote against a soft Brexit as not a ‘real’ Brexit, and Remainers will vote for Remain. So the critical variable is the probability of that election outcome. I suspect most people would put the probability of a PV win for Remain as higher than Labour winning the election, simply because in the latter the Remain vote is split by the Liberal Democrats.

If Johnson does get his deal through parliament, or wins a PV, he will enjoy at least a week of media adulation that will be unbearable for Remainers. I had wondered if there might be a sting in the tail for him. With Brexit out of the way, he will have lost his main weapon against his opponents in a General Election. He may suffer the fate of his idol Churchill, and (in leavers eyes) win the war only to lose the peace.

However I can think of countless reasons why winning on Saturday will hand Johnson the election on a plate. There is the adulation from Leavers and the media of course. Remainers will also not quickly forget, and they will be looking for someone to blame, and many will blame Corbyn. That feeling may be intensified if it turns out, as it may well do, that it was Labour MPs who were critical in getting Parliament to approve the deal on Saturady. In short, whether he wins or loses, Johnson is set pretty for the General Election.

Tuesday 15 October 2019

A People’s Vote or a General Election: how does Johnson’s new deal change things

There is a big debate at the moment among those who support a People’s Vote (PV) about whether it should become before or after a General Election (GE). Let’s assume for now there are sufficient MPs willing to vote for the PV before a GE option, and that Johnson prefers a GE which he thinks he can win so there would be no PV. From a Remain point of view, should a GE or PV come first.

I last discussed this when a Johnson deal was dead and there was talk of the Conservatives advocating No Deal in a General Election. I made the point, which those advocating a PV before a GE do not appear to have considered, that if parliament passed a PV before a GE Johnson could boycott that PV. As I was told at the time that I was not living in the real world, let me explain why I think a Johnson boycott would have been almost inevitable.

Consider Johnson’s options if parliament force him to hold a PV before a GE where May’s deal is on the ballot. If he accepts the ballot’s legitimacy, he is in an impossible position. Does he try and campaign for a deal that he himself voted against twice? Farage will certainly describe the ballot as illegitimate, and that would damage Johnson's prospects in the forthcoming GE. If he wins he gets May’s deal, probably a split in the Conservative party and a loss at the GE. If he loses he loses Brexit, which is his main asset in any GE

In contrast, if he says the ballot is illegitimate he protects his Farage front, and can continue to run an election based on parliament versus the people. His excuse for a boycott is obvious: who wants May’s deal? With no one recognisable prepared to argue the case for May’s deal, the ballot begins to look like a farce. Remain might get a vote greater than 17 million, but it is more likely the inevitability of a Remain victory means some Remainers do not bother to vote. I’m afraid those suggesting a boycott wouldn’t happen in those circumstances do not know how Johnson and Cummings work.

You might think that even with a Johnson boycott it is still worth it. If you think it would end Brexit I have bad news. If Johnson wins a GE having boycotted a PV he will say the PV was illegitimate and restart A50. With a majority in parliament Brexit (either very hard or No Deal) becomes a certainty. All the PV would have done is delay the inevitable. 

The critical question then becomes what impact a PV might have on the GE result. Will it reduce Johnson’s vote because some Leavers think the game is up, or will it fire up his Leaver base who feel they have been cheated out of the 2016 result. The latter is what the Brexit press and most Tory and all Farage politicians will tell them. I don't know the answer on whether a PV helps or hinders a Johnson GE defeat, but it seems to me this is the crucial debate for the PV before GE question.  

How does a Johnson deal change this calculation. I think it is reasonable to assume that a final deal will not be done with the EU before the EU summit.[1] The reason is simple. Any deal the EU would be prepared to agree to will leave the DUP and part of the Conservative party unhappy, and will almost certainly mean he will not get that deal through parliament. Johnson also knows that in all likelihood he will have to ask the EU for an extension and that the EU will grant it. It will be better for him to go into a GE arguing that he is on the brink of getting a deal, rather than a deal just having broken down.

It should be now clear that this situation makes a PV before a GE more likely to lead to a Johnson boycott than previously. The PV cannot have his prototype deal on the ballot as it has not been signed off by the EU. Johnson will say, with MSM credible justification, that a PV on any other deal is ridiculous, and that he should be given a chance to get his deal through. Because that logic will seem plausible to most Leavers, a PV before a GE looks increasingly like a desperate attempt to stop Johnson getting his deal. The chances of the PV before a GE increasing Johnson’s prospect in a GE increase significantly.

The fundamental lesson is that a PV has to go with political change. The Tories can boycott a referendum at any time, so a PV will only secure the end of Brexit if that vote is taken by a parliament that will not shortly afterwards start the process up again. That in turn means having a GE in which the Conservatives are defeated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats winning their marginal seats (and keeping their own). It means tactical voting by Remainers in the next General Election. The idea of a LibDem overall majority is a fantasy worthy of Brexiters.

Those who say a Corbyn led government would be worse than No Deal or a very hard Brexit are therefore working against Remain. Those who say Corbyn is not fit to be PM are working against Remain. Those who say Corbyn allowed Brexit to happen are working against Remain. Some of the people saying these things may call themselves Remainers, but tactical voting is the only realistic option for true Remainers.

To those who say to me that they cannot vote for Corbyn because he is a Brexiter, I can only respond in this way. Brexit is effectively impossible under a Labour government, because the Tories and Remainers will vote against it in parliament unless it goes to a PV, and in a PV many Leavers and all Remainers will vote against a soft Brexit. Whatever you think Corbyn’s beliefs are cannot change that. It is why the People’s Vote campaign is promoting tactical voting. Anything other than a tactical vote for Remain in the forthcoming GE is a vote for Brexit.

[1] The idea of attaching a PV to any approval of Johnson's deal when it finally comes to the Commons is very different, and not what I am talking about here. 

Friday 11 October 2019

If the UK and EU can do a deal is everything now fine?

In case you hadn’t seen it, here is my article that was published in the Guardian yesterday. It was my luck that on the evening of publication, and after it appeared that Johnson had put a hopeless deal to the EU, his talks with Varadkar suddenly sounded positive. But is everything as it seems?

The obvious point is that one set of bilateral talks do not make a deal. Both parties had reason to sound positive. The EU does not want to be blamed for obstructing a deal, and Johnson wants grounds for going into the forthcoming election with the prospect of a deal. Cummings rhetoric is quite consistent with that, as they want to make No Dealers believe that will be what eventually happens and they also want Dealers (not least MPs in his party and cabinet) to think a deal is possible. He also wants to have grounds for boycotting any Public Vote in the unlikely event parliament tries to vote for that before an election.

But let’s suppose there is substance behind what happened yesterday. What would that substance have to be? It is highly likely it avoids any kind of hard border on the island of Ireland, which in turn means a completely different set of trading arrangements in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK. Or in other words, all customs checks shift to between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

I suggested around the time Johnson became PM that this would be an option he might take. The almost universal reaction to my suggestion was that it would not get past parliament, because the DUP and other MPs would vote against. But of course Johnson wants a General Election. He is a Prime Minister with little power at present. So he might hope that if he got a larger majority than May had after 2017, and with the help of Labour leavers, he could get such a deal through.

Speculating about that when we don’t know the details of the deal are pointless. The key issue I want to address is whether such a deal would make my Guardian article look stupid. As it talked about no deal, of course. But in substantive terms, you could write something similar about a Johnson deal that solves the Irish border problem in this way. Obviously concerns about peace in Northern Ireland disappear. Whether Scotland will get independence is also more problematic. But the UK would still have to spend a lot of political time negotiating a free trade deal with the EU, and that would be more difficult than it would have been with May’s deal.

The reason is that currently Johnson’s proposals for a free trade deal abandon regulatory alignment. They want to reduce workers rights and consumer protection and environmental protections, and that will mean a far less extensive trade deal with the EU than under the backstop. That in turn means that the long term economic costs of any deal will still be large, although obviously not so large and we avoid the short term disruption.**

But the core of the article, that this is going to be something imposed on a majority by a minority, still applies. And it remains true that only a few thousand people will benefit for a deal of this kind, and everyone else will lose. So in that sense the core message of the article applies whether Johnson gets a deal or not.

** Postscript (12/10/19) Chris Giles crunches the number here 

Tuesday 8 October 2019

The Liberal Democrats in the next General Election may win a few seats at the expense of a Johnson overall majority

Brexit could be decided in the forthcoming General Election. If Johnson wins an overall majority (or a majority with the DUP) then Brexit will happen: maybe something like May’s deal but more probably No Deal. As I suggested in my last post, holding a People’s Vote before the General Election has no impact on that reality. If in contrast Labour wins (most probably with a Labour/SNP understanding) then Brexit dies at least until the following election. That is because Corbyn is sure to lose a Public Vote on his own deal (if it gets that far), because the Tories will not take part and Remainers will back Remain.

There is a messy third outcome, where neither the Tories or Labour have a workable majority. Even if that parliament contains a majority of MPs who support a referendum, holding one which the Tories would boycott may simply provide ammunition for the Tories in a further General Election that might soon follow. In the absence of a political programme that distracts people from Brexit, Brexit will stay as a central issue, referendum or no refrendum. 

Here we get to a difficult truth that many Liberal Democrats deny. A Public Vote will only settle the Brexit issue if the Tories take part, which they are very unlikely to do, or if it is followed by a period of years when Leavers get bored with the issue. Only a Labour government, minority or majority, can do that. An unstable minority government cannot do that when Brexit is the Tories strong card. 

Here we get to an irony that is again lost on too many LibDem supporters. The LibDems are where they are in the polls in part because Corbyn’s Brexit obstinacy gifted them a whole bunch of Remain votes. Yet if those voters who voted LibDem in the European elections, and now say they support the LibDems, actually vote LibDem in the General Election in Lab/Con marginals, then this hands the election to the Tories. The LibDems may gain a few more seats, but they will have helped Johnson get Brexit over the line.

Everyone knows this is Cummings’ strategy. Polling suggests that even though many 2017 Labour voters in Lab/Con marginals may be reluctant to support the Conservatives, they could be persuaded to stay at home or vote LibDem. As James Crouch of Opinium wrote:
“I have outlined how the Liberal Democrats face an incredible struggle to have the impact in seats that they think a large shift in votes their way should suggest. But is a large shift of votes their way likely? Yes, at the moment I’d say so, but in particular places yielding few seats. More important questions are from where do these votes come? And who will benefit from this shift? Unfortunately, the one party unlikely to benefit is the Lib Dems themselves. Expect the impact to be felt far more noticeably in Conservative-Labour marginal seats, where a very large number of constituencies with tiny majorities could switch hands purely because one party’s voter base crumbled quicker than the other.”

There is a danger Liberal Democrats will lose sight of this important point in their overambition, such as the 200 seats that Chuka Umunna has suggested. You have to be a pretty devoted LibDem to celebrate, say, doubling your seat total at the expense of a government led by Johnson that enacts a No Deal Brexit. For the LibDems to really celebrate after the election, they need the overall result to favour Labour and not the Tories.

Everyone knows that most of the LibDem target seats are those with a current Tory MP. If the LibDems are to do well it will be because they win a lot of this type of seat. Furthermore if the LibDems are to do really well rather than just well, that difference is entirely made up of current Tory seats, as Dr Alan Wager and Guy Russo show. This means that the LibDems need to target Tory voters, not Labour voters.

This chimes with what should be their long term strategy. The Liberal Democrats can only avoid coming a poor third or forth in successive General Elections in two ways. The first is by persuading one of the two major parties to adopt electoral reform. They had that chance with the Tories in 2010 and blew it. They will never get the party of Brexit and Johnson to adopt voting reform. It will not be easy with Labour either, but with a minority Labour government and the right leader they have a non-zero chance.

The second is by replacing one of the two major parties. The SDP tried to replace Labour the last time both parties forsook the centre ground of politics and failed, essentially because Labour moved towards the centre. If you look at where the two major parties are right now, you need to ask which is promoting the more extreme policies (Brexit versus European social democracy) and which is less flexible. It seems to me that a combination of the Farage threat in the wings, Conservative party members radicalised by the press, and an extreme neoliberal ideology, the Tories are not going to be changing tack anytime soon.

So with the possible exception of a few constituencies, the LibDem target seats are Tory seats, and this fits into their longer term strategy. For seat gains to mean anything they need to avoid a Tory victory. They want to encourage both Tories and Labour voters in Tory/LinDem marginals to vote LibDem, but they should discourage Labour voters to vote LibDem in Lab/Con marginals.

I understand why they cannot do that publicly by endorsing tactical voting, because it might lose them Tory votes in the marginals they need to win. But I do wonder sometimes if the LibDem leadership understand what their strategy needs to be. The constant use of multi-party meetings designed to stop No Deal to negatively brief about Labour is not just annoying, I suspect it hinders rather than helps the LibDems achieve what is in their best interests.

The Liberal Democrats are the natural home of Conservative Remainers, and most are unlikely to even contemplate voting Labour. So pursuing a strategy of suggesting Labour will be responsible for No Deal does not gain them many votes in their target seats. What it might do is persuade some Labour voters in Lab/Con marginals not to vote Labour, which does not help the LibDems. Some supporters might be getting excited about being ahead of Labour in the odd poll, but if they do beat Labour in the popular vote it will mean one thing for sure: a Tory government with an overall majority that will enact a hard or No Deal Brexit.

Saturday 5 October 2019

Should a second referendum happen before the General Election and what should accompany Remain on the ballot?

Some have suggested that an interim abC Prime Minister (abC = anyone but Corbyn), appointed by parliament after dismissing Johnson in a vote of no confidence, should hold a second referendum before a General Election. If the idea of this is to end the Brexit issue before an election, I think it is misguided for one simple reason. Johnson is likely to boycott the referendum.

The reason is straightforward. Brexit is the issue that could win him the General Election. If the polls are correct and he captures most of the Brexit vote, but the Remain vote is split between Labour and the LibDems, then he gets to form a government with an overall majority for the next five years. I know there are reasons why that might fail, but it is the centre of his strategy. The alternative where he gambles on winning a referendum looks worse odds for him.

The best this strategy could achieve from a Remain point of view is a victory and revoking Article 50. But Johnson would then talk about how the winners of the 2016 referendum have been cheated by an unelected PM and an illegitimate second referendum, which would ensure this claim became the major issue in the subsequent General Election. It would help Johnson win, and he would promptly start Article 50 all over again. All that would have been gained is a delay in what was now an inevitable Brexit.

For this reason the strategy of a referendum before a General Election looks flawed. Of course if Johnson gets an overall majority in a General Election there will be no referendum. So there appear to be two possibilities in which a second referendum could happen. The first is a Labour government (perhaps with the support of the SNP). Here we know what will happen: Labour will negotiate its own deal and hold a referendum where that is the Leave option, and Remain is the alternative. As the referendum would be boycotted by Farage and the Conservatives, Remain would win. 

The second is a minority government where the smaller parties hold the balance of power. This in itself does not guarantee a second referendum, because pretty well all Conservative MPs would vote against it, as might the DUP and some Labour rebels. But if there is a majority of MPs in favour of a referendum, what is the alternative to Remain that they should choose?

Once again a key question is whether the Conservatives would participate. If the Leave alternative was May’s Deal the answer would almost certainly be no. So some may be tempted to choose No Deal as the alternative in order to get the Conservatives to participate. It would be argued that only a second referendum where No Deal was an option would have legitimacy.

We need to unpack what is meant by legitimacy here. The justification for the second referendum is that it is a natural consequence of the first. The first referendum did not specify the form of leaving, and because the result was close it is far from clear that there is any majority for a particular way of leaving the EU. This is what parliament has found: although both parties were prepared to leave, the deals they had in mind were very different, and neither was prepared to accept the others.

This is the answer to the perennial point made by leavers: if not two why not a third? If the second is designed to check there is a majority for a specific form of leaving, chosen by parliament following the first referendum as the best form of leaving, then a third makes no sense. The second referendum is not a rerun of the first, but a consequence of the first.

If we see a second referendum in this light, then it seems clear that the form of leaving that should be on the ballot is some form of deal with the EU. The case for Leaving put forward in the first referendum was all about the deal which the UK would obtain. Leavers never suggested that the UK might not be able to obtain a deal. If the Remain side occasionally did so that is irrelevant, because those suggestions were dismissed by the Leave side as Project Fear and Leave won. So the only mandate the 2016 referendum gives is to Leave with some form of deal, and therefore a Remain/No Deal option would not be a legitimate consequence of the first referendum..

I think this is not the legitimacy that people who suggest No Deal should be on the ballot have in mind. What they mean is that Farage and Johnson would agree to participate and respect the result if No Deal was on the ballot. Here I think people are making the same mistake as Cameron made in offering the first referendum. Cameron’s dream that his 2016 referendum, if won by Remain, would end calls to Leave for a generation were never going to come true, as some Leavers made clear before the result.

The period from 2016 until now has shown us that the No Deal virus has infected not just the Brexit party but also Conservative party members and therefore the Conservative party itself. Because of the influence that Farage and the Brexit press have on voters and Conservative party members, Brexit is not going to be put in a box any time soon.

So would Johnson agree to participate in a No Deal vs Remain referendum? He would have the perfect excuse not to. He has always argued that he could get a good deal out of the EU if only the threat of No Deal was real. It is nonsense, but he gets away with it. So he would say that the only way to achieve a good Brexit deal is to elect a Conservative government with an overall majority prepared to implement No Deal so he can get that good deal. Minority governments are unstable and so his chances that would happen still exist, if only voters would give him an overall majority.

Agreeing to a second referendum would also weaken one of the Brexiters strongest rhetorical cards: 2016 gave the government an instruction to leave which it promised to fulfill. Once Johnson agrees to participate in a second referendum he legitimises it, and so that rhetorical card is one he cannot use again. Another factor is that if Johnson did say yes to a second referendum, Farage would say any second referendum is illegitimate, allowing him to sweep up Brexit votes from the Conservatives if Remain wins the second referendum.

So I suspect we reach the following position: Johnson will only participate in a No Deal/Remain referendum if he is pretty sure he can win. Which is an excellent reason not to hold such a referendum. Again we need to remember a fundamental lesson. Choosing referendums that appease opponents can come back to haunt you later.

I therefore think it is wise that any second referendum should either involve a new deal negotiated by Labour, or May’s deal. But it is almost certain this referendum would be boycotted by the Conservatives and Farage, so the referendum is not going to make Brexit disappear for a generation. It might end the Article 50 process, but that process could be started up again by a Conservative government with an overall majority at any time, using the 2016 referendum as a mandate. Brexit is now in the DNA of the Conservative party, and no referendum will make them give up.

If you are a Remainer, this has profound implications for UK politics over the next decade. A second referendum wins the crucial battle to end the current A50 process, but it does not end the war. If the Conservative party were to ever win an overall majority, the whole process would begin again. I have suggested before that the only thing that will be sure to end Brexit for good is demographic change and a long period of Conservative opposition until their final realisation that Brexit and power cannot go together.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

How the Brexiters have controlled the narrative around Brexit

“Senior allies of Boris Johnson have warned that Britain will face civil unrest on the scale of the gilets jaunes protests in France or the riots in Los Angeles if Brexit is frustrated.” So reports the Times. A well known far right activist says on TV that he is amazed that there have not been riots yet, and also says there should be. In truth the absence of riots is not amazing at all.

Let us leave aside the implication that when Leavers protest it will be a riot rather than a peaceful protest. If you are talking about people protesting or worse on the streets you are not talking about Vox Pops where people tell an interviewer that they are angry parliament has failed to get on with it. You are not talking about responses to opinion polls. Instead we are talking about evidence that people are prepared to protest on the streets.

We have evidence here. When we failed to leave in March, despite repeated promises we would, you might have expect a very angry reaction. Farage addressed a demonstration in which he called the Houses of Parliament ‘enemy territory’. The demonstration was news because anything Farage does seems to be news and also some right wing thugs got aggressive. But in terms of people, we are talking about a few thousand people. A petition for a No Deal Brexit gained a bit more than 600,000 signatures.

If those numbers seem large, compare it to around 6 million signatures for a petition to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU. Or regular large marches all around the country for a People’s Vote, with the biggest in London involving hundreds of thousands of people, all entirely peaceful. It terms of anger and passion, it seems Remainers outnumber Leavers by between 10 and 100 to 1.

If you think about it, this is hardly surprising. If we are honest Leavers have little or nothing to gain after Brexit, and probably a lot to lose. In contrast Remainers have a great deal to lose. Everyone will lose the right to work in the EU. Brexit takes away a European identity. EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU, have a great deal to lose.

Will the media ever talk about this asymmetry between gains and losses. Of course most of it won’t, because in truth the number of people who are passionate about delivering Brexit are heavily concentrated in the press, and our media is too dominated by that press. The number of people passionate about Brexit is limited to a few thousand people who have convinced themselves it matters to them, politicians in the ERG and Brexit party, the Brexit press, right wing thugs, and those frightened of no longer being able to avoid tax in the EU.

Despite all the evidence, the idea of riots if we fail to Brexit is firmly implanted in the media. But this is just one aspect of how the Brexiters have dominated the narrative around Brexit. It started of course with the referendum. Cameron no doubt talked about the economics of Brexit during the referendum because he thought the talk of rights would not cut through to those who didn’t feel it. But with two words the Brexiters managed to throw all the expertise involved in Cameron’s warnings into question. The broadcast media obliged by repeating the question ‘isn’t this just Project Fear’ endlessly, and the BBC balanced the expertise of every single academic whose subject was international trade and institution with knowledge of international trade with Patrick Minford.

After the referendum, talking about the emerging impact on the economy of the result to Leave became impossible. The recession predicted by the Treasury did not happen because consumers dipped into their savings, and this forecasting failure became the reason why few talked about the expected depreciation reducing real wages, or the steady divergence between UK GDP and its comparators, and the collapse in investment. If they did try, Leavers would just start talking about the Treasury forecast.

The myth of the need to threaten No Deal as part of the negotiations soon became another piece of the entrenched narrative. I am sure some Brexiters believed it, because they never bothered to understand how the Single Market worked. It was forced upon other Brexiters when the cavalry in the form of the German auto-manufacturers who were going to force the German government into concessions never turned up. But it soon began to have a much more sinister purpose. It was not long before many in the ERG realised the only form of Brexit they would be happy with was No Deal, and from then on their aim was to try and achieve No Deal by default. What better ruse was there for this group than to spread the idea that we could not rule out No Deal for negotiation reasons.

I will end with two narratives at the moment that are the opposite of the truth. The first is that we must leave by October 31st because parliament has already had three years to get Brexit done and has failed. The reality is that the reason a deal has not been done is because of the actions of our current Prime Minister, his predecessor, and those in the ERG who are pushing this narrative. May made getting a deal through parliament difficult by choosing a form of hard Brexit the opposition could not sign up to. However the people who ensured it could not get a majority were the ERG, whose aim was No Deal. The current Prime Minister voted against May’s deal twice. Parliament has failed to agree a deal because the ERG do not want a deal.

It is therefore ludicrous that the people who prevented May getting a deal should pretend they represent the frustrated public against a prevaricating parliament, when they themselves did the prevaricating. Yet this nonsense is repeated time and again and is largely unchallenged. Also ludicrous is the idea that a No Deal Brexit fulfills the wishes of the 52% who voted in the referendum, when those campaigning to leave in the referendum said a deal was certain to be done. Only the Brexiters can get away with using the warnings of the side that lost as proof voters in 2016 knew that No Deal was a possibility, a possibility Brexiters called Project Fear at the time.

The second incredible narrative is that we need to end Brexit with a clean break, and then we can get back to doing other things. A clean break Brexit inevitably leads to 10 years at least of negotiation with the EU, negotiations in which the UK side will eventually be forced to accept the terms the ERG now despise. The longer our government holds out in those negotiations the longer it takes. In reality the so called clean break Brexit is a promise to continue Brexit negotiations but from an even weaker position.

Why have the Brexiters dominated the Brexit narrative over the last three years? One reason I have talked about before is while Remainers tend to focus on facts, most Brexiters are largely uninterested in the details of Brexit and instead concern themselves with generating spin. But the more fundamental reason is that most of the press (by readership) are deeply involved in pushing the Brexit project, and the BBC is too timid to question the narrative pushed by the Brexiters. .