The Home Straight

4-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8It’s now less than 100 hours until the polls open. It’s never too late to say that everything could change – that’s been brutally proven more than once this week. But now is the time to recap on what has happened with the campaign, and what it might mean for Thursday’s result:

When this election began, it looked like it was going to be six weeks of Tories shooting fish in a barrel. Turns out the fish know how to return fire. It is a campaign that the Tories have lost, and Labour by-and-large have won. Had Labour not been coming from so far behind, we might now be talking about Labour as the leading party; but given that six weeks ago we were talking about their potential extinction, they’ve come a hell of a long way.

Compared to our assumptions of a few weeks ago, what has changed?

This hasn’t been the Brexit election. Many of us thought it would be – to the benefit of Theresa May and the Lib Dems. But there has hardly been any serious debate about what Brexit should be like, or what we want our politicians to do about it. Can you describe Labour’s Brexit policy? I know I can’t. I think we’ve all agreed it’s too complicated, and we want to talk about something else – and the winners here have been Labour. (Though there is a silver lining for the Tories – the predicted collapse to the Lib Dems in the South West is no longer on the cards, which puts them up about 10-20 seats on where most people expected them to be).

The shine has come off of Theresa May, and in a big way. The social care climbdown has fatally weakened her with the public, and probably with her own party. We’d had hints of this beforehand (remember Hinkley Point?), but now it’s a permanent part of her reputation. All of that strong-and-stable rhetoric really was leaving a hostage to fortune, and the inability to follow-through makes her and her team look like a bunch of amateurs. Her leadership ratings have lost that new-car smell that they once had.

But Jeremy Corbyn has learnt how to behave. Some unsung hero in Corbyn’s office has got Labour working. The man has spoken clearly, been ready for interviews, stayed on-message and was even seen wearing a tie. Unlike his team, he has remained gaffe-free for six weeks. Never mind that this is the type of safety-first politics that Corbynistas despise – it works, and he’s got his hearing with the public. It may not win the election, but barring upsets it looks like he will have outperformed expectations and will therefore be able to resist ousting by the moderates.

But before you reach any conclusions…

…I can’t help noticing that these stories are all views from inside of the Westminster bubble. If we learnt one thing from the Brexit referendum, it was that votes aren’t decided in Westminster alone. When we didn’t listen to ordinary people on the (provincial) streets, we found ourselves with shock results.

When the campaign began, we were actually getting some good reportage coming from unvisited constituencies up and down the country. Since the omnishambles phase of the campaign got underway, all of that has fallen away, as journalists realised they could earn their pay-packets without leaving Zone 1.

One of the main themes coming through from that earlier reporting was just how unpopular Jeremy Corbyn was on doorsteps up and down the country. I got the impression that he had become the most divisive politician since Margaret Thatcher (and though she won three elections, Corbyn is starting from entirely the wrong base to do the same). There’s no evidence with which to test whether this is changing – but to judge by the reactions I get from my non-London friends, the tighter the result the stronger that distaste becomes.

Selling the pig

Tory election guru Lynton Crosby has a favourite saying – that you can’t fatten a pig on market day. In other words, the things that decide elections don’t happen in the campaign, but in the years that lead up to them.

A lot hinges on whether he’s right. If this election is about the past six weeks, the Tories are in for a deserved pasting. But if it’s about what came before, we could easily be shocked by the scale and scope of a Tory landslide.

Thinking mechanically, I think a lot will depend on the turnout in northern and Midlands seats. Do people who don’t like Corbyn actually vote against him, or just stay at home? You should be able to tell a lot by the first few seats to declare – if there’s a big rise in the total Tory vote, a landslide is on. If the Tory vote is stable, but turnout falls and the Labour vote declines, it means that the anti-Corbyn vote is sitting this out and the Tories are in for a much smaller boost than they hope.

Changing the map

The other factor in play is Labour’s hope of bringing in a generation of disengaged voters to help fix the system. A lot of the recent polling surge for Labour comes from young voters doing just this – saying they are sure to come out and vote, and pushing up Labour numbers.

You can afford to be a bit sceptical here. First off, there’s an old saying that it’s dangerous trying to win a campaign by appealing to non-voters, because they have a habit of not turning out to vote. Second, under a first-past-the-post system it matters a lot where your voters actually are. A lot of young university students can win you seats like Cambridge or Manchester Withington, but they’re sod-all use if you’re trying to hold on to Great Grimsby or Rochdale.

Throwing it all away

And the last thing we can’t account for is just how wrong the government will muck things up this week. One terrorist attack, though tragic on a human scale, allows a PM to appear statesmanlike and commanding. Three is a different story, especially when that PM is an ex-Home Secretary. I wonder how many people are privately asking just how good a job she’s actually doing of keeping us safe, and what that will mean in the voting booth.

So, with only a few hours to go, get in the popcorn, brew up the coffee, and prepare for government.

Advertisements

The Workers’ Flag is deepest blue…

249px-blue_flag_waving-svgIf you’re a Tory, this has been a good 48 hours. It’s not going to be often that you look at the electoral results for Teesside and see ‘Conservative gain’ next to it. I imagine it kindles the same sort of feeling an old friend of mine would have got from seeing Surrey vote in the Socialist Workers.

Indeed it’s almost impossible to find a gloomy angle on yesterday from a Tory perspective:

  • The Tories have penetrated deep, deep into Labour heartlands. If they can win council seats in East Glasgow, there is literally nowhere that they’re not cutting through.
  • Good campaigning will not help their enemies. Sion Simon was a good candidate for West Mids mayor, but still he lost, in an area with a 2015 lead of about 9 points.
  • Contrary to my earlier expectations, the Lib Dem pull doesn’t outclass that of the Tories. They lost seats overall.
  • And most dramatically of all, UKIP lost every council seat it was defending, and picked up only one new one. That means their total haul was smaller than that of the Cornish independence party Mebyon Kernow. All the benefits of this run to the Tories.

Against that, it would be futile to pretend that the Tories aren’t heading for a three-figure landslide. It would also be silly to pretend Labour isn’t heading for a historically dreadful result – one of those yardsticks used by television pundits when they want a ‘worst since X’ comparison.

Labour’s near-death experience

Notwithstanding this, the results from the local elections make me cast my mind forward five years. If it’s obvious that Labour is about to lose badly now, what happens afterwards? Is the Labour party about to enter a death spiral, or not?

For me, I think not. It’s tempting to sketch out the final demise of a party which has fundamentally lose touch with the British public – but if you look at the results, this is not the case. Even in yesterday’s shock Tory wins, some of those results were very close. A 2% swing would have turned West Mids, Teesside and West of England into Labour victories – and I’m willing to bet the depressive power of Jeremy Corbyn is substantially larger than that.

If you want to imagine the end of the Labour party, it isn’t enough to say that the party loses votes – it has to lose its status as the real opposition. It can happen – it has been happening in Scotland since 2014 – but it’s not happening in England. The coming general election looks like being a very extreme example of a conventional election, and not one of those elections (like Canada in 2011, for example) where the rules of the game fundamentally altered.

If you assume that Labour comes to its senses after the election, it has a lot of ground to make up. But equally, it has a lot of voters who are primed to listen, and where Labour remains well-placed to win. It will take more than one electoral cycle to repair the damage of this, but unless there is an alternative opposition Labour’s decline has to bottom out at some point. I’d argue they can’t scrape much lower than this.

Tories should enjoy this moment. Right now, they are achieving results which match the faith of their footsoldiers, rather than any expert’s rulings of what is and is not ‘possible’. It would be unkind to begrudge them such a moment. But I wouldn’t expect it to become business as usual.

Theresa May Does

This morning, no work was done in Whitehall. From about 10:30 until 12:00, the day was given over to speculation, gossip and armchair psephology. Was she calling an election? What was the significance of the lectern not having the Downing Street crest? It was either that, or start tearing up our work-plans on a speculative basis.

Most people are sick of elections; not least the PM. You got the sense that she really had intended to avoid this. But ultimately, there comes a time when the open goal in front of you is impossible to ignore. Many’s the person who judged Gordon Brown on the basis that he could have gone to the country in 2007 and won, but didn’t – forever after he was Bottler Brown.

And life for Theresa May is not going to be easy. She may have no opposition, but with a majority of 14 she is at the mercy of every crank and crackpot in her own party. If the story turned against her (and it almost certainly would, given how tough Brexit will be), every assessment of her failure would end with the words ‘if only she’d called an early election…’.

This looks like an election no one can lose. But…

If you’re in the Tory Party, you’ve never had it so good. The poll leads here require Borisisms to capture their magnificence – whopping; ginormous; stonking – up to twenty percentage points according to some pollsters. It shouldn’t be possible to lose an election from a start like that – anything less than an absolute massacre would look like a failure.

But don’t get carried away. This may be a lot closer than it first appears. Let’s take a look at the seats with the smallest majorities in 2015.

majorities

It’s fair to say that Chris Matterson, Labour MP for City of Chester with a majority of 93, will be spending the campaign polishing his CV. Indeed, the Tories need to go a lot further than this list if they’re going to claim victory. But note a few quirks in this list:

  • A lot of these seats with small majorities are already Conservative. In 2015, the Tories were really good at targeting the marginal voters that matter. Winning a lot of seats means overturning a lot of majorities in the 1,000-3,500 range – definitely doable, but not simple.
  • A lot of these Labour seats are in areas that voted remain – especially London. London hasn’t followed the rules in the last few elections. Indeed, if someone wants to have a bet over whether Wes Streeting will retain Ilford North on a majority of 589, I’ll offer you good odds.
  • The blue seats aren’t all Labour-Tory marginals. Quite a few of them are Tory-Lib Dem seats, whose dramatic fall to the blues was the shock event of election night 2015. The impression is that this was a one-off, as the Tories played off the fear that a Labour-SNP coalition was in the offing unless people voted for David Cameron. This fear has probably passed by now – and detailed Tory polls apparently suggest the government could lose a lot of these seats.

My instinct says that the government starts the story down about 15-30 Lib Dem seats, and probably won’t win more than two or three seats in London no matter what. That means that they need to collect about 40-50 Labour seats in the north and midlands to come out noticeably ahead.

To put this in context, Copeland – the by-election win a few weeks ago that was seen as a huge victory for the government – was Labour’s 27th most marginal seat. To get up to 40-50 without a lot of London seats, the Tories need to win old mining towns; chunks of post-industrial cities like Stoke and Bolton and Barnsley. To me, that sounds quite hard.

It goes one of three ways…

Fortunately, we’ve been busy testing out the election mechanics that will dominate this general. In a laudable commitment to evidence-based political science, we have had three by-elections that have tested a lot of the factors that will determine the final outcome.

theresa-may-by-election-copeland-771819First, we have Copeland. The government is betting the house that this story can be repeated up and down the country. It was an area that had been Labour since 1935, but where no one could remember why. Labour fought a campaign on tested tactics – cuts and the NHS. The Tories made it all about Corbyn, and they won. Not only did they secure a big swing from Labour, but they also drew in a big share of the UKIP vote too. Do that everywhere and they’ll have their dream outcome.

votes-are-counted-in-the-richmond-park-by-electionThat’s the good news for them. The bad news is Richmond Park. Tories walk in with a majority of 23,000, and go home empty handed. This isn’t just London – this is deepest, darkest Remainia, where people happily fly EU flags outside of their houses. The Lib Dems are working to make sure it isn’t a one-off. It won’t win them a majority, but it can take a lot of seats off of the Tories (Lib-Dem-Labour marginals now being almost totally extinct).

corbynstoke-1400x788And then there’s Stoke Central. The ‘capital of Brexit’ where Labour fielded a deeply flawed candidate under an atrocious leader, and the UKIP leader still couldn’t pick up the seat. People look at this election and ask if Labour will collapse – but you could ask that question equally of UKIP. A strong UKIP would seal Labour’s defeat – instead, it looks like the party isn’t going to be able to eat into Labour’s old heartlands. That probably puts a floor on how far Labour can drop.

All of that is a lot more complexity than you usually see in a general election. So anyone who says they know the outcome is being very brave.

Stupid prediction time

What do I think? I think the government will do this. To be honest, if the government can’t pick up a seriously increased majority under this situation, when Labour is this badly broken, I think it would be a pretty awful indictment on the democratic system as a whole.

But ask me the question in betting terms, and I think the value is in predicting a hung parliament. Not because it’s likely, but because it’s more likely than you’d think. Labour can only get so battered; I don’t think it’s unbelievable that the Lib Dems could end up with 40-50 seats if luck is with them. And while my base assumption is that the UKIP vote from the last election can be convinced to back the Tories in current circumstances, I’ve never been confident of how much of the UKIP vote is ‘a plague on both your houses’ and therefore not really in play.

That’s what makes this exciting. I have no idea what will happen. Expect May to win – maybe with a majority of 20-50. More than that, she’s done well. Less than that, and she’ll look like Don Quixote on a battlebus. And all the obituaries will end ‘If only she hadn’t called an early election…’

Corbynwatch – on predictions

The Labour leadership contest gets serious tomorrow. Ballot papers go out, and as they come back the party’s bloodletting takes a more solid form.

The consensus is that Corbyn is going to win, and probably win comfortably. Since he took over, the Labour Party has experienced a surge of membership, and you can reasonably infer that they are more likely to be from the red-underpants wing of the party. With knocking on half a million members, a very large proportion of which joined in the Corbyn era, this has the feel of a statistically compelling argument.

But… I do wonder if there’s scope for a surprise here.

My reasoning here is anything but scientific. It mostly comes from looking at weekend political blogs, especially the long, soul-searchy ones where people have time to wrestle with their conscience. And of these, I’ve noticed a lot of hard-left writers saying that it’s time to get rid of Corbyn.

These aren’t the usual suspects. It’s people like young Guardian leftie Owen Jones. Often these are people who were fervent Corbyn backers last time around. And I’ve found almost no one saying the opposite.

If the Labour party decides to keep Jeremy Corbyn, there’s a tacit assumption that the members have decided either a) Jeremy Corbyn’s mass appeal is being covered up in a gigantic establishment conspiracy; or b) electability doesn’t actually matter in the first place.

alexandreou_ur3xgaa-600x600_q85
Who needs votes when you’ve got likes?

The first of these is delusional, but it’s a neat, self-contained sort of delusion that someone can comfortably live within without being challenged to reconsider, especially if they’re on twitter. But the second feels like a different sort of thought – a sense that the left can’t win, and therefore should focus on the noblest kind of losing. It’s not a positive statement – more a kind of depressed apathy.

I’ve heard people on the Labour side argue in favour of noble defeat before. Owen Jones was a good example of that. Not so long ago, he was the kind of hardline leftist who was clear that there was no point Labour winning elections if they were just going to repeat the policies of the Tories. He was the kind of person who talks about things like ‘shifting the Overton window’ and destroying the establishment – politics as seen from the ivory towers of NW1.

Now, he talks about more practical matters. Polls, elections, results and, ultimately, governments. Winning matters, now it seems so far away.

The fear behind it all that Labour could be out of power for twenty years, and all the damage to beloved causes that can be done in the meantime. And with a clear sense that Jeremy Corbyn is making that problem worse, not better.

I’m not blind to the fact that you have to be pretty well connected to things to grasp the dysfunction at the heart of the Labour machine. It could well be that 90% of voters don’t know how serious a pickle Labour is in. But if so, the 10% who really are the heart of the party are fundamentally changing the way they view the world.

I’ve often thought that Labour supporters treat politics like a game; but I think that’s changing. For a lot of people on the left, it is Corbyn, not Brexit, that will be the defining experience of their political education. These are people who know the perils of utopianism, when asserted without the means of achieving it. Whoever wins, the Labour party is having a mass lesson in the virtues of pragmatism.

I don’t know whether this will be enough to swing this election – I suspect probably not. But watching this reminds me that it’s much too early to write off Labour. The party looked like a basket case in the eighties, but that struggle created the well-drilled New Labour army of 1997. There’s a similar process of discipline going on right now, and provided Labour actually survives this parliament, it will go into the 2020s as a stronger force.

SNAP!?

All revolutions come to an end; and mercifully the last month is over. We have a Prime Minister; the economy is proceeding vaguely OK; UKIP and Labour are back competing for the prize for best circular firing squad – and we can afford to breathe a little easier as we slap on the factor 15.

But the underlying politics hasn’t gone away. And one of the questions which is going to keep coming up is whether or not Theresa May is going to call a snap election.

The conditions couldn’t be better – a honeymoon period for a new PM; an opposition far down in the polls and so divided that the only way it can become more split is if they bring in nuclear physicists. For most of the country, the slogan can be ‘Conservatives. Have you seen the alternatives?’

180807 Mock Saatchi.png
It’ll be an easy election for Saatchi & Saatchi

The prize is worth having too. Right away, it gives the PM her own electoral mandate – both with the country and with her own MPs. That will be jolly handy in the Brexit deliberations, especially if the deal turns out not to be to everyone’s liking. Second, it is a chance to expand that woefully thin majority into something actually workable. Third, if timed right, it could send the Labour party so far into the electoral wilderness that it guarantees a decade of Tory rule.

Balanced against that, though, elections are risky. And as far as the public is concerned, we’ve had more than enough votes, thank you very much. At a time of crisis, it sends the wrong message for everyone to go back to their constituencies – especially for what might look like a nakedly political stunt.

Winning here?

You can balance the presentational arguments any way you want. But the one question you can’t duck is ‘would this actually work’?

The election wouldn’t be worth calling if Labour weren’t in such a dire state. The latest polls show a Tory lead of something between 6% and 14% (at the election, it was 6.6%). That’s before the Tories unlock their filing cabinet of everything Jeremy Corbyn has ever done – which they’ve so far had no need to open. According to Electoral Calculus, the Tories could expect a majority of about 50 from current poll shares.

It could get a lot better for them though. If the Labour party does split (and, for a loose enough definition of ‘split’, that boat has already sailed), the gap opens up much wider. Out of interest, I pulled out the 2015 General Election data, and looked what would happen if the Labour vote was cut precisely in half. The results shocked me.

160807 Labour split

If you combine a perfect split with the current poll numbers, the two halves of Labour combined win just 98 seats; and Theresa May comes home with a majority of 264. The Tories win seats like Sunderland Central and Islington South. If you assume the two halves of Labour get a fair split of MPs, the SNP becomes the largest opposition party.

And this is without a single extra person voting Tory who isn’t currently planning to do so.

It’s the same method that the SNP has used to capture all but three seats in Scotland with only 50% of the votes – with your opposition split, the ruling party always wins big. If you don’t like it, you should have thought about that when we had the AV referendum.

Of course, this result is an arithmetic fiction. Labour won’t split neatly in half (the worst possible outcome in a first-past-the-post system), and more generally a catastrophe like this would not occur through a neat two-party swing without a lot of strategic swirls to shape its position on the ground.

But in 1983, when the SDP walked away from the Labour party, it took about a quarter of Labour voters with them. Some of that is already priced into the poll numbers. But even with just 10% of current Labour voters splitting off, the government could expect to take about 42 seats. Parliamentary maths turns that into a majority of 100.

But there’s always a ‘but’

Based on that, you think someone from CCHQ should be out picking the battle-bus already. But before they start checking the sockets and steaming the Boris off the back seats, I offer one cautious question. Where have the Remain voters gone?

March for Europe
I’ll put you both down as ‘undecided’, shall I?

If my twitter feed is anything to go by, Remain voters are still somewhat upset. They are unlikely to be voting Tory any time soon.  And what we saw from the Scottish referendum is that when people are mobilised in a referendum, they often go through quite a fundamental change in their political identity. Dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters looked in the mirror and suddenly realised that they now voted SNP.

I don’t know where the Never-Leave camp will end up. But the Liberal Democrats are the ones making the clearest and most direct pitch for their support, drawing on a long and committed history of pro-European activism. And while this isn’t showing up in a big Lib Dem surge in current polls, I’d be very surprised if it didn’t manifest itself over the next 18 months.

The last election was all about the Tories stealing Lib Dem votes. The next election could well see those same voters flooding back. In West London, where I live, the Tories have driven out all but one Lib Dem MP; but with stonking Remain majorities I think they are very vulnerable here. Other seats, like Bath or Oxford East, also look primed to fall.

In addition, the Tory victories in these seats was driven in a large part by a belief that it was a choice between Cameron or Miliband. While people might choose Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn, it won’t feel like the same kind of decision. If anything, the Lib Dems can make a convincing claim that it would be folly to give the Tories that kind of power without an effective opposition.

So I suspect there could be 15-40 seats where a Lib Dem resurgence could eat into that Tory electoral margin. And human beings are loss-averse – one seat likely to be lost feels more real than one ready to be won. Especially when losing eight of them means you’re a minority government. Without Labour disarray, an election becomes very risky.

Never mind if; when?

Setting aside whether this is a good idea, an election definitely is not a good idea right now. Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake, and at this moment both Labour and UKIP are busy destroying themselves. Another six months of self-destruction leaves more time and space for the coup de grace. The thing the Tories really want is to go into the election fighting an officially divided Labour party, busy screwing each other out of voters.

But the longer they wait, the more time government has to be pinned to a plan for Brexit. Right now, the government position satisfies about 75% of the country – the people have spoken and we promise to try and figure out what they said. The negatives of having to choose, and potentially getting quite a poor deal, have yet to filter through. When the choices are explicit, the politics becomes a lot more complicated. Given that the government will be seeking a compromise, it can expect to be attacked from both sides.

There’s probably a sweet spot in early 2017 – long enough for Labour to be in open warfare; soon enough that Brexit still feels like a distant thing happening to other people.

And…?

While I stop here, there are still plenty of surprises lurking in the shadows. If Labour splits, does anti-Corbyn Labour partner up with the Lib Dems? Is the Tory party immune to splits, or is there mischief to come? Where is Scotland in all of this? Will the politics of parliament find a way around the ballot box? There’s room for a book’s worth of caveats.

But as things stand there are good reasons for an election, and soon. And there’s no fixed terms parliament act in the world that’s capable of stopping them.

Corbynwatch – the drama continues

You know you’ve got too much news when, for most of a week, the catastrophic disintegration of a major political party struggles to make the front page. Spare a particular thought for Angela Eagle, whose leadership launch had the misfortune of clashing with Andrea Leadsom withdrawing from the Tory contest – meaning that as she set out her vision for the party, all of the top journalists were running for the exits. At the Q&A at the end, she was left talking to a half-empty room.

hqdefault
Anyone? Anyone?

As someone who admires effective politicians, you can’t help but be impressed by the Tories – a shock leadership contest completely resolved in sixteen days. By contrast, the Labour party will be publicly banging its head against a wall from now until late September. Throw the Trident vote into the middle of that, and political journalism will start to resemble investigating a rail wreck and counting the body parts.

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, we’ve been watching to see whether his leadership could be made to work in the general terms of Westminster – new electoral ground broken; government forced to climb down; etc. In those terms, Corbyn has failed. We are now into a very different contest: not a courtship of the public, but a messy and spiteful divorce, complete with thrown bricks and death threats.

It’s so intractable because at the its heart there is a clash of two completely watertight mandates.

  • As leader of the opposition, Corbyn is expected to be the person most able to form a government if the ruling party gives way. His mandate is established by his ability to carry something approaching a parliamentary majority, and to mobilise the biggest team to hold the government to account. Corbyn can’t do this.
  • But as leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn has a direct mandate from the membership. His job is to stand up for what Labour members believe. In terms of the party constitution, authority radiates from this position, and not from his abilities in Parliament. Corbyn’s mandate here is still strong.

This is a muddle, created by the mistaken opinion that more democracy is always a good thing. In practice, split authorities are usually a deadlock waiting to happen (just look at Congress in the US). And when people insist on completely ignoring all but one source of authority, the results rarely look democratic.

For most of us, the hint’s in the name. It’s ‘leader of the opposition’, not ‘opponent in chief’. But Corbyn’s claim is entirely in terms of the latter.

It’s not impossible to reconcile these two requirements. You could argue that the leader of the Labour arty needs to be able to do both, or has to go. Alternatively, you could imagine a Labour party where Corbyn has a title of ‘leader’, and someone else is the public face. In the event of a win, that person becomes PM with Corbyn hovering behind their shoulder as the party’s spiritual leader. But the first has been tried, and the second would require a heavy reworking of the party constitution, which isn’t going to happen half-way through a leadership contest.

And it also doesn’t address something deep in Labour’s soul. For a decent part of Labour’s membership, victory is a dirty word. In their mental thesaurus, you’d find it next to ‘compromise’. The head of Momentum prompted astonishment early in the week with the tweet below.

lansman

This conflict is anything but new. It was best shown in the 1920s and 30s in another battle for the soul of the Labour party. Ramsay MacDonald was Britain’s first Labour PM. The reason very few people have heard of him is that he is pretty much damnatio memoriae within the party because of his reaction to the economic crisis following the Wall Street Crash.

His own party wouldn’t back him and his Chancellor on an austerity programme. In 1931, unable to get any business done at a time of national crisis, he tried to form a National Government with the Tories. His followers reacted by expelling him and his friends from the party; there was a snap election where Labour lost 235 seats and the man left in charge was a sainted, otherworldly pacifist called George Lansbury.

quote-i-would-close-every-recruiting-station-disband-the-army-and-disarm-the-air-force-i-would-george-lansbury-75-42-61
Meanwhile, in Germany…

Post-Iraq, the Labour party is dominated by the Lansbury wing. The New Statesman recently pointed out that three quarters of the Labour party membership are ABC1s – affluent people – and most are living in the south east and London. It’s an ideological commitment far more than it is an upsurge of the working masses.

I’m wary of calling this leadership election. It’s wrong to assume that former Corbyn voters will stick with him, after his catalogue of disasters. The electorate in this contest is sufficiently weird that you can predict little. However:

  • There are 180,000 new Labour members since May 2015 – almost half the party – and I’m willing to bet they break more for Corbyn than against.
  • The unions are still backing Corbyn, and will bring their own votes to bear.
  • The moderates haven’t found anyone compelling as an alternative.
  • Labour’s capacity to vote for electoral suicide is already proven.

So I think Corbyn’s chances are pretty good. Which, for those of us who would like at least the threat of Labour winning a general election, is very bad news.

Normally, I’m very clear that political parties in the UK never split. It’s just too costly and has little chance of success. But this is different. It’s too fundamental a question about what Labour is there for. After the loss of Scotland, there’s a sense that nothing is safe and that no Labour MP can guarantee their own job. Right now, 36% of Labour voters think Jeremy Corbyn would make the best PM, and 40% say Theresa May. Before the last election, Ed Miliband was getting 73%, and that was judged disastrous.

Against such a backdrop, the costs of cooperation may be greater than those of disloyalty. Unless Corbyn loses, this story isn’t going to be over.

The biggest news of the past week?

I’ll admit, that if you’re going to come and claim something as the biggest political news of the past week, you’ve got a bit of competition. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, with hindsight, the decision of Nigel Farage to step down as UKIP leader (properly, this time) could end up as the most important.

As predictions go, this may sound a little eccentric; and you may require a little convincing to make you think me borderline sane.

For a long time now, UKIP has been the dog that didn’t bark of British politics. Set aside the Leave vote for a moment (where UKIP were treated as a hindrance more than an asset); for twenty years, UKIP has been a party banging its head against a brick wall. At the last general election they managed to pick up almost 13% of the vote, but lost half of their seats. For years, people have predicted UKIP as a major force in the future of British politics, but time after time it fails to turn up.

This is a double puzzle to me. First off, people are fed up with politics. That seems to be a general consensus that Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are all led by besuited Oxbridge graduates who get into public life with the intention of fiddling their expenses. Setting aside the fact that UKIP MEPs mostly are suit-wearing ex-bankers who treat their expense accounts like an EU-funded research programme into cutting edge accountancy fraud, the fact is that they successfully sell themselves as representatives of ordinary people. If you want to protest against the system, they’re ready and waiting for you.

Second, if you share my belief that the politics of the 21st century is likely to be as much about the case for or against globalisation, UKIP are the only party able to stand firmly on the side of stopping the multinational whirl. For people who experience globalisation as unemployment and marginalisation, UKIP should be the natural party that they vote for.

So why has the story of UKIP been one of such failure? Well, I think it’s obvious…

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage reacts during a media interview outside the Marquis of Granby, Westminster in central London
Useless.

Nigel Farage is a lousy politician. I don’t say that just because he’s widely loathed by the chattering classes – indeed this was in some ways his greatest/only political asset. But he is outright dreadful at the things that politicians need to be good at if they are to build a serious political party.

  • He was no good at political tactics. When he ran for Parliament in 2010, he thought the best thing he could do to engage with the voters in the final hours of the campaign was fly a plane 10,000 feet above their heads.
  • He’s equally poor at strategy, having no sense of prioritising key seats or important areas. UKIP’s successes, such as Rotherham or Heywood and Middleton, tend to be locally led.
  • He can’t build a coalition – he’s managed to trigger parliamentary rebellions in a party with only one MP; and the party’s national executive is about as fissiparous as a debating society made out of student poets.

His one strength has been getting the TV cameras to look at Nigel Farage; and he’s never seemed to wonder whether there’s anything more to UKIP’s success than that.

As a result, UKIP has never built a party capable of winning in the British political system. It hasn’t even needed tactical voting to keep them out – as the losses at the last election in Thanet South and Castle Point, where the Tory and Labour votes were dead-split, went to show. Instead, they flutter round the margins in proportional representation systems like the Welsh Assembly elections, which are purposefully designed to make sure that all have prizes.

All of which has obscured the fact that UKIP is standing in front of the biggest open goal in British politics. There are seats in the north of England that have voted for Labour every election since the General Strike. They have continued doing this, particularly over the past twenty years, even as the party has become more and more in the sway of metropolitan leftist cliques. Blair, Miliband and now Corbyn have only served to make that alienation worse. The only thing lower than their turnout is their Guardian readership; and last month they voted heavily in favour of Leave.

Right now, there isn’t really an opposition party in England’s northern cities. The Lib Dems were close to becoming one, taking control of serious councils and some hard industrial seats like Redcar. All that disappeared when Clegg signed up for the coalition, and (in net terms) UKIP picked up the voters. With a bit of focused effort, there are a great many seats that could be terribly vulnerable.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 12.10.13.png
Second-place parties in the core Northern cities, 2015 General Election. Hard-pressed areas like Sheffield, Rotherham and East Manchester are already turning purple.

This may sound far-fetched. Labour still gets more than 50% of the vote in many of its northern constituencies. But the same was true in many Scottish seats as recently as 2010 – and all but one of them turned SNP-yellow on election night. That all took place on the back of a referendum where many thousands of voters suddenly rethought their traditional allegiance, and wondered whether their interests were best served by continuing voting the way their great-grandparents had.

When Red Clydeside switched to the SNP, the Labour Party arguably lost the chance of ever being in majority government again. If UKIP pulls the same trick in Tyneside, in Yorkshire and in Lancs, then the Labour Party is as dead as the Liberals of Lloyd George. This fact isn’t lost on Labour – this is why the efforts to remove Corbyn are as fierce and universal as they are.

There have long been plenty of push factors to stop people voting Labour in these areas. But a new UKIP leader might, for the first time, figure out a way to pull them in.

And if that happens, then we have a real revolution on our hands – a genuine populist, anti-establishment political party, as troubling to the status quo as Labour was a century and a half before. Compared to that, the choice of the next Prime Minister is a trivial thing.