More heresies on the election arithmetic and the manifestos

First, a reminder of the numbers of seats won compared with 2015:

Conservatives: 318 (-13)
Labour: 262 (+30)
SNP: 35 (-21)
LibDems: 12 (+4)
DUP: 10 (+2)
Others: 13 (-2)

These figures prompt two thoughts:

(1) Labour is now 56 seats behind the Tories and 58 seats short of a minimal one-seat overall majority – almost twice the net number of additional seats won by Labour at this month’s election (30). At the 2015 election, Labour under Ed Miliband actually gained 22 seats, but lost all but one of its MPs in Scotland and ended up with a net loss of 26 seats. This month Labour scored a net gain of 30 seats.  Can Labour win rather more than twice as many additional seats next time, holding on to all those it won in June this year, in order to form a majority government on a sustainable basis? 

(2) Jeremy Corbyn increased Labour’s share of the national vote to more than at any election since 2001 – 40 per cent, a 10 percentage points increase from a low base. (Contrary to some claims for Labour’s success in winning 40% of the national vote, Labour has won a higher share than 40% at ten elections since, and including, 1945.)    But Theresa May increased the Tories’ share of the vote by 5.5 percentage points, from a higher base, to just over 42 per cent, more than at any election since 1979 when the Tories won easily with 43.9 per cent of the vote. Forty-two percent of the vote has generally been enough to win an election, even under First Past the Post.  This year both parties benefited enormously from the desertions to both of them of the nearly 4 million who voted for UKIP in 2015, from the desertion of a large number of SNP voters, mainly to the Tories, and from the much higher turnout than usual of voters aged under 45, many of them committed Remainers, mainly going to Labour.  Labour easily won the battle on the social media, which no doubt helped to get the under 45s out for it.  It’s hard to see where any comparable windfalls for either party are going to come from at the next election.

Labour did very well in this election campaign, greatly helped by Jeremy Corbyn’s experienced campaigning skills, and far better than expected by almost anyone.  But Theresa May did even better, by any standards, winning 56 more seats than Labour, only three short of an overall majority — but far worse than anyone expected.  Labour supporters should not allow themselves to get carried away.  Doing better than expected is not enough to win elections:  and admiration for Mr Corbyn’s campaigning prowess is not necessarily the same thing as confidence in his capacity for leading and managing his party and the country as prime minister, especially when the UK faces such huge and complex problems.

About the Manifestos: There’s a good, progressive case for some of the things most widely condemned in Mrs May’s often brave but reckless manifesto.  The propositions that (i) the rich should have to pay for their social care until their total wealth comes down to a figure that would still represent a generous bequest to their children, that (ii) the calculation of their wealth should include the market value of their houses, but that (iii) their houses should not have to be sold during their lifetimes, has a lot to commend itself to those of us who believe in a much more equal society.  It would reduce the size of the estates of the rich to whom it would apply, and also reduce the subsidy otherwise paid by ordinary taxpayers to the ultra-rich in order to protect their estates for their children – a regressive transfer of resources from have-nots to haves.  The most cogent objection to it is that it would apply arbitrarily only to those relatively wealthy people who need residential or home care in their declining years: hence the deadly nickname of “dementia tax”.  It would penalise those with dementia (or other such prolonged disability) but not those struck down by heart attacks, strokes, road accidents or even cancer.  But that was not the objection to the proposal voiced quite stridently by the Labour opposition during the campaign.  It’s not often that Labour champions a section of the rich against an attempt, however ham-fisted, to level some of the gross inequalities handed down from generation to generation.

Much the same applies to Mrs May’s attempted refusal to continue the triple lock on pensions.  This guarantees that if average earnings and inflation increase by less than 2.5%, pensions will still be increased by 2.5%: i.e. by the highest percentage increase of the three.  This represents a transfer of income from working people to pensioners, regardless of need or equity. If it stems from a considered judgement that pensions have fallen too far behind earnings (as may well be the case), there are much better ways to correct the imbalance than the blunt arbitrary instrument of the triple lock.  It reflects political cowardice on the part of the parties that support it: because a high proportion of pensioners tend to vote, it’s deemed prudent to offer bribes to them, or at any rate it stems from a fear of their electoral revenge if the bribe is withdrawn.  The same thing applies to such benefits as the winter fuel allowance, free television licences and to some extent free bus passes.  If our political leaders (including Labour’s) lack the courage simply to abolish these unearned and mostly unnecessary benefits, the least they should do is to tax their value as income, saving any need to introduce separate means testing.  The basic founding principle of universal benefits is certainly well worth rescuing from oblivion, but it’s questionable whether a subsidy to all old people to reduce their expenditure on winter heating, or free travel, should have the same status as free health care, free school education, unemployment benefit, or other collective insurance against misfortune that shares the risks across the whole community.

A Labour party that plans substantially to increase taxes on the rich to fund an enormously ambitious programme of expenditure should be wary of attacking proposals, even if they are put forward by a Tory prime minister, that are designed to expand the options for increasing taxes on the rich or to remove obstacles to ending expenditures which have little or no economic or social justification. Labour, if it seriously hopes eventually to climb the mountain into government (and what else is it for?), needs to be careful about what it wishes for – and about what it automatically denounces.

(I write as an old age pensioner living in a house whose market value, through no effort or merit on my part, has risen to unconscionable levels – I hope.)

On the other side of the ledger, there is a little-noticed and little-discussed downside to Labour’s highly popular, vote-winning pledge to abolish payment of university tuition fees by students (not ‘abolition of tuition fees’: someone has to pay them).  The unspoken promise is that central government – i.e. the taxpayer, who typically has limited opportunity to go to university and who earns less than those who have done so — will pay the fees, not only a highly regressive arrangement but also one that will restore financial and thus political government control over nominally independent universities and colleges.  Their independence was supposedly protected in the bad old days of free university education by independent intermediary bodies such as the University Grants Committee.  We don’t know how Labour would propose to square this circle. If a future Labour government assumes direct financial control of our universities, one trembles to imagine how a successor Tory government might seek to exploit it. 

The moral?  There can be half-hidden catches in even the most obviously popular policies, and some merit in those that are most easily and automatically condemned.

Note:  This is the full text of an abbreviated version which has been published on LabourList at http://labourlist.org/2017/06/labour-won-tory-seats-with-a-stirring-campaign-but-danger-lurks-in-the-detail-of-both-parties-spending-plans/ on 20 June 2017.

 Brian

8 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    OK, but if ever there was a case for the cliche about the elephant in the room this is it! This was the Brexit election. Both the Tories and Labour funked it, but we should not be doing the same. Some whispers suggest that it is not too late to do something about it. I don’t approve of government by click on every trivial issue, but I have just put my name to https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/15cc65ca92704d36 . Now is the time for all good men (and that embraces embraces women) etc. etc.

  2. Brian says:

    Thanks, Oliver.  I think I have posted enough comments on the elephant in the room in previous posts for no-one to doubt where I stand — i.e., I’m totally opposed to the UK leaving the EU on any conceivable terms, I think the case for saying we have to do it is fatally flawed — indeed, fatuous:  and I hope I’m beginning to see signs of a growing view that the whole thing is a terrible mistake.  But that’s for another blog post.

    Unfortunately I can’t make your hyperlink work.  Could you try again? Did you mean to refer to your excellent piece on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/22/how-vote-tactically-remainer-any-candidate-against-brexit?

    Brian

  3. It depends who you mean by the rich, Brian. My parents didn’t own their own house, so I had no inheritance to speak of. Along with many of my generation, I have been able to buy own house, which I should like to be able to pass on to my children, together with any other assets I may have. In these straitened times, they will certainly need it.

    I understand and sympathise with the political case for progressive taxation, and I don’t mind, as Denis Healey almost said, squeezing the rich till the pips squeak. But I have never counted myself among their number.

  4. Acilius says:

    You make a strong case that Labour’s opposition to the three Tory policies you name was likely opportunistic, and that Labour can have had little hope at the outset of this campaign that they would emerge from the election with an outright majority. These two points go together; parties that are unlikely to form a government have little incentive to choose well thought-out policies at the expense of immediate electoral gain. It will be interesting to see how Labour, starting with a larger parliamentary delegation and with a leader who is no longer catastrophically unpopular, will approach its next general election campaign.

  5. Brian Barder says:

    Brian writes:

    In reply to Barrie:  I agree that terms like “rich” and “wealthy” can cover a multitude of sins.  Like yours, my parents didn’t own their own house and I inherited virtually no money from them, for various reasons.  Like you I managed to get on the housing ladder early, thanks to cheapish mortgages and squeezing a very modest public service salary.  Having gradually climbed the property ladder, I now live in and own a house probably worth around a million pounds.  My income from my state and public service pensions is more than adequate but relatively modest.  Like you, I would like to pass on the value of my house to my adult children when I (and my wife) die, but neither my wife, nor my children, nor I have any quarrel with the view that the ability to pass on inequality and privilege from generation to generation is socially and politically undesirable, and that current exemptions from inheritance tax are excessive.  There’s a good case for higher IHT at death, and for taxing the inheritances of those who inherit the rest as part of their income.

    In reply to Acilius:  Thanks.  You make an interesting point.  I’m dismayed by the almost universal assumption that it’s natural and right to judge a party’s policy proposals by their effect on the party’s electoral prospects, whether remote or good, rather than by their impact on the national interest, which may be quite different. This helps to account for the coarsening of our national political debate and even for the general mediocrity of our politicians.

  6. Oliver Miles says:

    For the elusive website try https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/no_deal_no_brexit_loc/?rc=fb&pv=88

  7. Peter Martin says:

    Brian,

    Just a couple of years ago you wrote:

    “I’m prepared to risk the prediction that the Labour party with Jeremy Corbyn as leader will never win a general election. I just hope we’ll never know.”

    I suppose you could say that so far you’re right. We got 40% but still lost. The strategy of Ed Milliband was to try and win with just 35% BTW.

    Of course it is fair enough to have differences of opinion. But don’t these kinds of “he can never win” , “he’s just not a credible PM ” type remarks undermine all our efforts?

    How many votes would you say that these kinds of comments cost the party at the election? Not just yours but from many others in the Labour Party establishment too. I’m sure you, and the others, would have expressed sentiments in the past along the lines that disunity costs votes. Presumably significant numbers of votes or there wouldn’t have been any need to make the point.

    So, come on, have a try a putting a number to significance. 5% 10% ?

  8. Brian says:

    Brian replies to Peter Martin: I don’t accept for a minute that criticism of the leader of the Labour party, in the interests of the party’s future and of the country’s welfare and prosperity, ought to be muffled or suppressed in the name of “party unity”. Because of the fecklessness of a leadership that changed the rules governing the election of the leader so as to reduce the weight of opinion of Labour MPs to almost zero, and then the irresponsibility of those MPs who endorsed Corbyn’s candidature in the belief that he had no chance of winning, the party is saddled with a leader whose personal ideology is fundamentally undemocratic, and who has not the slightest experience of running anything more serious than a local government allotments committee. His legislative and policy achievements in all his years of local government and then in parliament amount to absolutely nothing. Several of his closest mentors and handlers are either unsavoury or communists, or both. The idea that he could be an effective prime minister with not a single day’s experience in office, and having failed spectacularly to win the confidence and cooperation of the best and the brightest in the parliamentary party that he purports to lead, is far-fetched to the point of being nonsensical (yes, I know Tony Blair had never been a minister, and it showed in his first year or so). To pretend not to have noticed any of these realities, for fear of highlighting a disunity in the party that must be obvious to any 10-year-old, or to notice them but to keep quiet about them, would be to do a serious disservice to both the party and the country.

    It’s fortunate for both that the chances of Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell winning a general election remain remote. The Corbynites celebrate the gain of around 30 seats in this year’s election as if they had won it. To win the next one they would need not only to hold on to all those thirty seats: they would need to win another 60 or more, just to win a majority of one in the new house of commons. To do that with economic policies that would wreck our creditworthiness in a globalised world, and with a cowardly refusal to decide on a plain policy on Brexit, and with a leader with all the glaring disqualifications mentioned above, would require either a miracle or else the secret intervention on Labour’s behalf of President Putin. Not to point all these things out would make mealymouthedness into a fine art.

    Finally, you ask what percentage of potential votes for Labour in the election were lost by my own and others’ refusal to be silenced on the subject of the leader’s inadequacies, widely recognised and admitted throughout the party and its supporters. Two points in reply: it was Mr Corbyn’s multiple inadequacies and defects that undoubtedly lost the party votes (as Labour canvassers’ experience on the doorsteps confirms), not the publicity they were bound to attract along the length of the political spectrum. And secondly, my rough guess is that 10 per cent or more of the votes cast for Labour were cast in the confident (and incidentally correct) belief that there was not the slightest risk of Mr Corbyn entering No.10 as prime minister. If it becomes the received wisdom, supported by the opinion polls, that Labour under Corbyn might actually win a future election, I would expect the Labour vote to suffer a steep decline. A stronger and more expert Tory election campaign under a new and more credible leader would pay much more attention to the defects of Labour’s policies and of its leader. Labour could not expect to get lucky a second time with all the failings of Mrs May’s ill-judged campaign — and in spite of that, the Tories won a significantly higher percentage of the popular vote than Labour, and 56 more seats in parliament. After seven years of failed Tory austerity and a large body of anti-Brexit opinion in the country, Labour ought to have won that election with both hands tied behind its back. It came nowhere near doing so. Time to get real!

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