A couple of snippets from the Sundays to help you understand how British politics works today:
First, the Telegraph is very eager to tell us that Liz Kendall has suddenly emerged as the favourite for a Labour leadership race that may or may not be taking place at some unspecified point in the future. How has she achieved this impressive, yet somewhat nebulous, feat? Some mass mobilisation of Labour members? A series of impressive performances in the House of Commons? Perhaps she’s set out some important new ideas for the future of the Labour Party? Maybe it’s through a long period of helping and campaigning other MPs?
No, it’s because ‘she gave an interview to House magazine saying that for the NHS “What matters is what works”’. Yes, reusing some old bit of Blairite managerialist pabulum – what matters is ‘what works’, ignoring that ‘what works’ is determined by whoever decides what ‘working’ means – is enough to catapult you into the lead. It’s definitely not that she’s stressed the importance of private healthcare in the NHS while her old boss works for Alliance Boots at the same time its chairman is attacking Ed Miliband. What would the Telegraph have to gain by promoting someone who’d push Labour back towards the managerialist centre?
Meanwhile, over at the Independent, John Rentoul’s remarkable career as a political commentator who doesn’t understand the concept of ideology continues apace. Today, he’s setting out just why the country needs a Labour government, but headed by David Cameron. It’s the sort of centrist managerialist fantasy one would expect from an arch-Blairite, yet again stressing that what is important in a politician isn’t believing in something but being possessed of some nebulous form of ‘competence’. Like ‘what works’, ‘competence’ is purely in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder is normally a well-paid newspaper columnist or editor assessing who they’ve been told good things about.
(Incidentally, although I’ve said I don’t think a grand coalition is likely after the next election, the number of times I’ve seen people in the press suggesting it does make me wonder if the ground is being prepared for one, just in case it turns out to be necessary)
What both these articles represent, though, is the cosy consensuses that dominate British politics. Stick firmly within the lines of what’s acceptable within the elite consensus and you’ll be praised to the skies for your competence and put forward as possible leadership material. Question it, or stray outside the mainstream consensus for just a little bit and you’ll be a maverick on the fringes, and you definitely won’t get the media singing your praises. It’s a lot easier for everyone in the elite consensus if politics is just a matter of deciding between competing managerial visions without letting any of that horrible ideology getting there. It’s why the memory of Blairism lingers so much amongst the commentariat: things were easier then when all you had to worry about was ‘what works’ not what anyone might actually want.
Back in October, I covered some of the madness of one of Labour’s ‘we are the One True Party and none shall stand in our way’ true believers, and as a blog written by someone outside the Labour Party could never change his mind, he’s doubling down on it.
The proposition this time is that the surefire way for Labour to win the election is to proclaim that they will govern as a single party, or they won’t be in government at all. Apparently the political equivalent of a child’s tantrum and declaring you don’t want to play with anyone at all will be the secret weapon that makes everyone vote Labour. Quite why Luke Akehurst thinks that a party getting just over 30% in the polls wouldn’t get laughed out of the room for suggesting that, he doesn’t explain (and if we had an even vaguely sensible electoral system the idea would be so bizarre as to be inconceivable).
Yet again, though, it’s someone imagining that what’s happening in our politics is just a temporary blip and things will get back to normal as soon as those naughty voters stop messing about and give their votes to the two big parties, just like they’re supposed to. In this view, no one is voting SNP, Green, Lib Dem, UKIP or whoever else because they agree with their policies, it’s just because they need to be showing Labour and the Tories that they need to recommit to Full Socialism Now/Blairism/Proper One Nation Toryism/Red Blooded Hyper-Thatcherism (delete as applicable) and then they’ll return to the fold. In this view, Labour is the One True Party for voters who are vaguely on the left (where ‘left’ equals ‘not Tory’) but by occasionally being stupidly pluralist it has let voters forget that. If it now forcefully reminds people that it is the One True Party (accept no imitations), they will all be instantly struck by the truth of this statement and happily vote Labour again.
(The mirror of this argument is also used on the right with the same expected result – everyone who is not Labour seeing the error of their ways and voting Tory again, like they’re supposed to. This shared image of themselves is why many people can look from Tory to Labour and back again without noticing much difference.)
One day soon, it’s going to sink in to some people that the old politics has likely gone forever and won’t be coming back no matter how hard they might wish for it. Until then, there’ll be lots of laughs to be gained from watching them insist that the One True Party is so powerful, even reality must bend to its will.
It seems that the prospect of some kind of grand coalition is the bad idea that will not die of the moment, probably given an extra burst of unlife by the election campaign having started yesterday despite no one wanting it to. There’s more of a link than just that coincidence, too, as both are pretty much just obsessions of the Westminster bubble right now, with no real relevance to anyone outside it.
As I said in my post at the weekend, I don’t think a Tory-Labour government is likely after the next election, or indeed any election unless there’s some crisis driving it. (This, of course, is assuming we have the same electoral and party system as we do now – when that’s changed, as it has in Scotland, it’s much more likely to happen)
The sort of crisis it would take wouldn’t be just a single election that doesn’t deliver a clear majority or an obvious coalition of one big party and one small party. In that circumstance, I believe we would end up with a minority government that would attempt to survive by numerous deals with other parties. It probably wouldn’t last too long (though never underestimate the power of party discipline) but would be much more preferable to Labour or the Tories than a coalition with their ancient enemy.
What there’d also be in the run-up to the following election (be it six months or a year away) would be massive pressure from the media to the public on the lines of ‘you’ve had your fun, now make a proper decision this time’. The hope would be to end any incipient crisis (or at least kick it a few years down the road) by getting a majority government (or at least a workable coalition) from a second election. However, if that didn’t happen, we’d be into a political crisis, and I could imagine that you would then get a grand coalition of some sort. It might not last a full term, but I suspect it would come in to try and deliver some changes to the system to deliver stable government in future. (In other words, electoral reform that benefits large parties, not small ones)
The other option would be if there was some international crisis (economic and/or geopolitical) that prompted the need for some form of national unity government. That’s what prompted national governments in the UK in the past, but there don’t seem to be any of sufficient scale on the horizon to justify a national government. There’s my hostage to fortune, so come May when we’re facing Putin’s invasion or the complete collapse of the European economy triggered by a Syriza-led government in Greece, feel free to mock me for it.
There have been occasions since WW2 when circumstances could have led to Britain having another national government but luck and electoral timing appear to have spared us from it. For instance, if the second election of 1974 hadn’t delivered a majority and certain allegations about Jeremy Thorpe had come out, a national government might have been the only solution. (And there have always been dark rumours about things happening behind the scenes to make this happen)
Another more recent potential might have been if Gordon Brown had gone for an election in late 2007, and then found himself facing the full blast of the global financial crisis with little or no Parliamentary majority. Pressure to at least find some way to bring the Opposition closer to Government could have been immense, and who knows where we might have ended up?
The British system has been very good for years at dodging full-on crises, and it most likely will again, but it takes a major crisis to provoke a response that’s wildly beyond the norm and I don’t think one inconclusive election will be enough to make it happen.
The disciples of Tony Blair exist in a strange situation, uncommon to previous followers of former British Prime Ministers. Unlike his predecessors, Blair left office while he was still relatively young and has hovered around the edges of British politics, with his followers still clearly hoping for his glorious return. For all the fervent belief of the Thatcherites, they never seriously expected her to make a comeback, but Blair’s still younger than several 20th century Prime Ministers were when they began the job. One can envisage him and the remaining true Blairite believers awaiting that time when a nation turns its eyes back to him and begs him to return at our hour of need.
Part of this process is the occasional hagiography of the Blair era from political commentators you’d expect to know better. Andrew Rawnsley’s today’s example, yet somehow managing to omit the word ‘moral’ before ‘vacuum’ in a description of Blair’s legacy to British politics. However, it’s the usual contention that Blair had a unique ability to get people’s support that no one currently has, and was thus solely responsible for Labour’s post-97 successes.
There’s a myth put about by the Blairites that without him, Labour would never have won the 1997 election. While he may have had some influence on the size of the majority they won, to claim Labour couldn’t have won without him is, to use the technical term, utter bollocks. Claims like this forget just how toxic the Tories had become before Blair became leader and the general sense of national mourning that followed the death of John Smith. The Private Eye cover here is just an example of that – a sense that the country had lost the inevitable next Prime Minister. The job of any Labour leader post-92 was to hold their nerve, avoid any big errors and walk into Downing Street at the end of the process. Those that claim Blair delivered this victory need to explain how any other potential Labour leader wouldn’t have managed it, rather than pointing to his good fortune at being in the right place at the right time to benefit from it.
In a historical context, his victories weren’t as impressive as the encomiums like to portray them as either. It’s always worth remembering that the largest number of votes received by a party in a UK general election was by John Major’s Conservatives in 1992 and that Blair’s landslides were symptoms of a flawed electoral system that couldn’t cope with multi-party politics rather than any ringing endorsement of him. (For example, Labour received fewer votes in 2001 than they did in 1992) His supposedly great triumphs were the result of Labour being able to take best advantage of having a plurality of an electorate whose old allegiances were breaking down, not the ringing endorsement of the masses some would have you believe.
At his peak, Blair and New Labour were more popular than any leaders and parties are now, but that’s not exactly a difficult achievement. The trend in British general elections since the 70s has been a slow decline in the vote going to the big two parties, masked by an electoral system that protects them. Tony Blair’s just another point of data on that long downhill trend, where Labour’s decline was hidden by the absolute collapse of the Conservatives. To act as those resurrecting him would bring those times back is to ignore longer-term trends in favour of some Great Man theory of history, ignoring the luck of good timing and claiming it was skill instead.
Having realised that the long weekend after New Year is a very boring time for much of its target audience, the Guardian has decided to liven things up. All news websites now use clickbait headlines and articles to drag in readers looking to be offended by something wilfully controversial, and the Guardian is no different. Sure, it likes to pretend to be above that, and it doesn’t employ any of the Jan Moirs, Richard Littlejohns or Jeremy Clarksons who are masters of the clickbait article, but this piece by Ian Birrell is clearly intended as pure clickbait. (And from the number of people I’ve seen linking to it, very successful clickbait it is too)
Like all clickbait it begins with a catchy headline that will already be getting many of its readers angry at the implications – proposing a Tory-Labour grand coalition is a sure way of angering members of both parties – and then spends a few hundred words trying to justify the headline, hopefully stoking the flames of outrage. People then discuss their outrage on social media – complete with links to the article to help others get outraged – and the website editors sit back and smile as they watch the clicks roll in.
And like so much clickbait, the ideas it’s putting forward don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Unity governments of the sort Birrell proposes aren’t just rare in British politics, they’re rare in almost all countries. Yes, Germany has had two recently, but Germany’s a special case where not only the electoral mathematics and party positions forced it, but there’s also a strong aversion to minority governments (from what I can tell, they’re incredibly uncommon even at the state level) and Angela Merkel remains strikingly popular.
In Britain, by contrast, there isn’t a prescription against minority government – one of the arguments for the coalition within the Liberal Democrats was the alternative was a Conservative minority government – and national governments have only arisen in response to crises, not election results. There’s no Merkel-esque figure in British politics for a national government to form around, and the costs to the parties of agreeing it would be immense.
The mathematics might make a Tory-Labour coalition possible (as they did in 2010) but that’s about the only thing that does. For it to come about, it would have to be the least worst of all the options available to both parties after the election and short of some unforeseen international crisis erupting before then, I don’t see the circumstances in which that could happen. If various combinations of nationalist parties hold enough seats to make a coalition with the Liberal Democrats unworkable for either party, I’m still sure that whichever is the larger would find running a minority government much more appealing than a grand coalition. Why collaborate with the enemy when you have a realistic prospect of working without them?
It also forgets the level of animosity that exists between Labour and the Conservatives. As far as I’m aware, there’s only been one case recently of the two forming a coalition in local government (in Stockton-on-Tees a few years ago) and that was in some rather odd circumstances. Birrell might believe that replacing Miliband with Chuka Umunna would solve all those problems, but I’m not aware that Umunna was educated at Hogwarts to have the magical powers needed to make the majority of the Labour Party think it’s OK. Similarly, the idea that the Tory Party are so desperate to remain in power that this wouldn’t be Nigel Farage’s greatest ever recruitment tool requires forgetting decades of political history.
I’m expecting the next election to create a very interesting result, and for there to be some interesting times after it, but in the absence of a major crisis, a Tory-Labour coalition will not be part of those interesting times.
Can you trust any ‘new leader’ polling?
So, we now have polling that shows that having Johnson, Umunna or Burnham would give Labour a bigger lead in the polls right now. Anthony Wells often counsels against putting too much faith in any ‘how would you vote if..’ polls, and I think that is the case here. Voters may well take a ‘grass is always greener’ approach to any suggestion of change, but no one has any idea just how people will react should the Labour leadership change. When people have no idea how someone will actually perform as leader, it’s not a good idea to rely too much on their judgements of how they will vote in a hypothetical scenario.
That said, I do wonder if changing the party leader could have an interesting effect of poll shares by changing the likelihood of party supporters to vote. That’s a question that I’m not sure is ever asked in the hypotheticals, but for me could be a key factor. I’ve said before that I think a lot of UKIP’s success is down to the fact that they can motivate their base to vote better than the other parties, and I wonder if a new leader would motivate Labour voters more – the lesson of Heywood and Middleton is that Labour do seem to have a motivation problem.
Where can Labour get votes from?
Anthony Wells’ excellent diagrams of vote shifts reveal the problems all the main parties are having in holding on to voters in an extremely volatile political environment. The question they pose, though, is where are Labour going to win the voters they need from? They’ve shed votes to Greens, nationalists and UKIP, and it’s hard to see the strategy that can draw voters back from all three of those. Is drawing a small percentage of voters back from the SNP (with the possible benefit of protecting all those Scottish seats) a viable strategy? Or does the party need to be looking at how they draw more voters back from the non-voters, and hope gains from there can dwarf any losses?
Young cardinals, old popes
Alan Johnson is the perfect king over the water because he hasn’t been assembling a faction around him ready to take the leadership, and so all the Shadow Cabinet members who have can step aside in his favour, ready to go for it the next time. (I suspect their scenario imagines Johnson as a one-term PM, with the real leadership contest in 2019/20) However, is it necessarily in the interest of the more established contenders like Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham to take a pass this time? Putting their ambitions on hold for five years would give the next generation (Umunna, Reeves, Creasy et al) plenty of time to stand out and shine, and give Prime Minister Johnson a real influence through Cabinet appointments and the rest in who gets to follow him.
We’re in a very strange time for British politics, one that’s certainly unlike anything else I’ve seen in my lifetime, where all of the established parties are under threat. In this position, Labour ditching Miliband would have inevitable knock-on effects in the other parties. If he goes, that’s just the beginning of the story: suppose a new leader does open up a poll lead for Labour, while UKIP win the Rochester by-election. That seems likely to trigger more Tory defections and/or more calls for Cameron to quit. Given the volatility of the polls, and the variability in shares across the pollsters, it’s entirely possible in that scenario for us to see a poll (however rogue) that puts UKIP in second place and the Tories in third. Could Cameron survive then, and what would be the effect of the Tories trying to replace a sitting Prime Minister a few months before an election when one of the leading candidates to replace him doesn’t have a seat in Parliament.
We live in interesting political times. I look forward to when the historians of the 2030s get to tell us just what was going on, because I’m not sure we’ve got much of an idea right now.