About nharriss1971

Corporate finance adviser by day, commentator on economics and politics (and a few other things) in ways that don't fit into any particular box by night. Arsenal fan, history geek and purveyor of quips.

A Solution to the House of Lords

The recent vote against the proposed Tax Credit changes by the House of Lords, despite having previously been been voted through by the House of Lords, has once again raised a question of the legitimacy of the UK’s second chamber, albeit from the opposite side of the political spectrum than most previous demands for change.  While the Lords has changed significantly over the last 20 years, with the vast majority of the hereditary peers now gone, it is now overloaded with appointed peers, totalling 821, (plus another 41 who are currently disqualified or on leave of absence), with no retirement age, and lacks democratic legitimacy.  Set against that, the lack of elections results in peers being rather less malleable to party whips and independent of thought than their colleagues in the House of Commons, who are never more than 5 years from having to stand for election.

So is there a way to combine the benefits of the appointed House of Lords while adding democratic legitimacy?  I believe there can be.

Size

First, the size of the Lords has to be limited.  I would set this 750, with a retirement age of 70 (the same as judges), and a 15 year term for each peer, with no second term.

Appointed Peers

The Lords certainly benefits from the expertise of non-political appointed peers, and I believe it would be a shame to lose this entirely.  I would therefore propose 150 of the 750 be appointed cross-benchers, 50 retiring and being replaced at the end of each 5 year parliament.

Democratic Element

The remaining 600 peers would reflect the results of elections, but rather than change dramatically at each election, there are benefits from a degree of continuity, so I would propose they be based on an average of the popular vote at the last three elections.  The representation of parties would be limited to those who averaged 5%+ in the last three elections, with allowance made for the smaller nations by including the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies in proportion to their population, while for England the UK General Election results would be used.  As with the appointed element, one third would retire at the end of each 5 year parliament and their replacements reflecting the change in those averages in the elections during the term.  The peers themselves would be selected by their parties in whatever method they choose.  This model would give the following party split:

Conservatives 211
Labour 205
Liberal Democrats 109
UKIP 33
Scottish National Party 18
Plaid Cymru 6
DUP 5
SF 5
SDLP 3
UUP 3
Alliance 1
600

Nick

A Pivot to China or Just a Pivot?

Much comment has been made about President Xi’s visit, with claims of selling out both the jobs of steelworkers and the human rights of minorities in the PRC, alongside others regarding the commercial benefits.  The most interesting comments in my view however, have come from across the Atlantic, with, for example, Foreign Policy magazine saying:

“That has plenty of observers in the United States and the U.K. fretting that Osborne’s courtship of China threatens the decades-old special relationship that has long served as the keystone of the trans-Atlantic alliance. While the White House publicly downplays the significance of the Sino-British embrace — “the United States welcomes strong relations between our allies and China,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday — many U.S. diplomats are privately said to be “incandescent” with rage at Britain. And many in Britain, from former officials to current opposition politicians, have excoriated what they see as a British sell-out to Beijing.”

(http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/21/u-k-china-cement-growing-friendship-with-big-nuclear-deal-hinkley-xi-osborne/?wp_login_redirect=0)

Considering the Obama administrations on well publicised “pivot” to Asia”, it might be argued that Cameron and Osborne are merely following their lead.  I would however like to put a different perspective on it.  

Since Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979, Britain, under both Conservative and Labour administrations has followed an essentially similar foreign policy: junior partner to the USA in global matters while trying to drag the EU in a more free-market, pro-NATO, neo-liberal direction.  While most people will not remember, or at least not remember well, anything different, this was not always the case.  While I do not wish to delve into the into the policy of “European Balance of Power” that had dominated Britain’s foreign policy for centuries until World War I, during the intervening 65 years the policy was much more multi-polar.  While not always successful (notably the failure to prevent the circumstances that led to World War II), it was nuanced.  Clement Attlee tried to sail a middle ground between the USA and USSR, at least to begin with., and in 1950 the UK was the first western government to recognise the People’s Republic of China.  The Conservative administrations of the 1950s and early 1960s tried to combine decolonisation with an effort to turn the Commonwealth into an economic relationship and one into which the European efforts at integration (EFTA and EEC) might be combined.  Harold Wilson in the 1960s avoided entanglement in Vietnam, while many of the difficulties in the negotiations for joining the EEC by Wilson and Heath and subsequent re-negotiation by Wilson revolved around ongoing trade relationships with Commonwealth members.

So does this week’s visit by President Xi mark a pivot to a more diverse foreign policy?  Maybe not by itself but let us look at other events:

  • The UK was the first western country to apply to join the Chinese sponsored Asian Infrastructure Development Bank in March 2015, at a time when America was rather hostile to what it saw as a rival to the US-led World Bank.
  • The current government’s policy of re-negotiation of Britain’s EU membership (whether it is successful or not) is aimed at somewhat loosening these ties.
  • Philip Hammond re-opened the UK embassy in Tehran in August and immediately made efforts to strengthen trade ties with Iran, while Washington remains much more cautious.

Next month sees the visit of India’s Prime Minister Modi to the UK, and possibly a similarly warm welcome as given to President Xi.

Creating a more multi-dimensional foreign policy will not be easy, but if it can be achieved, it may well offer many benefits.

Nick

Europe & Migration

It appears to be impossible to read/watch/listen to the news without the interrelated topics of migration, immigration and refugees being raised.  Whether it is people fleeing the wars of the Middle East, young workers of central Europe seeking greater opportunities or populist politicians calling the end is neigh like Chicken Lickin, the subject is most certainly topical.  On one side are humanitarian calls to help those risking life and limb to make treacherous journeys to reach the European Union (“EU”) and then onward to preferred countries, while on the other the concerned calls of those who fear that public services will be overwhelmed, housing shortages exacerbated and wage rates undermined.

Is it possible to have a rational debate and look at matters in a logical manner in such an emotionally charged environment?

My first thought is that if ever there was a matter that is best addressed at an EU level, it is this.  The movements of populations are multi-faceted.  From outside the EU, there are refugees from war zones, those seeking relief from grinding poverty, while within the EU there are the young workers of the less-developed East and recession-ridden South seeking opportunities in the more economically buoyant countries of the North, while in the other direction many retirees (or semi-retired) from the cold, wet, bustling North seek sun and a slower pace of life in the countries of the Mediterranean.  Even within the larger and more successful economies of the UK and Germany, there are significant internal migrations from the areas with fewer opportunities to those with more.  Separately, but with long term relevance to the conversation, the EU native-born population is is in decline due to low birth rates concurrently with it ageing due to the post-1945 baby boom and the longevity benefits of first-class health and social services.

So what we see is not a movement of people in a single direction, nor a universal social situation, but something substantially more complex.

My question is why these issues are not looked at in the whole?  While cities like London and Munich might be drawing in migrants from both within their own countries and the wider EU, how many a former Yorkshire mining village, industrial town of Thuringia or rural town in Limousin is slowly dying because it is being drained of those with ambition and energy as they head to the cosmopolitan delights of London, Berlin or Amsterdam?  Notice must be taken of the flows of migration within the EU and within individual countries, but it is a fallacy that Europe is full and cannot accommodate these refugees.  Would these communities not benefit from an injection of new blood, just as over many years London has benefitted from waves of immigration, and more recently, Leicester benefited from the entrepreneurial spirit of the Ugandan Asians who arrived in the early 1970s?  However, such communities cannot be just left to their own devices; they will need support, and again, this needs to be delivered on a pan-EU scale if it is to be done properly.  The quid pro quo for this is that those coming to Europe as refugees would need to understand that their residence within the EU would be predetermined until they had established their new economic position.

Migration is rarely an economic negative in the longer term; the people who have the determination to make such a journey will have the drive to make a positive life for themselves in their new home.  Let us stop being and look at the opportunities instead.

Nick

The Corbyn Breakthrough

Like most Arsenal supporters, I had long bemoaned the team’s lack of a good defensive midfielder, and then, during the height of last Autumn’s injury crisis, a player who had been on Arsenal’s books since 2008 was recalled from the latest of three loans, this one to Charlton Athletic, Francis Coquelin.  Mr Coquelin had been written off by most, and it had been anticipated that he would be sold, but since then he has played almost every game and has blossomed into a first rate player; he had the proverbial “breakthrough year”.  But this article is not about football, it is about politics, and Mr Coquelin’s sudden rise from the reserves is an analogy for the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Corbyn/Coquelin comparison bears comparison on other levels as well.  Not only were they both forgotten by their team/party, but Francis’ adherence to some of the traditional tenets of football such as strong tackles, headed clearances and interceptions in amongst a team of football artists, has comparisons with Jeremy’s move to traditional Labour policies such as nationalisation and close union links among a the spin and artistry of New Labour.  But enough of my admiration of Le Coq…………

So far the reactions to Mr Corbyn’s rise appears to fall into three camps; I shall call them Left Center and Right.  For the Left he is loved, a prophet who has spent the proverbial (and almost literal) 40 years in the wilderness, and believe him to be a genuinely positive influence.  The Centre hate him because they see a leader of the opposition that they believe is unelectable, and thus result in a Conservative victory in 2020, even if they have sympathy for his policies.  The Right hate his policies with an almost evangelical zeal, but they equally love the idea of him becoming leader for the same reason the Centre hate him.

I would like to suggest another reason why a Corbyn election would be positive, and that is the difference between management and democracy.  The last general election saw the three major parties having a fundamental economic policy that was pretty much the same:

  • Conservative – Move into budget surplus before 2020, funded by spending reductions;
  • Labour – Move into budget surplus, excluding capital expenditure, by 2020, funded by balance of spending reductions and tax increases; and
  • LibDems –  Move into budget surplus before 2020, funded by spending reductions and tax increases.

That is an example, but fundamentally the same applied to all areas of policy that I can think of.  They all basically had similar policies, and all people were being asked is who they believed would manage the process best.  I am 44 years old, and have voted in the 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 elections, and with the possible exception of 1992 (I’m afraid my memory is rather faded as to Kinnock’s manifesto), all I have ever been asked in the intervening years is who I believe will manage the process better.  However, my 49 year old self might be faced with a very different prospect in 2020.

To my mind, democracy is about the presentation of ideas and policies to an informed electorate, from which they can make a clear choice as to which they believe is best; it has to be about more that tweaking at the edges like a budget being approved at a chain of coffee bars, and the decisions coming down to 500 or 525 locations of the ratio of couches to dining chairs.  If it is not about something more than modest tweaking, let’s save ourselves some money and just have some sort of rota involving all those who sat PPE at Oxford.  

A Corbyn-led Labour Party would without doubt have a very different set of policies to a Cameron/Osborne/Johnson led Conservative Party.  Is nationalisation of the railways the right policy?  Should we scrap the UK nuclear deterrent?  Is there an alternative economic policy?  Surely in a democracy these are questions that people should have the right to vote on, whether or not you choose that the policy of the current Conservative government are right or not.  I believe that Britain’s membership of the European Union is a positive, that we should remain in it, and that changes and reforms will be slow due to the nature of the beast.  Equally I believe that the policy of holding a referendum on continued membership is the right decision and that David Cameron certainly gained support at the last election as a result.  The unwillingness of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to back such a referendum just fed the views of many that those in power just desired a steady state; that is not democracy and they rightly suffered.

Much is made by the Centre (as I described them earlier) that Mr Corbyn is unelectable because the “mass media” will rise up in unison against him and the electorate of lemmings will scurry unquestionably in to the polling booths.  I note similar claims were made them as regards the poor performance of the Labour Party in the general election and that UKIP and Tory Eurosceptics are already anticipating the same come the EU Referendum.  Really?  Have you slept through the last 20 years?  The newspaper industry is dying on its feet because so few people are buying a daily paper.  TV viewing is increasingly being dominated by streaming, downloads and scheduled recordings.  Instead information is flowing through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blog sites, newsfeeds and an amalgam of other methods that would not even have been imagined when messrs Blair, Brown and Mandelson rolled out the New Labour experiment, and this trend will accelerate.  Are enough people engaged in the process?  No, but neither do they slavishly do what their daily newspaper tells them to do; both ignorance and information have been democratised.

Will enough people in the right mix of constituencies vote in the 2020 general election for a Corbyn-led Labour Party?  Who knows, but if they don’t, it will not be because Rupert Murdoch tells them not to; the Sun will no longer have won it for anybody.  They will have lost because people chose the policies of the Conservatives or they will have won it because people wished to have different policies, but either way it will have been a victory for democracy.  Who knows, the jolt to the system may even result in the LibDems rediscovering what it is to be a true liberal party and the British electorate may be able to choose between conservative, liberal and socialist choices (plus green and nationalist) for the first time in my adult life; I am looking forward to it.

Nick

The Black Swan of the Labour Leadership Race

Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership election slate by the skin of his teeth, but my gut feel is that he will be considerably more successful in the final ballot. While Mr Corbyn is clearly well to the left of most members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, amongst grass roots Labour Party members, that is not so obviously the case. Add in the changes to the voting system, which has replaced the electoral college system with a one “Member”, one vote system.

The intriguing aspect however is that it is not just full members of the Labour Party who count as “Members” for voting purposes, but also includes the new category of “Registered Supporters”. The idea behind “Registered Supporters” was to encourage members of Trades Unions and other Labour-affiliated organisations who were not full Labour Party members to also vote in the election, although it is not limited to such.

So why do I think My Corbyn might do so well? Well, there are three (and possibly a cheeky fourth) reasons I think so:

1) Within the Labour Party’s existing 221k members, I would suggest that the individuals are generally more left leaning than the MPs. Kendall is clearly the candidate of the right, but the Blairite wing appears to have minority support among the grass roots. Cooper and Burnham hold positions very close to Ed Milliband and there appears little to choose policy wise between them, and are likely to split the centre vote. Corbyn as the candidate of the left may well find himself well up there just among the membership alone.

2) Within the Trades Union movement, which has now lost its block votes, I would speculate that the more politically active, and thus the more likely to register as supporters and vote, will be more left leaning than the membership of the unions as a whole.

3) Those people who have left Labour over the years, disenchanted by its move under Tony Blair to the centre, and who voted LibDem in 2005 and 2010 or Green in 2015, as well as those who support far left parties such as Respect and Trades Unionist and Socialist Coalition, might see this as an opportunity to move Labour distinctly to the left.

4) And here is the cheeky one. There appears to be nothing to prevent those who have no sympathy for the Labour Party whatsoever from registering as supporters. Many supporters of the Conservatives, LibDems or UKIP may feel that they have a better chance in the future facing a Corbyn led party than any of the alternatives.

Who Does the Conservative Party Represent?

I recently wrote a post about who the Labour Party represents and thought it would make sense to follow this up with a similar article about the Conservatives, especially with the Budget fresh in everybody’s mind.

The simplest starting point and to connect with the previous article is probably to say who they do not represent.  Two of the groups mentioned in the previous article are clearly not favoured by Conservative policies: those working in the public sector (circa 11.7% of voters, and referred to henceforth as “Public Servants”), who have seen significant job cuts and low pay settlements; and those who may or may not work, but who rely primarily on support through the benefit system, who have seen measures such as the benefits cap, tougher Housing Benefit (notably the so called “bedroom tax”), Jobseeker’s Allowance and Disability Benefit rules (estimated at 15% of voters, based on number of Council Tax benefit claimants plus 1m people, and referred hereafter as “State Beneficiaries”).

Next the relatively simple identification of clear groups that Conservative policies have favoured, at least relative to Labour.  Those with high incomes (>£150,000) or significant properties will certainly be better off based on stated tax policies, and anybody earning >£52,000 and contributing to a pension will be better off although the amounts are dependent on the level of income and contributions.  Next, those who own significant (>£250,000) assets or businesses, while not having been the subject of specific tax policies, can reasonably surmise that they would be better off under the Tories.  So while certainly greater than the so called “1%”, it is probably fair to say that the top 10% (which will include a relatively small number in the public sector, so let us assume this 10% and the 11.7% mentioned in the previous paragraph are separate) in terms of either income or wealth would be better off under the Tories; for simplicity I shall refer to all of the above as the “Well Off”.

So, we have 10% of voters who are definitely represented by the Conservative Party and circa 27% who are certainly not; so that leaves 63% who are up for grabs.  These people, who I shall call the “Broad Working Class”, are the equivalent of those who in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 voted in droves for the Conservatives, and in 1997, 2001 and 2005 did the same for Tony Blair’s New Labour.  Now, it is unrealistic to think that 63% of voters are ever likely to be attracted to just one party’s policies, but gaining the majority of this Broad Working Class will dictate who wins this election.

As I posted last time, Labour’s problem is with attracting the Broad Working Class while not alienating State Beneficiaries at a time of austerity.  The Conservatives face a similar challenge; attracting the Broad Working Class without alienating the Well Off, however the electoral maths are somewhat different.  Neither the Well Off nor the State Beneficiaries have historically had anywhere else to go in electoral terms; this time it remains true of the Well Off but not the State Beneficiaries.  The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party are all promoting anti-austerity policies that would appeal to State Beneficiaries, plus many may decide just not to vote.  For the Conservatives, the challenge on the right comes from UKIP, which as a populist movement is more a challenge for the Broad Working Class than the Well Off, who in turn are more likely to vote than State Beneficiaries.

So does the Conservative Party represent the Broad Working Class, or at least enough of it to win the election?  What does this week’s Budget indicate?  I think it shows that the current Coalition is representing the Broad Working Class, but it is less clear that the Conservative Party does.  Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander may have severely damaged the electoral prospects of the Liberal Democrats, but they do appear to have focussed the Coalition policies more towards the Broad Working Class than the Well Off; the Conservatives went into the 2010 election with tax cutting focussed on Inheritance Tax, but the Coalition’s primary tax cut has been to raise the tax threshold massively, a tax cut whose benefits reduce for people earning over £100,000 and eliminated if you earn over £150,000.   The policies have been harsh, and there are no doubt that many people have and are suffering as a result, notably among the Public Servants and the State Beneficiaries, but equally, those policies are increasingly having a positive impact on many of the Broad Working Class.  Record levels of employment, low inflation and interest rates, and finally rising wage levels and now starting to make the feel better off, and perhaps the biggest concern amongst many Broad Working Class Voters would be whether a Conservative only government would be less interested in them.

No party has published its manifesto yet, but the indications are that the Conservatives cannot help but lurch towards issues that appeal to a vocal element of its core membership, but which carry only a minority interest in the wider population.  The obsession with Europe and the EU is the most obvious, especially following the UKIP success at the European Parliament elections last year, but other issues such as ending the hunting ban and further Trade Union legislation (notably where it appears one sided, e.g. you have to get a higher number of members voting for a strike, but we will not allow you to make it easier to vote through the use of online voting).  Like with the tax issue, the Liberal Democrats appear to have helped keep such niche matters off the legislative table.

If David Cameron wishes to gain a second term as Prime Minister, he needs to ignore the crazier elements of his own party and focus on a manifesto that looks more like the current coalition policies.  Secretly, I think he rather hopes he has to have Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander back round the Cabinet table; they make for far more sensible colleagues than many a noisy Tory back bencher.  If there was an option to vote “Current Coalition” on the voting papers in May, I would anticipate it would be getting a far better current poll performance than the Tories on their own.

Nick

Who Does the Labour Party Represent?

With UK general election just 7 weeks away and the two major parties neck and neck, I have been consuming a lot of political media.  While doing this, a question has come to me:

“Who does the Labour Party Represent?”, and the follow on question, “Does the Labour Party know the answer?”

Firstly we had John Cruddas (http://bit.ly/1BZKyI2), Labour’s policy co-ordinator, said the 115-year old party could simply “disintegrate in real time”.

Then there have been three interesting articles in The Guardian in the last couple of days. First from Rachel Reeves, the Shadow work and pensions secretary (http://bit.ly/1BZrQjV), in which she stated “Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.”. Her position (which should be read beyond that simple quote) by party activist Emma Burnell (http://bit.ly/1Euz5NZ) the following day, the original article having garnered a lot of comment. Finally, this morning, campaigner Jack Monroe wrote (http://bit.ly/1BZt8LN) how she had left the Labour and joined the Green Party due to their more left-leaning policies.

At the most basic historical level, Ms Reeves is correct; the Labour Party was established by the Trade Union movement to represent the interests or working people in Parliament. So is she correct in her objective?

I personally do not believe it represents the broader working class anymore due to the near elimination of Trade Union membership in the private sector (only 14.4% – 2.6m people), while the strong position of the Trade Unions in the public sector (55.4% – 3.8m people) means Labour has become increasingly a vehicle and voice for those in the public sector. Within those private sector union membership figures, it also needs to be recognised that many of employers where membership numbers are strong are former nationalised businesses such as utilities, mail and railways where a public service ethos remains in place. This is not meant as either a positive or negative analysis, merely that any organisation reflects the the make-up of its membership. It is also clear from the background of many Labour MPs, councilors and activists that it has become the vehicle and voice for many of those engaged in the charitable and campaigning sectors.

From a perspective of attracting significant further voters beyond that core, the comments of Ms Reeves an Ms Burnell on one side and Ms Monroe on the other reflect the two paths available: 1) those workers in the private sector, including the self-employed, who are receiving little or no benefits, but have no other means of support beyond their wage; or, 2) those who may work or not, but who rely primarily on support through the benefit system.

In recent history, certainly during the Blair and Brown administrations, Labour successfully appealed to both these groups, but in 2010, it lost the support of group (1). Its difficulty in appealing to both groups is that the public purse will not stretch to support both. If you have policies that appeal to group (2), you have no option but to increase taxes on group (1); it is economic illiteracy to think that all the money needed to reverse public sector austerity can come from “the rich” (normally defined as anybody earning 20%+ than the person saying the words “the rich”) alone; Denis Healy tried that in the 1970s and it doesn’t work. Those in group (1) generally feel they are paying enough of a burden already, so do not wish to pay more to reverse austerity on group (2).

At the moment Labour appear to be trying to appeal to both groups by fudging that difficult position, but the closer we get to the election, I think they will have to lean one way of the other.  My own view would be that Ms Reeves is right, and Labour needs to get back to being a party of the broad working class (i.e. those who need to work rather than having their own capital) rather than being, as it increasingly is, a pressure group for the public sector and public services. Otherwise Mr Cruddas may be right.

Nick

Ferguson

The last week has seen much comment on the events in Ferguson, and I don’t propose to comment on the case itself; there has been enough comment already and passions on both sides are already inflamed enough.

Instead, I would like to comment on the broader issues; I think the issue of Police brutality is a symptom not the cause of the problem, and just treating the symptom never cures the disease.

The American culture has always been based on a zero sum game of winners and losers; it is the ugly dark side of all the things that in many ways make America such a great country: entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, self sufficiency and sense of adventure.  Those ugly aspects have included: taking land by force from the natives; enslaving Africans, then oppressing their descendants; exploiting cheap labour from China/Latin America (both in country and immigrants); and fighting wars (some overtly and some covertly) to control resources and strategic locations.  

Just look at the history of labour disputes and trade unions in the US; they have been far more violent than in the UK, France or Germany, despite American workers being paid more. It was common for the National Guard to be called in and strikers to be shot right up until World War 2.

To stop young black men being shot will require a change of culture: the people need to stop obsessing about money and material possession, guns have to removed from everyday society and education rather than celebrity should be the aspiration of the society.

People need to start thinking beyond themselves and their immediate family.  One would hope those who have been blessed with success would be the most generous in helping.  This is not a matter a race or social class, applying equally to the Silicon Valley CEO buying another yacht as it does to a rapper buying yet another Ferrari.  Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have shown a how this can be done, so lets hope others will follow.

The legal and political system needs to become more consensual, and quite frankly, more grown up.  Much of the debate this week has been about whether the grand jury made the right decision regarding the Michael Brown case.  I would ask a different question; could they have come up with any different decision based on the law as it stands.  The American legal system appears to accept the right to resort to deadly violence (whether it is the police, other government agencies or individuals) in so many situations , and guns are so prevalent, that is it surprising that so many deaths occur?  America has roughly 5 times the homicide rate of France, Germany or the UK; is a constitutional right to bear arms really worth that?

And my final point is one of a culture of violence; again not an issue of race or class.  It equally applies to the white “good ole’ boys” with their love of guns and intolerance, to the “gangstas” with their profanities and glorification of drug dealing and objectification of women, or the large corporation putting the bottom line before the health of its workers or the local community.

Nick

Clear Blue Water

Last week saw the Conservatives hold their annual conference.  Like the Labour and UKIP conferences before them, there was a marked move towards their core supporter base, a move I for one applaud in all three cases (and I hope the Lib Dems follow the trend).

Having first become politically aware in the 1980’s, I look forward to an election like those of my youth, where the choices were clear and the policies made on the basis of conviction not focus groups.  The past two year has seen the passing of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn, two of the giants of politics during the past half century.  Love them or hate them, neither Benn nor Thatcher could ever be accused of being wishy-washy in their politics.

In these terms, David Cameron scores higher than either Ed Miliband or Nigel Farage.  While the latter two made speeches that they were clearly aimed at the faithful, both were rather long on rhetoric and rather short policies, especially those policies that might appeal more to the core than to the middle ground.  In comparison, the Tories policies such as increasing the threshold for the 40% tax band and focusing the burden of deficit reduction on working age benefits are certainly lines in the sand.

Now while I don’t doubt for one minute that this approach by Messrs Cameron, Osborne et al was driven by a desire to win back voters who are flirting with UKIP, this is likely to have a number of consequences on election day.  UKIP’s past record on producing coherent policies is up there with Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights.  UKIP, like the Scottish Nationalists in the recent referendum vote, appeal to voters’ emotions, some pretty base emotions, and while these get the blood pumping on the campaign trail, quite frequently cooler heads prevail at the ballot box, something that the Tories are likely to benefit from.

The big question for senior Tories however, is whether the gains on this front will outweigh any negative impact such an approach has on floating voters and those who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010.  Like Labour, the Tories conference speeches suggest that they will have their core vote well motivated, including in the case of the Tories, many who might have voted UKIP at this year’s European Parliamentary election.  But in 2010, the Lib Dems received 23% of the votes cast, a figure that increases to almost 30% if the non-nationalist minor parties are included.  How many of these votes that find their way (or not) to the two major parties will determine who wins, who loses and whether another coalition will be on the agenda.

It is clear that many voters with centre-left inclinations who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 have long since moved their support to Labour, as evidenced by the polling figures over the last couple of years.  What is less clear is how those votes are spread with reference to our first past the post voting system.  Labour gaining former Lib Dem votes in its northern urban heartland means very little in electoral term, just as the Conservatives winning back UKIP waverers in the Home Countries has minimal effect.

With the UK now showing a strong economic rebound, the Conservatives should reap electoral benefits, but the rather uneven distribution of the fruits of recovery may limit this, especially as the beneficiaries are quite likely to already be Tory voters.

So what does all this mean?  I think the only thing that is certain is that it is going to be close, and quite possibly the closest since the titanic struggle between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath in February 1974.

Nick

 

The UKIP Conundrum

Populism has a long and less than noble political history in many countries, but has never taken hold in Britain.  The closest we ever came was Oswald Mosely in the 1930’s with his rather diluted, anglicised version of Mussolini’s Fascists.

But this week Nigel Farage leads UKIP into its annual conference, riding high in the opinion polls and having just announced the defection of a second serving Conservative MP.  UKIP has long been viewed as little more than an offshoot of the Tories; a home for those who feel that the modern Conservative Party has abandoned the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.  My analysis of UKIP’s policies are that they are less a reincarnation of those propagated by the likes of Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit in the 1980s, and more akin to classic political populism.

By populism I mean that curious mix of elements of small “c” conservatism pulled from both left and right, and brought together in a way that plays on the insecurities of the masses, and whose leaders are always in search of some bucolic paradise that exists only in the collective myth.  Populism is often branded with the Fascist tag, a term which itself is rather too liberally (no pun intended) applied to any political views seen as being to the right of mainstream conservative parties.  True Fascism was peculiar to Mussolini’s Italy, but following its deemed success in its early years, many of the policies were adopted, adapted and combined additional elements, most famously by Hitler and his National Socialists in Germany, adding “racial purity” to the mix, Franco in Spain, who absorbed the Fascist inspired Falange into a mix of Catholic conservatism and old style military dictatorship, and Salazar’s Estado Novo in Portugal, which shared many similarities with Franco’s Nationalist regime, but rather less military inspired.  Although Mussolini’s Fascists started with a populist agenda, it soon headed down the authoritarian path; a model followed by the others mentioned.

Much better examples of populism are Juan Peron, the former president of Argentina, democratically elected three times in 1946, 1951 and 1973, and Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela, also elected three times, in 1998, 2000 and 2006.  Both had enjoyed successful military careers, an attribute that is frequently a prerequisite for political success in Latin America.  Both drew on the socialist policies of social welfare and unionised labour, combined with what would be viewed as more right wing policies in terms of nationalism and militarism, and an autarkic approach to economic development.

So is Nigel Farage Britain’s Peron or Chazez?  Well at first glance the answer would be a clear “no”, as all the media coverage portrays UKIP as simply a repository of dissatisfied, grumpy old Tories who just think the current Conservative leadership who have strayed from the path of righteousness.  This is backed up by the disgust with which the leading lights of left wing of British politics treats UKIP; you only have to listen to trade union leader or read to Guardian to see this.  However the modern left wing is greatly different from that of years past; the Labour Party is dominated by well educated professionals and the trade union movement by the public sector.  This has been a natural evolution, and as evidenced by Tony Blair’s three election victories, not an unsuccessful one.

But this success has meant that the Labour Party often finds itself distanced from the views of blue collar, white working class (especially men) who were once the bedrock of its support.  While this group may certainly distrust the Tories and share Labour’s views on public services, there are other policy areas where neither of the major parties (or the Lib Dems) appears in tune with this demographic.  In particular, this group sees itself as having been particularly hard hit by the impact of mass immigration and globalisation, the effects of which were felt just as much (if not more) during 13 years of Labour rule as they have been during the current administration; the European Union provides a simplistic target for both these factors.

Can Nigel Farage encourage this group to vote in large numbers for UKIP?  Well that is the 650 seat question.  Can a manifesto be put together that can appeal to both the blue collar white working class and Tebbit Tories?  So far UKIP has failed to put together a coherent policy portfolio of any kind, and has shown itself to be lacking in the kind of detail required of a government, but equally, are their target groupings those that are interested in such detail?  Policies that have universal support amongst the major parties (overseas aid levels in line with the Millennium Development Goals, gay marriage and other LGBT equality issues, free trade (such as EU and WTO memberships) and environmental policies) appear to carry little interests for these voter groups.

Populism generally appeals to if not the lowest common denominator, certainly to one that is not far up the scale, but as any TV scheduler or tabloid newspaper will tell you, such an approach can be very successful.  British politics (of all mainstream shades) has always worked and succeeded on the basis of “we know best”, and this patrician (in a non-gender sense) approach will be hard to break.  Will the British people fall for populism over patrician politics in 2015?  It may become the defining question of the forthcoming election.

Nick