Existential danger: Labour, the left, and why Jeremy Corbyn must not win

Britain. Shortly before 10pm, May 7, 2015. Most within the Labour Party expect that next day, they’ll be forming a minority government; Ed Miliband is even preparing a victory speech. Then one exit poll later, the party’s collective chin hits the deck with a resounding crash. All sorts of certainties had vanished. Vanished, if Labour isn’t careful, for good.

Ever since its defeat (which shocked most, but not all of us), Labour has been like a punch drunk boxer: flailing around helplessly in all directions. Unable to find a coherent narrative under Miliband, it’s been even more unable to properly understand either why it lost, or what to do about it. Why? As long as we accept the tribal confines of British politics, in which the left pits itself against itself, cutting its own throat in the process, there is no simple answer. No clear path back to office exists: not with the tectonic plates the way they are now; not given the ongoing decline of social democratic parties all over Europe; nor when we factor in Labour’s long term neglect of its core voters, grassroots members, activists and structures.

All sorts of narratives quickly emerged to explain the defeat: all of which have some merit, none of which embody the whole picture. None of them could; the answer is too complicated for anyone to perfectly encapsulate. Was Labour trusted on the economy? No, but that doesn’t mean it should move rightwards. Did Labour shed support to the left? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it should return to what it once was. Above all because what it once was (in 2007, let alone 1983) no longer works.

Should Labour listen to its one surviving Prime Minister (and the only one to even win a majority since 1966), Tony Blair? You might think so – but the electoral coalition he put together was essentially short term; dependent entirely on him, a one-off political superstar, leading it; did a huge amount of long term damage to the party; and enjoyed success amid economic conditions and social attitudes which no longer apply, and will probably never do so again.

That the party has been so palpably bewildered and paralysed since its defeat shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s entirely natural. Wherever it looks, whatever direction it might try and move towards, Labour is boxed in as never before. If it moves to the right and tries to become a more palatable version of the Conservatives, not only does it give Scotland (without which, it cannot win) up as a lost cause, but it will shed even more support to the now left-leaning Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the dispiritingly massed ranks of non-voters… and do itself, in my judgement, lethal harm among its hollowed out grassroots. Upon whom it depends to get its message out – but it has to have a worthwhile message with which to mobilise them in the first place.

If it moves to the left in a bid to recapture its core support and sound more authentic, it is unlikely to make much headway in Scotland, where the rise of the Scottish National Party amounts to a fundamental, generational, more than likely irreversible shift, presaging independence in no more than the medium term; and achieve nothing whatsoever in Tory-dominated southern England: without which, it cannot win. Too right wing for Scotland, too left wing for England; but even that barely scratches the surface of the bind it finds itself in.

If Labour does nothing to oppose a socialism for the old, capitalism for the young Britain turned upside down, in which young people – overwhelmed with debt (which most will never pay off) even before entering an ever more insecure job market flooded with graduates, in which they’ve now been formalised as second class citizens until age 25; expected to deal with skyrocketing rents; unable to ever hope of buying a home for love nor money; and if they come from an abusive home and have no support network, are quite likely to find themselves on the streets – it won’t only lose the support of the young, but lose many of them to politics and the democratic process altogether.

But it can’t do anything much about that – and why? Far and away its worst electoral problem is with the grey vote: of whom there’ll be 1.5m more by 2020. Meaning it can’t propose rent caps, or a land value tax, or any sort of pension reform, or remove any of the freebies which so many pensioners enjoy at the same time as hundreds of thousands in work are plunged into poverty – because to do so is electoral suicide. How did the Tories win the critical support of so many pensioners? Both through being much more trusted on the economy, but also the outrageous pre-election bribe of allowing instant access for over-55s to their pension pots. A bribe supported and implemented by the Lib Dems: to their loss and their coalition partners’ gain.

And then, of course, there’s UKIP. Amongst Labour’s many election blunders, its implacable opposition to a referendum on the EU was maybe the worst of all. This didn’t only mean that it didn’t trust the people and thought it knew better; it underscored its horrendous obliviousness to the effect of uncontrolled immigration from the EU into working class areas: pushing down wages and making work ever more insecure. Labour’s attitude towards immigration – sneering at those who raise the issue as “racist”, while being wholly impervious to its drawbacks – has, all too often, resembled that of cossetted, out of touch metropolitan liberals hectoring from an ivory tower. It has to develop a vastly more Euro-sceptic stance, seeking real reform on, above all, freedom of movement, as a matter of increasing urgency.

But if it does that, it runs the risk of losing precisely the middle class, metropolitan liberal support it gained in London – its only election success story – and, indeed, of looking unprincipled; changing its position too much. Everywhere it looks, there’s a problem; what it might gain in terms of votes through any particular shift in policy, it will lose for the same reason.

Against such a backdrop, of course it’s confused. Of course it’s looked a complete shambles. Any other party trapped in such a grim position would too. But that’s not to say it hasn’t made a whole series of blunders which have turned a drama into a mounting (threatening to become existential) crisis: which started when, with the final misstep of his hapless leadership, Miliband stupidly stood down immediately instead of presiding over an orderly, Michael Howard to David Cameron 2005-style transition.

This meant that, for the second Parliament in a row, Labour immediately ceded any control of the narrative to the Tories. Last time it did that, a cacophony of gibberish about it having “caused the crash” – the big lie which won Cameron the election – was allowed to go unchecked. This time, the narrative has shifted to social security (or as Cameron likes to pejoratively term it, ‘welfare’: Tory cynicism summed up in a single word): with Labour accused of being “weak on welfare” if it did not support a whole series of horrific cuts which will plunge hundreds of thousands into poverty (including, staggeringly, many in work); socially cleanse the south of England (given the boundary changes which will follow, a nakedly political move designed to drive any remaining non-Tory support out of more affluent constituencies altogether); remove £30 per week from the disabled and infirm; slash the already derisory amounts provided to asylum seekers and their children; remove access to housing benefit altogether for anyone under 21; and even appear to require women who have a third child as a result of being raped to prove it.

During the last Parliament, the Conservative narrative on the deficit was based, very simply, on the politics of bullshit. The narrative on social security is similar. Housing benefit is what it is because of constant failure to do anything at all about exorbitant rents; and just as alarmingly few voters ever realised that George Osborne, not Labour, had doubled the national debt, so they are also unaware that by far the largest chunk of the ‘welfare’ bill goes not on unemployment benefit, not on benefit fraud… but on pensions. The recipients of which, again for nakedly political reasons, the Tories protect and indulge with various unnecessary freebies at all costs.

So is Labour challenging the narrative? Of course not. Instead, the left watched aghast as Harriet Harman, the disastrously incompetent acting leader, demanded the Parliamentary Labour Party abstain on the Welfare Reform Bill. Together, leadership contenders Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper at least forced Harman to agree to a reasoned amendment – but whatever the whys and wherefores of Parliamentary procedure, the damage was done, and those who accuse Labour of being ‘Red Tories’ or ‘Tory lite’ were greatly emboldened.

Harman – caretaker the last time Labour disastrously lost control of the narrative – had already committed a far, far worse blunder than that, though. In my view, an unforgivable one. On May 18, she threw the entire leadership contest open to anyone prepared to pay just £3 for the privilege. No doubt, this was well intentioned – the idea was clearly to elect a leader with national, not just party appeal – but it was one of the most ludicrous, moronic things I’ve ever seen any political leader do. On Twitter, I described it as “insane”; as far as I was concerned, anyone with half a braincell should have been able to see what would now happen.

Sure enough, up popped The Telegraph to helpfully implore its readers to fork out three quid, vote for Jeremy Corbyn (the nomination of whom by many who aren’t even supporting him constitutes yet another blunder) and “destroy the Labour Party”. Sure enough, the Sunday Times are reporting today that the contest has been infiltrated by the hard left and very same militant tendency which turned Labour into an unelectable, internecine rabble during the 1980s. Much of which will explain why Corbyn, an unreconstructed Bennite, former Morning Star columnist, who rebelled against a three-line whip no fewer than 238 times during the last Labour government, has swept dramatically ahead in the race, according to the only opinion poll so far conducted.

Of course, there are other reasons for his success. While his rivals compete to sound mainstream and appeal to swing (meaning, because of First Past The Post, centre-right or right wing) voters, Corbyn has simply been himself: espousing positions few of which can be described as extreme in traditional left or even centre-left terms; none of which have the remotest relevance in Britain in 2015 (for reasons I’ll shortly explain). With 76% of the electorate having not voted for the most right wing government seen in Britain since at least the 1930s, a left long since disenfranchised by the iniquities of FPTP suddenly has someone it can believe in: someone different, offering real hope.

We’ve seen the ‘none of the above’ phenomenon in British politics before. It helped sweep Ken Livingstone to the London Mayoralty as an independent in 2000; launched Nick Clegg into national consciousness during the 2010 General Election campaign; and has more than a bit to do with the SNP’s success as well. Corbyn’s success is a comment on just how narrowly unrepresentative politics in Britain have become over the last three decades; just how out of touch and disconnected, so many of its politicians – all suits with nothing to say – now are.

Instead of facing him down with conviction, authority, passion, vision, leadership, his rivals have been cowed. Burnham embarrassing himself during the Welfare Bill fiasco; Liz Kendall, the tactic without a strategy, the Blairite who doesn’t understand the first thing about Blairism, polarising the debate so much with a whole series of harshly expressed right wing platforms that she’s unwittingly pushed many voters towards Corbyn (and certainly made him look less extreme, in Labour terms at least); and Cooper: who has said nothing about well, anything really.

Why has she done that? On top of incomprehensibly continuing to support FPTP, the world’s second worst electoral system, despite it being the very thing which has left it so helplessly squeezed, the very thing which has distorted political debate and public policy so much ever since 1981, the very thing which has led it to neglect its core support and grassroots base for so long that the Corbyn surge has been the inevitable result, Labour also uses the world’s worst electoral system, the Alternative Vote, for its leadership contest. Last time round, AV delivered the wrong brother. This time, its emphasis on second preferences has left Burnham and Cooper frightened of even trying to articulate anything convincing; and the latter very plainly pursuing a strategy based on securing enough second choice votes to win.

Will this work? In normal circumstances, ie. if Harman hadn’t opened the contest up to every man and his dog, it almost certainly would have done; and personally, I very much hope it does. Cooper is the only candidate who can both keep the party together and offer some sort of credible threat to the Tories: she’s competent, capable, strategically smart, and should be effective at the despatch box too. Her ideas on the digital revolution are important; her emphasis on childcare, much needed. For the good of the party and of British politics, she’s the option who needs to win.

Yvette Cooper has the best chance of challenging the Tories

By contrast, Burnham – whose work on Hillsborough was magnificent – would hold Labour together, but merely be a more charismatic version of Miliband. He has little or no appeal in swing constituencies; and contrary to his cliches about getting out of the “Westminster bubble” (memo to Andy: if you have a problem with that bubble, try not to spend your entire career beforehand as a machine politician within it), I doubt he’d change very much about the way the party operates. His conceding the Tory lie about Labour spending is also a serious error, because it leaves him forced to go along with further cuts, or be branded a flip flopper and hypocrite.

Kendall? The trouble with Liz isn’t merely her policies, or a (deliberate?) misreading of the election result based entirely on the economy and ‘aspiration’ when in fact, Labour’s infinitely greater problem was its dreadfully weak leadership and lack of a coherent, simple narrative. It’s her harshness; her coldness even. A couple of days after the election, I watched the MP for Leicester West, who I’d never previously heard of, interviewed on the BBC, and had an immediately visceral reaction: the like of which I can scarcely recall feeling about any Labour politician.

Never mind that strategically, telling a party it’s wrong about more or less everything is, as Michael Portillo would confirm of the 2001 Tory leadership contest, a surefire way of not winning (compare this with Neil Kinnock in 1983 or Blair in 1994, both of whom were all sweetness, light and platitudes before their electors); I knew that neither Labour members nor the broader public would be able to take her at all seriously as a prospective leader. And in that, I appear to have been right.

A Kendall win, inconceivable thankfully, would split the party: haemorrhage support away to the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens, not to mention the activists it desperately needs to take the fight to the Tories on the ground. Her whole campaign has been based around the message that “only she can win”; the reality, I’m afraid, is the exact opposite.

But as her threat recedes, a much larger one grows: Corbyn. Who barely even wants to be leader (in which case Jeremy, you really shouldn’t be standing); and who when asked on Channel 4 News about having once described Hizbollah and Hamas as his friends, exploded in such a rage that it should have disqualified him from contention there and then. That’s not to say he was wrong to complain about the Middle East being trivialised; it’s just that his reaction was akin to an angry, drunk, hectoring left winger getting into an furious argument down the pub. Endearing in some ways: but a disastrous sign of what the media would do to him. And in the parallel universe of him becoming Prime Minister (imagine him at a summit with the Israeli leader!), what he’d do to Britain’s international image too.

But this is almost irrelevant when set against the wider problem of what a Corbyn win would do. There is no chance that the PLP would wear it. This would be worse, a lot worse, than when Iain Duncan Smith became Tory leader thanks to the support of grassroots members who did not have the first clue (or, in many cases, care) of what electability is actually about. Cue, in next to no time, a coup – but if that happens, so many members and activists, hopes swelled by him having won, would simply give up. Labour would have confirmed themselves ‘Red Tories’ once and for all; and the collapse of the party would allow the real Tories to reign unchecked for goodness knows how long, abandoning the most vulnerable to their fate. If this government is what the Tories are capable of with a 12-seat majority, imagine what they’d be like if there’s no opposition at all.

Many will think I’m exaggerating here. I am not. Why would the PLP bring him down? Not because of arrogance; not even because a hollowed out, top down structure which has separated them from activists more and more over the last two decades. They’d bring him down because Jeremy Corbyn’s policies could not be more impracticable in a modern setting.

During the election campaign, when Labour were actually fighting on as progressive a platform as is possible under FPTP, many on the left demanded to know why it wasn’t anti-austerity; why it also pledged deficit reduction, albeit of a more manageable kind. If the SNP could do it, why couldn’t Labour? To which the answer is: (1) As the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed, the SNP weren’t anti-austerity either: it just pretended to be, while actually proposing more drawn out austerity than Labour; (2) The SNP is able to sound social democratic as long as it does not have control of Scotland’s finances. The moment it does, the rules of the game change: it would immediately have to become a lot more centrist, or else.

Before its supporters furiously interject, no: I’m not arguing that Scotland is “too wee” or “too poor” to be independent. I’m arguing that an independent Scotland (which to be viable, would require its own currency and control over its own economic policy, as recent events in the eurozone have again confirmed) would immediately face all the same fiscal pressures and constraints as those already impacting on every other European economy, almost none of which (even Germany, prime beneficiaries of the disastrous euro experiment) are growing much. The great lie about an independent Scotland is it could be socialist, or even social democratic. It could not. The great lie about a Corbyn-led Britain is it could be socialist, or even social democratic. It could not.

Many of those on the centre-left who consider themselves anything but extreme are, essentially, upholders of the post-war consensus: founded upon an extraordinary sense of solidarity – everyone really was all in it together – born during the war. That Blitz spirit, everyone doing their bit to help save the country, gave rise to a demand even with the war still ongoing of a new kind of Britain: an end to upstairs/downstairs, a nation truly fit for heroes. Universal education, free healthcare, decent housing, full employment: a dignified life from cradle to grave for all. What, many reading this will wonder, could possibly be ‘extreme’ about any of that?

Across Western Europe, Marshall Aid – the US pumping in massive financial assistance to stop the continent falling to Communism – made this possible, and drew the whole region into a Pax Americana which has only expanded since. But the Bretton Woods system of collective financial management, in which currencies were tied to gold, was what underpinned it; and when this failed in 1971, the US terminating convertibility and the dollar becoming the world’s reserve currency, all that had previously been certain was now anything but.

International currency markets gained dramatically in power; and in Britain, heavy industry became more and more uncompetitive: in economic terms, a complete liability. Thatcherism, Reaganomics, monetarism and neo-liberalism were the result: the US and UK turning into countries which stopped making things, and started importing more and more instead. The US was protected by its reserve currency status; Britain was not. And as it was not – as it became service-based, with an emphasis on the financial sector above all – the welfare state its people had come to take for granted was already on borrowed time.

That welfare state, and with it, a large public sector, meant that public debt began to grow. This wasn’t a major problem as long as the economy kept growing too: and between 1992 (when the UK was freed from the Exchange Rate Mechanism by Black/White Wednesday) and 2008, grow it did: continually. But as that growth was based on a housing bubble and consumer debt, it was never going to last forever; and while Labour was absolutely not responsible for the global crash, it was running a structural deficit.

Now, the shock caused by the crash and especially, the dramatically reduced tax take led the deficit to shoot up: but what happened in 2008 was much more fundamental than that. The world financial system itself failed, and has not truly recovered since: with government bailouts of stricken banks (regarding which, they had no choice) piling colossal amounts of debt onto the public, but amounting to little more than a sticking plaster.

As the coalition came into office and austerity was enacted, Britain went back into recession. Austerity does not work because if you take money out of an economy, it contracts, meaning you still have to borrow just to stand still. So borrow, Osborne did: more in 5 years than Labour had in 13, doubling the national debt in no time. But the problem is that in this greatly changed landscape, Keynesianism and conventional macro-economics don’t work either. In the developed (but importantly, not the developing) world, capitalism itself has effectively failed; and the unspoken secret is that economists on either side of the argument don’t have an answer.

Around the world, the fundamentals remain very unsound. The US is protected by the dollar’s status; but the euro area has barely grown at all over the last decade; Russia is in all sorts of trouble thanks to US and EU economic sanctions; Japan’s two-decade-long deflation may shortly give way to stagflation; China is encountering more and more difficulties; the banks have still not been regulated. The factors precipitating a second global crash are gradually moving into place; and this time, almost all Western economies are massively less insulated, because almost all are running unsustainable deficits. And of those, Britain, with the second largest deficit in the OECD, and again only growing because of services and another property bubble, is in one of the most vulnerable positions.

Borrowing and investing in order to create more sustainable growth, as Keynesians want, is not an option against such a backdrop. Britain’s debt is only manageable as long as interest rates remain so historically low (something which puzzles economists more than maybe anything else). As soon as they rise, as they must at some point, the fur will hit the fan. The only way of avoiding this would be first, a mass Jubilee 2000-style debt write-off; and second, some new version of Bretton Woods. But in a globalised world, with corporations, not nation states, calling the shots, and the developing world (most of which is unencumbered by anything much in the way of a welfare state) growing rapidly and naturally wanting more of a steadily diminishing pie, that’s a lot easier said than done.

Complicating matters still further is what governments find when they put taxes up: as a Corbyn government would do, very substantially. It’s not just that capital flees and a brain drain occurs. It’s that the tax take itself hardly changes. Since 1964, UK income tax rates have ranged from 40%, to 96%, to 50% – yet as a proportion of GDP, tax revenue has remained extraordinarily static: almost always between 34% and 36%. As this article explains, in Britain, the reason is probably cultural: but the forces of globalisation mean it has never been harder for any government to soak the rich in order to significantly redistribute wealth and pay for a substantial welfare state than now. In the terms Corbyn proposes – even those Labour proposed in 1992 – it’s essentially impossible.

And as it’s impossible, the deficit and debt would quickly become utterly uncontrollable: indeed, lethal. This is why left of centre parties across Europe stopped proposing socialism long ago; and since 2008, have even stopped offering social democracy. Tax takes cannot pay for what the left traditionally demands. To take the most benign view (which his policies certainly don’t warrant) of Osborne’s approach, it’s also why he’s slashing spending, but not putting up direct taxation. The alternative would involve the politically impossible move of means testing pensions (albeit, tying pensions to earnings and offering free TV licenses, free bus passes and winter fuel allowances to any pensioner who doesn’t need them is wholly unnecessary, and an electoral bribe).

The unspoken truth of austerity is this. In the developed world, it’s not temporary. It’s permanent. Living standards for almost everyone will fall, and inequality rise towards South American levels: gated communities will probably begin to appear in Europe before much longer. Jobs will become ever more insecure as machines and robots reduce the need for paid human labour; holiday entitlements will disappear, retirement and pension ages will rise to almost unimaginable levels. What we expect of the state at present will be unrecognisable no more than two generations from now as China and India gradually catch up with and ultimately surpass Europe – and with corporations and businesses in competition with others all over the world, it is not possible for European governments to resist this. All they can do is seek to ameliorate it and provide as soft a landing for as many people as possible; the Tories’ wanton failure to even attempt this (and narratives based on lies designed to turn one section of society against another, invariably more vulnerable one) is why I object to their approach so strongly.

Of course, no government will ever spell this out. In Britain, there are occasional coded comments from ministers about “winning the global race” (the code covers the unspoken remainder of the sentence, “to the bottom”) – but to explain it is simply too frightening for public opinion, used to a standard of living which it once assumed would inevitably improve forever, to comprehend. But at least the right is operating from within a capitalist system which suits its individualistic ideology more than ever; throughout Europe, defining what it stands for amid such a bleak context has never been more difficult for the left.

If it admits that in essence, there’s nothing it can do, it commits hara-kiri. But a platform of “vote for us, and we’ll just tweak things around the edges a bit” (Labour’s platform at the 2015 election) is no platform at all. Meaning that as old parties decline, identity politics emerge instead: based on clear, simple, often emotive language, defining itself against something (in Greece and Spain, austerity; in Scotland, Westminster and austerity; in England, France and Denmark, immigration and the EU); and offering the hope that, if only the particular thing being angrily objected to is removed, a new Jerusalem of whatever form can rise instead. But it cannot. Much more powerful economic forces are at work, which no country can resist.

There’s nothing surprising about Corbyn’s massed ranks of supporters wanting to retreat into the past. Neo-liberalism has failed; austerity has failed; social democracy has failed; the world is now vastly more insecure. Where there used to be innate confidence on the part of most that capitalism and democracy worked in harness to lift people up, give them opportunities, help them pursue their dreams, and provide, if not milk and honey, at least a sense of progress, each generation doing that bit better than the last, that feeling has gone now. In the dawning age of post-democracy, capitalism is suddenly working against the people, not for them. There has to be something better, surely?

Well yes, eventually. In the Guardian, Paul Mason, ever the optimist, spelt out its most idealistic form. But even if, which I very much doubt, Mason’s vision is what ultimately results, it won’t be with us for a very, very long time. The transition from the failure of the world financial system to a new, almost unimaginable reality will probably take the rest of this century to complete. What can the left do in the meantime?

On the basis that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, any chance Labour has of a remarkable resurgence in 2020 is predicated much more on the clouded economic picture than anything else: albeit, Osborne’s cuts will hit almost all sections of society, and there’s only so much pretence around living wages that are anything but which even the Tories’ sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors will be able to get away with.

Labour must vigorously challenge the government on all aspects on this: focusing, as it’s already starting to do, on the appalling impact on working people above all. It needs a coherent, credible alternative narrative on the economy; Cooper is considerably best placed to provide it. Corbyn (who make no mistake, could certainly win; and if he does, all hell will break loose in all sorts of ways) is no option at all.

But more fundamentally: Labour must not look back to the past, to hopelessly failed methods which could not be more impracticable now, to a Bennite in unwitting danger of splitting (even, in the case of some of his hard left supporters, destroying) the Labour Party just as his mentor did; but forwards. Labour is in crisis because labour itself is no longer organised, but instead, dispersed, even atomised; so it has to re-organise, rebuild its antiquated grassroots structures, re-engage with the public in all local communities in all sorts of innovative ways, and become a continual campaigning movement at local level.

Localism, not centralism; bottom-up, not top-down, are key here; so too, as the Smith Institute put it on Friday, is “re-imagining the state… a hand-up, not a hand down”. Facilitating people, not controlling them; structures which support people from below, not above; harnessing the limitless opportunities provided by technology in very modern ways.

Building open minded progressive alliances which seek to share and devolve power, not control it, above all ahead of general elections, has never been more important either: though if Labour continues to set its face against this, don’t care will inevitably be made to care before much longer. In light of the most disproportionate election result in British history, that none of the leadership candidates, not even Corbyn, have spoken about voting reform in any meaningful way is extraordinary. Securing proportional representation, and achieving this through a specially assembled anti-Tory bloc, could be Labour’s great, radical cause… if only it could see beyond the end of its own nose for a change.

Fortunately, it at least has someone within its ranks who understands the criteria set out above; who hallelujah, does support electoral reform (if not yet PR), and who that man Blair described word for word during his question and answer session at Progress last week. The media, true to form, focused on who he didn’t mean, not on who he did: but she’s a huge part of that future. And it’s to her ideas – to Stella Creasy, a very new kind of politician, with a very new conception of campaigning, organising, mobilising, and what the left should be about – I’ll be turning in my next article.

Labour’s future rests very much on Stella Creasy’s shoulders
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Chile v Uruguay: Here come the party poopers

Football is, and has always been, a very, very strange game. No other sport gives the impression of being so, for want of a better term, ‘democratic’: on any given day, anyone can beat anyone. David can beat Goliath. Dreams can come true: even if the opponent has 20 chances, and you only have one. Wigan Athletic can win the FA Cup; Greece or Denmark can win the European Championship; and tiny countries with 3 million people can make off with the greatest prize of all after facing down a nation of 200 million (OK, just over 50 million back then) in their own backyard.

Well, sure. But these are exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that in club football, the richest monopolise the prizes; and in the international game, more than 95% of the time, the same teams always win… and the same teams always lose.

Not only that: but the huge bulk of the time, the same teams always play in more or less the same easily identifiable way. Germany, the greatest supposed lie to this given the revolution in their football after Euro 2000, still play like a machine: gliding effortlessly like a Mercedes, the players displaying veins of ice come crunch time. France and Holland always have huge talent, but can almost always be expected to implode like a blancmange when it matters, often amid internal recriminations and acrimony. The former did so five times out of six between 2002 and 2012; the latter, who collapsed completely at Euro 2012, have practically outdone themselves in Euro 2016 qualifying.

In South America, while Argentina invariably look less than the sum of their parts – because the cult of the individual, so intrinsic to Argentinian culture, just doesn’t work in international football – Paraguay or Uruguay are their opposite. Both paintdryingly tedious to watch; both drawing on a colossal sense of national pride to achieve a lot from a little, while Argentina deliver a little from a lot.

But some countries are fated, perhaps for all eternity, to always lose. England, full of passion and heart, so often resemble a drunken tourist taking the wrong direction after dark: proud, stupid, ambushed, never learning a single thing from the experience. Mexico, always so good in the World Cup first round, eliminated on six straight occasions in the World Cup second round… and doomed never to improve in knock-out play until they get over themselves, lose their obsession with hammering a bunch of nations Uncle Sam runs as his own personal banana plantations, grow a backbone and a pair of cojones, and join CONMEBOL.

And then, there’s Chile. The ‘team to watch’ in South America over recent years, with a model built by the great latter day philosopher, Marcelo Bielsa… yet who in their entire history, which stretches back to 1895 and includes being among the four founding members of CONMEBOL, have never won a single thing. Not a sausage. Nada.

Paraguay have won two Copas America. Peru have won two Copas America. Colombia and even Bolivia have won it once; but Chile? Never. Not only that, but they’ve never been beyond the last 16 of a World Cup not staged in their own country either.

Growing up, I had a particular soft spot for their 1998 side which walloped England 2-0 at Wembley, gave Italy a major fright in France; and for whom Marcelo Salas, El Matador, was terrifyingly effective. Yet that team was lucky to reach the knock-out stages, and swamped by Brazil once there.

Under Bielsa a decade or so later, a new side emerged. Football hipsters raved about them: but personally, I could never see what the big deal was. International football’s answer to Arsenal played in pretty little circles, and made much of their attitude of taking the game to the opposition… but had no final touch, no killer instinct: not to mention the arrogance to take Spain on at their own game (they lost), and make no changes to their approach for Brazil. Who promptly thrashed them 3-0. Gracias y buenas noches, amigos.

We don’t play football as we’d like to, but as we must. Winning the philosophical argument is no victory at all unless the game and the trophy – the only things that are actually important – are won. Bielsa, bless him, has never understood this; but under his successor-but-one, Jorge Sampaoli, do Chile?

To Sampaoli’s credit, his charges have often appeared more multi-dimensional, and certainly more direct at times, than under his predecessor. And by choosing to retain Arturo Vidal in his squad following the Juventus midfielder’s much publicised car crash while intoxicated earlier this week, Sampaoli sent out an unambiguous message. Victory is all that’s important. Higher ideals of morality and role models are for the birds.

Not, mind you, that this decision met with the satisfaction of many Chileans. Whose disgust and apoplexy was best encapsulated by the response of Eduardo Bonvallet, long time television and radio pundit, for so long a thorn in the side of administrators, players and managers. Bonvallet has such a following because, rather like Eamon Dunphy in Ireland, he calls it as it is; but also because, fully aware that football is nothing if not a pantomime, he overstates his case to provoke an equal and opposite reaction.

Eagle-eyed readers may recall that, on the eve of the World Cup, Bonvallet tipped Uruguay to win the tournament. Now, he excoriated both Vidal and his supporters: the latter as “Communists” and “thieves”; the former, in the colloquial expression, as a “flaite”. That is to say, a chav: a thug of low socio-economic background.

No doubt, South American football and society is plagued by horrible examples of the latter group. Anyone who witnessed the farcical ending to Uruguay’s Championship Final last weekend – ambulance stopped contest, all hail Nacional – would acknowledge that. But Bonvallet’s comments, however accurate, divided his country… and that division could shortly bring Vidal y compadres down.

Before Argentina met Italy in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals in Naples, Diego Maradona reminded locals of their continual mistreatment and neglect by the government and north of the country:

The Italians are asking Neapolitans to be Italian for a day, yet for the other 364 days of the year, they forget all about Naples. The people do not forget this.

The result? A very strange atmosphere: Neapolitans torn between the Azzurri and their idol. Argentina fed off this, the contest degenerated… and the Albiceleste won on penalties, El Diego’s spot kick especially plunging a dagger into the country’s heart.

With Vidal’s retention having split Chile down the middle, what happens if La Roja get into a tight, nervy, niggly, physical battle against opponents who choke off space and give them no room to breathe? How do the locals react if the game stays locked at 0-0? Forget Friday night: an exhibition game against laughably inadequate opposition, who’ve already over-achieved just to reach the last 8. The Bolivia game told us nothing. But the quarter-final? It will tell us everything, about both protagonists.

From the moment the draw was made, I haven’t just expected a Chile-Uruguay quarter-final. I’ve regarded it as an absolute, cast iron inevitability. So much so that while others have moaned about Oscar Washington Tabarez’ endemic conservatism, pointed towards his failure to rejig the side in Luis Suarez’ absence, obsessed over the team’s shape, its lack of creativity, uncustomary defensive lapses from Jose Maria Gimenez, or the misfiring Edinson Cavani, I’ve sat back disinterestedly, waited for the tournament proper to start and the inevitable to happen.

8 teams qualify from 12 at the Copa America. Of those 12, one is renowned footballing superpower, Jamaica; another is a reserve team; another hadn’t won a single competitive game on the road in 20 years until their shock ambush of Ecuador. Good grief: the first round is such a total waste of time, qualifying for the quarter-finals such a complete non-achievement, even Bolivia have managed it. The tournament hasn’t actually started yet.

Not only that: but anyone who knows anything about Uruguay knew how the first round would pan out. What are the Golden Rules where La Celeste are concerned?

1. If 5th place in the World Cup qualifiers means a play-off and likely victory, Uruguay will always finish 5th. True in 2014, 2010, 2006 and 2002.

2. If 16 teams qualify from 24 at the World Cup Finals – there are four lucky third-placed sides, in other words – Uruguay will qualify number 16. True in 1986 and 1990: the only 24-team finals La Celeste ever played in.

3. If two third-placed sides out of 3 qualify for the Copa America quarter-finals, Uruguay will finish 3rd in their group and be one of those sides the vast amount of the time. True in 2007, 2004, 2001, 1999… and now in 2015 as well. Only when either hosting the tournament (as in 1995), or boasting their most exceptional side since the 1950s (as in 2011), do Uruguay ever not finish 3rd in their Copa America group: yet on all four of those occasions above, they reached the semi-finals. In 1999, they even made the final – with a youth team – beating guess who in the semis?

We’ll come to Golden Rule number 4 in a moment. But if you don’t know why this is – why Uruguay always slouch around in the first round, looking anything but contenders, only to crank up through the gears when they need to – you’ve obviously not been paying attention. The way the team plays is the perfect embodiment of how this country is: in the Land of the Last Minute, everything is exactly as it says on the tin. In a country with an old population, where many wouldn’t change the day of the week if they could get away with it, the team will always play conservatively. Gentle (very gentle) evolution, not revolution, will always be the watchword.

There’s no point carping about it. Nothing to be gained from demanding more expansive football or more convincing performances. This is Uruguay: it will always be this way. Quite why anyone expects any different is increasingly beyond me: suffer, during the first round of a tournament in which La Celeste were always going to play badly, always going to finish 3rd in the group, and always going to qualify to face the hosts? Not me.

But here’s the thing. Remember what I said above about the same teams always winning, and the same teams always losing? Here comes our final Golden Rule:

4. If Uruguay face the host nation in a major tournament, they will almost always win. True in 2011, 2010 (when with Ghana installed as de facto hosts by a sycophantic, patronising beyond belief world – which ignores and exploits Africa in geopolitics, only to damn it with faint praise in football – they effectively did it twice), 2007, 1999, 1987… and most famously of all, in 1950. For good measure, they were even the only opponent to avoid defeat against England in 1966.

If we include Ghana, most of those victories have come in the quarter-finals: three on penalties. And even more alarmingly for Chile, in the last five editions of the Copa America, the hosts have been knocked out in the last 8 on four separate occasions. Since 1997, the only time this didn’t happen was in 2001: when the event was gutted by fears of terrorism, absentees and reserve teams.

The first round of this tournament is such a walk in the park, host nations (so often, as again this year, gifted joke group stage draws by the always incorruptible CONMEBOL) become peculiarly vulnerable when it’s suddenly win, or go home. But in Uruguay’s case? From the moment they’re born (arguably, the moment they’re conceived), Uruguayan footballers and the broader public live for these occasions like absolutely no other.

Those parents screaming on the touchline at their kids, opponents, referees or coaches? That incessant desire of otherwise placid Uruguayans to win at anything at all: even tiddlywinks? The pressure which children in this country face from a very early point in life: especially in football, where the message is to win, or else? Sure, it stifles creative play or anything resembling the exotic – but it also serves a purpose.

It means that, when they grow up, Uruguayan footballers routinely display preternatural levels of calm in the tightest of corners. If there are tiny fractions of advantage to be gained through clever play or gamesmanship, they’ll do so: because they’ve been conditioned in this from birth. If their opponents are too emotional, too over-excited, too liable to attack and lose control, Uruguay – just as passionate, but who control and channel this force in a completely different way – will pounce. And if the home fans give them abuse, or try to intimidate them, La Celeste feed off this disrespect (though really, this fear) like no other side anywhere.

Since the draw was made, who will Uruguay have most fancied playing in the quarter-finals? Chile, of course. It’s in the blood. And who will Chile have least fancied? Uruguay, of course. It’s also in the blood, and in history. The same teams always win; the same teams always lose.

We’ve remarked on this Blog many times that ever since the quarter-final against Argentina in 2011, Uruguay have spent the entire time trying to recreate that match: which embodied all the virtues of La Garra Charrua like perhaps no other game since 1950. Well, even without Suarez and the suspended Palito Pereira, now’s their chance. Again they face a host nation which fancies itself, plays attacking football, looks brilliant on its day… but has alarming defensive flaws, and too often lacks balance in how it plays.

Those Keystone Kops-sized flaws (as Tim Vickery put it, the Chilean defence are like Ken Dodd and the Diddymen) and that lack of balance mean that even if, which I absolutely do not expect, Chile get through on Wednesday night, they cannot possibly win this tournament. Someone streetwise and defensively solid will put them out of this thing. In international football, Chile’s way – like Mexico’s way or England’s way – does not work.

Uruguay’s way? Even if we consider how easy qualification for the latter stages of this tournament is, or how 5 sides usually reaching the World Cup Finals from 10 in South America allows for a continual backdoor route and enables a respectable finish at the mundial, the point is this: it does work. Goodness knows, this Blog has done little other than attack El Maestro over the past 3 years, with good reason: but to repeat a point I’ve made before, Oscar Tabarez is Uruguay. His personality is Uruguay’s personality; his calmness is their calmness; his caution is their caution; his emphasis on defence is their emphasis on defence; his false modesty is their false modesty.

And his record? Despite winning only one qualifying group at a major tournament in seven previous attempts (eight now), or overseeing only one win in Uruguay’s opening match in those eight tournaments (against Jamaica, so it barely even counts), Tabarez won the 2011 Copa America; was runner-up in 1989; finished 4th in the world in 2010, 4th in America in 2007, and 4th at the Confederations Cup in 2013. Five top 4 finishes in seven attempts. Who could possibly doubt that on Wednesday, Tabarez’ way (because it’s Uruguay’s way) will turn this figure into six from eight?

Before the game, La Celeste will play everything down, emphasise the qualities of their opponents, and speak (as Tabarez already has) of transition ahead of the eliminatorias. Take the pressure off and transfer it to the hosts. The Uruguayan public will fret about Cavani’s lack of goals, the team’s lack of creativity, and Palito’s suspension. Chileans will speak of their ‘respect’ for Uruguay: but deep down, high as 17.6m kites on their 5-0 win on Friday night, fully expect to win. Uruguay without Suarez, playing their customary style of shit on a stick? Come on: how can they fail?

Chile fans before the match

But fail, they almost certainly will. Once the game begins, Uruguay will move into their seemingly God-given role as international party poopers; their defensive system will frustrate, stifle and suffocate… and Chile, snakebitten by the torment of history, will begin to panic. Indiscipline will set in, chances will be missed, the public will turn on Vidal if he’s one of the culprits… and their opponents will remain infuriatingly calm, compact, and well organised. In these situations, it’s what Uruguay do.

All La Celeste have to do is hold on for 90 minutes, and penalties will arrive. They’re 2 from 2 in live shoot-outs in recent years; Chile are 0 from 1. The same teams always win; the same teams always lose.

Can Uruguay win this tournament? Not without Suarez, no. But with El Maestro at the helm, and an experienced, cussed side, they are possible finalists. As if to show that some teams can break the curse of history, but not others, I actually have a sneaking fancy for Paraguay for the title (stop laughing, I’m serious) in what is certainly a wide open field, reminiscent of that which Greece came through on the blind side to win Euro 2004.

But Chile? Not this year. Not this century either. By the end of proceedings on Wednesday, Jota Erre and all of Uruguay will be laughing; Arturo Vidal and all of Chile will be crying. The same teams always win. The same teams always lose.

Chile players after the match

Adios, Eugenio! FIFA, Casal, and the Mother of All Crises: Part 3

Imagine a world in which the President of a domestic football association can be removed by his own government for gross corruption: yet instead of being ostracised by the world game, in fact receives a promotion. All the way to President of the continental confederation and the FIFA Executive Committee: whose daily activities make his previous life look like a picnic. That parallel universe was, until only two days ago, the preserve of one Eugenio Figueredo, national (and now, international) disgrace.

Figueredo it was who presided over the destruction of the credibility and dignity of the AUF; beckoned Francisco ‘Paco’ Casal into a position of unrivalled dominance, which would impoverish the entire domestic game; and was forced out of office by a furious Frente Amplio government, their famous words that “football needed to be cleaned with soap, water and a wire brush” ringing in his ears.

And Figueredo it then was who, far from being cowed, only grew more powerful still: profiting hugely from an alliance with Julio Grondona, the Don Corleone of South American football, which enabled the criminal carve-up of television and marketing rights of CONMEBOL’s flagship tournaments, and turned the huge majority of this continent’s clubs into little more than vassals: forever forced to sell their best players, forever dealing with endemic hooliganism, yet left to feed on crumbs from the confederation’s table.

Regular readers of La Celeste Blog can’t say they weren’t warned. We did call this The Mother Of All Crises… and why? Because it was never solely confined to Uruguay. This is a crisis with multiple international pipelines: spanning South, Central and North America, pitting the US authorities against the world governing body, throwing the bidding processes and host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups into the starkest possible relief, and bringing down mafioso gangster after gangster. Individuals who long believed themselves to be above the law – and on what they’ve been allowed to get away with for so long, who could blame them for thinking so?

To deal, first, with a few of those individuals. The article I published just over a year ago set out how, just as Casal had been locked in by Figueredo from 1999 onwards – when Tenfield were outbid for the television and image rights of the Uruguayan league and national team by $32m, yet secured the contract and ludicrously preferential treatment thereafter regardless – so he was locked out when comprehensively outbidding CONMEBOL’s long term Argentinian partners, T&T/TyC. Across South America, Paco was victim of the exact same closed, corrupt parody of a process which had favoured him for so long in Uruguay.

This led to Casal initially appearing to totally over-reach himself. In tandem with various Uruguayan clubs, famous ex-players such as Diego Maradona, Romario or Jose-Luis Chilavert, he effectively declared war not only on CONMEBOL, but FIFA itself. CONMEBOL responded by suspending the AUF; while the Argentinian company, Full Play (a subsidiary of TyC) threatened to snatch the TV rights for Uruguay’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers: with a compromise eventually agreed in which Tenfield would show La Celeste’s home matches, Full Play their away games.

With Wilmar Valdez, a Casal ally (and at times, puppet) installed as permanent AUF President, Paco remained secure in Uruguay, but his cause seemed hopeless further afield. Until, of course, these indictments: which as well as Figueredo, also include Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, the little-known principals of – wait for it – Full Play.

Beyond Chuck Blazer having been the main informant for the US investigation, we know little more; but I would be extremely surprised if the above circumstances are entirely coincidental. Given Maradona and Chilavert’s immediately euphoric comments when the news broke on Wednesday, my best guess is, whether through intermediaries or otherwise, Casal has provided the US Department of Justice with substantial information. And of course, helped remove Figueredo, his one-time supporter but latter day enemy. Hell hath no fury like a TV tycoon scorned.

Thus from having appeared all but finished a year ago, Paco is now triumphant: a very big winner from the events of recent days. But we should think about what this actually means. Across South and Central America, clubs have been impoverished and emasculated by fraudulent TV and marketing deals which allowed them desperately little; forced them to sell their best players; left them unable to renovate their stadiums or do anything much about crowd safety; and has resulted in a club game light years behind what its wealthy European counterpart has to offer. All the while huge bribes were disappearing into the bank accounts and back pockets of the continent’s administrators.

Casal, among others, will surely step in and seek to enrich players – the key to his success in Uruguay – but beyond that? There’s no doubt that Tenfield/Global Sports are a modern company, with more than a hint of American business influence; but equally little doubt that Paco has always been about the bottom line, and cares precisely nothing for the general health of the game.

Worse: the indictment of Full Play means he will return to his unquestioned pre-eminence in Uruguay, while caring increasingly little about the product given his wider, suddenly realisable ambitions. No commercial competition means no prospect of change: so stadiums will remain dilapidated, pitches will remain an embarrassment, crowd violence will remain rife, clubs will remain bereft.

Last weekend, an absolute trainwreck of a football match was played out by the once storied South American giants of Peñarol and Nacional. The whole country spent the next 24 hours talking about it: talking, that is, about two joke clubs who abandoned any pretensions to greatness long ago, play football to make onlooking eyes bleed, and spend their time fighting each other and signing mercenaries aged 35 or over.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Two bald men fighting over a comb. A clasico played in a penal colony on Mars. But with Casal reinforced, matters will get worse, not better: last weekend’s horror show wasn’t the exception, but a dreadful portent of things to come. And while those in the US might say they want football to be run properly, nobody will care about a small country in the South Atlantic. More than ever, Uruguayan football remains under Paco Casal’s lock and key.

More broadly: the downfall of the likes of Figueredo – the former second hand car dealer who was paying his daughter the AUF’s highest salary when forced out in 2006 – and Nicolas Leoz has long been in the runes. CONMEBOL is based in Luque, Paraguay: which rather grotesquely, doubles as the confederation’s poorest member and host to its extravagant headquarters. Equally grotesquely, the octagenarian Leoz, so long its President, likely to be considered too sick to travel to the US, resides in a multi-million dollar mansion in Asuncion.

The AUF’s headquarters are modest and spartan. So is the football museum at the national embarrassment that is the Estadio Centenario. CONMEBOL HQ, on the other hand? The images below give you the tiniest sense of what it’s like: opulence both outside and in, a building which practically screams its wealth at visitors; and inside, plaques which commemorate the glorious, omniscient heads of the continent’s football associations.

AUF HQ outside

AUF HQ inside

How was that building constructed? It would hardly be that much of a shock if it was done through exactly the same kickbacks and greed which first disgustingly enriched, then belatedly brought down the confederation’s foremost apparatchiks. So when CONMEBOL issue a statement of unintentional comedy pledging to “fight for the primacy of truth, ethics and transparency of FIFA, CONMEBOL and member associations”, I can really only laugh. Business as usual, then.

To understand why South American and Uruguayan football are the way they are, though, you have also to understand why world football is the way it is. The Uruguayan game especially is only a microcosm of the global game. One is a small-scale mafia; the other, a huge one. Whose governing body is – and has been for decades – nothing short of an international criminal organisation, many of whose members believe they were chosen by the Almighty to oversee the world’s most popular sport.

The criminal indictments issued by the American authorities on Wednesday cover offences spanning some 24 years. But in truth, FIFA was corrupted beyond repair long before that. In 1974, Englishman Stanley Rous was usurped as FIFA President by Joao Havelange of Brazil. Rous was a competent administrator – but also a racist, with appallingly offensive views on apartheid South Africa, and no long term vision for the sport.

Rous’ FIFA was European-dominated. He was removed only eight years after a World Cup in England won by his native country in highly dubious fashion: which featured four semi-finalists from UEFA; from which Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay all exited controversially, in large part thanks to inept officiating which seemed for all the world to be biased towards their respective European opponents. To all too many South Americans (and many others around the world), it looked like a stitch-up.

A narrative now began to germinate amongst those who’d go on to support Havelange: namely, that FIFA was just another case of British and European colonialism and the white man’s burden, with no regard for the developing world and no desire to spread the sport. This is what propelled him to the top. This was what led to the subsequent commercial revolution in football. And this narrative was also taken up by Havelange’s anointed successor, Joseph (Sepp) Blatter.

Through the GOAL Program, FIFA provided huge funds for all member associations, with the purported aim of growing football at grassroots level (however much of this money ended up in the back pockets and slush funds of local administrators). It greatly expanded the World Cup too: taking it to the USA, Far East and Africa, and increasing the number of qualifying berths for emerging nations at the expense of football’s Old World. Naturally, the developing world – already hamstrung by a club game dominated by a European plutocracy – supported this approach absolutely… and despite recent events, still do. Blatter is still their man; the anti-UEFA narrative still prevails.

Two years ago, when I visited AUF headquarters and interviewed some staff, I was hugely struck by how reliant it was on the GOAL monies. Only through these could it grow its grassroots and youth level programmes: the latter, which have enjoyed so much success in recent years. And that was at a time when, under Sebastian Bauza, Uruguayan football enjoyed genuinely good, clean governance. Just as it was dependent on FIFA funds, so were so, so many other associations around the world: most of whom are terrified of a post-Blatter landscape. Alarmingly, as I’ll set out later, they may well be right to be so.

FIFA, then, hasn’t been 100% bad over the last 40 years. But over that time, this gentleman’s club has morphed into an all-encroaching organisation with more power than many nation states. A supposed non-profit organisation (no laughing at the back now), it pays no tax in Switzerland; and when it comes to any country bidding to host its flagship tournament, FIFA requires a series of comprehensive tax exemptions; exemptions from local money-laundering legislation; even the right of jurisdiction over its own ‘World Cup courts’.

Moreover, increasingly apparent during recent World Cup bidding processes has been that no country with the modern stadia and footballing infrastructure already in place should even dream of success. FIFA isn’t interested in countries like England, Spain, the US or Australia; it’s very, very interested indeed in places where new stadiums need to be built from scratch. Why? Because these new builds are sub-contracted out: and for the Executive Committee, that means kickbacks. Big, fat, juicy ones.

In the case of Qatar, the ludicrous choice to hold the 2022 tournament, not only were large bribes apparently paid to grease its path. Its whole series of new stadiums will then be taken down and rebuilt in the countries of ExCo members: not one, but two rounds of kickbacks, in other words. To be sure, one cannot accuse the Qataris of not understanding their target audience.

The announcement of that decision – the awarding of the greatest sporting tournament on planet Earth to a country with zero footballing tradition, where alcohol and homosexuality are banned, and where in the summer, temperatures reach 120F or above, in the face of a technical report which had ranked Qatar’s bid dead last – was, I think, the day the world (or at least, the European and North American part of it) finally woke up. FIFA could not be reasoned with; to play the game meant to pay its members millions of dollars, with no guarantee of success if someone else paid even more.

Since then, the situation has got worse. Far worse. Qatar is little short of a modern day slave and apartheid state. Workers are denied the right to leave the country without permission from their employers; those building the new stadiums are subjected to horrific, inhuman working and living conditions, and in many cases, being paid nothing. Why? Most of these labourers are plucked from poor areas of India or Nepal, promised a good life and the chance to send money back to their families… yet on arrival, suddenly find themselves heavily indebted for the ‘costs’ of ‘travel’.

Right now, still over seven and a half years before the tournament is due to kick off, an estimated 1200 workers have already lost their lives. Several thousand more will have done so by 2022. These are young, able bodied men dying in many cases of heart failure: dying because of working impossibly long hours in utterly inhospitable conditions. 1200 dead… because of football. Or rather, because of greed on the most abhorrent scale imaginable.

The American indictments do not cover the awarding of the 2018 or 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively – but huge revelations, especially in the British press, have already been uncovered about both; and the Swiss authorities, largely thanks to complete access to the Michael Garcia report buried by FIFA, have now opened a full investigation. Ultimately, unless geopolitical events surrounding Ukraine substantially deteriorate between now and 2018, I doubt Russia are under serious threat; but make no mistake: Qatar, not before time, certainly are.

How, you might ask, when a Swiss court has already found that Havelange and his son-in-law, the disgraced former CBF President, Ricardo Teixeira, took tens of millions in kickbacks from the now defunct marketing company, ISL, then holder of the rights to the World Cup; when so many ExCo members, exhausted by scandal, have fallen by the wayside in recent years; when awarding the World Cup to Qatar (and the moving of it to winter 2022) has caused huge problems for European leagues and brought the game into total disrepute; and when Blatter himself is widely believed to have bribed his way to victory at the 1998 Presidential elections, and had expense claims for that contest which looked like this, have FIFA got away with it for so long?

Answer: because of (a) the continuing dependence of so many associations on Blatter’s largesse; (b) the governing body’s undoubted success in globalising and commercialising the sport; (c) FIFA remaining a private, entirely unaccountable organisation; (d) increasingly justifiable fears from developing nations of a European takeover; (e) Blatter’s own personal tactics; and (f) something else too. Something hugely important, which we’ll come to in a moment.

On point (e): in 1979, then Iraqi Vice-President, Saddam Hussein, launched a coup against his boss, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr: holding the latter at gunpoint, and demanding he move aside. Six days later, the new President convened an emergency meeting of the ruling Ba’ath Party, which he ordered to be videotaped.

From the podium, Saddam declared in mock horror to have uncovered a plot against him; and read out the names of 68 individuals, all of whom were present in the room. They were immediately surrounded by security guards and taken away: while Saddam congratulated those remaining on their past and expected future loyalty. Within ten days, hundreds of entirely innocent men had been executed; and at Saddam’s demand, most of the murders were carried out by high-ranking Party members: including friends and even family of those killed.

What Saddam was doing was immediately making all those he had ‘spared’ complicit in the crimes which followed. This sowed paranoia among them: if they did not show absolute loyalty towards him, they would be next. Mistrust of each other, and constant in-fighting while the President floated above, were the inevitable result – as was the normalisation of violence and mass murder.

Of course, to the best of my knowledge, no-one in FIFA has ever murdered anyone; but Blatter’s strategy is that of the arch-dictator. By making his subordinates dependent on him, and bestowing powers and patronage, he invites them to battle each other; and when one amongst them is excommunicated, this only generates further paranoia, desperate pledges of allegiance to him, all the while gross corruption, kickbacks and fraud are normalised. Grondona’s death last summer – life is nothing without exquisite timing – probably made Blatter even more all-powerful, as well as clearing the path for the removal of troublesome and low-level subordinates from Latin America and the Caribbean.

So yesterday, looking more like a Groucho Marx tribute act than ever, there stood Teflon Sepp: speaking in hushed tones about the need to clean up the organisation from its supposed handful of bad apples (despite having been its leader or deputy since 1981), and giving divine thanks that he, the Dear Leader, had been charged with the great mission of guiding his children into the light. If he is deposed in the forthcoming months, he could always try stand-up comedy for a living: but for Sepp Blatter, divide and rule works. It always has.

So much, then, for FIFA’s internal machinations. But what of the response to it? Why, until Wednesday, had so little ever been done by the outside world? The answer is simple. Ingeniously, supposedly to protect the integrity of the sport, but really just to cover its own back, FIFA forbids any interference in football on the part of any domestic government. This means that if any seriously try to challenge it, it threatens to suspend the association and the national team: and with football the modern day opiate of the masses, what government worth its salt would ever risk such a thing?

Imagine, for a moment, if FIFA banned Uruguay from the World Cup because of government interference. If anything was ever going to provoke a revolution here, that certainly would. “Give us our football back!”, the people would demand; “how can you do this to us?”, they’d cry: not of FIFA, but of their elected politicians. And for football-mad Uruguay, read the football-mad world: most of it, anyway.

In that sense, it should scarcely be a surprise that the US, where the sport is gradually gaining a foothold but lacks anything like the enormous, emotional impact it enjoys across Europe, South America, Africa and swathes of Asia, was the country which finally set about bringing football’s governing body to account. The risks for the American government are vastly less; no domestic backlash would happen in its case.

The US, of course, was also hugely motivated by being snubbed for Qatar in 2022; but as football grows there, it is increasingly likely to want to play a part in its governance. Indeed, I think it’s perfectly plausible that to avoid complete meltdown, FIFA might end up taking the tournament off Qatar and give it to the 1994 hosts instead. Anything major in the forthcoming Swiss investigation would certainly give Blatter the excuse.

All of which brings me to a wider point. No individual in FIFA has ever had a more finely tuned nose for danger than its longtime President: meaning that Blatter actually voted for the US in the first place. In contrast, UEFA President Michel Platini and German legend Franz Beckenbauer both unconscionably voted for Qatar; while Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, recipient of £84,000 worth of Rolex watches from the Qataris, rather let the cat out of the bag when asked about the modern slave trade underpinning the organisation of the tournament:

“Move on. The media must be more careful: German industry has contracts there worth billions. Qatar was chosen, so just respect it, and accept it.”

Anyone who wants to know how Qatar became hosts of the 2022 World Cup should follow a trail of money and commerce spanning the individuals above and in particular, the German government. Qatar’s proposed gas pipeline through Syria, connecting it with Turkey and energy-dependent Europe, is not only a likely factor in the Syrian civil war, but has also helped it curry huge amounts of favour with European politicians and the European footballing world.

Ask yourself: why, in the face of an appalling death toll, which will only rise dramatically in the years ahead, have UEFA associations restricted themselves merely to complaining about the timing of the 2022 tournament? Why hasn’t a boycott been suggested? The answer almost certainly lies in the proposed pipeline, and myriad business and investment deals beyond that.

When decisions can be this cynical, this based on naked economics, geopolitics, and so immune to deplorable levels of human suffering, the idea that a post-Blatter FIFA will represent any kind of improvement is risible. His opponent today, backed by the whole of UEFA (and as has emerged overnight, the AUF), is Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan: a typical modern day football bureaucrat, himself heavily involved in Qatar’s successful bid. To be sure, he’d be a little more amenable to modest reform and European complaints; but that’s about it. If elected (which he won’t be), it’d be a straightforward case of: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss”.

Those candidates offering genuine change – Michael van Praag of the Netherlands, or football legends Luis Figo and David Ginola – have already fallen by the wayside. Figo, possessing real business and administrative expertise, and contacts of the highest quality, publicly bemoaned what he discovered during his campaign; while Ginola’s brief candidacy, misunderstood by almost everyone (myself certainly included) was intended to shine a light on just what a joke the idea of real change in FIFA actually is. I’d still argue it did more harm than good overall; but changeFIFA, who have long been publicising the grotesque goings-on in Zurich, are owed an apology.

Platini? He’s every bit as bad as Blatter, and a European-dominated FIFA or breakaway would probably be even worse for the game than the status quo. It’d surely result in better governance; but would also lead inexorably to a takeover by the European clubs, formation of a European Super League, and sidelining of both international football and the developing world. It would, in other words, be roughly akin to India, Australia and England’s disastrous, greedheaded takeover of international cricket.

Developments this week have, meanwhile, been especially alarming for South America: which, after the fall of Figueredo, Havelange, Teixeira, Leoz, and – Casal’s greatest stroke of luck of all – the death of Don Julio, has been left with nobody of any real influence inside FIFA House. This is why rumours continue to persist of CONMEBOL losing half a qualifying place from the 2018 World Cup: which can only have been rendered vastly more likely by the arrest and indictment of so many individuals from this continent. Blatter ‘punishing’ CONMEBOL for this would shore up his support and play to the public gallery. It is, I would suggest, increasingly likely to happen.

Fully cognizant of which way the wind is blowing, Valdez has declared for al-Hussein, in a populist move designed to play on the continuing sense of grievance in Uruguay over Luis Suarez’ suspension from the Copa America. Yet even if all South American nations join the AUF, it’s unlikely to do them much good.

Thanks to Asian, African and Central American support, old Sepp is home and hosed for now… but with FIFA’s sponsors getting more and more anxious, Europe and the US on a mounting collision course with everyone else, and plea bargains likely to be offered to any of the indictees prepared to rat on him (and with nothing to lose, why wouldn’t they?), the ground is falling away from him piece by piece. The Mother Of All Crises has plenty of mileage to travel yet.

How will it all end? As ever, expecting FIFA to voluntarily reform is to ask turkeys to vote for Christmas: but whoever ultimately succeeds Blatter won’t change much. The best thing that can be hoped for is for 2022 to be taken off Qatar (and if not, for a mass boycott to be organised instead); but as long as football remains the big time, booming circus it is, it will always be run by those who put greed, enrichment and naked self-interest ahead of the broader good.

As it is in Uruguay, so it is around the world. As the disgraced Eugenio Figueredo and victorious Francisco Casal would surely both confirm: money doesn’t talk. It swears.

How to stop Boris: what Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the left must now do

As the dust settles on Thursday’s so-called ‘shock’ General Election result (a shock to a largely unquestioning media all suffering from group think and the same sort of clustering which clearly infected the horrendously inept opinion polls; but not, at least, to a few of us), Britain’s two traditional forces of the centre-left find themselves in varying degrees of disarray. The Liberal Democrats, in government in the last Parliament, have only 8 MPs left; and a long, painful conversation about the future has already begun within the Labour Party.

The coming 5 years will be no ordinary Parliament. The Conservative victory ensures that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) will now happen. It also makes a second Scottish independence referendum vastly more likely: inevitable, I would suggest, if an SNP government pledging another plebiscite in its manifesto is returned next year; even more so if England votes to leave the EU, while Scotland votes to remain.

These massive constitutional arguments will occur against a backdrop of renewed, heavier than ever austerity; the Tories repealing the Human Rights Act, while embracing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These will be tough, painful, discordant times, the most vulnerable taking the worst punishment; and David Cameron’s likely successor as Tory leader will be vastly more formidable, and hellishly difficult to stop. The left has lost a critical crossroads election. If it loses again in 2020, the Britain which results (almost certainly without Scotland) will be all but unrecognisable.

Already, ambitious Labour figures have begun setting out their ideas with a view to throwing their hats into the ring at a leadership contest later in the year. Tony Blair, the only Labour leader to win a general election since 1974, and – get this – the only one to win an overall majority since 1966 (not one, not two, but three of them) – is providing typically sagacious counsel: but in his own way, entirely missing the point. And in that, as so often the case in British politics (and certainly on the British left), he is joined by almost everyone else.

But we’ll come to Blair and Labour in a moment. First, I want to focus on the biggest losers of all at this election: the Lib Dems. Until 2010, they, not Labour, were my natural home: and had been ever since the first election I voted at, in 1997. Not, mind you, that I actually voted for them that year: First Past The Post (FPTP) and the need to vote tactically in Harrow West saw to that. My vote at every election has always been anti-Tory depending on where I lived; but at five general elections, this has meant I could only support the party most in tune with me twice. A problem shared by many millions of others on the left in Britain’s so-called democracy.

Why did I consider myself a natural Lib Dem? From late 1997 onwards (specifically, when Labour introduced university tuition fees), it was plain they were now to the left of Labour: marrying social democracy with social liberalism in a manner completely absent from the Blair government. On the electoral system, on drugs, even on their famous “penny on income tax”, the Lib Dems offered new ideas and engaged not with symptoms, but causes – while Labour’s promise to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” proved so much hot air as government by Daily Mail took over: Iraq, 90 days for terrorism suspects, ID cards, detention of children.

Like any Lib Dem, I was always conscious of what separated me from Labour – but this difference never even resembled the chasm separating me from the Tories. I never forgot which side my bread was buttered on; nor who, to put it in the always-tribal parlance of British politics, the true enemy was.

Under first Paddy Ashdown, then Charles Kennedy, the party gained ground – but only because its rise was tied to Blair’s transformation of the electoral background. Labour’s dominance couldn’t last forever: Blair, so often berated and loathed by many on the left who should’ve known an awful lot better, was a complete one-off. But under Kennedy, it became horribly apparent that the party had no long term strategy: what would it do when the Tories recovered, as they inevitably would?

It’s no coincidence that the internal coup against Kennedy of January 2006 occurred only weeks after Cameron had become Tory leader. An old fashioned liberal, One Nation Tory (or at least, so he then appeared), Cameron immediately set his sights on peeling off ‘soft Tory’ Lib Dem voters: social liberals and small ‘c’ conservatives who would happily have voted Tory under John Major or Edward Heath, but loathed how reactionary and plain nasty the party became under William Hague or Michael Howard.

Rapidly transforming public perceptions of his party, Cameron had a dramatic initial impact; while the Lib Dems began to panic. First, Sir Menzies Campbell, such an impressive spokesman on world issues hitherto, proved a disaster as leader – then Nick Clegg began to chart a rather different course.

Along with David Laws, Danny Alexander and others, Clegg led the so-called ‘Orange Book’ liberals: who believed that government should keep out of people’s lives not just socially, but wherever possible, economically too. Their thinking was much more in line with the old Liberal Party; they believed the future lay in gradual realignment right in the very centre.

Nick Clegg in happier times

That Clegg was so centrist is surely why both Cameron and Gordon Brown sought any opportunity to “agree with Nick” at the famous first TV debate in 2010: following which, the party was briefly launched into public consciousness in a manner never seen before. The Lib Dems even led several opinion polls; a dramatic electoral breakthrough beckoned. But alas, both the chronic iniquities of FPTP and a late squeeze ahead of a probable hung Parliament foiled them. Against all expectations, the party actually lost 4 seats – and now, a horrible decision lay ahead.

For so long, the party had held together a loose coalition of social democrats and liberals. To make matters more complicated, while its members leaned left, most of its voters leaned right: its heartlands, such as south-west England, south-west London, and parts of Scotland, were all soft Tory. And in 2010, while it proved able to resist the Tories in such areas, wherever it was up against Labour in a marginal seat, it almost always lost: frequently much more heavily than had been thought possible.

In Islington South and Finsbury and in Oxford East, both held by Labour by tiny, three figure margins, I watched thunderstruck as pledges of absolute support from mainly younger voters following the first TV debate turned into apathy; even, by the end, fear. With Brown heading for certain defeat, Labour threw all its resources into getting out its core vote: at which it proved astonishingly adept. This traditional support had been built up over many generations, family members passing it down to their children and grandchildren: how could the Lib Dems, continually forced to look in two directions at once by the electoral system, possibly compete?

Answer: they could not. I’ve no doubt that this obvious inability to challenge Labour in its heartlands was part of what informed Clegg’s momentous decision to join the Tories in coalition; a decision greeted by vast amounts of Lib Dem activists with dismay.

The morning after the 2010 election, every Lib Dem everywhere knew what the numbers meant. We knew a rainbow alliance of progressive parties was not viable, propping up Brown would appear very illegitimate, and most Labour MPs could see that and were not interested; that the panicky markets and right wing press would demand stable government with cuts having been promised by all three major parties; and that both our party and Labour had been exhausted and bankrupted by the campaign. Meaning if we left Cameron to govern in a minority, another election later that year, accompanied by a whopping great Tory majority, was the very likely outcome.

Yet I hadn’t campaigned for the Lib Dems in order to prop up the Tories; nor had most activists and members. “I’m a Lib Dem because I want reform, not power”, I said to my best friend; but her response was simple. “How will you get reform without power?”

That, in the end, was the key. What was the point of the Liberal Democrats if not to implement our policies when we had the chance? What was the point of us existing as a separate party if we were merely some adjunct to Labour? And if we didn’t join a coalition to temper the Tories’ most gratuitous excesses, who else would?

That chance to actually implement some of our ideas at last was why the infinitely more electorally sensible option of confidence and supply was ruled out. Plus, Clegg argued, if we could make a coalition work, Britain’s age old adversarial system, two tribes warring with one another and forever failing the people they were supposed to represent, could finally begin to recede.

To do this, the Lib Dems had to demonstrate that they understood how coalitions are supposed to work – but Laws’ negotiating team simply did not. When a coalition is under discussion, the smaller party has all the bargaining power: the Tories needed us, we did not need them. Every Lib Dem knew that joining Cameron in coalition would be electorally lethal: in all likelihood, it would destroy the party. Doing so therefore required vastly more than the miserably few concessions extracted: above all, on electoral reform.

During the 1992 election campaign, thought quite likely to result in a hung Parliament, Ashdown repeatedly stated that in any negotiations, proportional representation (PR) would be the red line. John Major derisively referred to this as “Paddy’s Roundabout”: presaging Cameron’s approach this year by successfully warning the electorate that, to avoid ‘shabby backroom deals’, they should vote Conservative.

Lord Ashdown

PR remained the Lib Dem cause celebre throughout the next 18 years – and given how much they (along with millions upon millions of voters) suffered and were disenfranchised by FPTP, if they didn’t demand it when a hung Parliament finally came along, when would they? But Clegg didn’t. Appallingly, despite having correctly dismissed it as a “miserable little compromise”, Clegg allowed himself to be bought off completely by William Hague’s nefarious “extra mile” of a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV).

AV, as I’ve noted previously, is the one and only electoral system which is frequently even less proportional than FPTP. Hague knew his party would mobilise all their heavy weaponry in a referendum; that Clegg would suffer huge blowback from voters furious that he’d joined the Tories; and that if the plebiscite was lost, he could then claim that Britain had decisively rejected voting reform. Certainly, the number of people who still think the UK vetoed PR in 2011 (when it actually did anything but) provides a reminder of how ruthlessly brilliant the Tories are at getting their message across. So ruthless that, on completion of the coalition negotiations, Hague told his wife, Ffion: “I think I’ve just destroyed the Liberals”.

As well as the AV debacle, there was the great betrayal on tuition fees: which the Lib Dems had pledged to stop, then voted through. There was no reason for them to do this; that they didn’t simply sit on their hands and abstain was inexplicable. Nothing turned younger voters away from politics more than this decision: and even during this campaign, the Lib Dems argued, appallingly, not that the policy was wrong, but that their pledge had been wrong.

Their support for the bedroom tax, huge cuts to legal aid, and even the imperilling of judicial review cast them in a dreadful light: as did their propping up of a government which had begun waging ideological war on the most vulnerable. When a smaller party is in coalition with a larger one, it can veto anything it wishes; why did Clegg’s party not do so?

To subsequently present itself, as it did during this disastrous campaign, as having ‘moderated’ the evil Tories bore no resemblance to public perceptions – and in politics, perceptions are everything. It didn’t matter that the Lib Dems claimed to have implemented 75% of their manifesto; to so much of the public, the government had been nine-tenths Tory, and Clegg had enabled something they just had not voted for.

Appalled by the rank incompetence of the coalition negotiations, and especially by AV, I left the party in 2011: joining many others in moving into Labour’s ranks. The Lib Dems were now not so much centrist as centre-right; only Labour seemed to offer a progressive alternative. Ed Miliband (a brave man with a horrendously flawed strategy) gradually began to appeal; Nick Clegg (a weak man with an even worse strategy) seemed increasingly repellent.

Regarding that strategy: the failure to present the Lib Dems in coalition as anything other than a right wing party would mean, surely, that when up against the Tories in their heartlands, their MPs would be hobbled. Why would voters vote for a nine-tenths Tory party when they could choose the real thing? Which, of course, is precisely what materialised.

Now, the devastated party are already speaking of renewal: moving back towards the left, electing Tim Farron as leader. But in this, they completely miss the point. The last time a liberal party was this annihilated, it took more than half a century for it to become part of the Lib-Lab pact; almost 90 years to return to genuine government. Unable to challenge Labour in its heartlands, it has been wiped from the map in soft Tory areas too; and throughout this Parliament, catastrophic European, local and by-election results, culminating in Thursday night’s meltdown, have wiped out its previously strong local position, without which no party can campaign effectively or improve its position at anything other than a snail’s pace. Ukip’s emergence as a natural repository of protest and FPTP will do the rest: the Lib Dems have no way back.

What is the point of them now? To repeat forever, to an ever dwindling group of followers, the immortal phrase: “But we did it in the national interest”? To point to equal marriage, a huge rise in the personal allowance or the pupil premium as having somehow made it all worthwhile? Is that all there is?

But there’s a problem. If the Lib Dems do move back to the left, they will again take crucial votes away from Labour. At so many seats up and down the land, this is what enables the Tories to win (indeed, on Thursday night, Ukip had this effect in many areas) – so if the only purpose of the Liberal Democrats is to unwittingly help the Conservatives continue their great carve-up of the UK into a nation of a few haves, many have-nots (which their own activists plainly don’t want in any way), you might argue that they really shouldn’t exist at all.

As I noted in an earlier piece, the reason for Britain having played host to continual centre-right or out and out right wing government over the last 35 years isn’t that the electorate is on the right. In effect, the voting system is – and has been ever since the split on the left of the early 1980s. Compounding this, there are now what we might term three and a half parties on the left (Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and those Ukip voters who came from Labour) in England; four and a half (allowing for the SNP and Plaid Cymru) in Scotland and Wales; but only one and a half on the right (the Tories and those Kippers who came from them). Amid such a state of affairs, expecting a progressive government to ever be possible is madness: the numbers are against it all over the country.

When you throw the SNP surge into the mix, no wonder Labour was so squeezed on Thursday – and it is simply delusional to believe this won’t apply at future elections too. Ukip will gain attention, funding and members as we head towards the EU referendum; the Greens and Lib Dems are already attracting new members; and the trade unions themselves are rumoured to be threatening to withdraw their support from Scottish Labour: which like the Lib Dems, has no way back.

What on Earth is the point of all these parties taking votes from one another and letting in a Tory government voted for by less than one in four of the public? Why does any party exist if it cannot gain power; and why do so merely to help those it most opposes rule supreme instead? Yet that is Britain under FPTP; and in this multi-party age, things aren’t getting better, but worse.

That, of course, is what is already provoking urgent discussions within the Labour Party about the need to move not to the left, but to the right. To meet voters’ aspirations, be friendly with business as well as workers, lose the ‘us versus them’ tribalism which turned so many off over the last 5 years, and ‘redefine the centre ground’ (whatever that actually means).

As the graphic above shows, if Labour were actually to move to the centre, it should head leftwards. Perceptions of what is ‘centre’ or ‘moderate’ bear no resemblance to where Cameron and the Tories now are – but FPTP does not allow Labour to move left. Instead, if parties remain as presently constituted, it can only head right, with Chuka Umunna best placed to provide a contemporary reprise of Blairism.

Naturally, key Blairites such as Peter Mandelson are already rushing to anoint Umunna – but in Scotland, northern England, and I strongly suspect, the Ukip-tilting midlands too, Umunna will have no cut through. None whatsoever. He’ll be perceived as just another metropolitan New Labour suit; just another career politician with no understanding of ordinary people; just another painful reminder of what Labour once were, and once stood for.

“No”, cry the activists, “our next leader must be working class; he must be authentically Labour”. So they gather around Andy Burnham – but he’ll have the same problem with the Tory press and the same negative impact in Tory shires as Miliband did. And whoever of these two (almost certainly, Umunna) wins, Boris Johnson, a man feted more like a rock star than a politician, to whom nothing bad ever sticks, and who has the rightwing press in his pocket, will shortly lie in wait.

Boris lies in wait

An awful lot of nonsense is often spoken by many on the left about Johnson. “He’s a buffoon! He’ll embarrass himself! He can’t be Prime Minister!” But sorry folks: any politician basking in this much public backing (even in many cases, adulation) most certainly can be PM; and Johnson, who has spent a lifetime cultivating a unique, engaging ‘maverick’ image, has already twice seen off Labour in London: where it is supposed to be naturally strong.

If and when Johnson becomes Tory leader, his tanks will be parked all over the centre ground, whether Labour likes it or not; the media and opinion shapers will laud him to the skies. Defeating him will be a far, far tougher task than is ever acknowledged – and if you’ll forgive me, given the left’s execrable record in these things (spending years hating Blair and demanding he leave, only for Brown to be immediately defeated and all New Labour’s hard work to be dismantled; crying ‘apostasy’ when The Guardian called for Brown’s resignation in June 2009, but his replacement by Alan Johnson could easily have left Labour as the largest party at the election a year later, preventing all that has followed; then insisting, against all reason, that a figure as hapless as Miliband would unseat Cameron, only for a Tory majority pledging much harsher austerity to be returned instead), I’d sooner go with my judgement on this than theirs.

When Labour makes the wrong decision, it lets down those who most need its help. But the problem for it now is: with three and a half parties on the left, one and a half on the right,  Scotland lost for good, and a far more popular Tory leader in waiting, it is actually hobbled wherever it goes. No leader or strategy will resolve this; only either events or thinking truly outside the box can.

The debate within the party is, in effect, between those focused on winning critical swing votes from the Tories (a few thousand in around 100 constituencies each represent the target here); or those who highlight, with enormous justice, that between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost fully 5 million working class voters; and probably around a further 3 million to the SNP and Ukip on Thursday. A few thousand in swing seats; or eight million lost voters? The answer should be obvious – but the ludicrous thing about FPTP is, it’s not.

Boundary changes which strengthen the Tories will ensure that if Labour returns to being a working class party, it will lose: it cannot afford to be unsuccessful in the Home Counties. Yet if it morphs back into Blairite New Labour, why would voters choose it when they could have Johnson instead; and how will it recapture any of that lost support? Not only in Scotland, but from Ukip too?

This is the point that no Labour politician anywhere will ever admit to. It is completely trapped by FPTP – now, given the rise of two nationalist parties in Scotland and England, more than ever. Even if, by some minor miracle, it somehow overcomes all this and scrapes a win, it can only do so by holding together a fragile, loose coalition of voters who return to the Tories before long – and casting millions upon millions of traditional supporters out into the wilderness. From where they either vote for any of five other parties (none of which can form a government in the UK; all of which help stop Labour doing precisely that), or are lost from the democratic process forever.

“I didn’t leave Labour”, SNP supporters say plaintively; “Labour left me”. If the party again heads down the ‘modernising’ route, it will have learnt nothing at all from what’s just happened in Scotland – but not to do so is, under FPTP, to bring about inevitable defeat. It is, I repeat, trapped: whichever way it chooses to go.

There is an alternative though. A clear one. An obvious one – yet which, the British left being what it is, isn’t even being seriously considered. What single event led to the SNP’s sudden, historic transformation of the Scottish electoral landscape? The referendum campaign. So many on the left who had hitherto opposed one another joined forces in common cause; with an extraordinarily energised movement gaining even more power following Cameron’s statement the morning after the referendum: a speech which destroyed Scottish Labour, and won the Tories the election.

Well, now the British left face another referendum, of just as much import: on the EU. Large chunks of the Tory press will be hellbent on withdrawal; so will huge swathes of the Tory Party. Freed from the coalition, my very strong sense is Cameron ultimately will be too: sure, he’ll make noises about renegotiation, and probably go through the motions of several summits – but his party is now so anti-European that naked political calculation will trump any sense of the national interest. With Cameron, it always does.

During the election campaign, we’ve already seen what impact an anti-progressive media can have on the outcome. Imagine what that message will be like during the referendum; imagine the myths and prejudices which the Telegraph, Sun, Mail and Express will trot out, especially about immigration. The British left will face the fight of its life to win – but in this lies the answer. Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats and the Greens (along with the few remaining pro-European Tories) will have to do what they’ve never done before: unite, or else.

If it can do this – if it can pull together, and throw itself body and soul into keeping the UK in the world’s largest single market, it will trigger serious consequences on the right. If the Tories stand mainly for withdrawal, yet Britain votes to stay in, how does the Tory Party hold together? Ukip’s emergence owed to many factors: but chief amongst them was Cameron’s support of gay marriage. When traditional Tory supporters complain that the Prime Minister is not a ‘true conservative’, what they mean is he’s not a social conservative. And it’s that divide, social conservatives v social liberals, which could well cause a mass exodus to Ukip, and leave Cameron or Johnson with nowhere to turn.

Imagine, though, that the Tories do somehow hold together. Cameron, after all, has spent the past five years under siege from many within his own ranks, yet was returned with a first majority since 1992. All the factors I referred to above would still apply; the left will still cut its own throat at the next election. Unless…

Throughout my life, the left has warred far more bitterly with itself than its common enemy, the right. It’s frequently been bewildering to observe; Labour and Lib Dem supporters engaged in constant acts of electoral self-harm, while the bitterness and rancour that’s developed between Labour and the SNP has caused nothing but division. Blair’s comments yesterday suggested that even his party’s most successful ever leader does not understand what has happened in Scotland in any way: harping on endlessly about “narrow nationalism” is no small part of what led to Scottish Labour’s annihilation. But when it comes to the SNP, antagonism, not engagement; negativity, not reconciliation, is all Labour seem to know.

In Germany, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) are sister parties of the centre-right. The latter only fields candidates in Bavaria; the former does not stand against them. During the election campaign, what was so noticeable about Labour and the SNP’s manifestos was, for all the rhetoric of both (Labour trying to sound pro-austerity to appease English swing voters; the SNP trying to sound anti-austerity to pile the pressure on Labour), there was barely a cigarette paper between them. Yet these parties with near identical agendas still stood against each other at an election which had nothing to do with independence. Why?

What is to stop Labour and the SNP coming to an arrangement whereby the former does not stand against the latter in Scotland – and both form part of one progressive bloc in Westminster? Nothing could do more to heal horrendously deep rifts than that; nothing would persuade Scots that Labour is still a progressive party and aren’t ‘Red Tories’ more than that either.

Moreover: as a minimum, in any seats where there is a danger that a fractured left of centre vote lets the Tory candidate in, what is to stop the progressive bloc merely putting forward one candidate, maximising the chances of success? At this election, there was clearly an informal agreement between the SNP, Plaid and the Greens; yet again, other than in the case of Nicola Sturgeon’s rampant party, FPTP split the anti-Tory vote and let the Tories in.

To take just one example of very many: in Lewes, the Lib Dems’ Norman Baker lost his seat by 1083 votes to the Conservatives’ Maria Caulfield. Neither Labour nor the Greens had any chance of winning; yet 5000 votes went to the former, 2784 to the latter. And this sort of thing is repeated all over the country at every single General Election.

36 years of neo-liberalism; 36 years of the gap between rich and poor getting greater and greater… and still the tribalism of the left is more important to it than representing a natural anti-Tory majority which still exists, yet is never delivered upon. What kind of lunatic state of affairs is this? One which continually enables the Tories to divide and rule.

The discussions within the Labour Party shouldn’t be about its own future direction. They should be about how to unite progressive politics. Then there would be no need for it to sell its soul by appearing ‘Tory’; or abandon the many millions who once depended on it. The Tories? The Tories would be finished.

And those discussions should apply just as much to all the other anti-Tory parties too: above all, the Lib Dems. Regarding whom, I expounded upon at such length to demonstrate just how futile they are; how they frequently do much more harm than good, all as a result of Britain’s corrupt, unrepresentative voting system.

The first thing any new Labour leader should do is hold talks with their Lib Dem counterpart and endeavour finally to heal the historic rift on the left from which the Tories have perpetually thrived. Millions upon millions of unrepresented, abandoned voters deserve no less. The second thing any new Labour leader should do is go further, and build a genuine, real progressive alliance with the SNP, Greens and Plaid, along the lines suggested above: whereby candidates do not stand against each other.

The even bolder option would be, temporarily, for one election only, to merge all these parties except the SNP (which if independence hadn’t yet happened, would stand as a sister party in Scotland) into one, new party: let’s call them, the Democrats. In the US, this party represents a very broad coalition of many different interests: the unions, coastal liberals, the poor, professional classes. Yet there, in a country the size of a whole continent, no-one speaks of these interests being too different or too tribal to unite into one; everyone knows who the common enemy is. The Republicans. The American two party system is most like the UK’s – so why couldn’t it happen here too?

A huge reason so many voters (34% of the electorate on Thursday) have been lost to British politics is the parties spend so much time trying to be different from one another, they all end up appearing alike. Labour stood on its most progressive platform since 1992 – yet you wouldn’t know it from the responses of most of the public. “They’re no different to the Tories”, said many about a party whose economic and social approach is miles removed from Cameron’s – but in such a focus group, swing voter-obsessed world, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Imagine if there was one simple choice facing these voters. The progressive, or the conservative. Things would be an awful lot clearer then: in fact, I’m confident that very many would be re-engaged if the progressives set out what the purpose was. Suddenly, there’d be nothing forcing Labour to the right; suddenly, it could re-engage with its core vote with no concern at all; suddenly, Britain could chart a wholly different, vastly more inclusive course. And just for the icing on the cake: unless they united too, the right wing vote would split hopelessly between the Tories and Ukip, ruining both in the process.

Then once the Democrats, or progressives, or whatever they called themselves, were elected, there would be nothing to stop an immediate move to PR: which would enable many new parties to emerge, and a huge amount of real choice for voters who could finally choose what they want, not what they don’t want. There’d be nothing to stop a move to full federalism either: devolving power to communities and localities, ending Westminster’s hopelessly centralised grip on a country which requires far, far better.

The great sadness is that none of what I’m setting out here should be a dream. It should be simple common sense. There is nothing to stop all Britain’s parties of the left doing precisely this; the only thing which does is internecine tribalism and petty self-interest which makes no electoral or political sense. Only the Tories feed off that, to everybody else’s ongoing detriment. So unless Labour want to keep letting down those they’re supposed to stand up for, and if they ever want to give themselves the remotest chance of implementing a genuinely progressive agenda, it (and its fellow parties of the left) needs to swallow its pride once and for all.

How to stop Boris? By uniting against him. It’s as simple and straightforward as that.

The polls and (all but one of) the forecasts WERE wrong. Ed Miliband was nowhere near becoming Prime Minister

Thursday May 7, 2015. Britain goes to the polls at what is universally – entirely wrongly – believed to be the closest General Election in fully two generations. The opinion polls are deadlocked, and have been for months. The choice facing the country is by far the most stark since 1992: this wasn’t, contrary to what 99.99% of people assumed, a close election – but it was certainly a watershed.

On Tuesday morning, I set out why I believed that almost all forecasts and predictions were wrong: Ed Miliband’s strategy had been hopelessly flawed; his party would find itself squeezed from all sides; and above all, that the methodology employed by every single opinion polling company was wrong. Alarmingly wrong. Disastrously wrong. Inexcusably wrong.

At this point though, I want to highlight that, in no small part, I was wrong too. While I foresaw an enormously disappointing night for Labour, I did not anticipate such an apocalyptic one. Whereas I expected that the Scottish National Party (SNP) surge would hold, and count horribly against Labour not only in Scotland, but even more in England, where it had become the central plank of Conservative strategy to frighten voters into giving David Cameron a proper mandate, I did not foresee the almost complete wipe-out which resulted. And contrary to my belief that the Liberal Democrats’ positioning themselves as a sensible coalition partner would enable their support to hold up to some extent, it instead entirely melted down: Nick Clegg’s party squeezed even more horrendously than Labour amid the strange, Byzantine beast of First Past The Post (FPTP).

True, despite all that, I still did considerably better than any of the forecasting websites, any of the polling companies: I got the big picture right, you might say. But even I stopped short of stating the Tories would win a majority; I thought a further Tory-Lib Dem arrangement was likely, and never foresaw that half of this equation would all but vanish from the electoral landscape altogether.

A little later, I’ll be introducing readers to the man who did get it right: the only man prior to the formidable exit pollsters who got it extraordinarily, almost impossibly right. But if you’ll forgive me, on this awful morning for progressive politics across England and Wales (if certainly not Scotland), I want to indulge in a spot of something so often beloved of those on the left: self-flagellation.

You see, what happened at this election – this supposedly cataclysmic shock – was supposed to happen all along. The government, while embarking on a series of horribly divisive, almost entirely unnecessary economic policies, had experienced no disasters. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings remained good; at times, remarkably good. Those of the opposition leader were, thanks to his palpable lack of gravitas and the toxic reputation of his party (blamed both for Iraq, entirely justifiably; and the 2008 financial crash, rather less justifiably) poor: at times, extraordinarily so given dramatically rising food bank use, rising inequality, and a prolonged fall in living standards unparalleled since the Second World War. Most of this directly affected those who would, surely, represent Miliband’s core constituency – yet any sense of cut-through remained elusive.

Then consider that, for reasons I set out last month, the nature of Britain’s electoral system has made it impossible for any party standing on anything resembling a truly radical, progressive agenda to get anywhere near winning an election since 1979 (in fact, since 1974): with the early 1980s split on the left meaning that, in effect, the entire voting system was dragged ever further to the right, a self-perpetuating process which is still ongoing and shows no signs of slowing down. And above all, on by far the most important indicator of any party’s readiness for government – economic competence – the Tories had remained well ahead of Labour ever since the crash; considerably because of the latter’s extraordinary failure to challenge a narrative about ‘austerity’ which isn’t only misleading – but is fallacious and increasingly dangerous to Britain’s medium and long term future.

This narrative, parroted relentlessly by the increasingly hysterical Tory press, the BBC, and both the Tories and Lib Dems, meant that when Miliband said perfectly reasonably that no, Labour had not over-spent before the crash, most viewers were horrified. How could they trust someone so irresponsible, not even prepared to apologise; who’d been part of a government which, so everyone insisted, had ‘run out of money’?

Never mind that no country in charge of its own money supply can ever run out of money (it simply prints more); never mind that Britain wasn’t even remotely imperilled in the manner of southern European countries trapped in the euro zone and crucially, without control of their money supply or economic policy; never mind that the effect of coalition-imposed austerity was simply to remove huge amounts of liquidity from the system, grind the economy to a dead halt, and it only began to recover when those policies were significantly ameliorated; never mind that almost all macro-economists around the world (notably the Nobel Prize Winner, Paul Krugman; the Merton College, Oxford Professor, Simon Wren-Lewis; and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) itself) had rejected austerity as a busted flush; never mind that not Labour, but the coalition, had doubled the national debt, and left it massively more exposed to an increasingly possible second crash; never mind that the economy had been growing rapidly when Gordon Brown was forced out of office; never mind that borrowing costs are historically low, and inflation is at zero; never mind that the welfare state itself had been built by the postwar Labour government at a time the country was technically bankrupt (so it simply borrowed instead, investing in infrastructure and setting a course for the Keynesian consensus); never mind that the now immortalised Liam Byrne note was a playful aside to his successor in the manner of long established Treasury traditions; never mind that, mindbogglingly, the Tories were proposing a more extreme version of the very policy which had failed so completely in the first place… none of this mattered.

 

Liam Byrne’s note was immortalised at this election – by a coalition playing cheap, low, dirty politics

If a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes the truth. Thus both coalition partners asserted that Labour’s much more balanced approach to deficit reduction would “pass our debts on to our children and grandchildren”, even when Tory policy will, by preventing growth or re-balancing, actually do that very thing; both continued to espouse the risible nonsense that Britain’s debt (which remember, they had doubled) was somehow comparable to a credit card debt, or that running a country is akin to running a household budget.

The press, run by barons who benefit enormously from the continuous upward funneling of wealth to the super-rich, and who would be personally impacted by a mansion tax, the return of the 50p tax rate, and especially the removal of the absurd protection of non-doms, hammered the message home again and again: Labour would endanger everything. A shockingly economically illiterate public (so illiterate that this itself poses an increasing threat to public policy, and certainly to the UK’s fiscal health) would inevitably acquiesce: despite policies which do most of them ongoing financial and social harm. And once the ‘danger’ posed by a party with the brass neck to have huge numbers of MPs democratically elected by Scottish voters was thrown into a wholly disingenuous, toxic mix, the die was cast: with public minds panicked into nonsensical comparisons with the 1970s, told that Nicola Sturgeon would ‘drag’ Miliband to the left… despite the SNP actually standing for slower, more drawn out austerity than Labour.

But throughout the last five years, Labour themselves have been horribly culpable: for failing to challenge a false narrative, or set out their own plans in any convincing way. When Miliband defended the Brown government’s record during the televised debates, he needed to assert why it hadn’t over-spent – but in keeping with serious communication issues which dogged him throughout his leadership, he couldn’t. Instead, like a rabbit in the headlights, hoist by the petard of his own foolish commitment to austerity, he froze – and his failure to ‘take responsibility’ will undoubtedly have hung particularly heavy in undecided voters’ hearts in the polling booths yesterday.

 

The rabbit in the headlights look comes naturally to Ed Miliband

That the public have continued to blame Labour for hardship caused by the coalition is a huge part of the reason why Miliband’s results at local, European and by-elections were so poor; and those results, as we shall see, represented an enormous, critical warning: not only to Miliband, but the pollsters. Both ignored them (in the latter case, incomprehensibly so); both will have plenty of time to reflect and repent on this now.

To recap: miles behind Cameron on approval ratings, public credibility, and especially economic competence; lacking in authority or leadership skills; leading a party with a toxic image (and with a Shadow Chancellor who embodied this in public minds more than anyone else); standing on a progressive platform the like of which hadn’t succeeded at any general election in 40 years; overseeing continually poor electoral fortunes despite mid-term ballots almost always providing a huge boost to any modern day opposition (and for that matter, failing to pull into anything like the kind of mid-term lead which any opposition needs in order to win the big one); and up against a government regarded by most as perfectly competent, how could anyone possibly have believed that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party stood the remotest chance of being returned yesterday?

Every single key electoral indicator was against it and in favour of the Tories. The apocalyptic, beyond seismic fall-out from the Scottish referendum – incorporating a Scottish left feeling completely betrayed by the last-minute announcement of The Vow and Cameron’s apparent shifting of the goalposts the moment a NO vote was confirmed; furiously mobilised against a Scottish Labour Party who had stood alongside the hated Tories and therefore confirmed itself once and for all as ‘Red Tories’, who neither represented their interests nor had delivered anything resembling social justice despite 13 years of government – which, true to form, wasn’t so much ignored as entirely missed by Labour’s laughably oblivious London headquarters until it was already far too late – was only the latest of many factors which, combined, could only lead to one conclusion. Miliband would lose; and he would lose big.

Thus, a week after the referendum, a time when most commentators were incomprehensibly expecting a Labour majority, and had not picked up on what was happening in Scotland in any way, I stated that he would inevitably lose in this post on The Guardian. When challenged, I even forecast the share of the vote: 37 or 38% for the Conservatives; 31 or 32% for Labour – and posited:

I think we’ll start the general election campaign, ie. a month before polling day, with everyone anticipating a hung Parliament. We’ll finish it, as a minimum, with the Tories as the largest party – and probably with a majority.

To me, this was the only logical outcome. As we moved towards the election, I treated any Tory lead as a sign of the inevitable; but was bewildered as Miliband appeared (according to the fatally, catastrophically flawed polls) to overtake Cameron during the campaign, then as things remained level pegging all the way to polling day. I simply grew more and more suspicious: what was wrong with the polls? Why were they all saying something which I could scarcely even conceive of being true?

Then, as May 2015 noted the difference between telephone and internet polls, things began to make a little more sense. The Guardian/ICM poll revealing a huge difference in Sheffield Hallam when voters were quizzed on their nationwide choice (Lord Ashcroft’s technique in constituency polls, which plainly formed the bedrock of all forecasting models), but were then asked to factor in the local candidates (as they would on election day) confirmed to me categorically that I was right: the polls WERE wrong, and were both understating the incumbency vote and overstating the progressive one.

Yet even then, I didn’t follow this through to its logical outcome. In my article on Tuesday, everything I highlighted should have left me forecasting a Tory majority: not merely that Miliband could not possibly become PM. I should also have better appreciated that, given a hitherto merged party encompassing both the Liberals and Social Democrats had effectively cut its latter half away by joining the Tories, but would be facing those very same Tories (who the polls were under-stating) in most of its key seats – who basked in public approbation for economic competence, while the Lib Dems played the Aunt Sally role of being blamed for any of the coalition’s more pernicious policies – Clegg’s party wouldn’t just lose half its support. It would inevitably haemorrhage a whole lot more: and be lambs to the slaughter when up against the Conservatives.

Instead, naturally enough I suppose, I asked myself, “in 2015, with all their sophisticated techniques and given all the lessons of the past, could ALL the pollsters – even including Nate Silver, for goodness’ sake – really be THAT wrong?” So I restricted myself to predicting another Tory-led coalition, rather than extrapolating in conclusion the very thing which all my arguments should have led me to. My forecast remained much more favourable to Cameron than almost any other anywhere; but still, mea culpa. A lesson learned.

 

Even Nate Silver’s number was up at this election

Then on Wednesday night, as the nation slept before crunch time, and the likes of May 2015 asserted preposterous levels of hubris about the likely outcome, everything suddenly became clear. I had chanced upon the one and only forecasting hero of this long campaign: whose services will surely be in the highest demand in the years ahead, who had conducted comprehensive, demonstrably proven psephological research, and whose findings drove an absolute coach and horses through every single professional forecaster and polling organisation… as well as sending an unforgettably cold chill down my Labour-supporting spine. For the Conservatives, his work spelt Nirvana; for the opinion polls, it spelt Nemesis.

In an extraordinary tour de force, the best, most counter-intuitive piece of electoral research I believe has ever been conducted in the modern day (better even than Silver’s in 2008 and 2012), the website Number Cruncher Politics (NCP) explained that, according to all possible indicators and variables, the polls were telling a wildly different story to that accepted by just about everyone.

As I had done, NCP strongly suspected a repeat of 1992-style Shy Tory Syndrome; but unlike me, as the man behind it is possessed of the scientific expertise necessary to trawl through exhaustive amounts of data going back some 50 years and model it in various ways, he had the ability to conclusively prove it. By examining electoral data covering the previous 35 years, toplines from the last half century, and opinion polls from this Parliament, he identified a very clear statistical pattern, which repeated itself through three separate models. His main findings were as follows:

1. As I had noted in my article, opinion polls at British General Elections are usually biased against the Tories and in favour of Labour. The exception, when both the Conservatives and Labour were a little understated in 2010, while the Lib Dems were wildly overstated, was in all likelihood, a one-off (and to me, easily explicable by how vulnerable the soft progressive vote invariably is under FPTP. The same demographic of voters inflating the Lib Dem position 5 years ago were, I intuited, having an identical effect on Labour this year).

2. The unusual fluidity of the electorate during this last Parliament (so many Lib Dem voters abandoning the party; Tory and Labour voters heading over to Ukip) had almost certainly undermined – perhaps even entirely negated – the adjustments made by pollsters after the debacle of 1992. Especially when it came to the usual method of reallocating ‘don’t knows’ – because far fewer of these would vote for their traditional party, but amid a new, multi-party landscape, how could pollsters possibly determine who would, and who would not?

 

The rise of Ukip was one of many factors giving pollsters all sorts of extra difficulties

3. Every single one of 16 opinion polls ahead of an election over the last 2 years had fallen prey to a pro-Labour bias, at the same time as late swing to the Tories was occurring: unnoticed until the election itself. At the 2014 European elections, Labour’s lead had been overstated by 3.3 points; while all by-elections since early 2014 had displayed a huge shy Tory factor, averaging 5.5 points.

4. Conflicting internal polling – reports of which I noted in my article, and clearly precipitated a dramatic change in strategy over the last week as a panicking Labour campaign desperately courted the notoriously unreliable young vote (again, the same voters who failed to turn out for the Lib Dems in 2010, despite so many of them having promised their support) – bore uncanny resemblances to 1992.

5. Since 1992, the overstatement of Labour and Lib Dems had been almost uniform: ranging between 2.3 and 2.9 points.

6. Serious problems in weighting data from online panels; other problems in reallocating undecided voters in phone polls, not to mention poor response rates to the latter.

7. Polling error averaging 5 points net over all General Elections between 1983 and 2010.

8. Relative to the Tories, Labour’s local election performances in non-General Election years under Miliband had been the second worst by any opposition over the last 35 years.

9. All three models – based on adjusted topline numbers; polling internals; and actual votes – were telling an extraordinarily similar, unbelievably alarming story about this year’s election; and combined, when tested against the polls at every General Election since 1983, outperformed them on all but one occasion (2010, when the difference was a mere 0.2 points).

10. What was that story? Namely, that the Tories were heading for a victory by between 6, and more likely around 8 points – despite the opinion polls all suggesting things were dead level.

The sheer, overwhelming exhaustiveness of the research left no room for doubt. I was awestruck by what I had just read, and given my habitual sense that the polls were very, very wrong, knew it could only mean one thing. The Tories were heading either right to the cusp of an overall majority; or their first majority since, you guessed it, 1992.

Three final opinion polls were now due to be published before 7am. Inexplicably, none were; all appeared several hours later instead, along with a fourth too. Had the polling companies seen the NCP research, appreciated the catastrophe it foretold for them, and reappraised their data? I have no idea, but can only suspect not. I tweeted it to May 2015, but got no response: instead, the New Statesman’s forecast site happily updated the news that the final polls still suggested a tied race, and Miliband premiership.

Section 66A of the Representation of the People Act, 1983 states the following:

(1)No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed—

(a)any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or

(b)any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.

Above, point 1(a) refers to exit polls: which of course, are never released until 10pm. But 1(b), while not explicitly doing so, appears at all elections in the past to have been taken to cover opinion polls released after voting has begun. This was the sixth General Election I’ve experienced – and never before have opinion polls been published after 7am on polling day. Why were they on this occasion?

In fairness to the pollsters in question, the Act was hardly designed for an internet age dominated by social media and, at this election, by forecasting websites: all of which continued to apply the latest data despite point 1(b); while on Twitter and Facebook, various candidates re-tweeted endorsements from voters and voters declared who they had voted for. As The Telegraph notes today, some form of mild campaigning still seems to have been going on beyond that.

A mess, then, which the Electoral Commission would do well to resolve ahead of future ballots – but there are two vastly more serious points here. First, for the duration of the campaign (and, for that matter, a good 2 years prior to that, according to NCP), all polling companies and forecasting sites have been publishing wildly, at times ludicrously inaccurate information which inevitably influenced the race, and the outcome. When parties are assumed to be tied, their strategy changes; media treatment of them substantially changes (never more so than in Labour’s case this year); public responses change too. In the latter case, how many more voters are likely to vote a certain way out of fear that those they’re opposed to are in touching distance of victory? And under FPTP, how many vote tactically who would otherwise not have done – and vice versa?

In practice, as the NCP model conclusively demonstrates, Labour were never ahead, and have probably been several points behind throughout the campaign. Yet that’s not what the polling companies were saying. Should organisations with such disastrously flawed methodology and a consistent record of inaccuracy which, as exposed by NCP, dates back at least 32 years, be allowed to dominate the agenda in such a way; and above all, to have such heavy influence on debate and public discourse?

Remember: huge amounts of the Tory campaign were dedicated to frightening English voters into stopping a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP – but in practice, this was never the prospect it appeared, because Labour were doing much worse than was believed. Enormous amounts of discussion were put over not to policy, not to manifestos, but the electoral and Parliamentary arithmetic – but this bore no resemblance to the reality.

Tory scaremongering about Nicola Sturgeon was based on a false prospectus

Is it any wonder the British public have such little understanding of macro-economics when whole election campaigns – leading to a decision hugely determining the futures of them, their families, their loved ones – are given over to constant reactions to never-ending opinion polls: even when these polls are completely wrong? Other countries (most notably, France) do not allow polling firms to play such a huge role during the final week of election campaigns; why on Earth does the UK?

To make matters worse, the thesis I set out on Tuesday focused heavily on the role of Lord Ashcroft: whose constituency polling has been a huge feature of this campaign, and clearly became central to most forecast sites: most notably, May 2015 and Election Forecast. My piece concluded that his data was almost certainly awry; and in that, we now know that he was in very good company with all other polling firms.

At The Telegraph, virtually ever since Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader, Labour-supporting Dan Hodges has consistently (and we now know, quite brilliantly) forecasted Miliband’s demise. He must be experiencing very conflicting emotions this morning; as a fellow Labour traveller, I know I am. In February, he asked a question which the British polling world should have already been asking: “What does Lord Ashcroft want?”

As Hodges set out, over the last 5 years, Ashcroft has morphed in public persona from hugely controversial non-dom to friend of the political process: opening up the business of polling to the public in a manner never seen before. But Ashcroft, contrary to what so many must assume, is not a pollster: he buys in polling from other companies, publishes the results, but won’t reveal who these companies are. He himself is not a member of the British Polling Council either.

Not only that, but he’s an extremely wealthy Tory peer, and former Deputy Chairman of the Party. During tbis campaign, he’s tweeted his admiration of Sturgeon – whose ‘danger to England’ just so happened, by purest coincidence, to constitute the central plank of the successful Conservative strategy. I have never known a Tory give such regular praise to a nationalist in the way Ashcroft has.

His final ‘snapshot’, released well after 7am yesterday, had Conservative and Labour tied, and only added to the bigger picture that the two parties were deadlocked. But ask yourself, purely hypothetically: if you were a Tory who naturally desired your party to win as convincingly as possible, would you want the final poll to have them well ahead… or locked in a race too close to call, which would encourage maximum possible turnout? More to the point: purely hypothetically, if you were a Tory who wanted maximum possible negative exposure of Labour throughout an election campaign, scaring the public into voting heavily against them, would you want them to be well behind… or seemingly on the verge of victory?

How far the obvious flaws in Ashcroft (sorry, I mean the companies which he buys his polling in from)’s data help explain the almost identical flaws in every other firm’s data, I couldn’t possibly begin to imagine. But how has such an obviously self-interested individual become the most influential figure in opinion polling? Why were at least two very well-publicised forecasting sites so dependent on deeply flawed data? Why haven’t more questions been asked about his motivations?

 

What does Lord Ashcroft want?

One man who has asked such questions – many, many such questions – has been the Labour peer, Lord Foulkes. He conducted his own online pursuit of his Tory contemporary throughout the campaign: leading to frequently entertaining exchanges, but never leaving observers in much doubt as to what he thought. Foulkes has hinted for many days that the polls were wrong; and in February, went a great deal further. Opinion polls, he fulminated, were increasingly:

“Being manipulated at the behest of people with money, whether they be the media or individuals, as part of the political process… What is clear now is the media in particular, but others as well, are demanding instant polling, determining when it should be done and how it should be done. The academic rigour that ought to be carried out isn’t being carried out.”

And to be sure, given what this article has set out, who could possibly argue true academic rigour had been carried out on a whole series of polls which haven’t just been a little wrong – but a lot wrong? Very wrong. Astoundingly wrong.

Similarly astounding, when you stop and think about it for a moment, is how, after half a century’s dominance of Scotland, the Labour Party have been swept away just like that via a speeding yellow flash; meltdown triggered, as noted above, by The Vow and its ongoing fall-out. But what’s so often forgotten about the referendum campaign – the democratic event that changed Scotland irrevocably forever – is that between August 2013 and polling day itself, just two opinion polls (and only one with a sample size of over 1000) put YES ahead. That latter poll, by YouGov and the Sunday Times, was publicised with unusual relish by Rupert Murdoch on Twitter, and sent shockwaves through the British establishment.

Its response to one solitary rogue poll? The Vow. As soon as it had been made, Labour were in no position to control what resulted; and when that involved Cameron cutting the rug away from Gordon Brown’s feet on the steps of Downing Street, suddenly, a party which for so long had dominated Scottish politics was faced by an oncoming train it (because it was in government in neither England nor Scotland) could do nothing about – which yesterday, flattened it completely, destroying its broader electoral hopes in the process.

Opinion polls, then, can be remarkable things with yet more remarkable consequences. Especially when they’re conducted for a newspaper de facto owned by someone with a surprisingly good relationship with the then First Minister of Scotland; even more when they help trigger the collapse of a party which had taken that someone on in a manner of no other British political party in my lifetime. What did that someone’s lead redtop do during the election campaign? Simultaneously support the SNP (against Labour) in Scotland; the Tories (against Labour, while banging home the message of dangerous, rebellious, left wing Scots coming to rule over the English) in England.

Rupert Murdoch, of course, was humiliated by the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking; deemed “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company” by the British government, and has been investigated by both British and American authorities for bribery and corruption. This perhaps helps explain The Scottish Sun’s enthusiastic support for the SNP; The Sun’s vituperative opposition to Ed Miliband, whose ideas threatened to end any remaining influence of Murdoch over the UK media, and its voicing of a narrative which would inexorably pull England and Scotland apart, threatening the imminent break-up of a 308-year-old Union.

Through his actions, Murdoch has left no doubt regarding his open hostility to the UK and British establishment. Hell hath no fury like a global press baron scorned. At the same time as Murdoch has fallen from grace in Britain, Ashcroft’s star has dramatically risen. Which is, presumably, entirely unremarkable – but the examples of both provide a heavy reminder of what can happen when vested interests collide with the democratic process.

As Foulkes has noted, extraordinarily, the ever more influential polling business is entirely unregulated. In such a world, despite their consistent inaccuracy, all polls are effectively taken on trust: a remarkable state of affairs. Foulkes has therefore introduced a Parliamentary Bill intending to establish an independent regulator; which will also place restrictions on polls being published in the three weeks leading up to an election. In light of all that’s happened in this campaign, one can only wish his Bill speedy and safe passage.

To return, though, to yesterday. I now knew conclusively that the polls were hopelessly askew – but the dear old British public did not. Neither did the BBC presenters: who in tandem with the entire watching world (but not, at least, maybe two or three of us) greeted the exit poll with incredulity. The moment I saw that poll, I was entirely sure it was either (a) absolutely accurate; or (b) still underestimated the Tories’ position. The latter was how it proved. While frantic Labour supporters initially clutched at the straw of an exit poll that wasn’t – a YouGov re-contact survey confirming the previous day’s numbers, which had been arrived at via all the same mistakes as all the other polls – I simply told my friends that it was over. And it was.

We’ll never know whether those in charge of the exit poll had been alerted to NCP’s work. Either way, though, they at least did a magnificent job in hellishly demanding circumstances; they at least emerge from this complete fiasco with their heads held high.

As I type, David Cameron is now back in Downing Street, gleefully clutching a 12-seat majority. He and the Tories, though, will soon discover that in politics, as in life, we should be careful what we wish for; for with an EU referendum now certain, Cameron is likely to be even more boxed in by his lunatic fringe than John Major was after 1992. The chaos of that period destroyed the Tories’ public image, opening a chasm in the party which even the staunchly Euro-sceptic Cameron has been unable to close. With the economy now likely to be sent straight back into recession by even heavier austerity than before, I would be moderately surprised if the Prime Minister makes it as far as the referendum; and in the event of a vote to stay in, even more so if the Conservatives don’t do what they’ve been threatening to do for over a generation, and split completely and irrecovably.

For the other big winners of the night, the SNP, the path to independence is clear. How can a country with one Tory MP and 56 nationalist MPs possibly be governed from London by a majority Tory administration? Answer: short of immediate full federalism and an immediate change to proportional representation – preventing such a scenario ever occurring again – it cannot. The Union’s days are numbered.

And Labour? With Miliband having resigned with typically good grace, now the party must put right its awful, tragic error (for both men) in choosing the wrong brother in 2010; and resolve its ongoing internal debate between the kind of quasi-social democratic agenda offered by the now departed Ed, and something closer to the Blairism necessary to win under FPTP. Chuka Umunna would plainly represent the latter; but in truth, if Labour are ever to regain a foothold as a natural party of government (especially once what we know now as Britain becomes merely England and Wales), it desperately needs to reach out to and reconnect with the many millions of working class voters it has shed since 1997.

Tony Blair knew how to win; but did not know how to create something truly long lasting and self-sustaining. Only by shunning both Blairism and Milibandism can Labour hope to do that: it needs to forge a new non-statist, localist, communitarian approach, in which the ties of family, friendship and community are reborn; power is devolved downwards to localities and through federalism, and offers real remedies for Britain’s increasingly divided, fragmented, discordant, atomised society.

That huge bloc of traditional support (the latest chunk of which voted SNP and Ukip last night) must be won back; the sense of alienation they feel must be listened to and engaged with. Their aspirations – as well as those of small business or bigger business – must be met: a much larger, much more coherent coalition of Labour support than is ever generally appreciated is out there, but has been almost entirely neglected for a whole generation.

As the country discovered yet again last night, British politics only works for a few. As it regathers its energies from this latest devastating blow, it is Labour’s task and will always be Labour’s cause to ensure that, by offering new solutions to both new and old problems, it finally begins to deliver for the many.

 

No, not New Labour. Blue Labour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The polls and (most of) the forecasts are wrong. Ed Miliband will not be the next Prime Minister

In the annals of modern British political history, the 1992 General Election was the ultimate watershed. Defeat at a fourth consecutive election represented – under First Past The Post (FPTP), at least – the final repudiation of socialism in the UK: from whence, the Labour Party’s transformation into something almost unrecognisable was triggered. As the Conservatives fell apart over Europe, the Blairite consensus would, following John Smith’s tragic death, go on to hold sway; storing up huge future trouble for Labour amongst its traditional support: especially, as is now abundantly plain, in Scotland.

Meanwhile, much as the US Republicans have only won one Presidential share of the vote since 1988, the Tories – once the most successful electoral force in the Western world – have not won a single Parliamentary majority since 1992: when John Major’s victory came as a huge surprise. Not only to his party, but to the pollsters.

Throughout the campaign, Labour were believed by almost everyone to be ahead: on course for a small majority, and with a worst case scenario of being the largest party in a hung Parliament. Britain was in recession; memories of the poll tax were still fresh; Neil Kinnock, Labour leader, had done a huge amount to drag his party towards the centre, away from the unelectability of the militant tendency. But something about Kinnock never convinced; somehow, despite continual boom and bust under the Tories, more than enough of the public remained fearful of a return to the Union-dominated ungovernability of the 1970s. Smith’s Budget plans, announced early in the election campaign, were leapt upon by his opponents and only exacerbated public fears of heavy tax rises and economic meltdown.

History records that meltdown occurred only 5 months after the election: Black/White Wednesday, 16 September 1992, when Britain was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), and the Tories’ reputation for economic competence was shredded for a generation. Given that Labour had become considerably more pro-European than the Tories, it’s actually a very good job for them that the 1992 election was lost: to have suffered such a humiliation less than six months after regaining power for the first time since 1979 would have been ruinous for the party. Perhaps even, fatal. But why had it been lost?

Famously, the pollsters had failed to take account for possible ‘shy Tories’: those embarrassed or unprepared to admit they were intending to vote for Major’s party, whose brand had already become toxic across huge swathes of the UK thanks to Margaret Thatcher. Pollsters did at least detect something of a narrowing in the race – some sort of movement towards the incumbency – to the point whereby exit polls on election day predicted a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives (just) as the largest party. But ultimately, this was well out: as the night wore on, and especially after David Amess held on in the bellwether marginal of Basildon, it became clear that not only would the Tories remain the largest party, but had actually won a majority: via the greatest amount of votes ever cast for any political party in Britain. Their lead over Labour was almost eight per cent.

John Major: the last Conservative leader to win an overall majority

1992, then, was both Labour and the opinion pollsters’ Goetterdaemmerung. Both would change their approach hugely in the years ahead: the latter resolving never to make such a mistake again, and building all sorts of adjustments into their methodology to ensure they did not. By and large, these have worked – Labour’s majority of 66 was being correctly predicted even as the 2005 campaign got underway; exit polls on election night in 2010, dismissed by many because of how much they were assumed to understate Liberal Democrat support, actually proved practically bang on the money.

But 2015 poses entirely new challenges: multi-party politics conducted within an outmoded electoral system which cannot cope; post-referendum transformation in Scotland which threatens Labour’s complete destruction; Ukip peeling off support from both major parties; and in England, a series of desperately tight Tory-Labour marginals which are almost impossible to call, and will decide the outcome.

Hot off the heels of Nate Silver’s extraordinary accuracy in predicting the 2012 and 2008 US election, a series of forecasting and ‘nowcasting’ websites have sprung up: Election Forecast, with which Silver and fivethirtyeight.com have a tie-in; Elections Etc, run by Steve Fisher of Trinity College, Oxford; the New Statesman‘s May 2015; even one hosted by The Guardian. The latter two are ‘nowcasting’ sites: extrapolating the outcome from the polls as they stand now. The former two are forecasts, with built-in swings back to the incumbency: in this case, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

For several weeks, all but one have been predicting that combined, Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and smaller parties such as Plaid Cymru, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Greens, would hold an anti-Tory majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, until only the last few days, May 2015 thought merely the combined Labour-SNP seat total would be enough; The Guardian still does now (Tuesday morning, May 5).

May 2015 was confident enough to splash a detailed, convincing (at the time) piece explaining why Ed Miliband held many more routes to 10 Downing Street than David Cameron – but yesterday, suddenly began to have second thoughts. Now, it highlighted the possibility of a late movement back towards the Tories, very much in the style of the unexpected swing to Likud in the final hours of the Israeli elections in March. It noted the mounting prospect of any Labour-led minority administration being deemed illegitimate by public (if certainly not constitutional) opinion should Labour finish second on votes and seats, and especially should it be dependent on SNP MPs to carry legislation… and also pointed towards something else. One of two things which must be giving polling companies and forecasting websites sleepless, cold-sweated nights.

Throughout the last fortnight, the share of the vote has appeared deadlocked: perhaps with the Tories a fraction ahead, but no more than that. But most polls conducted over the last two weeks have been internet-based; and given how the Scottish referendum polls over-estimated support for the YES campaign, and their tendency to attract responses via one click from some who don’t carry through their opinion on polling day, these internet polls may very well be wrong. In fact, I strongly believe they are.

Conversely, in telephone polls, the Tories have held a consistent three-point lead. This fits in with the idea that older voters are less likely to be part of internet-based surveys; younger voters are less likely to have landlines; and over the phone, questioned one-to-one, voters are more likely to be honest. But at general elections, older people vote far more than their younger counterparts. Simplistic though this must sound, while internet polls should be expected to lean towards leftist, progressive parties, phone-based ones are likely to do the opposite: but the latter are considerably more likely to represent the true picture.

As May 2015 noted, a slightly more than three-point lead for Cameron on Thursday will put him in a strong, though not impregnable position: with a combined Tory-Liberal Democrat-Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) bloc close to the de facto winning line of 323 seats. But the problem is this still underestimates the likely outcome.

Despite all their changes to make allowances for shy Tories and late moves towards the incumbency, the polling companies continued to underestimate Tory and Lib Dem support in 2001, 2005 and 2010; and overstate Labour support. This went largely unnoticed because the Labour landslide in 2001, heavily reduced majority in 2005, and – after the first televised debate and accompanying ‘Clegg bounce’ changed the picture completely – hung Parliament in 2010 were all so predictable. The pollsters got the bigger picture right; but the detail was still awry in very consistent areas.

But the real bombshell for psephologists – and just as much, for Miliband – landed yesterday: when a Guardian/ICM poll found a huge difference in Sheffield Hallam when electors were asked first, to put the local context and candidates to one side, and name their nationwide preference; but second, the candidates’ names were included as part of the question. Names, of course, which include that of Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister.

Nick Clegg’s seat is THE most critical at this election

On the nationwide question, Labour emerged with a 34-32 lead: in line with the recent constituency polling of Lord Ashcroft, who we’ll come to in a moment. But on the second question, Clegg shot seven points ahead of Labour challenger, Oliver Coppard, thanks to huge tactical voting from Conservatives determined to help ensure a continuation of the coalition.

Sheffield Hallam is, without question, by far the most important single seat at this election. With the Lib Dems likely to have their vote cut in half and see their number of MPs haemorrhage, it is extraordinarily difficult to envisage how they can possibly support a second coalition if Clegg falls. But as yesterday’s poll confirms, he is unlikely to. David Laws has already expressed a preference to work with the Tories in a hung Parliament; and with all forecasts already agreeing that Cameron’s party will remain the largest, Clegg has spoken of a Labour-led, anti-Tory administration amounting to a ‘coalition of the losers’.

His first discussions will, he appears to have confirmed, be conducted with the party with most votes and most seats: just as in 2010. And the only real stumbling block in terms of policy will be over cuts: which Cameron will need to give way on for Clegg to agree to an in/out referendum on the EU (the latter, for which his party will surely receive at least some public approbation). With the Tory right and Lib Dem left likely to complicate and delay matters, full-blown coalition is probably unlikely – but some sort of agreement short of that is not, locking out both Labour and the SNP.

The Sheffield Hallam poll, though, has far broader implications. With the concept of uniform swings (from which Amess’ victory in Basildon translated remarkably seamlessly into a Tory majority in 1992) very much a thing of a past, and British politics in uncharted, multi-party territory, Ashcroft has conducted a whole series of individual constituency polls throughout the run-up to and during this election campaign. His work constitutes a hugely valuable resource; his contribution has been fascinating, opening up the business of polling to a much wider audience, and greatly appreciated by forecasters and psephologists. But is it flawed? Even, fundamentally so?

The problem is this. When asking electors their voting intentions, Ashcroft does not name the candidates – but on polling day, of course, all are listed. And with no other local data to go on, both May 2015 and Election Forecast have used Ashcroft’s findings to help predict the outcome. Are these reliable enough?

Even against that backdrop, last week, Ashcroft found the Tories had opened a surprising, almost inexplicable lead in Croydon Central: where according to his snapshots, an eight-point swing had occurred over a single month, despite Labour having been assumed by almost all observers to have had the better national campaign, despite them having closed up and tied the national opinion polls. He also found that in Wirral West, a seat long considered highly likely to fall to Labour, and currently held by the divisive figure of Esther McVey, Minister for Employment (and before that, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Work and Pensions), the gap had been reduced from five to three points.

Might Esther McVey be 2015’s answer to David Amess in 1992?

Just as Clegg’s seat is pivotal, so is McVey’s. Were she, rather like Amess in 1992, to unexpectedly hold on, the Tories will certainly head the next government. Of course, had the candidates been named in Ashcroft’s polling, her responsibility for the coalition’s cuts and sanctions may well have counted against her: name recognition can be double-edged. But even in its absence, May 2015 began to backtrack slightly from their earlier confident prognosis for Miliband – and Ashcroft’s data may well not tell the whole story, or even close to it.

In their updated position, May 2015 highlighted 27 seats in which, according to Ashcroft, Labour are at least four points ahead. Should this be confirmed on Thursday, Miliband will only need another six seats for a Labour-led bloc to hit the magic figure of 323. By their estimation, he will have 16 realistic opportunities to make these further precious gains.

But while a four-point lead sounds comfortable, it’s actually within the margin of error – and based on data which does not name individual candidates. Were McVey to hold on in a seat which, according to Election Forecast (also dependent on Ashcroft’s data), has an 85% chance of falling to Labour, all that data could be wrong. Very wrong. It surely already was in Sheffield Hallam: May 2015 is so dependent on Ashcroft that until yesterday’s opinion poll, the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency remarkably sat in the Labour column.

To put that 85% probability in Wirral West into perspective, it coexists alongside Election Forecast putting McVey’s opponent, Margaret Greenwood, just four points up. Huge numbers of similarly high probabilities are given by the website for seats so close, they’re practically on a knife-edge – and based on data which (a) may well be flawed; and b) was collected before the late incumbency swing which happens at so many elections all over the world. Election Forecast say they’ve accounted for this: but given their reliance on Ashcroft’s information, and on national opinion polls which tell a different picture depending on whether they’re conducted over the internet or telephone, are their numbers right to begin with?

Again, remember that polling companies have a long, consistent recent record of underestimating Tory and Lib Dem support, and overestimating that of Labour. Remember too that in Israel this year, at the Scottish referendum, even at last year’s Uruguayan elections, the status quo out-performed forecasts. In the latter case, the race was believed to be extremely close throughout much of the year: for substantial chunks of which, it seemed that Luis Lacalle Pou’s centre-right Partido Nacional and Pedro Bordaberry’s further right Partido Colorado would combine in a second round run-off to defeat the governing leftist Frente Amplio (FA) (Broad Front).

Yet in the event, remarkably, despite the hype surrounding Lacalle Pou’s campaign, and his positive, inclusive message (for him then, read Miliband and Labour now: neither attacked the government in the way they might have done, both chose to focus on optimism and a ‘better plan’ instead), the FA actually increased their support on the previous election, held in 2009. Polling organisations were embarrassed: but later concluded they had failed to properly reach Uruguay’s more distant, rural regions, a number of which lack regular internet access; some of which lack telephone lines. Even in Britain’s fully developed society, are its internet pollsters failing to reach certain sections of older voters too?

There are, beyond that, a good number of more general reasons why Miliband is heading for defeat. Above all, strategy. He has presided over Labour’s most progressive platform since 1992 at a time when the coalition are, rightly or wrongly, broadly considered to have done a solid job, and the Prime Minister’s ratings remain good (thereby offering too great a change at a time things appear stable), but for whatever reason, failed to appeal to enough young voters; or traditional Labour supporters now heavily courted by Ukip; or especially those in Scotland. In the latter case, while Labour’s message in England has been admirably positive and upbeat, in Scotland, it’s been the reverse: talking at, even condescending its traditional vote; scaremongering about pensions and the SNP “letting in the Tories’ instead of offering any positive reasons to vote Labour.

Letters like these are all too typical of Scottish Labour’s campaign

Much the same mistake was made during the referendum campaign: immediately following which, it was abundantly clear that UK Labour had no conception of the seismic shift which had just occurred. At least three critical months were lost as Labour’s leaders in London contemplated their navels, while the SNP made colossal political capital out of The Vow, and especially Cameron tying this to English Votes for English Laws the morning after the Union had been saved. The SNP mobilised furiously against the ‘Red Tories’; Labour sat on their hands.

The remarkable failure to offer a referendum on EU membership also means that those tempted by Ukip have no obvious reason to return to the fold. Given the colossal democratic deficit of the EU, and its mounting unpopularity across much of the UK, and especially amongst the working classes in regions like the West and East Midlands, this is a huge blunder. The Tories are now wooing Kippers back into the fold by promising a referendum; Labour fails to counter this in any meaningful way.

Beyond this, given Labour’s complete failure to reverse a wildly inaccurate, often absurd narrative regarding their ‘responsibility’ for a worldwide crash: before which both the debt and deficit were lower as a share of GDP than in 1997; which itself was caused by the banks; and following which, the coalition – despite inheriting a rapidly growing economy – have failed to rebalance it in any way, almost doubled the debt, and are now presiding over alarming levels of slowdown amid a global outlook of increasing concern, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the public still regards the Tories as far more economically competent.

Cameron has made particular hay of waving around Liam Byrne’s infamous Treasury note wherever he goes. Strangely, he fails to mention that such notes are merely a tradition from an outgoing minister to his successor, or that no country (least of all a growing one) can ‘run out of money’ when controlling its own money supply – but again, Labour lost control of the narrative, and only has itself to blame for failing to properly articulate an altogether different reality. With regard to which, offering Ed Balls, who the public blame for the crash almost as much as Gordon Brown, as prospective Chancellor hardly helps either.

And then, of course, is the SNP. At a loss as to what to do regarding the extraordinary rise of Nicola Sturgeon’s party in Scotland, Labour has been squeezed, horribly, by English fears of a government ‘being held to ransom’ by those who want to break the UK up. Whatever Miliband did here, he could only lose. Joining Sturgeon in an anti-Tory alliance would result in floods of English votes in those key marginals disappearing to either Ukip (a little) or the Tories (a lot); having nothing to do with it could only further alienate Scottish voters sick of being taken for granted for so long.

The SNP have exploited the latter to such an extent that they’ve certainly left me suspecting that actually, their secret wish is indeed for a Tory or Tory-led government: in which they can avoid any responsibility, and continue to build up support for independence ahead of a second referendum. There is no doubt that Sturgeon, Alex Salmond et al will know how their sabre-rattling plays in English marginals: but then again, as a Scottish party increasingly winning the argument that, as a political construct, the UK is bust, why should this concern them?

Miliband’s 35% strategy was doomed the moment Labour campaigned alongside the Tories at the referendum. However difficult this was to avoid in a binary contest, far more thought should’ve been given to what this would look like; a far more distinctive approach,  conducted as far away from Cameron as possible, needed to be offered. It wasn’t: so the tectonic plates shifted decisively and historically.

Of course, just as the concerns over Ashcroft’s data spell very bad news for Labour in English marginals against the Tories (where, according to a piece on Labour Uncut from last weekend, the party are performing so badly that this prompted Miliband’s courting of Russell Brand and the youth vote), they bring happier tidings in Scotland. Name recognition of certain candidates may – in fact, probably will – enable Labour to out-perform the bleakest predictions, and prevent the SNP sweeping the board. But the failures I strongly anticipate against the Conservatives will render this redundant; and with similar name recognition factors likely to help the Lib Dems’ seat tally hold up somewhat, this will only point the UK back towards a second coalition, or something close to it.

Speaking of the Lib Dems: to have run the party’s Facebook page throughout the last 5 years must have been an exercise in purest masochism. Post after post resulted in abuse, often very personal, from those who felt so let down and betrayed by the coalition – yet all of a sudden, its posts are being greeted with praise; even, gratitude. Why? English voters have looked at the choice between Labour propped up by the SNP or the Tories working in tandem with the Lib Dems, and find the devil they do know vastly preferable to that which they don’t. Clegg’s strategy of presenting his party as a sane, moderating influence, and guarantors of future stability, is bearing dividends, and isolating Miliband’s party from post-election negotiations.

Finally, there is the leader himself. Ed Miliband has had an unexpectedly good campaign: neutralising most of the media’s attacks, rising to the occasion, even becoming one of politics’ least likely sex symbols ever.

But ever since his election as Labour leader, he has never truly convinced: both because his approach has been too left wing (which under FPTP, has failed to succeed at any election since 1974), and because, despite his many achievements, he lacks gravitas. That magical, you’ve-either-got-it-or-you’ve-not sense of being authoritative and above all, Prime Ministerial. Cameron has always possessed this: which was why Labour knew they were in danger the moment he became Tory leader. Miliband simply hasn’t. In modern politics, style does matter every bit as much as substance, if not more; Miliband, cruelly, is damned by what the electorate have come to expect in leaders such as Thatcher, Tony Blair or Cameron, and has been unable to advance his wholly different approach convincingly enough.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with close friends and family members who, were Miliband genuinely about to enter Downing Street, would all almost certainly be voting Labour. But none of them are. My mother voted SDP during the 1980s; loathes what this government has done to the most vulnerable with all her soul… yet has voted Lib Dem by post. My best friend, disgusted by Blair’s war in Iraq and Cameron’s intervention in Libya, is very far removed from ever voting Tory… but will be choosing either Green or Respect.

Another close friend, again all too conscious of this government’s war on the poor, says she’d certainly be voting Labour if its leader’s name began with ‘David’… but as it doesn’t, is too alarmed by the prospect of Ed representing the UK internationally to do anything other than vote Conservative. My father is no right winger – but is horrified at the idea of Balls back in the Treasury, and will unhesitatingly vote Tory to prevent this. And almost no-one amongst those I know in Scotland – most of whom routinely voted Labour until 2010 – will be doing anything other than throw their weight behind the SNP.

These are all mere anecdotes, but they speak to a much wider story. Whether through English fears of runaway SNP influence, concerns over Miliband’s lack of modern leadership skills, his failure even now to distance his party far enough from New Labour (whose reputation, thanks to both Iraq and the financial crash, is toxic), or Scottish fury at the ‘Red Tories’, he simply hasn’t done enough. Not to mention the broader, time honoured point that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them; and in the absence of anything resembling a disaster under its watch, this government is still considered competent by enough of the electorate to be heading, again in hybrid form, for a second term.

As I noted earlier, defeat in 1992 was ultimately a blessing in disguise for Labour. As it was then, so I strongly suspect it will be again: because with the economy slowing down quarter by quarter, still entirely dependent on services, and many key international markets in trouble, I fully expect the UK to head back into recession within the next year. Perish the thought, so many global fundamentals remain horribly unsound that there may even be a second global crash looming in the next two or three years. For Labour to be anywhere near government at such a time would surely destroy it forever; and for it to form a minority government dependent on the SNP would allow the latter to take credit for any of its successes, the former to be blamed furiously in England for any economic woes.

That, I believe, is why a number of Labour MPs have already suggested that a ‘coalition of the losers’ should not be formed: it simply wouldn’t be in the party’s strategic interests to do so. That is also why Miliband has made such a point of the need to win a majority, and Scottish Labour have repeatedly stated that “the largest party forms a government”. Constitutionally inaccurate, this may be; but in a bitterly divided Union, to huge swathes of the English public, it is the reality. Indeed, it’s the very thing that’s pushing more and more worried voters into Cameron’s grateful embrace.

This piece, incidentally, should not be construed as an attack on the pollsters, or the forecasters. They do a thankless, manful job, opening up the intricacies of democracy and elections to us all. It is most certainly not an attack on Ashcroft either: his work has been unique, even revolutionary where pollsters are concerned. But I strongly believe that his data (and hence, that of all forecasting websites except Elections Etc, who have consistently had the Conservatives doing better in votes and seats, and will I’m quite sure be vindicated on Thursday; and to a lesser extent, YouGov, whose sudden shift on Sunday night based on one poll suggests Peter Kellner, doyen of British pollsters, knows something is up) does not tell the full story; and that come Friday morning, contrary to what so many are suggesting, Britain won’t be set for weeks or even months of paralysis.

Internet-based polls are almost certainly inaccurate. Ashcroft’s methodology is suspect. A late shift to the status quo almost always occurs, is probably already ongoing, yet is never properly picked up until the results come in. Tory scare stories regarding SNP influence are having an impact. Miliband hasn’t done enough. His party doesn’t want an illegitimate coalition or deal.

What does all this mean? Contrary to what so, so many believe, the outcome of the 2015 General Election – which I expect the Conservatives to win by around four points, leaving them with over 290 seats – will point very simply to a continuation, in whatever form, of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (perhaps not even needing the DUP’s help); and to renewed, painful soul-searching within Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

Close, Ed – but not close enough

 

Why are the Conservatives and Labour the same? It’s the electoral system, stoopid

Imagine a country where the views of well over half of the electorate are discounted and treated as an irrelevance. Imagine somewhere that well over half of its MPs are locked into place for life, depending entirely on where their constituency happens to be. Imagine a political system in which alternative parties have no chance of making any serious impact or achieving any serious change: despite gaining the support of more and more people, and the two major parties being in ever-deepening decline. And imagine a so-called democracy where, despite a demonstrable majority against right wing neo-liberalism having been in place for decades, that very thing has been implemented by both its major parties: with disastrous consequences for the country and public policy. That so-called democracy is in Britain.

Over the next few weeks, the Conservative and Labour parties will focus all their resources, all their policies, all their energy, on no more than 100,000 voters out of an electorate of approximately 43 million. In both cases, the aim will be to eke out not a majority – nowhere near a majority – but around 35% of the vote. Electors will be told that if they vote for their first choice, they might well end up with the option they least want; so they should vote for their second choice instead. Even, in many parts of the UK, their third choice. They should vote not for what they want, but against what they don’t want – despite the latter option having failed to protect the interests of the majority for almost four decades.

After the election, platitudes will be uttered by politicians about how they must “re-engage the electorate with the political process”; they must “regain trust in politics”. Then they will go straight back to doing the same old wilfully self-interested thing; and continue to uphold a medieval system designed to lock in the status quo forever. A system which does far more than anything else to disenfranchise the public from its so-called representatives: with consequences far, far beyond the ballot box. Yet which incomprehensibly, almost no-one ever talks about.

Democracy is supposed to protect the interests of the people. In Britain, it does the exact opposite: routinely working against the many, in favour of the few. First Past The Post doesn’t merely lock the public out of their democracy; it even results in policy after policy from both major parties which do the country enormous harm, and divide it not so much down the middle, as between the wealthiest and the rest.

Consider this. Since 1979, the Thatcherite neo-liberal consensus has been implemented, consolidated, and is now accepted by all three of Britain’s traditional parties – despite there being no evidence that the majority of the British public actually supports it. Over the same time frame, all economic discourse and analysis in the UK has favoured Tory trickle-down economics and monetarism – despite inequality having increased massively; despite social mobility having remained so static, it is now the worst in the Western world; despite MPs being drawn from ever narrower socioeconomic backgrounds; despite a whole generation now being increasingly unlikely to own their own homes: the first generation in modern history who’ll be less well-off than their parents; despite even the Union itself now being in clear and present danger.

How has this happened? It’s not that the British public has shifted dramatically to the right. It’s that, in effect, the electoral system has. In any genuine democracy, not only would the split on the left of the early 1980s have been of no major consequence; it’d have been a demonstrably good thing, allowing electors more real choice. But under FPTP, its consequences were a disaster.

With two parties competing on the left, and only one on the right, the Tories were rewarded with massive majorities: despite never securing more than 44% of the vote. Not only that, but the iniquities of the voting system forced Labour to move ever further rightwards to have any hope of winning, meaning it morphed into something almost unrecognisable. So many protest with enormous justice that “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me” – but what they don’t understand is why.

FPTP is so disproportionate, so wildly unrepresentative, general election after general election come down to no more than 100 marginal seats. Swing voters in these constituencies aren’t in the centre; they’re not the median of the entire electorate. By and large, they’re on the centre-right or further right: middle-aged or older home-owners with concerns over healthcare, pensions and immigration. So what do the Tories and Labour do? Design almost their entire agenda around the wishes of this small group.

That’s why the Conservatives, for all their top-down re-organisation, have yet to destroy the National Health Service. That’s why Labour proclaim the need for “fiscal responsibility” (seeking swing voters from the Tories) and “controlled immigration” (seeking to win back former voters who’ve been lost to Ukip). And that’s why neither party will even touch pensioners, the most influential voting demographic in the UK by a distance; and not even Labour dares to broach the appalling impact of this government on those least able to sustain it. Benefit sanctions are vote-winners in swing constituencies; so benefit sanctions there must be, even when the consequences for the poor, the sick, the disabled and mentally ill should shame any so-called civilised society.

The poor? They don’t count in Britain’s electoral system; they’re an irrelevance. Instead, both parties wax lyrical about “Britain’s hard-working families”: both need to be seen as on the side of these middle or higher income workers. Those who can’t find work or are too ill to do so? Nobody speaks or cares about them. They don’t make the difference under FPTP – so they may as well not exist as far as public policy and discourse are concerned.

The obsession with keeping home-owners – a critical demographic in these seats – happy is what leads to Conservative pledges on inheritance tax (which panicked Gordon Brown into failing to call an early general election in 2007, and were repeated only at the weekend); and grotesquely, to the extraordinary, ongoing failure to build desperately needed housing over the last 30 years, or take any action whatever on maximum rents, buy-to-let landlords, or a land value tax.

Why? If demand overwhelms supply, the demographic which decide British general elections benefit, while the majority are impoverished by extortionate, ludicrous rent and house prices. In any democracy, the interests of that majority would be protected. Under FPTP, those of profiteers are instead: which is precisely why today, the Tories will unbelievably announce not a desperately needed mass build of new homes – but the forced sale of social housing. This kills two birds with one stone: it inflates the property bubble even further, while reaching out to younger, aspirational swing voters. The ‘right to buy’ sounds wonderful – until you realise that under a mountain of mortgage-related debt, what goes up must inevitably come crashing down; not to mention the crisis levels of housing shortages which David Cameron’s party are actively encouraging.

Quite what the government is going to do when, 30 or 40 years from now, it is faced with a whole generation of pensioners who need housing benefit just to live, heaven only knows. But that’s what happens when the common good is ignored; and FPTP forces it to be so. Just as, with affluent swing voters desirous of high quality public services, but wholly unwilling to see their taxes rise and in favour of light touch regulation, the last Labour government embarked on a long term programme of expenditure without the structural means to pay for it. The economy grew bloated on house prices and consumer debt; Labour failed to save money for a rainy day or regulate the banks; and the crash (or at least, an inability to protect Britain from its consequences) was the result.

This wasn’t because Gordon Brown didn’t understand economics. It was because, had New Labour supplied a tougher approach to regulation and much more honest one to tax, most of those swing voters wouldn’t have voted for it. Thus were the interests of the minority protected at the expense of the country: as they have once more under the current government. 64% of voters (and close to 80% of the entire electorate) did not vote Conservative in 2010; yet a nine-tenths Tory government, waging disproportionate war on the poor with consequences of the most grievous kind for social structures, communities and the alleged safety net, was the outcome.

Here, of course, proponents of FPTP would interject with: “But we’ve had a coalition since 2010! And in proportional systems, coalitions formed through backroom deals would be the norm!” Except that:

(1) In countries with proportional voting sytems, alliances are formed before, not after elections: the illegitimacy of this coalition lies in so many Liberal Democrat voters having done so to keep the Tories out, not let them in;

(2) The Lib Dems, too used for their own good to Britain’s endemically tribal, adversarial system, committed the fundamental, fatal error of not appreciating that for a coalition to be formed, they – not the Tories – held all the cards; so if the Tories did not make large concessions in their direction, they should not have joined with them, and left Cameron to hold together a minority government requiring cross-party agreement at vote after vote: a result not of any problem with democracy, but because a genuine democracy prevents policy being railroaded through against the will of the majority (in this case, 64% of the electorate);

(3) Vastly more proportional systems already exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the result of which has been a vastly more consensual, grown-up approach to politics. If Northern Ireland – with all its ancient sectarian enmity – can do this, why on Earth can’t the rest of the UK?

Power sharing at Stormont

At Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday, two baying mobs hurl abuse at each other and behave like a pack of hyenas. The Labour MP, Stella Creasy, refers to Westminster as “Hogwarts gone wrong”; of a legislature entirely disconnected from the general public. Parliaments in other countries are open and accessible to the people; and at Holyrood, First Minister’s Questions takes place in an atmosphere unrecognisable from that of the House of Commons, despite all the competing passions which the Scottish referendum and, just as much, its aftermath, have generated.

Scottish politics are now more representative of the people than ever before; whereas Westminster’s adversarial nature (where MPs shout at one another while competing for a smaller and smaller space in the political spectrum: because that small space is inhabited by those 100,000 swing voters) turns millions off, and is increasingly filled by career politicians whose families supported them through university degrees and unpaid internships, went on to work for think tanks, NGOs or MPs, and who – raised as they’ve been under the Thatcherite consensus forced by FPTP – have little or no conception of the reality of life for tens of millions of Britons.

Not only that, but if someone from outside that privileged, professional politician’s background wants to stand for election, it almost solely depends not on what they stand for, but where they live. Marginal constituencies are the exception, nor the rule; the bulk of MPs beneficiaries of lifelong sinecures if they happen to hold not so much safe seats as rotten boroughs, where it doesn’t matter how little or how much campaigning they do, how little or how much work they perform for those they are supposed to represent. The expenses scandal, hardly surprisingly, was the result of this; the almost total failure to do much about it, likewise.

Goodness knows how many talented people are lost entirely to political life as a result of such an antiquated system; but if you don’t agree with Labour’s centre-right platform, or the Tories’ much further right agenda, there’s no point in seeking election. You have no chance of ever changing anything; for without first achieving power, how can reform ever happen?

In the late 1990s, Tony Blair had the chance to implement the findings of the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform. He ignored them completely. Labour’s narrow party political interest was vastly more important to it than the public interest: than something which actually represented the will of the people. As it was then, so it remains now: only a handful of Labour politicians speak openly about the need for reform, and even then, the focus – bizarrely – is only on local government elections. Not, perish the thought, despite unparalleled levels of public disenchantment with their representatives, on Westminster.

In 2011, even the Lib Dems, the only major party which had long stood for constitutional and electoral reform, entirely sold out. Disgracefully, despite having continually rejected the Alternative Vote as a “miserable little compromise” (in fact, it’s even worse: it’s the only electoral system anywhere which is frequently more unrepresentative than FPTP, and produces bizarre outcomes in Australia and even in the Labour leadership election, which Ed Miliband ‘won’ despite David Miliband receiving more first-preference votes), they attempted to inflict it on the country. Even now, extraordinary numbers of people believe Britain rejected ‘proportional representation’ at the referendum; yet AV is about as far removed from PR as it’s possible to conceive.

In committing this appalling volte-face on his party’s most cherished aspiration – a desire to turn Britain into a representative democracy at last – Nick Clegg set the cause of electoral reform back decades. Now, no party wants anything to do with it – yet what could be more important than democracy? Especially when FPTP has resulted not in ‘strong, stable government’, but in bad, divisive, unpopular, unrepresentative government, set against the backdrop of an angry, anti-political, even apolitical climate, in which the will of the majority is ignored, and anyone left of centre has no major party even to vote for?

Consider: at every election since 1979, had PR been in place, every single share of the vote would’ve been significantly different. It’s obvious that the Lib Dems (or their forerunners, the Alliance) would’ve received much higher support had there been any point in voting for them: had their seat share actually reflected their vote share. And without tactical voting – without electors throughout the country forced into voting against something, rather than for something – again, the results would’ve changed dramatically. The 30-35% of support which both major parties lay claim to now probably isn’t even close to what would occur under a proportional system; both enjoy only small amounts of enthusiastic public backing, yet both continue to dominate the political landscape because of a wholly iniquitous system.

More than that: just as in 1987, when despite 58% of voters, and almost 70% of the total electorate, failing to vote Tory, the poll tax was the result, had PR been in place in 2001, Blair would have been prevented from taking Britain to war in Iraq. No decision has done more to damage Britain’s reputation abroad, or disenchant the public at home; but under PR, the strength of the Lib Dems would’ve meant that the split in the Labour party would’ve proven decisive. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Blair would’ve even considered war had the Parliamentary arithmetic been against him.

That’s what proportional systems do. They protect against bad, unrepresentative public policy, and ensure that the wishes of all voters – not just those in marginal constituencies – are taken into account. In Germany, whose electoral system was actually designed by the British in the late 1940s, which has built a sustainable economy for the long term while Britain, focused on keeping those swing voters happy, has had a wholly unbalanced, Home Counties-centric one for almost four decades, even if the constitution didn’t prevent it from going to war, the presence of the Greens in coalition with Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats would certainly have done. So non-tribal, mature and focused on the common good are German politics, Angela Merkel even formed a Grand Coalition with the SDP in 2005: unthinkable in Britain, yet which succeeded and got things done for the benefit of the whole country.

And in Uruguay, where the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) have been in place in 2004, slashed poverty and inequality and maintained constant, at times dramatic economic growth, again, its proportional system protects against bad policy. The essentially social democratic FA have only remained in power by pursuing a centrist economic approach, encouraging foreign investment and controlling inflation. If it moved too far to the left, its two rivals on the centre and centre-right would combine at Presidential run-offs to keep it out of office. All parties of government in all genuine democracies need to focus on the centre ground; but in the UK, it isn’t in the middle of the whole electorate, but on the centre-right, where those precious 100,000 voters reside.

So appalling is this state of affairs, it’s even done more to precipitate increasingly likely Scottish independence than anything else. Scotland voted heavily Labour at every election between 1979 and 2010; the Tories were wiped out after 1997. Yet because of FPTP, it was rewarded with the Tories at five of those elections; Tory lite at the other three. Entirely correctly, as the three Westminster parties clearly don’t represent Scotland’s interests in any way, and obsess over southern, centre-right voters instead because of FPTP, the Scottish electorate has simply had enough. The looming SNP landslide will inevitably force matters to a head only 8 months after the independence referendum.

Not only that, but with Labour forced by FPTP to focus on England, not Scotland, and it having grown disgracefully complacent over many decades regarding its support north of the border, it is now palpably under-resourced in Scotland; and even what we might term, under-messaged. Twice over the last week and a bit, Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, has simply lied to the public: first over First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘support for the Tories’ which never was; then even telling the electorate that Labour wouldn’t make cuts in Scotland, when its own UK manifesto says it will.

Like all his predecessors as Scottish Labour leader since the late, much lamented Donald Dewar, Murphy is out of his depth and inadequate: wholly unable to understand a rapidly changing political landscape all around him. But Labour’s leaders in Scotland have continually been so awful at a time that not one, but two SNP leaders have been hugely popular because the party focuses all its energies on the south: again as a result of FPTP.

Chuka Umunna, sometimes hailed as Britain’s future answer to Barack Obama, plays well in suburban, metropolitan seats – yet not only did he have no compunction in throwing Murphy under a bus and publicly humiliating him on the BBC yesterday (with shattering consequences for any remaining Labour hopes in Scotland), but in September, the very day after the referendum, he could only name two Labour MSPs.

Under FPTP, Scotland has been of no consequence to Labour; so naturally, it’s stopped caring about or even attempting to understand it. Even its rallying call of “vote SNP, get Tories” only draws loud attention to the very thing which has done so much to break the UK apart. Labour hasn’t protected Scotland from the ravages of neo-liberalism over the last 35 years; it can’t and won’t do so now (as its manifesto, launched yesterday, confirms); and in a so-called democracy, it publicly warns the electorate against voting for who they want! There could scarcely be a better advertisement for PR – and in the event of independence, PR, real self-determination, real choice, and real representation, is what Scottish voters will at long last be granted.

Elsewhere in the UK, the rest of the electorate, just as disenfranchised by FPTP but without a force remotely as powerful as the SNP to get behind, flail around helplessly in all directions, searching for someone or something to blame; and are deflected by deeply cynical politicians and a compliant media (whose owners and employees are beneficiaries of the Greed Is Good politics of the last two generations) towards Europe or immigration – which has become a problem only because of the continued prioritisation of rentier classes in south-east England as a result of FPTP – while attacking almost all MPs for being “out of touch”. Remarkably, their focus is never on the very thing which rigs the entire process in the first place: the voting system.

So as you watch the media provide wall-to-wall coverage of the next three and a half weeks; Labour and the Conservatives trade announcement after announcement, rebuttal after rebuttal, remember: this isn’t for your benefit. It’s for the benefit of around 100,000 people in no more than 100 marginal constituencies. Nobody else counts; the views of a massive majority are ignored, even when the consequences for the whole country are so fractious and so appalling. When is a democracy not a democracy? When it’s in Britain.