Monday 6 May 2013

Fisking Dan Hodges on UKIP and Labour

I quite like Dan Hodges' corner at the Telegraph. He writes well and is one of the few hard Blairite commentators around willing to give it to us straight. But he's often badly, dangerously wrong. With his 1997 route map to electoral victory out, Dan is terrified that anything sniffing of social democracy will lose us down the back roads and country lanes. Labour needs to stick to the clearly signposted highway to reach our 2015 destination. He is of the school that Labour will win (and can only win) if it promotes a policy agenda little different to that pursued by the Tories and LibDems. That basically means a big tick against austerity and endorsement of Tory small-statism, and a cross against opposing it. Entirely coincidentally, of course, Dan would have us believe his views are shared by the much-vaunted 'swing voters' around whom elections turn. It follows nearly all his articles are permutations of this basic outlook, not least his latest piece on last week's elections. Let's fisk.

Ukip's local election surge: whatever happened to the Great Progressive Realignment?

What is Dan talking about? What on earth is this 'Great Progressive Realignment'?

Send in the clowns. At the time of writing we’ve only got a relatively small number of results in, but the story of the 2013 local elections can already be written. A plague on the houses of everyone, except that of a certain Mr N Farage of Westerham, Sevenoaks.

We are about to experience the tyranny of the moment. Whatever happens, it must be viewed as transformational, simply because it is happening to us, here, today. In the 1970s the National Front was set to shatter the political consensus; in the early 1980s the SDP were going to break the mould of British politics; in the mid-1980s the Greens were going to radicalise British politics; in the early 1990s the Referendum Party was going to lead a popular revolution; at the start of the 2000s that revolutionary banner was going to be picked up by George Galloway and Respect, or, if they dropped it, Nick Griffin and the BNP.

It didn’t happen then, and it won’t happen in 2015. A posse of experts and commentators are at this very moment fanning out to tell us how this time it will all be different. That the tectonic plates below Westminster really are shifting. They’re not, but there’s little to be gained from arguing the point. Ukip must be allowed their moment in the May sun.

While Dan is right to be sceptical of the claims being made for UKIP. In all likelihood they will not win any seats in 2015 though, with a bit of luck, they will sufficiently damage the Tories to let in a slew of Labour MPs. But it's never the done thing to be complacent, especially when UKIP's politics legitimises and fans the rightwing flames of the bigoted gutter press. Born of fear, despair and ignorance, UKIP unchecked compounds these problems with lies and hysteria. Harking back to an imaginary imperial Arcadia, its yearning for community and belonging that never existed serves, in the here and now, to segregate, atomise and alienate. If Thatcherism displaced the unsaid class politics underpinning of the post-war consensus with a war of all against all, UKIP picks up that mantle and deepens it further by setting up Britain (England) vs Europe, (white) Britons vs immigrants, common sense vs political correctness, the masses vs the elite, men vs women, the old vs the young, straight vs gay, the in-work vs the out-of-work. UKIP are the purest manifestation of the right wing of the culture wars in the UK. Their us and them populism in practice works against any kind of collective approach to politics, apart from that manifested solely through the ballot box.

But I digress.

Which isn’t to say last night’s results aren’t significant. As I wrote earlier in the week, councillors are the footsoldiers who will fight the election in two years' time. And the Tories, and in particular the Lib Dems, have suffered some damaging losses.

I suspect it will also bring to a halt, in the short term at least, the developing narrative of a Tory recovery. The pressure will be back on David Cameron (and will probably prove intolerable for Tory party chairman Grant Shapps).

A narrative of Tory recovery? Who, what, where, when?

But there is one lesson to be taken from these results that eclipses all others. The talk of a great progressive realignment, beloved by so many on the Left, is for the birds.

I have no idea what Dan is talking about. I'm not privy to the London dinner party circuit like Dan is, so perhaps I'm missing something. But let's be clear. For the 'left' at large, however you define it, there is no talk of 'progressive realignment'. Compass might like to push its hobby horse of a Labour love-in with the LibDems (yes, even now) but come on, who pays them any mind any more? They're hardly "so many on the left". Who, outside the bubble of Westminster, the commentariat, and blogging have even heard of them? The 'great progressive realignment' is so much hot air - a canard conjured up to stand for something Dan's opponents supposedly subscribe to when, in fact, they don't.

The British electorate is moving decisively to the Right. Yes, we’ll see lots of clever articles written over the coming days about how the traditional distinctions between Left and Right no longer matter. How politics isn’t linear.

Like trying to explain the complexity of vote results by understanding them is sooooo unfashionable.

It’s a smokescreen. Nigel Farage is leader of a hard-Right party. Not necessarily extreme. But a party that pushes the boundary of respectable Right-wing politics to its limits. And as we’ve seen over the past week, at times crosses it.

On all of the issues on which Ukip has taken a significant public stance – immigration, gay marriage, Europe – they have done so from the Right. The vast bulk of their support is from the Right, with recent polls showing that Ukip voters are drawn from former Tory voters by a margin of approximately four to one in comparison to Labour switchers. It is the hard Right, not the Left, that is benefiting from discontent with the Coalition.

Hold on a moment. By Dan's own admission the "vast bulk of UKIP's support" comes from the right, mainly thanks to its hard right positioning on the EU, migration and equal marriage. And yet, somehow, because UKIP have been able to articulate Tory grassroots discontent and cornered the 'none of the above' market, we are supposed to take this as evidence that "the British electorate are moving decisively to the right". No Dan, you haven't proved anything of the sort. Apart from a willingness to use political sleight-of-hand to back up a pre-determined position that no amount of evidence will shift.

This has implications for all three parties. David Cameron will now come under intense pressure not merely to park his modernisation strategy, but stove its headlights in, rip off the wheels, and set the whole thing alight.

Of course he will, but not because the electorate at large have swung to the right. The discontented Tory grassroots now have somewhere to go, and thanks to their consistent promotion by the papers and - crucially - the BBC, UKIP receives disproportionate national coverage and, on the whole, soft soap press treatment. When you inhabit a bubble as all the leaders of the mainstream political parties and the professional commentariat like Dan do, and its primary inputs are filtered through the media, through think tanks, through the upper layers of party, trade union, business and the professional association apparat, you're dealing with a skewed reality. This is not to say the Westminster-media axis has no necessary correspondence with the 'real world', but one has to be careful not to take its narrative framing of the world as the world itself. Rather than evidence of a wider shift to the right, UKIP and its coverage represent a (noisy) consolidation of the discontented right and its atomised hangers on.

Nick Clegg, who has been pursuing what is in effect his own core vote strategy, will be faced with a series of tactical dilemmas, especially on areas such a Europe and the removal of Abu Qatada.

I pity the fool.

And Ed Miliband and Labour will have to face up to the reality that their entire electoral strategy is built on sand.

Since 2010 Labour has moved Left, anticipating it would be inundated by people seeking sanctuary from the evils of austerity. They’re not coming. Those angered by the Coalition are knocking on Nigel Farage’s door, not Ed Miliband’s.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Labour is pursuing a “35 per cent strategy”, trying to lock in a coalition of disaffected Lib Dems, Labour stalwarts, and new voters. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to call it the “cross your fingers and pray strategy”. By shifting Left at a time when the electorate is self-evidently shifting to the Right, Ed Miliband is effectively abandoning any prospect of winning the next election. He’s reduced to sitting there hoping Nigel Farage will win it for him.

No. Labour has moved left, but the way Dan's talking you would think EdM has been calling for the nationalisation of the top 100 monopolies. What Dan does not address, because they're not on his radar, is where a whole tranche of Tory 2010 voters have gone. In case he needs reminding, many people voted Conservative three years ago because Dave had, temporarily, succeeded in presenting the Tories as a fluffy, modernised small-l liberal party. Others so voted because they liked what he said about the deficit and national debt, and still more because New Labour was tired, discredited and had been in office for an age. Most of these people who live in the crucial marginal seats Dan likes to bang on about have little truck with the bigotry of the UKIP kind, and will be much less likely to vote Tory in 2015 should Dave pitch to the right. It is this cohort of middle ground swing voters who delivered scores of Labour victories over their Tory opponents in the County Council elections on Thursday. So yes, those angered and disgusted with the Coalition are supporting Labour in large numbers. But, again, despite the poll leads and consistent evidence from local council elections and the smattering of by-elections that take place every week, it would appear Dan takes UKIP's coverage as proof of generalised discontent over Labour's actual performance.

It’s a pretty desperate gamble. Ignore all the noise; today’s results confirm what the opinions polls have been showing for months. The move Rightward of the political centre means they are easily enough votes there for David Cameron to form a good working majority at the next election. The only question is whether he can unite the disparate members of his tribe behind his rather confused vision of modern Conservatism.

But that's not the situation at all. The election results showed that a) Labour are not immune, but suffer much less than the Tories and the LibDems from the 'UKIP surge'. How many seats did Labour lose to UKIP again? b) Labour made steady progress in the key marginals that need to be won in 2015, winning seats mainly from sitting Tories. c) UKIP did disproportionately well and mainly robbed Tories of council seats in traditional Tory-voting areas. Which ever way you look at the bones the electorate have cast upon the ground, they do not point to a centre ground that is moving to the right.

Labour and the Lib Dems, frankly, aren’t in the game. They are becoming mere spectators to the great Tory family feud.

We are not witnessing a progressive realignment, but a conservative one. It is the Right, not the Left, that now holds the cards. And if David Cameron has the political acumen to play them skillfully, he will yet escape the tyranny of the moment.

Taking election results that demonstrate nothing of the sort as evidence of a shifting centre ground, of completely writing off former Tory voters that gave Labour the bulk of Thursday's council seats, of mistaking UKIP's consolidation for a much wider electoral resonance. It's clear who's really caught up in the tyranny of the moment.


Speedy said...

Runes innit. But didn't the Tories and UKIP get around 55 per cent of the vote?

At the end of the day you're gambling that the UKIP voters will not vote tactically - what will they hate more? A Tory or Labour government?

I think a lot of them will vote Tory and Labour will lose. It's also possible of course that Cameron could be knifed after the Euros and be replaced by Davis.

In any case, I don't agree with you: I think there is a right wing realignment not necessarily because there are suddenly a lot of right wing people but because, and apologies for being presumptuous, I get the impression you too are a bit cut off from the general sense of alienation in the air and although I do agree with Dan that this is probably another NF moment, I also think the "everything is shit" sentiment has reached the mainstream and the Tory Party are much more likely to respond to that than Labour.

For all your optimism i would add that Milliband is unelectable, and he always was, even before he failed to distinguish himself as a leader. And I'm not even sure if I hope I'm wrong, insomuch as I actually think his pretty hopeless management style and lack of decisiveness would spell even more confusion and chaos than the current "nice but dim" occupant of No10.

Phil said...

I'm not gambling anything. A section of UKIP will return to the fold for the general election outing, but there are others who have either never been Tories, or are so disgusted with them (for whatever reason) that they will not support them again. This is not a forlorn wish - it's established by previous elections. The difference between so-called first and second order elections has long been established in political science literature.

Moreover UKIP is highly unstable. Farage may talk about pacts and the like, but a sizeable, if not the largest chunk of the party will not countenance something like that with them. Remember, there are UKIP activists who quite fancy a slice of the council or parliamentary pie themselves.

Re: alienation from politics, I don't know how long you've been reading the blog Speedy but it's something I've been writing about since it started AND before. We had a massive BNP problem in Stoke and as an active labour movement person here, you could not be unaware of generalised alienation - especially if you're regularly in the habit of knocking on the doors of BNP voters.

Phil said...

Re: EdM, I should be writing something about him tomorrow. Unless a big item comes up. Or my hands fall off.

Speedy said...

Yes, that's why i apologised for being presumptuous... although i read your blog way back then forgot about it after you paused and only visited again "on the off chance" recently...

I note to get 1 MP, UKIP will have to poll 24 per cent! 5SM got the same proportion and became the largest single party in the Italian parliament (and then blew it, but that's another story).

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think the Tories still have everything to play for to recapture the UKIP vote - it is Tory land they're on, and I don't think Labour will attract them. This means a pretty dismal prospect for Labour IMHO.

I think the sheer extent to which the Tory vote is holding up, regardless of UKIP, and despite their cack-handed performance, speaks volumes.

Phil said...

My hands did fall off, so no blogging yesterday.

While UKIP is a right wing party, its vote is not uniformly so and I think chunks of it can be won to Labour. Not by trying to out-UKIP UKIP, but adopting common sense social justice policies that tackle the insecurity and cynicism that drives populist anti-politics ...