Uruguay’s mounting crisis: a parable for the paralysis of the Left

This summer, as the British Labour Party finds itself blindsided by the rise of Leftist populism, a number of analyses have sought to counterpose this against broader problems facing the Left across Europe. In power in many countries at the time of the 2008 crash, and having embraced free market economics and neoliberalism in many cases, social democratic parties have been left unable to articulate an alternative to traditional supporters enduring falling living standards, rising levels of job insecurity, and who – for the first time since 1945 – see an economic and political system which is palpably failing them.

In the absence of new ideas, the Left has increasingly taken refuge in old ones, generally defined in opposition to something: most notably, austerity. Paul Mason views this as the start of a long transition signalling the end of capitalism as we know it; the trouble is, as whatever will replace it is still entirely unclear, social democratic parties find themselves trapped defending a system which they know no longer works, amid a context of what was once organised labour being dispersed, atomised, by the rise of self-employment, the digital economy and globalisation.

In trouble across Europe – only in Italy, where the centre-right was humiliated by various euro-related disasters, are the social democrats still in a position of relative strength – the Left’s only (supposed) success story has been in South America: where it’s dominated over the last decade and more. But even there, its position is now dramatically weakening, for reasons which are depressingly familiar.

In any case, we should note that what might seem like ‘success stories’ to unreconstructed Leftists have amounted to little more than ugly, lowest common denominator populism in too many cases. The main driver behind the Left’s rise in South America has been powerful, emotive memories of the 1970s: when the US covertly supported a whole host of murderous, fascist dictatorships, particularly in the continent’s South Cone (encompassing Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay). As democracy returned, and those who grew up under these regimes came of age, populist, socialist movements grew in influence: most of which styled themselves in opposition to the imperialist meddling of Washington.

Yet when they came to power, the response of a number of leaders (particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and to a lesser extent, Argentina) was to consciously divide their countries between rich and poor. To oppose the demagogue Hugo Chávez in Venezuela was to be depicted as part of some American-backed Fifth Column, trying to bring the horrors of the 1970s back; and while it’s true that the CIA have clearly tried to infiltrate the opposition at times, it’s more accurate to say that under President Obama, the State Department has simply waited for Venezuela to collapse, as it inevitably will.

In August 2003, around 3.2m signatures were collected for a recall referendum against Chávez, provided for in the constitution. These were rejected by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on the grounds of being put together before the midpoint of the Presidential term; the government then raided CNE and seized the petitions. In September, the opposition collected a new set of signatures, some 3.6m: rejected by the CNE on the grounds that many were invalid. Riots which killed nine and injured 1200 followed this decision. The petitioners appealed to the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court, which reinstated 800,000 signatures, bringing the total to well over the 2.4m required; but this was overturned by the Court’s Constitutional Chamber, and again, the government seized the list.

Eventually, the referendum was granted – but only after the list of signatories was posted online by Luis Tascón, member of the National Assembly and government supporter. On television, Chávez boasted about the list, warning darkly that “those who sign against Chávez are signing against their country… against the future”; and that all signatories would “remain registered in history, because they’d have to put their name, last name, signature, ID number and fingerprint”.

Signatories now found themselves fired, denied jobs, denied official documents, threatened and intimidated by government-backed militias. Many fled the country. When it came, the referendum was rigged, as subsequent elections have been. The list itself can still be bought even now from market stalls in Caracas for a few dollars.

When supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, or the man himself, defend Venezuelan ‘democracy’, they are actually defending a police state: in which opposition leaders are jailed, and opposition supporters intimidated and worse by militias. Despite being one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, it’s a basket case. There is no paper or toilet paper on the shelves; the puppet Parliament has given Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’ successor, the right to rule by decree; Maduro falls back on comically suggesting that the Americans will bomb Venezuela, and sabre rattling against neighbouring Colombia and Guyana; food shortages remain endemic; murder, kidnapping and violent crime have reached epidemic proportions. Chávismo, whatever it stood for to begin with, has failed.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, President Rafael Correa uses millions of dollars from the country’s intelligence budget to censor and remove online videos and other information critical of him. The last remaining freedom of expression NGO was ordered by the government to close earlier this month, despite recording more than 600 attacks against journalists over the last four years. Amnesty International has accused Correa of restricting “core human rights of freedoms of assembly, association and expression in Ecuador”.

And in Argentina, which took to inventing its own inflation figures out of thin air, has imposed strict currency controls, and where the media has found itself under continual government attack, the as yet unexplained death of Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor investigating the 1994 car bombing of the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, again brought into focus a country where corruption is rife, the intelligence services have alarming amounts of unchecked power, and where freedom of the press is, in practice, significantly lacking. The peso was devalued by 20% in 2014; further devaluation is likely next year, and on the black markets, the currency has fallen much further.

The response of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been, again, to sabre rattle: against Britain over the Falklands, American hedge fund managers, even Uruguay over a pulp mill. Peronism, a political doctrine which essentially stands for nothing, depends on this sort of populism. It’s a mistake to view Kirchner as a socialist; she’s not. She’s a neo-corporatist who buys off the poor while providing no genuine long term help, while encouraging a cult of personality – anathema to fully functioning republics, as the speech below beautifully explains – common to the leaders mentioned above, as well as Evo Morales in Bolivia. None of these countries are success stories; none should be cited by any sort of serious, grown-up Left as models to be emulated.

With the Brazilian economy in crisis, its oligarchs still hugely powerful (demonstrated by the FIFA scandal as much as anything else), and Dilma Rousseff weighed down by corruption allegations, what does that leave? Peru to an extent; Chile and Uruguay. On the South American Left, only the latter two countries (routinely cited in surveys as safest, least corrupt, and offering the continent’s best quality of life) have been consistent successes over the last decade: in both cases, by remaining moderate, non-ideological, and seeking to bring the whole country with them. Not cynically dividing them and engaging in what, in Argentina to an extent and Venezuela especially, has often amounted to political warfare against legitimate opponents.

Michelle Bachelet’s Chile is often described, albeit dubiously, as South America’s only First World country. The politics of its government? For want of a better term, Blairite. But the country itself is not remotely left wing, and closer ideologically to Colombia (which has increasing ties with the US) than the rest of the continent. Bachelet, moreover, is now enduring historically appalling approval ratings: which encouraged Latin American conspiracy theories regarding Chile’s recent Copa América triumph on home soil, are predicated mostly on a corruption scandal involving her son and daughter-in-law; and presage, almost certainly, a shift to the Right at the next election. Bachelet’s socialists are in trouble.

All of which brings us to Uruguay: the main focus of this article. A country tiny in population (just 3.4m, almost half of whom live in the capital, Montevideo), plentiful in water supplies and green spaces (geographically, it’s around the size of England and Wales), famous for its football and beef, and where welfarist traditions abound. A century ago, under the watch of celebrated President José Batlle y Ordóñez, Uruguay implemented one of the world’s first genuine welfare states: including unemployment benefit, eight-hour workdays, and huge government intervention in the economy. Many credit the socially cohesive, homogenous society which resulted with helping Uruguay, which became known as the Switzerland of South America, lift the football World Cup in 1930 and 1950.

But after the Second World War, in tandem with the rest of the South Cone, Uruguay fell into increasingly precipitous social and economic decline. The conditions triggering the dictatorship gradually fell into place as the country moved towards the extremes and Leftist activists, the Tupamaros (MLN-T) began robbing banks, gun clubs and other businesses, redistributing the proceeds to the poor. In 1968, faced with serious labour unrest, President Jorge Pacheco enforced a state of emergency and repealed all constitutional protections. Political dissidents were imprisoned and tortured; demonstrations were brutally repressed. The MLN-T responded by morphing into a fully fledged urban guerilla movement, which engaged in political kidnappings, bombings and assassinations.

Among their number was one José Mujica. Apprehended by the authorities on no fewer than four occasions, he ultimately spent 13 years in captivity: including a two-year spell in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well, where his only friends were rats. The insurgency peaked in 1970, and the Tupamaros had collapsed by mid-1972. Combined with the rigging of the 1971 election in favour of Juan María Bordaberry’s Colorado Party, this paved the way for the military to confront the independence of first the judiciary, then the executive, then the legislative. The dictatorship was ushered in in 1973; and at one point, presided over more political prisoners per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Uruguay, though, has always been a curious, idiosyncratic sort of place. Few countries anywhere have been presented with a constitutional plebiscite designed to ratify a military junta, let alone had the courage to reject it: as to their rulers’ shock, the people did in 1980. Even fewer would, at a further referendum, then reject the chance to prosecute those responsible: yet Uruguay did in 2009, despite many of those who had been part of the MLN-T insurgency now being in power.

How had the latter come to pass? Uruguay returned to democracy in 1984; and in the 1990s, embarked on a series of privatisations. Its always important financial sector became alarmingly dependent on Argentinian depositors seeking to hide their savings from prying tax inspectors, and taking advantage of Uruguayan banking secrecy. Uruguay was increasingly economically reliant on its much larger neighbour: meaning when Argentina catastrophically defaulted in December 2001, Uruguay suffered its own enormous financial crash the following year.

The 2002 crisis remains the pivotal watershed in the country since the dictatorship. The banks were shut for a week; hundreds of thousands fell out of the middle class into serious poverty; a lost generation of children brought up in such conditions wasn’t the danger, but the likelihood. Something had to give.

Since the return to democracy, the Leftist Frente Amplio (FA) (Broad Front) had been making gradual progress – but was up against two political leviathans. Between them, the Partido Colorado and Partido Nacional (Blancos) had governed Uruguay ever since its formation in 1830: the former, the party of the cities; the latter, the party of the countryside. No recognisably Leftist party ever usurped this duopoly: albeit the impact of Batlle’s reforms was such that both major parties tended, for the most part, to coalesce around the centre, and rarely attempt anything extreme. Other than the period around the dictatorship, democracy and pluralism (the latter, more than anything, is the cornerstone of Batllismo) were always respected.

The impact of the crash, though, completed the Frente Amplio‘s rise; and for that matter, squared the circle for many involved with the Tupamaros over 30 years earlier. The old politics had failed. Now, by putting together a coalition which encompassed communists, socialists, social democrats, social liberals, centrists and independents all under one banner – uniting the entire Left in a manner which, unfathomably, has still not been attempted in Britain – the ancien régime was swept aside, and Tabaré Vázquez returned as President, with a huge mandate. Vázquez and the FA won 51.7% of the vote, eliminating the need for a Presidential run-off. The governing Colorados were obliterated: collapsing from 32.8% at the 1999 first round to just 10.6%. Usurped in the cities by the FA, in a manner not unlike New Labour’s surge across London and the south-east in 1997, for the Colorados – historically, by far Uruguay’s most successful party – there was no way back.

Vázquez now commenced a comprehensive wave of reforms. Income tax was introduced for the first time; $100m was invested in emergency food and health programmes; the healthcare system itself was turned into an insurance-based scheme accessible to all Uruguayans. Poverty was slashed from 32% to 20%; extreme poverty from 4% to 1.5%. Notably, the government also presided over the One Laptop Per Child (Plan Ceibal) scheme, the first of its kind in the world, which provided every grade school student and teacher in Uruguay with a laptop connected to the internet.

The President further endeared himself to his compatriots by standing up to Argentina during a bizarre dispute over a pulp mill in Fray Bentos. His counterpart, Nestor Kirchner, complained that its construction would contaminate the Uruguay River, which separates the two countries. Bridges over the River were blockaded by enraged locals in Argentina; Kirchner took Uruguay to the International Court of Justice (ICJ); Uruguay threatened to resort to the World Trade Organisation.

The dispute lasted fully 7 years – and was ended by the ICJ ruling that the plant could keep operating, and both governments agreeing to the creation of a bi-national commission which would monitor river pollution. Vázquez later revealed he’d even considered the possibility of a military conflict: and sought the backing of his friend, George W. Bush, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s Secretary of State. Just in case.

Ultimately though, what made Vázquez’ success possible was sustained economic growth. GDP rocketed by 10.5% in 2005, and growth averaged 7% over subsequent years. Moreover, what separated the FA from so many Leftist governments across the continent was its pragmatism: cautious, even neoliberal economic policies were pursued, with foreign investment encouraged and inflation controlled. Most of the credit for this was due to the brilliant Danilo Astori, leader of the centrist Asamblea Uruguay and Vázquez’ indispensable finance minister.

Before being swept from power, the old parties had warned that the Left would turn the country into Cuba. Quite the opposite. Looking back, what’s remarkable was how well a coalition of such diverse political positions held; all those within the FA who’d fought for so long to achieve power and change Uruguay never lost sight of the bigger picture. The President, meanwhile, was in his element: an oncologist by profession, he’d been entrusted with a patient in near terminal condition, successfully removed the tumour and given it a new lease of life.

Tabaré Vázquez

Uruguay’s constitution does not allow a President to serve two consecutive terms. So Vázquez, who basked in extraordinary approval ratings of 80%, departed; and the overwhelming success of his government made Mujica, his very different successor, a virtual shoo-in. This was indeed quite a story. 25 years earlier, Mujica had been in captivity; 39 years earlier, after being shot six times by police, the then guerilla had been fighting for his life in a Montevideo hospital. Now, Uruguay’s answer to Nelson Mandela became its unique, truly one-of-a-kind head of state.

When they travel to other continents, Uruguayans are used to being asked just where their country is. “Is it in Africa?”, enquire some. “Part of Argentina?”, wonder others. Two men have done a huge amount to change this and put the place on the map. Footballing icon Luis Suárez; and Pepe Mujica. The world’s humblest President: who lives on a farm, grows his own food, gave 90% of his salary to charity, never wears a tie in any circumstances, and whose sole, cherished possession is a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.

Pepe and his beloved Beetle

I moved to Uruguay in February 2012. When I arrived, people I spoke with were embarrassed by Mujica. “We can’t have a President who behaves like this!”, they wailed. “It looks terrible for us!” I thought it was wonderful, and told them as much: “We’d go crazy for someone like him in Europe!” For Mujica then, read Corbyn now? There are parallels: not only in their politics and peculiar appeal, but their humility.

That very humility, indeed, was why contrary to what might’ve been expected, Mujica initially consolidated his predecessor’s moderation and good sense. Astori was now Vice-President: under his watch, growth and stability continued, while the President kept those on the far Left of the coalition at bay. In the meantime, the FA married social liberalism with social democracy: passing legislation allowing abortion, equal marriage, and proposing that the sale of cannabis be regulated.

This latter idea was what sprung Mujica into global prominence. What’s rather less known, though, is that next to nothing has actually happened. Cannabis is the perfect example of how Mujica’s image is not matched by the reality: many Uruguayans believe he was much more concerned with how he appeared overseas than making a substantive difference at home; some, of the more cynical variety, even think that where Pepe’s concerned, it’s mostly all an act.

In 2013, Mujica gave a celebrated speech to the UN General Assembly, where he fulminated against the world’s obsession with consumption. He urged a return to simplicity: family, love, free time, a planet based not on markets but on conservation and fraternity. Free time, indeed, is a favourite theme of his; but with the cost of living in Uruguay prohibitively high, it’s not a luxury enjoyed by anything like enough of his people. Dirty, litter-strewn streets and lack of recycling (if you try to recycle things in Uruguay, they’re often taken to the same place as the rubbish!) also sit at odds with the romanticised rhetoric.

Throughout my time in the country, I was always aware of its constant contrasts and contradictions. Of high quality, high speed internet – but which took a month of pleading phone calls and a dozen cancelled appointments for the state owned monopoly, Antel, to finally install. Of buses which are cheap and reliable enough, but on which there isn’t enough room to swing a cat: if you have any luggage, whatever you do, take a taxi. Of taxis which, unlike in Buenos Aires, are safe: it’s just that the drivers fancy themselves as the next Lewis Hamilton and take you halfway round Montevideo first. Of a locale which always, to me, felt safe; but only because of porters in every apartment block, security guards outside every bank… and which was punctuated intermittently by news of a particularly shocking murder.

Most Uruguayans believe the country has never been less safe. Guns are readily available; murder and violent crime has risen alarmingly. Compounding this has been the rather ambiguous view of the government, many of whose members have a pathological distrust of the police thanks to their own awful experiences under the dictatorship. There aren’t many societies where the Interior Minister will blame a murder or robbery on ‘the consumer society… poor people want things too’, but it happens in Uruguay. Similarly, not many countries would, with football hooliganism rife, withdraw the police from a big match not to protect them (as was assumed around the world), but actually to protect football fans (and, it might be added, FA voters) from alleged police brutality. Last year, that happened too.

Again and again, what I noted was an extremely well-meaning government full of Leftist thinkers and academics, but which too often did not fully understand either the consequences of their policies, or the reality on the ground. A reality which, in cost of living, is so grim that the refugees Uruguay took in from Syria amid a huge fanfare last year recently asked to return home.

There were plenty of signs, then, that the FA was tiring during its second term – but as the economy continued to grow, poverty and inequality kept falling (reaching, in both cases, the lowest levels anywhere in Latin America: a fantastic achievement), and services by and large continued to deliver, nowhere near enough reason to kick the government out. In the middle of last year, the youthful, optimistic Luis Lacalle Pou, candidate for the centre-right Blancos, who seemed for all the world to have modelled his campaign on that which thrust David Cameron to prominence in 2005, briefly threatened a huge electoral shock. But as his policies came under scrutiny, his momentum fell away: under the marketing gloss lay not much by way of substance.

In any case, Uruguayans resist change like almost no other people anywhere; and Vázquez, the archetypal safe pair of hands, was back. Plenty of people were disenchanted with the government: but Vázquez is not of the Left, and his was a deeply reassuring presence. So much so that against all predictions, the FA actually improved its position – and in 10 years, almost nothing had changed. It still commanded around a half of the electorate; the Blancos remained stranded in the low 30s, the Colorados in the low teens. Another decade in government suddenly seemed inevitable.

But there was a problem. A large one. Vázquez is now 75, and will be 79 by the time of the 2019 election. Astori, now back to being finance minister, is also 75. Mujica is 80. And while the FA commands huge, vibrant support among young people, beneath these three political giants lies a lost generation: an extraordinary dearth not only of new ideas, but immediate future options. The individuals behind the FA’s rise were all radicalised by the 1970s: but memories of that time are fading, and almost nobody politicised during the 1980s or 1990s is ready to step into the breach.

Not only that, but the FA’s victory was so decisive that now, with their leaders old and tired, the far Left began to demand more. Much more. Fear of electoral defeat had gone; complacency and hubris set in instead. The consequences have eroded the government’s position at an increasingly disorienting pace.

Early this year, Uruguay’s public sector deficit was revealed to be much larger than expected: in fact, at 3.5% of GDP, the figure was almost identical to that during and after the 2002 crash. This owed to wild over-expenditure under Mujica (at whom fingers have been pointed with increasing fury); lower than expected tax revenues; and in particular, an enormous loss made by Antel. 2014 was the fourth consecutive year in which the country’s seven state-owned utilities had made an overall loss. Serious irregularities have since been alleged at Ancap, the state oil company; and gross managerial incompetence at OSE, the state water company.

During my time in Uruguay, there was always this worry in my head. With the unions becoming increasingly powerful but the state-owned companies inefficient and uncompetitive, was I watching some South American version of 1970s Britain slowly playing out before me? By way of warning, together with my students, I used to discuss how Margaret Thatcher had come to power: just as the British unions had rejected In Place Of Strife and paralysed the Callaghan government, would their Uruguayan counterparts end up bringing something similar upon them?

The alarming economic figures – in tandem with significantly slowing growth, inflation threatening to spiral out of control, and the peso dramatically depreciating against the dollar – called for immediate belt-tightening. Unhappily, the unions – and in Parliament, the far Left – saw it rather differently. On August 6, after a whole series of labour disputes, the first general strike in 7 years took place; followed by an ongoing education strike which has crippled the country.

In Uruguay, salaries for teachers are low – yet they’ve risen by 65% since the FA came to power. As well as mammoth pay rises (demands were for starting salaries to increase from $727/month to $1040/month, and an offer of $865/month was rejected), unions insisted that the education budget be ring fenced at 6% of GDP. The context of the country’s overall situation was treated as irrelevant.

In August, teachers walked out of primary, secondary schools and universities. After around a fortnight of this, the government had had enough: issuing, for the first time since Uruguay returned to democracy, an emergency decree. Vázquez declared that education was an essential public service, and effectively banned teachers from striking for 30 days. This amounted to a declaration of war; the unions certainly took it as such. Many teachers simply ignored it. The FA had entirely lost control of its own members.

Officially, with students facing having to work right up to Christmas (the school year usually ends in November) in order to catch up and take their exams, the strike ended without agreement on 3 September: the government stating that if teachers did not agree to an offer of $860/month, the extra money would be invested in school infrastructure. In practice, especially in Montevideo, industrial action continued: culminating in shambolic scenes on 22 September.

A group of high school students, demanding that the 6% of GDP threshold be met, occupied the Codicen building in the city centre. After several days of fruitless negotiations, a police tactical unit cleared the building – and were attacked outside by members of the Taxicab Drivers and Telephone Workers Union (SUATT); the Memory and Justice organisation; as well as what we might euphemistically term, hangers-on looking for trouble.

Images of what happened, and the all too familiar disarray of the police, can be seen here. Codicen is only a few blocks from Uruguay’s Parliament building: onto which, anti-government graffiti was scrawled. It’s difficult to recall another teachers’ strike anywhere which ended in such chaos.

Typically, much of the focus since has been on alleged police brutality: a running theme in Uruguay. The Left is so focused on human rights, and references the 1970s so often, that the police lack the stalwart government backing which is automatic in almost any other democracy. This leaves the police – who are underfunded, under-prepared, and in many cases, have to live in the same areas as criminals liable to threaten them and their families – frightened of taking decisive action for fear of themselves ending up in court; and plays an obvious part in the country’s growing insecurity. Indeed, over three-and-a-half years in what remains a very macho society, I scarcely met a woman who, if I asked them (which spotting a dispiriting theme, I very often did), hadn’t been robbed or mugged at one point or another.

Adding insult to injury, hugely depressing second quarter economic figures were revealed a fortnight ago. Wholly unexpectedly, GDP actually fell 0.1% compared with Q2 2014, compounding a 1.8% contraction over the first quarter of 2015. Now, not only slowdown, but recession seems increasingly possible: for reasons which are part internal, part external.

Uruguay is particularly dependent on Brazil and China, both of which are in trouble. It will not escape the impact of probable Brazilian and Argentinian devaluations next year; serious problems affecting Russia and the eurozone hardly help either. And as the economist, Pablo Rosselli, has highlighted, the government faces three awful dilemmas: between competitiveness and inflation (the latter is nearing the psychologically critical 10%); real wage growth and employment; public spending and deficit reduction. On each of these, the Left of the Frente Amplio is pulling the wearied administration in a direction it neither wants nor can afford to travel in.

If, as seems inevitable given the rapidly strengthening dollar, inflation does go over 10%, those hit most will be the poorest: those the government is most charged with helping. But of course, continued spending is only feasible if the economy grows in tandem. It’s stopped doing so; Astori and his colleagues are trapped.

Can Uruguay navigate a way out of this? It seems doubtful, not least because those charged with doing so are so old, so tired. For the first time in 11 years in power, the Left has taken a good look at Vázquez and realised, to put it bluntly: “He’s not one of us!” So when earlier this month and to the shock of observers, Uruguay walked out of negotiations over the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) – which has proven every bit as controversial as its more famous big brother, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – this was a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. The government did so under pressure from the unions; and that Vázquez made such a move well before it was clear what the agreement would actually involve underscored a loss of authority already apparent during last year’s election campaign, which could also be seen in stark terms during the education dispute.

Meanwhile, Mujica, probably the only man who could bring the Left to heel, has lamentably failed to do so, and continues to wax lyrical about some fantasy world unrecognisable to almost all Uruguayans. It’s not been lost on this observer that things started to go wrong domestically almost the moment that Pepe was discovered on the world stage, and began preoccupying himself with his image further afield.

Pulled between Left and Right, the Frente Amplio is as good as broken – but given it’s always been such a loose coalition, perhaps the only surprise should be that it’s taken so long. If you imagine a governing bloc whose two most important, powerful figures are 75-year-old Tony Blair and 80-year-old Jeremy Corbyn, you get a sense of how impossible this conundrum is to solve. The administration has faced more difficulty in six months than over the preceding 10 years; but those problems seem likely to only worsen.

Perhaps much of this is natural. Governments always tire after more than a decade in office; economics are always cyclical too. But there is in all of this a parable. As long as we live in a world of globalised free markets and interdependence – as long as corporations can up and leave if governments seek to put their taxes up – there will only ever be so much that any social democratic party anywhere can achieve. More than that, the moment it becomes too ideological, or frustrated supporters who don’t appreciate what they have drag it away from the centre, it hits more and more trouble. This was Labour’s sad experience after it removed Blair; and for all its considerable achievements, it appears increasingly likely to be the fate of Uruguay’s first ever genuine government of the Left too.

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On feminism… and on Labour

Feminism. What does it mean to you? To me, it’s about equality: equality of treatment, equality of respect, equality of opportunity. I don’t understand how anyone can oppose those basic tenets: all discrimination is wrong. And as the feminist movement has brilliantly highlighted over the last half century and more, the discrimination encountered by women, overt and more insidiously, covert, is particularly endemic.

It’s strange, then, how so many men – and surprising numbers of women – treat ‘feminism’ as a dirty word. Opposition to it is so often based on tropes (for example, so-called ‘Feminazis’ seeking to take over the world and/or emasculate men): in fact, many of the more basic critiques essentially owe to the same lazy prejudices still held by so many.

I want to start by setting out a premise. I think most men do not have the remotest idea of what women encounter on a daily basis. To be a woman in the public eye is, very plainly, to require the hide of a rhinoceros. The abhorrent rape and death threats which Stella Creasy, Caroline Criado-Perez and Mary Beard all encountered on Twitter two years ago seemed briefly to prick public consciousness about this: why on earth, asked Creasy, was this not treated in the same way as if someone walked up to her on the street and made the same threats?

To my mind, Creasy has been the most effective front line campaigner for feminism I’ve ever seen in politics. So often (most infamously, Margaret Thatcher), female politicians have broken the glass ceiling, then forgotten to keep publicising the cause of equality, or seek to help other women emulate or better their achievements. Creasy is quite the opposite. Her takedown of Toby Young on Newsnight during that sorry saga not only evidenced his casual, lazy sexism (no Toby, your sin wasn’t to “notice an extremely low cut dress of a particular MP sitting behind Ed Miliband”; it was to tweet about it like some leery schoolboy on heat); it was a masterclass in the vital line separating freedom of speech (or freedom to give offence) from freedom to threaten others. The former is sacrosanct in any civilised society; the latter is unacceptable and indefensible.

It’s true that public male figures have to put up with plenty of abuse too. But in their case, it’s rarely either sexualised or based on their gender. Women, on the other hand? Online, this form of abuse is rampant: as another feminist campaigner, Louise Mensch, demonstrated this week. For the crime of defending her Conservative colleague, David Cameron, in the wake of the most lurid allegations in Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s book, Mensch found herself subjected to a whole hail of hideous, vicious, revolting tweets, some of which are set out here.

Not for nothing did Yvette Cooper warn yesterday that online ‘trolling’ (actually, trolling is the harmless act of winding others up, usually via the assertion of a ridiculous opinion. This, on the other hand, is abuse) will inevitably stop some women ever going into politics, the media or business. Moreover, as Nick Cohen highlights in today’s Observer, women make up only 30% of MPs, 25% of judges and 21% of FTSE-100 company directors. To which I’d add the absurd, disgraceful disparity in pay which, 45 years after the Equal Pay Act supposedly outlawed any less favourable treatment between men and women, not only still obtains – but is actually growing.

As Cohen also notes, women are more likely than men to be in low-paid work, head a single-parent household, and live in poverty, especially in old age: a state of affairs which will only worsen under a government which attacks most those who have least. Two women, meanwhile, are murdered by their partners every week. Domestic violence accounts for between 16% and 25% of all recorded violent crime; and rape conviction rates remain appallingly low.

From an ever earlier age, girls find themselves sexualised and judged not on the content of their character, but their appearance. Access to online pornography (which all too often stigmatises and degrades women, and is based for the most part on arousing not female viewers, but male viewers) affects views on and expectations regarding sex of both boys and girls well before they reach the age of consent. And in the workplace, macho attitudes still abound. That’s why Charlotte Proudman reacted as she did when complimented on her LinkedIn profile picture: yes, her response was probably disproportionate, but the context is of a culture which still views women first and foremost through the prism of their appearance.

To many men, Proudman’s response was bewildering. Why wouldn’t a woman want to be complimented on her appearance? Answer: (1) It’s no-one else’s business; (2) It had nothing whatsoever to do with Proudman’s job. Take a look, for example, at the sort of tweets often sent to Isabel Hardman. Hardman is a brilliant, rapidly emerging journalist for The Spectator and increasingly, many other publications – yet this doesn’t stop alarming numbers of comments based on her appearance.

Most of the tweets I’ve linked to here are essentially harmless: with one dreadful exception. But since when do male journalists incur similar responses? They don’t. The same old double standard continues: which, we should add, also applies in television news. Male presenters are routinely kept in the spotlight long after their female counterparts. There’s no reason for this, other than a dreadfully cliched stereotype that associates men with gravitas and authority, women with looking pretty and providing ‘eye candy’.

Sexism, then, is everywhere. It exists in just about all facets of society – and women bear the enormous brunt of it. Why should they? Because “it’s always been this way”? We used to bait badgers, drown witches and treat women as their husband’s property too; women, indeed, have always been treated as second-class citizens in a world designed according to what suits men. No-one who believes in equality can defend this – and however much progress has been made, we’re nowhere near real equality as yet.

Then, much more alarmingly, is the colossal amount of violent abuse which goes largely unreported. Sex trafficking – the modern day slave trade – across Europe: in which women (often even below the age of consent) forced into selling their bodies are described as ‘sex workers’ when the reality is one of systematic, constant rape. Child pornography is described as such when, by definition, child pornography cannot exist. The accurate term is child rape. Horrendously widespread cases of systematic abuse of children and young women in Rotherham, Derby, Oxford, Telford, Bristol, Rochdale, and many other areas besides, especially in northern England. And worse: the very real fear is that those cases are the tip of a hideous, shocking iceberg.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a friend of mine. Quietly, painstakingly, she told me about the times men had followed her or chased her down the street; the catcalls she so often receives; the hands on her body in or out of nightclubs when this hadn’t been invited. And she also told me about when, as a teenager, stories about friends of hers being raped became more and more commonplace.

In 2015, do we have a society in which women feel able to speak out about this sort of horror? No, we don’t. In fact, women with the courage to tell their stories very often find themselves abused, smeared or blamed by a society which just does not want to know; which downplays it at every opportunity; which shamefully treats victims of rape as responsible in some way for their experiences. Rape is a life sentence; public ignorance which continues to surround it only further compounds the agony of all too many victims.

There are, then, abundant reasons why the feminist movement is so important: why it must continue to speak out and demand action across all areas. Of all Britain’s political parties, Labour has most often done so, and is becomingly increasingly feminist in its approach. I regarded its manifesto this year as by far its most feminist ever; and all the better for it.

But there’s a problem: a growing one. Difficult to articulate, especially in light of all I’ve set out above; but it does, nonetheless, need to be said. In Labour’s case, it revolves around tokenism over substance; positive discrimination which, in terms of the electorate it needs to vote for it, is increasingly counter-productive to the party’s aims. Above all, its feminist ones.

The idea behind All-Women Shortlists (AWS) is entirely laudable: to redress the continued gender imbalance in the House of Commons and, in this specific case, among Labour MPs. In terms of numbers, there’s no doubting their success: from a risible 3% of MPs when Harriet Harman first entered Parliament in 1982, women now make up a still completely unacceptable 29% of the Commons. 43% of Labour’s MPs are female; the Tories lag well behind on 21% (up from a stupefyingly awful 9% as recently as 10 years ago).

Nobody in Labour has done more for women’s rights than Harriet Harman

The argument made by Labour’s AWS proponents is, naturally, that these should continue until the 50% mark is reached among MPs. But what’s interesting is, at the same time as Labour has hugely increased its number of women MPs, it’s produced more and more robotic, machine politicians: frequently parachuted into constituencies, seen by increasing proportions of the public as looking the same, sounding the same, and having nothing of any importance to say.

That isn’t, incidentally, to blame women in any way. This is a Labour problem, not a women problem. Imagine any constituency: in which there might be 10 aspiring male candidates, 10 aspiring female ones. Instead of having 20 talented options to whittle down and choose from, Labour deliberately restricts itself. Then multiply that over the scores and scores of constituencies where it does this. By deliberately narrowing the field of talent before it’s even begun, Labour ends up with a Parliamentary Party which just isn’t as adept as it otherwise would be.

Does that mean I’m somehow arguing women are less capable than men in politics? No, not at all. In some strange parallel universe of men-only shortlists, I’d be making the exact same point. I’m highlighting the frightening paucity of talent throughout British politics, which applies equally to both men and women. In Labour’s case, this summer, three of its four candidates for leader were astonishingly unable to argue a clear, coherent, passionate case on almost anything; the sheer banality of the contest was what left the field open for Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide. Any party which ends up in such a position – all its ‘establishment’ options being so profoundly unimpressive – very obviously has a problem.

Just over a year ago, Austin Mitchell, outgoing Labour MP for Great Grimsby, attempted to make a similar point to Creasy on the BBC. Emphasis here on attempted: because for the crime of correctly describing AWS as ‘undemocratic’, he was shouted down by his colleague and barely allowed to get a word in. Have a look at the comments below the video: that sort of thing plays appallingly with the public, but Labour’s future is in that very public’s gift. And as all sorts of studies since the general election have shown, the electorate has a huge problem with the moralising self-righteousness of many on the left.

Sadly, the same self-righteousness was again on display as Corbyn announced his Shadow Cabinet. Against a backdrop of just one third of David Cameron’s Cabinet being female, that Corbyn was announcing the first majority female Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet in British history might, you would imagine, have been cause for some celebration. Quite the contrary. In fact, the focus of not only the press, but disgraceful numbers of Labour MPs, was that no woman had been handed the shadow of one of the four great offices of state (Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary).

Yesterday, Harman demanded Corbyn “sort it out so we have women’s leadership at the top of the party”. But this was nothing compared to Jess Phillips, recently elected MP for Birmingham Yardley: who complained about Corbyn’s failure to promote any women to the most senior posts, then roundly told Diane Abbott to “fuck off” when she interjected.

Phillips, in fairness to her, has since apologised. But what’s alarming here is, to be blunt, a palpable sense of entitlement. All the posts in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet were his gift to dispose; it was his job to appoint those he thought best for the job. To be sure, you can argue whether those he selected are best qualified – but it’s beside the point. “We must have women in the four great offices”? No. Only if they are deemed best for the job must they be given those roles.

As Corbyn’s appointments were leaking out, Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, noted acidly that “Jeremy Corbyn has married more women than he’s appointed to great offices of state”. Strangely, I can recall nothing from her fulminating against the lack of women writers on her publication. Nor, for that matter, anything from anyone in the media castigating the organisations they work for over the paucity of female political journalists. One self-aggrandising rule for them, another for Corbyn? It certainly seems that way.

Stephen Bush, Lewis’ colleague, went even further: comparing the huge difference between Corbyn’s vote this year and Abbott’s in 2010, and asserting on the basis of precisely nothing that “it is difficult… to argue that none of (the gap) was the result of racism and/or sexism”. Mindbogglingly, despite a piece which noted Sadiq Khan’s triumph in the Mayoral race, Bush even hinted at Labour having an ethnic minority problem too (in which case Stephen, how did Khan win?).

What Bush did was take a cosmetic, tokenistic view of an much more complex question. Corbyn, Tom Watson and Khan all won their respective contests because they were seen as the best candidates. Like Corbyn, Khan has huge support among the base of the party, while Watson has built up roots within it over a very considerable time. All three are very distinctive politicians: nobody views them as parrots or machines. And where Corbyn was concerned, the difference between now and 2010 was a profoundly different dynamic within the much enlarged party: caused primarily by the impact of austerity. A study of how many Labour members who voted for David Miliband in 2010 yet chose Corbyn this year would make very interesting reading.

In the case of Bush, Lewis, Phillips, Harman and many others, it simply won’t do to say “a woman didn’t win or didn’t get one of the biggest jobs; ergo we have a woman problem”. It treats an issue of profound importance – feminism and equality – in a completely shallow way. And in the case of the Shadow Cabinet, it’s not actually that far removed from Ashcroft’s extraordinary conduct in 2010. He tried to buy his way into the government and is furious this failed. Labour’s women have demanded particular patronage but not based this demand on merit either.

Just as Ashcroft seems divorced from reality in his complaints, those Labour MPs who criticised Corbyn seem to believe they are more important than those they represent; the people they are supposed to serve. On AWS, the appearance to much of the public must surely be similar. Yet that very same public increasingly decides general elections based almost entirely on the quality and credibility of the party leaders. Nowadays, they must almost always be photogenic, televisually effective, slick (despite the public so often complaining about that sort of politics, it repeatedly returns Cameron or Tony Blair, while rejecting Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown or William Hague) – and have some sort of indefinable X-factor.

On the basis of who the party leaders happen to be stands the entire future of the country and destiny of millions; thousands live or die depending on who the government of the day is. Yet in Labour’s case, by deliberately reducing the talent available to it in winnable constituencies, it thereby also reduces its field of potential leaders… and hence, makes it more difficult for itself to win elections. An incredible state of affairs: which with the Tories overseeing draconian cuts which are disproportionately harmful to women, often has tragic, even lethal consequences.

“Women’s leadership at the top of the party”, Harriet? Sure – as soon as a woman is considered the best choice for leader by its members. Anything else is to treat politics as some self-indulgent game, and ignore the consequences of not choosing a leader, Shadow Cabinet members or candidates for Parliament based purely and solely on merit. Harman, indeed, is simultaneously the individual in the Labour Party who’s done more to advance women’s rights and equality than anyone else (for which she was deservedly acclaimed yesterday); and a twice atrocious caretaker leader, who first allowed the Tories to take over the economic narrative and blame Labour for the crash, then blundered horrendously over welfare reform: while remaining the weak, ineffectual Commons performer she always was. Equality of treatment demands she be assessed on her periods as leader; she failed, miserably.

Similarly, as Cooper bemoans the extent of online misogyny and reminds us of her role with Sure Start, she neglects to mention that as Work and Pensions Secretary, she made the work capability assessment – one of the most disgusting, profoundly anti-women initiatives launched by any government in decades – much, much harsher. The warnings regarding this were set out at the time. Cooper also failed to oppose the horrendously anti-women Welfare Reform Bill in July. Is that what you call ‘feminism’, Yvette?

Yvette Cooper: often talks a better game than she practices

In the end, given the profound inequality and injustice which women continue to experience throughout society, feminism in politics can’t be about the cherry on top. It has to be about the cake beneath: about everything Labour does being geared towards winning. If Labour does not win, it cannot implement a feminist agenda; but by obsessing over gender politics in appearance, not substance, it unwittingly makes it harder to help women in the first place. Instead, they’re left to the mercy of a Tory government, with appalling consequences.

Of course, I write all this as a man. Perhaps no man can ever truly understand feminism 100%; perhaps no man can ever be a true feminist. But let me be very clear: I’m a man who is desperate for a Labour government, appalled at the lives being destroyed by austerity, and acutely aware of its iniquitous impact on women. It disgusts me. The injustice which women face on a daily basis has always disgusted me. In such a context, that Labour makes it harder for itself to win by continuing all-women shortlists and systematically reducing the talent available to it across the country right when it’s so up against it (if you don’t believe me, read this; then if it hasn’t sunk in, read it again until it does) and needs to reach out to everyone, male and female alike, isn’t only absurd. It’s a complete abdication of responsibility.

Tom Watson: he who wields the dagger WILL inherit the crown

Let me let you into Westminster’s worst kept secret. There is no chance – absolutely no chance – of Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour into the 2020 General Election. Corbyn is 66 now; at the time of the next election, he’ll be a few weeks short of seventy-one. The demands of modern political life make leadership no place for a septuagenarian.

But even if Corbyn were younger, there’d be no chance then either. This is someone who’s spent his entire political life on the backbenches, immersed in the politics of protest. He’ll never have even dreamt of making it to the Labour front bench, let alone the leadership; more to the point, he won’t have wanted to either. His performance (sic) so far as leader is an ample illustration why: Corbyn knows he’s been wildly over-promoted; that he isn’t up to the task of a job which requires authority and control over his party and its message. This is The Peter Principle writ large.

The Tories know it: that’s why they’ve already started insinuating that not Corbyn, but Labour en masse, are a “threat to security”. Dan Hodges knows it; Nick Cohen has called for it; Stephen Bush, as he hinted on Thursday, knows it too. Absurd though it might sound only a week into Corbyn’s leadership, the question for Labour is (1) How to replace him; (2) When; (3) With whom?

Two theories are doing the rounds. One involves Tom Watson (as she was the first to suggest it, even while the leadership contest was still ongoing, let’s call it the Mensch Thesis); the other, Alan Johnson. Let’s call that the Pedley Thesis, and take the second one first. On Thursday, Keiran Pedley set out his view that the genial Johnson, longtime Tony Blair loyalist, former General Secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, and who can now often be found making merry on Andrew Neil’s comfy sofa, could be the man Labour coalesce around midway through the Parliament, much as the Tories did with Michael Howard in 2003.

In my view, since Denis Healey was fatefully rejected in 1980, Labour have only produced three individuals who could have won a General Election in most circumstances: Blair of course, David Miliband… and that man Johnson. A major part of why Blair hung on so long after the Iraq debacle was his desperation that someone emerged who could stop Gordon Brown making a Horlicks of all his and New Labour’s good work. With his innate, preternatural political instincts as sharp as ever, Blair knew Brown wasn’t remotely successful Prime Ministerial material; but one man in his Cabinet was.

When, following an internal coup against him fronted by Watson in 2006, Blair announced preparations for his departure the following year, who was the friend by his side? Johnson. This wasn’t a coincidence. Over the nine-and-a-half months which remained, given Miliband was still too wet behind the ears, Blair must’ve hoped that Johnson could rise in prominence enough to credibly challenge Brown for the succession – but there was a problem. An insurmountable one. Johnson didn’t want the job. He never has.

British political history is full of counter-factual talking points. If Margaret Thatcher hadn’t been forced out by her own party, and instead allowed to lead it to defeat in 1992, the fratricidal nature of her exit wouldn’t have poisoned the Tories for so long afterwards. If Labour had won the 1992 election, but then faced Black Wednesday just five months later, goodness knows what existential damage this would’ve wrought. If John Smith had lived, Labour would never have moved so far rightwards and alienated (until last weekend, that is), so much of its core support. If Brown had called a snap election in 2007, David Cameron would almost certainly have been defeated, ousted by his party in favour of a right-winger, and Labour might well still be in power even now.

That Brown didn’t – he bottled it because of Cameron’s inheritance tax pledge – remains the most significant political watershed of this generation. His paralysis in the face of a glaring opportunity confirmed Blair’s worst fears and left Labour on the rack. They’ve never recovered since.

But in Summer 2009, as Brown reeled from catastrophic local and European results, there was another chance. Various ministers resigned; The Guardian called for the Prime Minister to do the honourable thing. With Labour hopelessly placed in the polls, perhaps recognising what a hospital pass the premiership seemed to represent, now – pace Michael Portillo 1995 – it was Miliband’s turn to dither. And again, Johnson clearly wasn’t interested.

Between then and the 2010 election, the horrendously unpopular Brown turned an insurmountable 20-point deficit into, with the aid of the Clegg bounce, a hung Parliament. Imagine how much better the outcome would’ve been for Labour had either Miliband or Johnson grasped the nettle: as a minimum, they’d have surely been the largest party. No Cameron and Osborne; no Liberal Democrat wipe-out this year; no Tory-led slash and burn, but Labour-led trim and singe instead.

Even then, after the wrong brother won the Labour leadership, there were further opportunities to oust the poorly performing Ed during the last Parliament. With David having exiled himself in New York, once more, the only man Labour could realistically have united around was Johnson; once more, loyalty to his party and his own very real humility trumped any ambitions which, to reiterate, he’s never held anyway.

At any point between 2007 and last weekend, Alan Johnson could’ve been the Howard-esque unifying figure which Labour will desperately require post-Corbyn. Had he succeeded Blair, Johnson – with broad appeal across the country and throughout his party, as well as a compelling backstory – could’ve been Labour’s John Major: a vastly more successful one too. But last weekend – and here’s where the Pedley Thesis collapses – the world tilted entirely on its axis.

By opening the leadership contest up, Ed Miliband’s unwitting legacy to the Labour Party was, in effect, its death; and the immediate, Phoenix-like emergence of a new, grassroots-based movement of the left. A long overdue fusion of traditionalism and radical populism. Labour was never going to be miraculously immune from the anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal forces which have propelled the rise of Syriza, Podemos, the SNP or Bernie Sanders; nor the sterilisis which has plagued its social democratic sister parties across Europe. As Britain’s increasingly absurd electoral system strangles new parties at birth, this fusion was the only answer for the left. A personal view is its long term outcome – 10 or 15 years from now, with or without Scotland – will be the implementation of proportional representation.

What does this mean? Put simply, the Blairite wing of the party is finished, for good. That’s why we’re hearing rumours of disgruntled Blairites crossing the floor: they know the game is up. Although he’d furiously protest to the contrary, I suspect this is part of what’s put Cohen’s nose so out of joint; it certainly has with John “who cares about the grassroots?” McTernan. But Johnson, however popular and likeable he remains, is himself a Blairite; and would certainly be seen as such by an infuriated, much expanded membership in the event of Corbyn’s departure.

On Wednesday, Hodges wondered whether “there’s a choice for Labour other than simply embracing Corbynism or returning to Blairism?” The always perceptive Telegraph columnist has already sensed which way the wind’s blowing. What’s happened isn’t just about Corbyn at all; the changes in Labour’s make-up are seismic and irreversible. Centrifugal forces cannot be resisted: there can never be a return to the top-down triangulation of the past.

Where I differ from Stephen Bush, though, is I’d argue that Labour’s soft left were in full-blown retreat after Blair’s accession in 1994; all but vanished altogether; then started making small, baby steps forward during Miliband’s ill-starred leadership. Now, not so much the hard left (who, other than John McDonnell, is of the hard left and among Corbyn’s more senior Shadow Cabinet members?) as the soft left are triumphant.

Not for nothing did Neal Lawson state Labour were as good as dead only to publicly declare for Corbyn, to say nothing of Anthony Barnett and Jeremy Gilbert chiming in with their support: along with, in the latter’s case, his vehement disdain for Blairism. The often mischaracterised Owen Jones, Zoe Williams, Paul Mason and Aditya Chakrabortty are all in the vanguard of the modern soft left; all are hugely supportive of Corbyn, and especially energised by the long term opportunity his victory represents.

Longer term, there’s nothing to stop, say, Stella Creasy, the epitome of the soft left, becoming Labour leader after 2020. She recognises how greatly the party needs to change, always emphasises the need for a grassroots movement, is – hallelujah – in favour of electoral reform, and as her vote in the Deputy Leadership contest proved, is popular among the membership: just not as much as one individual. The man at the centre of the Mensch Thesis, Tom Watson.

Few individuals have brought down one Labour leader, let alone two. Even fewer have gone on to inherit the crown themselves. But equally: few have held as much power within the Labour Party as Watson now does. Massively popular among the membership thanks to his brilliant campaigning on the Westminster paedophile ring, questioning of the Murdochs, and ousting of Blair, Labour’s fixer commands respect across the political spectrum; and to judge by his comments during the Deputy Leadership contest, has at least modified his machine-like ways of the past.

He is also a personal friend of Louise Mensch, Twitter Tory attack dog-in-chief. Mensch is frequently a hate figure for the left (even, on occasion, a joke figure); but this is to seriously underestimate her very real qualities of political cunning and nous. She’s an increasingly shrewd observer of the Westminster scene.

On August 9, Mensch explained how Watson could very quickly replace Corbyn as leader: even as early as Christmas. On Tuesday, she went much further: noting that trade union leaders were already subtly distancing themselves from Corbyn after his disastrous first few days in the job; and reminding us that Watson, not the new leader, is the man who actually has most of them in his pocket.

On Thursday, Bush characterised Watson as on the party’s ‘soft right’. I think that’s a mistake. Just as Creasy is sometimes strangely referred to as a Blairite (she’s not; she’s a non-dogmatic, labels-rejecting, all-inclusive Labourite), Watson is sometimes oddly seen as on the right of the party. In fact, he’s a reformed Brownite, parked right in the centre not only of the Parliamentary Labour Party, but the membership too. The unions’ man; the PLP’s man; the membership’s man. He could not be more strongly positioned.

And that he’s arguably the only figure capable of bridging the yawning chasm separating much of the bewildered, blindsided PLP from the now massively leftist membership is of critical importance. Whenever Corbyn goes (even if it’s genuinely of his own volition, or follows electoral meltdown next year or in 2017), many members will be furious and out for blood. Meanwhile, David Cameron’s reforms to trade union funding – a naked attempt to destroy the Labour Party, as Hodges has set out – mean Labour literally cannot afford to lose those members. It needs them, and many more of them. The only way it can survive, change and ultimately prosper is by broadening its reach across the British left, and eventually uniting it. Corbyn’s victory was merely the first step in that long, hugely overdue process.

How can Labour avoid civil war among the membership and make itself electorally credible again? Just as the Tories did with Howard: by crowning Watson a year or (more likely) two from now, without a contest. Watson already has a mandate; as Corbyn’s Deputy, it’s natural he should succeed. Then, just as Howard didn’t change much of Iain Duncan Smith’s message – he merely tweaked it at the edges, while communicating it infinitely more effectively – Watson wouldn’t need to change all that much of Corbyn’s message either. Somewhere to the right of Corbyn and the left of Miliband – a very distinctive message, voiced in a credible way by a competent, strong leader – is what would result.

Could a Watson-led Labour win in 2020? No, especially given the boundary changes and gerrymandering which the Tories will push through. But he can emulate Howard in overseeing the start of the recovery, going down to reasonable defeat, and handing over to a younger, longer term figure afterwards: either Creasy or Dan Jarvis, in all likelihood.

Of course, a great deal can change in two years in politics. Britain might well be mired in recession by 2017; new figures may have emerged in the party. But right now, it is incredibly difficult to see who other than Watson can replace Corbyn and keep Labour together. Everything points to him; and Blairites most certainly need not apply. Louise Mensch 1, Keiran Pedley 0.

Jeremy Corbyn: (mostly) the right message, but the worst possible messenger

First, a prediction. There is no chance – absolutely no chance on Earth – that Jeremy Corbyn will be Labour leader at the 2020 General Election. Why am I so certain? Read on and you’ll find out.

Corbyn’s rise from nowhere has left the political commentariat even more flummoxed than in May, when almost none of the pundits (emphasis on almost) saw Ed Miliband’s meltdown coming. Shambling around, searching for simple answers to explain something which, in fact, is extremely complex. “Labour have made a terrible mistake!” they cry; but Labour lost control of events a long time ago now. Much more powerful centrifugal forces are at work here.

These have already been seen in action across Europe, notably in Greece, Spain and Scotland; and even, through the guise of Bernie Sanders and, in a completely different way, Donald Trump, in the US. It’s true that Britain isn’t trapped in an economic maelstrom like that in Greece; it’s also true that in practice, the SNP are an awful lot less left wing than they like to claim. But take a look at the new intake of SNP MPs: so many of them seem like ordinary, authentic representatives of their people. Too many Labour MPs haven’t for far too long now.

But here’s the thing: that isn’t their fault. Other than the not unimportant point that they had 13 years to change it, but didn’t, it’s not Labour’s fault that Britain has an absurd, grotesque electoral system which distorts not only the result, but all aspects of political discourse and public policy at all times. Meaning instead of representing who they are supposed to represent, Labour find themselves continually trapped into chasing swing voters who aren’t in the median of the electorate. They’re on the centre-right or further right of it; but their votes count. Those of very many millions do not.

That’s why, during the General Election campaign, Miliband was trapped into repeating those same meaningless, hollow, insipid slogans. “Working people”. “A better plan for Britain”. Or as David Axelrod derisively put it, “vote Labour and win a microwave”. “Our politicians don’t stand for anything any more”, despair so many – and especially in the case of the left, they’re right. The voting system forces them not to.

But because they don’t, millions of Labour voters have been shed since 1997 – and this year, they either didn’t vote, or went SNP, UKIP, Green or Lib Dem. Yes, the Tories only won a majority of 12 – but Labour awoke the morning after the election hemmed in and paralysed as never before, not having the foggiest idea where to turn. Quite literally: hollowed out. And during the leadership contest, boy oh boy did it show.

Anyone who watched Miliband behaving like a rabbit in the headlights a few months back must have assumed a whole number of alternatives on the front bench would’ve done better. But no, they would not. Exactly the same empty platitudes were offered up throughout the contest by Liz Kendall, the tactic without a strategy; Andy Burnham, who flipflopped so often that, having accepted a place in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet on Sunday, I half expect him to have resigned from the Shadow Cabinet by next Sunday; and Yvette Cooper. The woman whom, in normal circumstances, would surely have won; had far and away the best chance of challenging the Tories in 2020… but when push came to shove, didn’t wake up until it was far, far too late.

Cooper showed real leadership over the refugee crisis, and palpably shifted national debate – but the contest was long since over by then. It was decided by two things: (1) Miliband’s parting legacy of opening the whole thing up (backed at the time by of all people, Tony Blair); (2) the Welfare Reform Bill on 20 July. When to traditional, core supporters, Labour appeared to sell out as never before.

Yes, it’s true that the abstentions happened in order to back a reasoned amendment. But the intricacies of Westminster are nothing when set against appalling, shambolic, rank bad politics. The SNP long ago understood the need to be seen as on the side of the most vulnerable, even if this isn’t always the case in practice; gesture and identity politics are part of successful politics. So, much more to the point, is standing up for what you believe in and foursquare against those who threaten it.

Had Labour not long since lost sight of what it stood for, it is inconceivable that such an epic blunder could’ve been made. The Tories weren’t just mounting a huge attack on social security; they were even about to impoverish millions in work. Frank Field’s brilliant analysis the following morning set it out in stark terms; so did the Institute for Fiscal Studies. But forced by First Past The Post (FPTP) to focus on the 24% of the electorate who voted Conservative, not the 76% who did not, Harriet Harman wasn’t for turning – and critically, neither were three of the four contenders.

The only one who did stand up for what they believed? Corbyn. He’s not spent a political lifetime obsessing with swing voters or focus groups; from the backbenches, he’s been free to be himself, often incorrigibly so. And in this contest, being himself was the surest route to victory – because for the first time since 1994, someone was standing up and shouting traditional Labour values from the rooftops. Right when they most urgently needed to be expressed too.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to conclude that most of those pundits or politicians who’ve sneered at Corbyn’s supporters or his victory haven’t been affected by austerity. Do they know what it’s like to be forced out of their home because of the bedroom tax? Do they know anyone sanctioned and left without any means of support for weeks, months or longer, because of either bureaucratic incompetence or (many of us suspect) wanton cruelty? Can they imagine what it’s like to have to choose between heating their home and feeding their children? Are they aware of the horrific impact of cuts on social care up and down the land? Heck: have they even been researching the shocking numbers of deaths within weeks of those found ‘fit for work’ by the DWP?

Austerity isn’t some medicine to be swallowed with a few mild side-effects. Austerity kills. Specifically: it kills the poorest. Those least able to protect themselves. If the Labour Party isn’t there to help, support and protect them, what is it there for? But again: trapped by that wretched voting system, affluent, suburban homeowners are far more electorally significant than single mothers from broken homes; the mentally ill, losing their benefits in their hundreds of thousands every year; or even the disabled. No more than 100,000 swing voters count in an electorate of 46.4m.

Hence Labour’s bizarre acceptance of the urgent need for deficit reduction despite this being opposed by Nobel Prize-winning economists, most macro-economists, and even (to an extent), the IMF. During the leadership contest, Burnham stated that Labour had “spent too much” while in office; but no, it had not. The public being so flat out wrong about something so important is no reason to accept the falsehood. With George Osborne, the Chancellor who doubled the national debt, now doubling down hard on the very thing which caused the debt to skyrocket in the first place, austerity increasingly resembles a corpse which, upon awakening, immediately begins re-administering the poison. Yet all Burnham and Kendall, in particular, appeared to offer was mostly more of the same. More of the same to those already most severely affected.

After the General Election, John Curtice, doyen of British psephologists, highlighted that not only would Scotland be a hopeless cause for Labour if it did not move leftwards; but interestingly, a clear public desire for a compelling alternative economic narrative. While Kendall took this to mean “we must reassure the public over our economic competence”, Corbyn, rightly, was emboldened. At a time of 40% cuts to Whitehall budgets; ‘welfare’ being deliberately turned into a dirty word, with vulnerable recipients scared off even trying to claim it; and the worst, slowest recovery in 300 years (the third worst in 650 years, topped only by the South Sea Bubble and the Black Death), if this doesn’t call for a compelling alternative, what on Earth would?

But there’s something else at work here too. That is: to increasing numbers (especially amongst the poor and squeezed middle), the failure of neoliberalism itself. Some reading will hoot at this; but that failure hasn’t touched the wealthiest or, in most cases, the upper middle. Until 2008, there was always a sense that democracy and capitalism went hand in hand in delivering, if not a land of milk and honey, at least progress: each generation doing that bit better than the last.

Not any more. Now, for the first time since the war, twenty- and thirty-somethings will do worse than their parents; and the prognosis for those younger is even worse than that. Overwhelmed with student debt which 75% won’t pay off at any point (wrecking the argument that most will benefit from university education at all), today’s young find themselves treated as second-class employees until 25; forced to pay absurd rents, with little or no hope of ever saving up for a deposit in Britain’s ludicrously overheated housing market: meaning no future financial security either.

The government, meanwhile, openly pits the young against the old: the latter receive early access to pension pots, have those pensions tied to wage rises (meaning Osborne’s National Living Wage-that-isn’t is, in fact, yet another bribe of his core, elderly vote); as well as benefiting from free bus passes, winter fuel allowances, free TV licenses now subsidised by the BBC… not to mention a one-off property boom which will never be repeated. Osborne’s inheritance tax giveaway means if you’re born into property wealth in the UK, you’ll probably do fine; if you’re not, you probably won’t. Social mobility has been static for decades; very soon, it will go into reverse.

The demographic timebomb being stored up – in 30 years’ time, how will a whole generation who don’t own their homes even survive? How will the country pay for them? – is terrifying. But again, the only individual who put forward a real plan to deal with this? Corbyn. He tapped into huge amounts of support from young people who simply don’t count enough under FPTP for successive governments of both hues to have cared about; he inspired them, in a way no political figure south of Hadrian’s Wall has in a generation. Purely by telling a story they can relate to; but which hardly surprisingly, ageing members of the Westminster Twitterati, unaffected by the burdens I’ve highlighted, plainly cannot.

More broadly, the sense that, since 2008, Western capitalism has mutated into a rich-get-richer-sod-everyone-else scam has wreaked havoc upon social democratic parties across Europe. Most of which were in power at the time of the crash; many of which had embraced free market economics and moved away from their core support in the decade or so beforehand; none of which have come up with any serious response since. In the absence of any viable alternative to capitalism, the best they can do is say “the system’s terrible. Vote for us, and… er… we’ll make it slightly less terrible” – but that’s no platform at all. Hence the pressure they now face from radical, populist parties such as Syriza, Podemos or (in their own way, but certainly how they’ve tapped into the hopes and dreams of young people), the SNP.

In Britain, the clash between a Labour Party light years removed from core principles it was once renowned for (brought into focus more than anything else by the Iraq War) and an economic system which is failing more and more, especially the young, was bound to lead to tumult before long. FPTP strangles even the possibility of new parties, and leads to palpable absurdities like Corbyn and Kendall – or for that matter, Ken Clarke and Bill Cash – standing on the same manifesto; but if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain. Meaning the long overdue fusion of the UK’s traditional party of the left with precisely those populist forces which are driving politics further afield.

In light of this, it is bizarre that Corbyn has not proposed the kind of anti-Tory electoral pact focused on bringing in proportional representation which Caroline Lucas, Graham Allen or, come to think of it, yours truly called for back in May. Corbyn’s policies are so left wing, they demand such an approach; yet perhaps the bearded old boob is just too tribal, too set in his ways to see that.

Regardless, what we once knew as the Labour Party died on Saturday. During her impressive Deputy Leadership campaign, Stella Creasy, a genuine rising star, continually reiterated that Labour “had to become a movement again” – but a grassroots movement cannot be a grassroots movement if it stands for nothing worth standing for. Above all at a time when David Cameron is taking an electric chainsaw to Labour’s critical trade union funding. For it to survive, let alone prosper, Labour needs these new members, and many more besides – but to keep them, a return to the top-down triangulation of the past just isn’t an option. It has to build towards the long term and a genuinely new, bottom-up politics of the left instead.

Corbyn, then, has been an answer to something; but here’s where it immediately gets awfully messy. All those qualities of just being himself served him beautifully during the campaign, but less than a week into his leadership, are already fast turning into a total liability. This is a man who has never run anything in his life; would never have dreamt of even making it to the frontbench, let alone becoming Leader of the Opposition; whose entire approach to politics is that of protest; has kept some extraordinarily dubious company in his time; and who not only wasn’t supposed to have won, but at many stages during his campaign, bore all the hallmarks of not even wanting the job. His role was supposed to involve merely opening up the debate; at the time he scraped onto the ballot thanks to the charity of a few MPs, nobody anywhere foresaw he could actually carry the day. Including – and this is critical – himself.

Thus his first few days in the position have involved one fiasco after another. A shouty, passive aggressive, garbled victory speech in which he attacked the press: the very entity which any viable political party desperately needs, if not to support it, at least to faithfully report its message. A Shadow Cabinet reshuffle in which a man whose triumph was hailed by the motley trio of Hamas, Sinn Fein and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner promoted John McDonnell, the only man in the entire Parliamentary Labour Party almost as rebellious as Corbyn himself, who once declared “the peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA”, and that he wanted to go back in time and assassinate Margaret Thatcher, all the way to Shadow Chancellor; and in which Angela Eagle’s late night promotion to Shadow First Secretary of State occurred not through any prior planning, but as a panicked response to outrage on Twitter at the lack of women in senior positions.

Corbyn’s failure to sing the national anthem at a service marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was scarcely a crime – but unheard of from someone who supposedly wants to become Prime Minister. And when asked late on Sunday night to comment on his reshuffle by a few journalists, he all but ran away like a startled hare.

No doubt, his supporters will bemoan my focus on apparent trivialities. Goodness knows, the British media obsess with such things at the expense of real issues – but any political leader worth the name has to work with it. Not give it every excuse in the book to focus on his many, to put it politely, idiosyncrasies. Sanders will have no chance of making it to the White House without huge amounts of good publicity; the SNP would be in nowhere near such a powerful position now without the support of the Murdoch press. The Fourth Estate are a vital part of the democratic process; frequently, a decisive one. Without it, the message cannot be communicated.

Not only that – but if he puts his principles ahead of anything else, Corbyn utterly betrays those the Labour Party are supposed to stand for. Tax credits were slashed on Tuesday; but you wouldn’t know it from Wednesday’s front pages. That’s not the media’s fault. It’s Corbyn’s: for behaving with the least savvy I’ve ever seen in any modern day democratically elected leader. Not for nothing have I had ‘Springtime for Hitler’ from The Producers ringing in my ears in recent days.

The reason why Corbyn’s election was potentially so important was it offered the chance, at last, to redraw the boundaries of the political narrative. To focus on the pernicious impact of this government on those with least; to provide a real, credible alternative on austerity and social security. To provide genuine hope to those long since abandoned by a political process which simply does not reflect the views and needs of very, very many.

To do this, he had to moderate his behaviour. Frankly, to shut up about his many ridiculous foreign policy views and focus entirely on domestic issues. Austerity, austerity, austerity. Message discipline was and is the order of the day; in their focus on the apparent ‘threat’ he poses to British security, it certainly is for the Tories.

If Corbyn continues to fall far, far below the challenge, rather than rise to it, the awful danger is he poisons the entire message: that he’s seen not as a breath of fresh air, but the very embodiment of the loony left; that this makes it impossible for any successor to adopt an anti-austerity stance, because it will be ruinously associated with him; and that he’d either close off any potential meeting of minds with moderate voters by remaining, or his quick removal precipitates out-and-out civil war in the newly expanded Labour movement. With consequences which could be life-threatening in nature.

Why, then, is this happening? Why have his first few days been such a shambles? The answer is simple: he’s petrified. In metaphorical terms, soiling himself. Corbyn knows he’s been promoted far beyond his station; he knows that controlled, disciplined leadership is not and has never been his thing; he knows most of his colleagues have no faith in him. Hence his abortive suggestion of giving some of them a chance at Prime Minister’s Questions (because he knows he won’t be much good at it: as Wednesday’s no score bore draw, Corbyn putting eleven men behind the ball for the whole contest, confirmed); hence his promotion of his closest long time ally, McDonnell, too.

Why did he run away from the press on Sunday night, shun the Today programme the following morning, and Andrew Marr on Sunday morning? He’s terrified of what the mainstream media will do to him. Ditto his speech on Saturday: fear makes people (especially shy, diffident, sensitive people) lash out. Corbyn has spent his entire political life in an echo chamber; he’s never had to reach out to the unpersuaded or definitively hostile, and as this would require him compromising on many cherished principles, he knows he won’t be up to it.

That’s why he won’t be around in 2020. He’ll either have been put out of his misery by the PLP or fallen on his sword long before that. Let’s consider three scenarios:

  1. So chastened is he by such a calamitous start to a job he never really wanted that he resigns quickly (ie. by Christmas), modestly and with good grace. Chances: moderate, but stronger than many might assume.
  2. Against all expectations, all logic, he somehow recovers, even does well, but having changed the party, hands over to a younger successor (Corbyn is already 66 now) by the end of 2018. Chances: between slim and none.
  3. He clings on, is allowed to fight next year’s elections and possibly those in 2017 too, but either jumps or is pushed by the time of that year’s party conference at the latest. Chances: strong.

For Labour, however – and here’s where many commentators still don’t get it – it isn’t solely about Corbyn at all. For the party to survive and ultimately revive as part of a broader movement, the key is to ever-so-quietly, entirely from behind the scenes, carefully ensure the succession. Specifically: that whenever Corbyn departs, the views of a massively enlarged membership are heeded, the most important elements of his message sustained, and the party is not done massive, existential harm by a selectorate enraged at the departure of their hero.

The only possible means of achieving this is by coalescing around someone whom the members approve of; who isn’t seen as a Blairite ‘sell-out’, but one of them. That man is the new Deputy Leader, Tom Watson.

Watson, of course, famously played his part in getting rid of Labour’s most successful leader ever. Quietly knifing Corbyn will be a doddle in comparison. On her blog, Watson’s friend, Louise Mensch, has set out both how he can do this, and even that the wheels could already be in motion. Mensch is a hate figure for much of the left, and freely admits her role as a Tory attack dog; but she’s a mightily shrewd political analyst with connections in all the right places.

Quite correctly, she’s noted how the unions – who aren’t in Corbyn’s pocket, but are certainly in Watson’s – are either subtly or not so subtly already distancing themselves from him; she also highlights how he would be seen as authentic in a way alternative successors would not. Watson’s task is to keep the PLP in check, appear as loyal and clubbable as possible, but ensure his forces are ready to strike when the moment comes. And when it does, he’ll be doing both the party he loves and causes it believes in an enormous favour.

I don’t, needless to add, write this with any malice intended towards Jeremy Corbyn at all. I actually feel rather sorry for him. But inspiring pity in others is no quality worthy of any leader; and if he’s left to lurch from disaster to apocalypse, those who’ll suffer most will be those whose Labour’s duty it is to protect. There’s no room for sentiment in politics; not when thousands live or die depending on who the government of the day is.

There has never been a more important time for a real, distinctive alternative to be offered to the British people. Labour’s future – financial and philosophical – depends upon it. There has never been someone less suited to communicating that alternative. Labour’s future – electoral and philosophical – depends on remedying the second point as soon as is feasible.

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