Sorry, Peter - the facts of life aren't Conservative, says Mehdi Hasan

My brief response to Oborne's silly Telegraph column.

In every area of our public life, the Left is losing the argument

proclaims the online headline to Peter Oborne's Telegraph column today. The standfirst goes further:

The facts of life are Conservative - as Labour's smartest minds now realise

Er, not they aren't. I consider Peter to be a good friend and one of the finest minds, and boldest writers, on the centre-right. Unlike so many other Tory-supporting columnists, he isn't tribal and has been willing to denounce Cameron and co when the occasion demands it.

Today's silly column, however, contains a series of unfounded, unsupported and curious claims and assertions, e.g.

It is now widely accepted that the years of New Labour government were an almost unalloyed national disaster. Whichever measure you take - moral, social, economic, or the respect in which Britain is held in the world - we went into reverse.

Er, no it isn't. This sounds like the kind of party-political propaganda which Peter has so often denounced fellow hacks for producing, purveying and peddling in the past. The Tories and their supporters in the press, of course, want people to believe that 13 years of Blair and Brown were an "almost unalloyed national disaster" in order to (a) discredit the social-democratic ideas and values, (b) undermine the legitimacy of the state and, in particular, the welfare state, and (c) make themselves look good, no matter how high unemployment gets, no matter how many riots or protests erupt, on their watch. It is brazen historical revisionism.

Peter begins:

Let's start with economic management, the scene of New Labour's most obvious debacle. In the early months after the 2010 general election, Labour's shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, refused to accept the clear fact that high spending and high borrowing had driven us to economic disaster. He called on George Osborne to spend even more in order to avert recession.

A year on, Balls has lost the argument.

Sorry, has Peter been abroad for the past twelve months? Has he not read the papers? Or looked at the unemployment figures? It is Osborne who lost the argument and lost it badly last November when his growth forecasts were downgraded yet again, his deficit-reduction timetable had to be extended and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) then revealed that the Chancellor would be borrowing more - an astonishing £158bn more! - than he had planned to in October 2010's Spending Review and an embarrassing £37bn more than the much-mocked Labour plan (or "Darling plan") to cut the deficit in half over the lifetime of this parliament (as outlined in the March 2010 budget). Meanwhile, pretty much everything Balls said in his Bloomberg speech in August 2010 has come to pass. Read it for yourself; judge for yourself. The Keynesian argument, or what the US economist and former White House adviser Christina Romer calls the empirical argument, has, once again, been vindicated.

On a related note, if you want a more nuanced and less gloomy take on the UK's economic performance between 1997 and 2010, check out this recent report from the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance.

Throughout his column, Peter makes the basic mistake of conflating the Labour Party with the left, and acts as if all Labour leaders and politicians believe the same thing (when, of course, there is an ideological gulf between, say, Tony Blair and Ed Miliband). He argues:

Labour has come to accept Duncan Smith's profound insight that welfare payments can trap people in poverty, rather than offer them a hand out of it, thus forcing generations of families into dependence on the state.

This is absurd and ahistorical. There has been a bipartisan consensus for several decades now that the welfare trap exists and needs to be tackled. This isn't some unique or "profound" insight of IDS. The reason left-wingers object to Duncan Smith's welfare "reforms" is because you can't cut the number of people on welfare when there are no jobs available. Meanwhile, it is immoral and unjust to slash £18bn from the welfare budget - that is, from money spent on the poorest, most vulnerable members of society - while taking only £12bn or so from the big banks who caused the economic crisis.

Peter also claims:

The vital importance of this experiment lay in the special circumstances of the post-war period. Throughout this time, the liberal Left, as general election results show, has tended to be unpopular with voters.

That's only if you judge "popularity" on the basis of our disproportionate and dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system. For example, the general election of 1983 - widely considered to be Margaret Thatcher's greatest electoral triumph - saw 53 per cent of the public vote for liberals (the SDP/Alliance) and the left (Michael Foot's Labour Party) compared to 42 per cent who voted for Thatcher's Tories. There has never been a Conservative majority in the country in the post-war period - in fact, at the last election, Cameron's Conservatives failed to secure a majority in the country and in the Commons.

Peter writes that

. . . a handful of prime ministers have led governments that reshaped the world we all live in. Since 1945, only two - Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher - have fallen into this very rare second category.

It now looks as if Cameron may turn out to be the third. In some ways this is very strange, because Cameron, at heart an
old-fashioned Tory pragmatist, is the least revolutionary Prime Minister one can imagine.

But he has taken the job at a fulcrum moment, when some of the most intelligent minds on the Left have come to realise that the facts of life are Conservative.

Three quick points here: 1) Peter defines Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg as examples of his "intelligent minds on the Left". This is totally arbitrary and subjective; some would say that such a label better suits, say, Stewart Wood or Gavin Kelly or David Marquand. 2) It is amusing to see Peter now singing Cameron's praises given how critical - and personally critical! - he was of Cameron just a few months ago. 3) He again just declares that "the facts of life are Conservative". Yet, high Tories like Thatcher biographer Charles Moore, seem to be saying otherwise. Unlike Peter, who says literally nothing in his column about the monumental failure of financial capitalism and deregulation, Moore has acknowledged, for instance, that "it turns out - as the Left always claims - that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few". Writing in Oborne's own paper in July 2011, Moore declared:

I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right

Hear, hear!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.