Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Ukrainian Gambit

In the phase 1 Brexit agreement, the UK has made a commitment to keep the Irish border open in all circumstances:

The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom's intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

Many commentators have interpreted this to mean that the only destination now possible in phase 2 is a so-called soft Brexit, where to all intents and purposes the UK stays in both the single market and customs union. But the text above is clear that this "full alignment" will only happen "in the absence of agreed solutions". So soft Brexit is the backstop solution to the Irish border, which is bad news for the most kamikaze Brexiters, but doesn't say much about what an "agreed solution" might look like.

You could argue that actually a soft Brexit is the only feasible solution which could keep all of the UK's commitments from phase 1, but even if this is true it's impossible to believe that this is the UK government's view given the fulsome support that hard Brexiters like Michael Gove were giving to the prime minister on the morning the agreement was reached (see here from 2:13). Gove gave a hint of the government's vision when he used the phrase "deep and comprehensive free trade agreement" as the hoped-for endstate of negotiations with the EU. This, as he made clear, is not a soft Brexit. But what does it actually mean?

In fact the EU already has several "deep and comprehensive" free trade agreements in place with countries on its eastern border, notably Ukraine. This association agreement gives Ukraine access to the EU single market in certain sectors, without extending freedom of movement to Ukraine (which the EU wouldn't want to do anyway). Which sounds very much like something Gove would want, and has already been cited as a possible model for the UK's future relationship.

(This raises the question of why Ukraine is never brought up as a potential model for future relations, while Canada and Switzerland are endlessly discussed. It doesn't take much marketing nous to answer that question, but I do hope Gove ends up having to sell it in the end. "Like Shakhtar Donetsk, we can participate in Europe without participating in the EU...")

Of course, even a free trade agreement this "deep and comprehensive" doesn't mean the border between the EU and Ukraine is an open one, so any agreement with the UK would have to be deeper still, including some kind of deal on customs, to solve the Irish border problem. And here is where the government's insistence that the UK is a unique situation comes into play. By taking the Ukrainian precedent but from the opposite direction, the UK could try to negotiate a soft Brexit for some sectors of the economy (including those that are needed to keep the Irish border open, but maybe also any that depend critically on single market membership such as financial services and science), while preferring a looser arrangement for others. For those sectors that will continue to be fully aligned, some form of qualified freedom of movement would apply in order for the UK to be granted participation.

The argument would then be over how many sectors the single market and customs union should still apply to. The UK will no doubt argue only a handful, and the EU will insist on everything or nothing. Eventually a compromise will be reached, no doubt much closer to the EU's position than the UK's. But will such an outcome be a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit? Perhaps it's now time to retire those labels.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

There are no good arguments against votes at 16

As someone who was denied the chance to vote in a parliamentary election until I was 21, it might not surprise you that I have every sympathy with 16 and 17 year olds who were similarly denied a chance to vote this year. It was a shame, then, that Jim McMahon's bill to reduce the voting age was not brought to a vote on Friday, and dismaying to discover that there are still plenty of opponents of votes at 16 out there, throwing out the usual tired arguments against change.

Most of these arguments tend towards abstract musings on the nature of adulthood, aka "why should we trust 16 year olds with a vote if we don't trust them with a pint?". Which itself raises the question of exactly what kind of damage they are expecting 16 year olds to do with their ballot paper. Give themselves a papercut? The intention of restricting things like alcohol, gambling, smoking, tanning salons, etc. to 18 is clearly to protect children from potentially harming themselves or others. No such harm can come from marking an X with a blunt pencil.

Next comes the reductio ad absurdum argument, namely "why draw the line at 16 and not 15, 14, 13 ....?". This contrives to ignore the fact that the UK has settled over time on a pretty clear two-tier transition to adulthood, with some rights granted at 16 and almost all the rest at 18. The only sensible options for granting voting rights are therefore 16 and 18, and then we're back to what exactly the harm is supposed to be in making it the former.

What is more telling is that opponents of votes at 16 never seem to want to discuss any real world experience. If they ever do it's usually anecdotes of the "I was enlightened enough to vote at 16 but none of my thicko mates were" variety or the marginally more subtle "I thought I knew everything at 16 but now I realise I too was actually a thicko back then". (Common to both is the absence of any shred of doubt about the infallibility of their present-day reasoning).

Luckily though we don't have to rely on half-recalled childhood reminiscences thanks to the natural experiment of letting 16 and 17 year olds vote in the Scottish independence referendum. This was universally considered to have been a great success in Scotland, and the subsequent proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 for all Scottish elections was unanimously passed by their parliament. The evidence submitted while that bill was considered makes for an interesting read, particularly the work of Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh, who demonstrated that 16-18 year olds were just as engaged in politics as adults and just as independently-minded, and emphasised the potential for increasing political engagement through discussions at school.

The incredibly positive experience of expanding the franchise in Scotland surely makes the same inevitable sooner or later in the rest of the country. So why do the tortuous arguments against it still keep rearing up? I suspect it's because votes at 16 is essentially an instinctive issue, something you form an opinion on first and rationalise later. What it really boils down to is whether you respect young people's opinions or not. And if the overwhelming evidence from Scotland hasn't changed your mind on that, maybe it says more about you than it does about young people.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Why a new "centrist" party would probably fail

It's been heartening to see that the softening of Labour's Brexit position over the summer has not led to a decline in its polling figures, and may even be driving them up a little. Labour's change was apparently motivated at least in part by the fear that a new "centrist" party would emerge that would hurt them more than the Tories. Certainly, there's been much talk recently of such a party, despite or perhaps because of the lacklustre performance of the existing centrist party, the Lib Dems, in the snap election.

The belief that a new centrist party would sweep all before it is based on the idea that if Labour moves left while the Tories move right, a great yawning gap of homeless voters will appear in the middle. Assuming voters are normally distributed across the political spectrum, the picture looks something like this:

Which is fine as far as it goes, but the label "centrist" bugs me, both as a tag for the potential new party and in its other fashionable role as a Twitter insult favoured by lefties. As far as I understand the term, it is essentially a relabelling of "Blairite" for a post-Blair age (just as the more ungainly "neoliberal" refers to Thatcherites post-Thatcher), taking in Lib Dems and perhaps the liberal end of the Tory party as well.

What groups these tribes together is pro-Europeanism; they are the classic Remainers. And your classic Remainer is far from centrist, as a more appropriate 2D view of politics shows:

(The "open" axis here represents liberal, Remainer opinion, while "closed" voters were for Leave.)

As "centrists" are firmly Remain, they are well away from the centre ground on this axis. The centrist label is valid, but only if you project their 2D position onto the one-dimensional left-right spectrum.

It's worse than that, though, because pro-European liberalism is the reason for setting up the new centrist party in this first place: they want to fight on the open-closed "Brexit" axis, not the left-right economic axis. If you project the parties on to the centrists' preferred battleground, the picture looks completely different:

In this picture the "centrists" are in no way centrist at all, in fact espousing a radical liberal position. Which is not to say that they couldn't win from there, but it would clearly be an uphill battle for voters, not the walkover they fondly imagine.

The irony here is that it is in fact Labour who have neatly positioned themselves as the centrists on Brexit, triangulating their hearts out in the best traditions of Blairism, in order to focus their energies on the other axis. And what's more, it's working.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Life in Remainville: Episode 3, A New Hope

So it turns out the method of counting window posters is scientific, with Jeff Smith crushing all before him:

+/- %
Jeff Smith
John Leech
Liberal Democrat
Sarah Heald
Laura Bannister
Sally Carr
Women’s Equality

Far from being a marginal, Withington must now be one of the safest seats in the country. The Lib Dems remain in second place but will surely now turn their attention to more winnable targets. The Greens' collapse mirrors their poor performance nationally, while the Tories have benefitted only marginally from the disappearance of UKIP.

What a turnaround we've seen since the start of the campaign, and even the local elections, when it seemed like Big Andy would be the only Labour politician left standing by June. Perhaps in fact it was those local elections that made all the difference. As Sr. Spielbergo noted on that day, the poor result for Labour could have had a positive psychological effect by bringing home the scale of the defeat they faced if they didn't start pulling together, while conversely the Tories started to believe in the inevitability of their landslide. The manifestos that emerged shortly afterwards reflected this: a well-crafted effort from Labour that was both bold and could be embraced by the whole party, while the Tory manifesto was filled with bizarre hobby horses and dripping with hubris.

The local elections also severely hobbled the Lib Dems, who threw away the momentum they had carefully build up over the course of many by-elections with a disastrous start to their campaign, and actually managed to lose seats on May 4th. By the time Labour had successfully established the election battleground on the economic axis, there was no way in for a Brexit-oriented interloper. The transformation is most obvious in next door Gorton, which the Lib Dems had a good chance of winning in the original by-election but in the general election faded back into fourth. The final result nationally was actually not too bad for them, and perhaps their time will come when Brexit actually happens, but for now it's all too soon.

When I've looked back at my 2015 piece on Corbyn written just before he became leader, I've mostly been struck by how optimistic I was, even so soon after the terrible and unexpected disaster of the general election. That optimism has, to put it mildly, been tested by the events since, and looking for hopeful signs was a forlorn exercise right up until 11 May when the manifesto was leaked. By 26 May, YouGov was indicating a hung parliament. Now I'm struck by how close we've got to scenario #1 in such an astonishingly short period of time. Perhaps that long-hoped-for, never-to-arrive Progressive Moment brought on by the financial crisis is finally upon us.

It's also interesting how closely the general election has mirrored Corbyn's first leadership campaign. To political insiders too familiar with his long history as a fringe politician and champion of lost causes, he was a no-hoper. But to the ordinary voter, he's a fresh face with a sensible and inspiring platform. And all the feared attacks from the right wing press reminding us of the skeletons in his closet really did just bounce off him. Perhaps finally their power is broken.

(It's remarkable too how Scotland has yet again played a decisive role in proceedings: this time through electing enough new Tory MPs to keep them in government.)

Before getting carried away, I remain thoroughly suspicious about Labour's approach to Brexit in general (reaffirmed by John McDonnell yesterday), and angry in particular at their manifesto commitment to end free movement, but I've never been under any illusion that my views are popular and perhaps Labour's cunning fudge of the issue will continue to be acceptable to both pro-European voters and a sizeable chunk of former UKippers for as long as they need it to be. One thing is for sure, with a hung parliament the prospects for a non-catastrophic Brexit now look rosier that at any time since the referendum.

That is a concern for another day anyway. For now the most important thing for us humble voters is to sit back and enjoy the beautiful and unexpected spectacle of Tory disarray. A toast to optimism, and a mission accomplished.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Life in Remainville: Smith vs Leech revisited

In case you were thinking the main contenders had gone quiet, I can assure you that our hallway carpet continues to be submerged in red and yellow leaflets. We've received a CV from John Leech, a personal letter from Jeff Smith, an even more personal psuedo-handwritten letter from the Manchester Mum of the Year describing how Leech helped her child get medical treatment, two reminders to vote on Thursday, and more besides. But rather than attempt to scan all that lot in I'll just share the two which best summarise their respective campaigns.

Here's Smith's effort, complete with endorsement from Big Andy and a number of references to police cuts (a growing theme in the Labour material):

 (Top prize for misleading stat there with the 93% line)

And here is Leech, no longer featuring photos of Corbyn but abstract references to infighting instead.

(I'm still trying to understand the logic of the "more spending, more taxes, no plan to pay for it" critique)

The truth is my view hasn't really changed since 2015 that either candidate would be a good MP, as both have now proved. But Brexit of course is a new dividing line. I'm still very suspicious of Labour's approach, even if their obfuscation has clearly been very good for them electorally. I'm especially dismayed by their rightwards shift on immigration in the manifesto. I hope the line about free movement ending is some kind of clever lawyer-worded cheat that still allows for a soft brexit, but a big leap of faith is required here.

Having said that, I think Smith has done enough for me to believe that he will fight for the interests of Remain voters just as hard as Leech would, against his own party if necessary. And perhaps his voice of sanity within Labour will have a greater influence overall than one more Lib Dem could have.

So as far as these two are concerned the Brexit issue is a neutral one, and leaving that aside the Labour manifesto is excellent. While the Lib Dems are certainly much improved since 2015, they aren't in the same league as Labour on the non-Brexit issues, and their wrong-headed attacks on Labour's financial acumen still put me off. I'm sticking with Jeff.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Life in Remainville: attack of the nasty old also-rans

Pantomime villain Sarah Heald finally appears in leaflet form:

One of the most content-free leaflets I've ever seen, though don't worry because Team May is here to explain all...

I guess this leaflet was produced back when standing with Theresa May was considered to be an advantage, maybe not so much now. Everything else about it has a distinctly phoned-in quality, not least that the designer couldn't even be bothered to replace "MY CANDIDATE" with the actual name of the candidate.

Even if the Tories do end up with a 100+ majority after all, I will at least take solace that Her Candidate is not going to Westminster.

Life in Remainville: a teachable moment

That must have been a particularly engaged art class...

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Life in Remainville: at the Hustings

To St Clements, scene of the 2015 hustings, for a re-run. With the Big Two back again with much the same views I didn't learn a whole lot that would sway my vote, although Jeff Smith's vow to keep fighting for the interests of pro-Europeans was welcome. He had a neat line on a second referendum, being sympathetic to one but noting the necessity of a change in public opinion first, which he predicted would happen. Smith's vote against Article 50 has indeed innoculated him against a clear line of attack from John Leech, and Brexit was far from the dominant theme of the evening, putting a question mark over the very name of this blog series.

Much more focus was on questions of tax and spending, which is exactly where Labour needs the debate to be and very bad news for the Lib Dems. Leech's other main attack was that a vote for Smith is a vote for Corbyn Chaos, but the lack of reaction confirmed my feeling that Withington is not the most receptive area in the country to this argument. I can understand the need for Leech to try to make this the dividing line when they agree on so much else, but it feels like he's playing a weak hand (particularly of course with a newly resurgent Corbyn).

With UKIP absent, the pantomime villain role went to Sarah Heald of the Conservatives, particularly when she came out in favour of grammar schools and accused other party manifestos of being poorly costed. It fell to Laura Bannister of the Greens to point out just how hypocritical this is coming from the party with the completely uncosted manifesto. Heald was keen to make crime the issue of the day but amusingly the crime questions on the list didn't make the cut. She also claims to have polls showing her to be the main opposition to Smith in this seat; I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Best line of the night went to Sally Carr for noting that white goods purchases come with a cooling off period and therefore so should Brexit. The Women's Equality Party were out in force in the audience and Carr certainly highlighted/crowbarred their agenda into virtually every question, so perhaps it was worth setting the party up in the first place after all. I'm suspicious of any party that describes itself as "non-partisan" however.

Overall nothing that would give Jeff Smith any cause for worry, and I remain convinced he'll win big next week despite the ongoing Lib Dem leaflet assault (two more this week).

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Life in Remainville: Attack of the All-New Also Rans

With the resumption of campaigning another three postings from the Lib Dems have arrived, including personal letters addressed personally to me in person from both Tim Farron and John Leech. Nothing new of interest to report in any of them. I would though like to appeal to the party to stop sending me pictures of Nigel Farage laughing maniacally, they're making me feel ill.

Much more interesting is the first piece of literature from outside the Big Two. There are three other candidates standing this time, sadly not including the Mysterious Independent, who regular readers will know took a punt on becoming mayor instead. UKIP have also failed to show up, which on the one hand is a marvellous indicator of their continuing decline but on the other hand denies us the satisfaction of seeing them lose their deposit again. Laura Bannister is standing for the Greens (not to be confused with Lucy Bannister from 2015 - are they related?) while Sarah Heald is also new for the Tories. The first through the letter box is however not just a new candidate but an entirely new party: Sally Carr MBE of the Women's Equality Party.

Judging from her leaflet Sally Carr MBE appears to be a good egg and the Women's Equality Party are raising all sorts of important issues. But just as with National Health Action elsewhere I can't help but wonder why they've gone to the trouble of forming a new party to fight for them. Doesn't it just ensure that the progressive electorate will be split even further than it is already and give the Tories an even more straightforward path to victory? I suppose that would be a success for women's equality at the prime ministerial level.

To be fair there is absolutely no risk of the Tories winning Withington, so at worst Sally Carr MBE's decision to stand here is harmless, and it does mean the issues she is championing are more likely to be given time at hustings and the like.

Meanwhile no further communications from Labour, but the Jeff Smith windows signs continue to multiply on our street regardless. I'm convinced now that he will win at a canter.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Life in Remainville: après les vacances, le déluge

So you turn your back for a week and seven pieces of literature arrive. Far too many to scan, so you'll just have to click-and-squint to get a flavour:

After heroically reading all of these I have learned:

  • "Who will stop The Hard Brexit?" - Not the Labour Party, no no no. The Liberal Democrats of course. 8/10 fair point rating, although given how their campaign has gone so far I doubt the Lib Dems will be capable of stopping anything much in the next parliament. 
  • "Who can change the Future of Britain?" - Not Corbyn's Labour Party, no no no. Tim Farron's Liberal Democrats of course. A variation on the same theme but with more boo hiss Corbyn photos. I'm a little bit surprised about the focus on Corbyn as I would have thought Withington would be more sympathetic than most areas to his leadership, but what do I know.
  • John Leech still likes to send us personal letters address personally to us in person. More jabs at Labour regarding Brexit, mixed with local matters. Nice to see a Lib Dem bar chart which is more or less accurate, pointing out that the Conservatives indeed can't win here. Going for the Tory voters then?
  • Jeff Smith will Save Our Schools. A nice touch to actually list the local schools and put a money value on what they will lose under the Tories' proposed funding formula.
  • "It's in YOUR hands" - but what? What's in my hands? Tell me! Ah, but now I see the telltale yellow "YOUR". Yes, of course it's the Lib Dems fighting hard Brexit again, or more specifically Corbyn's hard Brexit.
  • Dr  Clare Gerada, former Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, has also taken to sending us unsolicited personal letters addressed personally to us in person. Definitely the most unusual gambit so far and quite interesting that the Lib Dems are going up against Labour with a "Save the NHS" angle. No mention of Labour in the letter though - another pitch for Tory voters concerned about the NHS?
  • Jeff Smith's election communication. Focussing on Tory cuts and the propping up thereof by the Lib Dems, although he does personally pledge to oppose a hard Brexit (so a promise to continue to rebel if necessary? Interesting.)
For fans of photos of Corbyn in a hat, here are the inside details:

To summarise Labour's message is COALITION BAD, while the Lib Dems' is CORBYN BAD, neither of which really resonate for me for reasons I've covered at length before. My indecision continues.

One thing for sure is that in the battle of the leaflets the Lib Dems are miles ahead, which may have something to do with them opening their main Manchester office a short walk away:

On the other hand, a count of window posters on my road is skewed overwhelmingly to Labour, with 9 Jeff Smith posters up already to zero for John Leech. That puts Smith miles ahead of where he was at the same point in the 2015 race. Based on this highly scientific analysis, and given that the Lib Dem's superior leaflet game didn't seem to make much difference in 2015, I predict that Jeff Smith will be re-elected in Withington with an increased majority.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Life in Remainville

With the Andy Burnham Show out of the way thoughts turn to the awful looming catastrophe of 8th June. Manchester Withington is all but irrelevant to the national outcome this time, where there is one mission and one mission only: to reduce the scale of the Tory victory. While it is a privilege to live in a constituency where the Tories don't stand a chance, it does render the local contest somehow a bit academic.

It goes without saying that Labour and the Lib Dems don't see it that way, and it's clear already that this election is going to be just as closely fought as 2015, even though it is nominally now a safe Labour seat. No complaints from me of course...

I'm not going to post every piece of literature I receive before the main event, not least as the exhausting Libdemalanche is continuing unabated, with yet another feature-packed South Manchester News arriving today (complaining about Labour's record on homelessness, on the same day the mayor announced a new homelessness fund). However, the personal letter addressed personally to Mrs Tomsk and me that we received yesterday from Tim Farron (for it is he) deserves a mention:

Now as far as I understand Labour's position on Brexit, it is indeed the case that they want to take us out of the single market. And I'm not sure I can in good conscience vote for them as a result. On the other hand, Jeff Smith rebelled against the leadership on Article 50 (despite being a whip at the time) and by all accounts has done a good job as MP, so it seems a little mean to kick him out after only two years.

Yes, it's party vs candidate all over again. If anything this time I'm even more undecided.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Life in a Mayoral: piece of cake

So Labour and the Lib Dems were fully justified in switching their leafletting efforts to the general election:

Other names: Description (if any): Number of first preference
votes given for each candidate:
Percentage (%) of
first preference votes:
ANSTEE Sean Brian The Conservative Party Candidate 128,752 22.72%
ASLAM Mohammad Independent 5,815 1.03%
BROPHY Jane Elisabeth Liberal Democrats 34,334 6.06%
BURNHAM Andy Labour and Co-operative Party 359,352 63.41%
FARMER Marcus Jonathan Independent 3,360 0.59%
MORRIS Stephen English Democrats - "Putting England First!" 11,115 1.96%
ODZE Shneur Zalman UK Independence Party (UKIP) 10,583 1.87%
PATTERSON Will The Green Party 13,424 2.37%
Total number of first preference votes: 566,735

Big Andy shows the rest of the country how it's done... compare this with the 46% that Labour achieved in my back of the envelope sum of their 2015 vote.

Update 8/5/2017: As pundits are starting to notice that Burnham smashed it and are wondering why, here are a few things that stood out from my perspective as a humble voter:
  • Burnham's campaign was far more visible than all the other candidates put together - online especially but also for example in adverts in the Manchester Weekly News.
  • Burnham is of course a much bigger name, with a superior track record to advertise. The "strong experienced voice" line rang true, because it is true.
  •  I doubt many people watched the TV hustings, but for those who did it was obvious that Burnham plays in a different league to the others (though Anstee put in a creditable performance to be fair).
  • His proposals were clearly far better thought through than any of the others.
Ultimately I don't think there's a huge amount Labour can learn from his performance, despite how far he outperformed the party at large. To stoop to a football analogy: if Manchester United get drawn against Altrincham FC, it's shouldn't come as a surprise when United post a big victory*.

(*) although as @deGooder wisely notes, that's only true if Van Gaal isn't in charge.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Life in a Mayoral: decision time

So who did I vote for on this historic day?

When the campaign kicked off I was sorely tempted to choose based purely on the candidates' views on Brexit, but now it seems a less urgent concern when there's a better opportunity to make that point next month. And if you discount Brexit, there's only one game in town. Burnham is streets ahead of the other candidates both in his experience and his manifesto, so first choice to him.

Of course I wasn't going to let my first ever supplementary vote election pass without nominating a second choice (not that there's any chance of it coming into play). That was a tougher decision: other than campaiging on Brexit the Lib Dems haven't been particularly inspiring in this race, and it was a bit of a toss-up with the Greens for me. But in an effort to make an informed choice I looked through Paterson's manifesto and noticed he makes a point of opposing HS2, which is an utterly disastrous attitude for a would-be mayor of GM. I couldn't actually find any position on HS2 in Brophy's manifesto, but not mentioning it is definitely preferable to opposing it, so second choice to her.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Life in a Mayoral: canvassed!

Exciting times as the Labour Party visited the Tomsk household this evening on behalf of their general election candidate J---- S----.

Alas the canvassing did not extend to Andy Burnham and therefore I will not be reporting details of our conversation.

No further mayoral election literature has been received, so I guess it's decision time...

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Life in a Mayoral: [redacted]

The first Libdemalanche since 2015 arrives, but sadly without any mention of the Mayoral election. In line with this blog's strict one-election policy I will present their literature without comment, and with the identities of candidates not standing for mayor obscured.

Update 2/5/2017: It seems Labour are so confident of winning the mayoral race that they too are skipping ahead to the general election. Naturally their effort must be appropriately redacted:

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Life in a Mayoral: change of focus

With barely more than a week to go before election day the mayoral race has reached fever pitch, with upwards of one leaflet delivered already this week. And it's the Lib Dems again:

South Manchester's Focus is clearly turning towards the general election, alongside John Leech's online announcement that he will run again in Withington. But there's still space to mention Jane Brophy at the bottom of the page, complete with Leech's endorsement.

Focus makes a big claim that it's the Lib Dems or Labour to win on May 4th, and I have to admit I don't actually have any instinct about who will end up in the top two alongside Burnham. As far as I'm aware there have been no polls to help out on this point.

The most straightforward estimate I can think of is a simple sum of all the votes in the 2015 general election across the 27 GM constituencies, which gives you the following totals:

Labour: 551,119
Conservative: 315,537
UKIP: 192,470
Lib Dem: 85,189
Green: 42,392

This might explain why there's no traditional Lib Dem bar chart to accompany the claim.

PS: Come to think of it, given the state of the polls doesn't Burnham's lead look slightly less than rock solid? Or am I just being paranoid...

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Life in a Mayoral: video killed the leafletting star

Mrs Tomsk directs me to this slick ad from the pride of Trafford:

Is he insinuating that Big Andy's not a Manc? Even after the exclusive interview with the Burnham for Mayor gazette put the record straight?

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Life in a Mayoral: The Runners

So it seems we can't even have a nice relaxed provincial vote without Westminster demanding to be the centre of attention. Poor show! Still, this blog will stay within its remit right up until the 4th May, if only because an election which the Tories surely can't win is so much more pleasant than the feeling of impending doom coming from the other one.

The official candidate information arrived through our letterbox today (it's also available online, in case you're wondering why my scanning skills have suddenly improved). Eight people are standing as follows:

The first thing that jumps out of this list is that Withington's own Mysterious Independent is standing again! And not only that, he's opted to remain Mysterious by not submitting an official Election Address. Fair play to him.

He's joined by a second Mysterious Independent, Mohammed Aslam, because of course Salford has to have its own Mysterious Independent.

UKIP's Shneur Odze is the third making a bid for Mystery by not submitting an Address. I cannot begin to describe the joy of not having to read UKIP's manifesto for Greater Manchester.

That leaves us with five candidates competent enough to submit an Election Address. First up, it's Andy:

For fans of Burnham literature there's not a lot new here, being a distillation of his previous leaflet.

Next is Jane Brophy for the Lib Dems:

This one feels like it wastes far too much space on logos and photos. I can't say I'm overwhelmed by the priorities listed here but points awarded for mentioning Brexit on both pages. It seems my instinct was right that the Lib Dems would position themselves as the party of Remain right across Greater Manchester.

Third we have the "English Democrats":

Now technically speaking I'm in favour of an English Parliament, but I think I'll give English Nationalism a miss if it's all the same with you, Stephen.

Next is those lovable Tories and the pride of Trafford, Sean Anstee:

With all due respect to Mr Anstee I guess it's a sign of how seriously the Conservatives are taking this election that they haven't found anyone with a higher profile to put up. Nevertheless it's a well designed Address and my curiosity is certainly piqued about his battles with Westminster politicians over the last four years, given that the Tories have been power all that time. It goes without saying that I wouldn't vote for him in a month of Sundays.

Finally there's the Green candidate:

Full marks for graphic design which is way ahead of the rest, though on the other hand it's far too wordy. I must admit I like the cheesy #YESIWILL business and will follow it assiduously. I can't argue with any of the priorities either, as far as they go, but interestingly no mention of how Brexit will affect GM. Perhaps the Greens are as split in Manchester as they are in Parliament.

So, all in all three candidates I'd be prepared to vote for: Burnham, Brophy, and Patterson. And two choices on the ballot paper. *thinking face emoji*

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Life in a Mayoral: Feel the Burn

It's certainly been a slow start to the election spamming this time round, almost as if the result is a foregone conclusion. But never fear: Big Andy has ridden into town.

Points are immediately deducted for posting a leaflet that is much too large to be easily scanned. On the other hand, an equal number of points are awarded for sneaking Tony Wilson quotes into the text.

Inside, there are detailed assurances that Burnham is not a Scouser (read and learn, national political correspondents), a soupçon of appealing policies and a healthy amount of London-bashing. If there's one skill the mayor of GM must have, it's whining about Westminster until they cough up more cash. And of course it all helps dissociate him from his long time spent in the dreaded South.

Overall the focus could hardly be more different to Jane Brophy: only a single passing mention of the referendum with the emphasis very much on local issues and Burnham's own high level of political experience. Fair enough I guess, although I would like to know more about how he would help Manchester weather the Brexit storm. There's still time for follow-ups...

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Life in a Mayoral

OK, so a while back I might have said that I would definitely absolutely not post any more political literature on to this site, but we all know pledges are made to be broken. How could I resist the lure of the first ever Greater Manchester Mayoral Election? Combined Authorities! Supplementary Vote! Brexit Culture Wars! It's got it all.

Welcome back first of all to the fiercely independent South Manchester News, which chooses to splash on Corbyn's inept opposition to the Brexit process:

Sadly the News was unable to find sufficient space to mention that our local Labour MP voted against triggering Article 50, but to be fair if I was the editor I'd play up the Corbyn angle for all it was worth as well.

Along with the SMN came the first piece of mayoral campaign literature we've received, for the Lib Dem candidate Jane Brophy. She is a Trafford councillor whose name is already familiar to me as the runner up in the safe Tory seat of Altrincham & Sale West in 2010 back when I lived there (a seat so safe there was virtually no indication that a general election was even happening).

Again there's a strong emphasis on the Lib Dems' pro-EU stance, and good luck to them. I must admit it's very tempting to vote on that issue alone.

Inside there's a whole lot more on Brexit, all music to my liberal-metropolitan-elite ears:

I wonder whether different literature is being sent to the Leave-leaning areas of GM? Perhaps not too different, as the obvious strategy for the Lib Dems is to go all out for the Remain vote no matter where that may be living.

I'm intrigued also by the mention of supposedly divisive immigration comments made by Andy Burnham, but as there was again sadly no space to quote the actual comments, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume they're not quite as "disgraceful" as they're made out to be.

Finally I'm pleased to see half a page devoted to the thoroughly nerdy topic of the voting system:

If you're not familiar with the Supplementary Vote, it's essentially AV for people who can't count to three. No surprise that the Lib Dems are highlighting the process, as SV allows you to throw away cast your vote for your genuine first preference safe in the knowledge that Burnham will get in anyway you have a backup to give to a frontrunner.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Hey, Maybe Neoliberalism Wasn't So Bad After All

Yes really. But don't worry, this blog has not renounced its political values. Let me explain...

It's only been a few months since the EU referendum, but already it's clear that it has catalysed a fundamental realignment of English politics (just as Scotland was realigned by the independence referendum). First consider how voters of different parties divided on referendum day:

One thing that leaps out immediately from this breakdown is that the major reason for Leave's victory was David Cameron's failure to bring his own voters with him. Labour voters on the other hand broke for Remain in much the same proportion as the resolutely pro-EU SNP, belying the idea that Corbyn's half-hearted campaigning was to blame for the result. The figures for the smaller parties were no surprise, although with the notable exception of UKIP there were substantial minorities opposed to the party line in each case.

Now compare with a YouGov poll from last month asking whether the result was the right one:

While Remain and Leave are still almost evenly matched overall, the differences when split by party are remarkable. Support for staying in the EU among Conservative voters has collapsed, while for both Labour and the Lib Dems pro-Remain sentiment has hardened significantly. The Lib Dems in particular are now approaching UKIP levels of unity on the topic. To what extent this is a hardening of views among existing voters vs. movement of voters between parties cannot be judged from this, but either way something important has happened.

How have these changes manifested at the ballot box? A number of surveys showed that Remain voters had become far more motivated after the referendum than they ever had been during the campaign, and this started to show almost straight away in a steady drip of council by-election wins by the Liberal Democrats, often on astonishing swings:

Their performance has been all the more impressive for them still languishing at around 10% in national polls. Clearly Remain voters are looking for a way to give Brexit a kicking where they get a chance, and the Lib Dems are more often than not in the right place to deliver it. This showed most obviously when the parliamentary by-elections came round, first with their remarkable vote share increase in true blue Witney and then triumphing over pseudo-independent Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park. But other parties have had unexpected results too: notably the Conservatives incredible win in Copeland and the complete flop of UKIP's leader in Stoke Central. Meanwhile, Labour hang on as best they can.

So what factors underlie these shocks? It's obvious first of all that this is not a systematic shift along the traditional left/right spectrum. But there is a shift of some kind. Hints of what this might be can be seen as far back as 2005 in this fascinating analysis of "axes of belief" (no doubt the beliefs themselves go back further in time). This study found that there were two statistically significant political axes: one an economic one, broadly speaking left vs right in the free market sense, and then a much more significant cultural one, dubbed "the axis of UKIP". At one end of this axis lies isolationism and authoritarianism, while the other end is internationalist and pro-immigration, with a liberal view of criminal justice. You could label this axis internationalist/isolationist, liberal/authoritarian, inclusive/exclusive, Guardian/Daily Mail or any number of other names, but I will defer to Nick Clegg and use his terminology of open vs. closed, as here:

Of course the idea that there is more than one "axis of belief" in politics is an established and fairly well-known one. The point is that the cultural axis was very much of secondary importance as far as election results were concerned until the referendum, but now it is dominant. (Note that the Leave campaign's arguments aligned with the cultural axis, while Remain's arguments were economic. It remains to be seen whether public opinion will change when the economic reality of Brexit hits home, but we can certainly predict how Brexiters will react when it does: they'll blame foreigners.)

Now consider where each party stood on this chart at the time of the referendum. On the economic left/right axis there has been a shift since the 2005 analysis, when Charles Kennedy had adroitly placed the Lib Dems to the left of New Labour. While Tim Farron, unlike Nick Clegg, is very much on the Kennedy wing of the party, Corbyn's Labour is undoubtedly considerably further left than that. So the parties can now be safely ordered in the traditional way from left to right: Labour, Lib Dem, Conservative, UKIP. For the open/closed axis on the other hand we can confidently order them Lib Dem, Labour, Conservative, UKIP, which fits with the distribution for Remain and Leave. This give us the following plot:

(You can argue about the exact positions of the parties and the "political centre", but you get the idea)

Note that I have put the Conservatives on the Open, aka Remain, side of the fence, in line with Cameron's position in the referendum, though at odds with their own voters. Which brings us neatly to the topic of this post.

A lot of nonsense is spouted about the concept of neoliberalism, not least the pretence from some of its own supporters that it doesn't even exist. In fact it is one of the more sharply defined political concepts (certainly far more sharply defined than liberalism itself). We can even define a Neoliberal Era lasting from the 1980's to the financial crisis of 2007/8. There is no mystery about what it involved: shrinking of the state wherever possible, tax cuts, privatisation, deregulation, and constraints on organised labour. In some ways it is a return to a 19th century classical liberal view of the world, hence the name, which is particularly apt in the light of the era ending in true 19th century fashion with financial panic and severe recession.

Fundamentally, neoliberalism is a concept of the economic axis. In the UK neoliberal government began under Thatcher, was effectively accepted by Blair and more recently pushed further by Cameron. These governments could be placed at various points on the cultural axis, but all operated in the context of a neoliberal consensus that pushed all parties rightwards economically.

If neoliberalism has a bias on the cultural axis, it is towards the open or liberal end, as the name suggests. In fact the neoliberal era has seen a rapid increase of globalisation, free trade and immigration, all indicators of open-ness. Neoliberalism is certainly not a closed philosophy. The coalition government for example was a particularly open one, characterised by the "global race" the Tories were so fond of to justify cuts in workers' rights and welfare, but also relatively culturally open as symbolised by Cameron's sincere support for gay marriage. No wonder that many closed-minded Tories left to join the comforting bigotry of UKIP.

Post-referendum this has all changed. Through pursuing a "hard Brexit" with no prospect of staying in the European single market, Theresa May has taken the Conservatives in a substantially more closed direction. Meanwhile Labour too have adopted a more closed position through the panicked desire of seemingly all factions of the party to give up on the principle of freedom of movement within Europe. So the chart has changed:

We now have three parties chasing after Leave voters, while only one is unquestionably looking after the interests of Remain voters. It's not rocket science why the Lib Dems are pulling huge victories out of nowhere. Perhaps the real surprise is that they continue to languish in national polls, though maybe a change here requires a national election campaign, as has often been the case for them in the past. Adapting to the new politics is straightforward for the Lib Dems, as the quintessentially Open party. While they may have a ceiling of perhaps 20-25%, representing the hardcore Remain-or-die vote, that would still be a huge improvement on their position as of the 2015 election.

For the Conservatives, the task is trickier, as they are a party that is only firmly defined on the economic axis while fuzzy on the cultural one. But this does give them a certain ideological flexibility, as their hard Brexit policy demonstrates. As a result they have encroached firmly on UKIP territory, netting them their victory in Copeland by squeezing the UKIP vote, but at the cost of losing many other by-elections to targeted Lib Dem assaults, culminating in Richmond Park.

And here is where the title can be justified: yes, neoliberalism is terribly right-wing. Yes, the rightward economic shift that took place between 1980 to the present day is regressive for society and should be reversed. But it truly wasn't as bad as the new dominant ideology, which is both right-wing and closed. This is far more obvious on the other side of the Atlantic, but here too, in a considerably less terrifying, thankfully conventional, yet still tangible way, we are losing the good aspects of the neoliberal era while doubling down on the bad.

Labour may be the only party which can chart a course out of this unsettling period. For the Lib Dems, the new politics is essentially defensive. It's about defending the open, liberal parts of the neoliberal settlement against those who are trying to take us in a closed direction. Farron, as a "social liberal", will also pursue a social justice agenda somewhat to the left of Clegg's Lib Dems, but this is secondary to the defence of open-ness.

Defending what we've got is an important task, but not one that will reverse the tide when the true driver towards closed-ness is the huge rise in inequality during the neoliberal era and the redirection of the resentment that generates towards outgroups. As a party of the economic axis, the mirror image of the Conservatives, it is Labour that is best placed to take us in the direction necessary to undo the damage done by neoliberalism. Easier said than done, of course. Labour's task is the trickiest of all, as it involves changing the terms of debate 90 degress from the now dominant cultural axis back to the now secondary economic one.

Last and least, UKIP. Perhaps the only silver lining of the referendum result is they are a significantly diminished force, albeit largely because the Conservatives have stolen their clothes. They will also lose their only electoral powerbase, in the European parliament, when we leave, and their only MP, Douglas Carswell, is under threat of being kicked out. The underlying reason for this is instructive: Carswell is a so-called "liberal Leaver". This is one of two tribes we haven't yet considered, the other being "Lexit" campaigners:

On this plot the official Vote Leave campaign and the UKIP-aligned represent the bulk of Leave voters. Both were closed campaigns (think of the ugly rhetoric against Turkey joining the EU and Syrian refugees respectively), while Vote Leave was cannily fuzzy on the economic axis, even featuring arguably leftish arguments such as the notorious NHS funding promise.

The "Liberal Leave" argument, however, is quite different. Liberal Leavers such as Carswell do not really care about immigration, in fact are quite open about the need for it to remain high. Their argument is economic: what they really object to is the EU as a closed shop that prevents Britain becoming the buccaneering right-wing tax haven of Thatcherite dreams. Watch the truly astonishing Brexit: The Movie if you want to understand this mindset. In fact a lot of senior Vote Leave figures feel this way (e.g. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) and it has even made it into Theresa May's speeches in the form of "Global Britain". The fact that all of these arguments lie at 90 degrees to Vote Leave's actual xenophobic campaign may yet be swept under the carpet at the cost of an obvious betrayal of their own voters. It is clear at least that a Global Britain is completely incompatible with reducing immigration - imagine trying to sign a trade deal with, say, India, which doesn't include relaxation of visa rules for example. It is telling that it takes Tories from a previous generation such as Ken Clarke and John Major to point out the disaster that lies ahead.

The mirror image of the Liberal Leavers is the "Lexit" position (= left-wing Brexit), once a mainstream school of thought in the Labour party at the time of the 1975 European referendum, but now relegated to a fringe on the left of Labour, 50% of the Green party in parliament, and some of the minor parties further left (notably TUSC, the third of the three organisations which applied to become the official Leave campaign). Lexit, like Liberal Leave, is not a closed position: in general it is pro-immigration for example. The Lexiteers' objection is on the economic axis: that the EU, far from a brake on neoliberal aspirations, is in reality a capitalist plot to prevent the UK from enacting socialist policies. Once we divorce, we'll be heading for socialism faster than you can say "Up yours Delors". The fact that Britain is one of the most free-market oriented of all the EU nations might seem to militate against the Lexiteers' strategy, but we will find out whether they were right soon enough.

While both Liberal Leave and Lexit might charitably be called niche positions in the public at large, combining as they do the doubly unpopular proposition of retaining high immigration while losing membership of the single market, politically speaking they are both very important, and not just because in a tight vote they may have swung the result to Leave. Liberal Leave is important for their advocacy of a Global Britain described above, while Lexit is important because it informs the thinking of Labour's current leader, who comes from the left-wing anti-European tradition of Tony Benn and his followers.

Now while Jeremy Corbyn does have a long track record of voting against European integration consistent with this background, he did apparently sincerely convert to the Remain cause on becoming leader. And if we are to attach any blame for the result to Labour, as much if not more should go to Alan Johnson's all but invisible Labour In campaign as to Corbyn. Regardless, this is an academic debate given that it was Tory voters who delivered Brexit.

The reason Corbyn's Lexit roots are important is not because his pre-referendum campaigning was half-hearted, but because of the way he and John McDonnell have positioned Labour after the referendum. Both a large majority of Labour voters and especially Labour members were pro-Remain, and yet Labour have fallen into line with the Tories' principle that "access" to the single market is all that is required, not membership of it. This is a strategically nonsensical position.

The reason that Corbyn doesn't want a soft Brexit is not to restrict freedom of movement (although he has starting making noises in that direction), but because single market rules prevent, for example, any industrial strategy which counts as state aid. Unfortunately the supposedly "moderate" wing of Labour have reached the same position as Corbyn, in their case in order to chase Leave voters who want immigration reduced at all cost. In fact, in an irony of gargantuan proportions, virtually the only prominent Labour figure to argue for the pro-European strategy that the membership overwhelmingly wants is Tony Blair.

This is tragic. Labour should not go all out for Europe like the Lib Dems but they do need to be at least the soft Brexit party. The only time the Tories ever lose elections in government is when they lose economic credibility, and leaving the single market is an economic open goal for Labour so large it can be seen from outer space. For their part Labour need to regain economic credibility (leaving aside that they didn't deserve to lose it in the first place), and defending single market membership at every possible opportunity is the perfect way to do this. But the sad fact is no credible leadership candidate apparently wants to take this position.

One final thought: let's look forward to 2020, assuming there is no early election. While May is currently in the middle of a political honeymoon, it will not last as the economic realities of Brexit become clear. Assume too that Labour depose Corbyn and begin to recover up to the giddy vote share heights achieved by Brown and Miliband. Meanwhile the Lib Dems continue their resurgence and SNP hegemony in Scotland is unchallenged. This is a recipe for another hung parliament, and possibly a new Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. But there will be a big difference between 2020 and 2010, as shown here:

While a Cameron/Clegg coalition was a natural fit, a May/Farron coalition would be a considerably more distant relationship, both on the economic and especially the cultural axis. It's far more likely that coalition talks will fail on the pretext of, say, a Lib Dem demand for proportional representation, and May will end up leading a minority government reliant not only on the goodwill of other parties but also Cameron's old allies on the Tory backbenches...

I'm not saying this scenario is inevitable or even likely, but it is one plausible future. One thing is for sure, the interesting times will continue until our future relationship with Europe is fully settled, and there is zero chance of that happening before 2020.

PS: In case you doubt there's been a fundamental realignment in British politics, perhaps you didn't notice there are more favourable references to Nick Clegg, Tony Blair and John Major in this post than in the rest of this blog put together.