Why are People’s Vote supporters celebrating the defeat of a European agreement?

The European Commission’s reaction to the latest failure of the Withdrawal Agreement, published on Facebook, is noteworthy,

‘We regret the negative vote in the House of Commons. A “no-deal” scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario.’

This is unsurprising. The Withdrawal Agreement is a joint treaty of the UK and EU; it was drafted by the European Commission and agreed by heads of member state governments in the European Council.

As I have written before, there is tension between the People’s Vote campaign’s declared support for European integration and the campaign’s opposition to an agreement concluded by the European public authorities. This is akin to a dilemma long faced by Northern Irish Loyalists; when the entity to which you are loyal acts in a fashion contrary to your perceived interests, do you remain loyal in these particular circumstances?

It is true that Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, expressed support for the People’s Vote campaign this week. Tusk nonetheless represents the intergovernmentalist wing of the European public authorities; federalists in the European Commission have long been suspicious of the European Council. Tusk’s comments were also not made by the European Council as an institution.

The European Commission hence regrets the defeat of its agreement in the Commons. My impression is that the Commission is keen to complete Brexit, so as to reduce uncertainty and move ahead with a more federalist agenda.

I don’t think that the position of the People’s Vote campaign is unambiguously Eurosceptic; current circumstances are unique. There is nonetheless a key tension; People’s Vote supporters need to reflect upon it.

Johnson, Cummings and Warsaw-on-the-Thames (or why redistribution and authoritarianism are related)

To put it mildly, the Conservative Party is not associated with redistribution. This looks set to change. Not only was the Conservative Party historically successful among lower classes in the December 2019 election, but the Johnson Government has made recent signals about redistribution; Dominic Cummings is particularly associated with this. There are limits to Conservative ability to achieve this, the party continuing to be supported by businesses and the rich, yet I suspect that there will be movement in this direction. People legitimately disagree on this, yet there is a need for interpretations which are based on more than dislike of the Conservative Party. Important parts of the Conservative base are now low-income voters, not to mention swing voters in 30 or so Labour seats with small majorities. Theories of redistribution predict that parties target such groups.

The March budget may be a first harbinger. Spending commitments in ‘left-behind’ regions are very likely, yet I suspect the budget will also contain tax and benefit reforms which are targeted at lower-income deciles. The Conservative manifesto contained little on this, preferring to keep things tight, yet these would be obvious areas. There may be rises in allowances associated with universal credit and rate cuts in lower-tax bands; the Conservative manifesto hinted at this.

This kind of politics has precedent. In Poland and Hungary, particularly the former, right-populists have implemented major redistribution. Though redistribution and cultural conservatism are not usually associated, this is a Western anomaly. A recent study of 99 countries found that it was more common for right-wing cultural views to be coupled with left-wing economic views, particularly among poorer citizens. In Poland and Hungary, right-populist governments are better known for attacks on institutions such as the courts and media. As we have recently seen, the Johnson Government appears to have similar designs.

There is a link between redistribution and attack on liberal-democratic institutions. Because low to medium-income groups prefer redistribution yet also have more authoritarian values, they support movements adopting such measures. Admittedly, the Johnson Government has restricted ability to implement such a programme. Aside from the maturity of British liberal-democratic institutions, richer Conservative voters will frustrate the development of redistributive policies. These differences mean that the Polish case will not be fully replicated; support for the PiS Government is concentrated among low-income groups.

Yet British political space increasingly lends itself to such an agenda. Because of the declining popularity of Labour among low-income groups, the Conservative Party have greater scope to appeal to voters who favour authoritarianism and redistribution. Most obviously, there are lower-class Brexit enthusiasts, many of whom are first-time Conservative supporters. Given their wider sympathies, hardened during post-referendum battles, such voters would relish attacks on the BBC and courts. Redistributive measures would increase Johnson’s appeal, locking these voters into the Johnson support base. Aside from such cases, redistributive policies will placate voters who hold mixed opinions on cultural issues associated with Brexit. Authoritarians are successful when key sectors of society remain silent. Groups placated by redistribution historically gravitated towards Labour, creating a virtuous circle between redistribution and liberal-democratic standards; this is unravelling.

Such a ‘great realignment’ will likely remain incomplete. Many lower-income voters will remain with Labour, particularly ethnic minorities and young people. Post-Brexit politics nonetheless appears likely to move towards this equilibrium. Even if authoritarianism can develop within the EU, as Hungary and Poland show, Brexit has created a new authoritarian-liberal cleavage, largely favourable to a right-populist Conservative Party. This is our new reality, whether we like it or not.

Why Labour is in such a bad position

In recent weeks, I’ve been gripped by the Labour leadership election. Given the authoritarian instincts of the Johnson Government, this country desperately needs an effective opposition. I’m not sure that Labour can be that opposition. There are three issues which concern me.

1/ Firstly, I’m sceptical that the preoccupations voiced in the leadership race appeal to the wider electorate. As regularly emphasized, Labour losses in 2019 were in northern ‘red wall’ seats, poorer places notable for socially conservative views on issues such as immigration and law and order. Labour also holds slim majorities in similar seats, such as the Newport seats and Wansbeck, indicating potential for greater losses. In 2019, the Conservatives came within 2,000 votes of winning in 20 Labour seats, and within 1,000 votes in nine. Dominic Cummings is highly attuned to this.

Despite the socially conservative profile of these seats, the Labour leadership race has been marked by the social liberalism of candidates. Not only is there no socially conservative candidate, remarkable given the nature of the 2019 defeat, but candidates have articulated highly liberal positions in areas such as immigration and transsexual rights. This was particularly evident in last week’s Newsnight debate. This week, Lisa Nandy said she would vote to abolish the monarchy. To put it mildly, these positions do not appeal to voters in the red wall.

2/ Many say that the winning candidate will move to the right when leader. This may well be the case, particularly if the flexible Starmer wins, yet there are wider constraints on the ability of a leader to do this. Apart from impressions made during the leadership contest, the Labour membership will maintain considerable influence. Not only does conference have significant say over policy, but a leader can scarcely ignore the preferences of members. Since 2015, members have repeatedly shown their power.

We know that the membership is unrepresentative of the electorate; aside from being more left-wing, research shows that the membership is wealthier and better educated than average voters. There is a related problem within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Aside from the greater presence of Corbynites, the liberal sympathies of moderates mean that they struggle to appeal to social conservatives. This structural problem explains the odd absence of a socially conservative candidate.

3/ I will also make an academic point, particularly relevant to political economy. For a while, I’ve reflected upon the changing nature of the UK case. Iversen and Soskice (2006) argue that in countries in which there are liberal economies and majoritarian political systems, e.g. the UK and US, domination by the right is natural. Conditions have changed in the years since this argument was made. Rather than mobilizing over economics, parties increasingly mobilize over culture. Given recent developments in the two largest liberal-majoritarian countries, the US and UK, such systems may be particularly vulnerable to right-populist cultural mobilization. I need to examine this further, yet causal mechanisms might be rooted in the politico-economic basis of right-wing power. Fewer veto points may heighten effects.

Structures aren’t everything of course. Had events turned out slightly differently, Brexit might not have happened and Corbyn may never have become Labour leader. Brexit and the radicalization of Labour have nonetheless locked the UK left into a damaging trajectory, raising the spectre of long-term emasculation. Given recent moves of the Johnson Government, attacking press and media and evoking central European autocracies, this is very worrying. UK institutions are comparatively mature, yet a Hungary-lite scenario is possible. Ominously, a diminished left was crucial in the Hungarian case. To put it mildly, the next five years will be interesting.




The political and moral failure of Remain

The Remain/People’s Vote movement is not a key talking point now. Thursday’s election was primarily a defeat of Corbynism and, almost as an afterthought, the Remain cause is finished. Notwithstanding this lack of attention, autopsy is imperative. Remain was a political failure. Unable to accept the result of the 2016 referendum, Remainers failed to compromise and this led to a worse outcome. Had Remainers supported the May Withdrawal Agreement, advocated by many of us, Brexit would have been softer. The all-UK backstop and commitment to a close future trading relationship, both removed by the Johnson Government, would have reduced effects of Brexit and made it easier to re-join. Opposition was a devastating mistake.

This was nonetheless secondary to the moral failings of Remain. This point requires background. Ever since 2016, when the rights of EU immigrants began to be attacked, defence of minority rights has been Remain’s supposed sine qua non. This was a necessary response to the Government’s disgraceful equivocation over the rights of European citizens in the UK. The Remain movement correctly asserted that minority rights should not be sacrificed to political expediency, as articulated by #iamnotabargainingchip. Remainers placed crucial emphasis on the experience of Europeans in the UK, citizens alarmed by hostile discourse and actual physical attacks, asserting that minorities were uniquely placed to understand racism. This is a critical point, which I only fully appreciated when my Polish wife wept watching an abrasive episode of Question Time.

These principles were discarded by many Remainers during the 2019 election. Despite prior emphasis on the importance of minority perceptions of racism, many supported a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, a man considered anti-Semitic by 87% of British Jews. Anti-Semitism is a more pernicious racism than that directed at ethnic Europeans, given Jewish history. Many argued that tactical imperatives were more important. Given that Remain was predicated on the belief that minority rights were non-negotiable, this was highly problematic. I understand arguments for tactical voting, having campaigned and voted for Labour in 2017, yet 2019 was a very different context. I don’t have ‘regular’ Labour/tactical Remainers in mind here, such voters not being fully acquainted with relevant issues. I am thinking of those who were vocal on European rights, well aware of the anti-Semitism issue, yet still supported Labour/tactical voting. I was disappointed with several prominent Twitter Remainers.

Remain may be finished, yet supporters will doubtless regroup into other movements which promote the rights of Europeans in the UK. These movements will make good arguments, many of which I will accept. Notwithstanding agreement, I will find it difficult to hear certain Remainers make these arguments. Europeans weren’t bargaining chips, but Jews were.

Why being born in the UK is (almost) like winning the lottery of life

In a campaign event a few days ago, Conservative leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt asserted that being born in the UK is ‘winning the lottery of life’. This comment attracted predictable sneers on social media, critics citing things like austerity, food banks, Windrush etc. I didn’t read one defence of the comment.

As with my last post, logical thought makes the arguments of Hunt’s critics difficult to maintain. There is a relevant thought experiment associated with the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls advanced a concept known as the veil of ignorance; this requires us to evaluate societies on the basis of the presumption that we would occupy a random place in a given society. We can take this a step further and ask which society, of all those ever created by humans, we would prefer to inhabit were we to be assigned a random position. I forget whether Rawls or one of his aficionados phrased it in precisely these terms; it doesn’t really matter.

I’ve asked this question of colleagues and students over the years. I have yet to meet anyone who wished to chance societies such as ancient Rome or medieval Mongolia. The most adventurous have preferred societies in Western Europe during post-war boom decades (though one may query whether they reflected on conditions for women, LGBT+ etc.). The vast majority of people, including myself, would prefer to be assigned to a contemporary Western society; Scandinavian countries are popular.

The UK may not boast Scandinavian-like wealth and equality, but it is hardly far from these standards; it is much closer than the vast majority of contemporary and historical societies. Given more enlightened attitudes towards some minorities/certain freedoms, it is not inconceivable that some would choose the UK in reply to Rawls’ question. Even if we have problems like poverty and mistreatment of minorities, these are minor in comparison to issues in most contemporary and historical societies. Reflecting on the fact that citizens of developed countries like the UK are a very small fraction of the 100 billion humans that have ever lived, Hunt’s comment is not unreasonable (even if we are not talking about a ‘6-figure’ win).

This is a central paradox of today’s politics; most implicitly think that today’s developed societies are the best which have ever existed, yet many who live in these societies are very unhappy (even in Scandinavia!). The answer lies in relative deprivation, a concept used by social scientists to describe lack of means to live the life which is customary in a given society. Perhaps relative deprivation should be the topic of another post…

Are MPs stupid?

The intelligence and competence of Members of Parliament (MPs) have long been questioned. In recent years, claims that MPs are stupid/useless etc. have intensified however. A recent Banksy work, depicting MPs as chimpanzees, was particularly representative of this thinking. The Financial Times also recently asked a similar question, albeit in more nuanced language. This is an interesting topic to cover on my blog because it can be shown, almost definitively, that the assertion that MPs are unintelligent is untrue.

Because we have specific information about the educational attainment of the 650 MPs, we are able to make accurate deductions about their intelligence. Research shows that the average IQ of a graduate is about 115; the average of the UK population is about 100. Of 650 MPs, 82% (540) are graduates; the figure for the population is 27%.

This allows us to speculate on the average IQ of the 650 MPs. Because many of the 540 graduate MPs went to elite universities, 23% attending Oxbridge, perhaps it is unfair to consider them ‘average’ graduates; let us nonetheless do that. If we do this, the fact that there are 540 graduate MPs means that we can be confident that their average IQ is close to the average for graduates; this would be demonstrated by a Bernoulli trial. Let us assume that the remaining 110 MPs have levels of education which are equivalent to the rest of the population, an assumption likely uncharitable to these MPs. These 110 MPs are nonetheless a minority, not greatly reducing the average of the 650 MPs.

Though these are quick calculations, rigorous analysis requiring more robust analysis, I think that I have shown that it is highly probable that MPs are more intelligent than the average member of the population; MPs are certainly not as stupid as detractors claim. The tone of this post may come across as elitist, but these are unusual times. The vigour of discourse against MPs, related to the disgraceful threats which MPs receive, is a menace to liberal-democracy; arguments like this are therefore needed.

Many also make points about administrative competence of MPs, an issue distinct from intelligence, yet this is more difficult to dispute with statistics. I would nonetheless be interested in learning why British MPs are particularly incompetent; it is here that weaknesses in arguments emerge. If one compares the UK to other countries, a series of factors imply that MPs are likely to be more competent than international counterparts. In other contexts, incompetence of elected representatives is related to factors such as ruptures with existing governing classes (associated with transition from dictatorship), poor quality of public education or high levels of corruption. None of these factors are present in the UK; on these indicators, the country compares well even to Western counterparts. The assertion that MPs are lazy also disintegrates on inspection; the recent Isabel Hardman book is a good source here.

Ironically, there is a contemporary problem with institutions which give influence to those with less elevated cognitive ability. Firstly, there is social media. In recent years, the rise of Facebook and Twitter has implied that average citizens, who by definition have average intelligence, have achieved increased influence on political debate. As many have noted, consequent weakening of representative democratic institutions is related to the rise of illiberal populism. Secondly, there has been increased use of referendums across developed countries; British readers will be well aware of dangers here. It is these developments, rather than red herrings about the intelligence and competence of MPs, which concern me. I also cannot help noticing that those MPs who are associated with incompetence (Boris, others in the ERG) are often associated with direct democratic causes, i.e. Brexit, meaning that their cases indict anti-political populism rather than parliament.

MPs are of course not perfect; I have merely argued that their standard is far better than their detractors claim. As consequences of populist adventures like Brexit become clearer, people may realize that the quality of politicians is not so bad.


Three reflections on today’s march (or why I didn’t join in)

I didn’t take part in the People’s Vote (PV) march. Nor have I signed the petition to revoke Article 50. In previous months, I have outlined problems which I have with this campaign, including its lack of respect for the original referendum result and increasingly illiberal character. Here are three observations which are more specific to events this weekend.

1/ Marching/signing the petition makes no deal more likely

I continue to be troubled by the PV campaign’s rejection of the May Withdrawal Agreement. I don’t think that PV supporters appreciate the remote odds which they face and associated risks of no deal. If the May Agreement is rejected, let us say that the chances of a second referendum and no deal both stand at 50%. In a subsequent referendum with a three-way choice (remain, no deal, May agreement), let us say that each option has a 33% chance of victory. This simplifies things somewhat, yet illustrates the long odds faced by the PV campaign. In this scenario, there is a 1 in 6 chance of Britain remaining in the EU; the no deal outcome has a much higher chance of success.

I am unimpressed by a campaign which courts disaster like this. In my opinion, acceptance of the May agreement by parliament is the best course of action. This agreement avoids no deal and respects the result of the first referendum. Given that it provides no clear victory to any side, I also believe that the May agreement is most likely to promote national reconciliation.

2/ The PV campaign exhibits symptoms of alt-centrism

In recent times, I have been alarmed by the changing character of European centrism. In the three countries I follow most closely (UK, Spain and Poland), centrists have become distinguished by their partisanship, disdain for liberal-democratic procedure and illiberal online organization. In contexts in which liberals are locked out of governments – a counter-case is France – this seems to be an established trend. I do not consider movements like PV, Ciudadanos and KOD to be equivalent to the alt-right/left, but the label ‘alt-centrist’ is apposite; these movements have strayed from classic centrism.

Developments over the last few days confirm my worries about the PV campaign. The notion that an online petition overrides a statutory referendum is absurd, yet is seriously entertained by Twitter accounts sympathetic to PV. Not everyone who marched today adopts such views, yet I fear that this kind of disposition is not untypical.

3/ The PV campaign embodies failures of UK liberal society

In most Western countries, the populist challenge to liberalism reflects failures of the latter; much has been written about the influence of stagnant real wages, inequality, immigration etc. These phenomena have taken place across countries, yet there is a specific issue with UK liberalism: the failure to mobilize during the 2016 referendum.

I am afraid that impressive levels of participation in today’s march throw into relief poor participation in the 2016 Remain campaign. During this campaign, I was one of the most active Remain campaigners in Wales. I was repeatedly disappointed by desultory engagement of fellow Remainers; I lost count of the number of occasions in which ‘major’ Cardiff leafleting sessions were attended by just a handful of volunteers. If the UK Remain campaign had been one million volunteers strong, à la today’s march, I suspect that we would have won the referendum. The fact that UK liberal society achieved such impressive mobilization today, for a cause which risks aggravating the country’s plight, is a source of no small personal irritation.