Thursday, 13 October 2016

Two tribes go to war: making sense of the battle for Labour

Piece for Medium

 Two tribes go to war: making sense of the battle for Labour

In 2013, commenting on the downward spiral of his party, Republican consultant Mike Murphy observed:
“There seem to be two schools of thought in GOP. One group, the Mathematicians, look at the GOP’s losing streak and the changing demography of the country and say the party needs to make real changes to attract voters beyond the old Republican base of white guys. Not just mechanics, but also policy. They want to modernize conservatism and change some of the old dogma on big issues like same sex marriage. I’m one of them. The other group, the Priests, say the problem is we don’t have enough ideological purity. We must have faith, be pure and nominate “real conservatives” (whatever that means; the Priests are a bit slippery about their definitions) who will fight without compromise against liberalism. The Priests are mostly focused on the sins we are against; they say our problem is a lack of intensity; if we are passionate and loud enough, we will alert and win over the rest of the country. The Mathematicians hear all this and think the Priests are totally in a… echo chamber of their own creation and disconnected from the reality of today’s electorate…The Priests hear the Mathematicians and think they are all sell-outs.”
This is the debate that is defining all kinds of political upheaval across the Western world today. It is not a simple matter of left vs right, establishment vs grass roots or the centre against the fringe. In fact it’s happening between and within movements and organisations of all kinds — political and civil society — all across the political spectrum.
It is though at it’s most obvious in the UK in the fight going on within the Labour party, where the priestly disposition of the influx of new members is at odds with the party apparatus and longer standing members. What makes this so intractable, and gives it the feeling of a culture war, is that is is not a pitched battle over policy per se — the differences between the two sides are over stated. It’s really a fight between two different modes of activism; one that have at their core two different and largely incompatible theories of persuasion, and how you win people over to your side.
The mathematicians, such as we are, start from a position that most people — voters, members of the public — disagree with us, and need to be won round. Our model of persuasion is one built on compromise; hold the same objective but meet the person you’re trying to win over half way, give a little on mood music or detail if you need to; half a loaf is better than no loaf. At it’s worst it can feel transactional but it is also rooted in a sort of humility and pragmatism. Out of this approach falls the more professionalised approach to campaigns associated with New Labour, and an approach to communications (that I outlined here) focused on earning the right to be heard.
The priests, on the other hand, start from the position that people already agree with them — they just don’t know it yet; in some way they have had their consciousness obscured. In so far as they even think about ordinary people that disagree with them, they will often explain things in terms of the message not being properly heard. Perhaps it’s being distorted by a lack of conviction, some third party or ne’er-do-wells in the media. Or, when the cognitive dissonance becomes too much, faith is held in the idea of a large hitherto unengaged mass, just waiting out there, desperate to be inspired. Either way, the remedy is almost always to shout louder and shout better.
Their approach to persuasion was captured quite amusingly in a recent LRB piece, covering a Momentum event in the swing seat of Nuneaton:
“I had checked the local branch’s Facebook page on the train: 35 people were confirmed as attending and someone had recently posted an article entitled ‘1983: The Biggest Myth in Labour Party History’. As I approached a woman was bellowing ‘Vote Labour! Save yourselves! The Tories will destroy you!’ to no one in particular….The speeches were similar to those I’d heard elsewhere…Only a handful of passers-by stopped to listen…”
This is a creed best imbued in Tony Benn’s famous quote about sign posts v.s weathervanes. If you hold your ground and your line you will be there to reap the benefits when the tide of history turns your way. This has the virtue we commonly ascribe to ‘sticking to one’s principles’. It also tends to give rise more easily to things like paranoia, conspiracy and self-pity.
Again, this is not a simple matter of left or right. For example, I think Owen Jones’ estrangement from Corbynism, such as it is, is probably based on this divide. Though formidable in the pulpit he has a genuine interest in how you win people over by starting from where they are. He is a mathematician amid a movement of priests.
Even the likes of Paul Mason or Aaron Bastani in their better moments have at times shown flashes of realism over winning over UKIP or Tory voters.
But the Corbynite backlash against Mason’s proposed pragmatism on free movement is instructive. He is fundamentally misunderstanding the social movement he has ridden in on. If nothing else it is a movement built on a total rejection of any compromise, in either detail or framing and communications. Any attempts to professionalise it is doomed to fail.
Indeed, at it’s core Corbynism’s sole interest is not policy or elections but process — namely, defeating the mathematicians’ mode of party politics and activism, which they associate with capitulation. This currently travels under more pleasant talk of ‘letting members decide policy’, ‘party democracy’, ‘wrestling back control from elites’ and so on, but it should be seen for what it is. Much more than anything else, it is what makes it so urgent that it must be defeated.
We on the other side have to understand it as a challenge to our entire philosophy of politics, and learn to fight on those terms.
There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, for what it’s worth, every shred of evidence around voter psychology suggests you can persuade voters — but only if you make the argument with a value frame they have some kind of sympathy with. So you can move people to a progressive place on immigration or welfare, for instance, but you have to talk about things like contribution or patriotism — things many left activists feel instinctively uncomfortable with. Banging on about open borders or entitlement may feel good but it will always bounce off people.
In more cynical moments, you suspect many of the ‘priests’ know this — they just don’t care. From this perspective their mode of politics seems much more about expression than anything else; it is about what they want to say, not what the unpersuaded need to hear. We have a habit of saying this is ‘naive’ or ‘idealistic’ but narcissistic might be a better word.
Dangerous may be another. Whether it knows it or not, this expressive, populist form of electoral activism de facto gives up on building cross-class, cross-societal voter coalitions. In its place is a purer form of identity politics that instead doubles down on reinforcing the virtue and prejudices of the already converted. Other than being electorally suicidal, it begets a political culture rife with bitterness, sanctimony and righteous anger; a country where cultural divides are doubled down on rather than reached across and mediated. It’s end game is a society where ever tinier, cordoned off cantons — the liberal cosmopolitans in the big cities, the communitarians in the suburbs and provinces — are in constant conflict with each other, rather than part of a wider movement.
This, one imagines, is also why so many Corbyn allies favour proportional representation — it lessens the need to reach outside of those enclaves.
It is this form of individualised boisterous identity politics that is tearing apart broad church movements and institutions across the Western world, from the Republicans in the US, to the British Union and social democracy across Europe.
It is this understanding which should frame the moderate counter argument.
Too often we portray our mode of politics as cold instrumentalism or about necessary evils to gain power (I appreciate the framing of ‘mathematicians’ is unhelpful here).
But it’s not. At its heart it is about reaching out; building broad alliances and solidarity. It’s easy to sneer at the more professionalised techniques we might employ — focus groups, polling, messaging — but it could just be calledlistening. Empathising with people and building bridges. Genuine movement building. This is not just a route to power but a good in itself, adding to the sum of solidarity and togetherness in a country we love and want to improve. Done properly, if it moves us just one single step closer to our shared goals, it is more than worth most compromises it might entail. It is a form of politics and togetherness far more beautiful than listening to another sulphurous speech against neo-liberalism in a run down town hall in Lambeth.
But at present that argument is being lost across Western democracies, and most acutely within the Labour party. Until that fact is acknowledged as a root cause, and until that argument is renewed, made again and made better — in a way that resonates with those sceptical of it — and people are recruited on that basis, Corbyn will continue to advance. A better, kinder politics will be defeated. The priests will inherit the earth.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Seeking the ‘persuadable Corbyn’ vote

Blog on Medium

Seeking the ‘persuadable Corbyn’ vote

Ian Warren over at Election Data did wonks everywhere a huge favour this week, publishing a load of very thorough polling of the Labour selectorate for free.

There’s been a dearth of these kind of polls since September, partly because it’s expensive and partly because most people with an incentive to commission it would probably prefer to keep the results for themselves. This data also has the advantage of being from YouGov, one of the best in the business and the only company to call the Corbyn surge last summer.

What it gives us is the first real chance to investigate something that has long bugged me: what exactly is the make up of the Corbyn coalition? And, more importantly, which segments are potentially ‘persuadable’ for the moderates and when, and what defines them? (I ask this not as someone with any particular dog in the fight, just someone for who staring at this kind of stuff represents a fun way to waste an evening in the one life I have).

The full data is here and here.

So what does it say?

At a glance things aren’t too promising, either methodologically or from the perspective of anyone vying for a change in the Labour leadership. What you’d ideally do here is ask members to rate how likely they would be to back Corbyn in a future contest on a scale of 1 to 6, then see what demographics make up, say, ratings 3–4. These questions don’t have that kind of question; they largely force members to choose if they approve of Corbyn now or not and want him to stay to 2020 or not.

And within that, as widely reported, there is broad approval for the Labour leader right now, with very little movement since September: 72% approval, 63% wanting him to stay until 2020 and 62% backing him in a mock leadership ballot. Looking across the crossbreaks, almost all major demographics and groups of members show overwhelming support.

So definitely not great for the anti-Corbynistas. But there is a small chink of light for them in question 8: “If the Labour party perform badly in May’s election in Scotland, Wales, London and English councils do you think Jeremy Corbyn should or should not continue as leader of the party and fight the 2020 election?”
In that circumstance, the numbers wanting Corbyn to stay until 2020 drop to 53%. 40% would want him to go either immediately or before the election. 8% are up for grabs either way. Obviously this is still very healthy for Corbyn, but it’s movement, and something worth investigating.

Roughly 30% of Corbyn’s 2015 vote comes into play at that point, thinking he should go before the election (though some of this is plugged by Burnham and Cooper voters thinking he should stay).
So in that circumstance, which groups are flaking away from him?
The only factor that makes a significant difference to how members answered this question is how long they had been a member. In no other cleavage (age, class, location etc) is there any notable change between now and post-May defeat.
In short it would largely be the pre-2015 members breaking away from Corbyn: members who joined under Ed Miliband (‘Ed joiners’), and members who joined pre-2010. Make no mistake: both of these groups overwhelmingly voted for Corbyn in September 2015 and support him now: 55% of ‘Ed joiners’ currently think he should stay until 2020 (66% approve of him), and 50% of pre-2010 members think he should stay (59% of them approve of him).
But both groups see a notable dip in support for Corbyn when the prospect of electoral disaster in May is presented to them. In that circumstance, support among Ed joiners for Corbyn staying until 2020 drops to 41%. Among pre-2010 members it falls to 39%.
By way of comparison, even in the face of electoral disaster in May, 61% of members who joined after May 2015 would still think Corbyn should stay on to 2020, and 89% of members who have joined since September — basically the same proportions of these groups as think that now. They are barely moved.

Ok, so none of this is mind blowing and the movement isn't enormous — but it does give us more than we had before. It puts to rest the idea that the key divide in the Corbyn voter set is age or class or any particular issue per se. If they are going to be prised apart, a key fault line is the point at which they entered the party, and, seemingly, how much it matters whether Labour win elections. It’s a wedge.
This intuitively makes sense. It’s not a left/right thing: the data shows pre-2015 members hold broadly the same left wing views on key policy issues as post-2015 members. But it’s probable longer-term members simply balance these views off against winning elections slightly more evenly. And they are currently waiting to see how things pan out, having convinced themselves the Labour leader could succeed electorally.
Also, they were part of the party when it was in power or seriously competing for it. By contrast, many of the post-2015 members seem to be purer movement types, less interested in the machine or elections. And they are likely to be far more attached to Corbyn than the party itself.
Of course, there’s still lots we don’t know about this pre-2015 group: are there any other characteristics that define them? Who within them are the most persuadable? Why did they vote for Corbyn? Exactly would constitutes ‘performing badly’ in May to them? What voices in the Labour movement influence them most? Etc. These would be interesting questions for further research, some of which would need to be qualitative.
But there are some things the data does tell us about pre-2015 members:
  • They still make up just over half of the membership
  • They overwhelmingly disapprove of Labour MPs publicly criticising Corbyn now, as much as post-2015 members do (so a period of silence for the PLP might be a good idea).
  • They are much less supportive of John McDonnell
  • They are anti-Trident and military intervention but less likely to see these as decisive factors in a leadership election
  • They generally nurse a lot more doubt about Corbyn’s ability to win a general election
  • They tend to overindex on reading the Daily Mirror, as opposed to The Guardian or Independent, compared to the membership as a whole
  • There’s some evidence they tend to more highly prioritise the economy as an issue (though margin of error makes this tight), and less issues like the environment.
I’d also guess (just anecdotally) they are more likely to turn up to CLP meetings and the like.
Again, to be clear, i’m definitely not saying this group is about to defect from Corbyn en masse.

What this also doesn't mean is that Labour moderates can just rely on cold calls to electability to shift them
. They clearly will need inspiring on values and issues too — far better than any of the other candidates last summer managed. This kind of inspirational agenda is currently something sorely lacking in the anti-Corbyn parts of the PLP.

But I think it is fair to say that this group are far softer than the rest of Jeremy’s vote, even though they make up a big portion of it. They at the very least present an opening for those to the right of Corbyn, then, if they can get their act together. Any switch will start with this group of the membership; any electoral disaster in May marks the point at which a fair number of them begin being open to an argument on leadership change. Any successful moderate leadership bid probably wins a big chunk of this group as their core support, encourages them to get their friends and family to join up, while winning a slither of the post-2015 members on top. Labour moderates’ efforts should therefore go into dissecting, understanding and targeting this group over and above newer members.

That’s my take on it anyway. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Friday, 30 October 2015

To win again, Labour must learn a lesson from Alex Salmond's grandfather

For New Statesman

To win again, Labour must learn a lesson from Alex Salmond's grandfather

"If you're going to say something radical, make sure you wear a suit". This is the solitary piece of advice Alex Salmond's grandfather is said to have sent him packing with as he started his career in politics thirty years ago.
As party conference season draws to an end, it's this advice which separates the two main parties in British politics, and defines their current trajectory. One side gets it, the other ignores it.
It isn't really, of course, a line about what constitutes proper dress - or at least not just. What Salmond's grandfather meant was simple: if people can pigeonhole you, they will – so don't let them. Confound expectations.
It remains as relevant as ever. Unpack why and you get to three truths that most pollsters will tell you define the ways voters engage with politics: they consume it in very small quantities, largely through TV and newspapers; they make their mind up quickly; and, most crucial of all, they filter what they see back through the lens of what they already think. If you sound and look how people expect you to, they will box you in as that, even if what you're saying is eminently sensible. So much is not about what is being said, but who is saying it.
This is difficult to absorb when most political discussion is still wedded to the idea of a rational-actor electorate. But the reality is most normal people respond to signals not details (and abnormal people in fact: most of those who read this article and tweet me furiously about it will only have bothered reading the headline and top line).
Thus a huge part of electoral politics is challenging prejudices people have about you. In this contest advantage accrues to those who can do unexpected things; the counter-intuitive. So, for instance, only a party that can convincingly present as moderate earns the right to govern as radical.
This is ultimately the fatal mistake made by the many people – including myself – who wrongly thought Ed Miliband had a shot at Number 10. Because he never ruthlessly and publicly dealt with Labour's weaknesses, particularly spending and welfare, his broader agenda never got a hearing. James Morrisargues Miliband's early years spent talking about “too far too fast”, however economically justified, just hardened for voters their own pre-existing prejudices: that Labour wanted to spend more and can't be trusted with tough decisions. Later, Miliband just switched the subject. As a result, BritainThinks found that even when he said things that polled well, voters simply asked “yes but where's the money coming from?” in a way they never did of the Conservatives.
Which brings us back to this year's party conferences.
The Conservatives spent most of their time in Manchester, as they have since May, playing to their strengths while happily, ruthlessly and publicly attempting to deal with their weaknesses among undecided voters. For “party of the rich”, see the living wage and overtures on “the workers party”; for “the nasty party” see Cameron's paeans to equality. How substantial this in practice is irrelevant, in the short term at least. It was all clipped for the news for the same reason it will have cut through with floating voters: because it's counter-intuitive. It buys them cover to be quietly radical and, in many areas, push a traditional free-market agenda Michael Howard would never have got away with.
Labour badly needs to learn this skill: presenting as moderate, governing as radical. At the moment it is adept at precisely the opposite. Windy socialist rhetoric is cranked up only to be accompanied by fairly conventional social democratic ideas. An economic policy largely the same as Ed Balls’ sent the conference hall into raptures because it was wrapped in the crotchety language of anti-austerity.
This is the surest sign of a movement in love with the sound of its own voice. Everything it did will have entrenched voters’ prejudices about them, wittingly or not. To be fair, most damningly of all, it seemed designed precisely for that purpose. Every signal was aimed at pleasing the already converted and reaffirming their virtue. If there was any talk of persuasion, it only showed through in a desire to lecture the public: “busting myths”, “nailing the lie” and so on. Not an ounce of self-reflection, or an understanding that these rights have to be earned.
To be fair, the frenzy among activists was been whipped up largely in response to a half justified grievance: that New Labour managed to be seen as moderate but didn't exploit it by governing radically enough, as the Conservatives are now, particularly when it came to political economy.
But the fact remains: Labour will not get the chance to change the country again unless it re-learns what Alex Salmond's grandfather taught him. It will not even get a hearing until it is willing to confound perceptions of it among Conservative voters in particular, as the Tories have learnt to do. Why does it deserve one?
The reason this hasn't been done is that it's not easy. It doesn't mean aping every last detail of Conservative policy – but it does mean moving closer to the small-c conservative values that run through the population of this country outside its big cities: prudence, fairness as opportunity not just outcome, quiet patriotism, contribution. At the moment the party is a world away: obsessed with an arid Keynsianism, infatuated with ideas of entitlement and embarrassed about national identity.
The change here has to run deep; it has to be more than finding the most temperate words in a thesaurus. The challenge is to renew the party's politics in a way that intrinsically deals with its weaknesses, but leaves it with a prospectus bold enough to change the country. It has to look, over and over again, like it genuinely cares about things voters don't expect it to: the deficit, waste, unfairness in the welfare system; the middle as well as the bottom, as well as being comfortable with technology and innovation. Otherwise it will never be able to broach a conversation about inequality, reforming the economy so it works in the interests of the many, or tackling vested interests. And British politics will remain what it is today: a non-competitive sport. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Who is Senator Elizabeth Warren and is she a serious US election contender?

Piece for New Statesman from 5th January.

Who is Senator Elizabeth Warren and is she a serious US election contender? 

Six years ago this month, in the bitter winter cold, 2m people crammed on to the mall of Washington DC to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama. The gritty reality of what followed – a good if not transformational presidency – make it easy to forget the spirit and energy of that day, and Obama's ascent generally. A palpable cry for change in the wake of the financial crisis then gripping the country, and for an outsider to shake up an ineffective DC establishment, swept him beyond McCain and Hilary Clinton before that.
But it's worth bringing it to the debate over his successor as Democratic nominee for 2016. There's a reason that, as the FT reports, "very few people in Washington have the clout that Senator Elizabeth Warren has right now". More than anything else, it's because she is tapping in to that same energy, and giving it greater form.
Warren has spent the last four years rallying against those on Wall Street and Capitol Hill who she blames for poisoning the American dream. Across a range of issues – the bank bailouts, credit card and mortgage regulation, student loans – she's channelled a still widespread anger at the financial crisis, giving voice to a economic anxiety held by huge swathes of America.
This anxiety if of course borne of the same forces shaping people's lives this side of the pond, despite an improving economy: stagnant wages, rising bills, a hollowing out of middle class jobs and growing inequality. Warren has argued that these are not facts of life akin to the weather, but in large part the product of rules "rigged" by an orthodoxy seizing the US political system, one kept in place through the influence of organised money. It's an orthodoxy that has sometimes thwarted Obama, but one he has also felt the need to indulge.
In short, she is the first mainstream, progressive populist to fully emerge out of post-crash politics in America.
All of which has sparked a petition to draft her in to the 2016 race against Hilary Clinton, who is threatening to run again. 
As a result, much of the Democratic establishment are already on manoeuvres against Warren, sniffily dismissing her a East Coast liberal bound for the same fate as Howard Dean. At first glance it's easy to sympathise with this. But there is more to Warren demanding of further attention.
For a start, she is (and speaks like) an Okie; a Southerner, hardly Democratic heartlands these days.
Despite reaching the gilded halls of Harvard (where she taught bankruptcy law), Warren came from very little. Her father was a janitor and a maintenance man, her mother a phone operator. So when she speaks about threats facing the American dream, she speaks with an authenticity the likes of Gore and Kerry never could.
More importantly, her politics are more complicated and progress beyond the traditional 'tax and spend' of the Democratic left. She is largely concerned with economic reform: breaking up and remaking the banking system, consumer protection, infrastructure. In her own words, "effective counterweights" against the interests of organised money. Before being elected in 2012, Warren set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency which has put over $4bn back in the pockets of Americans swindled by financial institutions.
In the context of tight budgets, and after a generation of trying to ameliorate inequalities through the tax system, this is the most sensible territory for the centre-left to be on.
But in many respects, Warren's themes are far more in the conservative tradition than the Democratic one: aspiration, breaking up concentrations of power, making markets work better, opposing no-strings-attached bailouts. She also supports school vouchers in the public education system.
None of which is surprising given Warren's Republican background, but all of which makes for an interesting blend of left and right that is making her slightly untouchable on Capitol Hill at the moment ("It's like we're dealing with the most popular girl in school", one bank executive recently whinged). Most importantly, it gives her the potential to speak beyond the Democratic base if she gets it right.
She is also aided by the weaknesses of her potential opponents. The GOP have long since abandoned traditional conservative thought, in favour of an unhinged worship of the already wealthy (and a dependence on their largesse).
And then there's Clinton. It isn't obvious what agenda will particularly animate her bid for the White House, or her supporters – at the moment it's just a strange cult of personality. In any event, the rising tide of anger and insecurity potentially pose a significant problem for her. Many of the questions angering Americans, certainly Democrats, today are essentially ones of economic reform. On this theme, Clinton is a status quo politician. What she thinks about these questions i'm not sure, but one suspects she doesn't think about them very much at all. They involve upsetting vested interests that a generation of Third Way politicians cut their teeth making peace with. Moreover, as Warren herself found out, her more direct ties to Wall Street compromise her.
So if Warren does decide to run, she could easily wrongfoot the presumptive nominee. In many ways, Warren is already dictating the terms of the debate. Clinton recently felt the need to make a rather half-hearted and awkward pitch to define herself against Wall Street ("The least convincing populist on earth", as one newspaper put it). Meanwhile, there are rumours even Obama himself sees Warren as his true heir, and is urging her to get in the ring.
It may not happen, of course. For a start, it isn't clear Warren even wants it or feels herself up to it. After years of stalemate in Congress under Obama, Clinton's strongest card is as an arm-twister who knows how to get things done. Warren would have to work hard to build a broad coalition of support, and strengthen her hand on foreign policy. But the elements are certainly there to make things very interesting. If you're looking for a political earthquake, it is worth at least keeping an eye on the American left this year. 

Monday, 29 September 2014

Please help get clarity on the future of the RVT

Please help get clarity on the future of the RVT

There's not many more wonderful or important gay venues in London than the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

In many ways it's hard to tell the history of gay and lesbian London without it. For sixty odd years the no bullshit fabulousness of its club nights – with its drag acts and theatrical performances – have been a kind of safe haven from the outside world for LGBT people across London, one of the handful of places in which the words 'gay community' makes sense. First, from its role in the sexual revolution of the post-war period, then its position on the frontline of the AIDS crisis in 1980s (Paul O'Grady, a regular Tavern performer back then, talks about this movingly here). It's recent cameo in the movie Pride is just the latest recognition of its status.

Today it's endured as a bulwark against the wanky nonsence of a lot of Soho; a place where you can see many of the same faces mixed in with the new each time you go, and probably the first place I felt at home when I moved to London a few years back.

All of which made me sad to hear and read that it might be at risk. What we do know is it's either been sold, or is about to be sold, to investors. Who exactly is unclear, but most likely from abroad.

One of its previous owners will continue to manage the place for now, and they've done an amazing job over the last decade to keep it thriving. But by all accounts the Tavern's long-term future is still unclear. There are still persistent rumours that it will eventually be torn down, transformed into apartments, a hotel, or otherwise sanitised out of all recognition.

Anyone who's been to RVT will know its location makes it prime real estate. Indeed sadly none of this can be stripped from the wider context of the creeping gentrification and commercialisation of a lot of South London, including parts of the gay scene. To see the RVT go the same way would be a real act of cultural vandalism. Sadly, as yet there's been a stony silence from the Tavern's new owners on their intentions.

So, a small campaign has started up to get assurances about its future, and to secure the Tavern as a community asset under the recent Localism Act. If successful with Lambeth Council, this last measure would give the community the right to bid for the Tavern in the event that its put up for the sale again. It's not impossible that some local group would come forward to bid for the place.

In the meantime, the questions that need to be asked and which many people are anxiously waiting the answers to are:

  • Who has bought the RVT?
  • What are the new owners' plans for the place both in the short term and in the long term?
  • Will they share those plans, or consult on them?
  • Can the new owners provide proper assurances that it will stay open as a gay venue, and true to its long history, for the long-term?
On all of these, there have been no answers. So if you are reading this and are as fond of the RVT as many of us are, please take time to either share this blog or ask the questions of RVT yourself via Twitter @TheRVT or email INFO@RVT.ORG.UK. And please push the issue to local politicians, media etc.

Again, this is not about denigrating the management of the Tavern, who have kept it alive and kicking over the years. It's just about getting clarity and assurances over its long-term future, and that any plans for it stay true to its character. If this were any other bar, we could all just find somewhere else to get pissed on a weekend. But the strength of the RVT is that it engenders greater feeling than that, and it means more than that – past and present. Those who go there aren't just its customers, but a community too, so we should act like it until its future is secured.

EDIT: Thanks to everyone who has helped push this issue. The RVT have now put out a statement in response. It's here: 

Good news that they're engaging on it, but sadly the statement is mysteriously silent on most of the questions people are asking. The most simple one being who owns the RVT and what their long-term intentions are. It's important we all keep asking that, which many of us will - this has only deepened the mystery for me, anyway!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A thing for the New Statesman here
The British middle class is sinking. Is our politics big enough to meet the challenge?
An interesting statistic crept out of the Department for Work and Pensions last week, while the pubs of Britain no doubt buzzed with discussion about Jean-Claude Junker or how someone in Ed Miliband's office may or may not have recognised someone at a FT summer drinks reception.
According to the DWP, the average household income in 2012-13 was £440, unchanged on the year before. It represents the third consecutive year of stagnation or decline (depending on how you cut the figures). As the IFS have noted, in real terms this leaves median household income in roughly the same place as it was in 2002, and comes off the back of painfully slow wage growth from the start of the 2000s.
In the same week the increase in the price of homes reached an all-time high. Add in that a majority of people on typical incomes now have less than one month's income as savings, plus the slow hollowing-out of middle income jobs, and a pretty clear picture emerges. The foundations of middle class life – a decent income, assets, savings, pensions – are getting harder and harder to attain, especially for those just starting out. In many cases, debt has filled the gap.
This goes beyond just failures of the private sector. The welfare safety net has also become residualised. People on reasonable incomes can work their whole life and receive only paltry amounts when they lose their job. When it comes to both work and the state, people in the middle have been putting more in than they've been getting out for a long time.
It should go without saying that working class communities have had it hardest over the last thirty years. But the idea of middle class decline too is too often met with derision, especially among progressives.
Part of this is down to a distorted view of what "middle class" is, a popular association with what is in effect the upper middle classes; the world of piano recitals and Waitrose where "struggle" means difficulty meeting school fees. Of course, the middle class contains many like this too and they are doing more than fine. In fact, the most interesting development that experts havepointed to in recent years is the fracturing and polarisation of the middle class, between the upper echelons and those at the lower end. And previous generations who started out at the lower end of the middle class, bought a house at the right time, settled into a profession and now face retiring near the top may well be the last to make that journey en masse. In short, the bottom is falling out of the British middle class.
There's been a lot of talk about "narratives" recently. There's also been a lot of talk about how Ed Miliband doesn't have "a narrative". But in his defence, he's one of the few at the top of British politics to grasp this phenemenon, whatever his other difficulties. He's not totally alone – some figures on the right, for instance, including the brilliant Peter Franklin at ConHome, have twigged too. But wider interest is otherwise conspicuous by its absence, in Westminster at least.
Instead we get slightly echoey outdated debates about Europe, whether X or Y is "pro-business" or "anti-business", whether a particular view of public services is sufficiently "reforming" and so on and so forth. But surely the shape of that discussion changes in the face of such huge societal shifts? No doubt this failure to catch up is partly because the senior ranks of the commentariat are largely made up of those at the comfortable end of things (themselves probably among the last who can expect to make a good living out of a profession like journalism) - but it's depressing all the same.
To be fair, the answers are neither easy nor obvious. The likes of Resolution Foundation have been fantastic at laying out the problem of stagnating wages and ways to ameloriate it, but no one has come up with a wholesale plan for reversing the trend. Some of this is because it rubs up against global head winds and the modern divorce between power and politics. It probably requires trans-national solutions, or at least a revisiting of the way Britain approaches globalisation – a debate that hasn't even been opened here.
But those who over-play the inability of national government to fix things are also wrong, and usually have a vested ideological interest in doing so (in this sense the argument between those favouring a "bigger" or "shrunken" Labour offer in opposition is mostly phony, and a proxy for a bigger one about what can be achieved in government). Ideas that would be both effective and achievable include wholesale reform of corporate governance to include a significant role for workers; profit-sharing and other ways of spreading wealth; lower-cost routes into home ownership; breaking up and remaking British banking; decentralisation to cities; the prioritisation of vocational "middle skills"; prioritising British industry in procurement; reform of takeovers etc. When it comes to welfare, there is IPPR's National Salary Insurance scheme or SMF's "flexicurity" proposals.
All of this can only start, though, with a recognition that our current journey back to basically the same political economy as we had before the crash is not what success looks like. It wasn't good enough then and it isn't now.
Marx famously wrote:
The lower strata of the middle class... all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.
Things may not be as apocalyptic or revolutionary now, but they are bad, and contradictions within modern British capitalism mean the lower end of the middle class is sinking. The entire middle is being stretched, squeezed and polarised as never before. The result is entire neighbourhoods – which on the face of things look serene – in fact struggling to keep their head above water, facing futures significantly less secure, less stable and less well-off than their parents. This shapes millions of people's everyday lives and influences their political attitudes, and it should influence our political discussion too. At the moment, though, it doesn't seem to be. Future generations will surely look back and wonder what on earth we were talking about instead.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Tory modernisers' best hope is an Ed Miliband victory

Piece for NewStatesman
Tory modernisers' best hope is an Ed Miliband victory 

Defeat would open up space for reinvention.

The British Conservative Party needs shock therapy. It may still scrape back into government in next year's general election but if it does, barring a miracle, it will be on a smaller share of the national vote than in 2010. This has been the case every time its been victorious since 1950. As a growing number within the party recognise, it's reaching a point where things have become unsustainable. Forty per cent of voters now say they wouldn’t even consider voting Conservative, while the party has little base among ethnic minority and working class voters, especially in the north. Once-proud Tory heartlands like Sheffield and Manchester now have not even a single Conservative councillor. As the impressive David Skelton of Renewal has argued, voting Conservative in these parts has become counter-cultural.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the left was forced into a reckoning. It had suffered successive electoral defeats but it had also been intellectually defeated, with the end of the Cold War and shifts in the country's social fabric. The Conservatives have never really undergone such a reckoning, largely because Thatcher was never defeated at the ballot box, mostly thanks to a divided opposition. And so a mythology has grown up and still has hold over the party: that her brand of free market triumphalism won over the whole country, benefited the whole country, and can do so again.
This was always dubious – but has sustained itself even as the impact of her legacy on country and party sews division and resentment, especially in the deindustrialised north, and the "party of the rich" image has been baked in. As a creed, Thatcherism has come to rest on public deference to business elites, a faith that whatever their excesses, their inherent superiority will benefit us all in the end, which has been severely undermined by the financial crisis and flatlining wages.
Moreover, Britain may be a conservative country, with many attracted to Thatcher's ethics of self-reliance and discipline. But few outside the south-east ever shared the values of break-neck economic liberalism to which those ethics gave rise. A lot of people don't like to be made to feel powerless to forces shaping their lives, or like losers for not wanting to be self-made billionaires.
And yet Thatcherism remains the default instinct for much of the party – any departure is usually tactical or skin deep (with the notable exception of gay rights). Contrary to what many on the left think, the Conservative tradition is rich and long pre-dates the neoliberal era, encompassing communitarian and even social democratic schools of thought. Yet these days, any thinking in its ranks which entails fundamentally challenging the Thatcherite comfort zone is tossed aside. If the party get back in to power in 2015, this sleepwalking will continue, even if in its obliviousness it further erodes the electoral ground on which they can be returned.
Increasingly it seems that the only thing that can reverse the trend is Ed Miliband, smiling from the steps of 10 Downing Street. If this sounds like preposterous accelerationist tosh, think about it. Being beaten after just one term by a man the party's leading lights have long deemed unelectable would provoke huge internal recriminations. In this post-mortem there will open up space for those who understand the need to reinvent the party, from top to bottom both ideologically and organisationally; a project that Cameron initially grasped and then retreated from.Even if the initial leadership contest doesn't produce such a candidate, Labour may still rescue the Conservatives with their spell in government – though only if Miliband is as successful as he intends to be.
Unlike his predecessors, the Labour leader has made clear his desire to rework the political economy that Thatcher brought into place and New Labour left largely in tact. If (and it's still a huge if) he is successful, it would re-wire the rules of British politics: towards intervention in markets to make them work for consumers; towards active industrial policy and economic populism. Living standards and wages – reform of the economy to make it deliver for ordinary people - would become the central issues of British politics.
Such ground is the only place from which Conservative renewal can be fought, given the kind of votes they need to win. Were they to move onto it, combined with already potent messages on welfare and crime, they would be a formidable threat. Yet they seem incapable of doing so of their own accord. It's almost certainly too late in this Parliament, having already surrendered so much ground Labour in favour of a much narrower agenda. Increasingly, it seems, they will have to be forced there.
This may still be a little sunny, admittedly. Defeat for the Conservatives could well just result in a prolonged turn to the right and doubling-down, as it did last time. But unlike before, there's a range of intelligent and interesting people in Conservative ranks who understand what the party needs to do to broaden its appeal, and have placed reforming capitalism at the heart of their pitch. Jesse Norman, Skelton at Renewal, and Rob Halfon are just a few. Though currently fighting an uphill battle, they have already laid down a marker for any future battle to come. And who knows, their ascent may yet end up being Miliband's biggest threat, and greatest achievement.