US Elections two weeks out

US Elections two weeks out

Were this a normal US election it would all be over bar the shouting, but it is neither normal, nor in the minds of some close to the White House an election at all.

The numbers would seem to indicate a Biden win followed by Democrat majorities in the House of Representative and probably the Senate too. The numbers have proved misleading in previous elections and in 2016 there was a general, though by no means uniform, polling error in favour of Trump. Apply that same polling error state by state to the numbers we are seeing and even with a pessimistic slant Joe Biden still makes it past 270 votes in the Electoral College.

On the face of it that should be enough, but Trump has long since sought to call the election into doubt. The desire of more extreme individuals in the Trump rear guard is to find means of dragging the election into the courts and ultimately to the US Supreme Court, nicely stacked in favour of a Republic fix. They may not win a vote but they can win a legal battle - and that's how they see it. Anybody who doubts the likely actions of the Supreme Court – even before the death of Ruth Bader-Ginsberg – should look at their decisions on multiple voter suppression suits brought by the Republicans.

Sufficient polling error and enough disputes in states where there are influential republic legislators willing to manipulate the outcome and that may be enough to call into question the result into question despite a wider lead in the popular vote than was achieved by Hillary Clinton in 2016. A very bleak prospect indeed with no guarantee of a peaceful outcome.

There are substantial Biden leads in states where in 2016 Trump received very narrow majorities, however some of those states gave at some stage comparable polling leads to Hilary Clinton. The popular vote would seem to have widened when at the same stage in 2016, Hillary Clinton had a polling average lead of around 3.5 points in a tightening race. There is little doubt that the announcement of further inquiries by the FBI into the Clinton email allegations moved the mood of the campaign and the polling numbers. Even though few voters seemed to understand either the allegations or the implications the very notion of an investigation stood up the doubts over Clinton’s propriety and backed Trump’s attacks. I was in Washington DC on the day Comey made the announcement and you could feel the mood shift.

In this election campaign Joe Biden has had some strokes of luck that evaded Hillary Clinton. He avoided a long drawn out and damaging primary battle, first of all through a well-judged strategy that deflated the Sanders balloon and then first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed the primaries. Trump’s handling of the pandemic then pushed perceptions of incompetence, hard-heartedness and bungling into full view while the handling of issues of racial injustice seem to have less traction in the suburbs that Trump’s camp had hoped.

We remain a long way from the end of a campaign that has had very little ‘normal’ about it. A great deal can change, events and the climate remains unpredictable, the ballot will retain the potential for dispute and it is unclear whether and how the polling organisations have compensated for the biases that caught out the commentators and forecasters in 2016. All that is before anything gets anywhere near a court which we can only hope it doesn’t. A Trump White House not having to care about re-election is where US democracy dies.

We who want the end of Trump's presidency more than just about anything else right now know that it’s the hope that kills us. So even though this race is in a far better place than might have been imagined at the turn of the year we will remain on the edge of our seats

JH 19.10.2020

Update - Eve of Poll

In the two weeks since posting his article little has changed. Joe Biden’s polling lead has remained stable, greater than that enjoyed by Hilary Clinton in 2016 both nationally and in swing states and with lower levels of undecided voters.

While nothing has cut through to damage Biden, Trump’s people continue to talk openly of seeking to steal the election, of finding ways to prevent votes being counted and indulging in rhetoric that can only be aimed at winding up supporters to intimidate and provoke civil disorder.

Early voting turnouts suggest something is happening that we may not yet fully understand. It is no exaggeration to say that American democracy faces a test few of us would have believed possible or necessary. We can but hope it passes.

JH 2.11.20

 

Posted by John Howarth
The LibDems still don’t get it

The LibDems still don’t get it

A look at the Liberal Democrats, their history and their positioning right now and John concludes that they are not going to be much help in the years ahead.

Ed Davey seems to have some clue that the Liberal Democrats are in a bit of a mess. What he intends to do about any of this is less clear and whether or not he sees himself as having been part of the problem, even less so.

If we are to believe Mr Davey’s conference leader’s speech then the strategy that will pull the Liberal Democrats out of their electoral trough will be based upon ‘speaking for carers’, talking about ‘universal basic income’, not going back to the way things were before Covid-19 and familiar stuff about ‘green jobs’.

But, say’s Mr Davey, to do any of that his party has to change – though, apart from ‘needing more black MPs’ what kind of change was entirely vague. It was all rather light touch stuff – not attempting to speak truth to the powerless, not spelling out what change involves ‘not being’ and strangely devoid of actually leading.

The Liberal Democrats are a notoriously sensitive bunch. It may be that Mr Davey doesn’t feel he has the mandate or the power to actually lead his party right now, when in fact he now enjoys his greatest leverage. A newly elected leader uses their mandate or loses it – and Davey got two third of the vote, how big a mandate does he think he needs? A new leader needs to show a sense of purpose, a direction, and agenda. For Mr Davey that agenda seemed to be about ‘being nice’ – he didn’t need to spell out exactly what his political strategy might be but he does need to seem to have one.

The broad grins and warm words about the wonderful things the Liberal Democrats “did in government” (he mentioned two things) reveal part of that failure to understand or at least accept the failure of the LibDems political strategy post 2005. What the wider centre-left needs to understand is that these defeats contributed to the wider defeat of liberal democracy represented by Brexit and the further dismantling of Labour’s electoral coalition that followed.

Talk to Liberal Democrats about their party and its positioning and you will get a string of replies that will differ, some will see themselves as primarily anti-Conservative, some the opposite. Opinion will be shaped by location and opportunity – and may then differ at local government level from ward to ward. The driver has been the UK’s first past the post electoral system.

Liberal Electoral Politics Post 1945

From 1945 to the present the Liberals, the SDP Liberal Alliance and their Liberal Democrats successors have represented 105 constituencies at Westminster. 10 of those were held pre 1945 by Liberal or National Liberal MPs. 69 were gained from the Conservative and Unionist Party and 26 from Labour. When the Liberals won seats from the Conservatives, they have held onto them for on average of 20.4 years but when they have won seats from Labour they have been lost in an average of 4.9 years (1)

It took seventeen years for the post-war Liberal Party, which had clung on to a few distant outposts, to show signs of life. A mini revival was sparked by a by-election gain at Orpington in 1962. Under Jo Grimond, a plausible man with the luxury of the most distant constituency with a tiny electorate and a personality vote, Liberal representation doubled from six to twelve by the 1966 election. During this revival they gained nine seats from the Conservatives and one from Labour while Labour gained four at their expense.

Edward Heath’s victory in 1970 knocked the Liberals, now led by Jeremy Thorpe, back to six seats to six seats. If not off, the revival was postponed. During the seventies the domination of the two big post-war parties was under threat. The two General Elections in 1974 were more of less scoreless draws with Labour and the Tories each below 40%. Not just the Liberals, but the SNP and Plaid Cymru made gains, their campaigns boosted by by-election successes that reminded of their existence.

Without the peculiar institution that is the UK Parliamentary by-election neither Liberal revivals nor their development as a third party with a periodic influence would have been much more difficult. First past the post by-elections offered the opportunity for the Liberals to be an acceptable tactical alternative for voters looking to defeat their main enemy – especially so when four out of five Westminster seats are ‘safe’ at general elections. The Liberals offered a chance to send messages/give bloody noses/make a change/get a ‘different’ MP without actually voting for the opposite opinion or having to think about affecting government. 10 of 29 by-election gains were lost at the subsequent general election, only 13 were retained at two or more general elections, contributing to the core of growing Liberal representation (2). Because the strategy depended on the ability to face both ways it could not however contribute building a core vote.

Nonetheless, Liberal successes at general elections continued to be more at the expense of the Conservatives than Labour. During the 74-79 Labour governments the Liberals, now led by David Steel and with a series of media-familiar if oddball MPs (3), largely held on at the 1979 election, losing only two seats in the South West including the disgraced Mr Thorpe his neighbour, supporter and Steel’s main rival, John Pardoe.

Thorpe’s refusal to prop up Ted Heath and Steel’s pact with Jim Callaghan set a direction of travel toward an essentially anti-Conservative positioning. This trend, hastened, by both the Conservative move toward the monetarist right and Labour’s descent into civil war presented an opportunity that SDP defections confirmed (4). Through the next decade or so the SDP-Liberal Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats continued a strategic anti-Conservative positioning coupled with the familiar by-election strategy of opportunist tactical vote harvesting, ‘Con/Lab can never win here’ and dubious graphs. However, the objective, explicitly as the Alliance, was not to ally with Labour but to replace Labour – something that another point on their 1983 general election share might have seen them pull off. Instead, Labour pulled back from the brink under Neil Kinnock and the Liberals consumed the SDP, nonetheless remaining largely in an anti-Tory space, firmly cemented by Paddy Ashdown’s ascendancy.

Lib-Dem de-facto anti-Conservative positioning at parliamentary level had not followed through to other levels of UK politics. Ironically, the factors that drove their shift under David Steel also saw the extinction of the Conservatives as an effective force in local government in the northern conurbations. By the ‘80s the claim that either Labour or Conservative “could never win here” under first-past-the-post had a forty-year evidence base. Accordingly, the ‘franchise’ for opposing Labour under first past the post moved from Tory to the LibDems in parts of Northern England. Nonetheless, 1997 brought Ashdown’s approach to fruition with gains almost exclusively from the Tories taking them to 46 seats, consolidated to 52 in 2001. More importantly, the LibDems under Ashdown helped erode the legitimacy of the Conservatives and consigned them to years of irrelevance. Labour and the LibDems together accounted for 60% and 59% of the vote in 1997 and 2001 which helped deliver and cement important constitutional and social change. The failure to move to fair votes at Westminster meant allowed the Conservatives to reverse much of the legacy of those years and worse.

Like so much else the pivot came in 2003, through it was a pivot that would eventually prove fatal. The post-9/11 Iraq conflict saw Charles Kennedy seeking political space to the left of Labour. It was not difficult to predict that much of Labour’s ‘Guardian demographic’ would seek another home and so it. While there was little space in the political centre, positioning on this and a few others to Labour’s left provided a comfortable home to students and lifestyle voters which took Labour ‘university’ seats in 2005 or caused their loss to the Conservatives by unwinding the anti-Tory tactical vote. The dipping of Labour fortunes also allowed the LibDem ‘franchise’ to build its local government strength, taking councils including Newcastle and Sheffield. The Liberal Democrats had reached their high-water mark.

The changes taking place in the Liberal Democrats, with the election of Nick Clegg, positioning himself toward a ‘free market’, ‘free trade’, increasingly pro-individualist position, may have been lost on the wider electorate to whom LibDem internal affairs are something of a mystery. After 35 years of dominant anti-Conservative positioning and defending seats where, overwhelmingly, the main challenger was Conservative, the Liberal Democrat voter was essentially left of centre. Having held 57 out of 62 seats Nick Clegg took the Liberal Democrats into coalition with David Cameron’s toned-down Conservatives and, at a stroke, lost for the two-thirds of the vote they had built through three decades of anti-tory positioning.

Davey's on the road again - but to where?

The Liberal Democrats now hold eleven seats – one fewer than they won in 1945 and they are the fourth party behind the SNP. All of the seats they initially gained at by-elections have been lost. In their former concentrations of strength – rural Wales and the South West, they hold only a single seat (Bath) and only one of their seats, Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross, was formerly Labour. They have no Westminster representation in five regions/nations and a single seat in a further three.

What should be most disturbing, however, is how few of their former seats are in play at the next general election. Even though the 2019 election saw the LibDems move into second place in 53 more seats it took them to only 91 overall, 80 behind the Conservatives, nine being Labour and two trailing the SNP. Few of these second places represent a serious challenge in 2024. Taking even the most optimistic view, which acknowledges the LibDem ability to produce larger swings than Labour-Tory marginals tend to see, gives them a change in 13 former seats and a handful of possibles beyond those (Conservative with the exception of Sheffield Hallam (Labour) and East Dunbartonshire (SNP)). However, of the eleven current LibDem MPs only two can realistically say they can relax and regard themselves as safe – past experience suggests one or two will fail to get back. Even with a substantial breeze behind them it is hard to see the Liberal Democrats with more than 25 MPs at a 2024. Anything beyond that requires storm force optimism.

Ed Davey seems to understand that this is not going away any time soon, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do about it, or if he does, he doesn’t want to talk about it (5). This is both strange and deeply unhelpful. It signals that the Liberal Democrats have learned nothing from their experiences. It would be easy to kid ourselves that none of this matters but unfortunately it does. Depriving the Conservatives of a majority in the next Parliament would be considerably easier were the LibDems in contention in more Conservative seats.

Those who argue for formal anti-Conservative arrangements at parliamentary elections miss the point. Political parties do not own their voters. They cannot be directed to vote for another party – if they wish to vote tactically, they will make that decision for themselves. A strong liberal current in political debate, however, helps move the mood of the country against the Conservatives who have been the dominant UK party for the past two centuries and have been valuable allies in times of important social reform that contributed to a political majority for change in the UK. Nick Clegg and his allies squandered the Liberal Democrat vote while failing to gain the substantial reform to Westminster elections. Fair votes should have been their red line instead Clegg settled for a limited referendum in which PR wasn’t on offer and thus change was easily seen off, probably for a generation or more.

While the Liberal Democrats struggle to decide on or even seriously consider their positioning they will remain on the fringes and any vote they accumulate will remain fragile. Overall, that will only make the UK less socially liberal and Conservative Party more secure in government.

JH 3.10.2020

Notes

1. There are a number of complicating factors here. Boundary redistribution makes it very difficult to compare Westminster Constituencies over the 75 years this article considers. Some of the constituencies that have had Liberal or Lib/Dem MPs have disappeared altogether, others have change substantially, others in only minor ways or now have different names. The numbers are based on author’s research of public sources (below).

2. By-elections include gains at four contested by the SDP on behalf of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in which three seats were won from the Conservatives and one from Labour. Mike Hancock lost his seat in Portsmouth South in 1987 but won it again in 1997 as a LibDem. I concluded that to include the by elections at Richmond Park, which had been won in first in 1997 and subsequently lost to the Conservatives and at Winchester which was the result of an election petition by the Conservatives should not be included as their circumstances were exceptional. The same is true of the 2019 by-election at Brecon & Radnorshire, which had been a former LibDem seat.

3. Jeremy Thorpe, Clement Freud, David Penhaligon, Cyril Smith …

4. Defections from either of the two main Westminster parties are not included in this piece unless the seat was subsequently held as a Liberal Democrat at a subsequent election. The defections from Labour to the SDP in 1981 are not included for similar reasons. Only three of these seats were retained by defecting MPs – Robert Maclennan won went on to hold his Caithness seat as both SDP and Liberal Democrat and Ian Wigglesworth in Thornaby/Stockton South held also on in 1983. David Owen held on in Plymouth Devonport until 1990. These MPs were part of a different political narrative to the post-war Liberal Party.

5. Some have suggested that from Labour’s point of view Layla Moran may have been a better option. Her campaign declaration that if she was elected she would ‘go after Labour’ suggests that she doesn’t get it either. Also, from personal observation, I do not believe that the electorate would have regarded Ms Moran as either a plausible or personable leader.

 

Sources

UK Parliament Briefing Paper CPB 8749, 28 Jan 2020

Wikipedia

Electoral Calculus

The Guardian

BBC

Times Guides to the House of Commons

 

Posted by John Howarth
Japan, trade and the supreme irrelevance of Stilton

Japan, trade and the supreme irrelevance of Stilton

The Trade Secretary, LIz Truss, has been bouncing around the world seeking the ‘trade deals’ that will come to define the UK’s post-Brexit future as ‘global Britain’. An early success in this plan was to be a quickie deal with Japan. This would potentially lead on to the UK becoming a member or a party to something called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTTP). Yes, Pacific - you read that right.

That was the plan anyway - and it might still come to pass. The UK has a territory in the Pacific, the Pitcairn Islands, permanent residents 43, which apparently provides some kind of rationale for being a ‘Pacific nation’. More importantly, even though the initial deadline of the end of July has passed, the UK may yet conclude a trade arrangement with Japan before the end of 2020.

Japan is a big country. It is much more economically significant than Canada, Australia or New Zealand, in fact more so that all three put together and has twice the population of the United Kingdom. Japan is the third largest economy in the world after the USA and China, the fourth if the EU is considered a single economy. In those terms, if your are going to do trade deals at all, then a trade deal with Japan should be worth doing.

Trade between the UK and Japan was “worth £29 billion” last year (2018) and the UK, while a member state of the EU, has been highly successful at attracting Japanese investment. Japan concluded a trade deal with the EU in outline in 2017, signed it off in 2018 and it came into force in January 2019. That was pretty quick for a trade agreement between major economies.

Now things have changed. The UK is not an EU member state and, without some kind of agreement, the trade arrangements with Japan of which the UK is currently part until 31 December will no longer apply.

What does this mean in practice? Actually, not that much. It does NOT mean, should a deal not happen, that the UK will fail to do any business with Japan. It does NOT mean, if a deal is done, that the UK will see immediate benefits. Trade benefits build slowly, could fall more quickly but maybe not. Existing trade and investment built since Japan emerged as a major post-war economic player in the 1960s, largely in the absence of a trade agreement. The UK Government estimates the benefits of a trade agreement as a potential additional £15.2 billion - around an additional 0.7% of GDP over the medium term. This is not out of line with the projections made by the EU Commission of the potential benefits of the 2018 agreement with Japan, which the UK has had no time yet to realise. Japan currently accounts for around 2% of the UK’s exports - that is less than a third of stuff we sell to the Netherlands, only a little more than a third that we sell to Ireland and a mere fifth of the goods we sell to Germany.

However, Japan made a conscious decision to pursue a policy of free trade agreements and has delivered on its intent. It’s agreement with the EU represents the largest bi-lateral trade agreement in existence. The UK is a smaller but important market within that which Japan would like to retain with as little disruption as it can manage. It seemed like the first step was to roll over existing trade arrangements - i.e. to take the arrangements that currently apply and sign them off quickly. Indeed, rolling over existing arrangements and seeking minimal disruption appeared to be the policy of the UK Government for some time.

Sake all round?

All good then? Common sense prevails? Sake all round? Unfortunately it seems not.

Whatever went on at those meetings that Ms Truss’s people thought necessary to remove from the public record, we know that the agenda of the Brexit Ultras is not continuity of any kind. Any trade agreements done by the EU must be bad - because the EU did them. So any trade agreements concluded by the UK and third parties must be ‘better’ than the existing arrangements between the EU and those parties. So into shape focus comes Ms Truss’s well documented penchant for cheese, in this case Stilton. Selling more cheese was to bethe barometer of a ‘better deal’.

There is certainly scope for more cheese. If the potential benefits of an rolled over trade deal with Japan are modest, the scale of Stilton exports is supremely irrelevant. Apparently the UK currently exports £102 million worth of Stilton to Japan per year. Stilton is expensive stuff, but even taking some pretty heavy discounting into account, that quantity of Stilton amounts, very roughly to a single 747 worth of passenger luggage at most. No more than 100 grams (3.5 ounces, if you prefer) each year for each Japanese person - but probably a lot less, more like a pharmaceutical dose. The website savvytokyo.com in listing the 10 foods not to serve at a Japanese dinner party puts blue cheese at number 2. They really are not big on the stuff at all. Reportedly he Japanese weren’t so keen.

So why does it matter? Well, it doesn’t. Not in the slightest, but it is an example of what happens when in trade negotiations the agenda is broadened and especially if stumbling blocks are placed in the route to an agreement. It doesn’t mean it isn’t possible but it certainly takes longer.

So Ms Truss finds herself between a rock and a hard place. She either backtracks to conclude the ‘easy deal’ with the partner ‘most committed to free trade’ on the basis of what is possible and least disruption or she holds out for a ‘better deal’ and quite possibly ends up with nothing. A rational politician would go for the first option, but Brexit long since dropped out of that pattern. Nonetheless the choice of Stilton is baffling. Expert opinion suggests that there is all sorts of scope for ‘commitments’, ‘declarations’ and even a few practical agreements over things like financial services or digital economy - that are actually useful to the UK economy - that can then be dressed up as a ‘better deal’ that the EU-Japan FTA and trumpeted as such. Like I say, this might yet happen.

Meanwhile back on Pitcairn ...

The trouble with trade agreements is they have knock on consequences. Bi-lateral deals are all very well, but there are not the only relationships. A thing called ‘most favoured nation status’ means essentially that you can’t offer better terms to another partner without offering the same terms to the partner with whom there is a ‘most favoured’ clause in the agreement.

Thus, were Japan to offer better terms to the UK on something that is specifically documented in their deal with the EU then they have to offer that to the EU. So the best way UK negotiators can do a ‘better deal’ with Japan is to find things that are outside the scope of Japan’s FTA with the EU. This runs into problems when people start talking about cheese.
Triangular relationships are also important to the Japanese because they have used the UK as a stepping stone to the EU market and it is the base for many Japanese companies trading in the EU. I met quite a few Japanese business representatives during my time as an MEP. They expressed a uniform sadness come bafflement that the UK was leaving the EU at all and a firm wish that the UK should ideally stay inside the single market Norway style or at the very worst conclude a far reaching deal that kept relationships close. Japan still holds on to ther hope that sooner or later something like that may happen and wish to remain in the position of parallel trade agreements. This is centrally why they are still keen.

Meanwhile back in the Pitcairn Islands the UK seeks to position itself as a potential business hub for nations around the world interested in trading with the rest of the world. Thus, through the CPTTP, the UK Government seems to believe it will become the first port of call for the Pacific rim nations and possibly even as a “gateway to Europe” - oh, hang on a minute. The CPTTP is certainly interesting, having come out of the ashes of the Trans Pacific Partnership - which Donald Trump pulled the US out of because he didn’t think of it. CPTTP has a Commission, a disputes resolution mechanism and a number of agreements on things like state intervention. Is all this remind you of something.
Fanciful? You may say that - but all this Pacific stuff may help expain Tony Abbott - as if anything could explain Tony Abbott.

Posted by John Howarth
About these UK-USA trade talks

About these UK-USA trade talks

In between stories of the lockdown and its ongoing consequences the UK Government has been keen to spin out stories of the “trade benefits” of Brexit. Central to this official narrative is the progress of the talks between Britain and the United States.

The notion of a comprehensive trade agreement with the United States has long been held out by the Brexiteers as some kind of alternative to the UK’s trade with the rest of the European Union. For the past 47 years the EU has negotiated trade deals with other nations on behalf of all of its member states. The ability of the UK to negotiate and close its own ‘trade deals’ was held out as one of the main ‘positives’ of leaving the EU and, importantly, its customs union (1).

International trade is a complicated business the detail of which is known to only a dedicated few. Many of the politicians who engage with trade in concept, either at EU or national level, are more than happy to leave the detail to the specialists (I hasten to add, I am not an expert, though the trade nerds have darkened my door to educate me in the basics). The spectacle of pro-Brexit campaigners carrying placards demanding “WTO Rules Now!” was one of the more absurd sights of a surreal time in public life. Few people could name a single rule of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or even what the organisation actually is and why on earth should they? After all, this is a subject with which the great majority of people rarely if ever come into contact.

What is a trade deal anyway?

You may know this, but just so all readers are clear, some basics. In a nutshell, the WTO, an international organisation to which most of the world’s countries belong (2), sets the rules for international trade that apply to all countries except where other bi-lateral (like an agreement between the UK and the US) or multi-lateral treaties (like the EU or EEA) apply. In this respect the WTO is, ironically, a bit like the EU - it’s a collection of governments making decisions for the benefit of everyone (you can argue about whether it works - but that's the idea).

The idea of trade agreements is to make trade easier and less expensive. If that is the case and more business is done, the countries involved and their populations become better off - that’s the theory and, in general, it seems to work. In a trade agreement - an international treaty between sovereign states or blocs of sovereign states - each side agrees to operate by a common set of rules covering some or all goods and/or services. In order to do so each party gives up its sovereignty over these rules to a common arbitrating body. Most of the time this sovereignty is theoretical, but when disputes or rule breaking arises this is vital to a trade treaty holding. The bigger the trade agreement the greater the benefits and the greater the breadth of the common rules. The biggest trade agreement of all is the European Union single market and the customs union that supports it. The European Court of Justice, to which each member state appoints judges, is the body that rules on trade disputes within the single market (3).

What is so special about a UK-US trade deal?

The USA is the second largest and second richest global market, so it has great potential to any business able to establish a good foothold. It is also, officially at least, English speaking, so UK firms are thought to have a ‘natural’ advantage. The UK’s largest existing trading partner by far is the European Union, accounting for around 45%(4) of the UK’s business. Next is the United States that accounts for 18% of the UK’s exports and 11% of imports. So the EU is currently around three times more important to British business than its US trade. Of course that can change and a comprehensive UK-US trade agreement would certainly improve business between the two countries. At present the UK trades with the USA without a comprehensive trade deal, but it has had some existing arrangements as part of the EU. 20 or so separate agreements govern limited aspects of EU-US trade, though there is no ‘comprehensive’ agreement. If no deal is struck between the UK and the EU that brings about their continuation, after 31 December 2020 Britain will no longer benefit from trade treaties negotiated by the EU with third countries. This includes Japan, Canada, Singapore and many more including the separate agreements with the USA. This is one reason for the urgency on the UK’s part.

Didn’t the USA and the EU try to do a deal?

In an ideal world the EU and the USA would have agreed a comprehensive trade treaty long since. In theory it is win-win business between two enormous and wealthy markets, however the world is far from ideal and the last attempt ended in failure. The negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, (TTIP - generally pronounced ‘T-tip’) as the EU-US deal was known, proved controversial and difficult. After 15 rounds of negotiation over four years covering 27 different ‘streams’ - some sectoral others cross cutting - the talks were ended by Donald Trump - though they had been effectively dead long since. The EU then buried the whole thing in April 2019 - all the detail of the negotiations is in the public domain.

There were a whole number of stumbling blocks and cultural differences between the EU and the USA. Key areas of failure to agree included healthcare markets - in which the US market model clashes with multiple varieties of socially provided care, aspects of public procurement and the social market model protecting European workers and, crucially, agriculture and food standards . These are all ‘non tariff’ matters (5). Tariffs - the taxes on goods applied at the border - have been generally low between the US and the EU - around 3% on most goods and are much less significant in trade talks than non-tariff matters. After the collapse of the talks Donald Trump, enacting his ‘America First’ mantra sought to turn his failures into a trade war, applying 25% tariffs to some EU imports. TTIP is not being revived any time soon.

The issues before UK and US negotiators

It is a long time since the UK negotiated any kind of trade arrangement. It was one of a number of things the UK Civil Service just didn’t have to worry about. Since the referendum in 2016 the UK has sought to recruit trade specialists, but that’s a tough business. A negotiation implies both sides want something and both must offer something to get it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that all the same issues apply to a US-UK trade negotiation that applied to TTIP. You could take the view that the failure of those talks was all about the bloody minded, restrictive EU getting in the way of free and open trade. Many in the UK may agree with that on the face of it but push below the surface and they appear to be less keen. US negotiators reflect the powerful interests brought to bear on US politicians. American health companies wish to expand their markets. A trade agreement can provide that opportunity, so US negotiators will wish the UK to open the doors of the NHS to US ‘for-profit’ providers. American agri-business, in which hormone-injected cattle roam the prairies - or more likely shuffle in intensive sheds - and chicken is washed with chlorine based bleach toy mask the effects of lower photosanitary standards on farms, also wants access to the tables of British diners. When put in those terms the public is less convinced by the benefits of ‘free trade’. The Trade Justice movement sums up these and other concerns here.

Whether the British public will get the chance to object in any serious way should a deal become possible is another matter entirely. In the European Union a trade agreement must be approved by the members state governments (and in some cases their regional governments) and by the directly elected European Parliament. In the UK international treaties are regarded a matter for the Government alone. In the USA the President drives the negotiations but Congress has to approve or reject the agreement. So unless the meat industry gets what it wants the votes of plains states senators cannot be taken for granted and the same can be said for other vested interests. This doesn’t mean a deal cannot be struck, but it does mean it is a long road from fine words in campaign speeches to an actual agreement.

What is it all worth?

The quantifiable benefits of trade deals are moot. Intuitively more business means more prosperity - just as in a recession less business results in declining real incomes - but the exact amounts are difficult to measure and harder to estimate (7). Remember the UK and the EU trade with the USA as things stand – so we are taking about additional trade/investment benefits over and above what already exists. The additional benefits of TTIP to the European Union had been estimated by the European Commission at €120 billion per year. The UK accounted for a seventh of then EU trade with the USA, so assuming Britain would have benefited proportionately, that would have meant a boost to the US Economy of about €17 billion (£15 billion). So putting an optimistic hat on, were the UK to be able to do a better deal and make more of it - say a third better, then maybe a US trade deal would be worth £20 billion or so each year. That sounds like and indeed is a lot of money, but some words of caution. First, everything is relative - £20 billion is less than 1% (around 0.85%) of the UK’s national income (GDP). Secondly, the European Commission’s estimates of the value of TTIP from which this figure is extrapolated with an appropriate dollop of patriotic optimism, were themselves held by many in Brussels (and by Brexit supporters especially so) to be deliberately optimistic to sell the notion of TTIP and fourth, TTIP included additional inward investment (the clue’s in the name). Additional investment estimates far outweighed the value of additional goods and services traded under TTIP, however, a key reason for US firms investing in the UK - a base within the European single market - is disappearing with Brexit, fifth and finally, by almost every available estimate Brexit is set to cost a great deal more than a potential US traded deal would gain for the UK - just in terms of reduced trade with the EU27 let alone inward investment or the UK’s tax base.

Who needs a deal?

For now, however, let’s stick with €25 billion. Earlier I said that the US was the destination for 18% of the UK’s annual exports (6) and the source of 11% of Britain’s imports - by any measure an important trading partner for the UK. But that 11% of UK imports accounts for 3% of the USA’s total exports. So UK-US trade is much more important to the UK than it is to the USA. The USA, much the larger economy and population, therefore holds much more clout in any negotiation. Add that to whatever concessions the USA might wish to extract and you don’t have to be Mastermind to work out that the UK’s leverage in the current trade talks is limited and that’s before we approach the vexed subject of what in the mind of Donald Trump is a ‘great deal’ or the pressure to get a deal, any deal as the single market exit approaches.

Will it happen, if so when?

President Obama’s ‘back of the queue’ comments were widely regarded as a mis-step in the 2016 referendum campaign since when Donald Trump has been keen to give the opposite impression to his Brexit supporting allies. Nonetheless, even were the talks themselves to run smoothly it is a tough call that suggests they will conclude before 31 December 2020. let’s remember that the EU’s deal with Canada took seven years. What might be a realistic idea is taking the existing terms of trade from the 20 or so existing US-EU agreements, bundling them and agreeing to carry on as before, perhaps for an initial period pending a full negotiation. However should the US request concessions from a UK Government desperate for a deal, especially on the NHS and food standards, in return for a quick agreement it could all end very badly one way or the other.

In the end it amounts to politics - and the politics of the UK-US trade talks have always been about politics. Donald Trump is facing an election campaign with an uncertain outcome in which he has already demonstrated his unpredictability. He is likely to maintain his hostile protectionist stance on trade. Add that to the fact that the US has an eye watering trade deficit (including a relatively small deficit with the UK and a larger one with the EU) that includes net trade deficits for a number of must-win states where promises to repatriate jobs were made in 2016. The UK is facing a probably cliff edge crash from the single market, in that context the failure to achieve aa trade agreement with by far the biggest ‘Anglosphere’ market would represent a significant PR failure for the Johnson government.

As I said at the beginning, international trade is fiendishly complicated and even in a long read like this one can only scratch the surface of what a trade treaty involves. What ought to be self-evident (and the subject of another piece) is that similar types of difficulty underly every trade deal Britain may wish to pursue. It was always the massive fallacy for the Brexit debate that, outside the EU ‘free trade’ would ride to the rescue of the UK economy.

 

JH - May 2020

 

(1) The benefits of “controlling our own trade policy” are easy to argue but highly questionable both economically and in terms of sovereignty. The Cook Islands are a sovereign nation, but lack any significant clout in trade negotiations. The EU is a very large and desirable market and their trade negotiators are not only experienced but are highly rated. Like the EU or hate it, underestimating its ability in this area is just bad strategy.

(2) The WTO includes 164 member states - almost every functioning government with the exception of a few pariahs like North Korea and Iran. The WTO is, ironically, under threat from and being bullied by Donald Trump for whom it is a just another convenient whipping boy. Expect the popularity of "WTO Rules" to fall away pretty fast.

(3) TTIP involved a system of tribunals, know as Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)  which were criticised as beyond the control of the parties and thought likely to support corporate interests against the nation state and could make binding rulings on matters such as state aid. Any US-UK deal will involve some sort of court of appeal of this type - which is obviously why we were so keen to leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

(4) The EU is, of course, proximate to the EU. A great element of ‘ease of doing business’ is about proximity - gravity applies and size matters in trade. On the precise value and the quoted numbers - all come from state published figures in various jurisdictions, however, a problems with quoting exact comparative trade statistics are 1) they move on with time 2) they change with the values of currencies. So all of the percentage and other figures quoted in this article are approximate - which is good enough.

(5) Even non-trade matters matter more than tariffs. For example if the UK wished to do a trade deal with India it would not get signed unless the UK was prepared to grant visa-free travel and a great deal more student access to Indian citizens. Conversely, the EU’s trade negotiators have been encouraged to use their negotiating clout to seek improvements in the human and social rights of employees in third countries - sometimes they have done so, but not always. Neither example is trade as such, but both important politics. More of this in another article.

(6) Of the 18% only about one third of US-UK trade is in physical ‘goods’, the rest is services, though this is an increasingly difficult distinction. The point is a ‘goods only’ trade deal is of limited value to an economy like the UK which is now 80% services.

(7) Who really benefits from trade deals is also moot. Many economists argue that the benefits of trade deals do not get into the pockets of the general population in any significant way and the benefits are largely retained at corporate level. Others argue that, while there are benefits to the economy and population in general, they are mostly concentrated in the sectors that benefit most directly through job creation and sectoral growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by John Howarth
VE Day – looking back to look forward

VE Day – looking back to look forward

In 1995 the 50th anniversary of VE Day was commemorated in the UK, in the rest of Europe. I don’t remember the commemorations having the same profile as they do today, even though many more of ‘the greatest generation’ who actually fought against nazism were still with us(1). But that’s hardly surprising - the absence of any other events in these strange times when any distraction is welcome have heightened the profile of this commemoration.

It is right that VE Day is commemorated and it’s worth remembering the nature of that victory, the reality of what Britain and her allies were fighting against and what happened next.

For the second time in 25 years a leader of Germany, beyond democratic control, had plunged the continent into war through expansionist militarism. Just as had Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, Hitler misjudged the likely response of Britain. And just as in 1914 the early period of World War II did not go well for Britain, the costs were great. Both Hitler and Kaiser Wilhelm had assumed Britain would sue for peace - but it didn’t happen. For 18 months after the retreat from Dunkirk Britain stood alone - more or less. As in 1914, Britain’s imperial territories contributed - but during the 18 months Canada, Australia, India and so on were a very long way away and had to look to threats in their own spheres. Civilian support from the United States helped keep the UK fed and supplied, but the battle was Britain’s alone.

Hitler never expected to need to invade Britain but, in truth, never really had the means. The RAF, including pilots and ground staff of many lands flying alongside young Briton’s, scored a strategic victory over the skies of South East England that proved not only that air superiority was beyond the reach of the nazis but that, given the technology of the times, it would remain so. That meant the chances of mounting an amphibious assault on Britain, given the naval superiority Britain also enjoyed, were slim indeed. Hitler got the message and Operation Sealion was cancelled (2). Nonetheless the road ahead remained long and difficult and victory a distant prospect.

The achievements and sacrifices of Britain’s people in those times are remarkable and should never be forgotten. They are part of the victory we commemorate - but it was a victory won by an alliance. The nazis doctrine of ‘lebensraum’ saw Hitler turn eastward, invading the Soviet Union and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the British dominions and imperial forces were joined, decisively, by the United States. The nazis occupied European territories with brutality and with the aid of local fascist collaborators but partisans and resistance guerillas made life as uncomfortable as they could and supplied intelligence to the allies. It in no way diminishes the achievements of Britain to say that the country could not have won the war alone - nobody knew that better than the generation who fought it and the politicians like Churchill and Attlee who led Britain and helped bring about the great alliance that saved democracy and freedom.

The commemoration of VE Day reflects these facts. World War II was won by an alliance led, in the end, by the USA which had by then become the world’s great power both economically and militarily and with colossal sacrifice by the people and armies of the Soviet Union. Today’s commemoration takes place all over the world and is followed by Europe Day (9 May), when the signing of the treaties designed to ensure the interdependence of Germany and France, which had fought repeatedly for hundreds of years, and the integration of the German speaking peoples into the structures of a wider Europe took place. We commemorate with VE Day and Europe Day a wider peace, the determination to build a better world and the continued existence of alliances of democratic states which went on to ensure the containment and defeat of communist dictatorship.

And what about the Germans? In Berlin a regional holiday today marks the 75th anniversary of the surrender of the nazi regime and 8th May marks each year the sacrifice of those who resisted the criminal regime. The great myth that is casually repeated, to prove what I know not, is that ‘Hitler was democratically elected’. I insist on debunking this because it is simply not true. Though they became the largest party in the Reichstag, the nazis never achieved an electoral victory that allowed them to form a government. Hitler was allowed into power by an inept and grossly naive collection of politicians who were soon brushed aside. Thereafter elections and referendums  were rigged and not voting the right way had consequences. Even flying the national flag we see today rather than the swastika could prove fatal. It’s of course true that a great many Germans were seduced by the nazi’s and bought into their racist ideology, but many were victims too and their liberation is part of what we mark today. Britain helped create the peaceful, free Germany we love, however rarely, to beat at football - it's an achievement to be proud of. None of our continental friends were more sad to see their British ally leave the European Union than the Germans.

Finally what next in Britain is also worth remembering. As well as the determination to create a Europe of co-operation and peace,the determination in Britain to create a country which did not repeat to the failures of the post 1918 settlement or return to the privations of the 1930s created a consensus around jobs and social justice led by Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 governments and followed till its collapse in the late 70s. The interdependence of peoples, the importance of multilateral internationalism and the rebirth of a genuine social compact that recognised the contribution of the many is part of Britain’s VE Day story. It can be part of our story in the future too - if we continue to uphold and put to good use the freedom successfully defended by the greatest generation.

 

(1) This included my parents. Their service was in the mining industry (my father passed his Royal Navy medical but the system tracked down his occupation before he got near a ship) and conscripted munitions (my mother). For my parents this was the defining time of their lives and while of course they looked back fondly to their youth and wartime courtship they were not at all nostalgic for the war itself. I'm constantly baffled why people younger than I talk about 'the Blitz Spirit' as if they were there. Interestingly my father told me that he wanted to sign up not just to fight the nazis but because he was bored witless - far from working at full tilt, the coal industry struggled along and he often only worked 2-3 days a week (other accounts I've read since support this less rose tinted view - see James Hamilton Patterson, "What We Have Lost", Ch 6, Head Zeus 2018). He didn't tell me he served as an ARP Warden - I found his papers after he died. It explains why he never found that character in Dad's Army particularly funny.

(2) Aside from the military disadvantages, Sealion was a very odd plan that ignored several hundred years of history and UK strategy. Common sense and geography as well as history suggests that the route into England from the continent was from the low countries through the cliff-free Norfolk and Suffolk coasts which then offered the advantage of relatively flat land across which tanks can move easily - as opposed to the downlands of Sussex and Kent. For a historic perspective on this see Brendan Simms, "Britain's Europe" Penguin 2016.  

Posted by John Howarth
A European call to action

A European call to action

Time to invest in strengthening EU’s capacity

First Published in Parliament Magazine - 5 May 2020

Pro-Europeans need to go on the offensive and ensure Euroscepticism doesn’t gain any ground during the current crisis, argue Seb Dance, John Howarth and Mike Buckley.

 

Anyone who’s agonised over a jigsaw during the lockdown, or attempted a particularly complicated Lego structure will appreciate the adage that it is far easier to destroy than it is to create.

What can take hours or even days to painstakingly put together can, in a matter of seconds, be pummelled back to a pile of plastic bricks. And there are those who get disproportionately more joy out of the destruction than they do from the creation.

What is true for Lego is ultimately true even for some of the things we might otherwise take for granted. The kind of things that, in normal times, sit quietly in the background underpinning the way we live our lives but without much fanfare or thought. One such example might be the European Union itself

It was not much of a surprise when Britain became the first member state to toy with the idea of leaving the EU. For sure, Euroscepticism exists in every Member State, even among the founders.

There are countries like Denmark and the Czech Republic which have their own entrenched opposition to key aspects of the project, such as its single currency.

But few thought that the most obviously Eurosceptic country of all, the UK, would actually opt to one day walk out of the club, albeit half-heartedly and without any real idea of where to go next. But it did, and the rest is, almost, history.

It would be a massive mistake to rest on the correct observation that Brexit has done more harm than good to Eurosceptic movements across the rest of the continent.

There is no doubt that longstanding opponents of the project such as Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen have changed the language they use.

Overt opposition to EU membership itself has been dropped in favour of a much more limited ambition; either leaving the single currency or simply dialling up the anti-EU rhetoric.

Some now even like to claim that the nationalist would-be leaders of their respective countries have actually changed their minds on the merits of membership.

It is of course not true. They want and need the EU to fail now as much as they always have. They are just a little smarter, perhaps, in the way they try to sell themselves.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused many people to wonder whether or not the EU might be on the brink of collapse. The rhetoric of those who had, in the wake of Brexit, retreated on some of their more strident calls has also, correspondingly, now become much harsher.

The sudden closure of borders – without coordination or consultation with neighbours, the lack of apparent solidarity from other Member States to countries like Italy, who were desperate for material and financial assistance in the early days of the pandemic, and the frustrating inability of the EU institutions to coordinate an initial and effective financial response has fed this feeling.

It’s not the first time we have been here. Tales of the EU’s death have been somewhat exaggerated over the years. It was supposed to have come under intolerable strain following the 2008 financial crisis and the terms placed on debtor countries by the infamous troika.

The perennial summer refugee crises were similarly supposed to put an unfixable break on the relationship between North and South. These crises have severely impacted on trust and perception of the EU’s strengths and competencies, but that strain has, for the most part, been temporary.

Majority support for membership of the EU has remained consistent even in countries like Greece.

 

For each of these crises, the answers are nearly always the same, though often realised in different ways. It is almost always a failure of the individual Member States to show sufficient solidarity combined with a collective failure to endow the EU institutions with the necessary powers to coordinate.

The curiosity of the nationalists’ position can be seen in the case of Salvini where he lambasts the lack of support from other countries whilst simultaneously decrying the weakness of the institutions to act.

He knows full well that one flows from the other, and that the inherent contradiction in his position can be covered up by bemoaning “the EU”.

Bit by bit responses to the crisis have improved and the direction of travel is the right one. But COVID-19 is a mega-crisis, and it’s probably not the only one that the EU will face in the next decades.

The EU has actually weathered its storms surprisingly well, largely because there is no credible alternative. But the immense changes that society is facing: from climate change, to automation and information wars mean that the challenges will only keep on coming.

If the EU can be imagined as an elastic band, each crisis stretches that band as a test of its capacity. Unsurprisingly, the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis is perhaps stretching it more than most.

As with any material, elastic has a limit to how many times it can be tested. The EU constantly reforms itself and adds additional capacity, but if the challenges come too thick and fast and the elastic is stretched too far, it can and will snap.

The way that progressives and internationalists defend and protect the EU is to get one step ahead, to anticipate the challenges ahead and to prepare the response.

We know the Right feed on fear. They understand that people want certainty, comfort and security. The easy answers that nationalists offer don’t provide anything like that; they provide only the illusion.

The threats that people face are real. Blaming them on others and proposing isolation as a solution is easy, but the reality is that we can never hope to face those challenges properly unless we do so together with the increased capacity that the EU provides.

Knocking down a structure might offer momentary satisfaction, but it is not worth the years and years it would take to pick up the bricks.

The EU took generations to build. It is slow, often tone-deaf and most citizens are a long way from feeling a natural affinity to it.

But how much better would it be to invest the time in building it up further, strengthening its capacity, developing its flexibility and enabling it to grow from each challenge to face the next with greater confidence. The choice is before us.

 

About the authors

Seb Dance and John Howarth are former Labour MEPs. Mike Buckley is Director of campaign group Labour for a European Future

 

Posted by John Howarth
Congratulations Keir Starmer – we have our Party back

Congratulations Keir Starmer – we have our Party back

So the bright confident morning finally arrived and Keir Starmer is elected Labour leader on the first ballot with 56% of the vote and a mandate from every section of the Party. The accidental leader at long last shuffles off to the allotment. After five years of catastrophe, it feels good.

Given the clarity of Keir Starmer’s mandate, Jerremy Corbyn will now appear occasionally to sit loyally on the back benches, meanwhile touring the circuit of eccentric lost causes to make the occasional vegetable related joke. He will leave the field clear for Keir Starmer to return Labour to electability. His former followers will either, honourably, absent themselves from serving under Keir, making the case for a Labour Government from the back benches or undergo Damascene conversion hoping for a slot in a Starmer Government.

Except he won’t and neither will they.

The unity which Keir Starmer espoused during the leadership campaign is an illusion that the Corbynite left will simply not allow.

Since, in the aftermath of the General Election Corbyn announced that he would stay on during the absurdly long election campaign, it has been clear that the minority faction is the same as it ever was. Momentum immediately declared their intent to “hold the leader to account”. Keir Starmer can expect and will get no loyalty from Corbyn. He will return to the backbenches to do what he has always done – believe in his own correctness and vote against the Labour whip. Starmer can expect the same loyalty from Corbyn that was shown to Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown and Miliband.

Far from following the convention that former Leaders have had their time and maintaining a dignified silence during the election of their successor, Corbyn in a procession of interviews has let it be known he would wish to serve in a Shadow Cabinet, would speak up, would generally fail to understand that his form of politics has proved catastrophic for the Party and the country. Staying on was not just narcissism, it was an exercise of positioning the remainder of the paleoleftists for their rearguard action.

Keir Starmer now has to deal with the far from ideal situation that confronts him. His choice is simple he has the battle now and wins while his stock is high then moves on with a viable Labour coalition, or he puts it off and has the battle closer to an election when the image of Labour disunity will do most damage. He cannot hope to straddle an impossible divide and neither should he. Unity will be based not upon changing the minds of those who have not changed their minds on anything at any time in their political lives and whose loyalties are determined by dogma.

I have little doubt of his determination to tackle the disgraceful situation over antisemitism, the perpetrators of which are members Labour doesn’t need, just as it does not need those joined from fringe parties with ideologies that were never part of Labour’s spectrum. In doing so he must be ruthless - the limits of unity are easily defined.

The NEC election results and that for the Deputy Leadership of Scottish Labour confirm the rejection of Corbynism. The two NEC gains and the three shadow cabinet NEC members should make it possible for Starmer to act decisively, beginning by showing the door to fellow travelers and enablers such as Murphy and Formby. I have pointed out before that it is a major mistake to assume that Corbyn was elected on the back of the votes of entryists alone. Far from it. ‘Soft left’ members, those simply unconvinced by the others on offer and disappointed by Ed Miliband’s disastrous tenure backed Corbyn - many should have known better. Those same people have now voted for Keir Starmer. The minority rump of paleoleftists is defined by the 17% vote for the hapless Richard Burgeon who must be quickly joined on the back benches by the vanquished Long-Bailey and a few more. Labour voters and those who want to identify that way need to see the signal of change.

Those who want to vote Labour also need to see an effective, responsible opposition, working both constructively with Government for the public good at a time of crisis and holding that Government to account when it is lacking. Keir Starmer has the unique opportunity of a ‘soft launch’ – his video statement set the right note which fighting a difficult format to carry off – the Government has more pressing things to do than go after the Leader of the Opposition who’s help they badly need.

But there can be complacency – it will be a tough road whenever a semblance of normality resumes. Labour has no right to exist. It has diced with death more often than I care to think. Rarely has it shown the determination to win and the ability to re-invent itself that has made the Conservatives the dominant party of British politics for the past two centuries. Labour will need new ideas, and a new clarity of purpose. That will not succeed based on attempting to recapture a past  long gone but by building a new coalition of support and a clarity of values fit for the modern world. It is not 1945, 1964 or 1997 - there is a world beyond Coronavirus where new social tensions and extensive technological challenges will require an approach that rejects the baggage and accepts that they are enemies on the left, that we are not all ‘basically on the same side’. Labour must become the champion of a free society of individual rights, collective solutions based on the contributory principle and for an economy where the injustices of unregulated markets are redressed.

I see no sign of this as yet but I live in hope - Keir is a fast learner. Today, I’m happy - for now, I have my Party back.

Posted by John Howarth
The strange appeal of Boris Johnson

The strange appeal of Boris Johnson

A long read on why 'decent working class folk" like the "big silly toff"(1)

(above) long ago at a Conservative conference far away

 

A side-effect of the Covid-19 catastrophe is, for some, the retreat even further into the bubble of self-affirming social media. Inevitably, and perfectly reasonably, a whole lot of people who could do with getting out more will be getting out even less.

In his inspiring speech to the people of Ireland the Toasheach, Leo Varadka, pointed out that “spending too much time on social media at this time is a very bad idea”. Nonetheless, people will  ‘go there’ regardless, largely into spaces peopulated by people like themselves. From my personal social media feeds I would be forced to conclude;

  • that the great majority believe Boris Johnson is making a terrible horlicks of the current crisis;
  • that the UK electorate would prefer just about anybody else in the job; and
  • that Dominic Cummings is the malevolent spawn of Satan.

I would be wrong. While the third point may well be true, the conclusions on Mr Johnson are wildly at odds with those of the population at large.

That rather more objective source, YouGov, indicates that, despite Boris Johnson’s visible discomfort, stumbling communication and lack of clarity on key issues, around 50% of UK voters think he is doing just fine. It was a view confirmed by other polls even before the Coronavirus crisis hit and as the unlockdown becomes more of a lockdown Bozza’s approval rating rises further (2). All this seems to make Labour people incandescent with rage - how on earth could decent Labour voter back this appalling man? Of course Mr Johnson is still aided by comparison to the Ghost of Corbyn Passing - who’s personal ratings soundly underpin the idea that he has been on the right side of history and has been entirely vindicated by events since he won the argument in December and confirms every single thing he had ever said about anything.

At some point that we cannot yet foresee the events of the past weeks will be the subject of enquiry, formal or historic, but whatever the rights and wrongs of the government’s handling of events, Mr Johnson’s appeal remains an asset to the Conservatives. Unless Labour comes to terms with that uncomfortable fact and attempts to understand Johnson’s perverse popularity it has little chance of taking him on effectively.

So what might explain Boris Johnson? On the face of it Johnson’s appeal is strange indeed. Self-deprecation, a bit of humour and some basic oratorical tricks can get you quite a long way among a field of cloned mediocrity and media semi-savvy. But Prime Minister? Winning lots of Labour seats? Really? There are those, and I have good reason to believe them, who contend that ‘Johnson the Joker’ is all something of an act. In private, these accounts go, he is altogether more serious, randomly grumpy and not at all affable. But so what? Does it matter? Clearly not much. As politicians we put on our uniforms, don our public persona and go to work, we come home peopled out, take off the suit and chill (3) - it’s how you stay sane.

The uncomfortable fact is whatever the private Boris, those who voted for him and approve of his actions thus far find him ‘relatable’ in a way that other politicians are not. Boris Johnson is different to ‘them’ - he’s more like ‘us’. Labour activists find this inexplicable - how can ‘working class’ people believe that this rich old Etonian be remotely like them? Simon Walters, writing what is essentially a fan piece in The Spectator, nonetheless sets some uncomfortably good points about the basis of Johnson’s appeal to non-Tory voters. Walters is certainly on the right track – but in my view doesn’t go the whole way.

King of chaos

Boris Johnson is not a smooth operator. He is permanently at war with his clothes, his hair is a mess (these days covering up a few gaps), the tie is too long and a lot wrong, the suit doesn’t fit, it’s all a bit off. Boris doesn’t really know his lines. He ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ during his delivery, he struggles to remember - or appears to. He contradicts himself and he reverts to whatever the slogan of the day might be. At times he doesn’t appear to know what to say. Slick it is not.

During the election campaign, in the one debate for which he showed up, he did well enough. He repeated his central messages but he hardly dispatched his feeble opponent anything like as easily as he should have. Political commentators and observers see a lazy, poorly prepared performer getting away with content-lite bluster. Voters see someone who isn’t putting on a show, someone who is flawed and human, someone who doesn’t necessarily have answers and someone who is not rehearsed, coached or polished.

That said, Boris Johnson is believably ‘brainy’. He displays his cleverness by coming out with the occasional bit of Latin or some factoid from the Trivial Pursuit Ancient Greece Edition. Spectacularly pointless knowledge this may be, but it displays the notion of the ‘good school’ trustworthiness that British votes have always found mildly impressive whether from a Labour or Tory leader. But at the same time Boris Johnson, who could easily be a Geoffrey Willans character, puts out there the dismal English disdain for the ‘overly clever’. The “Cameron is a girly swot” incident was too good to be true – spin of the first order putting out the a mild mistrust of those who try too hard. Middle class, educated liberal folk, especially the massed ranks of Labour schoolteachers, find this reprehensible - but the constituency to which he sets out to appeal laps it up (4). They mostly hated school. To the degree-free, Boris Johnson’s ‘brainyness’ is not intimidating - and not a threat to their manhood.

Lad or Cad

Not that many years ago a potential Prime Minister with more domestic baggage than Terminal 5 would have been inconceivable. In some ways I hope Johnson getting to No 10 represents an irreversible shift away from the days when private lives terminates public lives though somehow I’m not so sure. Boris Johnson seems to get away with more than many, and certainly any woman, would be allowed. There is some polling evidence that Mr Johnson’s appeal is skewed somewhat away from women - hardly surprising, his ‘track record’ of fidelity is not strong. I can’t see that through a woman’s eyes but I’m told it doesn’t play too well. But then he doesn’t pretend - and perhaps that is why many forgive it or just dismiss it as irrelevant.

For many men, however, it is more simple: Boris Johnson is reassuring. He’s a bit of a state, he’s a bit overweight but he’s still got a girlfriend young enough to be his daughter - all of which says ‘if he can any man can’! Men like that, honest. He doesn’t seem to know how many children he has and he doesn’t seem to be a terribly dutiful father - which for those who inhabit the same space, and there are quite a few, it confirms that it’s all OK – don’t mug yourself. The mistresses and the affairs all appeal to a very basis male instinct - like it or not, biologically men are not wired for monogamy. Humans have not evolved so far as to leave behind the primal male instinct to breed. To men Boris’s love life is confirmation that their instincts are OK - and it doesn’t really matter whether its a man who acts on their urges or not; its either confirmation that its OK to behave like him or you can tell yourself that you behave better than him. The chaotic life of Boris Johnson excuses his privileged background, it proves that underneath he is ‘just like us’. Many people, men and women, have chaotic lives it’s reassuring that Boris doesn’t apologise for being a personal screw up - in fact it of makes it OK for the rest of us.

Plain speaking

It is hard to explain to people of the liberal left just how offended and alienated many ‘ordinary working class’ folk are by ‘political correctness’. Alienation with a side order of confusion about what it is and isn’t deemed acceptable to say these days (5). These are not, for the most part, hideous racists, not closet gay-haters (6) and neither misogynists. They certainly do not think of themselves as such. I can recall numerous occasions where the everyday language of everyday people has been condemned as unacceptable. I’ve watched people react to it feeling belittled and inferior - it isn’t pretty. At the very least the condescension confirms their false victimhood. These people, as often as not, are - or at least were - the people who vote Labour.

Boris Johnson says things that are wildly condemned by liberal left activists or by Labour MPs but are often the things that everyday people say or think. Attacking Johnson’s calculated use of language, which always generates copy, is understood by those people who would unthinkingly say the same things as an attack on them. There is not much does him more good that a good spat of outrage – and, yes, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, that’s the elephant trap.

To those over the age of 55 (they vote), who remember the seventies, this is a particularly problematic. In the past 40 years the boundaries of acceptability in popular culture and the media have moved massively and quickly and it is another aspect of the changing world with which many people struggle. I hear this reflected in conversations all the time - in bars, on trains, at football grounds and beneath it is a frustration with “who decides” whether this term or that term is unacceptable? This is probably where the maligned ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ are most resented. Terms are unacceptable because the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ say they are unacceptable and those people - the school teachers, lecturers, social workers, assorted lefties and so on “look down on  people like us” and not only that, “they think they are better than us”. Boris Johnson, chaotic ‘morally flawed’ individual that he is, is in no position to look down on anybody - even though we all know he’s posh - he says the things others don’t say - to an extent. Outliers like Farage appeal only to a minority, Johnson reflects a wider frustration and provides a contrast to a deeply unpopular aspect of the left - its self-righteous moral superiority.

Posh boy

Boris Johnson is a posh boy. Eton and Baliol followed by a mixed career in journalism. He’s got plenty of money. What is there with which ordinary voters could identify? This is an area that the left has rarely understood. People, outside of Labour Party meetings and trade union rotten borough committees, really don’t care about the background of their public representatives and they couldn’t care less if they are wealthy or not. Because you know what? They would quite like to be wealthy themselves. They like a bit of glamour, a bit of bling. Here again is the contrast with Labour and the liberal left personified. Labour’s solidly middle class base seems to sneer at best and viscerally hate at worst the notion that people might ‘get on’ in life. Johnson’s obviously moneyed background, of which he makes no secret, is more acceptable than the perceived hypocrisy of the left - who “all have money but pretend they don’t”, “you lot say class shouldn’t matter, but it seems to matter to you” or even, “he can’t help being rich”.

Keep smiling through

British humour isn’t unique - but it is both distinctive and widely appreciated. Boris Johnson reflects that. Not only does he do self-deprecation pretty well, he is unafraid to look entirely ridiculous. He knows this will get reported and he knows it will be fine as long as he doesn’t show the slightest embarrassment. Once again, his opponents rarely get it – far from being a disaster, getting stuck on that zip wire was one of the best things that ever happened to Bozza.

Here again the contrast with the humourless, self-righteous politically correct left couldn’t be greater. Boris Johnson’s leadership followed a period when British politics had been unremittingly miserable. Every forecast pessimistic, every likely outcome worse than the status quo, every scenario gloomy - things can only get worse. That isn’t what people what from their leaders - the successful leaders have known this. McMillan, Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair - all won on optimistic platforms. The pious and the overly serious are rarely winners, the utterly miserable always fail. Every single Labour speaker I have heard over the past few years has started trotting out the same grim litany of how dreadful life is under the Conservatives, failing to realise that is often not how those to whom they are seeking to appeal see their lives. Boris Johnson provided optimism - an upbeat view of the future that contrasted sharply with the immediate past and the hair-shirted hypocrisy of Corbynite Labour.

Crisis, What a Crisis

How does all this square with Mr Johnson’s handling of the current Coronavirus crisis? First and foremost his looking uncomfortable and awkward is entirely in tune with his ‘being real’. It would be really worrying if he was reveling in it. When he says that he doesn’t want to tell people to stay at home, he doesn’t want to tell them not to travel, he’s entirely believable – for once he doesn’t have an issue with telling the truth. His tone on his broadcast to the nation was wrong in places but his reluctance to impose otherwise illiberal controls on movement and activity, seriously limiting fun, aids the view that he is genuine, “doing his best”. The Government - in my view - has cleverly nudged public opinion in such a way as to see a series of limitations on personal freedom positively welcomed by the majority. Meanwhile in the darker recesses of Twitter the rage demons celebrate his contracting the virus (7), peddle insane conspiracy theories that it is all a PR stunt or tut at his inability to follow his own government’s guidelines. Seriously? He's a politician, meeting people is the job!

Putting it all out there

It’s all out there. Boris John’s life is in the papers, on the TV, on Twitter. Like his personality or loath it, you cannot deny that at least he has one. He set out to be a celebrity long before he had an elected role and he is comfortable being a celebrity in a celebrity age. He seems to play to the rule that the more you put out there the less there is to dig for – and if they find something, who cares? Don’t apologies, don’t explain. Those who disapprove of reality shows tend also to disapprove of Boris Johnson. Reality shows are, however, rather popular.

I have asked quite a few people their view of Boris Johnson, or if they could explain why they voted for him. The response, more often than not, was framed in reference to the alternative on offer in December. The contrast with Corbyn, for some Johnson was the best of an unacceptable choice on offer, for others the justification for backing a man they know, instinctively, to be somewhat disreputable, others, as always, made it their justification for voting Tory when they know their own party is less than ideal. The contrast for all of them seems to be also about the world they would prefer: free speaking, uncontrolled, optimistic, not overly clever, comfortable with how they are and not having to justify themselves or apologise for what they think.  Boris Johnson is somebody they would be comfortable chatting to or having a drink with without being overawed, who would take a selfie with them whether they were going to vote for him or not. Labour’s next leader will almost certainly be a different proposition. But they will need to understand the nature of Boris Johnson’s appeal and find a brand of their own to contrast but with which voters can feel at least generally at home. Whatever the new leader does they should understand that playing the man against Boris Johnson is futile – it will simply play into his hands.

 

Footnotes

(1) So said the great Billy Connelly. He's allowed. Meanwhile it is worth considering whether these supposedly 'working class' people even think of themselves that way. Now, or in fact, ever.

(2) Fair to say that just about every leader's ratings across the globe have risen in this context - except Kim Jong Un's which were already +250%

(3) Although I don't imagine Gordon Brown did this.

(4) Always remember that elections in the UK are swayed by 20% of voters in marginal or target seats. There are plenty of people who vote Tory who find this view appalling, work hard and press the importance of education on their children. But they were largely going to vote for Johnson anyway.

(5) I meet genuinely nice, intelligent people who really are baffled by it all - and that's not even mentioning the 'trans' issue. It has never been clear to me how berating them, calling them racist or sexist or whatever is likely to persuade them of your case.

(6) I have a problem with the word (whatever)phobic - I think is excuses prejudice by giving psudo-psychological terminology.

(7) Very bad karma.

Posted by John Howarth
I’ve voted Keir Starmer 1 Lisa Nandy 2

I’ve voted Keir Starmer 1 Lisa Nandy 2

Keir Starmer is the clear front runner in the never ending election of the Leader of the Labour Party. Despite reservations about a number of his ‘pledges’ and declared policy positions I have voted for Keir because I believe he is the best candidate and has the best chance on taking Labour on the journey it needs to follow once gain to have the chance of winning. 

Nominated by more than twice as many CLPs as his nearest rival, with the bulk of Labour MPs supporting him, important support for affiliates and the polls with the best track record confirming his lead, Starmer looks an odds-on favourite.

But the Labour Leadership contest is far from over. The timetable extends a ludicrous 114 days since Oh Jeremy Corbyn announced he would step down. Concerns exist over missing ballots. Though I have little doubt that if the Stalinist clique who surrounded Corbyn could facilitate the election of St Jezza’s successor they most certainly would, my instinct leans to incompetence rather than conspiracy. There has, after all, been a surfeit of incompetence from that crowd.

So why Keir, after all he stuck with team Corbyn when others walked away and he isn’t exactly vocal on their manifest failures? 

I remember well the last time Labour sought to turn its fortunes round after a disastrous period of poor leadership, implausible policies and infighting. What distinguished Neil Kinnock was not his policy agenda, nor his desire to resolve Labour’s internal disputes - it was his desire to get Labour back to winning ways. Keir Starmer’s most obvious asset is that same determination. The understanding that without power not only Labour’s policies but its very existence is meaningless is the X-factor from which everything else follows. Starmer’s campaign has demonstrated that same uncompromising will to win above all else and that bodes well.

Secondly, Keir Starmer is the clear choice of Labour voters. He is the candidate more voters can see as a future Prime Minister. He is the most likely potential Labour leader to attract back to the party those voters who for one reason or another deserted the Party. That matters more than the sensibilities of Labour members - including mine.

Third, as an MEP I saw Keir Starmer operating as shadow spokesman on Brexit. He commanded a level of respect well above any other Labour front bencher. He was taken seriously in every EU institution, learned very fast and was comfortable in the most difficult imaginable brief. Once of the centeral criticisms of Labour’s last two leaderships has been their manifest incompetence - Keir Starmer is visibly competent. That really matters - through the media and to people who vote. 

Those three reasons ought to be enough and for me they mark Keir Starmer out as the best candidate - but in this a very different election where the issues facing Labour are much more difficult than any in living memory. So let’s deal with the key criticisms of Keir.

I took the Labour MEP mandate when Mr Corbyn was Labour Leader knowing I would never positively endorse him. I took the view, however, that allowing one of his supporters to take my place would not do any good and that I was fleet of foot enough to dodge the bullets on my personal view of Corbyn*. I was prepared to bury my view to have the platform to campaign against Brexit and for the outcome of negotiations to be put back top the public. That could only happen with Labour onside. The greatest issue of my lifetime took precedence over my view of Corbyn as incompetent and ideologically bankrupt. So I was glad Keir stayed in post when walking away would have been so much easier. His decision was akin to my own, politics is rarely about ideal choices - you do you best in the situation in which you find yourself.

In 1983 some saw Roy Hattersley as the better choice - a clearer, faster break with Labour’s disastrous stances. But whatever his merits, could he have delivered the chance that was needed? I doubt it. Kinnock may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in 1992, but he delivered the changes that made it thinkable.   

During this contest Lisa Nandy has, as I suspect was her intention, written herself into a major role in Labour’s next phase. She was never going to win, but her performance on the hustings has been excellent - demonstrating ability and a refreshing directness. It is so much easier to be direct and honest when you are not likely to have to justify the view as leader. That, and my view that Lisa made the wrong call at a key point in the Brexit catastrophe, means that she was my second preference. If there was any logic to Labour’s leadership election, Lisa would become Keir’s deputy. She may not hold the title, but de facto I expect she will be.  

A few words on the titular Deputy Leader. I nominated Rosena Alain-Khan and accordingly she received my first preference. Her energy, back story and undoubted ability is persuasive - Rosena is a true force of nature. I could, equally, however have voted for Ian Murray, who articulates a convincing case and gets Labour’s plight. He was my second preference, at number three, I backed Angela Rayner - who will probably end up winning. I like Angela and it is important Labour has working class women among its leadership, but she has not put sufficient distance between herself and the disasters oif Corbynism to get my direct support. Finally I gave a pointless fourth preference to Dawn Butler - pointless that is other than indicating that in a direct choice with the lamentable Richard Burgon it wouldn’t even be close. 

Labour can’t start its journey from where we would like it to be. We are where we are and it is not a good place. There are people on the train who have no business being there and who’s preferred destination is not one in which right thinking people wish to buy a ticket. As the driver Keir Starmer has the best chance of getting Labour on the track to reality. Fighting every battle at once would probably lead to derailment. 

Politics is about priorities. The top internal priority for Labour is dealing effectively with the crisis created by manifestations of anti-semitism. Sadly but entirely understandably, many Jewish people will never forgive Labour, but without firm action on this toxic issue the Party cannot move forward. On that Keir Starmer has been very clear. The next priority is to demonstrate an effective opposition. This inevitably means holding the Government to account on Brexit where national self-harm is reaching new levels. Keir Starmer is best placed to do so both that and to develop a plausible European engagement policy for both Labour and the country.

Many more members seem to have understood the existential nature of Labour’s challenge. It the Party savable? I’m really not sure. Is it, under Britain’s prehistoric electoral system, easier to save Labour than to start again - clearly it is. For the people who need Labour and for ther best chance of turning from the far right populists, I’m prepared to play the percentages and give Keir the chance to prove anther future is possible.

JH 12.3.2012

 

* In the event I was. I didn’t make any direct public criticisms of Mr Corbyn till the polls were closed on 12 December. When asked by broadcast media I was always able to deflect, address the policy questions and was still able to address issues like the manifest collective failure on antisemitism. I made criticisms of the collective failure of leadership after the European Election polls had closed but I chose my words carefully. My reason was simple - it wasn’t going to do any good. The stupid, doomed, knee-jerk challenge to Corbyn’s leadership in 2016 had sold the pass and strengthened his position.

Posted by John Howarth
Building peace in South Asia requires a settlement for Kashmiris

Building peace in South Asia requires a settlement for Kashmiris

John addressed a seminar at the Pakistan High Commission in London on Kashmir Solidarity Day 2020 (above), below his op-ed for The Brussels Times:

 

The human rights situation in Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir is self-evidently intolerable for much of the local population. The state of ‘lockdown’ that has applied since August has removed the ability of Kashmiris to communicate with the outside world and removed the gaze on international opinion from the actions of the Indian security forces.

The tactics used in the name of ‘supressing terrorism’ have been well documented in the United Nations Human Rights Council report of June 2018. The conclusions of the report remain disputed by the government of India yet that same Government fails to facilitate independent international observation of the territory. Surely it is self-evident that if the claims of widespread and systematic abuses of human rights are ‘fake news’, as the Government of India claims (and, by the way, as its representatives have claimed to me in person) then opening the whole of Jammu and Kashmir to international observation would reveal the truth.

It is nonetheless hard to see why anyone would wish to invent such claims, nor why any state would lock down part of its territory in this way other than to hide from the world something it did not wish the world to see.

The actions of the Government of Narendra Modi since the Indian general election of 2019 suggest the wind is not blowing in the direction of a consensus-based resolution. Instead the ground has been laid the ground for ‘settlement’, ‘resettlement’, ‘colonisation’ – call it what you will. Seeking to alter the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and the provisions of amendments to the India Citizenship acts demonstrate a discriminatory mindset at the heart of Modi Government singling out Muslims. These actions are a blow at the heart of democratic secular India and, with its actions in Kashmir, damaging to its international standing.

The reactions of the international community thus far have been limited and ineffective. A United Nations position of the status of Kashmir has been in place for more than 70 years, however, it has not proved an effective tool in producing a sustainable settlement. However, the UN HRC report of 2018 was effective in drawing new attention to a problem that, were it elsewhere in the world with different natural resources, would doubtless command greater attention. Unfortunately the UN, the USA (despite a fleeting intrusion into President Trump’s attention span) and the European Union seem happy to ignore Kashmir.

In the context of the European Union’s approach specifically, it is important to understand that the issue of Kashmir was more keenly felt in the UK, the home of two thirds of Europeans of South Asian origin, than elsewhere. Without the UK in the European institutions voices advocating action are now much weaker. The EU, however, still has a potentially productive role to play in nudging the situation in the right direction. First of all, and more obviously without the UK involved, the EU was not part of the imperial power that created the problem, the EU has a limited Kashmiri and South Asian diaspora but it also has a vast and wealthy market to which South Asia nations seek to gain greater and greater preferential access. The leverage of progressive trade agreements and their benefits to emerging economies is significant. EU trade agreements have sought to improve working conditions, apply tests of fairness and look to progress against international conventions and agreements. The GSP+ agreement with Pakistan due for renewal this month has been one such successful agreement that has brought progress and new jobs for Pakistanis, and new export benefits for the EU.

The EU should not hold back from using its economic leverage with the Indian Government and in any new arrangements respect for human rights and conflict resolution must have their place. My fear is that different standards will be applied to the emerging Indian economic superpower than are to its smaller South Asian neighbours. Progressive MEPs need to understand the importance of not doing so and comprehend the dangerous nature of the Hindu populist nationalism of Narendra Modi.

The EU as a leader in the international community should be demanding observer access to Jammu and Kashmir, making clear trade agreements will be conditional on respect for human rights and using its voice to promote conflict resolution.

Two truths remain clear through the fog. One: a sustainable settlement to the Kashmir issue would remove a key barrier to both lasting regional peace and accelerating economic development. The other: a sustainable settlement in Kashmir has to be based on the consent of the Kashmiris.

 

first published: The Brussels Times, 5 February 2020

Posted by John Howarth