'Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.'

‘Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.’

Certain over-excited speculation (totally unlike the reasoned deliberation you find on this blog) about the possible fallout of a Corbyn win in the Labour leadership election has suggested some MPs might leave Labour for pastures new. As ever, with rumours of MPs defecting, it’s worth taking them with a bucketful of salt as while speculation of possible defections is often rife, actual defections are usually very thin on the ground.

However, Labour swinging to the left after a leadership election has been a trigger for a major wave of defections before, so perhaps we shouldn’t rule it out straight away. However, as I see it, there are two main problems any would-be defectors would face.

First up is the simple question of where would they go? Jumping straight across to the Conservatives seems unlikely, and there have been very few examples of MPs making that switch (the last was Reg Prentice in 1977), especially compared to the number who’ve gone the other way. However, switching to the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t be as easy as some may think. While the right of the Labour Party might be close to the Lib Dem economic position, it’s also the part of Labour that’s most likely to differ with them over security and civil liberties issues. Effectively, you’d be asking the wing of the Labour party that were among the biggest cheerleaders for invading Iraq and ‘anti-terror crackdowns’ to make common cause with a party that was amongst the fiercest opposition to those.

The only other option open to any potential defectors is to set up a new party, at which point the image of the SDP becomes the ghost at the feast (and David Owen is awakened from his slumbers to stalk news studios). It’s not an entirely impossible proposition (and Progress has always looked to me like something that could be turned into the nucleus of a new party if required) but it’s still a major step, coupled with a very high level of risk. Sure, you might form the party that can claim the whole of the centre ground and dominate British politics for a generation, but history suggests a gradual fade into oblivion is more likely.

Even after those structural issues are set aside, the second – and much more important in the short term – issue how any potential defector answers the Carswell Question: ‘will you be re-standing in a by-election?’ Carswell’s defection last year wasn’t just interesting because it came with little speculation beforehand, but because of the example he set (and Mark Reckless then followed) in calling a by-election to validate his defection. Now, you could argue that those were exceptions to the rule (no other defector since Bruce Douglas-Mann in 1982 had done the same) but you can sure that the media will ask the question incessantly. Any defector has to be prepared to face a by-election, or have a good answer to that question that they’re prepared to stick to – saying you wouldn’t call a by-election, then doing so, would likely be a good way to lose it.

That doesn’t mean we won’t see any defections if Corbyn wins, but as the cost and risk of doing it has been raised, expect any potential defectors to try and resolve their issues with the party first instead of jumping ship immediately. Indeed, the perfect scenario for any defector would be to get themselves pushed out before they get the chance to jump.

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chapmansillySomewhere in Labour HQ this morning, a junior apparatchik is frantically scouring the party constitution and rulebook, attempting to find a Graham Chapman Rule that allows the party’s NEC to step in and declare that the leadership election is over because it’s all getting too silly. I’ll admit that my own party’s leadership election has been occupying my attention for the last couple of months, so I may have missed some developments in Labour’s but it does appear to have gone particularly silly over the last few days, culminating in a poll that shows Jeremy Corbyn could actually win. The summer is traditionally the ‘silly season’ of British politics, and Labour are putting on a fantastic end of the party pier show for us all to enjoy. Anyway, some thoughts:

Leadership elections are hard to poll. First, you have to find a sample of party members, affiliated members and newly registered supporters. Then you need to make that sample representative of the party membership as a whole, which is difficult because you don’t have the benchmarks to judge your sample against. I don’t doubt that YouGov have tried their best to ensure this poll is representative – and given the size of their panel and the information they have on them, they’re possibly the only pollster who do stand a chance of doing it right – but there are lots of variables in play here. The broad picture – Corbyn ahead, Burnham and Cooper fighting for second, Kendall slipping back in fourth – is probably right, but the figures attached to them may not be.

But, this poll will help Corbyn the most. One of the interesting factors in the breakdown of the results is that while Corbyn leads in both groups of voters, he’s got an overwhelming lead amongst affiliates and supporters. One of the key drivers of his campaign has been to appeal to the wider left outside the Labour Party to encourage them to sign up to vote for him, and this seems to be working. A poll that puts him in the lead is a great recruiting tool because now they can persuade people that they’re not wasting their £3 in signing up to support him, because he has a genuine chance of winning.

For the others, while it does show that they might need to rally around an ‘anyone but Corbyn’ candidate, it’s hard to see them getting people to sign up as supporters of the Labour Party in order to stop Corbyn winning. Corbyn has a ready pool of people to go and target to grow his electorate, but it’s hard to think of a large group of people who’d do the same for one of the other three. Surely almost anyone with a pressing desire to keep the Labour Party moderate is already a member?

The curse of the Serious People and their Serious Politics. Part of the movement into the Silly Phase of the leadership contest has been the inevitable arrival of various newspaper comment pieces and TV appearances by Labour’s Very Serious People to wearily scold the party membership for not being Serious People who want to vote for Serious Politicians. This has culminated in the reappearance of the Most Serious Politician himself, Tony Blair, to explain to the Labour membership that they should be forming a movement that calls for him to be restored as leader immediately doing absolutely nothing that disturbs the consensus.

As Jennie pointed out the other day, the exasperated sigh of benevolent paternalism that accompanies most of these interventions is apt to backfire as much as it is to succeed. For all his faults, Corbyn offers a vision of hope to the Labour membership and the wider left, not capitulation to the ruling narrative and the continuation of austerity seemingly for ever. I’ve said before that this Daily Mash piece proves that the best truth is often in satire and a message of hope, even if it’s nothing more detailed than Maybe Not That in response to Endless Austerity For Everyone, is always going to play better with this electorate. The world looks quite differently to most Labour voters who aren’t Very Serious People in the Westminster bubble.

Even if Corbyn doesn’t win, Labour’s internal dynamics are changed. Maybe the poll is wrong, and Burnham or Cooper will win by a comfortable margin (I’m hoping for Cooper, so I can still hope to point smugly to this post in the future) but unless it’s wildly and badly wrong, Corbyn will gather an impressive share of the vote and will have signed up lots of new people as Labour members and supporters. It’d be a huge show of strength by the Left within Labour and whoever the new leader is, they couldn’t ignore it. As Corbyn’s vote looks likely to substantially eclipse Kendall’s, the left of the party will have a much stronger case to be involved and included compared to the party’s right. Will the new leader seek to accommodate them, or keep freezing them out in the hope they’ll drift away? Do they decide to hang around and hope for better luck next time, or set off on their own?

Are Labour mirroring the Tories in opposition? Ed Miliband was Labour’s William Hague: promoted to the leadership after a short Parliamentary career beating more favoured candidates because the party thought he was a new and fresh choice. Despite occasional chinks of light and numerous shifts in policy and direction, his party remained mired in roughly the same position for most of his tenure though was convinced that the new Government was an aberration and they’d just sleepwalk into power. At the election, his campaign featured a campaign to save a national institution (for him it was the NHS, for Hague the pound) that the electorate outside of his own party weren’t convinced was under threat and he went down to defeat.

Having done that, Labour are now echoing the Tories of 2001 by having a chaotic leadership election in place of a debate about the party’s future that could well elect a figure from the party’s fringe who’s benefited from MPs voting against their preferred candidate (IDS’s supporters voted tactically to keep Portillo from the member ballot, Corbyn’s been nominated by MPs who don’t support him). So, which veteran MP gets to play Michael Howard and remove him in 2017?

What happens if Corbyn actually does win? Nothing dull, I think we can be sure of that. While some in the Corbyn camp are already plotting the first purge, no one actually knows what sort of leader he would be. He’d likely be the least-experienced leader of a major party since the war having never held a frontbench position. Some compare him to Michael Foot, but Foot had been a Cabinet minister under Wilson and Callaghan, and had decades of experience as a senior Labour figure, while Corbyn has been a backbencher for 32 years. He wants to bring back Labour’s Shadow Cabinet elections, but who would actually stand for them given how few MPs there are from the left in the Labour Party?

What would the reaction of the Labour right be? Should they hang on in there and hope he is the new IDS so he can be dumped, hopefully contaminating the whole idea of a leader from the left on the way? Or do they decide that the SDP had the right idea, they were just a few decades too early? Lots of Very Serious People would welcome a Party of Sensible Non Boat Rocking Centrists, but could they get the critical mass to make it work? Electing Corbyn throws everything into flux, and it’d be foolish to make predictions at this point. That won’t stop many people doing so – I look forward to the Sun or the Mail showing us the nightmare of life in Britain under the communist jackboot of Comrade Corbyn – but for now all that speculation just threatens to be silly enough to summon the spirit of Graham Chapman, telling us to stop.

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So, Phil left a comment here which he’s since expanded into a full post. I suppose I should respond before the expansion rate of his responses really picks up and it turns into a book, but be warned that this may ramble.

Phil is quite scathing of my suggestion that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could work together in the future, saying it “would evince heroic levels of chutzpah (and not in a good way)” on the part of the Lib Dems. In that, he’s probably right, but I’m an optimist about this sort of thing right now, and to join a party that’s not one of the big two in a FPTP system is taking a position where you know you’re going to need huge reserves of chutzpah if you’re going to accomplish anything. However, I’m not suggesting that the two new leaders should be getting together this year and agreeing a joint strategy for the next few years, just that given the situation both parties find themselves in, working alone isn’t going to help anyone.

And yes, for every “making five years of Tory government possible and laying the groundwork for another five” we could respond with questions about just how much responsibility Labour has for the ongoing chaos in the Middle East and enabling the re-election of George Bush in 2004. We all know the past is an important part of politics – one force that keeps political parties together is a shared understanding of their past, I’d argue – but I think there comes a point where you have to put that behind you. It may be that mutual distrust means nothing can be agreed, even informally, before 2020 – one of the things that made 90s co-operation easier was David Owen finally disappearing from the stage – but it feels to me that the actual facts of voter behaviour make it the best opportunity for both parties.

One thing I’ve been looking at in my dissertation research is the question of equidistance and the idea of a centre party in a two-and-a-half party system being able to switch between supporting either of the other two parties. The example normally given is Germany’s FDP, and that’s because it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t occur much in party systems, with the only other example I’ve found at the moment being Belgium from the end of WW2 to the break up of the parties along language lines. However, while in both of those the liberal party was a part of governments of both left and right, there was an additional factor present there – grand coalition governments where left and right worked together and excluded the liberals were possible. The political system of both countries in that period wasn’t a straight line of left-centre-right but a triangle with socialism, Christian democracy and liberalism at the three points and links between all three being possible.

Even for all the talk of Labservatives, that’s not the system we have here – and it’s not the situation they have in those two countries either. Belgium’s party system is now quite chaotic with multiple new types of parties split across linguistic divides, and Germany’s become much more multi-party with more distinct left and right blocs. Given the electoral kicking the Liberal Democrats have just received while running on an almost explicitly equidistance campaign, it might be safe to say that it’s not a workable strategy anywhere any more, if it ever was.

The point here is that if the Liberal Democrats have a future (and Dan Falchikov makes some good points on that) within the current electoral system, we have to pick a side. We may have to wear hairshirts for a few years to show our atonement for previous errors, but what’s more important is having an actual message and identity of our own, not a split-the-difference middle of the road one.

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liblablieIt will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been at a Liberal Democrat Glee Club or said the words ‘Liberal Democrats’ to anyone in the Labour Party over the past few years that the general reaction to Jamie Reed’s proposal that Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge has been a resounding ‘no’ from both sides. It’s the sort of idea that people should dismiss as a non-starter, but because it was apparently seriously considered by both Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in the 90s, it’s acquired a veneer of respectability and possibility that it doesn’t really deserve. It’s a bad idea that only looks vaguely plausible because of the distorting lens of the British electoral system – because two parties separately don’t get the representation in Parliament that’s commensurate with their separate shares of the vote, the assumption becomes that they must become one, and somehow combine their vote shares into something greater. That people vote for those parties based on their separate identities, and would not necessarily vote for a combined mush of the two, is assumed away.

There’s a reason that splits of political parties are much, much more common than mergers of them: it’s a lot more common and easier for people – especially politicians – to believe that they’re right and need their own organisation to prove it than it is for people from different groups to decide that they’d both be better off if they come together permanently. The merger that created the Liberal Democrats was the last major one in British politics, and that not only nearly killed the new party but also created two disgruntled splinter parties. That was with the benefit of two parties that had worked under an electoral part for two elections and where Roy Jenkins had initially considered joining the Liberal Party rather than establishing the SDP. Other mergers involving major parties (the Tories swallowing the Liberal Unionists and then the National Liberals) only happened after many years of the two parties involved having worked closely together.

However, it’s perfectly possible for parties to work together and co-ordinate electorally without merging. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that happens regularly in other countries. It’s a lot easier to do that in a proportional voting system, of course, where parties within a grouping are free to compete with each other, knowing that moving votes from one party to another within that bloc won’t affect the overall electoral prospects of that bloc. For instance, assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. In the same way, C and D’s prime focus would be on trying to shift voters from the AB bloc to theirs. In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

In the latter situation, it might seem that the logical solution is to get A and B to merge, as they’ll get 55% of the vote – but only if all their existing voters will back the newly merged party. However, unless the two parties wer already nearly identical in their policy positions, that’s very unlikely to happen, as the newly merged party will have to try and find common ground between the two parties’ positions that will likely alienate former voters.

Before I detour completely into dissertation-land and regale you with more Downs and Mair theory on party positioning, I’ll try and get to a point – and for once on this issue, I find myself in general agreement with Paddy Ashdown.From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, there was electoral co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and it proved to be one of the most electorally successful periods ever for both parties. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the majority of Liberal Democrat seats have been won from the Tories, or had the Tories in second place, and a lot of those were won thanks to co-operation with Labour – sure, it wasn’t official co-operation but there’s no doubt that there were plenty of seats in 1997 where one of the two parties put in very little effort which made it easier for the other to persuade voters to switch and back them as the best anti-Tory choice. (Incidentally, the bulk of the seats with Lib Dems in second place are now Tory-held)

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories hands – the evidence suggests that they’re the ones who benefit the most when Labour and Liberals are too busy turning their noses up at each other to understand we share a common enemy. Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

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Is choosing a Prime Ministerial candidate five years before an election a good idea?

British politics has a lot of odd traditions and one of the more recent of them was begun by Michael Foot. He was the first major party leader to resign immediately after an election defeat, something that hadn’t happened before but is now de rigeur for defeated party leaders.

However, while there are some good reasons for a defeated leader to move on to other things ASAP, this creates a whole new set of problems for the party, especially given how our political system is now. This is shown most clearly by what’s happening with Labour right now where the party is attempting to find a new leader while also trying to work out what went wrong in 2015. The problem this brings is that the candidate who might have the best assessment of the situation now is by no means guaranteed to be the best choice to be leading the party into the next election but the way things are set up, that’s what they’ll get. (Ian Dunt makes a similar argument today)

The problem with the British system is that party leaders – particularly in opposition – are expected to combine multiple roles. On one hand, they’re the person responsible for directing and co-ordinating the work of the party in between elections, while on the other (particularly as a general election draws near) they’re the party’s lead candidate and potential Prime Minister. The assumption we make is that somehow, one person will be the best fit for both of those roles, despite the evidence showing that it’s much more likely to find someone who’d excel in one position and not the other. For instance, William Hague did some very important work in sorting out the organisation of the Conservative Party while he was leader but was absolutely terrible as a lead campaigner, while Charles Kennedy was a brilliant campaigner for the Liberal Democrats but none of the tributes to him from the last week have been about his organisational abilities.

The conflation of the two roles is a problem for all parties, but particularly pronounced for major parties whose leaders are expected to be Prime Ministerial candidates. This is a situation that doesn’t happen in other countries: German parties choose their ‘Chancellor candidate’ a few months before the election is scheduled and even in the ridiculously lengthy US election process, there’s a two-year gap before candidates for the next Presidential election declare themselves. Labour, by contrast, are hoping that the questions ‘who can best rebuild the party?’ and ‘who’ll be the best Labour candidate for Prime Minister in 2020?’ have the same answer, even though we have very little idea of what the political situation will be like in 2020. We don’t even know who’ll be leading the Tories then, and Labour will be handing them the advantage of being able to choose the best leader to combat their choice, rather than the other way round.

I’ve written before about interim leaders and how Labour need a John Smith right now rather than thinking they can magically summon a new Blair, but I think there’s a more fundamental question of ‘what is a party leader for?’ that’s not being addressed in the Labour contest. Liz Kendall’s suggestion of a 2018 ‘break clause’ for a new leader is perhaps the most sensible idea put forward in a contest that’s been particularly short of them and would give Labour the chance to properly divide up the roles of leader: choose someone now to get things on track, then decide in 2018 if they or someone else are the best person to put forward as Prime Minister.

Officials count ballot papers in WitneyHaving a small masochistic streak in me, I watched some of Andrew Marr’s show this morning, so got to see Yvette Cooper saying that maybe adopting the Tory manifesto for their next set of policies wasn’t the best approach for the Labour Party. It’s the sort of thing that should be obvious, but in the rather bizarre world of the mainstream political commentariat it’s almost heresy. After all, Labour was comprehensively defeated in the election while the Tories stormed to a resounding victory, which proves that the country has swung decisively to the right in its attitudes and everyone should just agree with them.

It’s an interesting argument, except for the fact that it rests on a foundation of utter bollocks. Labour’s share of the vote went up by more than the Tories did, David Cameron got fewer votes than Neil Kinnock did in 1992 and all the evidence suggests that the public mood is actually moving leftwards and will continue to do so during the Parliament. Five years ago, Labour let the consensus mediamacro opinion that they were somehow solely responsible for the global financial crisis form while they were busy with their leadership contest, but this time they actually appear to be using their contest to support the formation of a new consensus that the 2015 election was some epochal rejection of the Labour Party, not just a defeat.

As Andrew Rawnsley points out in the Observer today, the only reason we have this narrative is because of our thoroughly broken electoral system that allows a party with 37% of the vote to pretend it has a huge mandate, while one with 31% has been thumpingly rejected. Instead of talking about how one party is mildly more popular than the other, we instead have to act out a bizarre farce where the ‘winners’ of the election are treated as though they have the majority of the population enthusiastically backing them, not just the largest plurality.

The problem for Labour is that their commitment to the current electoral system – in the hope that it will deliver them a similar majority from a plurality if the pendulum swings back to them – means they have to act like the Tories are an actual majority, not just the representatives of 37% of the voters. That’s why they end up pushed into a narrative of having to show their agreement with the Tory manifesto because it’s assumed that they have to take votes from them to win next time, ignoring the large chunk of voters that didn’t vote for either of them, and the even larger chunk of the electorate that didn’t vote at all. Cooper’s right to point out that the way forward for Labour isn’t swallowing the Tory manifesto, but to make that argument stick she’ll have to point out that one big reason the Tories are in a majority is because of the effect of the electoral system. While she’s stuck in pretending that a Parliamentary majority means something more than just a quirk of electoral mathematics, she can’t respond by pointing out that there are other paths Labour can take.

(Incidentally, it’s why I think Mark Thompson’s belief that Liz Kendall could call for electoral reform is wrong. Her pitch for the leadership is bound up tightly in pretending that the Tories are a real majority, so Labour must be more like them, and the arguments she’d need to make for electoral reform would severely weaken her pitch.)

Labour has been in this position before, and there were tentative moves towards adopting electoral reform before 1997, that ended up being quietly shelved once they realised that they could get the electoral system to make them look absurdly dominant. However, now they face a situation where the electoral system is looking very skewed against them, and they’ve got an uphill battle to get a plurality of Commons seats, let alone a majority. By admitting the reality of the electoral situation, Labour can give themselves a strong argument to both challenge the Tories and build co-operation between the opposition parties, all of whom except Labour are committed to some version of electoral reform. Sure, it won’t be popular with every part of the Labour Party, but I’m not detecting a huge wave of enthusiasm within the party for becoming the Tory Reserves either. If any of the leadership candidates want to push Labour away from capitulation to the Tory agenda, they have to challenge the narrative that’s presenting them as hegemonic, and challenging the electoral system is an important part of that. Do any of their candidates have the desire to make that challenge, or will they just be crossing their fingers and hoping for the best in 2020?

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I’m not going to make predictions about my own party’s leadership election, but I’m happy to guess the result of another’s four month before the result: Labour’s new team announced in September will be Liz Kendall as leader with Tom Watson as her deputy. I don’t have any solid psephological or political scientific grounds on which to make this call, but it’s a hunch that seems to fit with the facts at hand. Burnham and Cooper are increasingly portrayed as being part of the Miliband era which is now being routinely denounced as an aberration against the Party with all the fervour of a show trial, Mary Creagh likely won’t get the nominations to stand, and Kendall is being pushed as fresh, new, different and various other words used to avoid discussing any actual politics. (The Watson prediction is easier – Labour voters tend to balance across leader and deputy, and he’s the most obvious contrast to her. If I’m wrong and Andy Burnham wins, then Caroline Flint or Stella Creasy would likely be his deputy.)

The question this bring up for me is a simple one: where has she come from? The first time I can recall hearing her mentioned was back in February when one comment about private health care apparently made her a leading contender for the party leadership but I honestly can’t say I’d heard her name before then, and I’m someone who pays attention to politics. It feels as though she’s a Michael Rimmer or Harold Saxon-type character, where her leadership credentials appear to consist mostly of the media telling us about her leadership credentials which are that other people in the media think she’s a credible candidate for leader.

It’s not even as if she’s offering anything that seems strikingly new to me, with her pitch being that the electorate is supposedly moving to the right (a claim at odds with the actual evidence) so Labour must apparently pursue the Tories out to the fringes because “winning is too important and we will do whatever it takes”. I don’t see anything in her vision for the Labour Party beyond it being merely about winning for the sake of winning, not because you might want to win power to do something with it.

So, I put this out as a question to any Labour members or supporters reading this: Is there something there that I’m missing? Has she been assiduously working behind the scenes to raise her profile amongst the party members and offering them a vision of the future? For those of you supporting her, why have you chosen her as your candidate and what do you think she gives that others don’t?

These are genuine questions – I’m genuinely trying to understand just why a candidate who seems to have been come from out of nowhere, prepared and presented entirely by the current political consensus is so appealing to Labour members, because it’s baffling me.

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