Monthly Archives: June 2016

Why Cameron and Corbyn Should Remain their Parties’ Leaders

Oh my god, I don’t know if you heard, but apparently there’s a CRISIS going on right now! And, it seems, the best thing to do when there’s a CRISIS going on is to talk constantly about how there’s a CRISIS going on. Oh no, wait, talking about how there’s a CRISIS going on isn’t enough. Instead, we have to SHOUT about the CRISIS that’s going on. Oh, and let’s run around tearing our hair out as well, because that helps. Uh oh, that’s not enough either. What we clearly need to do in order to deal with a CRISIS is to CHANGE EVERYTHING. Yes, let’s all behave like stockbrokers when there’s a market crash and GET RID OF EVERYTHING because there’s a CRISIS going on.

I’d like to see or hear politicians calmly addressing the problems that are approaching as a result of the Brexit vote. It’d also be nice to see or hear more of politicians who aren’t expending large amounts of energy on creating or fighting leadership contests when there are already some significant issues to be dealt with. In that light, here are three reasons each why David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn should remain their respective parties’ leaders.

First up, Dave:

  1. He won a general election just over a year ago (admittedly via a rubbish electoral system) and gained the mandate he had, in part, on the basis of promising a referendum on EU membership. So, it’s a bit weird that he’s resigned having done exactly what he said he would.
  1. He’s on record saying that he’d stay as the Prime Minister even if the UK voted to leave the EU, and there’s already a public perception that MPs don’t stick to what they say they’ll do.
  1. He bears a large part of the responsibility (not all of the responsibility, just part of it; these things are complex) for the UK being in its current situation, and it’d be nice if he’d stick around to deal with the consequences. That seems to me to be part of being a leader.

As for Jezza:

  1. He was elected leader of the Labour Party less than a year ago, when it was known that there would be an EU referendum coming, and when it was known that he was not a full-blooded supporter of the EU. Sure, he’s partially responsible for the referendum outcome, but only partially (the campaign was long and rancorous, with competing factions campaigning on the same side, thousands of campaigners, and millions of interactions, so of course there were disagreements, angry emails, and claims that some people weren’t doing enough), and getting rid of him doesn’t change it.
  1. Party leaders are elected on the basis of internal party processes (although Labour’s process was open to everyone who didn’t want Corbyn to be leader as well as all those people who did), not the spectre of future general elections. Few people predicted the outcome of the last general election or, indeed, the referendum last week, so I’m not convinced by the ‘we can’t win a general election’ self-fulfilling prophesy. It would be nice to see support for the party leader and a focus on engaging with the public rather than a party turning its focus inwards in the belief that changing the leader is some sort of magic bullet that will make a general election victory suddenly much easier. And incidentally, I’m not convinced that a more centrist Labour leader would be more clearly distinct from the ‘establishment’ that was given a bloody nose last Thursday than is Corbyn.
  1. It’s bizarrely contradictory to cite prospective party disunity as a reason for triggering a leadership contest that will certainly create party disunity. Again, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Parties are broad churches but their members share more with each other than they do with other parties. Crucially, I’m not convinced that even the most centrist Labour MP shares more in common with a Conservative than they do with Corbyn (though maybe I’m wrong on this), and it would be nice to see both sides recognising this rather than focussing on their differences. Or, in other words, to see both sides recognising the unifying purpose of their party, rather than using it as an arena for a never-ending battle between ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Labour.

I’m not a party member, and I never have been, but I can’t say I’m tempted to become one on the evidence of the last few days. To the extent that the country is facing problems, it’d be nice to see elected representatives behaving like calm leaders rather than acting as the angry faces of feuding factions.


Brexit Referendum: Positive Principle, Destructive Discourse

The grey man of politics, Sir John Major, was on the Today programme last week railing against the big bag of soundbites that has been opened by the Leave campaign in the run up to the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.[1] He then proceeded to inform the supporters of a British exit from the E.U. that if they’re so concerned with undiluted sovereignty then they can find it in North Korea. Soundbite much?![2] Putting aside the argument that sovereignty and isolationism are not the same thing (and the distinct likelihood that North Korea is influenced by a large, powerful, and economically significant neighbour anyway), let’s just add this to the long list of ridiculous rhetoric that has been spouted by both sides in the debate. Previous entries on that list include Michael Gove’s claim that voting to remain in the E.U. would mean being ‘hostages locked in the back of the car driven head long towards deeper E.U. integration’,[3] George Osborne’s clear-as-mud claim that every family in the U.K. will be £4,300 a year worse off if the country leaves the E.U.,[4] and Nigel Farage’s incomprehensible waggling of a U.K. passport whilst arguing that a major reason for leaving the E.U. is to reduce sex attacks by foreigners.[5] Blimey, it’s even enough to get bureaucrats to emerge from their smoke-filled backrooms and start commenting.

So why do the politicians insist on talking like this? Well, it’s all part of ‘project fear’, which is something that both sides like to claim the other lot are engaged in. And both sides are right. The referendum debate has, to a large extent, become a game of one-upmanship in which the campaigns compete to promote the most lasting fear in the electorate. And, from their perspective, it probably makes sense to do so. Both sides have political advisers, campaign managers, and strategists who are aware that the fight probably isn’t over the roughly 40% of voters on each side who’ve already made up their minds.[6] Rather, it’s over the 20% in the middle, of which approximately three quarters say they don’t yet know which way they’ll vote. That 15% or so of the electorate probably contains plenty of people who we might call cautious, or even conservative (emphasis on the small ‘c’). They don’t want to decide which way to vote until they feel comfortable that they’ve got enough information, or at least a good reason for their decision. This means that if one side can successfully populate the public narrative with more reasons why things will be worse if the other side wins then they may well be home and dry. This, I think, is what happened in the Scottish independence referendum; the ‘no’ side made a more convincing (and louder) case that the economic risk of breaking up the U.K. was too great. Thus, those who waited until late in the campaign to decide their vote were more likely to oppose Scottish independence.

And how did the ‘no’ side manage to make their case more convincing? Well, in part, they got more ‘respectable’ voices to make it. Lots of economists, business leaders, and consultants releasing reports about, and estimates of, the potential costs to the Scottish economy of breaking away from the U.K., which is a trend that’s being replicated in the current referendum campaign. This will, I think, benefit the Remain campaign. Not only do they have more famous and more establishment politicians on their side, but they also seem to have more economists and business leaders too. And the thing about those cautious, or conservative, voters I mentioned is that they are the people who are most likely to be swayed by economists and business leaders, or ‘respectable’ voices. So, as we approach the referendum on the 23rd of June, I think we’ll see more of those undecided voters coming out in favour of remaining. They might take it right down to the wire, but I suspect they’ll swing it for staying in. This is the first, and most important, advantage that the Remain campaign has. On top of that, they also benefit from having government resources[7] and, I suspect, more money on their side, and they seem united in comparison the competing Leave campaigns.

So, is it all doom and gloom for the Leave campaign? No, I don’t think so. To my mind, they’ve got four things in their favour, which are, from least to most important: protest votes, committed supporters, media narratives, and demographics. The first of those is the counterpoint to the observation that the Remain campaign’s establishment status will sway cautious voters. On the flip side, it might inspire a backlash, though I suspect that the overall effect of looking ‘respectable’ will benefit Remain. Second up, the committed supporters extend from campaigners to voters; people who are opposed to E.U. membership seem to be more passionate than those who support it. This makes them more likely to turn up to vote and, potentially, to convert others to the cause. Still, in the same way that being ‘establishment’ may alienate some from the Remain campaign, being too passionate may alienate others (and, perhaps, particularly those cautious voters I keep going on about) from the Leave campaign. Third, on the press narratives front, many years of anti-E.U. articles in a lot of the major daily newspapers is part of what led to a referendum in the first place. Still, the press is often self-interested when it comes to public opinion and, if it looks like Leave isn’t a sure bet then they might hedge their bets. So, if the first three points don’t definitely favour Leave then it comes down to demographics, which is the big plus for them. It’s well known that opposition to E.U. membership is stronger amongst older people and men, and that those people are more likely to vote (or at least claim that they will). However, assuming that the polling companies have addressed the problems that underpinned last year’s general election polling miss, their results suggest that the two sides are pretty much neck and neck. This is even after weighting to account for demographics.

If even the benefit of having older (male) supporters doesn’t bear fruit for Leave then it comes down to those cautious undecided voters, who are the main targets of the ongoing rhetoric of fear on both sides. It’s sad that it’s come to that because, I think, having referendums on significant issues (especially constitutional matters) is a positive principle. It’d be great to figure out a way to engage in a less destructive discourse around such votes, but I still think that it’s good to have a discourse that will feed into a popular decision. It’s not the only way to do make such a decision, but it’s one, and it’s appropriate for some occasions. So, the two campaigns will keep banging their rhetorical drums. Remain’s drum is a bit bigger and more impressive but Leave’s drum is being beaten more frantically. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome of the contest will be but, on balance, I think that the advantages of the Remain campaign will outweigh those of the Leave campaign. Indeed, if the trends of the last five years are anything to go by, the U.K. will still be part of the E.U. on the 24th of June, and for some years to come.

[1] I originally wrote this post for a foreign-language blog but, alas, they couldn’t get a translator so I’m sticking it up here now instead.

[2] And my repeating it here undermines any claim I might make to disapprove of soundbite politics.

[3] Putting aside the second part of the sentence, it’s the choice of language in the first half of the sentence that one might consider to be a bit over the top.

[4] As I understand it, the claim was predicated on a predicted decrease in the future growth of the U.K. economy if the country leaves the E.U. and, I must say, I’m baffled by why anyone would take a long term economic projection with anything less than a big pinch of salt. There were lots of assumptions involved in making that claim, and we don’t know if they’ll hold in reality.

[5] Incomprehensible because I’m not sure that the juxtaposition of waving a U.K. passport around whilst talking about sexual assault gave the intended impression. Also, and much more importantly, evidence suggests that most sexual crimes are committed by people known to the victims.

[6] Though shouting their respective messages probably won’t undermine the support they’ve built up so far.

[7] Hence the Government’s booklet in support of the U.K. remaining in the E.U. which did seem somewhat unfair to me.