Plan B Politics

As Stephen Bush’s piece last week highlighted, there are a finite number of messages a political party can run on. Typically, these positions don’t change between elections because they are so simple: “things would work better with us in charge”. 2017, however, was a turning point for both parties.

When Jeremy Corbyn rose to victory in Labour’s leadership election in 2015, he did so on the back of a promise of a new type of politics. Many chose him because he offered something the other three candidates seemingly did not, and that was hope. Corbyn famously asserted he would bring a new straight talking, honest politics into the Labour party, something he really hasn’t done. He was meant to be the politician who could finally energise the dwindling youth vote and bring non-voters out into the voting booths for the first time.

Fast forward to June 2017, and Labour had returned from a near 20-point deficit in the polls to force a hung parliament. A dismal campaign from Theresa May gave Corbyn the wind in his sails, and policies such as the abolishment of tuition fees had on the face of it galvanised the youth to an astonishing spike in turnout. However, as we now know, this wasn’t exactly the case.

Recently, the British Electoral Survey found that turnout did not increase among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 election, although it did increase in areas with larger numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds. The noteworthy changes were actually found in the 25-44 age group, where turnout increased significantly and swung in great numbers towards Labour. The groups of voters Corbyn aimed to bring out in force did not turn up, and despite a successful campaign, Labour’s Plan A had failed.

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What is it that Divides Us?

Jo Cox gave her maiden speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday 3rd June 2015. Describing her constituency, globalisation, and immigration, Jo inspirationally said that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”. After her death just a week before the EU referendum, the hashtag and movement #MoreInCommon went global and ever since has been used as a means of attempting to heal the conflicts and divides in society.

Of course, it’s true in many ways. We are all the same. But there’s no doubt that we should be worried about the growing divisions festering around us all. Traditionally, the big divides were that of political party identification, this has since been replaced by simply: Remain or Leave. It’s understandable why; despite both party leaders playing down the issue, it will define us and our country for generations to come. The referendum formalised a deep cultural divide stemming across many factions. Leavers are pitched against remainers, the young against the old, the affluent against the impoverished, graduates against non-graduates, and towns against cities.

In the past, it was class that was the main predictor of a person’s likely voting behaviour. This has significantly narrowed, with both support for Labour among the middle class and support for the Conservatives among the working class rising by 12 points between 2015 and 2017. The big divide in voting behaviour is now age. At the 2017 general election, the generation gap was the largest since polling records began. Among 18-to-24-year olds Labour led by 35%, but among over 65’s the Tories held a 36-point lead. In the referendum three-quarters of 18-to-24-year-olds voted Remain, but two-thirds of over-65s favoured Brexit.

Education was also a big factor in both votes. In the 2017 election the Tories led by 22% among people with ‘low educational qualifications’, but those with ‘high-level educational qualifications’ plucked for Labour by 17% more. In the referendum, those with GCSE or lower qualifications voted 70:30 to Leave, but those with a degree voted 68:32 in favour of Remain. There’s also another reason for these stark contrasts: the direction and leadership of the two main political parties under current leadership. May’s Conservatives have lurched to the right, and Corbyn’s Labour to the left, and people are being forced to choose a side.

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Towns are Corbyn’s Key to No 10

The UK and its citizens are divided across the spectrum. Leavers are pitched against remainers, the young against the old, the affluent against the impoverished, graduates against non-graduates, but perhaps the biggest divide is between the towns and the cities. For years governments have seen and tried to use cities as engines of economic growth, and hoped that their increased prosperity would fund and carry along surroundings towns.

Towns have been left behind, especially when it comes to politics, and definitely when it comes to the Labour Party. Labour was a party founded on the working class focusing on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, but in recent years has become a party of the middle class, of ‘socialism fans’ as it were. Under Corbyn, working-class support for Labour rapidly fell to its lowest point ever. That’s not to say that town equals working class and city is equivalent to the middle and upper classes, but there is a strong correlation between the two.

Labour is currently stockpiling member support and votes in strongholds and major cities like London and Manchester, and this was as evident as ever in the election. The general election in June saw a 10.2% swing from Conservatives to Labour in cities but was just a 4.1% swing in towns. Labour made twice the gains among younger, middle-class voters in cities than older, working-class voters in towns, and gained the most ground in seats with increased capital. This is not just a recent trend, as the Tories have made a net gain of 13% over Labour in towns since 2005.

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This is Not a Game, The Single Market Must Now be Fought For!

The idea that anyone can tell us what a Leave vote represented is folly. The referendum was based upon our continued membership of the European Union, not upon what the terms of a theoretical exit would be. The idea that the 52% voted to take us out the single market, the customs union, and out of entities such as the European Court of Justice is ridiculous. Yet that is the drivel being spouted, not only by the Tories but by senior members of the Labour Party. There is no precedent for our exit from the EU whatsoever.

Because of this, Brexit is an absolute shambles. The government have absolutely no clue what they are doing and contradict each other one day to the next, and so do the opposition. The only party with clarity on these issues are the EU, and they will be licking their lips at the prospect of two years of discussions with David Davis. With a hung parliament, and the government lacking their own majority to enforce such a hard Brexit, the Labour front bench could play a divisive role in the future of our relations with the EU, and whether we stay within the single market. But alas, they are now standing back. As Rob Francis puts it quite simply, Labour and Corbyn should be leading, not following.

Labour’s stance on Brexit is, let’s face it, is anybody’s guess. Last Sunday on Andrew Marr, Jeremy Corbyn said that a Labour government would leave the single market because it is dependent on membership of the EU, which is both wrong, and harmful. Norway is one example of a country who are not in the EU but have full membership within the single market, and Corbyn knows this. By Wednesday, his Chancellor said the opposite, then Dianne Abbott mimicked this before Barry Gardiner said that we should leave both the single market and the customs union!

I do understand the arguments behind Labour not landing on one concrete position regarding Brexit, as the party hopes to capitalise on a changing public mood and Tory mistakes. But there are times when national interest comes first. Leaving the single market would be catastrophic for the UK’s economy, and even if Brexit led to a Labour government, leaving the single market would make it even harder and more treacherous for Labour to meet their manifesto spending pledges. The IFS has forecast that leaving the single market for a free trade agreement could cause a £31bn hit to the public finances, extending austerity even further.

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Time to Think the Unthinkable?

We are now less than a week away from heading to the polling booths, and suddenly, we seem to have an actual contest on our hands. Over the past month, the Tories lead has collapsed. Their average polling lead has fallen from 16% in early April, to just 5.3% now, and YouGov has even gone as far to predict a possible hung parliament at this stage. Britain Elects, who use the polls of polls average, have the Tories increasing their majority to roughly 70, but this is still a long way off the 150+ majority we looked to be heading towards just a few weeks ago. The question many are asking, could Corbyn do it?

One of the main reasons for the turn in fortunes has been both parties’ campaign performances, which like the poll turn, looked highly unlikely a few weeks ago. It’s clear that May’s campaign has damaged her reputation among the public, and the Conservative’s campaign has been to put it frank, shocking. From the lack of costings in the published manifesto, to the dreaded ‘Dementia Tax’, and the refusal to turn up at the recent live television debates, May’s impregnable brand has taken a big hit. For the first time since she took office, more Britons are dissatisfied (50%) than satisfied with her performance as PM (43%), although she does still hold a sizable lead in popularity over Corbyn.

On the other hand, Corbyn’s popularity is on the rise. Last month roughly 15% thought he’d make a better PM than May, this has grown to roughly 35% now. Whether it’s a heck of a lot of media training, unity across the Labour Party, or a willingness to adapt, it has brought improvements. Corbyn and Labour have had a positive campaign so far, although they have been given a helping hand by May and the Tories. Corbyn has shown in the past that it’s within election campaigns he seems to shine brightest, and his performances in debates has shown huge advances.

Another positive for Labour has been their manifesto. As I stated previously here, Labour’s manifesto policies have received widespread support from the public. 58% support re-nationalising the railways, water companies, and other utilities, 61% support the increase in minimum wage, 52% support increasing the top rate of tax, 64% back abolishing zero-hour contracts, 53% want universal free school meals for primary school students, and 59% back better rent control. But the truth of the matter is, we’ve seen this all before. We’ve seen much of these election signs before.

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Incompetence, or Confidence?

Although Labour’s draft manifesto was leaked somewhat early, this week was ‘Manifesto Week’, where the main parties outlined their plans, pledges, and policies for government. The Conservatives launched theirs in Halifax on Thursday, under the banner ‘Forward, Together’, representing the steps the UK takes forward as we leave the European Union in 2019. However, you only have to flip over to page 2 to see the true meaning and message of their election campaign: ‘Theresa May’s Team’. This has been a campaign built on the idea of her against Corbyn, rather than the Tories against the Labour Party.

The Manifesto certainly matched the conservatism brand of politics, but in terms of what the Conservatives stand for, and their audience, it can be argued there’s definite change. So, what were the key pledges? Those with assets over 100k will now have to pay for care out of the value of their house, immigration will be reduced to the tens of thousands, companies will be charged to employ skilled workers from outside the EU, the pension triple-lock will be scrapped, Britain will leave the single market, grammar schools reintroduced, increased funding for education and health, and corporation tax lowered.

Once again, the date to end the budget deficit has been pushed back. In 2010, we were told a surplus by 2014. By 2014, it was 2017. And now, it’s the middle of the next decade. This isn’t the only policy or pledge rehashed or pushed back. The 2015 manifesto said, “Yes to the single market”, and the 2017 manifesto says the opposite. The 2015 manifesto wanted to ‘eliminate’ child poverty, and the 2017 edition wants to ‘reduce levels’. This wasn’t on a manifesto, rather a bus, but there’s no sign of the extra £350 million a week for the NHS; just like Boris, it’s message carrier.

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An Inconvenient Truth

Earlier this week, the Labour leadership released (leaked) their draft 2017 GE manifesto, to a mixed reception, but masses of coverage. It’s definitely the case that Corbynites can’t complain about the media attention the document received, something they have been arguing for since he became the party’s leader over 18 months ago. The manifesto pleased Corbyn backers, and was very radical in terms of the re-nationalisation of entities, and investment in infrastructure, and health. It included pledges to re-nationalise the railways, Royal Mail, and the energy grid, build 100,000 new homes a year, abolish tuition fees, increase health funding, and raise the minimum wage to £10 a year.

It’s fair to say the manifesto is packed full of good ideas, and many of them have received widespread support from the public. Polls since have found that 58% support re-nationalising the railways, water companies and other utilities, 61% support the increase in minimum wage, 52% support increasing the top rate of tax, 64% back abolishing zero-hour contracts, 53% want universal free school meals for primary school students, and 59% back better rent control.

Many of the ideas will also please, and appease the left wing of the party. There will be many Corbyn supporters whose pulses will be racing at the idea of public ownership of the railways, reversals of tax cuts, abolishment of university tuition fees, and big spending pledges. But they’ll be many in the party who see it as letting down the swing voters we need to have any chance of forming a government.

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