Worth Reading 180: Turn around, treble treble

When Labour lost its soul, and the next election – Simon Wren-Lewis on Labour’s mistakes in abstaining on the welfare reform bill.
I gave up Ayn Rand for Bernie Sanders – An interesting perspective from the US on how the concerns that drive some towards the libertarianism of the right can be redirected towards the left.
10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Gaslighting – “Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality. There’s a good chance that you now know more about gaslighting than most therapists.”
How Democracy Works – Andrew Rilstone examines how his conception of it diverges from Harriet Harman’s.
A Terrorism Case In Britain Ends In Acquittal, But No One Can Say Why – Lots of questions arising from this, including ‘really?’, ‘am I breaking the law by posting this link?’ and ‘is this linked to the secret courts legislation, or some other bit of state security restrictions?’

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'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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He looked totally in control once.

He looked totally in control once.

One defining feature of Parliament for the last eighteen years has been the size of the Government’s majority: the massive majorities of Tony Blair’s first two terms followed by the smaller, but still easily workable, majorities of Labour’s third term and the coalition.

This Government, by contrast, has a majority of just 12. In theory, that should make everything much more difficult for it. As Alex Harrowell has pointed out, getting anything through in that situation requires a much more different style of whipping than anything we’ve seen since 1997. When your majority is decently sized, you don’t have to worry too much about little groups of rebels or more mundanely if one of your MPs spends too long at a reception and doesn’t make a vote. Your majority can soak up hundreds of little blows like that, and it can even be good party management to allow people to blow off steam by rebelling.

With a majority that’s only just above single figures, you’re in a different game altogether. Half a dozen organised rebels can sink an entire bill and suddenly the whips’ office finds itself having to keep track of three hundred MPs, making sure that ministers don’t get sent too far from Parliament when a big vote is looming, while making sure that backbenchers are staying in the precincts of Westminster instead of getting home for an early night. One of the most important parts of the Major Government was the work his Chief Whips (Richard Ryder and Alastair Goodlad) and their teams had to do to keep everything going.

Even with a strong whipping operation that does get things through in close votes, the narrative changes. At the moment, the Tories are trying to present themselves as a hegemonic force in British politics, pushing through a series of controversial changes to not just change the law but to frame the discussion around them in their terms. They’re not acting like a party with just 37% of the vote and a slender majority in Parliament, and when Labour sit on their hands (like they did on last night’s welfare reform vote) that framing is allowed to go unchallenged. What should be a story of how the Government could only just get its proposals passed instead becomes one of Opposition disarray.

Given the general willingness of Tory MPs to be lobby fodder, the Government isn’t going to be damaged by a single close vote or even a defeat, but its ability to define the terms of political conversation can be progressively undermined by consistent Parliamentary opposition. John Major – who started with a larger majority than this – was made to look weak not by a single vote, but by a long series of narrow victories and constant stories of emboldened Tory rebels having to be bought off with concessions to get anything through Parliament. The story stopped being about ‘the Government is going to do X’ but instead became ‘what concessions will the Government have to give to get something vaguely resembling X through Parliament?’

In a situation like this, the prime task of the Opposition – and this applies to all the parties within it, not just Labour – is to create that pressure on the Government so it has to fight to get every vote through. (And even if it does get through the Commons, the Lords offers another tough challenge given its current makeup) There are faultlines in the Tories on just about every issue they want to push through Parliament, and if their whips have to start looking at every bill knowing there are 300 votes against them on it, things start getting tough both for the whips and for the backbench MPs who find themselves continually listening out for the division bell knowing that missing just one vote will give them a big black mark on their record.

The Tories are nowhere near as dominant as they’re pretending to be. Concerted pressure from the Opposition parties working together can both show that and thwart Tory attempts to define the political narrative.

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farronforleaderYesterday was an odd day. I’d met up with some of the other people from the Tim Farron campaign at the Taproom in Islington, just over the road from the Assembly Hall where the new leader would make his first speech. We’d been told to expect the result to be announced online at some time after 4pm, but that came with just an announcement that the result would be arriving at 5pm.

So, we sat around outside the bar having a pint or two (and I definitely recommend the Taproom as a place for a drink) waiting for 5pm. I was idly checking Twitter on my phone when I noticed a Tweet saying ‘Tim Farron elected as new leader of the Liberal Democrats’. Unsure if it was a hoax or not, I clicked on the link, which took me to the party’s website (I know because I checked the address a few times to be sure) which had the news. Tim had won, and I got to be the one that told everyone around that table (including at least one senior party figure) that he had won. So that’s my tiny little footnote in the annals of important moments in Lib Dem history.

For me, and others, it was the first time I’d been on the winning side in a leadership election, so we weren’t quite sure how to react in this strange new land. To be honest, it didn’t feel entirely real until we went over the road, wound our way through the long queue to get in and finally got to hear Sal Brinton say ‘the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron.’

It’s a great speech and a great way to launch his leadership, but also makes the point that this isn’t the end, just one early punctuation point on a longer journey. As a party we only narrowly missed a full extinction level event in May, and we still can’t assume that survival – let alone recovery – is guaranteed. There’s a lot of work to be done to make that happen, and lots of internal debate that still needs to be had about the party’s direction.

However, Tim has had one stroke of luck in the timing of his election. The Tories are showing their true colours now they’re in power on their own, and Labour have completely dropped the ball on opposing them and look likely to be indulging in increasingly bitter feuding as their leadership election stretches on until September. I’ve seen several jealous comments from Labour activists about both the pace of our leadership election, the quality of the candidates and the quality of the debate within it.

farronjoinusThere’s a window of opportunity from now until early September for the party to get out there and grab space in the national consciousness. Tim needs to be at the forefront of that, but the other MPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors and others all have a role to play. There’s an opportunity to set out a liberal vision and make clear that the Liberal Democrats still have an important role to play in British politics. It’s not just about building support for next year’s elections, but building a wider liberal movement across the country and letting people know what we stand for.

I’m reminded of the message Kurt Vonnegut said many people need to hear:

I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

We’re in a time when politics has become a field of despair, a battle to see who can demonise and belittle the most people while promoting visions of the future that seem only a few steps away from dystopia. Even amongst this, there are people out there who want better, who want to see some hope, to feel that the future is going to be better than the past and that we can make it that way. We need to reach out to those people and let them know that they’re not alone, and we’ve now got the perfect opportunity to do that. Let’s take it.

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We did it!

I’m standing in a very hot Islington Assembly Hall right now, awaiting the arrival of our new leader on stage. There’ll be a proper blog post on this tomorrow but I just wanted to say that I’m very happy right now and very proud of everyone I’ve worked with in Team Tim over the past couple of months.

It’s the first time I’ve been involved in a successful party leadership campaign, and I’m still processing the fact that we got Tim elected and that I got to break the news to a lot of the team as I was the one who refreshed Twitter at the right time.

It’s been a great campaign, and it’s  been interesting to see the way Labour people have been jealous of both the manner and speed of it. For now though, it’s time to listen to Tim’s first speech as leader, then celebrate the victory.

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Worth Reading 179: Abgar the Great

Why I support pretty much any strike by pretty much anyone, anywhere, about anything – “If the real world sucks, we shouldn’t get over it. We should fight it. That’s what you do when something sucks. That’s what you’re meant to do.”
Osborne’s living wage won’t spare low-income families from cuts – I’m shocked – shocked, I tell you! – to discover that the Tories’ new ‘living wage’ is anything but.
Post-Youth – Tom Ewing wonders if the Budget signals the beginning of the end for the concept of ‘youth’ as we know it.
Labour’s failure – The difference between being a party for workers and a party of workers may seem small, but it has big consequences.
City cycling in London is a joke – A Dutch cyclist visited London and was pretty unimpressed with our haphazard cycling infrastructure.

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