Sunday 12 May 2019

Is Politics Melting Down?

Blimey. We have a poll from ComRes putting the Brexit Party on a two-point lead over Labour (27% to 25%), with the Tories coming in fourth at 13%, behind the Liberal Democrats. Another achievement for Theresa May then - first time they have polled in the fourth position in any poll. If that wasn't bad enough, the same polling company put the Tories in third on Westminster voting intention - a position they haven't suffered since the early 1980s when the Social Democratic Party was shiny and new. And then we have Opinium's findings, putting Farage's party on 34%(!), with the Labour and Tory vote combined registering just 32%. Amazing. You look at these extraordinary figures, including those recently given by the gold standard, and the only obvious conclusion to be entertained is that two-party politics are done. Is this really the case?

Some necessary context. As we saw in last week's local elections, the vote share of the main parties were depressed, in large part, because they are second order elections. I.e. The kind of exercise most voters don't see as mattering so much as parliamentary elections, which is why electoral turn out tends to be depressed and votes are more likely to move away from the two-party duopoly. But also because the prospect of the European elections and the rise of the Brexit Party is dominating politics and, effectively, overwrote the concerns and issues that normally come to the fore during local elections. For example, had Farage stood council candidates it is very likely the Tory meltdown would have been even worse.

What does this mean for polling? The same observation applies. European election voting intentions are overwriting Westminster voting intentions because Brexit is the burning issue of the moment. Polls are always, always snapshots of politics in motion, not forecasts. So when the general election comes round different issues will be in play, and the result is not going to be the same.

Those caveats in mind, that still doesn't explain what is going on and what they might mean for a general election further down the road. Well, here's a stab. The first thing they demonstrate is the fragility of the Tory vote and their exposure to Brexit as an issue. In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 general election, it was apparent that Brexit was the ideological glue sticking together the millions of people who voted Conservative. It helped along the UKIP collapse, scooped up the bulk of the Scottish unionist vote, and won over other voters for whom securing Brexit was the main issue. The travails the Tories are suffering now are largely thanks to May's posing of Brexit in the hardest terms, not least the infamous 'no deal is better than a bad deal', which has acquired material force and is one of the handy weapons in the Faragist/ERG arsenal. It was also obvious that if May was seen to backtrack on Brexit her coalition of voters would be put into jeopardy and crumble. And what do you know, that is exactly what has happened.

The question is can these voters be reassembled behind a renewed Tory party behind a new leader? Of course, that depends on who the leader is. Apart from Boris Johnson, who is as polarising a figure as Farage, most would-be leaders aren't known to the general public. It might be possible for someone to emerge who half-inches Farage's populist pitch and makes the Tories the party of Brexit again, but this comes with added difficulties. Any effort aiming to reassemble May's coalition would only build in the same structural defects that got the Conservatives into their present difficulties. That is a coalition in long-term decline thanks to it a) ageing, b) not replacing itself thanks to the breakdown in the conservatising effects of age, and c) held together on pretty flimsy grounds. Furthermore, going down this route by no means guarantees Brexit Party voters are automatically bound to transfer over. To reiterate, there are plenty of people who would vote for Farage without ever countenancing a vote for the Tories. Likewise, any involvement by Farage in a regrouping of establishment right wing politics would put off a bloc of centre-leaning Tory voters. Therefore, regardless of what vote the Brexit Party gets in a couple of weeks' time, electorally speaking the Tories and the eventual successor to May are still in a hole. And it seems none of them know what to do, as Esther McVey helpfully reminds us.

Where does this leave Labour? Whereas the Tory vote is tending toward decomposition, Labour's support is travelling in the direction of recomposition. The fact the Tories repeatedly, egregiously and, crucially, visibly act against the interests of working people mean, unsurprisingly, the younger you are the less likely you're going to vote Conservative. And that age threshold of votes switching to the Tories gets higher and higher with every passing month. When the Tories lock people out of the political system, they're locking themselves out of the voting intentions of growing numbers of voters. Political science isn't rocket science after all, though plenty of politicians are ignorant of its basics. And so, Labour made a splash in 2017 because it opened itself out and struck an inclusive tone by talking about matters establishment politics regard as taboo: class, property, ownership, wealth. Nevertheless, while 40% of the popular vote is good it is a soft vote. The mistake of sundry remain campaigns is the assumption Brexit, or rather staying in the EU, plays the same constitutive/bonding role in its electoral coalition as it does the Tories. That is obviously not the case, seeing as Labour's 2017 coalition came together on the basis of an appeal to interests, and fast forward to today it's holding on to more of its vote than the Tories are managing. In fact, you could go so far to say Labour voters are more sophisticated than those who've chucked their lot in with joke remain parties precisely because they can see beyond Brexit and EU membership and know where their interests lie. But like I said, the vote is soft, so some movement away from Labour - repeating the pattern of all EU elections since 1999 - is inevitable.

That said, the conditions that gave Labour its 2017 election result haven't gone away. The four craps - crap wages, crap jobs, crap housing, and crap prospects are very much with us. The Tories are uninterested and unable to address these issues, and neither is Farage. A billionaire's Brexit is what his game is about. Does that mean we should put our feet up and wait for the sociology to grind out the desired result for us? Absolutely not. There are no iron laws to politics, only tendencies, and tendencies can be thwarted, stymied, and redirected. It means we pay heed to these polls and use them to think about strategy for firming up our vote and winning over new people, regardless of the way they voted in the referendum. What we shouldn't do, and is singly unhelpful, it to look at these polls, get over excited and lose our heads. They sign post the task to be done, not the inevitable result.


Boffy said...

The 34% for the Brexit party is consistent with the vote for Brexit, i.e. it represents the same minority of the population. In fact, that minority of a bout a third has been the same since the 1975 referendum.

The 34% to BP is a straight switch of Tory Brexit voters. The 11% for the Tories clearly represents die-hard Tory Remainers who despite its Brexit policy are clinging to it nevertheless, because they can't bring themselves to vote for anyone else.

Labour is down 7% points whilst Liberals and Greens are up 7% points, again showing the continued drain of Labour voters away from the party to clear Remain supporting parties. The situation is actually worse than that for Labour, because it doesn't show the state of affairs in Wales or Scotland, where Labour is set to get decimated by the SNP and Plaid, as will the Tories, leaving a pretty straight fight between the SNP and Plaid v Brexit Party.

Labour's 21% comprises its Remain voters that have not yet switched to Liberals, Greens SNP or Plaid - Chuka's I expect to simply melt away - as they fear switching might let Farage in. But, with the EP elections based on a sort of PR, and with Remain United providing a method tactical voting, the current speed with which Labour's vote is disintegrating to the Liberals - and will disintegrate even faster in Scotland and Wales, shows that is likely to change in the next couple of weeks.

Liberals could easily overtake Labour in those polls as the remain vote consolidates around it. Such is the consequence of the insane politics and strategy that Labour has adopted.

Anonymous said...

Wishfull thinking Boffy but go ahead.