Reflections on the EU Referendum Result

I had hoped to make a statement on the EU Referendum when the dust had settled somewhat. In the ten days since the historic decision there has been so much confusion and change that I think waiting for that moment would be foolhardy! Rather than give a long and deeply thought out blog post, I thought I would share a few reflections from conversations I have had with others on the outcome of the referendum:

  1. The Referendum has not caused divisions, but it has exposed them.
    I think the single thing that has most alarmed and frightened people in the aftermath of the Leave vote has been the perceived change in the country. The referendum campaign itself was nasty and dirty, and there’s a sense that bitterness and divisiveness remains – not least in the disgusting increase of racial abuse we are seeing. I do not believe that this is new – I think there has been an undercurrent of racial tension that we have suppressed but not addressed, and I think there has been a disconnect between political elites and ordinary voters. The referendum may have exposed them more brutally and drastically than would be preferred, but we must acknowledge that the roots run deeper and longer than one referendum campaign.
  2. We need to learn how to do politics
    The referendum has also brought into sharp relief that we have forgotten how to disagree with each other. While it is fundamental to our freedom of thought to uphold the right of individuals to hold opinions, it is a mockery to say that everyone must be right. That is what we do however when we create an academic culture where everyone expresses their opinion and ‘nobody is wrong’ – unless of course they dare to speak contrary to an accepted orthodoxy. The divisive discourse of the campaign and the dramatic rejection of the democratic result by sections of society (and especially younger generations) shows that we need to learn democracy and politics again.
  3. We have to be brave enough to listen – and to lead
    From a partisan viewpoint, huge swathes of Labour voters voting Leave ought to delight me. It does not. These communities feel abandoned and left behind, and have fixated their hurt, for both good and bad reasons, upon migration. We have to not just listen to them, but show we are listening to them – otherwise we drive them to extremists who sing the tune they want to hear. But at the same time, we must be ready to lead as well as listen. Democracy means that you respect the people when they decide. Leadership is what happens when the people need to be offered a positive alternative – it does not mean ignoring them or their decision, but means meeting them where they are at.
  4. It’s more important than ever to show up
    I voted Leave, but I certainly do not want to live in Farage’s Britain. I do not think that continuing our relationship with European nations from outside the EU means an end to our commitment to social justice, closing the door to migrants, nor becoming an isolationist state. If the choice had been ‘Little England’ I would have been vocally advocating a Remain vote. Now that we have voted to take the wheel, it’s up to us to step up, show up, and cast the direction we want to go in.

In practical terms, I would like to encourage every reader to think what this looks like for them. It may mean writing to your MP to ask how they will be shaping our exit from the EU. It may mean joining a political party or a pressure group. Even if it is not in overt party politics, you can make a big difference just by starting political discourse – having the robust but respectful discussions with your friends, and playing out in the micro what we aspire to see played out in the macro.

And I conclude by recognising that we live in a time of turbulent change, and that is easy to be anxious. I am especially prone to be anxious, and take comfort from the words of Jesus of Nazareth:

Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

All of us can think of seasons of change and uncertainty. Sometimes it went on for longer than we would like; I’m sure often it was not pleasant to go through that season. We came through those seasons however, and I remain confident that we will do the same this time.

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Why I am voting Leave

After my last few relatively balanced posts on the European Union referendum, I am going to honour the promise of my initial post and confirm my voting intention: this Thursday, I will be voting for the UK to Leave the European Union.

When asked by friends about how I plan to vote, and what is persuading me to vote that way, I begin by describing myself as a ‘reluctant Leaver.’ In that regard, I think I belong to the vast majority of the UK population – not satisfied with the way the European Union currently operates, but persuaded that it is better when the nations of Europe (and indeed the world) work together. I firmly believe that we agree as a nation on the above assessment  – European co-operation is a good thing, and the European Union can and must do better to serve the peoples and nations of Europe. The issue that the public at large are largely wrestling with is not whether some form of European co-operation is a good thing, but instead whether the EU can be reformed. The plea of the Remain campaign is akin to buying a run-down house – you are urged to look beyond what you are immediately buying and instead imagine what it will look like when you have done it up a bit. The Leave view would be akin to the salesperson advising that the house is structurally unsafe – which is the view that I have come to.

What we do not disagree upon

To begin with, I wish to dismiss some of the arguments that have been advanced by both sides in the campaign, and assert that they are not relevant. First and foremost, and in contrast to traditional electoral wisdom: “It’s not about the economy, stupid!” The most helpful observation in this regard was made by Martin Lewis (highlighted in this previous post) – we cannot predict the future with any degree of certainty. The appeals that a vote to Remain/Leave will leave us with more or less money in our pockets are so much fanciful thinking. Let me put it this way – if it were up to economists, we would never have elections. A change of government represents uncertainty, and economic assumptions are based on nothing changing. By definition, a vote for change upsets future assumptions. Equally importantly, a vote to stay doesn’t guarantee that change will not happen. There could well be a crash in the Eurozone. There may be a global economic crisis. The economic debate is important, but only in the sense that whichever governing arrangement we have at the end of it must be equipped to deal with it.

Secondly, it’s not about immigration. Both sides have to shoulder blame for this – the Leave campaign for allowing a ‘Little Englander’ mentality to creep in by association; and the Remain campaign for painting the Leave campaign as being entirely based around xenophobia. The debate around migration runs much wider than the EU debate – it involves us asking deep, difficult and honest questions about whether we really welcome people when they come to live in the United Kingdom; whether we are prepared to challenge community isolation and separation; and whether we are prepared to acknowledge that when migration is net positive rather than net negative, it places pressure upon our resources. It is a very important debate, and Labour’s failure to rouse their traditional base of support shows that we cannot postpone having the debate – but the referendum is not about whether we should accept migrants (so that there is no doubt, I believe both emigration and immigration are positive for human advancement), and it is unhelpful to paint the vote as being a choice between open or closed borders.

Finally, it is not about personalities. A popular internet meme at the moment (used by my wife’s colleague for a school assembly) shows those that back Remain against those who back Leave. Of course it makes me uncomfortable that Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Donald Trump back Brexit. It is a grave misjudgement however to reason that the support of a distasteful person for a policy, means by extension that the policy itself is distasteful. By that reasoning, policies introduced in Nazi Germany such as public work schemes and prevention of cruelty to animals, should be ranked in the same category as their genuinely abhorrent policies of hate, racism and murder. When you equate either campaign with a distasteful supporter of that side, you are effectively saying to any sincere person backing that side on good and reasonable grounds that they are no better than the distasteful person. That does nothing to advance democratic debate and public reasoning. It’s a powerful campaigning tool, which is why it used by politicians – but in the long run it does more harm than good, and takes the focus off of the debate.

So, we are clear on what we do not disagree upon. Where might we disagree, legitimately?

The necessity of reform

I posed two questions in deciding how to vote, and the first is essentially “do you believe that the European Union needs reformed?” My unequivocal answer is “Yes, urgently!” I can think of no better way to illustrate my concerns with the EU, than to quote the late Labour MP Tony Benn’s five questions (here taken from Wikiquote):

One can ask five questions:

  1. What power do you have?
  2. Where did you get it?
  3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How can we get rid of you?

Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

For all of the flaws of the Westminster system, Benn’s fourth and fifth questions remind us that it is possible for a government to be unseated when it ceases to hold the confidence of the British electorate – the same is also true for Holyrood and for the Sennedd in Cardiff, and sadly not so true for the Northern Ireland Assembly (but that’s another story). I will venture a more detailed post on democracy in Europe ahead of polling day, but the heart of the problem is that government ought to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. The ‘pro-democracy’ argument of Europhiles assumes that as the European Parliament is elected, and the unelected European Commission can (theoretically) be unseated by that Parliament, Benn’s fourth and fifth questions can be answered satisfactorily.

I am not in the least satisfied with this reasoning. Parliament can (and does) stop the government from using the considerable power invested in it, where it feels it is out of step with public opinion. The government (whether Conservative, Labour or coalition) may well pass laws that sections of the public profoundly disagree with, but does so where they have a mandate to do so. Where that mandate is absent, Parliament attempts to stop the government, and the government knows that the penalty of disregarding public opinion is the genuine risk of losing power at the next election.

The technocracy in Brussels lives under no such fear. Vested with considerable power, the Parliament does not possess the means to block their policies, replace a failing Commission with a new Commission, nor does the Commission’s composition ever change hands at the electorate’s expressed will in European elections. Let me put it this way: when Westminster makes a bad decision, we have the opportunity to kick the government out. In the European Union, we do not have that power.

All of this matters because whether we stay or leave, there are challenges ahead, and we are relying upon those who govern us to choose wisely, and to choose in our interests. The technocrats of the European Commission have thus far demonstrated that they do not answer for the interests of all of the European nations, and southern Europe has suffered as a result.That is why the analogy of the run-down house is most apt when considering a Remain vote. Beyond all doubt, reform is needed – there is a broken connection between public opinion and the decisions reached in Brussels. All governments are unpopular, and all those who vote for non-governing parties believe the government is doing the wrong thing, but they hold on to the hope that they might win next time.

For this reason, a sizeable number of Remain campaigners, of which perhaps the most obvious example is Jeremy Corbyn, are campaigning under the banner “Reform within Europe” – that is, vote Remain to ensure we stay in, but use this as the catalyst to deliver reform. The Prime Minister’s attempt to renegotiate over the last two years has demonstrated what a vain hope this is – the European Commission has been recalcitrant to budge one inch on its projected course, and resistant to the least idea of change. How can we expect accountability, much less reform, from an unresponsive institution?

In this regard, Vote Leave‘s official slogan: “Take Control” has actually cut to the core of the matter. As it stands the EU is utterly uninterested in public opinion or preferences, and demonstrates no willingness to change. Voting to remain, is voting to let the European Commission continue to decide on our behalf regardless of whether their decisions are right for Europe.

That is why on Thursday 23rd June 2016, I am voting Leave. Europe can do better than the European Union – and it’s our privilege to lead our European friends in saying that enough is enough.

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One is always wiser with hindsight: A review of the 2016 Oxford City Council Elections

I now get to enjoy, in the finest tradition of Paddy Ashdown and the 2015 exit poll, the pleasure of eating one’s words. As readers will recall, I asserted with some confidence that Oxford’s Conservatives simply had to break their 15 year duck and finally get someone elected on to the City Council. The results of last Thursday’s poll (neatly collated and summarised here on Wikipedia) make something of a mockery of that prediction, as Labour steamrollered every opposition party to take 75 per cent of the council’s seats, and the Conservatives fell short.

Part of the reason I’m involved in politics is to encourage others to follow suit, which means being honest about some of my experiences. So I admit that my first reaction was to think “if I just delete my prediction, then it never existed.” That however achieves precisely nothing, and sends entirely the wrong message. By posting this message, I want to live out what I said in my Oxford Mail article on how we should address the Rhodes Must Fall camapign – that we should engage constructively with our mistakes rather than wear a mask of perfectionism. To pretend that one is infalliable, or hold to the view that you can only serve others if you appear spotless is to give way to false pride and hypocrisy, and to discourage those who correctly see their own shortcomings from serving in public life.

So let me make a few short points with regard to my article. The first is that it was never meant to be a prediction. The aim and intent of the article was to challenge an assumption: that Conservatives could never win in Oxford. I make no apologies for my own bias – I am a Conservative and it is only natural that I will argue the positive case for my party, knowing full well that the case against us is being cheerfully and noisily articulated elsewhere. Knowing my own bias, I will always warn friends seeking my advice that they are getting my opinion, and always encourage everyone to enquire for themselves. So as such, the article was not an academic prediction of how the 2016 results should go, but rather articulating the viewpoint that Conservatives ought to be able to win seats in Oxford.

[I would add as an aside that as one actively campaigning in the Oxford elections, it would have been most unwise for me to have shared everything I knew or suspected in my post. That’s only to be expected!]

Secondly, I will serve myself up a large slice of humble pie: my viewpoint was wrong. I am not in the position to comment on our relatively poor turnout in our most promising wards in the Oxford West constituency, but in Oxford East the Labour Party completely flattened everyone. The bar chart below shows the numerical turnout for each party in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Vote Change

As you see, Labour have progressively increased their turnout in local elections since 2012. The Liberal Democrats have been slowly growing since their car-crash election of 2012. The Conservatives and Greens however, only managed to turn out their 2012 vote, leaving them to lose ground to Labour. My assumption of a Conservative breakthrough rested upon the Conservative vote turning out, while the remaining parties’ vote would fall, in keeping with local election trends. Credit has to be due to Oxford Labour that they successfully mobilised their vote, and left every other party looking foolish.

Finally, I nevertheless maintain that my assumption is not entirely wrong. The Conservatives only got 3,165 votes across East Oxford, a full 6,911 less than they got 12 months previously at the 2015 General Election. As I said above – my viewpoint presumed that the Tories would turn out. As the bar chart below shows, pretty much every major party suffered a reduction in the numerical vote cast for them:

2016change

Shrewd commentators on my original article made some pertinent observations – that we couldn’t necessarily trust the data from Electoral Calculus (a point I had already conceded); but more importantly that not all voters turn out for local elections, and some voters will vote differently between national and local contests. The data above bears that out – the two major national parties both took a hit, but Labour could afford to lose almost half their vote and still win at a canter. The Tories suffered much more for losing their ‘casual’ supporters. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile have two hard-working Councillors in East Oxford – Ruth Wilkinson in Headington, and Roz Smith who represents Headington & Quarry on the County Council. I strongly suspect the increased Liberal Democrat vote is a combination of Tories voting tactically for these candidates as the ‘not Labour’ option; Liberals who tactically voted for another party in 2015; and voters who have forgiven the Lib Dems for the coalition government.The poor Greens meanwhile are paying the price for not breaking through last year as they had hoped.

So I own my mistake – my assumption that the Conservatives would win in Oxford did not account for voters failing to turn out, or for voters voting differently between local and national contests. There are voters in Oxford who have voted Conservative before, but did not do so on 5th May 2016; not least the 6,911 who voted for Melanie Magee in May 2015 and did not vote Conservative this time around. I do not have an easy answer for that.

No-one should underestimate how well Labour did to get their vote out across the whole of Oxford; nor the dedication shown by the Liberal Democrats to successfully defend their wards. There is no simple solution that explains why Conservatives stayed at home, nor conclusive proof that it will definitely change. I still maintain my conviction however that there is a Conservative vote to mobilised in Oxford, and that with the right campaign there is no good reason why the party should not be able to hold seats on Oxford City Council. There are no simple answers, which means for myself and my party colleagues we have the task of asking the difficult questions that will illuminate the way to success.

Why the Conservatives MUST win in Oxford this year

As this blog goes to press, there are fourteen weeks until voters across England and Wales go to the polls to determine the composition of their district councils. Local elections are infamous for their relatively low turnouts compared to General Elections, and in some cases for contests where one party enjoys seeming impenetrable dominance over local politics. Oxford has historically been perceived as one such city. Labour have controlled the City Council since 2008, there has been no significant opposition party since the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives haven’t had a single member on the Council since 2001. Despite this, I am convinced that 2016 is the year we will see the Conservatives breaking in to the Council.

As the 2015 General Election was not concurrent with any kind of local election, we do not enjoy the advantage Oxford voters enjoyed in 2012 of being able to see how each ward voted in the previous general election. Of necessity, some extrapolation from the raw results is necessary – the Greens for example attained 20% of the votes in the 2014 City Council elections, but only 11% at the 2015 General Election, not allowing a direct extrapolation from 2014 to 2015. This reflects a number of factors – the higher turnout for General Elections being one; voters voting differently for local and national elections being another. But using data available from electoralcalculus.co.uk we can infer what the results in local elections should have been (links available at the bottom of this post).

The map below shows the Oxford city council wards, with each area shaded according to the difference between the Conservatives and the party that finished first – a positive result meaning that the Tories finished first, a negative result indicating a swing required to win the ward. The eagle eyed of you will have noticed something very striking – that in 2015 the Conservatives won four of Oxford’s twenty-four wards: Holywell, North, St Margarets, and Wolvercote. Moreover, they came within striking distance of winning in Carfax and Summertown, and respectable distance in Headington Hill & Northway and Jericho and Osney.

2015 Projection

That is just based on the raw extrapolations. In practice, we have to account for the fact that turnout is lower in local elections compared to national elections. This explains why the Greens and Lib Dems in particular have proven ‘urban guerrillas’ in local campaigns – they get a higher percentage of their committed vote out for local elections. 600 votes may not beat 1,000 in a general election turnout, but it may just beat that same party if they only get half of those 1,000 voters to turn out for a local election.

This means when considering potential Conservative strength in a ward, we actually need to compare the strength of the Conservatives in 2015, which shows the potential vote the party could mobilise if it turns out the entirety of their core vote, against the results for the other parties in 2014 resulting from a lower turnout in local elections. What happens if we compare the 2015 Conservative vote to the 2014 vote shares?

2014 Projection

As you see in the map above, if the Tories persuaded every person who voted for them in 2015 to vote Tory in 2016, they would win a further five seats – Carfax, Cowley Marsh, Headington Hill & Northway, Lye Valley, and Summertown. It would leave the party needing only a 2% swing to take Cowley and Littlemore, and a 5% swing to take Jericho and Osney. That’s right – if the Tories mobilised the entirety of their vote, they would come within 5% of winning half the wards in Oxford!

All of which goes to show that it is a myth to suggest that the Tories cannot win in Oxford. To look purely at the 2014 data is to miss the narrative of the 2015 data. In the map below, you can see that if you only use the 2014 dataset (dark blue), the Tories are the nearest challengers in only seven wards. Using the 2015 dataset (lighter blue), the Tories either won or finished second in twelve wards – that’s half of the seats in the city! Moreover, four wards saw the anti-Labour vote split between the Conservatives and UKIP (with UKIP narrowly ahead – the purple wards), and two wards (in orange) saw the Liberal Democrats as the main opponents to Labour – no longer a given in the advent of their collapse as anything approaching a major political force.

City Council Map - 2nd Place

We must of course note some caveats. In the absence of the actual breakdown of how wards voted, we are forced to rely on the electoral calculus calculations – they may well be erroneous. We also cannot control for factors like turnout, voters voting differently in local and general elections, or indeed for voters who have changed their minds in the intervening year. It is also entirely fair to observe that just because a theoretical Conservative vote exists, does not mean that it will necessarily be mobilised to come out and vote on 5th May 2016. I fully concede that just because the Conservatives could win these wards, does not mean that they will win these wards.

The point of the exercise however is not to predict how many seats each party would win. It is to demonstrate that based on the 2015 vote, the Conservatives must win seats for the City Council in 2016. Had local elections been held concurrently with the 2015 elections, the Tories would undoubtedly have done so. That Conservative vote has not gone away, and with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, and the genuine distaste for the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, the odds must be very good indeed for the Conservatives to elect several Councillors to Oxford City Council this year.

The data used to calculate these results is taken from the following web pages:
http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/cgi-bin/seatdetails.pl?seat=Oxford%20East
http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/cgi-bin/seatdetails.pl?seat=Oxford%20West%20and%20Abingdon

Means, ends, and motivations

Those wondering where the expression ‘a week is a long time in politics’ comes from need look no further than the last week. Post party conference season commnetators were talking about a Conservative government lasting until at least 2025 and it seemed that David Cameron was untouchable. It took one week for that comfortable assumption to be challenged, through opposition to the government’s policy to reduce working tax credits – a scheme introduced by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was intended to effectively re-imburse low waged workers from the tax that they pay, and incentivise being in work rather than relying upon benefits. After the massive plaudits for the ‘Living Wage’ announcement in his emergency Budget, George Osbourne has instead faced accusations that he’s taking money from those in society who need it most.

To comment on this emotive topic, I felt it was best to refer to an excellent book that I had the good fortune to buy for £1.00 in a Kindle sale – easily the best pound I have spent on a book:

Blunders

The Blunders of our Governments is well worth reading, because it is a rigorous and academic study of mistakes made by British governments of all complexions, and hence is largely free of partisan bias. It lays in mercilessly to Conservative administrative blunders such as the Poll Tax, but doesn’t spare the rod for Labour administrations either. Chapter Ten indeed devotes attention to the very topic under present discussion – tax credits. Whatever impact the policy may have had (and the authors do recognise that it had some impact on relieving poverty), the chapter nevertheless observes the following:

  • The system was needlessly complicated, and often caused intolerable and unncecessary stress to poor and vulnerable people by overpaying the benefit, then demanding repayment in one lump sum.
  • By the spring of 2007, HMRC had: “in effect given up on clawing back more than £2 billion (my emphasis) it had overpaid claimants.”
  • The Parliamentary Ombudsman had reviewed 393 complaints about the system in 2006-7, of which 74% were fully or partially upheld.
  • Independent commentators (which I may say include left-wingers Polly Toynbee and Tottenham MP David Lammy) said that for all of the good done, the policy had been “an administrative nightmare” and ultimately no more than “a sticking plaster.”

The rest of the chapter (and the book) is well worth the investment, so I would encourage you to read it for yourself. As we debate the impact of tax credits however, it is entirely reasonable to make one clear point: just because a policy appears on the surface to leave a section of society better or worse off, does not mean either that the policy necessarily will have that impact, nor that the motivation behind the policy is misplaced.

One of my core convictions regarding politics is that we’re not divided in our aspirations for what we want government to achieve – only in our beliefs as to how those aspirations are to be achieved. It is entirely counterproductive to believe, as sadly significant numbers on the left do, that anyone who proposes a different policy to you must be pathologically committed to the oppression of the less fortunate.

The present debate on the future of tax credits broadly reflects something that authors note – that governments don’t always get it right; not through malicious malintent, but because all of us are subject to human error, or on occasion the necessity to choose a course of action where the best course is not evident beforehand. That the Conservative Party dare challenge the Chancellor on this is far from a sign of weakness, nor is it conclusive proof that the policy is flawed. It shows a party so determined to do right that it will listen to dissent, recognise the right motivation, and assess if the means really will achieve the ends. Conservatives are motivated by a society where families have the dignity and security of regular work, where welfare is (as most Labour moderates would agree) as it is meant to be – a safety net rather than a foundation, and where there is no need for tax credits because only those who can afford to pay tax do so.

On the whole I support the Chancellor’s aspiration to wean the country off tax credits. While I recognise the very real pain of the potential short term cost, I believe it is both better for society and administratively most efficient that we should pay less tax on higher incomes, rather than to have our taxes recycled back to us through HMRC. Not only does it remove the unnecessary, expensive and inefficient administrative burden the authors of the book highlight, it also coincides with two basic principles – you should not pay tax beyond your means to pay, and if you are capable of supporting yourself through work, then you should not need to rely upon state support just to get by.