Labour moderates’ naivety lost them control

The text below is a letter from me to the Financial Times, published on 17 August 2016 .

Jeremy Corbyn, Tolpuddle 2016, 1 cropSir, Henry Mance, in “Labour’s leadership battle exposes civil war for soul of party” (August 12) observes that moderate Labour MPs can take heart from the example of the 1980s — when, supported by rightwing trade union leaders, they fought and won an internal battle with the hard Left for control of the party. That “history lesson” is misguided because it assumes too much overlap between conditions then and now.

First, the 1980s fightback was led by moderate and rightwing trade unionists who “fixed” key party committees. Today Labour has few affiliated unions, they have less internal influence, only four of them really matter, and of those the two largest are less anchored in the private sector and dominated by the Left. Second, the hard Left did not lead the party in the 1980s. Now it does. And the court ruling that Jeremy Corbyn must automatically be on the ballot means he is not going away.

Third, the means by which the leader is elected is utterly changed. In the 1980s the membership had only 30 per cent of the vote. Now power lies almost entirely with members and supporters. Fourth, this is not a membership divided between “extremist” activists and passive moderates. Revolutionary socialists have plainly joined the party, they are active, and they make life unpleasant for their opponents. But Labour’s median member has plainly moved Left.

In short, “moderate” MPs need to take a cooler look at the possibilities. Through their naivety they opened up the party to whoever was prepared to pay to change it and then voted for Christmas by lending nominations to a candidate of the hard Left. Thereby they lost control, probably irrevocably. Mr Corbyn will probably win again, and Labour’s journey to the Left will then continue.

Moderates have only two realistic options: surrender, or fight on by forming a new official opposition in parliament.

Dr Hugh Pemberton
Reader in Contemporary British History, University of Bristol, UK

Brexit requires radical change in the UK political system

An updated version of this piece can be found on the PolicyBristol blog.

What have we learned in the eight days since Britain voted to leave the EU by a margin of 3.8 percentage points?

The country has jettisoned the foreign policy followed by all governments since 1961 yet the political class is paralysed even as the country drifts into dangerous economic waters. Put bluntly, nobody has a clue about how Brexit is to be achieved (or about what a ‘hard’ Brexit might involve). This is a moment of catastrophic political failure on a scale unprecedented in modern British history and it calls into question fundamental features of the country’s political system.

First, it is clear nobody has the slightest idea how the exit is to be accomplished.

Those campaigning for a Leave vote had no plan for how an exit from the EU might be achieved in a way that would not impose lasting damage on the country by crimping exports to countries that represent 45% of our overseas trade.

Astonishingly, no serious contingency planning had been put in place within Whitehall (it is not as yet clear whether senior Civil Servants as well as ministers are to blame for this). Whitehall, which I understand was in chaos before the referendum as it woke up to the real possibility of Brexit, is having radically to reconfigure and reorientate itself, though it lacks many of the skills demanded by Brexit.

So far there is no sign of clear real plan of action.

Second, many of the predictions of the much derided ‘project truth’ are proving accurate.

The pound has collapsed to a low not seen for 35 years – not a bad thing for exporters but a serious loss for international investors in our economy, and in our government’s debt, that may have consequences for their confidence in UK economic management.

There are serious concerns that the widespread economic uncertainty is leading to large scale cancellation of investment, creating the conditions for recession. Many large firms are already implementing plans to redeploy parts of their business and workforce to the Continent.

By any standards this is a very serious economic challenge. In the long-term, as Mr Carney said earlier this week, the economy will adjust but there are clear and large risks in the near- and medium-term.

Third divisions within British politics are paralysing the construction of workable solutions to the economic and foreign policy crisis.

  • Leave campaigners had no plan partly because they did not really expect to win but mainly because they were themselves divided between those for whom control over immigration and protection for British workers was the overriding priority and those for whom free-trade was the main goal: aims that are irreconcilable without leaving the European Economic Area because membership of its single market is dependent on the acceptance the free movement of people as well as of goods and services within it.
  • The Conservative party is similarly divided and as a result has embarked on a leadership election at just the time when, as the governing party, it should be concentrating on leading the country.
  • Labour’s internal battle between the hard Left and its soft Left and Blairite remnants has reignited with a vengeance. Preoccupied with its civil war it is failing to fulfil its role as an Opposition party in Parliament. And the impasse between the party in Parliament and the leader and his supporters amongst the membership means the party may soon split.
  • The only party with a clear policy is the SNP: which is clearly planning to use Brexit as the means by which to achieve independence, thus signalling the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.
  • Profound divisions in Northern Ireland have the potential to reemerge in an ugly way as the division of Ireland becomes once again a physical reality.

Because of the political chaos there is almost no political leadership (George Osborne’s acceptance of the need for deficit financing to maintain growth notwithstanding).

Parliament has not properly debated the consequences of the referendum vote, and at present has no plans to do so.

At the moment we are essentially reliant on a lame-duck Prime Minister and on Civil Servants and the Bank of England to fill the policy vacuum. The Bank has risen to its challenge admirably, though its governor has warned of the limits to its capacity to keep the economy on an even keel. Civil Servants are plainly doing their best, but in the absence of a clear and politically legitimate steer on how to handle the crisis they risk being left politically very exposed if things go wrong.

Our politicians are clearly failing us.

This is about more than the mendacity of some unscrupulous politicians (on both sides of the referendum, though the winner of that inglorious competition was plainly Boris Johnson – a man for whom the linked concepts of hubris and nemesis appear to have been invented).

We have to acknowledge that the howl of rage that was the Leave vote said something about the politics of this country.

The plain fact is that the political system no longer adequately represents the interests of large swathes of the British electorate.

For many years the first past the post electoral system proved effective at forcing the two main parties to consolidate and mediate interests on both sides of the political divide, and ensured that the competing political visions that resulted were tested at the ballot box.

On the whole that system worked well in the quarter of a century after 1945 when between them the two main parties were taking between 87 and 97 per cent of the vote.

It began to work less well as substantial numbers of people began to lose faith in those parties and we first saw the rise of a significant third party (in Feb 1974, for example, the Liberals took nearly 20 per cent of the vote), then the creation of the SDP (in alliance with the Liberals in 1983 taking over 25 percent), then the rise of the SNP, the Greens, and, more lately the growing vote for UKIP.

One may not like UKIP, but the fact that it gained only one MP in 2015 with 12.6 per cent of the vote was clear evidence of the failure of the current electoral system to give voice to large numbers of people. So too was the fact that Labour hoped to win that election with a ’35 per cent’ strategy.

A system that can deliver a government opposed by 65 per cent of voters on a turnout of only 61 per cent (as happened in 2005) is plainly broken. We have turned a blind eye to this for decades; the Brexit vote has made that failure all too obvious.

At the same time, ‘Europe’ has proved a particular problem for the main political parties. Both have at times been fundamentally divided on whether to support membership of the EC/EU and over time the parties have reversed their positions. Only the Liberal Democrats have been consistently pro-EU, only UKIP consistently anti- – and look where that got them in terms of Parliamentary representation.

So we now have to ask serious questions both about the UK’s electoral system and about the ability of its two main political parties to mediate interests and consolidate them into policy programmes supported by a large proportion of the British electorate.

Last week I argued that today’s generation of politicians were facing a crisis akin to that of May 1940. I continue to think this.

The political challenge of unravelling Britain’s close political relationship is immense (people better informed than I estimate it will take a decade). At the same time Brexit poses a substantial economic challenge to an economy not yet fully recovered from the financial crisis of 2007-8.

Yet our politicians stand by. And it is the political vacuum that makes the situation so dangerous.

There will be a wealth of human misery caused by yet another recession. Many, particularly amongst those who voted Leave, will be disappointed further in their political representatives. Add that to the sense of disenfranchisement and the fear and xenophobia whipped up by the referendum and we have the making of something truly nasty.

In short, I think we need political action, we need it now, and we need it to be effective and enduring.

I continue to believe that this probably requires a rapid and significant realignment of British party politics around its centre and I am coming to the conclusion that it may also demand the reconfiguration of both its electoral system and representative institutions.

The EU referendum crisis is this generation of MPs’ ‘Narvik’ moment

In the wake of the EU referendum result the UK faces a crisis unparalleled in peacetime. The financial crash of 2008 was bad enough, but at least our political system was not then in melt-down. Today, half a century of carefully crafted foreign policy has crumbled to dust. Each of the two major parties has descended into civil war, with each riven by differences of opinion about the costs/benefits of EU membership. The economy, still fragile eight years on from the 2008 financial crisis, teeters on the edge of another recession (as does that of the EU, which has also been badly weakened by events in the UK both economically and politically). More than this, the divisions within the country are so severe that the very existence of the UK in its current form is now clearly in doubt.

One has to go back to May 1940 to find a moment when the country last faced an existential crisis like this – with the loss of Norway to Nazi Germany. This was a shattering blow for British strategic policy and it precipitated a loss of confidence in the government’s ability to prosecute and win the war. Over two days of debate in the House of Commons between the 7th and 8th of May 1940 (the ‘Narvik’ debate) it became clear that around a hundred Conservative MPs had lost confidence in their leader and, though the government won the vote, the effect was devastating. Within two days the country had a new prime minister and a government of national unity.

I think there are lessons here for today’s MPs.

  • It is up to MPs to react to the referendum result and to decide on the way forward. We should remember that the result is advisory not legally binding.
  • Parliament was and remains sovereign (despite much recent rhetoric to the contrary). The actual decision to leave must be taken by Parliament. MPs, and only MPs, either individually or collectively have the power to determine what happens now.
  • The Queen appoints a prime minister who can command a majority of the House of Commons.
  • The prime minister does not have to be a party leader (for example, Churchill did not take over the leadership of the Conservative Party until October 1940).
  • Particularly in times of emergency good MPs remember that their function is to represent what they see as the best interests of their constituents (and by extension of the nation), not just the interests of those who voted for them.

As Burke famously put it in his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774,

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

It is pretty evident that an immediate, effective and enduring party political response to the crisis is not going to be constructed, the parties being themselves divided over the issue and presently each at war with each other over who should be leader. MPs are going to have to work this out for themselves.

Which leads on to another major issue: is the present party system fit for purpose? For 70 years ‘Europe’ has cut across traditional party allegiances – indeed it might be argued that this is precisely why we find ourselves in the mess we are presently in. Perhaps the time has come to think creatively about how interests might be represented better politically. Perhaps, in short, the time has come for new parties and a new government to emerge out of the political rubble. But if that is to happen it needs to happen quickly.

Replacing Trident: some lessons of history for Labour

The Labour Party is presently considering its future policy on the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system. If anyone is interested, I have submitted my thoughts on this to the party’s International Policy Commission. In that submission I explore the history of Labour Party policy on nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament since the Attlee government, I conclude, with some regret but also with a hefty dose of political realism, that renewal of the deterrent (though not necessarily via a replacement submarine launched ballistic missile system) makes political, economic, and strategic sense for Labour and for the country. You can find the full submission here (pdf).

Embed from Getty Images: Trident Rocket, test launch at Cape Canaveral, 1 Jan 1980

Fully funded PhD studentship to research modern British history

Are you interested in undertaking PhD research in the field of modern British history and, particularly, in the modern history of philanthropy in Britain? If so you may be interested in a studentship at the University of Bristol to write a modern history of the Society of Merchant Venturers, a Bristol institution dating back to 1552 that is akin to a City of London livery company. The SMV is an important charitable presence in the city of Bristol and the proposed project will research its development as an institution since the mid-1970s, in the process intersecting with a period during which there was a national shift from provision of key services by government to charitable provision.

This  doctoral scholarship is for £14,075 p.a. (rising in years two and three in line with AHRC rates, subject to satisfactory academic progression and the building of a productive working relationship with the funder), full tuition fee support (£4,052 for 15/16) plus up to £500 p.a. for research expenses commencing in January 2016 (though the start date can be subject to negotiation). The deadline for applications is 9 a.m. on 19 Oct.

/… Further details


When in a hole, stop digging

Nobody watching the news last night (2 Sept 2015) and seeing the conjunction of a drowned Syrian toddler being carried tenderly from the sea and Mr Cameron robustly holding the line on migration can have failed to see that Britain’s current policy on migration has run out of road.

This repudiation of refugees is shameful. It leaves us looking callous and self-interested. It is also utterly self-defeating in that we are poisoning the well of cooperation amongst key European countries on which are depending for the renegotiation of our relations with the EU.

The Prime Minister’s key problem is that in 2009 he rashly committed himself to a target for net migration, Wise heads noted at the time that this was a profoundly mistaken promise because it is a number over which the UK government has incomplete influence, was at odds with other policy priorities, and would inevitably box him in once he was elected.

Once in government, Cameron duly found that:

  • We cannot prevent inward migration of other EU citizens without leaving the EU.
  • Net migration includes the return of British citizens living abroad, whom we presumably have no intention of repudiating.
  • It encompasses overseas students, whom BIS is eager to encourage to come and study here, not least because they contribute so much to the funding of our universities; and
  • It includes skilled workers necessary to our future economic performance.
  • Finally, net migration includes refugees, leaving us in the unenviable position of doing as little as possible to help those fleeing Syria (a country, let us not forget, that we and the Americans helped destabilise via the inadequate post-conflict planning of the Iraq War).

Two tried and tested political history lessons come to mind:

  • Don’t commit the classic political mistake of setting a target for a measure over which you have no control.
  • When in a hole stop digging.

The Prime Minister, and the Conservative Party, urgently need to come to terms with the present refugee crisis (and here the postwar resettlement in the UK of people from the Continent displaced by war and the influx of 90,000 other European nationals under the European Voluntary Worker programmes of the late-1940s might provide useful models).

More generally, Mr Cameron needs to change the national conversation on migration if he is to break out of the box in which he has imprisoned himself. Sometimes leaders really do have to lead, not follow.

Contemporary British History research resources updated

I have updated my Research Resources for Contemporary British Historians and all the links are now working. I hope it is useful.

The Factionalisation of Labour’s Parliamentary Party


What do the Labour Party’s elections for leader and deputy leader tell us about ideological divisions within the party? Certainly the process has turned out to be much more newsworthy and more politically divisive than anybody expected. With my University of Bristol colleague Mark Wickham-Jones I have been analysing developments and will be writing more on this topic in the months to come. Even now, however, it is possible to draw important conclusions about the way in which ideological divisions have deepened since the party’s last leadership election in 2010. The development of polarised factions was evident almost from the start, when MPs made their nominations. We have written up our findings on this, identifying two key factions within the Parliamentary Labour Party – one with an institutional basis in the trade unions and one based around Progress. Details of our analysis will appear in the next hard copy issue of Renewal but the article is already available on ‘early view’, and it’s free to access (‘Factionalism in the Parliamentary Labour party and the 2015 leadership contest‘).

A couple of posts published by us on other blogs summarise some of the findings:

‘Friends and neighbours’ effects in the 2010 Labour leadership contest

Does geography play any part within a political party’s internal elections? As they build their Parliamentary careers, do potential party leaders develop a support base among other MPs representing the same region? In an LSE blog post with Ron Johnston, David Manley, Charles Pattie, Hugh Pemberton and Mark Wickham-Jones we map where each of the candidates for Labour’s Leadership and Deputy Leadership in 2015 gained the necessary nominations to place them on the ballot papers and find some interesting patterns. Some of the candidates depended substantially on support from their ‘home region’, with one other the apparent beneficiary of local campaigning in another region by her team.

Research resources for the contemporary British historian

I’ve added a new page to the site: a guide to research resources that will be of interest to historians of contemporary Britain. It used to reside elsewhere, in a slightly different form, and a few of the links may need updating – but I aim to get them all checked over the summer. At some point I might even get around to blogging in earnest …