Category Archives: Politics

Dear Leavers

Caroline Lucas’s new project, ‘Dear Leavers‘, bills itself as making up for decades of neglect by the British establishment of the groups who drove the referendum result in 2016. Leaving aside the telling and correct implication that a Green MP is a member of the establishment, it exemplifies a recurring rhetorical problem for the British centre-left.

To illustrate, here are some choice excerpts from the introductory article she wrote for the i: 

Nearly three years after people voted for drastic change, her Government has done nothing to address the grotesque levels of inequality and disenchantment with the status quo that helped drive the 2016 referendum result.

General election after general election, their voices are ignored and their votes simply don’t count. They recognise the democratic deficit within our winner-takes-all electoral system.

Most leave voters think politicians are out of touch. And I don’t believe Theresa May’s closed-doors negotiations will do anything to fix that.

Lucas’s approach appears to be one of speaking to ‘normal people’ and figuring out how she can sell the Green manifesto – wealth redistribution, electoral reform, a second referendum –  to them, rather than actually listening to them. She still doesn’t think “Brexit is the solution to the very real problems we face”, but thanks Leavers for “giving the establishment a kicking”. The solutions she presents are not amenable to change, only the rhetorical targeting.

Nowhere is this more clear than in her two paragraphs on immigration:

Even where the real blame lies with successive governments’ failures to build affordable and social housing, several people believed immigration had helped to make homes in their area unaffordable. As a proud advocate of what I see as our wonderful right to move freely across 27 other countries, this wasn’t easy to hear. But it’s crucial that politicians like me genuinely listen to these deeply-held concerns – and do something to address them.

Because when large numbers of people move somewhere, whether from Canterbury or Calais, it’s vital that local councils, schools and health services receive enough government funding to cope with increased demand. Everyone in our society – from new arrivals to people who’ve lived in their area for 80 years – needs a warm, safe, affordable home and quality public services they can rely on.

Translated into normal language, this can be summed up as “the real solution to immigration is not to reduce the number of immigrants, but rather to enact the policies we have been arguing for years”. Whatever this is, it does not much resemble listening – rather more proactive public relations.

Remainers, especially People’s Vote enthusiasts like Caroline Lucas, are often accused of being patronising. Here, the Dear Leavers project attemps to avoid being patronising but ends up sounding much more patronising in the processIt is reminiscent of “We’re sorry you had this experience” customer service: there is nothing we can do, so here are some platitudes to sweeten the pill you’ll have to swallow. The actual process of listening sounds a lot different to this. It typically involves rather more silence and learning from the listener, rather than just seeking a good way to phrase everything one already believes.

It is bad strategy, of course. But the secret here is that Dear Leavers is not addressed to Leavers at all. Rather, it is for the consumption of Remain voters, especially the faction who are convinced that the government’s refusal to implement their series of policies (usually nationalisation, increased welfare payouts, tax rises and so on) is what led to Brexit. In this model of the world, the 17 million Leave voters are just Green voters who haven’t been woken up yet.

Dear Leavers reassures hardline Remainers that they are listening to the poor, benighted, uneducated Brexiters, while conveniently editing out anything that might actually threaten their programme, such as leaving the European Union or reducing immigration. It is a simulacrum of a listening exercise, not unlike a government consultation about an already-decided policy. It is not for the benefit of those being listened to, but rather the purported listener, who will adopt a look of pious concern and go on to implement the ‘solutions’ they had planned already. What incentive do Leavers have to talk to the establishment, when they have already decided what they are going to learn from the experience?

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Quick update

My piece about the numbers crisis in the Church of England has been rejigged for publication at the Church Times. You can read it here. It’s shorter and better so please share that one in preference to this one.

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Three reasons why you should not say the Voltaire quote

  1. He didn’t say it.
  2. Everybody says it.
  3. No you wouldn’t.

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Haidtening the contradictions

Among the responses to the advocacy for class, ethnic and gender diversity at top universities which received another airing last week, it is common to see conservatives argue, with quite a lot of justification, that whatever causes the differential flows of various groups in these universities is having its impact well upstream of admissions departments. Whatever’s going on, so the argument goes, it’s not Cambridge’s fault or Harvard’s fault – it’s too late by the time the UCAS application is away.

In the same breath, though, a need for political diversity (or ‘viewpoint diversity’) at universities has become something of a cause celebre among these same conservatives. These thinkers (with some exceptions) usually argue that the sharp decline in the relative number of conservatives in the academy since roughly the end of the Cold War represents instances of conscious discrimination on the part of a left-leaning faculty: discrimination against me, but not against thee.

There might in fact be a similar upstream reason why conservatives are crowded out of the academy. The critical legal theorist Mark Tushnet noted en passant[1] that “[b]ecause the opportunity costs of becoming a legal academic are higher for right-leaning potential academics, the academy is likely to continue to have a bias toward the Left”, and muses that a possible solution to this might be to favour and encourage academics to do consultancy work. Essentially, right-wingers are more likely to be drawn to profitable careers, and therefore face greater relative barriers to transitioning to the academy. Tushnet’s field, law, is a very good example of this: neoliberals or conservatives (particularly the fiscally conservative) are probably more likely than socialists or social democrats to take on highly-paid positions as law partners. We might note that this idea does not rule out the place of political discrimination, as George Yancey outlines at Patheos, but that it posits – fairly convincingly – that the main driver is economic pressure, rather than cultural discrimination.

This raises the question of why the ratio, according to Jonathan Haidt, has got dramatically worse since the early 90s, having been fairly constant since the Second World War (Tushnet anticipates the problem in 1991). To answer this we should remind ourselves that since the 1970s the measures of income inequality in the United States and United Kingdom have rapidly increased. It seems quite rational to conclude that not only do conservatives face greater pressures to stay out of academia and in the money-making business, these pressures have ramped up in recent decades. Indeed, in most fields peak earning is around the age of 45-55 – so the potential graduate students of 1990 would have been guided by the outcomes of the potential graduate students of 1970, the first wave who might have benefited from increased income concentration in the upper ranks. It is reasonable to conclude that had these financial incentives been less acutely concentrated in the last 30 years or so, conservatives would not be an endangered species in faculties in the US and UK.

We are faced then with a pleasingly ironic conclusion: the only lasting solution to the underrepresentation of conservatives and neoliberals in the academy might, in fact, be to adopt more strongly redistributionist policies, reducing the incentives for conservatives to remove their wisdom from the public sphere and apply it to, as they say, ‘making bank’. Might we then see a conservative movement for a wage cap in the near future? Conservatives for Corbynomics has a certain ring to it.

 

[1] Tushnet, ‘Critical Legal Studies: A Political History’ Yale Law Journal 100.5 (March, 1991), 1515, 1534 (n. 92).

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Common sampling policy

I have the Wikipedia page which collates polling data on the EU referendum bookmarked, as all nerds do, and I was taking my daily cursory look at it this morning when something struck me about it. I fed the data into Excel to check I wasn’t overinterpreting, and there it was again.

The following graph shows sample size (on the X axis) plotted against Remain’s lead in the polls (on the Y axis).

graph 1

In general, the smaller the sample size, the larger the Remain lead is. This is largely because of the telephone polls: ORB’s phone polls always have a sample size of 800 exactly, and all the sub-1,000 sample polls are conducted by phone.

What to make of this? Here’s another chart: this time, assessing the the general election polls and the Conservative lead:

graph 2

It’s perhaps a little hard to make out, but if I’m not mistaken, the general election polls don’t show such a sharp disparity. Small sample sizes show exaggerated leads in one direction or another, but there’s almost as many figures below the X axis as above it. At the general election, the polls all clustered around a tie, which turned out to be very wrong indeed. Contrast that to the EU referendum polls, where there’s a much more marked profusion of big Remain leads in the little polls and a much more close picture in the big ones.

I’d hazard a guess that the bigger sample sizes are probably more accurate, but that depends on the polling companies having sorted out their methodologies. As it is, we’re flying blind.

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Some thoughts on status quo bias

Peter Kellner observed in the New Statesman yesterday that the last few referendums in the UK have all seen a late shift to the status quo, with the somewhat sui generis exception of the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum. He concludes from this assessment that history favours Remain this month, arguing that six of the seven referendums he discusses show support for the status quo.

Mr Kellner’s article has superficial appeal, but he’s guilty of leaving out almost half of the eleven referendums which have been held in the UK since 1975, which might undermine his thesis somewhat. In the below table I have listed all the referendums in the UK since 1975 (deliberately excluding the 1973 Northern Ireland border poll, which was boycotted by the nationalist community); the rows in red were excluded from Mr Kellner’s article.

table

*The 1979 Scottish devolution referendum resulted in a narrow (51.6-48.3) win for the pro-devolution side, but turnout failed to reach the 40% threshold imposed by Parliament in order for the referendum to have effect.
†The 1997 Scottish devolution referendum was made up of two questions, the first on the establishment of a Scottish Assembly and the second on whether it should have tax-varying powers. Both proposals passed.

By my reckoning, far from the status quo being the dominant response of the British electorates to a referendum question, it is actually slightly less likely than a vote for change – five questions asked were answered with the status quo response, while seven were endorsements of the proposed reform. Even excluding the 1979 Scottish referendum because of its turnout threshold and the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement because of its unique context brings us to an even total of five for five, with the status quo only taking a narrow lead if the 1997 Scotland referendum is collapsed into one. Mr Kellner has – perhaps deliberately – massaged his figures to portray votes in favour of change as significantly less common than they are.

Even his rather specious argument that the changes which succeed are those which endorse a ‘national consensus’  has virtually no value whatsoever. Perhaps the Scottish Assembly (as it then was) was indeed established as part of a national consensus. The same could not be said of the Welsh assembly powers referendum in 2011, nor even the 1979 referendum in Scotland which he explains away due to the insertion of a wrecking amendment by a Labour MP. It should be noted further that those two referendums exhibited the narrow margins which seem increasingly likely in the referendum this month, which should give both sides this time pause.

Ultimately, talk about bias towards the status quo misses something which may be quite important. In almost all previous referendums, the status quo is something which has existed for a very long time – since time immemorial, even. The Union between Scotland and England dates to 1707, and the Union of Crowns is a century older than that. Parliament has been sovereign in the North East, London, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland since the concept was first described. The first-past-the-post system has been the process for all British general elections since the expansion of the franchise, and predates even that for a much more limited electorate.

The exception, of course, is the 1975 European Communities referendum, where a relatively new ‘status quo’ – more or less a government policy – was endorsed merely two years after it was enacted. In 2016, the idea that the EU benefits from status quo bias and incumbency is dependent upon the idea that the EU has weaved into national consciousness as much as first-past-the-post, the sovereign Parliament or the very Unitedness of the Kingdom.

I’m not sure that’s so. Stronger In has been trying to run this sort of campaign, but it’s stuttering somewhat. My suspicion is that this is because the EU is almost a victim of its own success: so effective at inveigling itself into national economies that nobody even notices it’s there any more. Even whinging about Europe in tabloid newspapers has a detached quality, a sense of newness and alienness – consider the Metric Martyrs case for an example of this in action. It seems that the pro-EU side, which planned to run a simple defence of the status quo with the expected 2-1 walloping, is having to make the case for the EU afresh, as if we were being asked to join it rather than remain in it. Whether this affects the result remains to be seen, but it seems implausible to suggest the British electorate is on autopilot this time around.

‡Sort of. See MacCormick v Lord Advocate [1953] SC 396.

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On us, and our not taking it

Janan Ganesh, the FT’s political columnist, was born in 1982. At 33 or 34, that makes him just young enough to count as a Millennial, if Strauss and Howe’s grand theory is taken as read. Perhaps this is, in part, why Ganesh’s column on why Millennials don’t know they’re born has produced such a stir: a convert is always more influential than a mere priest.

Ganesh’s piece is, as always, beautifully written. He understands the economy of words better than any prominent political writer in the UK. And to give him his due he is, of course, right when he seizes the pulpit to denounce the eschatological heresy of looming intergenerational Armageddon:

The fracturing of public life along generational lines has felt imminent for some time. And it will continue to feel imminent. Generational politics will never take off because no normal person identifies with a collective as large and internally diverse as their age cohort. It is too tenuous a bond to spur concerted civic action.

Yet despite this bracing good sense, his argument – that Millennials should be grateful for our luck of having been born in (for instance) 1990 as opposed to 1960 due to the “dazzling consumer gains that come with technology and competition multiplied by the passage of time” – fails to convince. Ganesh supposes that these consumer gains are in some way a cosmic compensation for the relative abject asset poverty into which my generation has been born, but to do so misunderstands the nature of the injustice which has been done to us.

Ganesh’s argument would hold if generational injustice was necessary to lower crime rates, reduce the cost of flights and accelerate the development of the smartphone, the iPad and Skype. This might excuse the imbalance as a payment we (unwillingly) made for our living standards – but Ganesh never proves this, or even adduces any evidence to that effect. It is no good saying to someone whose house has been burnt down by arsonists to cheer up because it’s a sunny day outside: it was always going to be a sunny day, thank you, and I’d rather have lemonade on the front porch than rubble and a suntan.

Of course I (on balance) would rather be born in 1990 than 1960. I’m less likely to get beaten up or robbed; I’m less likely to die abroad; I have access to the sum of all human knowledge at my fingertips. But unless stagnant wages and low house prices were necessary for me to have these things (not, in fact, a ridiculous supposition given how capitalism and competition operated in the West), I’m more than entitled to be angry with my lot. So is my cohort. Until research can confirm this hypothesis, the last word should be Ganesh’s:

Beneath the pose, there is nothing there.

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