bannerThere have been some very odd reactions to the announcement that the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign has now regenerated itself into a new organisation called Momentum. Some appear to think that because it starts with an M, it must be harking back to Militant while others appear to have decided that it’s clearly a front group for the Trotskyite takeover of the Labour Party. It’s a good example of another political irregular verb: I promote internal debate, you’re a factionalist, they’re creating a party within a party.

Aside from all the arguments about what an organisation that’s existed for about 48 hours will do in the future, I think it shows an interesting development in people’s perceptions of the Labour Party (and perhaps political parties more widely) and how party structures might develop in the future. Until recently, Labour had become what Katz and Mair call a ‘cartel party‘, an essentially technocratic organisation that reinforced the political system. However, the surge in its membership since the general election (especially during and after the leadership election) appears to be turning Labour back into a mass-membership party, though potentially unlike any we’ve seen before. Previous iterations of parties as mass-membership organisations developed over long periods of time with strong community structures that sustained and institutionalised that membership. This current surge is not just rapid, it comes into party structures that have been reduced and hollowed out over the years as the mass membership withered away.

What Labour reminds me of now more than anything is the major parties in American politics. One mistake Europeans often make in looking at US politics is to assume that the Democrats and Republicans are similar to our political parties, when their function is quite different. They work much more as empty shells, waiting to be filled at each election cycle with the candidate and their supporters, with the permanence of any version of the party – nationally and locally – dependent solely on electoral success. The candidate is more important than the party, and networks are just as likely to be built around individuals than they are around the party. The party becomes just a framework for candidate organisations to work in and populate, only giving it permanence after they’re successful and need it to remain in place for re-election.

This, I think, fits more with what people are expecting of political parties today and explains the need for organisations like Momentum. The old mass-membership structures were based around political parties as social organisations as much as they were political ones, but with so many other social opportunities available to fill people’s time, the desire now is much more for the political. Groups that will cut away all the rigmarole and bureaucracy of running a political party are much more likely to arise in order to allow people to engage solely with the politics and the campaigning side.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar organisations emerge around the Tories as well, especially in the wake of the EU referendum. it’s easy to see someone like Boris Johnson trying to draw together assorted Eurosceptics into a movement to support his bid for the leadership, perhaps with the same surprising result as happened with Labour. Conservative Party structures and membership have been hollowed out just as much as Labour’s (perhaps even more so), and those seeking to rely on insider campaigns for the leadership could find themselves in the same position as Burnham, Kendall and Cooper.

, ,

Labour leadership: Closing statements from the candidates

As we finally stagger towards the announcement of the result, the four candidates for Labour leader have been making their final speeches. Here’s what they said:

Liz Kendall: “People have asked me if I’d change anything about my leadership campaign, and I can only think of one thing I’d have done differently. Back in May, I should have decided to spend the next few months catching up on a few box sets and let Tristram Hunt destroy his career instead.”

Andy Burnham: “Throughout this campaign, I have been listening to you, and giving you what you wanted, no matter how many crazed u-turns that required me to pull. As leader, I will continue to give you what you want, and that is why I, Jerendy Corbynham, will be the next Labour leader.”

Yvette Cooper: “Labour needs someone to be a campaigner, and throughout the three long weeks of this election, I have been campaigning as hard as I can. You can be assured that I will campaign just as hard in the 2020 election as I have for the party leadership.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “That was weird. I dreamt I was running for Labour leader, people were publishing books of poems about me and Buzzfeed were running articles illustrating people’s dreams about me. Oh, I see. Right. Shit.”

Every day, we think Labour’s leadership election can’t get sillier, then every day they find some way to prove us wrong. With two weeks still to go, I’m expecting a denouement in which Jeremy Corbyn meets a mad scientist, is blown up to be 100 metres tall and the only way to save the country from Corbynzilla is for Copper, Burnham and Kendall to fight him in a similarly-sized hastily built robotic Clement Attlee.

But for now, we’ll just deal with the decision that the party will be vetting new supporters against canvassing data they have on them in order to discover whether they’re Labour voters or not. (If they’re too young to have canvass data, then their school friends will be asked to assess and inform on their real beliefs

As someone who’s done plenty of canvassing in my time, the idea that canvass data can be used to accurately judge how people have voted seems incredibly optimistic. Canvassing – for those of you not in the know, it’s what politicos call knocking on your door and asking how you’ll vote – and canvassing returns are incredibly subjective experiences, and while the data you get from them as a whole can be useful, it’s essentially unreliable. Consider that the opinion polling industry has spent decades trying to work out ways in which to obtain useful and objective data from subjective interaction between people. There’s a huge amount of literature in psychology, political science and other fields looking at just how subconsciously biased our interactions with other people are, and this has influenced the way poll companies and other research organisations conduct their operations, especially how they ask questions and gather responses.

Political parties don’t do that. Most canvass data comes from a volunteer – who might not have been a party member for long themselves – given a clipboard (or if we’re being really modern, a tablet with relevant data loaded on to it) and rosette, pointed at a street and told to find out how people are voting there. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the results that come back from this exercise are mixed. Send someone in an optimistic mood to do it, and anyone who didn’t threaten them with violence is marked down as being at least probable to vote for us, send someone feeling down and pessimistic and even the people with your posters in the window are marked as unsure. Catch someone at the right time and they’ll tell you how they’ve always voted for you, are happy to put up a poster and yes, now you mention it, they do want to join the party; come five minutes later when they’ve just had a bad phone call, the baby’s crying and EastEnders is about to start, and you’re lucky if they’ll even come to the door to tell you to go away.

Add to all that the fact that canvassing as it’s carried out nowadays is a legacy of a different kind of politics and society. When most people had strong party loyalties – and in most parts of the country there were only two parties effectively competing – it was quite easy to find out who would be supporting you and thus needing to be reminded to vote on polling day, and who you should avoid. Now, when there are multiple parties just about everywhere and people’s allegiances are a lot more fluid, things are very different. What someone told you about their political opinions in April could well be different in June. Canvassing now is about small pieces of reliable data in amongst a sea of false negatives and false positives: averaging it out might give you reliable figures for an area, but not about the opinions of an individual.

Labour’s move to their new system was supposed to be about acknowledging the new realities of politics, that political identities are much more fluid and people would be more willing to be be supporters rather than members or activists. Using canvassing data is an odd way to use the assumptions of old politics to stymie the aspirations of the new.


A bit too busy with the dissertation to blog much right now, but a couple of thoughts I thought I’d put out there to see if they might spark a discussion.

First, returning to a thought I had a few months ago, what if John Smith hadn’t stood for Labour leader in 1992? (Probably for health reasons, but the whys of it aren’t important) Would the line up of candidates look that impressive at the time? Sure, Blair was only two years away from winning the leadership but in 1992 he was relatively obscure and hadn’t come up with ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Would a call to modernise then fall on the same stony ground as Liz Kendall’s have now? Who else would be a credible contender in the climate of 1992?

Second, would a lot of the current trouble have been avoided if Labour’s electoral system was more like the Conservatives? Rather than just increasing the number of MPs needed to get nominated, Miliband’s reforms had followed the Tories in giving MPs an extended primary where they whittled down a large number of candidates to just two to face the membership/supporters/affiliates vote? With a much lower initial bar to being nominated, but a much-higher one to reach the voters, candidates who dropped out because of insufficient support this time like Mary Creagh and Tristram Hunt could have been part of the process, while no one would have needed to lend Corbyn any nominations, but a lack of support from MPs would prevent him making it to the final stage. Would it have ended up as Burnham vs Cooper, or might something different have happened?

(I actually think the Tory leadership election process is a good one, that only has such a bad reputation because the first time it was tried, it was given a selection of poor candidates and a party that didn’t want to be united)

, ,

'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.

, ,

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.

, , ,

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.

, , , ,