First Drafts

Glen Newey

First, a bit of good cheer. Election forecasts often get it wrong. On 8 November 2016, the day of the last US presidential election, the Princeton Election Consortium ('A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004') gave the probability of Hillary Clinton's winning – that is, winning the electoral college, not merely the popular vote – as 93 per cent. And the rest is history, or at least the alternative version of it in which Andrew Jackson nearly prevented the civil war, and Frederick Douglass lives on into his third century, doing an ‘amazing job’. Meanwhile, Princeton's first draft went through the shredder. So, when betting websites have the Conservatives at 1/33 on to win the most seats in the British general election next month – an implied probability of over 97 per cent – wizened heads can nod indulgently and note that whether there be prophecies, they shall fail.

Now, a lot of bad cheer. Nate Silver notes the prevalence of error in UK polls, but misinfers that Theresa May’s punt in calling the election is ‘riskier than it seems’. Opinion surveys do err, but in Britain they usually err on the side of understating the Tory performance. Polls responsible for big prognostic mufferoos – the elections of 1992 and 2015 – both had Labour doing better and the Conservatives doing worse than the hungover, ashes-on-the-tongue reality. And even in the elections that Labour won easily, under Blair, the polls consistently overrated the level of Labour support: by 6 per cent in 2001 and 2005, and 5.6 per cent in 1997.

The polls may persistently flatter Labour because of ‘shy Tories’; or it may be that pollsters, who often face very high non-co-operation rates, can't get a sufficiently representative sample and somehow contrive a less Tory-friendly demographic from whoever’s bored enough to pick up the phone. Thus caution is advisable over the factoid that Labour has ‘cut the Conservative lead by eight points’. Even taken at face value, the poll still has the party trailing the Tories by 16 per cent.

Labour’s draft manifesto, leaked yesterday, contains a lot of good policies, which the hard-right – that is, ‘mainstream’ – press will brand as ‘far left’ or ‘back to the 1970s’. I remember the 1970s, which were not that bad. You could go to college without having to rack up a debt burden that you’d carry into middle age. People still had the prospect of being able to buy a home, in London, say, without facing prices that had been bid up far beyond affordability by absentee plutocrats. Unions defended workers’ rights. Public assets were publicly owned. Labour proposes to take steps back in this direction – in other words, towards social democracy. The draft manifesto’s title, ‘Creating an economy that works for all’, even references Theresa May’s mood-muzak burble outside Number 10 when she took over last summer.

Unfortunately none of this will be enough to swing the election. It’s not that most people are likely to reject Jeremy Corbyn because they don't like Labour policies. They are likely to reject Labour policies because they don't like Corbyn – or at least, have no confidence in him. In part this is because of the demonisation directed at him since he was elected leader in 2015 – today’s Telegraphhas Corbyn’s car running over a BBC cameraman’s foot. In part it is down to Blairite revanchisme. But it is also down to honest political incompetence on Corbyn’s part.


  • 11 May 2017 at 10:38pm
    Simon Wood says:
    The manifesto is "an offer", he said. This is marketing talk for a service product. You hear people saying of a new restaurant in Islington, "They've got the offer right."

    A financial product is "an offering", similar.

    The thing about an offer, though, is that it has to exist, like the restaurant with its menu, pricing, location - Islington - staff and so on. An imaginary restaurant is not an offer or an offering.

    The Labour manifesto is a bloody good idea - cheap trains, no uni fees, the lot - which totally suits an independent, oil-rich country like Britain or Norway. But it is not an "offer". That's a really odd thing to call it.

  • 12 May 2017 at 5:42am
    Joe Morison says:
    For me, the bad way that leftwing politicians like Corbyn and Mélenchon are stuck in the past is not in their policies but that they are still thinking parochially whereas capital is now global. In the 70s, governments could redistribute wealth because they could keep it within national borders; now, when it can be on the other side of the world in moments, they are powerless. Until the left realizes this, that it has to be a global political movement if it is going to have any success, it will continue to lack the credibility to advance because it is promising things we know it cannot deliver.

    The uncomfortable thing for the left here is that, in the eyes of those 3 billion people who live on less than £2 a day, there is not much difference in the lives we lead and the lives of those we consider disgustingly rich. Global inequality and national inequality are part of the same problem, and we no longer live in a world where we can tackle the latter in isolation from the former. It’s not just the ‘rich’, we too are part of the problem.

    • 12 May 2017 at 6:34am
      piffin says: @ Joe Morison
      The Scandinavian countries have managed to remain highly redistributive despite the clock having been turned back on capital flight.
      As for your distaste for social-democratic policies in the west on the basis that 3 billion elsewhere are worse off, it brings to mind JK Galbraith's observation: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness".

    • 13 May 2017 at 6:34am
      Joe Morison says: @ piffin
      You’re right about the Scandinavian countries and I’d love to see something like that here. I’m expert on the area; but, as far as I understand it, it works because it has broad based support across the community - it’s not something imposed on an unwilling business class. Leftwingers like Corbyn and Mélenchon want to force their changes; and, much as I’d like to see their redistributive policies in action here, I think it would just lead to a capital flight.

      I’m not sure why I remind of you of a conservative trying to justify my selfishness. My position is that the left in the West has to think globally, and that in tackling global poverty we are all going to have to be a lot less selfish than we would be by just redistributing wealth in our own little enclaves of excess. This is a problem because it’s a much harder vision to sell. When we hear of the excesses of the super-rich, we tend to react with disgust that no one needs that many cars, or a to eat rare plums coated in gold leaf; but we are less happy to hear that about ourselves when it comes to flatscreen televisions, the latest smart phone, and holidays in exotic climes.

    • 13 May 2017 at 6:36am
      Joe Morison says: @ Joe Morison
      Erratum: I'm no expert ... (obviously)

    • 14 May 2017 at 8:26pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Joe Morison
      There is obviously an argument that we need to reduce consumption and I think many people are coming round to that on their own and eventually necessity will reduce consumption hugely.

      However austerity and falling living standards in the West are not primarily about consumption. The issues are access to health care, the fact that more and more jobs are low paid and unsecure and there is a huge and completely manufactured housing crisis. We live in a society with rising obesity, diabetes and mental health issues. We live in a society where loneliness is a huge problem. We live in a society where more and more people are choosing not to have children as don't see the possibility of raising them in a dignified lifestyle.

      These are not issues that we should ignore in Europe. Your argument is the equivalent of not eating your dinner because there is a famine in Africa or shrugging your shoulders as a local nature spot is destroyed because a large tract of the Amazon rain forest is destroyed every day. If we are to help make the whole world a fairer and prosperous place it will require a fairer and healthier society at home.

    • 15 May 2017 at 10:43am
      Joe Morison says: @ Stu Bry
      Stu, I agree with everything you’ve written apart from your penultimate sentence. I must have expressed myself badly because it’s same mistake piffin made. I am all for doing everything we can here, the local beauty spot may not be as important as all that Amazonian forrest but it’s of more importance to us because we can do something directly about it. We should start the project of making the world a fairer place at home. (Which is why I voted for Corbyn, even though I quickly became disillusioned - at this election I’ll be voting for Tulip Siddiq, not her party.)

      My point is that the power of a modern elected government to redistribute wealth is very limited unless they have the broad acceptance of the business community; without it there will just be capital flight. So, I think politicians on the left should be trying to work out what a united international system to control money in our interest would look like, and then make selling that idea their priority. I don’t think that attempt has any hope of success unless it has the broad support of most people in the world, and I don’t think that can happen until global equality becomes far more the left’s rallying cry. ‘Workers of the world unite’ wrote Marx and Engels, instead the money of the world has united leaving the rest of us powerless in our little polities.

    • 19 May 2017 at 2:23am
      BrianBruise says: @ piffin
      Galbraith was the greatest Keynesian ever, and the tallest. I believe he contributed more to the dismal science than Keynes himself, having the advantage of historical knowledge unavailable to the conceptual founder. He wrote in a time when liberalism still had some deserved intellectual clout before being hi-jacked by the so-called neo-liberals. Another pithy quote of his: “If you feed enough oats to the horse, some will pass through to feed the sparrows (referring to "trickle down" economics).” Of course, the neo-Cons, New Labour et al. are horses of the same colour.

  • 12 May 2017 at 2:42pm
    streetsj says:
    Glen's memory of the 1970s is highly selective. Not least on going to College free of charge which more than 90% of the population were unable to do.

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