Winning the Peace

A week and a half has gone by since the people of the UK voted by a margin of over a million in a referendum to leave the EU. Even though it seems longer as so much has gone on since; the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigning, a campaign to replace him having seen the former favourite, Boris Johnson pull out after fellow Leave campaigner, Michael Gove stood citing Boris’ unsuitability, and frankly incomprehensible chaos surrounding Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, losing half of his shadow ministers after he sacked his shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn and finding that more than three quarters of his MPs voted for a motion of no confidence in his leadership.

Now, the real focus is on who will or should replace Cameron as Prime Minister and how they will effect the changes that should flow from the Referendum result. Cameron resigned because, having campaigned for the UK to Remain in the EU, he did not believe he was the right person to negotiate the terms for the UK’s exit. While I think he could have done so, perhaps by appointing prominent Ministers who had campaigned for exit (such as Gove, fellow leadership contender Andrea Leadsom and Boris) to run the negotiations while he and the rest of his ministerial team continued to deliver the domestic programme of government they were elected for barely a year previously, the decision to hand over in the Autumn to a successor makes sense.

The question is, what should the next PM do and who should it be? Many from the Leave campaign insist that the next PM can only be someone who campaigned to leave the EU. In particular, this is to disqualify the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who was a quiet part of the Remain campaign and who has a commanding enough lead on the first round of MPs’ votes to make it near certain that she will be one of the two MPs put to a vote of the entire Party membership.

However, I think this is based on a misunderstanding of where we actually are today and what the Referendum result means. Many on the Leave side have taken the result literally as one of Leave meaning Leave, with the detail being relatively unimportant. That perhaps explains why there was no single unifying answer to the question posed during the campaign of “what would Leave look like?” (an alternative view on this is that Gove and perhaps even Johnson believed that Cameron would be responsible for what came next so they didn’t need to plan for it – oops). From this perspective, the only thing the UK wants is to be out of the EU so all that is needed is a PM who will pull the trigger on the process by notifying the EU under Article 50 TFEU (though what the process actually entails is somewhat controversial and there’s a respectable school of thought that the longer that passes after 24 June 2016 the less likely it is ever to happen). That would then mean that after no more than 2 years, whether a deal has been struck or no, the UK would no longer be a member of the EU. Job Done.

This approach is based upon seeing the campaign to leave as a war which will not be won until the UK is out of the EU. I believe this is a mistake and one which ironically goes against the accompanying reminder that its adherents have that “the people have spoken” by voting 52% to 48% in favour of leaving. It does so by relegating that decision in the Referendum to being the winning of a battle in the war rather than, as I think makes more sense, to see it as the winning of the war itself. The people have  decided, and the opposing general has conceded defeat.

It is therefore better to consider what comes now as the peace process following the war. For any peace process to be successful it needs to take into account the views of everybody, both victor and vanquished. Otherwise it ends in a Treaty of Versailles situation where there remains a tension which could ultimately lead to arms being borne again (hopefully in the present scenario, only metaphorical ones!).

That is why it is not essential that the next PM be someone who was on the Leave side during the “war” of the Referendum but should instead be whoever, whether on the Leave or Remain side, can secure the best and most lasting solution for the most people. Going too far in the direction of one or other extreme – appeasing just the 52% who voted to Leave or doing what the large minority of 48% who voted to Remain won’t do this.

Thankfully, the reality, as I see it, is that while the Referendum had a clear binary split because there were only two options available, people’s views about what they actually wanted covered a much broader spectrum. There will have been very few people who voted to Remain who thought that the UK’s relationship with the EU or indeed the nature of the EU itself were perfect, whether on the basis of what they are now, the relatively limited package of reforms negotiated by David Cameron ahead of the Referendum or some other measure (such as Corbyn’s “campaign” to remain in a social EU which does not exist and is almost entirely inconsistent with the one which does).

Similarly, while there is a sizable proportion of Leave voters who simply do not care to have anything at all to do with the EU and would like to tear up everything the EU ever touched in the UK, I’m not sure they even form a majority of the 52% who voted to Leave. Instead, significant proportions of them would favour retaining the UK’s position of access to the EU’s single market, whether as members of EFTA, the EEA or some other means. Some of those would not be averse even to retaining the free movement of persons which are currently guaranteed by EU membership, provided that it was something which was chosen by the UK government and capable of being changed in the future were there to be a government elected with that aim.

This spectrum of opinion can be seen running from Cameron (who obtained a degree of renegotiation) through May (who had been among the leading critics of the related but separate impact of the ECHR, albeit that one of the first things to go in her leadership bid was a pledge to exit the ECHR) to Leadsom (who only a few years ago argued that leaving the Single Market would be economically disastrous)  and Gove (who argued during the campaign that the best approach would be to have trade with the EU regulated only by WTO rules). Apologies to Stephen Crabb, the other contender for the leadership, who unfortunately seems to have been forgotten in all this by everyone, including me. Fewer apologies to Liam Fox who I don’t think should be running at all because of the circumstances of his resignation as Defence Secretary (we can’t have someone who didn’t see there was anything wrong with having his mate hanging around the Ministry of Defence without any formal role or security clearance as PM). [Since writing these words about Crabb and Fox and going off to give my son his tea (he’s northern), bath and bedtime story, the first round of MP votes has led to Fox being eliminated, Crabb ending his bid and lending his support to May and Leadsom and Gove remaining to fight over who would come second and compete for the votes of Conservative Members – told you events were flying thick and fast!]

The question is now which of these candidates to replace Cameron can best come up with a solution which balances out the requirements of enough of those who voted either way in the Referendum to be acceptable to the highest proportion of the public. And can they also demonstrate that they have the skill , diplomacy (so anyone appointing Farage to any role is immediately debarred in my view) and persuasiveness to ensure that their solution can be accepted by the EU and implemented by Parliament, whether by maintaining complete discipline among Conservative MPs with a small majority or by seeking a new, larger mandate following a General Election.

My hunch is that Theresa May will win on all of these grounds. Both Leadsom and Gove’s pitches on the EU issue have been at the more extreme/pure end of the spectrum, Leadsom having gained the probably unhelpful endorsement of many connected with UKIP (who won’t have a vote) and Gove taking his typically idealistic/intellectual stance which makes compromise more difficult. Each would therefore find it more difficult to stay true to their stated position while being palatable to enough of those who favoured milder forms of exit or would have preferred not to leave. Gove also has the handicap of being (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) a totem of unpopularity outside the Tory Party for his largely successful battle against the education policy establishment as Education Secretary as well as having generated a degree of resentment within the Party for his ruthless destruction of Boris Johnson’s bid for the leadership. May on the other hand is clearly tough enough (described today approvingly by Ken Clarke in an off air moment captured by Sky News as “a difficult woman”) to be able to do the job without being obviously too much for either Remain or Leave.

The other consideration that comes in here is that the whole process must be done while continuing with the everyday work of government and working towards being capable of winning the next General Election. There’s no point for any Conservative to choose a quick, painful and unpopular Brexit which would ultimately lead to the worst of all worlds consequence of electoral defeat to an opposition which had suddenly been given a whole load of new powers to reverse what the governments of the past nearly 40 years have done. At the moment the threat of serious electoral challenge seems dim given the civil war seemingly about to take off within Labour, but I’d prefer not to rely on that (and as Cameron put it in PM’s Questions last week, it’s not in the interests of the country even if it is in the interests of the Conservatives – for heaven’s sake, man, go!). What about UKIP? Well, I think that Nigel Farage has by resigning its leadership agreed with me that the war is won and should only be re-entered in the event of “betrayal” by the government. Under new leadership it can decide whether it would like to pivot to make a concerted push to build on its gains of support from disaffected Labour voters in the North and Midlands who’d never consider voting Conservative.

Most people are almost certainly very close to being sick and tired of the whole topic so it would have to be a very clear and egregious betrayal to make it worth restarting hostilities. Reasoned practical delays probably won’t get the blood of activists pumping while the stated government intention is to exit (eg to pass legislation, to formulate a detailed plan for what we’d like post-EU Britain to be like, to focus on any short term economic shocks, to put Brexit on hold if the EU starts a more general Treaty change process, perhaps even to wait for the outcome of next year’s elections in France & Germany to make the negotiating environment more stable over the 2 year process, etc…).

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Too Shy Shy

I didn’t write much about the General Election campaign beyond a comment on Labour’s Zero Hours Contracts proposals. I’d felt for a long while that somehow, despite Ed Miliband’s oddness he was probably going to hobble somehow into Number 10 and that if he did, he’d probably be weak enough not to do anything too radical or harmful – most of his policy announcements or statements of general philosophy were pretty vapid and consisted of criticising the effects of market based policies but only replacing them with a temporary fix to hit a particular failing rather than to strike at the cause of that failing (eg by fixing energy prices- hastily amended to read retrospectively as capping them when in fact they fell regardless of intervention and those who’d fixed their rates ended up paying more than those who stayed on variable tariffs).

Since the surprise result last week of a clear Tory majority there has been a lot of speculation about what went wrong. Why did the polls stay level pegging even up to the eve of the election? Innumerable Labour MPs and pundits suddenly announcing that they knew their campaign and leader were duds all along (which struck me as deeply unfair – if they thought that, why not do something about it rather than let poor Ed, an obviously decent man, carry the can before circling to fight over the remains?).

The most interesting line has been about the phenomenon of the “Shy Tory” to explain why there were many more Conservative votes in fact than would have been predicted by the opinion polls. The first General Election I could vote in was in 1992 where the Shy Tory first came into view. I’d been a rather lackadaisical student Tory activist and my recollection is that nobody even in the student Conservative Association thought Major had much chance (perhaps skewed by fruitlessly trudging the streets of safely Labour Oxford East, perhaps because the Association’s membership included more right wing luminaries like Mark Reckless) so the overall result was a surprise.

The day before the election, on my train home from London I had the chance to read an interesting (if very long!) statistical analysis of opinion polling for the last 50 years of elections compared with the actual votes. I recommend reading it if you have time. The striking conclusion that it came to was that in 10 of the previous 12 elections, the opinions had understated the Tory vote share (now 11 of the past 13). It doesn’t go into the psychological or political reasons why this might be the case in any detail but rather looks at the methodology of polling (which was changed after 1992 because of how wrong it had got that result). Most strikingly of all, on its final page it suggests a Tory lead of 6 points for 2015, which is pretty much spot on. After reading it I was tempted, in the face of everything else coming out of the media, to put a bet on a Tory majority (which would have stymied it!).

From a personal perspective I can well see that there may be a Shy Tory effect. Those who read this blog regularly or know me well in real life (and in some cases describe it/me as rabidly right wing- though I’d prefer to think I’m at least reasonably measured and rational about it!) will not perhaps see me as particularly shy. However, I tend not to talk politics much with people I don’t already know well. At least not on a party basis. Curiously, I’ve found that often if you just talk about particular things that are happening or could be done, the discussion is more interesting and friendly. Until the point at which it transpires that what you’ve just said is Tory policy. Whereupon it gets taken down for being a sham or a front for some corporate conspiracy theory or a misdirection away from something else. Which makes further discussion redundant.

I was rather mortified last week when Mrs B told me she’d told the mum of one of OMB’s school friends, who I get on with well and who is also a local Labour councillor, that I’m a Tory member (fortunately she didn’t seem to hold it against me!). Even good friends of mine will accept it only generally in the context of it being an eccentricity that years of friendship makes just about tolerable. Memorably after the 2010 election one friend said she’d assumed I was a LibDem as it was as right wing as would fit with her idea of people she’d spend time with. So, I didn’t join with the rest of my facebook timeline in bombarding everyone with political messages (largely Labour, some Green) ahead of the election or indeed gloating about the result afterwards. It just isn’t worth the bother.

I think the phenomenon of Shy Tories will continue to exist until either there is an acceptance that not everything (or even most things) which might be proposed by the Tories are by definition evil or uncaring, or when many of those things are accepted and proposed by others so that you can support them without having to mention or be one of the Tories (the Blair effect). The reality is possibly that at least some Tories aren’t so much shy as just more introverted than those who want to shout their moral crusades on marches and placards, sound off on social media campaigns or to dominate a dinner party or pub night by chivvying everyone up to agree with them. We can find the campaigns run by The Sun and the Daily Mail to be cringeworthy without having to support those they are aimed against or be drawn into defending them and their proprietors.

Zero or Hero?

Today’s big idea from Ed Miliband (although he has been going on about it for a while) is to “ban” Zero Hours Contracts (ZHCs), or to ban “exploitative” ZHCs, or rather to give people on ZHCs the right after 12 weeks to have them converted into a “regular” contract. On the face of it, this sounds great, after all, when Jeremy Paxman asked David Cameron during his live interview last week whether he could live on one, the answer was “no” so, as Milband said, if it’s not good enough for him why is it good enough for anyone?

However, as so often, the important part of this is the detail and how it relates to reality. One of the aspects of ZHCs which is often cited in their favour is that they provide workers with flexibility – they are able to take or refuse work that is offered and therefore have some control over their hours. So someone on a ZHC could take extra hours if they were offered during term time and do fewer hours during the school holidays if they had children to care for, or if they were a student, they could do more evenings during term time and longer full days during the holidays. Only around a third of those on ZHCs according to surveys would like more hours and a slightly higher proportion work full time. It is not clear how providing the 700,000 or so on ZHCs with the right to convert them into a “regular” contract (however that might be defined) will do anything for the two thirds who are generally happy with the hours they get or indeed tend to those who would like more hours being able to get them.

So, perhaps the thing to look at would be the extent to which ZHCs are “exploitative”. There are a number of ways of looking at the issue of exploitation by means of ZHC. The Labour proposal seems to be deliberately vague on this. One would be to say that ZHCs are by definition exploitative and so should be banned entirely. But, even if some people are exploited by employers using ZHCs it is not clear that all are. Were it such a clear moral issue it would be surprising if we found that say, Labour run councils or Labour MPs would employ anyone on such contracts. Yet they do.

So, exploitative ZHC must mean something slightly different. When discussing the issue what almost always comes up is the core of the question Paxman put to Cameron – could you live on one? That boils down to whether someone on a ZHC earns enough on a regular enough basis to be able to live. How many hours one works and how consistently over time is clearly an important part of this, but more important is how much one is paid for the hours actually worked. The examples usually given of workers being exploited on ZHCs are of people being paid minimum wage or thereabouts. However, if you are earning minimum wage and doing the average 23 hours a week that those on ZHCs do, converting your contract to a “regular” one may help you to smooth out the difference between the weeks when you work 18 hours and those when you work 28 hours but it won’t make your average of 23 hours pay a week any greater. If what you earn for those 23 hours is inadequate it remains so regardless of contract type. Recently I saw that Next was recruiting for staff on regular fixed hours contracts paying minimum wage for 11 hours a week for one or two specific fixed shifts. Those jobs would not be affected by the proposal but would be just as hard to live on as a ZHC delivering similar hours. While Ed Miliband also talks of raising wages, this seems to be by the magical means of “predistribution” without any real thought as to how or why employers might do this, or indeed whether they would be inclined to do so.

If it is unclear what is meant by “exploitative” it is also unclear whether the promise of a “regular” contract for those doing regular hours for 12 weeks addresses such exploitation even if we leave aside the issue of how much someone on a ZHC is paid. In his speech, Miliband identifies the budgeting problem that those on ZHCs face – not knowing from one week to the next (or from one day to the next in some cases) how much you will earn. But, if someone is on a ZHC and getting regular hours, or at least having regular core hours, they won’t have that uncertainty and moving to a “regular” contract won’t be of particular benefit. It is the people who have irregular hours and an employer who won’t tell them from day to day whether they will be needed who will find ZHCs harder to live on. So the proposal doesn’t solve the more obvious and real problem.

I should declare here that I write with a personal interest as I have myself been employed on what is basically a ZHC for the last 4 years. True, I earn rather more than minimum wage as an experienced lawyer and most of my engagements with clients for work are for a month or more (I have done a few hourly paid stints but they’re not the main part of my work). However, this is really mainly a matter of degree. With long term monthly outgoings like mortgage/loans, utilities, council tax etc if there is no work in a month’s time, I need to dip into savings, overdrafts, credit cards to tide me over to the next piece of work. In extreme circumstances I’d need to put the house on the market, sell my car or (as OMB suggested when I had a three month gap between engagements last year, sell my stuff at a car boot sale). I start with more assets and savings than most on minimum wage ZHCs but face the same issues if I’m workless (and in practice have less of a welfare safety net until I’ve exhausted those assets).

Yet in practice I have been able to live on a ZHC and it has, despite gaps when I haven’t been given work and so haven’t been paid, ironically, been no less secure than my previous recent experiences of “regular” contracted employment. Twice in the three years prior to starting my ZHC I was made redundant from permanent full time contracts when there was not enough work. Each time it took months to find new employment. From a personal perspective, working somewhere where I know that it is in my employer’s interest to find me new work (they also don’t earn if I’m not working) rather than it being in their interest to get rid of me if there’s no work is not a bad situation. Were my ZHC to have been converted into a regular contract last year, I’d potentially have been made redundant during the three month gap I had and would have then had to look for new work. Although I missed out on a redundancy payment, instead I was placed with a new client who I’ve since been with on a rolling monthly basis rather than having to start from scratch. I’m genuinely unsure whether I would want a traditional permanent contract again.

Perhaps the best approach would be for Labour to define exploitation rather than use it loosely to demonstrate it’s caring side – it is hard to argue against exploitation but the rhetorical advantage of using the term shouldn’t distract from the serious business of policies that actually address the problems identified and experienced by people. Exploitative employment contracts could be defined as ones where the average weekly income over a certain period fell below the full time Living Wage and they could be amended by law to take them over that level. This would create a sort of Minimum Wage Plus so that everyone who worked more than a certain number of hours in a week could be guaranteed to be “able to live on it”. Needless to say, while this would be effective in ensuring that everyone who worked could afford to live on their income it would make it very expensive to employ people part time, whether they were flexible or not, so there would be many fewer part time jobs and a few more full time ones. Another policy would be needed to support those who were thus rendered unemployable. Alternatively, we could ditch the emptily emotive concept of exploitativeness and the equally empty focus on ZHCs and let people get on with their lives as more and more have in fact managed to do quite well as the country has recovered from recession whether they are in the small minority on ZHCs or not.