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Are Labour losing?

Last week, panic spread through the Labour Party as it had its own "Wobbly Thursday". So is the party underperforming in the marginals? Or is it just Labour's inferiority complex at work?

The Conservatives called it “Wobbly Thursday”; the Thursday before the 1987 election, when a poll – this was in the days when polls were few and far between, like rural buses – showed the Tory lead slipping to just four points.

Labour experienced its own Wobbly Thursday last week as panic spread through the party. Organisers in the “mainstays” – the seats the party held with narrow majorities in 2010 – began to sound the alarm.  The "promise" – the number of people contacted by the party who have said they would vote Labour – was not holding up like it should.  

The picture was worse in the party’s target seats. For most of the last year, when any two Labour staffers were gathered together, concerned has turned to the number of voters who didn’t know who they would vote for at the general election, who voted Labour in the council or European elections, but who said that the economy is growing. To make matters worse, canvassers were picking up Labour voters from 2010 who were now expressing doubts about Ed Miliband. “My expectation was that, thanks to the short campaign, those voters would be moving into our column,” one party strategist reports. Instead, they are moving away.

On Wobbly Thursday, the panic spread not just among the party’s staff in the field but also back to the upper echelons. Senior figures began talking to other MPs about the circumstances in which Miliband could stay on should the worst happen.

Word got back to the battlegrounds – “the numbers are bad at HQ too,” has become a constant refrain. Staff re-assignments only served to heighten the mood of worry.  Parliamentary staffers who have been working in Labour's Brewer’s Green headquarters and around the country over the course of the short campaign are now being sent out to what are being described as "super marginals" – seats at the low end of the party’s target list. Places like Stockton South and Broxtowe have received extra staff, suggesting the party’s central data is projecting a tougher fight than expected by the polls – while alarmingly, seats like Pudsey, Ipswich and Northampton North are receiving no extra visits. Without those gains, even a combined Labour-SNP bloc won’t be sufficient to oust David Cameron.

One organiser sent me a text that summed up the overall message: “Dude, where’s my swing?”

“The only way I can explain our promise,” said another, “is if there is barely any swing at all.”

That would explain both the sudden outbreak of fear among the party’s field staff and the moves to shore up Miliband at the centre. It would explain why Labour campaigners in the party’s targets are fretful and its organisers in the mainstays are still nervy. But it could also be that Labour’s own information is faulty.

Remember that the party’s high command was blindsided by the defeat to George Galloway in Bradford West and its narrow victory over Ukip in Heywood & Middleton. Changes to Labour’s data collection technique since the last election may be causing an unnecessary outbreak of nerves.

In 2010, Labour ranked its own supporters on a sliding scale from one to five. “L5s” were, in the words of one campaign veteran, “to be reserved for people who have posters in every window, a garden stake on the lawn and a close relationship with the candidate”, all the way down to “L1s”, mostly non-voters “or the sort of people who say ‘Yes’ to everyone who comes to the door”.

The optimistic explanation for the decline in the party’s pledge is that the new system – which assigns a binary voting intention alongside a series of other questions  has led to over-enthusiastic data collection in the past that is now being exposed during the Get Out The Vote operation. Under the old system, another insider explains, “I would assign people to the candidate, to phone canvassers, and so on. Then I’d get rid of anyone below an L3 [before starting get out the vote operations].”

It may simply be that the decline in Labour’s vote is not a new phenomenon but one that has been masked by the new system – campaigners in one London target believe that over-enthusiastic canvassing earlier in the parliament means they are talking to voters who were never in the Labour column anyway.

Remember too, that Labour expects to lose, not just this election but almost every election. “This is the time that people wobble,” one senior staffer remarked recently, “I don’t.” Last-minute panics are what Labour has done at every election since 1992 "I always think we'll lose, and I've been wrong three times," was one reaction. Yes, Labour is worried. But we don't know if those worries are justified, and simply won't until Friday. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times