Thursday, 21 January 2016

Hurry or you will lose: David Cameron and the Brexit Referendum

Matt Qvortrup


No wonder David Cameron is in a hurry to hold the EU referendum. If he waits until next year he will lose the vote. This is the conclusion of a paper I have just published in Political Quarterly.

It is also not surprising the Prime Minister wants the vote to take place in the summer when everybody is planning their holiday and have little time for politics. And he is well advised to get the vote out of the way as soon as possible

Why? Referendums are won when the governments have been in office for a short time – and when the turnout is low. And turnout will be low if the vote is held during the summer.

So, if the turnout is the same as in the General Election in 2015, Cameron will squeeze through with 56.1 per cent if the vote is held in May.

However, if Cameron waits until next year – and if the turnout is as high as in the 2014 Scottish referendum (not an unreasonable assumption given the passion Europe arouses), then David Cameron will only get 49 per cent. In other words, he will lose.

This explains why he is in a hurry to get a deal with the other European leaders on the 18th of February.

Statisticians and economists often use so-called econometric models to forecast the rate of inflation, unemployment and sundry other macroeconomic indicators.

The same type of equation can be developed for political events. The American political scientist Michael S. Lewis-Beck developed a model that could predict US presidential election with a margin of plus/minus two point five per cent.

In 2012, I used this model to correctly predict that Barack Obama would win the US presidential election. The prediction was more accurate than the opinion polls.

Based on all the 44 referendums on the EU (or EEC) held since 1972 we can come up with a similar equation that accounts for the factors, which statistically are associated with a no-vote.

All other things being equal, EU referendums tend to be won if there is a leading question on the ballot. Voters tend to vote for the Governments’ propositions if so-called ‘emotive’ words, like ‘agree’ and ‘approve’ are on the ballot.

Further, if there is a low turnout and if the government has taken office recently, the yes-vote is likely to be high.

All of this can be summed up in an equation of the type developed by Michael S. Lewis-Beck. The equation looks like this:

Yes = 74 + 13* Emotive Word – 0.25*Turnout -1.4*Years in Office

Let’s do the math!

The 74 is a base line – or a constant, that need not worry us. The emotive word variable is also of little concern. The ballot-question in the EU referendum will be a bland one. (The question on the ballot is ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? Leave/Stay’). So the value for this variable is zero.

Assuming the turnout in the referendum is 66 (like in the General Election in 2015) and assuming David Cameron has been in office for one year, when the referendum is held, we get: 74 –(0.25*66) – (1.4*1), which is 74-16.5 – 1.4 = 56.1.

However, if the turnout is higher – like in the Scottish referendum – he is in trouble. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that the turnout is 85 per cent and the vote is delayed to 2017. If so, we get 74 -21.25- 2.8= 49 per cent.

Of course, everything is not statistics and there are many unique and idiosyncratic factors that are we need to take into account. But many of the factors we usually associate with referendums have little statistical effect, as I show in my article.

Factors such as campaign spending, control over the media and trust in the government have little impact on EU referendums. In fact, in Romania – one of the countries with the lowest levels of trust in the Government – more than 90 per cent endorsed EU membership. Conversely, in Norway and Sweden – countries where more than 80 per cent of the voters trusted the respective governments, three out of four referendums were lost.

So why the turnout and the years the government has been in office?

The tenure is easy. Governments break promises and disappoint if they have been in office for a long time. The sins of commission are a positive function of the number of years a government has been in office. In Denmark in 1992 – the conservative Poul Schl├╝ter- Government was worn out after ten years in power and lost the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. A year later, a new government – headed by the Social Democrat Poul Nyryp Rasmussen - was able to capitalize on the honeymoon feeling in the country and won a referendum on the same Treaty.

That a high turnout is correlated with a high yes vote is more surprising. From countries with compulsory voting – such as Australia – we know that voters with little political interest often are more sceptical than voters who have a greater interest in politics (see here for more info). It seems that the same is at play in EU referendums.

Of course, there is more to referendums than statistics. However, the tendency is clear: low turnout and a government that has recently taken office are associated with a high yes-vote.

David Cameron and his staff are well advised to hold the referendum as soon as possible – and at a time when as few citizens as possible will vote.

You can read the full article ‘Referendums on Membership and European Integration 1972–2015’ here.

Professor Matt Qvortrup is Chair of Political Science at Coventry University. The author of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict and Referendums Around the World, he is a frequent commentator for the BBC and a regular contributor to Bloomberg View.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Hard Labour

Ben Jackson


There is something about the Labour Party that makes otherwise rigorous left-wing thinkers misplace their critical faculties. Guardian columnists, radical academics, authors of pungent essays for the New Left Review: all are liable to lapse into an unilluminating moralism when the discussion turns to British party politics. Where such writers deftly place the latest American elections or the rise of socialism in Latin America in their structural economic and social contexts, in the same hands the foibles of the Labour Party are portrayed as the result of a parliamentary elite who self-interestedly and stupidly choose to accommodate themselves to the status quo. If only Labour MPs for once resolved to act morally and intelligently, runs the implicit argument, then a truly radical Labour government could at last take office. But, as Marx famously observed, political actors do not make history ‘just as they please in circumstances they choose for themselves; rather they make it in present circumstances, given and inherited’.[i] A full analysis of the frailties of British social democracy must therefore also consider the social influences that structure the decisions of Labour MPs, rather than confining itself to the apportionment of moral praise or blame.[ii] This intellectual blind spot reveals an ideological weakness of the newly insurgent hard left: a refusal to confront honestly the political implications of the kind of society that Britain has become since the 1970s.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has promoted the need for such a reckoning to the top of the political agenda. Whether the Conservatives will remain in office until 2025 will be in part determined by whether those energised by Corbyn can formulate a political strategy that understands Labour’s predicament in terms that go beyond the personal fallibilities of Tony Blair. In one way, a suitably hard left analysis of Britain today is easy to come by – and is in many particulars correct. A staunch condemnation of the social divisions and inequality fostered by neo-liberalism has been a staple of the oppositional discourse fostered by those on Labour’s left for many years now. This discourse contains a perceptive account of the material contexts that shape Britain’s party political superstructure. Yet if this account is taken seriously, it becomes simultaneously harder to understand how the Labour left proposes to overcome the obstacles that confront social democracy in Britain today and easier to see why Labour’s elite have recently favoured a more centrist political path. Those on the hard left fail to follow their materialist analysis to its logical conclusion: that social conditions make a quest for a more socialist Britain very, very difficult.

Which social conditions inhibit the building of a more equal and democratic Britain? Economically, it is virtually a cliche to recite the structural shifts that have remade Britain’s industrial landscape: the loss of large-scale manufacturing, the rapid rise of service sector employment, the vast economic power now wielded by international finance, the seemingly inexorable decay of workplace solidarities and collective bargaining. What is immediately striking about this familiar litany is just how sweeping and historic these economic changes are: they represent fundamental realignments in the domestic and global organisation of production and consumption; in class structure and identity; and ultimately in the distribution of economic power. The radical left is quite correct to argue that many of these changes have strengthened the power of capital at the expense of labour.[iii] But how, it might reasonably be asked, can the flimsy organisation that is the modern Labour Party, even afforced by extra members and even were it to gain control of the British state, fundamentally remake this new economy? The Labour Party has never in its history undertaken such a task. The 1945 Labour government worked with the grain of the industrial economy revived by wartime production, inherited from total war an exceptionally wide range of economic controls, faced little challenge from a war-ravaged City of London, and derived its social legitimacy from a large, popular trade union movement and ultimately a numerically dominant industrial working class. The Labour Party of the 1940s positioned itself adroitly to benefit from this economic and social context but it did not create it. No matter how adroit Labour’s positioning today, the party lacks a comparable set of structural advantages for any socialist economic reform programme.

Consider a second element of the left’s accurate diagnosis of contemporary Britain: our partisan media. As the 2015 election showed, the Labour Party usually finds it harder than the Conservatives to communicate its political message because it lacks the megaphone of a compliant popular press. This is particularly true when Labour prioritises policies that challenge the existing distribution of power and wealth. Such policies are systematically lampooned or drowned out by trivia. The press coverage in turn shapes the agenda of the less partisan broadcast media. In this way, British democratic debate is distorted by the interests of a few wealthy newspaper owners and journalists. However, this also means that Labour has to think strategically about how to enable voters even to hear its message in the first place. Complaining about press bias on Twitter and Facebook is not enough. In the long run, perhaps the rise of the internet and social media does presage a structural shift in political communications but for the next electoral cycle – the horizon within which Corbynism must make some progress – Twitter and Facebook will usually be echo chambers, while the voters that Labour must reach are exposed to politics chiefly through broad brush impressions fostered by the mass media. This inevitably constrains the sort of political message that Labour should transmit if it wants its agenda to resonate among the public. From what we have seen so far, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership simply offers the right-wing press too easy a target.

This brings us finally to the electorate itself. As the left rightly reminds us, we live in a consumer capitalist society with limited opportunities for political socialisation and participation. Most voters consequently view politics as an unwelcome intrusion into their lives and regard grand schemes for social improvement with scepticism. The reasons for this are complex, and may ultimately be susceptible to long-term social and cultural change. But no matter how much of an outward-facing social movement Jeremy Corbyn transforms the Labour Party into, the basic problem of motivating public support for a social democratic agenda remains the same as it has been for three decades now: how to persuade voters concerned about their family’s living standards that greater collective provision will benefit them?[iv] The more ambitious the anti-austerity social democracy that is proposed, the greater the burden of proof becomes, in part because of the greater need to increase taxes. The nature of the neo-liberal poison pill bequeathed by the Thatcher government is that the tax base of the British state is too narrow to support the level of redistribution and public services that social democrats desire. Yet to raise significant revenues in a progressive fashion would require not just higher taxes on the super-rich, but also higher marginal income tax rates for middle and upper earners, a political feat largely deemed impossible by Labour politicians after 1997.[v] So far this even seems to be regarded as a hard constraint by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, since their emergent fiscal strategy appears to target the wealthy and corporations.[vi] Either way, Labour faces long years of hard questions about how it will fund its anti-austerity fiscal stance, questions that will be ruthlessly and at times mendaciously used by the government and press to sap Labour’s status as a defender of the living standards of working people. In the face of such an onslaught, it will be at best an uphill struggle to persuade an insecure electorate that a greater role for democratic politics in running the economy is a desirable break from free market orthodoxy.

To each of these three constraints New Labour had a clear answer, based on conceding some ground to the right in order to focus on other fronts where recognisably left of centre policy goals could be advanced. This is not to say that New Labour politicians judged these compromises correctly in every case – they did not – but it is to note that the architects of the Blair and Brown government had at least thought about the politics of power in some depth. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have not yet shown that they are thinking deeply enough about how a Labour Party led from the hard left can overcome the obstacles to achieving their political goals. They owe those of us who do not want to live under a Conservative government until 2025 – and all that implies for the welfare state and public services – a serious analysis of how a radical Labour Party can draw on actually existing social forces. In the absence of such an analysis, it is hard not to worry that the Labour left is ultimately confecting a major setback for the cause of a more equal and democratic Britain.

[i] K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], in T. Carver, ed., Marx: Later Political Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 32.
[ii] A similar point was also made by Martin McIvor after Labour’s 2010 election defeat in an analysis to which I am indebted: ‘The lessons of power’, Renewal, vol. 18 no. 3/4, 2010, pp. 6-8.
[iii] For comprehensive evidence of this point, see A. Offer, ‘British manual workers: from producers to consumers’, Contemporary British History, vol. 22 no. 4, 2008, pp. 538-71.
[iv] On Corbynism as more about movement-building than conventional electoral politics, see J. Gilbert, ‘Corbyn – what’s a leader really for?’, OpenDemocracy, 1 December 2015, https://opendemocracy.net/uk/jeremy-gilbert/corbyn-whats-leader-really-for; J. McDonnell, ‘Labour can be the most powerful force for progressive change in generations’, Guardian, 5 December 2015.
[v] A. B. Atkinson, Inequality: What Can be Done?, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 2015, pp. 179-91, 281-99.
[vi] C. Giles, ‘How to be hard left without being stupid’, Financial Times, 26 August 2015.