Saturday 17 December 2022

Revolutionary Deflation

Some things are just irritating. In the 15 years or so I spent around the far left, what always got my goat was revolutionary inflation. The practice common among all the groups to talk up the impact of their interventions. For instance, the 2006 NHS demo against hospital bed losses saw Stoke Socialist Party boost attendance from around 2,500 to 5,000 in the subsequent edition of The Socialist. If you've been in a Trotskyist group, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Inflated membership figures, inflated attendees at party events, inflated paper sales and, most egregious of all, an inflated sense of influence and self-importance. It annoyed because it substituted wishful thinking for accurate assessment, of consensual illusion for analysis. Little wonder that folks didn't understand why their activities weren't getting wider purchase, and why activists tended to stick around only for short periods. It was the tinder box for burnout.

On the internet-travelling left, there's a similar phenomenon: revolutionary deflation. Instead of inflating the strength of the left and its works, this goes in the opposite direction and talks down the standing and appeal of its opponents. And nowhere do we see this more clearly than on the occasion of parliamentary by-elections. You might have missed the most recent one in Stretford and Urmston, which took place on Thursday. With Kate Green leaving the Commons to carry bags for Andy Burnham, Trafford council leader Andrew Western easily dispatched the Tories in a safe Labour seat. With little room to add to the party's vote, Labour nevertheless put on nine points and came within stretching distance of 70%. The Tories were a distant second, and the Greens an even more remote third - with the overhyped Reform doing as dismally as they always do. A sign that Labour's on course to win the next election? In all likelihood, yes.

This is where revolutionary deflation comes in. Rather than admitting to themselves that, electorally speaking, Starmer is now doing well in the polls some comrades argue that the by-elections are flattering him. And their proof? The turnouts. On Thursday, turnout was well down (by 43 points) on the general election. The story was similar but not as pronounced in Chester. A strong result for Labour, except the turnout was 30 points down. Proof, as if it was needed, that Starmer is an albatross around Labour's neck and his chances of getting in Number 10 are lower than supposed.

It would be a stretch to say Starmer is popular. For most people, he's background scenery. They're only interested in what he has to say when there's a big crisis, such as his announcement on the energy price freeze this summer. Other than that, he's neither offending nor gaining plaudits from the punters at large. And while Starmer has his moments in the clanking and shanking of Westminster knockabout versus Rishi Sunak, his acquisition of poll leads have largely been a passive exercise. Labour's doing well because the Tories are in the mire, and their chances of extracting themselves are close to zero.

If the general consensus is meh, with polling alternately showing slight leads or slight deficits in the best Prime Minister scores, does the deflationist argument stand up? Not really. If low by-election turnouts during Starmer's time are indications of his lack of popularity, then surely it was the case for Jeremy Corbyn. In his last two English by-elections of 2019, turnouts were 30 points and 36 points down on the previous election. Even during the lead up to 1997, by-elections saw some shocking numbers. Barnsley East in 1996 was 39 points down. Hemsworth, also in 1996 - and which saw Jon Trickett returned to the Commons for the first time - was 36 points in deficit. Ditto for Islwyn the year before, and a 35-pointer from Dudley the year before that. Whether you liked Tony Blair and John Smith or not, they were at that time as popular as mainstream politicians can be. Perhaps we might consider other factors are in play.

In mainstream political science, a distinction is made between first and second order elections. The latter in this country consist of by-elections, local authority elections (and by-elections), mayoral elections, the EU elections (as was), and perhaps still (just about) elections to Holyrood and the Senedd, and the London Assembly. When (if) Labour implement Gordon Brown's constitutional proposals, the Council of the Nations and the Regions, which is slated to replace the Lords, will also fit in this category. They are "second order" because it's only the general election that matters. It determines who the government of the day is. Everyone understands this, and so there tends to be higher turnouts for first order than second order elections. And this isn't just true of the UK and its Westminster system, but of all liberal democracies. By-elections "don't count", so we see two kinds of behaviour. Voters are more likely to stray from their preferred party (where they have one) to deliver a protest vote, and/or are more disposed to staying at home because the stakes are low. So turnout is lower, regardless of whether the Labour leader at the time was on the right or the left of the party.

There's a second problem with the deflationist argument. Those who vote in second order by-elections are the politically motivated and interested, and older people. Voting data has shown for decades the latter are more likely to vote than younger people in general elections, and this tendency becomes even more exacerbated in second order contests. Because older people are also more likely to vote Conservative, this also gives the Tories an edge. Therefore, when Labour wins by-elections and does so by increased margins, it suggests the party is making inroads into that Tory vote. This appears borne out by polling. Labour still trails the Tories among the over 65s, but not by the yawning chasms of the years previously. Therefore, Starmer and his supporters are justified in feeling buoyed by Labour's recent by-election performances. Despite the low turnouts.

Where does this leave the deflationist argument? Nowhere. It's revealed as nothing but an illusion, if not a wilful delusion. It gets in the way of analysing things as they are. Not because writing about the strength of Labour's support is jolly japes, but because getting a handle on Starmer's support as it is is crucial for campaigns that might wring concessions out of his government in the future. It's this view to action that must guide our thinking. Therefore, these suggestions need bearing in mind when approaching by-elections. Unless something other than changing the world is your primary concern.

Image Credit


Jim Forsyth said...

When I was 17 I was briefly a member of the Stoke branch of the Socialist Party. The chair and his Mrs were very kind, giving me a lift to and from Congleton for every meeting.

Robert Dyson said...

"getting a handle on Starmer's support as it is is crucial for campaigns that might wring concessions out of his government in the future" yes, yes and yes.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know all about that revolutionary inflation in the Socialist Party. Every victory that was achieved by organisations like Save Our Green Spaces or trade union disputes in general, they all had one thing in common - apparently the Socialist Party "played a crucial role" in all of them, and definitely did not just tag along to the demos selling a few papers...
This was certainly the case in Stoke.

Blissex said...

«If low by-election turnouts during Starmer's time are indications of his lack of popularity [...] In mainstream political science, a distinction is made between first and second order elections.»

I am skeptical of Starmer's and New, New Labour's popularity precisely because of this, not because of hostility to them; I don't really have preference or a hostility for the Conservative or the New, New Labour variants of thatcherism, whether either party wins the elections the "thatcher revolution" will continue.

But I reckon it is misdirection to look at percentages of votes in any elections *especially in second order elections*, precisely because they don't matter much: then voters can use them to register protests, like making BXP and LibDems the two biggest parties in some.

In particular since there are no significant material interests at stake in second order elections many Conservative voters use them to strop, either abstaining more than usual, or switching to the LibDems or even to New, New Labour.

«On Thursday, turnout was well down (by 43 points) on the general election.»

What matters far more comparing like-for-like, with the turnout of previous by-elections, and people who want to usefully inform their readers instead of hand-waving their propaganda like New, New Labour quote actual figures, looking at the latest 4 parliamentary by-elections and for several years before:

What I see there is Conservatives doing a protest non-vote in an second-order election, and New, New Labour doing pretty badly even for a second-order election. The collapse in voting in Stretford and Urmston is particularly telling, as is that for the LD, who are otherwise a protest-vote catcher, as in Chesham and Amersham. Voters seem to be really fed up in general.

So looking at absolute vote numbers in secondary elections and the number (more than the percentage) of abstentions matters too. If Starmer were popular the New, New Labour *number* of votes would rise even in local council and national by-elections, at least compared to previous second-order elections.

There is no evidence of any increase in popularity for Starmer or New, New Labour; the best they can hope is a repeat of New Labour's vote collapse, which was big but not as huge as the Conservatives, allowing them to win seats with numbers of votes that would have meant a seat catastrophe in other times.

«They are "second order" because it's only the general election that matters. It determines who the government of the day is.»

As usual few voters care about the government of the day, many of them think they are just all thatcherites of one flavour or another, what general elections do is determine whether the government party, whichever it is, gets rewarded for booming property costs, or gets punished for falling property costs.

Blissex said...

I have typed here in a nice table the full figures:

1974: total 53,354, Con 27,035, Lab 16,619, Lib 9,700
1974: total 49,494, Con 25,078, Lab 10,325, Lib 14,091
1979: total 53,594, Con 32,924, Lab 7,645, Lib 12,328
1983: total 53,141, Con 32,435, Lab 4,150, Lib 16,556
1987: total 55,498, Con 34,504, Lab 5,170, Lib 15,064
1992: total 57,265, Con 36,273, Lab 5,931, Lib 14,053
1997: total 52,197, Con 26,298, Lab 10,240, Lib 12,439, Ref 2,528
2001: total 45,283, Con 22,867, Lab 8,497, Lib 10,985
2005: total 47,097, Con 25,619, Lab 6,610, Lib 11,821, UKI 1,391
2010: total 52,444, Con 31,658, Lab 2,942, Lib 14,498, UKI 2,129, Gre 767
2015: total 52,731, Con 31,138, Lab 6,172, Lib 4,761, UKI, Gre 2,902
2017: total 55,252, Con 33,514, Lab 11,374, Lib 7,179, UKI 1,525, Gre 1,660
2019: total 55,978, Con 30,850, Lab 7,166, Lib 14,627, UKI, Gre 3,042
2021: total 37,954, Con 13,489, Lab 622, Lib 21,517, UKI, Gre 1,480

1992: 40,520/49,449: 24,450 Con, 8,751 Lab, 6,438 LD
1997: 42,133/67,841: 21,608 Con, 18,039 NLab, 8,284 LD, UKI 489
2001: 44,572/68,226: 19,130 Con, 15,785 NLab, 5,792 LD, UKI 1,426
2010: 45,492/65,699: 24,625 Con, 8,768 NLab, 6,996 LD, UKI 1,532, Gre 371
2015: 46,748/66,035: 24,682 Con, 8,879 NLab, 1,644 LD, UKI 8,528, Gre 1,336
2017: 48,042/66,005: 29,545 Con, 14,074 Lab, 1,572 LD, UKI 1,619, Gre 820
2019: 46,145/66,104: 29,786 Con, 10,384 Lab, 3,822 LD, UKI, Gre 1,477
2021: 21,733/64,831: 11,189 Con, 6,711 NLab, 647 LD, RUK 1,432, Gre 831

2001: 44,877/63.8%: Con 14,866, NLab 21,760, LD 6,589, UKI 899
2005: 44,903/64.3%: Con 16,534, NLab 17,458, LD 9,818, UKI 776
2010: 46,853/66.7%: Con 16,412, NLab 18,995, LD 8,930, UKI 1,225
2015: 51,161/67.7%: Con 22,025, NLab 22,118, LD 2,870, UKI 4,148
2017: 56,421/77.4%: Con 22,847, Lab 32,023, LD 1,551
2019: 54,560/71.7%: Con 20,918, Lab 27,082, LD 3,734, BXP 1,388
2022: 28,475/41.2%: Con 6,335, NLab 17,309, LD 2,368, RUK 773

2001: 39,005/54.8%: Con 10,565, NLab 28,836, LD 3,891
2006: 38,101/61.5%: Con 11,566, NLab 19,417, LD 5,323, UKI 845
2010: 44,910/69.4%: Con 12,886, NLab 21,821, LD 7,601, UKI 1,508
2015: 46,386/66.8%: Con 12,916, NLab 24,601, LD 2,187, UKI 5,068
2017: 50,191/70.0%: Con 13,814, Lab 33,519, LD 1,001, UKI 1,094
2019: 50,067/69.4%: Con 13,778, Lab 30,195, LD 2,969, BXP 1,768
2022: 18,418/25.8%: Con 2,922, NLab 12,828, LD 659, RUK 650