13 December 2019

Labour’s Defeat

James Butler

I think of the young canvassers – thousands of them – who were out on the doorsteps for the first time, in cold and miserable weather, lit up by a politics that spoke to them and for them as no political party had done before. They will be told they were wrong to believe in it. They were not. I think of the woman, a carer for her disabled brother, who said that her life had got worse for years and years, and politicians always promised it would get better, and it didn’t, and how could she trust Labour? I think of the man who voted Labour in 2017, but wouldn’t now, because his Polish partner was scared of living here much longer. And the man who said you can’t change anything anyway, because ‘it’s all fucking rigged even when you win, look at Brexit.’

10 December 2019

‘Hijacked by Marxists’

James Butler

‘Hijacked by Marxists’, promised the Sun: Corbyn’s ‘hardline cabal’ exposed! On Saturday, the paper published a network map it claimed was drawn up by ‘former British intelligence officers’, detailing a web of ‘hard-left extremists’ supposed to lie behind the current Labour leadership. It had even coded a natty little chatbot to help its readers decipher the sprawling chart. ‘Who is James Butler?’ I asked it. It told me I co-founded Novara Media, which is at least true – though it got the dates wrong – and that I was connected to various people I’ve never met. I have yet to be invited to any cabal, hardline or otherwise.

6 December 2019

Broader Horizons

James Butler

Despite their far-reaching consequences, the horizons in elections can seem narrow, confined to the five-odd weeks of the campaign, strewn with invocations of the recent past. Zoom out, though, and one thing that comes into focus is that the anti-austerity movement in the UK – the chief engine of the rise of Corbynism – is the last in Europe to reach its major electoral showdown. It does so in unique circumstances, forced to grapple with inimical constitutional questions that warp its electoral calculus, and later than its sister movements in other countries, which, though they found more immediately amenable political vehicles, either burned up on contact with the might of the ECB or were neutered in wider political coalitions.

2 December 2019

On London Bridge

James Butler

Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were killed at London Bridge on Friday, at a conference on prisoner rehabilitation. Their murderer, Usman Khan, had been imprisoned for terrorist offences, and was released last year; the Guardian warned at the time that the police and probation services lacked the resources to deal adequately with a wave of prisoner releases. Khan was electronically tagged, and had been given permission to go to the conference. It seems he planned the attack, making himself a fake suicide vest. He was stopped from further bloodshed when members of the public, including other former prisoners at the conference, intervened to stop him. Police, responding to the hoax vest, shot and killed him. Merritt’s grieving father made this plea: ‘My son, Jack, who was killed in this attack, would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily.’

29 November 2019

A Snapshot, Not a Prediction

James Butler

YouGov has released the results of its MRP (multilevel regression and post-stratification) model. It shows the Tories taking 359 seats, Labour reduced to 211 – losing significant heartland constituencies to the Conservatives – and Boris Johnson winning his party’s first substantial majority, of 68, since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987 of 102. The political impact of such a result is hard to overstate: it would mean a reworked Conservative Party in parliament, singing in unison from Johnson’s hymn sheet, clearing the way for his Brexit deal to pass without a hitch – along with everything else in the manifesto.

27 November 2019

In East Dunbartonshire

Jamie Maxwell

‘Swinson’s a Tory,’ a retired couple, both former Labour voters, told me as they emerged from lunch at an Italian café on the high street. ‘She was there, voting every time for the Tory cuts.’ ‘I’m going with Nicola [Sturgeon],’ the woman said, adding that she didn’t support independence but couldn’t back Jeremy Corbyn for prime minister because he was too ‘dishevelled looking’.

25 November 2019


James Butler on the Conservative Manifesto

Boris Johnson launched his manifesto yesterday in Telford. Both document and event were marked by only the lightest dusting of the Conservative brand: everything was instead blazoned with ‘Get Brexit Done’, the recurrent theme, too, of an otherwise flimsy manifesto. ‘As a blueprint for five years in government,’ the IFS noted, ‘the lack of significant policy action is remarkable.’

25 November 2019

The Education Lottery

Steven Methven

The possibility of education, in the widest sense, is the greatest defence against the power of bad luck. And yet, as an incredibly rich society, we have put access to education into luck’s hands, too. Unless you are in possession of material wealth – the particular form of luck that we seem to value most – you won’t succeed unless nothing goes wrong between the age of four and early adulthood, and nothing much had better go wrong afterwards, either. Those are odds that even the most reckless gambler would hesitate to accept.

20 November 2019

Arid Exchanges

James Butler on the leaders’ debate

Last night’s head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn did not scale Socratic heights. There were few surprises. When TV debates emerged during the US presidential race in 1960, a canny understanding of the medium gave the telegenic Kennedy an opportunity to shift past Nixon in the polls; modern debate rules are subject to interminable inter-party negotiations, which usually seek to tamp down any risk of actual debate breaking out.

15 November 2019

‘We can afford this’

James Butler

With both parties competing over spending, the strategic calculus for the election alters: whether or not spending is a good thing matters less than where the money is spent, who it will benefit, and whether the parties can be trusted to keep their promises. Serious questions await the Conservatives on how sustainable their spending can be without raising taxes on the wealthy, or with the economic dislocation of a hard Brexit. It’s difficult, too, for them to resurrect 2010’s attack lines on the economy when austerity has vanished from the policy lexicon; Harold Macmillan warned his party in 1959 not to talk of Labour ‘spending sprees’ – for people who have lived through a straitened decade, spending may sound rather appealing. The last true disciple of Coalition-era doctrine turns out to be Vince Cable, grumbling about a ‘raid on Santa’s grotto’. 

12 November 2019

‘Nice one, Nigel’

James Butler

Nigel Farage announced last night that the Brexit Party would stand down its candidates in 317 Tory-held seats across the country, promising instead to concentrate his fire on Leave-voting seats with Labour incumbents. Having last week lambasted Boris Johnson’s deal as the ‘second-worst in history’, he now claims to be satisfied with the prime minister’s commitment to leaving on 31 January, and seeking a Canada-style free trade agreement. However he tries to disguise it, this is a capitulation: there had been enormous pressure on Farage from senior colleagues – including the Brexit Party chair and candidate for Hartlepool, Richard Tice – to moderate his opposition to the Tory deal. Farage has found a Surrender Act all of his own.

8 November 2019

Strange Bedfellows

James Butler

The Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru have made an electoral pact under the rubric ‘Unite to Remain’. The three parties have agreed to stand down candidates in sixty constituencies: in 43, only a Liberal Democrat will stand, ten will have only a Green candidate, and seven only a candidate from Plaid. The purported aim is to return the maximum possible number of pro-Remain MPs to parliament; the parties’ self-interest is an unspoken factor. The lash-up may help Plaid and the Greens win one or two target seats, but the chief beneficiaries – if it succeeds – will be the Lib Dems, who are looking to retake a slew of Tory-held seats in the south of England.

5 November 2019

Familiar Ground for Farage

James Butler

The Brexit Party launched its general election campaign in Westminster yesterday. There had been much talk that a pact – formal or tacit – between the Conservatives and Farage’s vehicle might emerge, handing them a swathe of leave-voting seats in England. Instead, Farage, speaking from the rostrum to an audience of Brexit Party candidates and registered supporters, lambasted the Tories’ ‘conceited arrogance’, mocked the ERG for falling in like ‘good little boys’ behind their leader, and lambasted Johnson’s deal for taking the UK into ‘three more years of agonising negotiations with Michel Barnier’. These are not words from which rapprochement is made. Farage himself is not standing – seven Westminster defeats perhaps enough – but intends to campaign across the country.

1 November 2019

Decline and Fall

James Butler

A number of MPs have announced their retirement from politics in the last few days, many of them women who have been targeted by torrents of personal abuse and threats to their family. Some have been advised by the police that it is too dangerous for them to hold open surgeries, or campaign door-to-door after dark. Others are leaving parliament because they feel their party has left them; the most prominent is Nicky Morgan, the last standard-bearer of David Cameron-style conservatism, who is quitting politics at the age of 46, in what would conventionally be considered the prime of her career. The exodus has prompted newspaper eulogies to the ‘last moderates’ and laments over our ideologically divided times; all assume that sharp ideological division is intrinsically negative.