Reflections on General Election 2017

First off, I have learned that I need to give up on making predictions about elections. After thinking Ed Miliband would win a majority in 2015, right up until the exit poll last week I was pretty sure the Conservatives would win a 100 seat majority in the 2017 General Election. Unlike in 2015, this was not just based on the media, polls and pundits but also on my experiences helping the campaign of the Conservative candidate for Leeds North West, Alan Lamb (pictured below with the victorious Labour candidate, Alex Sobel, at the count in Leeds Civic Centre, a little before the formal declaration).

Apart from a small amount of token campaigning during the 1992 election while I was a student this was the first General Election I had taken an active part in. That was in the safe Labour seat of Oxford East and at a time when the expectation of an overall win was so low that the Oxford University Conservative Association hadn’t even organised an event to watch the coverage of the results, let alone a party to celebrate the possibility of a win. When the 2017 election was called, a victory looked much more likely, even though coming from third in Leeds North West itself not particularly so. Not that it was entirely out of the question on paper – back in 2015, had there not been tactical voting by those who voted Conservative in the local elections here on the same day to support the LibDem, Greg Mulholland, who’d campaigned on the basis of “don’t let the two Eds destroy what we’ve achieved with the economy”, and instead had voted Conservative in the General Election too, the difference between the three main parties would have been a mere 1200 votes.

I’ll not go too much into the minutiae of the data here or nationally – that’s being pored over by many people far more expert than me and will be filling newspapers and articles for months to come. Instead I’ll share some of the things I learned from being closer to the actual action.

  • People are nice

One of my friends had commented that he expected that going round leafleting and speaking to people on the doorstep for the Tories would mainly involve me spending the day being told to eff off. In practice, that did not happen at all, the nearest being a handful of people (out of about 1500 houses I visited) handing their leaflet back or saying “no thank you” (and a couple of those added “nothing personal, I just never vote”).

There is also a problem about people being nice. It means that their natural politeness makes them say what they think you want to hear. Some people are keen to have an argument or to vent their frustration at you for your party, but most know that those things aren’t really your fault and you can’t do much about them. So we all rub along with people who come to our door and don’t pick a fight. This is why things like knocking up on the day of an election to persuade people to come out and vote right now are effective – those who are wavering are unlikely to be so rude as to say no and at that very moment, not saying no means that they only have to walk a couple of hundred yards to go along with you to the polling station.

  • People pay a lot more attention to what they’re voting for than they’re often credited with- policies matter a lot

From the discussions I had on the doorstep, it was clear that lots of people had actually read the leaflets they’d received and had paid some attention to the main points of the manifestos as they’d been presented in the media. Unfortunately this was a bit of a negative for a Conservative, because the weaknesses in the manifesto and how it had been presented were picked up on (in particular the proposals for social care and the withdrawal of universal free school meals which had widely been understood to be a complete abolition of them for everyone). Worse still, where there were good explanations to give, the usual response was “well why didn’t they just say that then?”.

This shows the importance of having a good and positive story to tell. While there were many serious holes that could be picked in the policies which Labour had in their manifesto, those policies were popular and easy for people to understand would, if brought in, provide them with things they liked and wanted. As I’ve blogged before, the NHS has been very important for my family as my mother has been seriously ill for most of the past 20 years and has spent about half of the past year in hospital so rewarding the doctors and nurses who work for the NHS is a good thing and something I’d support where possible. Merely (as unfortunately some Conservatives too easily do, including disappointingly  Theresa May on the Leaders’ BBC Question Time programme) saying it is impossible without a “magic money tree” is not a good look. There are serious and real practical problems about how to balance out increased spending on the NHS while making the whole economy function but those cannot and should not be reduced to unattractive soundbites which reinforce the stereotype of Conservatives not caring.

The reality is that everybody (apart from the tiny minority of ultra-libertarians) would like to see public services maintained and improved. Last summer, when I went to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership re-election rallies, I was irritated by the implicit narrative that only Labour cared. This was continued to the extent of the speaker introducing Corbyn at an event in Manchester during this election saying “I want a leader who gives a toss about stuff”. After all the work to stop being the “nasty Party” (ironically coined by Theresa May herself) under Cameron, it is not an improvement to let it stick in people’s minds that we’re now the “don’t give a toss about you Party”.

My personal view is that despite having apparent costings set out, the numbers for spending and raising revenue in the Labour manifesto were unrealistic and could not be achieved in practice. This would have meant that the tax increases proposed would not have yielded the money which apparently neatly paid for the spending increases, so those increases in spending would not have in fact materialised, while at the same time, they’d have damaged the economy to make future prospects for raising the money to pay for such things even less likely. Regardless of whether objectively the Coalition government of 2010-2015 succeeded in striking the right balance between raising revenue, spending it in the right places and cutting or limiting increases in the right things, the successful and positive message of the 2015 campaign of having a “Long Term Economic Plan” communicated this response to promises focused on just spending a lot more on all the things everyone likes. But having made a break from not just the approach to Brexit of David Cameron’s time as PM but also apparently the overall approach to government and the economy under him, there was a vacuum in the Conservatives’ economic message in the 2017 election. It is perhaps no surprise in this context that the Conservative manifesto was noticeably lacking in any numbers and the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, was conspicuously absent from the national campaign.

It did not have to be that way. The most interesting part of the Conservative Manifesto was its introductory section which spoke very clearly of a belief in the “good that government can do”. That could have been the platform for policies which were set out and explained as good in a persuasive way. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Whereas Labour were relentless in promoting themselves as “For the Many, Not the Few”, the Conservative message ultimately seemed like “Not for the Any”.

  • Most people are not very partisan or can put their party preference to one side

Whether they were primarily supporters of Labour or the Conservatives, I only heard one person have anything bad to say about Greg Mulholland (and he’d voted for him anyway because he didn’t want Labour to win). Everyone else was quick to say that they’d appreciated what a visible, approachable and active local MP he was, even if they had reasons for supporting one of the other candidates this time. Similarly, I met a pensioner who proudly pointed to the signs he’d put up in his local community with his Conservative councillor to make it a “no door to door sales zone” who also said that he’d only in the last week gone for a pint in the pub with Mulholland.

  • Negative personal campaigning only works if it is a surprise

For me, there are several aspects of Corbyn’s history and preferences which would make the idea of him being Prime Minister horrific. Regardless of whether he believed he was making a genuine contribution to securing peace in Northern Ireland, I think that inviting convicted IRA terrorists to have tea with him in Parliament only days after other IRA terrorists had killed five people at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton and hoped to murder the Prime Minister was a terrible thing to have done (as indeed the Labour leader at the time, Neil Kinnock said publicly). Ditto for his willingness to share a platform with people from Hamas and Hezbollah and to use “inclusive language” in describing them as friends. That contrasts with his refusal to share a platform with Cameron when he was notionally campaigning for Remain in the EU referendum and so meant to be on the same side. If you can be on the same side as terrorists whose violent methods to secure something you want by peace, you really ought to be able to stand alongside the Prime Minister of your own country when both urging people to vote to Remain in the EU. Related to his views on Palestine is the fine line between his opposition to the actions of Israel and the tolerance and support for anti-semitism which has reared its head among a significant section of his supporters.

But, all this and more is known and has been known by the public since at least Corbyn’s initial campaign to become leader. He’s been elected and re-elected as leader in that time. The only real conclusion on this that I can reach following the election result is that many people simply do not care very much about them, or at the very least are willing to accept very generous interpretations of his motivations in doing them. Much like at the opposite end of the political spectrum, many American voters were able to vote for Donald Trump even though he had provided multiple, recent, examples of views and behaviour which many others there and around the world thought appalling. These negatives have all already been priced in and do not reduce support. If anything, they might increase support among those who think it unfair to throw personal criticisms at their favoured candidate. Anything of this sort will therefore not have any adverse impact on Labour (or positive impact for anyone else) unless new and surprising because not of a piece with the stuff we already know. Short of Corbyn having acquired his £1m house in Islington by exercising his right as a council tenant to buy it at a discount and then released some equity to allow him to buy shares in Royal Mail, I’m not sure what would be in this category. Let it lie.

  • Money is not the big issue for campaigns, people are

Leaflets are cheap. Even ones which are posted through Royal Mail. The £12000 or so spending limit locally is very ample to cover sending at least half a dozen publications to everyone in a seat, and on top of that can be added the communications sent out from the parties on a national basis. What money can’t buy is having enough people to deliver, to go and talk to people and to remind them to turn up to the polling stations on the day itself. That’s where having lots of members and active supporters makes a huge difference.  But it is not just in the month or so of an election that this is important – it is needed the rest of the time too. Having councillors who know their part of a constituency well and have spent the previous few years regularly going around and listening to people and helping them with their problems helps to target the messages you send out and to identify those who agree, those who can be persuaded and those who might not normally support your party but trust you personally.

A personal example of this was from my time living in Headingley where I’d had a grumble on twitter about my street not getting Brown Bins for garden waste. One of the local Labour councillors got in touch quickly to try and sort it out. We’ve since had friendly exchanges on twitter and finally met up and had a nice chat at the count. If I still lived in Headingley, I’d vote for him, particularly as in the 8 years I lived there and the 4 since moving one ward away, the Conservatives have only ever put up “paper candidates” in the ward (ie someone who has been nominated and appears on the ballot but does not in fact send out any materials or do any campaigning). Whatever the appeal of national policies or even the quality of the candidate for Parliament for the wider constituency, that counts for a lot when it comes to translating national appeal into the local action of voting.

  • Brexit

Leeds NW voted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU but Brexit was barely an issue locally. This might have been surprising in the context of an election which was supposedly called in order to give Theresa May a stronger mandate for negotiating Brexit, but as there is little detail about the specific choices to be made and the detail of the differences between the Parties on it, not so surprising.

The LibDems’ national policy of opposing Brexit and seeking a second referendum barely impacted on their vote in the one ward where they sent out leaflets about this (Headingley) – they didn’t even mention it in other wards where there were more pro-Brexit supporters or in that case the fact that Mulholland had defied his party’s position in Parliament to abstain from the votes on triggering Article 50. Hardly anyone that I spoke to mentioned it, let alone raised any detailed points or favoured “hard” v “soft”. The 3,000 who voted UKIP in 2015 largely seemed to vote Labour this time. I think at least locally, I’m not alone in just wanting it to be got on with as that is what we have agreed to do as a nation.

  • Everybody matters and nobody can be taken for granted

This might sound a bit trite, but one of the things which pollsters and pundits like to do is to segment populations into different categories – by age, class, whether they voted for Brexit, favourite TV programme, whatever. Certainly some segments of society can feel that they are not sufficiently listened to so will respond if directly addressed. It is no illusion that Labour were very good at enthusing and motivating younger voters, but even in a seat where there are a lot of students, it is too easy to put Alex Sobel’s win squarely in the hands of the students he persuaded to turn out to vote (as indeed he did in his speech at the declaration where he said his win was a sign that students should never again be described as apathetic).

It is true, from my experience at the count sampling the vote in several of the Headingley polling districts, that Labour had pretty much cleaned up in this demographic. Spotting Conservative and LibDem votes in the piles of ballots for Headingley was dispiriting – in some cases I’d tallied up over a hundred votes for Labour before getting to twenty for the sitting MP or ten for the Conservatives, but not as bad as for the Green Party agent stood next to me who often didn’t see a single cross next to her candidate’s name, to the extent that one of the counters paused and gave a little “yay” to make sure she spotted one! Turnout was somewhat increased too in the ward. However, the final healthy majority achieved on what was a slightly reduced overall turnout across the seat was likely to have been at least as heavily drawn from former UKIP and Green voters in wards which had fewer students and an older population. In fact it looks like overall the most significant rise in Labour support here and elsewhere was in adults going up to their mid-40s. In retrospect perhaps this is not so surprising – things like free university tuition might well ultimately have greater appeal to parents of teenagers who worry about supporting their children through university than to the teenagers themselves, who had already decided they wanted to go to university even with fees at £9,000 a year. They are also the age group most likely in a few years to have parents who might need care and the ones most likely to have children in school.

Where next?

I don’t know, but I really hope there isn’t another election any time soon! But I do urge everyone that whatever their political preference, they should get involved to the extent that they can make time for it. Despite having always taken an interest in politics, I think I’ve learned more in the past few weeks of being actively involved than in all the years previously. But, despite having even gone to the effort of printing it out on the day of its launch, I don’t think I’ll ever now get round to reading the LibDem manifesto.

 

– the only blue in Leeds NW on 9th June 2017 was the early morning sky

Advertisements

A New House of Lords

Like for most people, since the surprise calling of the 2017 UK General Election, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled up with people opining on various issues. One which has caught my eye beyond the usual partisan stuff that I’m as guilty as anyone about is the idea of electoral reform.

It is perhaps unsurprising with the polls showing huge leads for the Conservatives that there has been renewed interest in electoral reform from not only LibDem supporters (whose party has in its various guises been in favour of Proportional Representation (PR) since at least 1945) and minor parties but also from Labour supporters. Not without some justification, many are uneasy that without proportionality there are many people whose votes don’t really count – if you are in a seat where one party has a huge majority of supporters, it is unlikely that voting for anyone else will make a difference (although this wasn’t the case in 1997, was not true in Scotland in 2015 and looks like it might not be the case this year). The argument goes that this knowledge that so many votes don’t make a difference to which MPs get elected also helps to make many people cynical and disengaged from the process with a large minority not even bothering to register let alone turn out to vote.

I am not in favour of moving to PR for elections to the House of Commons and never have been, even when the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system delivered large majorities for Labour. While the current campaign more than probably any other has been focused on the leaders of the main parties, at a local level there is still a lot to be said for people voting specifically for a local MP. This is something which has if anything also been emphasised in the current campaign, in particular by candidates for Labour seeking election or re-election on their personal merits, often while pointedly stating that they do not support Jeremy Corbyn as a future Prime Minister. In my own home area of Leeds North West it is also telling that the incumbent LibDem MP, Greg Mulholland, does not even mention his Party Leader, Tim Farron in any of the leaflets I’ve received about the local campaign. This is something which would be largely lost were the elections for the Commons to be conducted under a form of PR.

Another issue is the role and nature of the House of Lords. For me, the Lords is one of those peculiarities of the British Constitution which like the unwritten Constitution itself works a lot better than it ought to and it is difficult to pinpoint precisely why. An Upper House which is filled with political appointees, a few who have inherited the privilege and an assortment of senior judges and bishops has no real right to be nearly as good at scrutinising legislation and providing a counterbalance to the government and MPs as it in practice so often is. However, in a democracy it still is something which ought to be made democratic and accountable. An argument could be made for doing away with it altogether, but that would be worse than the status quo at least because the Lords has so often shown itself to be valuable in providing that balance in the system in practice.

So, here is my set of proposals, which would have the effect of both reforming the Lords and introducing an element of proportionality into the UK system of politics and government.

  • Abolish the current House of Lords and replace it with an elected Senate.
  • The Senate would be elected by PR on the basis of the share of votes cast for candidates for the Commons aggregated over a number of seats (eg for each area comprising 20 Commons constituencies, there would be 10 Senators elected on the basis of the proportion of the votes obtained by their parties in those 20 constituencies).
  • The Senate would also have a number of ex officio members. These would include the Prime Minister and all Secretaries of State (currently 21 in total – this would need to be a fixed number) and could be expanded to include the Supreme Court Justices and Bishops (as at present), perhaps the Metropolitan Area Mayors or others in defined roles if it were thought that it was worthwhile to retain some non-politicians in the Senate as occurs in the Lords.
  • Senators would be barred from subsequently being elected to the Commons and would have a mandatory retirement age (say 75) and perhaps a minimum age (say 40).

The numbers here are a little rough and might necessitate a small change in the number of MPs at the boundary review ahead of the next election, whether that involves a reduction of the total number of seats to 600 as previously proposed or a smaller change (eg moving to 640 MPs would fit neatly with my proposal of 20 Senate constituencies). Or there could be a rounding mechanism so that the current 18 Northern Irish constituencies formed a single Senate constituency, the 59 Scots ones divided in to three Senate ones and England’s 533 were either rounded up to 27 or down to 26 Senate constituencies (Wales having 40 MPs is arithmetically pleasing in this scenario!). This would lead to a Senate of 320 or 330 elected members. Unlike the Commons, it would be relatively rare for the government to have an overall majority in the Senate, which is why I think there would be a benefit in having at least the PM and Secretaries of State as ex officio members who could attend, speak and vote. This would prevent there being a permanent block from the Senate over the actions of the Commons which should remain the primary seat of government. It would also remove the need for there to be two sets of Ministers, one for each House. It would be worth considering whether a Senator appointed as a Cabinet Minister should have a reciprocal right to attend, speak and vote in the Commons – this might be a good way in a Hung Parliament to enable a minority government to operate by appointing Senators to the Cabinet.

The proposal to have 10 Senators for every 20 MPs would have the effect of substantially lowering the threshold for new and minority parties to form and get representation in Parliament. A party would only need to get 10% of the votes cast in an area to have a Senator elected. This would make it much more feasible for small parties to focus on a particular area or areas (e.g. Yorkshire First, Mebion Kernow, the Greens, UKIP) rather than having to throw all their resources into a single seat or try and spread them nationally. It would also make it more feasible if there were a schism within an existing large party for irreconcilable groups to go their separate ways without one or other side of that schism being almost inevitably doomed to failure). There would also be a good reason to vote for minority parties rather than feel that such a vote was “wasted”.

This is not too different from how the proportional element of the elections to the Scots Parliament works, except here the proportional element would be going towards a different chamber with a different, more focused remit as a revising body. What do you think?

Bored of Brexit

I’m bored of Brexit. I think most other people probably are too. It is of course the biggest task facing the government for the next few years and how it happens or doesn’t happen could have huge implications for us all. But that doesn’t stop it being quite dull. 


(apologies to Allan Ahlberg and Fritz Wegner for mucking around with this picture)

Brexit is dull for the same reasons that prior to last year’s referendum the EU was dull enough that most people didn’t really know or care very much about what being in the EU meant in any detail. Which is why so much of the debate was about simple elements like “taking control of immigration“, getting back the old midnight blue hardback passports we used to have, or whether there were other things we might or would do with the money we currently sent to the EU. That’s not to say that there weren’t better and more informed reasons for leaving or that even those things weren’t important enough to justify a vote to leave. They were certainly more compelling than arguments to stay based on things like the importance of the Single Market and Customs Union which to the majority of people might as well have been in Sanskrit for all the obvious impact they had on their lives as they are lived. 

This doesn’t mean that things like the UK’s trading relationship with the EU are unimportant. They’re incredibly important. But just as the way in which the Single Market operates, the framework of laws and regulations, the institutions involved in determining and enforcing those laws and so on were of little interest to most people prior to the referendum, I think that the immense and intricate detail of what will follow will be too. The vast majority of people are, I believe, not ultra keen on either extreme of the leave/remain debate. They’d think it wrong if the government decided to ignore the referendum and just stay in the EU and they’d think it wrong if the government ended up leaving on obviously bad terms just for the sake of leaving. Quite where the line should be drawn in between those extremes? Most don’t really know. We can have preferences on individual issues but as an overall position? Put that in the box marked “meh”. This is probably a better explanation for why the UK economy hasn’t collapsed (and indeed has grown more than forecast) than “well that’s because Brexit hasn’t happened yet, just wait and see when it does”.  It is only those at the extremes who have a clear view and for them either Brexit will always be too “Hard” or too “Soft”, depending on whether they were rampant Remainers or Leavers. 

I think where we’ll end up, boringly, is with something in between which will have those at the extremes still unhappy. We’ll be out of the EU, so those who believe that we shouldn’t under any circumstances leave will consider any form of leaving to be terrible. We will however not just rip everything up so it’ll be too soft for the most foam-speckled Ukippers.

I think it is almost certain that despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the rights of EU citizens currently in the UK to stay (and about Brits abroad in the EU not to be repatriated) the status quo will be preserved. It is also quite likely that whatever restrictions are placed on future movement between the UK and EU they won’t be so onerous as to prevent those who are genuinely moving to work or study from being able to do so, even if it might not be quite as simple as waving a burgundy passport. If anything, I think economically there could be benefits for much of the rest of the EU if there isn’t completely free movement of people with the UK – once outside the EU, ending free movement would restrict the UK’s ability to have a competitive advantage in attracting workers from elsewhere, driving up wages and costs in poorer countries and reducing them in the UK. That’s why even with “control” over immigration, the UK probably wouldn’t want to shut its borders regardless. 

As long as we can see that the government has the power to control immigration and is using it to stop obviously harmful people coming, the actual numbers won’t matter so much any more because people will assume that the numbers coming and going are controlled. The perception will be different even if the substance is not very. In the absence of lots of new states acceding to the EU there isn’t another bow wave of EU migrants like in 2004 to come in any case. 

In other areas, I don’t think there will be any real appetite to “punish” the UK by making life hard in trade, just as I don’t think this government, or any of the ones we’ve had since 1979 would want to depart from the idea of minimising trade barriers between the UK and the rest of the world. I suspect that the Great Repeal Bill which will enshrine existing UK implementations of EU law in UK law post-Brexit will end up with a very leisurely pace of actual repeal and replacement and often strong reasons in the future to shadow what is happening at an EU level on uncontentious topics. Relatively few implementations of EU regulations by means of the power to implement using Statutory Instruments were ever put to a vote and this reflects how uninteresting they were. Their replacements will not magically become more interesting in post-Brexit Britain or Westminster. Similarly, while formally remaining in the Customs Union will probably not happen, does anybody here or in the EU really want to start putting up tariff barriers and working out what they might be? It would be easier not to bother rather than to generate some new tariffs the effects of which would not be predictably to the benefit of either side.

One of the reasons why the EU is slow at negotiating trade deals is that they need to be approved by all Member States – so putting in a tariff on say, new cars, which might benefit German car manufacturers in competition against UK ones might also inadvertently benefit German manufacturers against French ones who would suddenly find that their domestic market had less competitive constraint coming from imports from the UK and the Germans were better placed to exploit it. Nobody knows and I think, however much the Commission might want to preserve the purity of the EU and dissuade anyone from breaking ranks, the Member States will reasonably quickly conclude that it’s a game not worth playing. Similarly, in Financial Services, could anyone predict with any certainty that damaging the City of London would benefit Paris and Frankfurt equally rather than make one or other become dominant? Leaving things be would be more likely to appeal to EU national leaders than giving London a “punishment beating” and finding that it ended up harming their own country.

Now, I agree that these also sound like good reasons not to bother with changing anything so why bother leaving the EU at all? Personally I took the view that most if not all of what the EU provides can be done by the UK alone and so from an abstract perspective we don’t absolutely need to be in it. At the same time, there weren’t so many things about the EU which upset me so much that I wanted to leave in order to achieve them and that there were lots of things which I’d really rather the UK never did which they would be able to do if we did. But that is where I think there is meaning in “Brexit means Brexit”. Leaving the EU will allow for changes in the stuff that people do care about and it will make little difference in the end to the boring and specialist stuff that they never busied themselves with before and have probably already glazed over reading in the previous couple of paragraphs. It is the EU’s failure that it didn’t understand how little it needed to change to have kept the support of the UK’s population and so gave Cameron not even that. 

I’d have been more concerned about Brexit had it been pushed by a government which was likely to want to make big changes to those “boring” bits and to depart from the broadly economically liberal underpinnings of the EU to become much more protectionist and interventionist. But, thankfully, we don’t look like we’re going to get Jeremy Corbyn and his ilk anywhere near power and his concept of a “different, social Europe” is almost certainly likely to be even less appealing to the rest of the EU than any plausible actual post-Brexit Europe. If we think that getting to have relatively free access to the EU Single Market while placing restrictions on free movement of people is a difficult task then doing so while restricting free movement of capital and goods and freedom of establishment instead would be positively Herculean. 

So, while it will probably be a massive balls ache in practice for the government and civil service to negotiate the implementation of Brexit, and as an EU lawyer, one that made me shudder enough to vote for remain, it is a boring process balls ache rather than one that will make much difference to the vast majority of people. Which is why Brexit is itself boring and in particular, why those making ultra-technical legal arguments about things like the revocability of notification under Article 50 TFEU are beyond boring to anyone who is not either professionally interested or intent at all costs to prevent it from happening.