Monday, 30 March 2015

Whatever the result, Labour probably chose the RIGHT brother

This blog is primarily focused on psephology, not partisan comment.  However, I must make a declaration of personal interest.  I am a Labour Party member and I did vote in the leadership election.  My preferred candidate (John McDonnell) pulled out and I gave my first preference to Diane Abbott; Ed Miliband got my second preference.  This post is not about that.

This post is about that comment we've all heard from to time: "if David Miliband had won, Labour would be further ahead."  Is it true?  We can't possibly know, of course, but let's take the idea for a walk.

Labour had been in power for thirteen years and were deeply unpopular when they left.  Normally when Labour leave office they struggle to get back in.  After 1951 (an election when Labour won the popular vote, so no comparison with 2010 in that regard) Labour didn't get back in for 13 years.  There are lots of possible reasons for this, but many point to disunity.  Whether you blame the Gaitskellites or the Bevanites will depend on your political perspective, but we cannot escape the fact that Gaitskell failed to unite the party.  When Callaghan lost in 1979, Labour remained out of power for 18 years.  This election was more easily comparable with 2010, with Labour having changed leaders, become very unpopular and then kicked out.  Callaghan was not as unpopular as Brown, of course!  Again, there are many different versions of why Labour failed to win in 83 or the next two elections, but we cannot escape the fact that the party split!  Michael Foot (and indeed, in a different way, Neil Kinnock) like Gaitskell before them failed to unite the party.

No Labour leaders unite the party.  The Labour Party is a very broad church and is pretty-much impossible to unite.  There are two approaches that have worked in Labour's post-war history.  Blair's way has been pretty-much unique to Blair and to the very specific political circumstances of 1994.  He imposed a "There Is No Alternative" vision onto a sceptical but desperate party and embraced and provoked disunity as a method of news management.  He promised the party electoral success (and delivered) and the party went along with his changes to achieve this outcome. The other approach is the Attlee and Wilson (and Smith?) way.  You might not be any wing's darling, but neither do you pick a fight with any wing.  Neither wing sees your victory as their loss.

David Miliband was seen (rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly) as a Blairite. He had been the Blairite's challenger of choice against Brown (though he never actually challenged).  The Blairite/Brownite split was always an odd one, not based on major ideological difference like the Gaitskellite/Bevanite split, but it was still real and bruising.  If Balls had won, it would have been seen as the victory of the Brownites. Had David Miliband won it would have been the victory of the Blairites. Ed Miliband was the Wilson candidate.  Associated with Brown (just as Wilson had been seen as close to Bevan) but independent enough from both camps to avoid the continuation of the old fights.

So, we can't possible know where we would be now had David Miliband won  the leadership, but it is safe to assume that the old Blair/Brown rows would have rumbled on.  Furthermore, the party would have found it harder to put the Iraq War behind them.  Would the Cameron government have decided to let the Chilcot Report come out before the election, if Labour's leader was still arguing the Iraq War was the right thing to do?  Possibly.  Undoubtedly there would have been a lot of discussion and interest in whether David Miliband has really told Parliament and country everything he knew about extraordinary rendition.

Furthermore, David Miliband would have pursued a much clearer pro-austerity policy throughout this period.  While some on Labour's right think this would have been successful, there is little psephological evidence for this.  It certainly wouldn't have helped prevent Labour's problems in Scotland, and I think we would be seeing a much more potent threat from surging Greens if Labour had an economic policy less differentiated from that of the coalition.

We do not know what the result of the election will be but, given the historical precedents, the fact that Labour are in the fight, five years after a pretty serious drubbing, would suggest that Ed Miliband's leadership has been quite extraordinary in British political history and very likely more successful than his brother's could have been.

Friday, 27 March 2015

What did we learn from the first (non) debate?

1) That holding this programme before the manifestos are published made for quite a bad programme.  This wasn't the broadcasters' fault; David Cameron ruled out any sort of debate during the campaign "proper" as well as any sort of head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband, so this was what they were left with.  But it made for an uneven programme.  Neither leader had a final manifesto to promote or defend so instead, Cameron was primarily asked to defend his record, while Miliband was asked to defend his personality and image.  Both were challenged - perhaps a bit too much during the Paxman interviews if we really wanted to learn anything about policies - but about rather different things. It also meant that Miliband - who I don't think I'm being too partisan if I describe him as the deeper thinker of the two - had to spend most of the time batting away tabloid gossip (some of it pretty nasty and personal), while Cameron (other than the occasional inexplicable breakfast cereal question) had to talk about food banks and zero hours contracts.

2) That commentary about "who won" is completely pointless. Of course we all called it for one or another leader (I'll put my hand up, I called it for Ed) but there is nothing more irritating than watching politician after politician queuing up to say why their guy won it. It's slightly more interesting to hear how members of other parties saw things, I suppose (although their motives might be questionable).  Twitter was full of each leader's "fans" retweeting every supportive or critical tweet, and each poll result as if it presented some unquestionable proof that their guy had "won". It wasn't a football match.  It wasn't even a debate.  Nobody won, though I suspect Miliband was probably the happier of the two at the end.  Cameron struggled with Paxman but seemed pretty assured with the audience.  Miliband probably exceeded many people's expectations but needs to be able to give clearer (quicker) answers on austerity and spending. It was notable that Kay Burley didn't really understand his answer about an EU referendum so he has to think whether he's pitching all his political explanations at the right level for the casual viewer.

3) That the Paxman-style interview (whether delivered by him or not) is inappropriate for this sort of programme. We didn't have very long and we wanted to know what these two men proposed to do should they lead the next government.  Paxman's trademark of asking the same question repeatedly (even when he knows it's a question that no political leader could reasonably or responsibly answer, such as the first one he asked to Miliband) ate up the time and produced little of consequence.  Of course, once a debate had been ruled out there had to be some challenge for the leaders and not just a platform for them to outline policies and slag off their opponents, but we probably heard more from Paxman than from his interviewees.  The media needs to challenge powerful people, but they need to do so on substance, not just for the sake of being challenging.  Perhaps this particular style of interview has had its day?

4) That none of the planned programmes are likely to have a "game changing" moment.  In many ways this is a bit of a relief, because if a television programme were able to make or break the result of the election then that is too great a power for it to have.  David Cameron will probably feel he could have performed better, but I doubt he lost any voters from this programme.  Ed Miliband probably felt quite pleased with his performance and might have turned a handful of waverers and is certainly unlikely to have lost anybody.  But nothing that is planned is likely to be too different.  We saw enough from Miliband to be pretty confident that, while (in the absence of Cameron) he will be ganged up on in the "challengers" debate, he is unlikely to seriously mess it up.  There is no reason to think the Question Time Special will be especially different to the first event.  So after election debates arrived with a bang and a fanfare in 2010, 2015's version are unlikely to live long in the memory.  (Famous last words!)

5) That a head-to-head debate would have been interesting.  Finally, while I was ambivalent about the debates in 2010 (not keen on turning the General Election into a presidential race or too much Americanisation of the process) a proper debate would have been preferable to what we got and might well have been rather interesting.  However, we shall never know.