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A "revenge reshuffle" would not be very new politics

The sacking of shadow cabinet ministers who voted for intervention in Syria would betray the original promise of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

When George Lucas was making Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, the working title for the film was actually "Revenge of the Jedi" (indeed this appeared on many of the early posters). In the end, Lucas rejected the word “revenge” as he felt it simply wasn’t the Jedi way.

In recent weeks we’ve seen repeated media stories that Jeremy Corbyn is planning a "revenge reshuffle". A variety of sources, some of whom have been attributed as being "aides" to Jeremy or those "close" to the leader have apparently stood up speculation that Hilary Benn, Rosie Winterton, Maria Eagle and me (amongst others) are all for the chop for not voting against extending military action from Iraq into Syria during the recent free vote in the Commons.

My sympathies have particularly been with Hilary Benn. He must have felt like Man Utd boss Louis van Gaal over Christmas, constantly reading in the newspapers that he is about to be sacked.

Depressingly, whilst Hilary was hard at work in his Leeds constituency talking to residents who had been hit by awful flooding, he had a tweet from those good comrades at the Huddersfield branch of Momentum (apparently tweeted from Gravesend) saying: "Shadow Cabinet reshuffle soon lad. So you’ll have more time to spend with your constituents".

As someone who used to have his Christmases ruined dealing with political journalists, I know how difficult it is attempting to manage the media during the holidays, so I also have a little sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn’s press handlers. The festive season is also the silly season. Mischievous hacks bombard aides with relentless and leading questions in the hunt for a new line to keep an old, bad story for Labour running.  It takes time for any spin doctor to learn that it requires as much ability and skill to kill a story as it does to get one going.

The sad thing for Labour is that stories like the "revenge reshuffle" – about who might hear the words (Alan Sugar-style) "you’re fired" – tend to drown out our attacks on the Conservative government, or they can overshadow announcements about the positive things Labour would do differently in government.

Over Christmas, we have had more powerful attacks on the government’s record on the NHS by Heidi Alexander, Lilian Greenwood on the Tory hypocrisy over Boxing Day rail shutdown, Jonathan Ashworth on Conservative asset-stripping, Maria Eagle on waste at the MoD, Kerry McCarthy, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett on flooding, Luciana Berger on broken promises on children’s mental health, John Healey on spiralling rent costs. The list goes on.

My team, shadowing the DCMS, have used the Christmas period to highlight everything from sexism in sports retail and problems in art exports, to allegations of corruption at the International Association of Athletics Federation. Yet all of these good stories about important issues have been regrettably eclipsed by talk about a "revenge reshuffle".

As John McDonnell rightly made clear on the media this week, any decisions about who is in Labour’s top team are of course entirely a matter for the leader. But the idea that Jeremy Corbyn is a person motivated by "revenge" is something that I don’t recognise for a single second.

I indicated to Jeremy ahead of his first reshuffle that I would be willing to remain in the Shadow Cabinet, if that was his wish. I did so because I genuinely believed in what he said after the leadership election, that he wanted to unite the party and bring together people from different traditions and people who had backed different candidates. With the help of his experienced and skilful Chief Whip, Rosie Winterton, he was true to his word and performed a difficult task well.

I was also attracted by Jeremy’s call for a new, kinder politics. This would be one where there would be room for a little dissent and where the party, including the Shadow Cabinet, would have the confidence to have proper debates and discussions. What greater evidence of this than his decision that, despite his strong opposition to military action, there should be a free vote on Syria?  And his insistence that all sides of the debate should respect one another’s different but sincerely held points of view.

Next week, when the Commons returns from recess, all Labour’s energy should be focussed on getting after the Tories. This is a lousy Tory government and we need to keep exposing the fact. We also know we all face a big test in the May elections: defending the Welsh Government, showing Labour can turn things around in Scotland with Jeremy’s anti-austerity message, winning in London and gaining council seats in England.

In the end, George Lucas did use the "revenge" word in one of his Star Wars films but it was about the baddies in Revenge of the Sith. He was right. Revenge is not very Jedi. It’s also not very new politics.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and the former Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

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.