Part 1 was merely a short piece to clarify to some non-UK people how we calculate the overall majority of a political party in the British Parliament. Today I’m going to bite the bullet to explore my thoughts about the Conservative election victory on 12th December 2019 and what I think the left-wing should do next to regain power.
The substantial Conservative victory on Thursday was a surprise to many. Indeed my final prediction expressed to a friend on election day was a moderate (20-30) overall majority for them. They achieved a nominal overall majority of 78 seats over all other parties combined. Sinn Fein (in Northern Ireland) refuses to take up its (7) seats at Westminster and the Speaker only votes in the event of a tie, so their “actual” overall majority is 88. Thus the Tories got almost three times the maximum overall majority I predicted. Incidentally, the model that came closest to predicting the correct result last time (YouGov’s “alternative model”) also predicted an overall majority of around 30, thus getting it equally wrong. As I have said before, although I admire YouGov’s attempt to incorporate broader and more stable predictors of behaviour (like attitudes), I always said their methods to do so were known to fail spectacularly in certain applications. It seems they came a cropper sooner rather than later. I hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: they should measure attitudes using choice models (like I did in 2017, being an “unofficial” person that predicted the 2017 election correctly using a “proper survey” and then making money at the bookmakers). If they’d done so, I’ll bet they would have done better this time.
What’s the Top Level Story?
Looking at the raw data concerning number of seats won, it looks like around 60 of the total 650 seats in Parliament went straight from Labour to Conservative in England, explaining most of the Conservative victory. (The Conservatives lost 10 seats in Scotland but this just makes the Conservative English-Welsh victory all the more spectacular.) Whilst this is true, it also conceals a lot of what went on at the level of the individual voter, an area close to my heart and part of what I spent close to 20 years working on!
Essentially what happened was that the “red wall” running from South Wales, through the Midlands (with my city – Nottingham – right at its centre) and up to North-East England, collapsed. Even in Labour’s mammoth 1983 defeat, that wall held, making this Labour’s worst performance since the 1930s when it was still building as a political force.
Labour held its ground very well in London. Although suffering some moderate swings against it in the centres of major regional cities that have experienced gentrification and investment, it generally held its seats there too. It is hard not to draw parallels with the USA. President Trump “broke the Democrats” in a bunch of their “traditional base” towns (but not “posh” places on the coasts) and cities that never benefited from economic growth in the last several decades. Indeed, my central hypothesis here is that the Labour Party has made EXACTLY the same mistakes as the Democrat Party at the national level of the USA, with exactly the same results.
A Tale of Two Labour Parties
To understand why the Labour result differed so markedly in “big metropolitan areas” compared to “the red wall” it is necessary to rewind the clock to 1979 – the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. A little known factoid is that in countries like the USA and UK, real household incomes (i.e. incomes after stripping out inflation – telling you what your money REALLY buys) today are barely higher on average than they were around 1980. The exact date depends on country and the composition of your “household” can change things of course, but the broad statement is correct according to various international independent statistical agencies. Interestingly, although I have quite well-known reservations about traditional measures of self-reported well-being or happiness, another general finding is that on average, population levels of well-being peaked in the late 1970s and have stagnated or downright fallen since.
Labour’s defeat in 1979 was by no means certain. At the time, various people speculated that had Prime Minister Callaghan “gone to the country” in 1978, rather than stagger on, enduring the “winter of discontent”, and ultimately losing a vote of confidence in Parliament (an extremely humiliating way for a government to be forced into an election) in 1979, then Labour may have won, or at least denied Thatcher an overall majority. Margaret Thatcher was NOT a popular politician. First, she was female. Britain was uneasy about a female PM. Second, she already had the nickname “Thatcher, Thatcher, the milk snatcher” for abolishing free milk to school-children when Education Secretary in the 1970-74 government. Third, she only became Conservative leader by MISTAKE! She was the “stalking horse” meant merely to unseat the profoundly unpopular (and unsuccessful) leader Ted Heath, so a “proper old school male” could take over. She built up too much momentum and got the leadership! Senior Tories were always furious at her. So Labour COULD have won.
Whoever won in 78/79 was destined to reap some one-time benefits, most notably the big benefits accruing from North Sea Oil, but these were not immediate. Indeed whilst many say Thatcher’s landslide re-election in 1983 was due to the Falklands War win, others have pointed out this is at best partly true. If the UK had LOST then yes, her government would probably have lost, due to deliberately forcing unemployment up to 3 million in an attempt to conquer inflation and despite a very left-wing election manifesto put forward by the new Labour leader, Michael Foot. However, Thatcher didn’t REQUIRE the Falklands War victory to win. If there’d been no war at all she’d have won anyway, albeit with a smaller majority.
In truth, the seeds of Labour’s demise were sown, ironically, by the man often on lists of the “best Prime Ministers we never had” – the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Chief) Dennis Healey in the late 1970s. He “bought into” the bankrupt idea of monetarism, controlling the money supply, and thinking we had to “borrow” from the IMF (when we didn’t), thus implicitly “playing on Conservative turf” straightaway. Labour should NEVER have accepted the Tory “model of how finance works” in the late 1970s.
Why did this matter? Well, if you let the Tories set the terms of the debate then why should voters think YOU will be better at achieving these terms than they are? Labour played the Tory game and thus doomed themselves to 18 years in opposition. It was only when the Tories demonstrably failed at their own game through incompetence, sexual scandals and pure hubris that Labour regained power. However, in doing so they had by 1997 sold their soul to Tony Blair and New Labour, a party that “played on Tory turf” and essentially just said “we’ll give you FRIES with your turd-sandwich!” and “we’ll be nice to minorities unlike those nasty Tories”. New Labour was NOT interested in serving its “old masters”, us shmucks in places like Nottingham. It was all about people who liked to sneer at the “left behind” but “seem nice” by “virtue signalling” – signing petitions (increasingly online) etc to show they are “fine with gays and blacks! You know I have a gay black friend!!!!!!” I got taken in by Blair, I admit it. Millions of us were. But he was the death of Labour.
Blair used “funny money” via Public/Private partnerships to generate artificial booms for the public sector and construct “Cool Britannia”. Meanwhile I began to notice on my return visits to Nottingham (from Bristol, where I was doing PhD/post-doc work and living in a very rich posh area) that the area where my parents had moved to, which had been the “posh” area we shopped in as kids, seemed increasingly run down. Things were not right outside a 1 square kilometre of central Nottingham…..
The bottom line was that Labour had lost its roots. New Labour didn’t care about that “donut” of constituencies surrounding metropolitan Nottingham (including the one my parents lived in). These formed part of the “red wall” and had “nowhere else to go” electorally – the joke was “you can put up an animal of your choice with a red rosette on in an election and it’ll win”. That strategy worked. Until suddenly on Friday 13th 2019 it became clear that it didn’t. “Metro Labour” was alive and well in London, with offshoots in Manchester, Birmingham and other such cities. “Real Labour” – the traditional part – the part left behind to represent people like round here who’ve been left behind for almost my entire life, was dead and people said “enough is enough”.
They got sick of being ignored and taken for granted. Under the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system used in the UK and USA they had little power. But the EU referendum suddenly meant “no vote is wasted”. They took the opportunity to kick the establishment in the teeth. We voted LEAVE – almost the ENTIRE red wall outside metro areas voted LEAVE. It wasn’t so much “we hate Europe” as “this is the ONLY way, ELECTORALLY, we get to say sod you to the establishment”. Metropolitan Labour tried to ignore us (2017) or “play to both sides” (2019). In 2019 we got wise to this. Lots of traditional Labour people, knowing that things would be awful under the Tories, decided that Labour are really honestly no better. So they abandoned ship. And Labour suffered their worst defeat since 1935.
How many Individual “Leave Supporting Labour” Voters Really Switch to the Tories?
The short answer is “not as many as you might think, and the voting system was the real Labour-killer”. Conservative voters largely turned out in the same numbers as in 2017. They gained about 300,000 voters. However 2.6 million Labour voters abandoned ship since 2017. Where did they go? Well, it seems about 1m went to the Liberal Democrats (presumably REMAIN supporting New Labour types in seats where a Labour vote was wasted but a Lib Dem vote might help unseat a Tory).
Another 300,000 seemingly went to the Green Party (again, REMAIN supporting types). The Scottish National Party picked up another 300,000.
That leaves 1m people gone with no equivalent “increase” elsewhere. Most of them STAYED HOME. They said “sod you”. Maybe 300,000 were the “extra Tory voters”. We can’t be sure. The BREXIT party vote, although nationally small – they won zero seats – was often crucial in terms of denying a sitting Labour MP their seat. Clearly “tribal loyalty” stopped some Labour voters from voting Tory. These were Labour people who Clinton in the USA would have called the “deplorables” – people economically left behind who might have been a bit socially conservative but who, had they been respected and given jobs, would have been no different to any “metro Labour person”. Thus they voted for a party widely seen as racist – the BREXIT Party. Yet I know from my research two years ago getting at “intrinsic attitudes” using cunning methods that the keystone of the “red wall” – the East Midlands where I live – is LESS RACIST ON AVERAGE than other regions of the UK. These people are not the “thick, bigots” they are made out to be. They have simply been left behind and are bloody furious. Maybe they voted BREXIT Party (allowing the Tory candidate to win) or maybe they explicitly voted Tory – the result was the same. The Tories smashed the red wall. But DON’T keep attacking these LEAVE supporting people. They, indeed *I* are not stupid. I have quizzed some REMAIN supporting friends on various basic economic and political topics – they themselves know F*CK ALL. THEY are the stupid ones. And they anger me IMMENSELY.
What Does Labour do Next?
Labour’s reaction to this huge defeat partly depends upon whether the UK experiences fundamental changes, like break-up or change in the voting system. If Scotland remains part of the UK then Labour have 48 Scottish National Party MPs who are left-wing potential allies. If Scotland leaves – as is looking increasingly likely given this huge Conservative win and our now assured exit from the EU – then Labour will never win an overall majority in the rest of the UK again. They will HAVE to make pacts with the LibDems and Greens to unify against the Tories to form a government. A government whose sole purpose is to change the electoral system so we don’t have an elected dictatorship of one party for all time.
Second, Labour must abandon various “New Labour” policies including the emphasis on “identity politics” over “basic bread and butter economic politics”. A former friend has a public posting which made me really really angry. He is very much a New Labour type. He regards anyone who voted LEAVE the EU as “stupid”. Yet he doesn’t understand all sorts of basic aspects of government. His public post was to the effect that at least his city now has some BAME (black and minority ethnic) women as MPs and not old white men. THAT was the only thing worthy of mention. Not that they were “incredibly gifted/talented/effective politicians” who happened to be BAME. Just that they were BAME, as if being there to “fulfil a quota”. If I were elected as an MP and I was considered a “good thing” because I’m gay then personally I’d be incredibly insulted. I’d want to be valued because I was GOOD AT MY F*CKING JOB! People could say as a secondary issue that it’s good that someone gay got elected, showing the electorate was not homophobic. But labelling a person as good JUST because of an identity politics theme? Pathetic. Insulting. Shows WHY the people in the red wall despise you and “the establishment”.
Finally, Labour needs to change the terms of the debate. Get off Tory turf. Use new media to explain to people HOW a government spends. I won’t waste time here on this topic. It gets rather esoteric. But if you’re interested, look up “modern monetary theory” and, in particular, a short (70 page) readable book “SEVEN DEADLY INNOCENT FRAUDS OF ECONOMIC POLICY” by Warren Mosler. It’s free on his website. One of the most important books you can possibly read. In short, it explains how money is REALLY created. Crucially, it allows you to be a “big government” or “small government” type – i.e. it is atheoretical. But it shows how many governments (primarily so-called right wing ones but also New Labour and the New Democrats) have lied over why they “can’t” afford to help us in the “deplorable”/”red wall” areas. Trump gets this. Sanders gets this. Corbyn sadly didn’t. He lost.
My Preferred Broad Policy Agenda
I advocate a series of fundamental policy reforms that together aim to better reflect the distribution of broad political views across the UK. I will explain them in detail but they are:
- A minor change in the voting system to “Most-Least Voting”, which would avoid the British people’s demonstrated aversion to major changes in voting procedures but lead to much less ability of radical parties that command a minority to foist their agendas onto a majority that strongly hates them.
- An investment in social media that “changes the terms of the debate” concerning public finances and which finally teaches people how money is ACTUALLY IN PRACTICE created for public works.
- If the first two aims are achieved, an explicit break-up of the Labour Party into its already two irreconcilable factions (“Metropolitan Labour” and “Traditional Labour”). Voting reform would stop such a separation from hurting both parties (as would happen under the current FPTP system).
- Reform of citizenship laws for senior persons of influence. Make it like Australia that all MPs must have citizenship of this country and this country ONLY. BUT go further in that nobody with a 5+% stake or any senior position in a media company with British sales can have citizenship of any other country other than the UK. I’ll be honest, this is to stop foreign media dynasties from continuing to propagate lies in the dreadful UK press.
Part 1 would work as follows. At present we vote for one candidate. So in Gedling (my parliamentary constituency/seat) I voted for Vernon Coaker, the sitting Labour candidate. He lost. By only 600 or so votes out of around 70,000 eligible voters or less than 1% of everyone eligible to vote – grrrrr. But the winner, the Conservative candidate, only got 45.5% of those who turned out to vote (Coaker got 44.1%). So the Conservative got a PLURALITY but not a MAJORITY. MORE THAN 50% of people didn’t want him. The UK/USA system ignores that fact. Most mainland European systems use a form of proportional representation that ensures that >50% have “a voice” too. I “get” that the UK (and probably the USA) don’t like such systems. But there is a remarkably simple compromise – Most-Least Voting. Here, just as at present, you mark the candidate you like most. YOU ONLY DO ONE EXTRA THING – YOU MARK THE CANDIDATE YOU LIKE LEAST. In the count, each candidate starts off with their “most” totals (as now under First-Past-The-Post or FPTP). HOWEVER, there is just one additional step that is different. A candidate’s “least liked” total is SUBTRACTED from their MOST LIKED total to give a “net approval score”. Incidentally this would have knocked out the Nazis in Weimar Germany. 40% of people supported them (as the “biggest” party)….but all of the other 60% HATED them. Under most-least voting their “net score” would be 40-60=-20%. One of the other parties within the 60% would have exceeded this – try the maths for yourself or trust me. So they’d never have come to power. Interesting eh?
Part 2 is basically the book I mentioned by Mosler.
Part 3 recognises that under most-least voting it is no longer electoral suicide to be a “third party candidate”.
Part 4 is simply a recognition that non-Brits should not make laws. Non-Brits like the Murdoch family should not be influencing people via the media.
So that’s my list of key points to summarise “where Labour should go next”. I don’t expect them to follow any of these. I think we will need a profound re-alignment of parties, on the right and left, to move forward. It’ll be hard and painful. But at least I’ve said my bit. One final comment though, particularly to New Labour type friends of mine (and there have been many). I AM UTTERLY FED UP OF THE ASSUMPTION THAT LEAVE-SUPPORTING PEOPLE IN THE “RED WALL” ARE STUPID AND/OR RACIST. I have personally quizzed some of these New Labour types. Their knowledge of basic issues of government, politics and economics – not to mention the identity relationship in mathematics, the mathematical equivalent of being able to “speak and spell CAT”, is so pathetic that in fact if anyone deserves to be “denied” a vote on account of gross mental deficiency it is them.