Why the ‘Youth Quake’ should be worrying the Conservatives

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Let’s be frank, the Conservative Party has enough to worry about at the moment. A super slim majority, a party full of jumpy MPs who think the Vicar’s daughter is toast, an uneasy and expensive alliance with the DUP and a bland legislative programme designed around Brexit and nothing else.

Plus, at time of writing, a number of higher profile cabinet members are starting to hint heavily about a rise in public sector pay, something that will focus more attention on the PM’s famous ‘magic money tree’ confrontation with an angry and underpaid nurse.

But I’m going to throw one more worry into the mix, voter demographics.

I met a Conservative activist the other day who confessed one of the party’s biggest fears, that by the 2030s/40s there simply won’t be enough Tories to win majorities anymore.

By this he meant that too many young people are abandoning the Conservative cause and that they risk becoming a ‘toxic brand’ to anyone under 30.

And at the same time, too many of their older voters are dying off and aren’t being replaced with a fresh crop of blue-rinsed ladies and blazered golf club secretaries.

As Michael Heseltine has noted:

“One thing which is just worth having in mind, and you can’t do anything about it, two per cent of the older part of the electorate die every year – they are 70 per cent Conservative. Another two per cent come in at the young end of the electorate – they are about 70 per cent Labour… There isn’t much time.”

This movement towards a more progressive country could be partly driven by social changes, that go against the Right.

The death of the property owning democracy, the rise in graduates – people with degrees tend to have more progressive views – increasing urbanisation and the growing sexual and racial diversity of British society mean the Conservative cause could be in trouble.

And to make things worse, Corbyn has found a way to get young people to actually vote – promise them loads of free stuff – a prime factor behind some of election night’s surprise results.

Nationally, pollsters estimate the Conservatives were 30 per cent behind Labour among 18-35 year olds, a massive gap.

The Conservatives aren’t blind to this problem, it’s why David Cameron embarked on a widespread party modernisation programme and why George Osborne has talked of the need for a modern, metropolitan Conservatism.

Damian Green also ‘gets’ it, talking of the need for a rethink on issues like tuition fees.

It seems the so-called natural party of government needs to do some serious thinking over the years ahead.

This article originally appeared in the Birmingham Press.

 

 

Views from outside the Tribe – five things I learned at a Corbyn rally

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The other day Jeremy Corbyn came to town. In a spirit of political curiosity, I went along in the pouring rain to stand in an overflow car park to listen.

He’s still a massive draw

According to organisers, 10,000 people attended the event I was at. Walking there felt like going to a football match, people sang songs, waved flags and walked on the road. I’d say a good three quarters of the crowd looked between 18-24 years old, including quite a few young families. Whatever your reservations about JC’s policies, his ability to reach people who wouldn’t normally engage in mainstream politics is remarkable. This event wasn’t widely advertised, was organised at short notice with little publicity and took place in almost constant rain, yet still thousands turned up, with many charging up a hill past hapless police officers to try to get a better look.

He’s behind you

Like any big event, this came with warm up acts of varying length and quality – the most impressive of which was Labour’s General Election co-ordinator Ian Lavery who knows how to rouse an already excited crowd. But if audience participation isn’t your thing, don’t go to a Corbyn rally, it requires you to boo, hiss and cheer on cue. It’s a bit like political pantomime with the nasty party as the Ugly Sisters. Top of the boo list was Mrs Thatcher, followed by Mrs May, Boris Johnson, Bedroom Tax, Tories in general and the Home Counties. Judging by the cheers, scrapping tuition fees is Labour’s most popular policy, followed by dismantling welfare reforms and reversing austerity.

No-one’s talking about winning

I heard JC referred to as ‘the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ by just one speaker. This felt like a rally to celebrate a valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful struggle, three days before the poll. One speaker told the crowd that they might not win this time – due to the usual suspects of a biased media and a mocking establishment – but that they were the majority and would one day be on the ‘right side of history’. At the heart of this is an interesting argument which I’ve heard before – the UK isn’t quite young and diverse enough for Corbyn to win yet, but in 20 years it might be and a winning Obama-esque coalition could rise to power.

Corbyn loves a ramble

JC has spoken to more rallies than I’ve had hot dinners, but whisper it, I think his speaking style is patchy. His most frustrating habit is building to a rhetorical point, but then drawing back at the last second to qualify or add policy context. He also rambles between subjects as diverse as pensioner poverty and climate change. He twice described manifesto policy initiatives as ‘quite large’ – hardly the most dynamic use of language. I know this is part of his untutored appeal, and this crowd would have cheered if he’d announced plans to bomb North Korea on June 9th, but I did sense a bit of frustration within the audience at his inability to come to focused points.

Talking to the tribe

All politicians love to preach to the converted, see the Vicar’s Daughter’s interactions with ‘ordinary people’ who stand aimlessly in warehouses and happen to wear blue rosettes, but JC does it on a bigger and more successful scale. If Corbyn thought he could really win, would he be wasting an evening in the run up to polling day in a town with a 15,000 Labour majority? The crowds were extraordinary both in numbers and demographic make-up, but this wasn’t an event for the undecided, this was one for the tribe.

This article first appeared in the Birmingham Press

The big interview versus the big fight

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Stories. People like them, politicians should tell more of them.

True stories, not Paul Nuttall’s flights of career fancy, but tales of where we are now, where they want to take us and the endless possibilities on the road ahead.

But on Sunday morning I watched the Prime Minister continue her one woman mission to turn this election into the most boring political contest in living memory.

When interviewed by Andrew Marr she didn’t just fail to set out a vision, she actively reduced her Government’s programme to little more than a technocrat’s shopping list. There was no beginning, no middle, no end. No picture of where we could be, no vision for the future, no narrative.

At a key time in our nation’s history we have a foregone conclusion and a dull one at that. There’s not even the prospect of a live TV debate to look forward to. 

The Vicar’s daughter is good on the figures, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, she knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. She appears to say a lot, but when analysed says little new or interesting.

Strong and Stable Leadership faces some pretty stiff competition, but is likely the greyest election tag-line of all time.

Maybe I’m being particularly harsh on the Vicar’s Daughter because the night before I’d gazed at a huge screen enthralled as two six feet six inch men knocked seven bells out of each other.

Klitschko vs Joshua was good, really good. The best fight I’ve ever seen. Eleven rounds of see-sawing drama, courage and exhaustion – an epic contest.

The word epic applies, because the story of Joshua vs Klitschko , was a narrative right out of Hollywood. The 41 year-old former champion, coming back from the career wilderness to fight the 27 year-old bright young thing who has risen from the streets in one of the richest title fights ever.

They go at each other for 11 rounds. One falls, then the other. One staggers to the ropes, then the other. It seems as if there is no way back for either man at various stages, but somehow it lasts until the 11th, when Joshua summons his last bit of energy in a winner-takes-all effort to finally see off his rival.

When the referee finally stops in, saving Klitschko from another knock down, 90,000 people at Wembley go mad, in the pub I was in total strangers hugged each other as drinks flew.

Then, instead of gloating or hatred, both men embrace. Klitschko thanks the crowd, AJ calls the Ukranian a legend. Everyone is happy, they feel better about themselves because of what they’ve witnessed and secretly we all pray that a re-match won’t happen because no fight between them could be that incredible. To do it all again would sully the memory.

This was a compelling ‘event’, a thing to see, a contest to remember, a story to tell – everything our current political slug fest is not.

Why letting ‘Jeremy be Jeremy’ might be a bad idea

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s an election on.

The Vicar’s daughter has maintained a relatively low profile since her surprise announcement, just a visit to a toothpaste factory and engaging Dudley householders in awkward conversations on their doorsteps while West Midlands mayoral candidate Andy Street hovers excitedly in the background.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn has been busier. After all, he’s got a raft of new policies to promote – drawn up just before the big announcement – and team JC has a ‘Let Corbyn be Corbyn’ strategy so he’s officially allowed to be himself.

This can make for compulsive viewing and I was up with the political nerds to catch him on Marr the other Sunday morning. He didn’t disappoint.

In a wide-ranging interview we learned that Jeremy is relatively unperturbed by the pressures of the highest office in the land. In fact, he seems carefree and relaxed – however, this might be because he knows full well he’ll never be Prime Minister.

An example came when JC was asked by Andrew Marr about that first horrible task as PM, when the man from the Admiralty taps you on the shoulder and you have to write those letters to submarine commanders patrolling the North Atlantic outlining what they should do if the UK has been wiped out by a nuclear strike.

Those Letters of Last Resort are a chilling reminder of the responsibilities of a British leader. Effectively, you are a voice from beyond the grave, instructing commanders whether to fire back killing millions more or surrender to whatever is left of the world.

So what would Jeremy write in his doomsday note? 

The response wasn’t so much an answer as a breezy ramble that managed to cast doubt over agreed party policy before moving on to a half-hearted analysis of the underlying causes of geopolitical tensions in Korea and Syria.

He appeared to suggest that rather than a simple, ‘fire all weapons/meekly surrender’ letter he’d seek to engage the officials in a conversation about how political solutions were always the answer.

I’m sure at one point, when pressed, he said the commanders would just have to follow orders – obviously not fully realising that it would be he who would be giving them.

It’s more evidence that Corbyn is almost touchingly incapable of the binary answers that are demanded in modern politics. The trouble is that letting Jeremy be Jeremy is what makes him spectacularly vulnerable on questions of leadership.

I didn’t think the Marr interview was a complete disaster – certainly not deserving of the Daily Mail’s description as a ‘car crash’ – he performed relatively well on the domestic front.

After being widely mocked for suggesting four extra bank holidays, he came back well – arguing effectively that consumer spending on national days off probably outweighs any loss to the economy.

He could also have argued that other countries with more public holidays – for example France and Germany – far outpace the UK in terms of productivity. When it comes to increasing our economic output, the secret is to work smarter, not harder.

But, like several of his shadow cabinet colleagues, Corbyn doesn’t appear to be briefed enough to be able to make ‘killer points’ or change the direction of interviews.

The basics are there, but there’s no policy detail below the surface. It gives the impression of a man who just isn’t serious about high office, something that can be exploited ruthlessly by political opponents. 

Inequality is falling (slightly) but that’s a huge problem for the Left

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer – a favourite phrase of anyone who wants to criticise market economics. A simple message, appealing to our sense of fairness and injustice. It should be the raison d’etre of the left.

But, as you’ll probably have guessed, it’s not quite simple as that. In fact, it’s incredibly complex.

One way of measuring inequality is by something called the Gini Coefficient, it sounds like a household robot from a 1960s TV show set in the future, but it’s actually the measure that economists use to work out the distribution of income – or in fact anything – across a society.

Now I’m not going to get involved in whether the Gini Coefficient is the best measure, it is not the only way to gauge relative wealth, but it appears to be the most widely used.

Gini 1961-2014-15

A quick look at the graph above – courtesy of the Equality Trust – gives us the broad picture. The co-efficient was relatively low during the swinging sixties, it fell lower during the economically troubled 1970s and then, around the mid 1980s, it rocketed.

Britain wasn’t the only place in which it shot up, and economists argue over the causes. In the UK’s case it seems likely it was at least partly due the Thatcher Government’s successive income tax reductions plus a touch of laissez faire economics meaning thousands more people got seriously rich.

However, after reaching its peak in the early 1990s, the Gini rises more slowly, reduces slightly in the wake of the 1992 recession and then fluctuates during the Blair years.

But then, here’s the really surprising thing, as we go past the 2008 banking crisis, income inequality actually starts to reduce, taking us back to levels last seen in the late 1980s.

This happened because the great recession resulted in rich people getting slightly less rich while poorer people are taken out of income tax thanks to one of the Coalition government’s more enlightened pieces of fiscal reform.

And that’s the problem for the left, inequality – by established measures – is actually falling, not by much, but still going in what most progressives would say is the right direction.

There’s no guarantee this will continue, there’s some evidence that the top strata of the rich are beginning to pull away from the rest of us while at the same time average incomes will stagnate until at least 2020. In fact, many of the changes to benefits – which affect millions of working families – haven’t been felt fully yet.

But for the moment, the Left has big problem. As the centre right argues, why does inequality that matter as long as the poor’s incomes continue to grow while those at the top of the pile pay their share in tax? Everyone gets richer, everyone benefits.

And if the gap is decreasing anyway under a Conservative Government, where does the Left’s traditional redistribution argument go?

Do you argue that you want to reduce it further and faster? That soon leads you into politically tricky territory, recently Jeremy Corbyn suggested capping the incomes of some unspecified high earners, and it didn’t play well.

Plus the baby boomers who remember the golden age of income equality will be in their mid to late seventies by 2020, that means a good chunk of the electorate won’t remember a time when incomes were more equal.

It’s hard to land blows with inequality unless people feel that it’s getting really bad or you cherry pick some extreme examples – Philip Green and his yacht for example.

Saying things are getting worse is a staple of opposition politics, but in the case of inequality, at the moment it’s simply not true.

The strange state of a post Scotland United Kingdom

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Thanks to Nicola Sturgeon’s strategic brinkmanship, there could be an independent Scotland in 2019. If it happens, this is the strange state the UK might be in by the mid 2020s.

Yellow submarine

The SNP is unlikely to change its anti nuclear stance and that means the current base at Faslane, where the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent sits, will have be moved.

I can’t see the SNP negotiating on this, it would be political suicide to allow those weapons to stay. That leaves Westminster with a complex and horribly expensive logistics job to build a base elsewhere in the UK, probably on the south coast of England.

Bear in mind we’re already looking at a £30bn bill to replace Trident then add another £20bn – and 20 years – to build another deepwater submarine base. That is a fair chunk of UK Government spend on a weapons system that many see as out of date and of no practical use in modern warfare.

Might all that hassle prompt a Westminster Government to think again about the weapons and if not abandon nukes entirely, then at least think about another platform or a strategic alliance? The SNP could not only rid Scotland of nuclear weapons, but prompt the rest of the UK to follow in the same direction.

Checkpoint Angus

Checkpoints on the A1. It might seem like something out of an alternative history novel, but there is a real risk of a ‘hard border’ between England and an independent Scotland. In fact if Scotland got its wish and stayed in, or joined, the EU it would likely later adopt the Euro and principles of freedom of movement. That might mean a hard border with a non-EU country like England.

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We’d need to have a new flag. There’d be no more blue and white in the Union Jack. There are some attempts at what it might look like here. It’s worth remembering that New Zealand recently held a public vote on its flag with some hilarious submissions. If the UK altered the flag, could it still be called the Union Jack? By the way, the current Union Jack doesn’t reflect any of Wales’ national colours. Could we drop the blue and add some green?

Windsor in a knot

The current monarch has a long standing relationship with Scotland, but the new breed not so much. While I can’t see SNP activists seizing Balmoral just yet, I can see a gradual perception that the Royal family is an Anglo German institution and having them in Scotland might be seen as a throwback to the days of union. An independent Scotland would in essence look and feel like a republic.

Good evening, welcome to SBC

There’s a possibility an independent Scotland could have its own state broadcaster, loosely modelled on the BBC. The SNP’s stance is that it will push for the BBC to be federalised, and will continue to push for new services to be set up as part of the charter renewal process. Opting out of the BBC entirely might be impractical, perhaps BBC Scotland might run alongside any national broadcaster. However, would Scots be happy paying towards the costs of both BBC and a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation?

A version of this blog also appeared in the Birmingham Press.

PMQs is rubbish – here’s how to make it better

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‘Would my right honorable friend agree with me…’

There are fewer depressing phrases uttered in Parliament, a signal that what is likely to follow isn’t a question but a mindless endorsement of party policy or a reference to an obscure constituency event that somehow reflects well on Government policy.

Cliche time, but Prime Minister’s Questions is Westminster’s set-piece political event, when the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition trade blows roared on by squawking, cheering – sometimes moo-ing – backbenchers.

Trouble is, it’s rubbish. Really dire. Dreadful stuff and a poor reflection of the good work, particularly around scrutiny and checks and balances, that the Houses of Parliament actually do.

Added to which, outside of the Westminster bubble, it doesn’t matter. Whisper it, but no-one is really watching. Most normal people never see it, only a small minority regularly watch. The excellent Isabel Hardman makes that point here.

Only political nerds like me watch the whole thing – and even we think it is desperate viewing, a 40 minute advert for why people tend to dislike politicians.

I’m writing this after a particularly eye-gougingly bad exchange between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. It wasn’t ‘incr-edi-ble.’ In fact, the exact opposite. I seriously recommend you avoid it, but here’s the highlights if you want to go start a revolution.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this bad. The basic principle of the most powerful elected official in the land coming to explain herself to representatives of the people once a week is a good one. Here are a few radical, but achievable, ideas on how it could be improved.

1. Voice of the People

There’s no reason why PMQs couldn’t be opened up to members of the public as well. In a 40 minute session there could be three moderated questions, with follow ups, chosen by an independent panel. These questions would set the agenda before a  return to the traditional running order, opposition, followed by other party leaders and then backbenchers.

Famously, Jeremy Corbyn tried, and later abandoned, this ‘voice of the people’ approach. However, put in a neutral, non-party, context it could be interesting.

2. Live Fact Checking

Every time PM or opposition makes a claim, fact-check live – the speaker might interrupt to provide clarification – and publish a succinct report afterwards via social media and on the parliament website. It might show up some of the more outlandish spending claims made by government and opposition.

3. Change the Time

Who, apart from nerds like me, is watching The Daily Politics at noon on a Wednesday? If you want to get more public involvement, move it to 5pm, giving something for the later TV news bulletins to get their teeth into.

4. Move it out of Westminster

Soon the Houses of Parliament will shut for years for an eye-wateringly expensive refurbishment. Despite what security staff and others might tell you, there is nothing to stop PMQs and most of parliament taking place outside London. I don’t care if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn clash about social care spending in a community center in Solihull. It would do them both good and taking MPs out of their usual tribal environment might help the quality of the exchanges.

5. Proper sanctions for badly behaved MPs

I understand that people get passionate, and I don’t want to turn PMQs into a dry policy debate. But some of the barracking, name-calling and general silliness demeans the entire event. Interestingly, this rowdiness – along with PMQs itself – is a relatively modern phenomenon. This would improve if MPs were named by the speaker and given a yellow card warning before being excluded from the following week’s session. Constituency parties might also be encouraged to have a word with representatives who regularly cross the line.

6. Separate Sessions for UK Nations

The current PM is a firm believer in the Union, but non-English parties get sidelined at PMQs, despite the SNP being allowed to ask two questions. What about getting the PM to return to the house for a second session exclusively for Plaid, SNP, Ulster Unionists? Or, even better,  once a term, get the Prime Minister to travel to national assemblies to take questions from representatives.

A version of this blog post also appeared in The Birmingham Press