Six Months of Disaster but the Tories Hold Firm

Six months after the election, politics has stopped making sense.  I was discussing  with a friend why predictions are so off beam, and  he told me the following story. When his first wedding anniversary was due, he treated his missus to Christmas in New York.. Wanting to make it special, he covered every angle including the  accident statistics and the chances of snow on Christmas Day, shows on Broadway and taxis from and to the airports.

The start of trip went well, so as the plane rose into the sky he finally relaxed. Until,  at about 20,000 feet, his wife turned to him and smiling sweetly asked “Darling, did you turn all the water taps off when we left the house?”. No he had not. And it was turning frosty…*

People are good at remembering what to do after the event. In politics its usually only after losing an election that there is any debate on what they did wrong. And for Labour since 2015, the solution prevented the analysis. Once the leader was changed, the party assumed it had the winning formula. Indeed most political activists spend their time wondering what to do in power. Planning what to do in the Big Apple, painting the town Red. As far as I can see, most activists assume the opposition will play into their hands so victory is guaranteed.  What is happening on the ground is not an issue.

Most would not go as far as Anthony Barnett in his Compass blog, who as I noted on 14th November, said that after five years, Labour will be in power, indeed winning is the easy bit.  Labour does not intend to wait, to judge by the rush to select in marginal seats. Some commentators would agree victory could come soon as the Tories seem to be on the verge of collapse.

However, Labour has a major problem before it can take off and fly to the promised land.  The opinion polls since the disasterous Tory election campaign are only marginally in favour of Labour. Given the chaos in Number 10, how come Labour is not well ahead? And what can progressives do to prevent the Tories winning election #4?

The polls in November

On November 19th the Opinium poll in the Observer confirmed the pattern set after the June 8th election – Labour slightly ahead but the Tories holding on 40% or above  keeping them in touch with Corbyn and Co.

Previously the November 10th YouGov  poll for the Times had Labour ahead by 3  points – 43% to 40%, with Lib Dems on 6%. The fieldwork was right in the middle of the Priti Patel row, but there is no real sign that the electors know or care about the ministerial resignations and  that this is the most incompetent government in living memory.

The same pattern is shown with Theresa May. In the YouGov poll her approval ratings are negative but the UK Polling Report commentator said they “Show no signs of collapse”. 31% thought she did well, 55%  badly – 4 points down from the previous month – 29% thought she was a strong leader, (up 1%) while 49% think she is weak (down 3%), and while 43% think she is competent, only 38% think she is incompetent, (down 3%).

The context is the lack of interest most people have in politics. At the height of the Patel affair, 17% thought May should stay, 30% should go and 53% had no view. The writer said rightly “Tory incompetence won’t hurt Tory support among people who are unaware of it”.

Is there a Corbyn Effect?

Corbyn has an uphill struggle on his hands. Of Tory vorers, only 7% said Tory support  was because they agreed with the aims and thought they were being delivered, while 19% thought the Tories were incompetent and did not agree with their aims, but would still vote for them – to keep Corbyn out of #10. If Labour cannot win Tory voters, they have to take support from the minor parties.

I have yet to see data on the Labour Party, and it would seem that Corbyn has firm control of the Party as members were largely happy with his performance even in the dark days before the June election. At one point even his key union backer Len McLuskey was suggesting that the top two would have to go if “we get to 2019 and the opinion polls were still awful… these two are not egomaniacs, they are not desperate to hang on to power for power’s sake”. (Times 3rd January 2017, reported statement of 2nd January). At that time Labour were on 24% and the Fabian General Secretary was quoted as saying “Labour is on track  to win fewer than 200 seats,whether the next election comes this year or in 2020….” We all know what happened after that prediction, and the 2017 election  delivered the Party to the Corbynistas. Whether this will last is unknown, but in 2018 the Corbynistas will retain total control of Labour’s fortunes.

What happens then is an open Question, but Brexit will define the options. It is for May to fail to deliver, and there is nothing Labour can do but stick and twist. Either the Tories will split and deny May key votes – and the visciousness of the attacks on Tory dissidents tells its own tale, Anna Soubry MP. blamed death threats on the attack dogs of the Daily Telegraph citing named MPs on ,with the Mail and its own attack dogs demanding other Tory MPs be pushed out for being pro EU, and this may deter Tory splits. This raises the whole poisoned chalice of Brexit, where Labour’s  position will be harder and harder to sustain as the vote on the Deal comes nearer, but at this point the Brexit issue makes any analysis a journey on the Star Ship Enterprise.

But one thing is clear. In an age of surge politics, the Labour surge of 2016 which put on 16% points in the polls, largely at the expense of the minor parties, has plateaued. Whether it can make further gains, having made the most of its metropolitan base, is to be decided. Labour may think it has lifted off for the Big Apple. But what has it left behind on the ground?

Trevor Fisher

November 2017

* the point being that the pipes froze, burst, and the house was flooded when they got home

 

Futurology for beginners

This autumn has seen political commentators talking up prospects of a Corbyn government. Even before Labour conference, The Times proposed that A Flagging Economy Could Put Corbyn in # 10, (September 13th 2017), and Brexit would produce economic damage- thus leading to a Labour government. While some commentator don’t expect to have to wait for a Corbyn Premiership, because the Government will collapse, others think that the Tories can go a full 5 years to 2022, and if May can be removed a new – possibly Boris Johnson – goverment could remain in office. Whatever the time scale, attention is now focussed on a coming Labour victory.

The assumption Labour will win is paralysing discussion of actual election prospects. Labour is currently selecting for key seats with All  Women Shortlists the priority – to ensure that there are more female MPs. The leadership is assuming that there will be more MPs in the first place. 

The core assumption of the Labour Left is of undeniable success and they are not suprisingly gung ho. They have always argued that with control of  the  leadership they can win elections and legislate socialism. This is not good news for the Labour right, who have made every mistake possible since 2005, notably with the failures of the Front Bench to oppose Blair- Brown, and are in no position to argue. 

But the most interesting tendency  on display is the soft left, particularly Compass, some elements of which have embraced triumphalism. This was most clearly shown by a Think Piece on their website, (Thinkpiece #91 October  2017) With Victory in Sight, can the British left gain hegemony? which followed a discussion in a Conference fringe on Is what is needed one more heave or hegemony? Written by Anthony Barnett the emphasis was certainly not on one more heave and was less cautious than an earlier think piece from Matthew Sowemimo. 

This latest piece nailed its colours firmly to the mast with the title, forseeing Labour in office with no obstacles of any kind. The opening two paragraphs made this clear, with Barnett seeing “immense promise for the left”, because “If things stay as they are, all Labour needs to do is hold its breath, as the government disintegrates…. For the present government is un-electable and Downing Street is certain to become the address of current leaders of the Labour Party”. The bulk of the pamphlet is about the chances of securing ‘hegemony’ a Gramscian term for control through ideas.

Barnett never explains why the next five years are a prelude to a Labour government, or makes any attempt to explain how he thinks the voters will behave. The thrust is all about what Labour should do. Barnett’s belief that “If for the next five years the Conservatives retain to-day’s unhappy cabinet…the country will be Labour’s” reflects a wider belief there are no obstacles ahead. As Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics. For Labour to sit back for 5 long years and expect to win says more about the current Labour triumphalism than any realistic political analysis. The Tory  Party is most dangerous with its back to the wall.

Barnett is influential in Compass and the post LCC soft left, and his advocacy of PR is a core principle of Compass. For example, the pamphlet Compass produced several months before the 2010 election had the telling title  The Last Labour Government – why only a referendum on electoral reform can save the party now and the stress on pluralism, ie permanent coalition, continues and is unlikely to be acceptable to the hard left.  Compass itself seems to think Labour cannot win an election on its own and favours the Progressive Alliance strategy which its leadership pushed in advance of its AGM on November 4th.

This is too rigid and problematic a scenario.  It is possible for Labour to win the next election, but the Tories have a viable strategy – and Labour does not display one. The Tories have a  playing card in Brexit. If the cabinet, now controlled by the Brexiteers, produces a negotiated settelement however bad, Labour will be challenged to vote on it if May’s statement on 25th October is the route map.  This is a trap. If Labour votes against and the vote is lost, May has said she will use crown prerogative and leave without a settlement using the Referendum mandate. This was re-emphaised by David Davis in the Commons on November 13th. Whatever the vote, Britexit will happen.  If the vote is won, however, the Tories have  triumphed and Labour is shown to be ineffective. If Lost, Labour is shown to be ineffective. How to get out of the trap is the key issue. 

A viable strategy for Labour has to be both acutely aware of how the voters behaved in 2017, and sharp enough to take the initiative from the Tories, notably on Brexit where the Tories claim a democratic mandate from the 2016 referendum.  Currently there is no debate on how these two crucial factors can be played. Barnett captures the current triumphalism, but mirroring the over confidence  of the hard left is folly. The soft left should be debating how to win, not what to do when in five years time – or sooner – there is a Labour government.

If this is not done, Labour is relying on the continuation of the surge on June 8th over five years when they do not control the agenda, which is high stakes politics. It would be foolish to bet on the winner of the next world  cup. It is even more foolish to make calculations based on Labour strolling into Number 10.

Trevor Fisher

November 2017

A Compass Think Piece Poses Key Questions

Progressive Politics regularly cross post from other Labour-orientated websites, but where are those — like Compass — who are more overtly committed to building a cross Party, progressive alliance?

Trevor Fisher highlights one recent contribution to the Compass debate which he feels all Labour supporters should be contemplating.

 

Review of Compass Think Piece #89 from Compass, Big But Brittle: Why One More Heave Is Likely To Fail Labour, by Matthew Sowemimo

“Whether the next general election is sooner or later, it will be hotly contested. Is Labour’s surprise showing in June 2017 a base to build from or a high watermark? Should the party go for a one more heave approach to get over the line or adopt a more hegemonic and alliance-based approach? This new thinkpiece by Matthew Sowemimo examines the evidence and suggests Labour may have reached a glass ceiling. This, he argues, combined with a new level of voter volatility, demands a fresh electoral strategy”.

The Think Piece can be Downloaded Here.

As the subtitle suggests, this timely think piece from Compass is not in the triumphalist camp currently dominating Labour thinking. While the result on June 8th was welcome and significant, it left Labour short of a majority and poses more questions than answers. It was unexpected, and as Matthew Sowemimo says, “many Labour MPs went to their counts expecting defeat, only to secure large majorities… the recent past shows how dramatically electoral sentiment can shift in this political environment”. (p16)

Very true, and this ThinkPiece is complementary to the pamphlet on Surge Politics published at the same time. From different directions the phenomenon of the Surges, and what they mean for progressive politics, are coming under scrutiny.

Matthew does not look at the wider development of Surges  which in 2015 meant  Labour collapsed in Scotland, the Lib Dems dropped from 23% vote share to 8%, and UKIP gained 4m votes,  partly in Labour heartlands – rightly so as  attention is currently focussed on the lessons of June 8th. What these lessons are is the most urgent priority.

Labour conference appeared to be dominated by one possibility, that it could win the next election by a 45% strategy, that vote share being enough to win if it can build on the 40% share gained on June 8th. The analysis in this ThinkPiece suggests that this is possible but that the obstacles are considerable.

The key lessons of the 2017 election were clear  within a week of the election. Labour gained in the metropolitan heartlands of England and Wales – but less in Scotland, which is now a different culture entirely – but had lower gains outside London. It lost working class support in the traditional ex industrial areas, and the 2016 EU referendum was a good guide to voting behaviour.

What was less clear was the age issue as a factor – the old increasingly voting Tory and headline gains with the young voting Labour.  Analysis is showing how  the younger middle aged were vital, the biggest gains being among the 30-44 age group (p12) thus  those who have families, debts and limited prospect deserted the Tories.

Overall the picture is that  that “Voter volatility is now high…. over 6.5 million people voted tactically on 8th June 2017 and party identification is now at an all time low” (p3). This is indeed the era of Surge Politics.

Four Key Areas Analysed

Matthew Sowemimo breaks the issues down  into four main headings. Firstly, he looks at Labour’s 2017 pe rformance in historical perspective – the longest and best section at five and a half pages. Secondly, he assesses the support for the two main parties  – three and a quarter pages of tight analysis very good on the Tory party, which has become the party of Leave, emphasising the key role of the 2016 EU referendum. Thirdly, he attempts to evaluate the Progressive Alliance which Compass advocated, and finally has two and a half pages of conclusion which are sketchy but logical and usefully thought provoking.

The first section is the most detailed and draws on the best academic research. He questions  the value of the Youth surge – youth has the lowest identification with political parties and cannot be relied upon for Labour.  The Tory strategy of going for the UKIP vote worked, but at the expense of losing the metropolitan cosmopolitan voter. It is a savage paradox, that this is the exact opposite of the New Labour strategy of going for the metro voter while ignoring the working class. Both parties neglected their core supporters and lost support. While the Scots Tory Revival attracts attention, there is little analysis of Labour in Scotland and none on Wales, progressives still taking the Celts for granted in my view.

The second section is less detailed but poses the key issue of  the cultural attitudes of Leave and generally right wing voting people rejecting cosmopolitanism. Britain is splitting into groups with little in common and many  poor  people actively vote against their interests. The former Labour MP for Stoke South, Rob Flello, stated early this year that people in his area felt they had nothingto lose if the country left the EU and later Labour lost Stoke South.

On future strategy the discussion of the Progressive Alliance is the shortest and weakest section. As Sowemimo says, “it is impossible to try to disentangle the work of the Progressive Alliance from other influences”. (P14) Tactical voting is inevitable, but  the role of formal alliances is debatable. Certainly it is foolish to blame Labour alone for there not being a formal Alliance, the Greens being alone in wanting to take this road. The Lib Dem behaviour in going into coalition – not merely alliance – with the Tories for five years is a factor Compass must start to address. Vince Cable and his activists deny this was wrong, but an anti Tory alliance with a party that kept the Tories in power for 5 years is a contradiction in terms.

The conclusion advises Labour that “the country is polarising …the party cannot expect to form a governing coalition in the way that it did in the Wilson and Blair eras”, correctly opening up the future debate.  The key  issues touched on include the EU issue, where Labour cannot fudge a decision as it did in 2017 because there will be at the very least a parliamentary  vote on the Tory proposals, on a take it or leave it basis. In my view the age issue will play an increasing role.  Youth is not firmly pro Labour while Age is firmly in the Tory camp. What progressives can do about this is central to the future. The analysis has to start looking at what can make a progressive electoral base when outside the big cities none of the alternative parties to the Tories and Labour have made any real headway – and in Scotland, the Tories had the biggest surge.

There is common ground that we now live in a Surge era and as the pamphlet says the main parties “face a highly volatile environment where class based voting has substantially retreated and partisan identification levels are low” (p16). How this landscape is traversed will decide the future of a great deal more than the next General Election, and this pamphlet is a valuable step towards mapping the terrain.

Trevor Fisher, October 2017

Surge Politics Download

 

What Might have Been

I know it’s rather self indulgent, but I find virtual history – imagining what might have happened if a particular event had turned out differently – quite interesting. The left doesn’t like this approach, partly because it rightly sees history as being fashioned in the long term by impersonal forces rather tha events determined by particular individuals. Nevertheless, there are events which might credibly have gone a different way or not happened which might fruitfully be examined.

The most glaring recent example is the general election, which most commentators and MPs thought wouldn’t happen. The period leading up to the election, particularly its latter stages, saw Labour transformed, attracting a level of support which seemed unthinkable when the election was called but which it has sustained and to some extent exceeded since.

The election was called on Tuesday April 18th, to take place just over seven weeks later on Thursday June 8th. It was still over two weeks to the local government and mayoral elections which were due on Thursday May 4th covering most of the UK.

Nothing much happened before May 4th by way of general election campaigning, with attention on the local elections, and although Labour’s position in the polls improved slightly this would not necessarily have happened without the election having been called. There were probably two main reasons. Firstly, by calling an election for reasons that were clearly based on party advantage, and despite having said that she wouldn’t, May was reduced in the eyes of many from a person of principle with only the country’s interests her concern, to just another grubby, calculating politician. Secondly, by making it clear she would not participate in any TV debates she came across as both aloof and afraid to defend her policies before other party leaders.

So the polls, and the election results on May 4th could have been worse for Labour without this, but as it was they were pretty bad. Labour lost 380 seats, and lost Metro Mayorships in the West Midlands and the Tees valley which it should have won, while the Tories won 560 seats. The results in the previous elections in these seats in 2012 and 2013had been very good for Labour, reflecting a substantial poll lead, so the results were not unexpected, but they were bad, despite the projected vote being 27% for Labour and 38% for the Tories, a smaller lead than the polls had been forecasting.

There was little public criticism of Corbyn from within the Labour Party after these results, as the general election was only five weeks away, but most activists assumed that this would yield similar results, with possible losses of seats on a large scale. However, as we know, something extraordinary happened, and Labour began to climb in the polls, particularly following the release of the manifestos in mid May.

Labour’s very much caught the national mood , against austerity and for positive policies to rebuild the economy and social services. The Tory manifesto, was by contrast a disaster, featuring the ‘dementia tax’ which was withdrawn with May claiming it hadn’t been!

Corbyn seemed assured and statesmanlike, May nervous and lacking in confidence. The Tories, unbelievably, had not costed their manifesto, as Labour had their’s, so were in no position to criticise it. Labour benefited from all the publicity, as well as the huge social media interchange which precipitated a much higher turnout by younger people than anticipated.

But none of this would have happened if the election had not been called, including, probably, the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. The Grenfell fire would have happened, although that was after the election and while it cast the Tories in a bad light it would probably not have made much difference to Labour’s overall standing. This may have risen slightly in the polls from the upper 20s to the low 30s, but would still have appeared poor, set against Miliband’s mid term scores and even Labour’s own pre referendum scores. Labour would have been demoralised after May 4th and little campaigning would have been likely over the summer.

There would have been a strong lobby for Corbyn to go, although a further leadership contest would have been unthinkable. Some on the left might have tried to engineer a deal to preserve an alternative  left  leadership that wasn’t Corbyn. All in all, Labour would not have been a happy ship. Things would have been much better for the Tories, with May continuing to be widely supported, although it would have become increasingly apparent to those close to her that she was somewhat out of her depth and inept as a communicator. But these would have been problems for another day.

So what can we conclude from this? There may be those who dispute what I have said, in which case I would be interested in their version of what might have happened, and why. Some might see it as seeking to undermine Corbyn, either by raising it at all or by implying that Labour’s standing now is the result of freak events and would not normally have happened.

Neither is the case. I am a Corbyn supporter, but I believe that this exercise can teach us lessons, while although the election was unusual the support that it gave to Labour was and remains genuine.

Yes, Labour benefited from the extreme incompetence of the Tories, and from both the switch of EU remainers and the retention of EU leavers, due to Labour’s somewhat ambiguous policies here, but it was the manifesto and the policies outlined therein that were crucial in mobilising large numbers of  younger voters. However, the  promotion and popularisation of policy had by and large not been carried out in the period following Corbyn’s resumption of the role of leader in September 2016, notwithstanding the difficulties that would have caused with the NPF, but it could and  should have been done and would probably have placed Labour in a much more favourable position than the one I describe after May 4th.

The key is dialogue, the widespread dissemination and debate about policy among members and the electorate generally, something to which the technical and financial barriers are fewer than ever before.

But we also need to ensure that this is ongoing and does not subside through long gaps between elections. The only demand of the Chartists never to be implemented, that for annual parliaments, comes to mind, although that might be a bit excessive, but if the USA can elect its representatives every two years then why can’t we? We should examine these things, anyway, and strive for a much greater focus, at all times, on political issues and policies, to Labour’s undoubted benefit.

Peter Rowlands, October 2017.

Labour’s Policy Process Needs a Shake-Up

After the politically stultifying years of Blair/Brown and its aftermath under Miliband, Labour members voted for a left-wing leader in 2015. This was a palace revolution without a changing of the guard. All the old structures and place-holders remained in place. A slow burning civil war in the Party ensued.

The new leadership didn’t come to power on the basis of winning a series of battles for policies and positions after which the process was consolidated by the election of a new leader. Jeremy Corbyn became leader on the basis of a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the political elite in general and with the leadership of the Labour Party in particular. Miliband signalled a break with Blairism but the rejection was purely rhetorical. The majority of members saw in Corbyn the chance for a real change of direction.

But Corbyn’s election was just a first step. All the work still remained to be done. New policies needed to be put in place and people supporting those policies needed to be elected to ensure that they would be pursued with intelligence and enthusiasm. After two years of the new leadership the struggle for both of these things can only be said to be at an embryonic stage. What is needed above all is for a new spirit of policy formation which engages all who want to be involved wherever they are located on the spectrum of Labour opinion. This need for a new approach is the backdrop against which we should consider the Annual Report of the National Policy Forum to Annual Conference this year.

It is Annual Conference that sets the seal on Party Policy, in theory at least. It does so on the basis of its approval or otherwise of the NPF’s Annual Report. The Labour Party Rulebook makes the position clear.

Party conference shall decide from time to time what specific proposals of legislative, financial or administrative reform shall be included in the Party programme. This shall be based on the rolling programme of work of the National Policy Forum. No proposal shall be included in the final Party programme unless it has been adopted by the Party conference by a majority of not less than twothirds of the votes recorded on a card vote. (Chapter 1, Clause V, 2)

Everyone wanting to see policies developed around which the Party can unite should read the Annual Report carefully. In recent years its treatment by Conference has been a non-event. It was difficult to raise objections because the report was considered on an all or nothing basis. Rejecting or referring back any part of it meant doing so for the entire report. Clearly few Conference delegates were ever going to feel in a position to do that. This led to a situation in which many (most?) delegates did not actually read the report. Some delegates didn’t receive the report in time to discuss it with colleagues and some didn’t even receive it at all.

Last year’s Conference took the wise decision that in future the various sections of the report should be voted on separately. This means that individual reports could be rejected or referred back while approving others. It is a chance to raise policy issues on the floor of Conference and to establish that now the party wants an end to the secretive and slapdash ways in which the Policy Commissions work. A signal needs to be given by Conference that the members want a new approach. Many of the details of the changes required have been spelled out in the reviews of of the Annual Report carried in recent weeks by Left Futures (the only Labour supporting website which, as far as I am aware, has attempted systematic reviews)

The series of articles on Left Futures reviewing seven of the eight Policy Commission sections of the Annual Report have pointed to a uniformly lack-lustre and lethargic approach to the development of policy.

  1. Introduction to the Annual Report plus review of the Education report
  2. The International report
  3. The Business & Economy Report
  4. The Energy part of the Energy and Culture report
  5. The Housing part of the Housing and Government Report
  6. The Health Report
  7. The Work and Pensions Report

In my view the Conference provides an opportunity to show that better is going to be demanded from the NPF and the Policy Commissions in future. This can be done because each section of the Annual Report must now be voted on separately. This should encourage delegates to read the reports thoroughly. It should also help if the were to read reviews that have been published (on Left Futures and anywhere else where this has been done). A reference back of one or two of the very worst of this extremely poor collection of reports would send a clear signal that a shake up of the NPF is need to produce the policies that the Party needs and deserves.

David Pavett

September 2017

Time for Labour to Climb Back on The Bike

One of areas where the Labour manifesto needs improvement is transport. It is rarely a frontline area at election time, and although the nationalisation of the railways proved a popular pledge, there was little on how Labour could make a decisive shift towards a more environmentally friendly policy that would also improve people’s journey experience.

Cycling received barely a mention, and among Labour activists it is often thought that cycling is a minority concern, and a policy encouraging its use would not attract any new voters, and, furthermore, would alienate some existing supporters. That is a mistaken view.

I have just spent three days cycling in Holland, where a quarter of journeys taken are by bike. There are cycle routes everywhere, even in places where major infrastructure, such as expensive bridges, are needed to ford rivers or separate cyclists from motor vehicles. It was really noticeable how many pension-age people were on bikes, some having purchased electric ones that require less, but still some, physical activity.

The impact of all this cycling is clear to see from the population. Obesity is a rarity, older people are thinner and fitter, and children as young as six or seven cycle unaccompanied to school. Think of the independence and sense of well-being that gives them.

Ah, people say, it is the culture and the geography. Not so. The Netherlands was heading the same way as the UK in the 1960s, squeezing out cyclists as roads filled up with cars. The death toll of young people was rising and a grassroots movement of parents, mostly mothers who had lost children in accidents, sprang up in protest. Gradually, but inexorably, the climate changed. Cycling was first accommodated, then encouraged, and finally became an integral part of the transport infrastructure.

It can be done here.  I am sick of seeing pictures of overweight councillors, often I’m afraid Labour ones, standing by a busy road saying that making improvements for cyclists is impossible because it would disrupt traffic or cause environmental degradation.

We could do this. Labour could do it. Jeremy Corbyn himself is a shining example of how being a cyclists keeps you young. Supporting cycling is not about supporting a few Lycra louts. It is not even about transport policy or even environmental considerations. The most important impact would be on health and well-being. A recent large-scale survey showed that people who commute to work by bike suffer 50 per cent fewer heart attacks and experience almost the same reduction in cancer than those who travel by car. Just think of the positive impact that would have on our embattled and struggling NHS.

Cycling should therefore be at the core of transport policy, not some add-on dismissed in vague statements such as ‘cycling and walking should be encouraged’. Cycling can be positively transformational, in a way many people do not realise.

On the trip through Holland, we came across a town of some 5,000 people – with lots of holidaymakers too – called Burgh-Hamstede which was relatively spread out, and spacious. In Britain, everyone would have driven to the local shops and supermarkets but instead the vast majority cycled, leaving their bikes in the vast cycle parks at the front of the shops, while the few cars were hidden at the back. The town was noticeably quiet, and the few car drivers there were accepted that bikes had precedence with absolutely no anger or bad temper on either side. Indeed, what was most noticeable, was the complete lack of hostility between different road-users. That is clearly because almost everyone does everything; in other words, cyclists drive, drivers cycle — and everyone is a pedestrian, too.

Think of the hundreds of British towns which stretch barely a mile or two from one end to the other where most journeys, like those in Burgh-Hamstede, could easily be undertaken by bike. It needs political will, courage and a cycling champion, but it could be done and the savings would materialise very quickly through the reduction of use of the health service.

In London, thanks to – and it chokes me to say it – Boris Johnson and Andrew Gilligan, who created the beginnings of a network of dedicated bike routes, cycling has become well-established. There are concerns that Sadiq Khan has not built on this quickly enough, out of fear of alienating drivers and pedestrians. Slowing down London’s programme to boost cycling would be a real mistake. Yet, there are signs, with the publication of plans for some junction remodelling, that momentum is being lost.

London can become a beacon not just nationally but internationally. Then its success should be picked up by Labour as a key part of its next manifesto.

Just to repeat – it is not geography, tradition or cost that prevents cycling becoming a key transport mode. It is politics.

Christian Wolmar

August 2017

Brexit Breaking Up

If June was the month of Surge Politics, July was the month when the fragile mantra that Brexit means Brexit (patented by Theresa the Incompetent) finally broke apart. The papering  over the cracks in Labour’s manifesto was torn when Chuka Umuna led a Commons revolt over the single market, and shrivelled when Corbybn said on the Marr Show on July 23rd he would, if PM, take the UK out of the single market. On 24th his Trade Sec Barry Gardiner wrote a bizarre article in the Guardian in which he argued that Brexit meant Brexit and we must not join the EEA as we could negotiate a better deal with the EU when totally outside.

Manuel Cortez of TESSA then wrote on Labour List that this was nonsense and the idea of ” post Brexit Trade Deal which is more advantageous, or the same, as that we enjoy through our current membership belongs in  never never land”.  John McDonnell and  Keir Starmer may agree as they seemed to want to rule Single Market into a Labour negotiation should Jezza become PM, while Diane Abbott seemed to sit on the fence as the Shadow Home Secretary said that ‘all options’ were on the table.

Outside the Shadow Cabinet, Sadiq Khan sensibly said that “For it (Remain) to have credibility with the British Public, there would have to be a manifesto offer… or referendum”.   In fact only a Third Referendum (the first was in 1975- Remain won comfortably – and 2016 – Leave won narrowly) would do. Unless Sadiq thinks the whole thing will run till 2022 as some Tories are now arguing.

Specifically Amber Rudd, Home Sec, and more importantly the Chancellor who looks to transitional arrangements which could last for three years taking us to 2022. Hammond does not want to have Brexit on his watch as the removal of immigrant labour and the single market would produce economic chaos. The Telegraph immediately pointed out that this would mean Brexit became an issue in the election due under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which Jezza voted to keep in place in 2014.  Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman accepted that there might have to be a transitional period but this must be strictly time limited by law to March 2021 maximum”. A new law then? But not if the Trade Secretary Liam Fox has his way, since he ended the week by making it clear that he had not been consulted on transitional arrangements and he was not in favour. So at least there is agreement – across the parties, though not inside the parties.

With the Tories and Labour split on Brexit, and the only national party committed to Remain opting for Labour’s fudge of a Soft Brexit in the election (aka a Brexit for Jobs, or Christmas for Turkeys) under their last leader and seeing their vote share  drop to 7 per cent, even the Lib Dems can’t offer a strong anti Brexit campaign. So as the parliam,,entary pantomime is offering nothing, there has to be a new turn.

Hammond is trying to avoid a ‘cliff edge’ exit as the effects would be disasterous for the Treasury, but has less and less room for manoeuvre. The exit date is March 29th 2019 and this is at the time of   writing – 31st July 2017 – less than 20 months away. As the problems increase, only a sharp NO to Brexit based on winning a Third Referendum will do. It’s not possible for the issue to drag on for 5 years as the cliff edge fundamentalists will hold out for a complete break in 2019. Only stopping this will do, by vetoing Brexit and Sadiq Khan is right to say that a clear option has to be given to the people. How can the Third Referendum be achieved and won?

The lack of an adequate organisation with proper funding is the key problem. There are 3 Westminster pressure groups, perhaps one for each party, and all useless. The Grassroots Another Europe is Possible is under  resourced and has little presence and no media profile. Volunteer initiatives become overstretched and are over-reliant on the parliamentary pantomime. It is time for a  new approach with a clear focus on a Third Referendum capable of taking on a Brexit Means Brexit campaign well resourced and – with Nigel Farage poised to re enter the fray- able to counter all that Brexit can devise. Machiavellian they may be, but invincible they are not. If A Capaign To Vote Again can be brought about. There are less than twenty months to go.

Trevor Fisher

July 2017

Farage and Brexit Rule

Analysis of the 2017 election will take years to complete, but while some issues are being discussed and conclusions drawn, there is a missing factor. May’s disaster is clear, though she gained the vote share of Thatcher, Corbyn’s success is recognised, though Labour lost and is miles away from even a one seat majority, and the Lib Dems did even worse than in the 2015 disasters, dropping from 8% to 7% of the vote.

However the decisive result of the election – the victory of Nigel Farage and his campaign for Brexit, now no longer opposed by any serious political force – is not on the agenda. When the victory of UKIP is pointed out, commentators refer to the drop in votes, down from 4million to next to nothing, and the fact that they do not have any seats at Westminster. Farage and the forces he leads do not need votes or seats – they have set the agenda and can watch the other parties do their work knowing the others exhaust themselves while all UKIP has to do is run a watching brief against backsliders.

Not that Theresa May will allow backsliding – she is well aware of what the Leave Tories did to John Major, sacrificing position in government and 18 years in the wilderness for the chance of a referendum and a no holds barred campaign for victory. UKIP’s success in winning Tory and Labour voters was key to the 2017 election, where no major English party opposed Brexit and as Tory MP Owen Patterson pointed out in response to Vince Cable arguing on Marr that Brexit might happen, his tendency won the General Election. 85% of Voters voting for Brexit. To be precise, 85% voted for Brexit supporting MPs via Tories, Labour and UKIP.

Cable stood for a party which alone in England stood against Brexit…. but then sold the pass by campaigning against Soft Brexit. There is no such thing. Its In or Out. The Lib Dem poor performance in 2017 rested firmly on failure to win Tory and Labour pro- Remain votes. This was mainly because Brexit dropped off the agenda, media and voters both believing the line that the Referendum is decisive even if disasterous – the line taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Lords –  even the local Another Europe is Possible collapsing into this position. There is no future for a political tendency which  is not prepared to challenge the Referendum result, and the Lib Dems have no future because they did not.

Labour survived for the moment by accepting Brexit – albeit a soft Brexit of sorts – and held on in Stoke Central in February with a formula which for the moment unites Leave and Remain voters though the official Party position is firmly Remain. Tories who were mainly Leave anyway held together as the Lib Dems could not make inroads as by elections had suggested they might. The Brexit issue simply dropped off  the agenda of June 8th, and Farron and Co found themselves chasing Shadows.

The same could not be said of UKIP though its performance was dire and its leader Paul Nuttall made so many errors in the Stoke Central by election that as with the Prime Minister they can run a master class in how not to fight an election. However this only enhances the position of the Man Who Matters, Nigel Farage.

Widely believed to have vanished and to be Yesterday’s Man, when he is not alongside the Brexit supporting Trump he is taking a well earned rest while Cable, May and Corbyn exhaust themselves in the day to day battle at Westminster. The Mail reports he has been botoxed and has a new sun tan and he looks good. Well up to the job of tackling backsliders and challenging the older generation of political leaders who operate at Westminster. As he will do when it suits him to do so, and the media need a new plaything to boost on every channel. The analyses of the election which neglect Brexit and UKIP are off  the scale. To understand how Labour and the Tories both abandoned the Remain positions they went for in 2016, and Labour party policy still supports, the result of the 2016 Europe vote is all that is needed. The Future is Bleak. If the Future continues to be Farage.

Trevor Fisher, July 2017.

Can Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of hope be a path to power?

In an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn, Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, challenges the Labour leader to change to build on his party’s election resurgence.

What can I say? Well done! What a joy it has been to watch all your detractors feasting on Corbyn-flavoured humble pie. In the General Election of June 2017, you gained votes, you gained seats and you gained popularity… the trouble is, you didn’t gain power. You nearly did, and the results of June 8 could fairly be described as a “glorious defeat”.

But without wanting to detract from the party’s overall achievement, it does suggest the need to think about the future of Labour. So, in the spirit of good comradeship and positive planning, let me offer you just a couple of ideas which might help you secure a glorious victory instead. For the simple fact remains that you came quite a long way short of the line in terms of forming a government.

The Tories increased their share of the vote – you squeezed the minor parties rather than the big bad wolf. Killing (political) wolves is a tricky business, but you did reconnect with estranged sections of the public. The question now is how you build upon this achievement to construct a social coalition with the breadth and depth necessary to actually win a majority.

The answer is to seize the initiative, show a little political imagination and put a bit of meat on “that vision thing”. What do I mean? Come on, Jezza, you know what I mean… You campaigned in poetry and managed to build a social movement. You offered a positive vision of hope and social value in an age otherwise defined by fear. You demonstrated emotional intelligence when certain other leaders completely flunked out.

But campaigning in poetry and cultivating folk-hero-like status can only take a political party so far. My concern is what happens when the “Good Ship Jeremy” hits the procrustean rocks of political reality?

But before you set the internet trolls upon me, or accuse me of being just another cynical Daily Mail reader, let me explain. Asking this question is not a slight, it is a positive invitation. A call-to-arms to develop the governing capacity and credibility of Labour. This is where the political imagination matters.

Your detractors have generally painted a picture of you as a campaign politician of a fairly traditional, bumbling, amateurish type (no offence). So now is the time not to come out fighting, but to come out thinking. For it is in the marketplace of ideas that a rejuvenated Labour has the opportunity to control the political agenda.

In the election, you won over younger voters, Remainers and a large chunk of the white working class. But now is the time to drive forwards, head on, with a broader social vision. Whether you like it or not, you need to expand your electoral base and you can only do that by taking control of how we see the challenges facing the United Kingdom.

Take the subject of anti-austerity, for example. This was an issue that you held up like a lightning rod, and through it channelled frustration and anger into the ballot boxes. But how will you redefine anti-austerity into a topic that still has such resonance, such motivating energy, in five years’ time? How will you outsmart a Conservative Party that is already readjusting its position on austerity and is likely to have a different leader quite soon?

You offered a lifeline to large sections of the white working classes that feel unloved and left behind. You promised to keep the wolf from their door but what are your plans in terms of mitigating the consequences of artificial intelligence or digital technology upon their already precarious economic existence? What are your plans to counterbalance global economic and social forces while, at the same time, being honest about your inability to reverse globalisation?

After an election defined by terrorist attacks, how do you intend to offer a credible position on anti-terrorism, security and intelligence?

You promised an end to student debt and tuition fees for the young, and a statutory triple-lock on pensions for the old – lollipops for babies and apple pie all round, not to mention the re-nationalisation of almost everything. But given the Labour Party’s reputation for economic illiteracy – whether deserved or not – why not confound your critics, re-energise your supporters and win new friends by better targeting or phasing your plans in a more detailed and strategic manner?

Above all, the critical insight you really need to harness from the recent election is that the political game has altered. It is now a generation game in which age has overtaken class as the defining element of political behaviour. Think about setting the terms of this new “generation game” – for this is where your natural advantage now lies. In policy terms, do the opposite of what your political opponents expect you to do.

Outmanoeuvre them, outflank them. Trespass across traditional political and professional boundaries. Build a broader parliamentary base, be less populist and slightly more political. But most of all, control the ideas. Set the rules of the new generation game, and seize the political imagination.

All the best,
Matt.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

Election 2017 – The Boy Done Good, The Girl Done Bad.

The 2017 election rewrote the rules, and though the opinion polls did well in tracking the Corbyn rise and the stagnant Tory vote, the experts largely missed the increasing popularity of Corbyn though by the time Paul Mason wrote in the FT on June 3rd that “the UK is not a left wing country, but it is a fair one that has had enough of austerity” – he captured something of the shifts taking place, and the shifts are not all to Labour. We have to understand that despite an appalling Tory campaign the Tories still gained more votes and since the election their council by elections have shown their vote holding though May is a leader in trouble. For Labour, two weeks after the election, two things stand out – the shift away from class politics, and Jezza’s personal popularity especially with the young, underlined by his appearance at Glastonbury on June 24th. The first is likely to be a constant, the second cannot be.

Working class areas were particularly vulnerable and there is a need to analyse almost on a seat by seat basis – especially with small majorities like the Labour gain in Crewe by 48, and holding on to  Newcastle Under  Lyme by 30 and Dudley North by 23. In Stoke Central, where Labour was in a minority, the UKIP vote collapsed but Labour increased, no doubt a result of the by Election where at the peak three months ago 500 Labour canvassers were out. Unlike Stoke South, which the Tories gained. Local campaigns played an important part, especially in Wales. 

Nevertheless though May had achieved her target of hoovering up the UKIP vote most of us – me included – once the campaign started failed to understand  the Corbyn phenomenon. By the last week of the campaign it was clear that a hung parliament was possible and I wrote this on 4th June, though Labour did not achieve largest party status. But it gained votes and support. The question we all have to answer is why. Starting with Corbyn’s remarkable personal success.

The ability of Jeremy Corbyn to appeal to a popular audience was clear from the start of his leadership campaign in 2015 and no one has begun to understand it, though the attraction has more to do with personality than policies, though the manifesto was supremely important. But Corbyn first. Though telephone canvassers reported that voters were turned off by Corbyn, the crowds at his rallies were and are impressive and as Jackie Lukes reported from Hull, this visibly gave Corbyn confidence and improved his credibility.

Not I think in reaction to what he was saying. At Stoke in September I could not hear his speech as the public address was abysmal – and when he spoke at a Libertine’s concert just before the Manchester bombings, reports say the crowd cheered to you could not hear him speak. It was not important – but the lack of impact of the tabloid smear campaign linking him with terrorists had something to do with his personal image, like Mandela after Robbins Island he was simply a grandfather figure.

He also played the immediate issues very well, so an apology is due for thinking he was wrong to accept the Brexit vote and to vote for Article 50. These moves defused Brexit and May should have realised this was not going to be a crucial issue in a General Election, which will  always be about many issues. While I still think Labour was wrong to vote for the election, that is what the Fixed Term Parliament Act forces the opposition parties to do as rejecting the challenge invites the charge of cowardice, but that was not a charge that could be levelled against Labour. The avoidance of Brexit was tactically sound, but strategically stores up a battle yet to be fought.

The manifesto was a model centre ground document, even on Trident, and placed Labour in a very good position to attack the disasterous Tory document. On the day before the election, the local paper had a front page Labour ad attacking police cuts, and inside were ads from Labour highlighting five popular pledges and four devastating attacks on the Tories – axing fuel winter payments, the dementia tax, cutting public services and…. ‘threatening tax rises’. The latter may be a problem in the long term, but the others hit the Tories where it hurt. The paper carried whole page Labour ads attacking the Tories on police cuts and Tory threats to pensioners. There is no doubt that Labour had the Tories on the run, winning over centre support if not eating into the Tory overall vote. Except in Wales, which needs separate analysis. The Tory upsurge in Wales never happened. 

The opposite is the case for the Tories, on nearly every front save Scotland. In Scotland, the local leadership of Ruth Davidson won back support for the Tories just as they were losing it south of the border. The Tory manifesto was a disaster, and May made this clear by not turning up on TV to defend it. I rarely feel sorry for Tories, but Amber Rudd on TV stonewalling for her leader against the other party leaders was a moment to savour.  From the continuance of Austerity with more cuts – in the context of not being able to balance the budget till 2025, for a supporter of the People’s Assembly like myself clear proof the cuts have no economic rationale – to hitting specific groups of people normally wooed by the Tories, notably pensioners, the Tory campaign was almost designed to drive undecided voters into Labour’s arms. The Tories did succeed in capturing many Brexit voters, and many of these are working class voters from Labour via UKIP. Contrarywise, many middle class voters plumped for Labour including students and swing voters in seats like Canterbury and remarkably Kensington and Chelsea, admittedly with the help of the Lib Dems taking votes off the Tories,. Indeed, analysis has everywhere to look at the results in particular seats, and the way local campaigns and factors made a difference. There is no national swingometer anymore. Paul Mason is wrong to argue the UK is “a divided country looking for a story it can unify around”. It is certainly a divided country. The divisions after the election look more than ever like a two party split, with trimmings.

But while the analysis will be complicated two things stand out without question. Corbyn did well and appealed to the centre ground and youth, with the Tory smear campaign failing to dent the man’s image of decency and willingness to help the disadvantaged. And the Tory campaign was stunningly inept once the contrast between the claimed appeal to the centre was matched against right wing policies. Was there ever an election like this? Perhaps 1945, where Churchill thought he would win by 80 seats after winning the war, and the Tory manifesto refused to back social reform, while Labour did. The comparison can be taken too far. Modest and uncharismatic Clem Attlee had been deputy PM during the war, while Corbyn has never occupied a cabinet position. And the opinion polls were consistently pro Labour from 1942 onward.

But if Theresa May is not Churchill, Corbyn has some elements of Attlee in his approach. Above all, Labour won in 1945 with solid working class support and that picture is different today. But Corbyn deserves the comparison, for this was his campaign, he led from the front, and like Attlee the gains were down to his leadership. Whatever happened in the election, this was his triumph and he deserves to be recognised as having come through with honours.

Trevor Fisher