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  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

As someone who routinely nerds out about politics, it would be remiss of me to not take a few minutes to write something about the local election results which non-biased Nigel Farage described as a ‘game changer’. Ukip averaged 25% of the vote, and took 140 council seats with local election leaflets that promised all kinds of things that are, um, beyond the scope of what councillors can actually do.

As someone who follows reporting from all sides of the political spectrum, I see quite a few calls from the right wing press urging The Conservatives to push rightwards to welcome back the Ukip lost sheep to the The Tory fold, and while I’d actually quite enjoy watching the British right fragment in the way the left did in the 80s, I’m going to offer some home truths now:

1) If you tack right, you lose the swing voters you need to win

It’s a balancing act, being a mainstream political party, which is why we’ve seen such triangulation between the three main parties for the last 20 years. Because of our First Past the Post System, voters have to pick the least unpleasant of their local choices likely to win, meaning that to stand the best chance, your mainstream party needs to be slightly to the left/right of their nearest opposition in order to soak up the most voters. It’s cynical, and I dislike it (which is why I was one of those folks who actually went out and voted for AV), but it’s the truth. There’s a brilliant blog post about that (and many other things) here, but here’s the pertinent extract:

Labour, of course, weren’t the only ones affected by their positional shift. As the party of power, they dragged the Lib Dems to the right too, because first-past-the-post politics essentially works like The Price Is Right – the most profitable spot to occupy is the one that’s the smallest possible discernible margin away from the other guy. If someone’s guessed a price of £500 for a telly and you think the real price is £300, you don’t say £300 and risk his guess being closer than yours if the answer was (say) £405 – you say “£499” and to hell with the boos of the audience (read: your core support). The Lib Dems only needed to be a little to the left of Labour in order to try to capture their disgruntled voters, so they shuffled along to the right too, as close as they could get to New Labour (and therefore the Tories) without appearing to be identical.

Right wing Tories like to claim Cameron didn’t win the last election because he alienated people by being pro-green issues, soft on crime with his whole 'hug a hoody’ rhetoric, and generally a bit more liberal. In reality, the fact he couldn’t beat a massively unpopular and tired looking Labour Party suggests that his modernisation agenda didn’t get far enough and he couldn’t quite scrub away 'the nasty party’ image to absorb their disillusioned voters.

An In-Out EU referendum won’t fix that: counter intuitively, polling suggests that even Ukip voters don’t care that much about the EU.

2) A Ukip vote is often an anti-politics vote

Possibly as a reaction to the aforementioned triangulation, where the common wisdom is that all parties are the same (you could fit a tank between Foot and Thatcher’s idealogical differences, compared to the sliver of light between Blair and Cameron), lots of voters use local elections to flip the bird at Westminster.

“Ah, but its not been for Ukip before, so the tide must be turning!”

Well, no, not necessarily: historically, the Liberal Democrats have done pretty well at byelections and locally, being the party of opposition that was untainted by government policy. Now the Lib Dems have their hands properly dirty, they’re not getting the votes anymore (In the South Shields byelection, held the same day, they lost their deposit, finished behind the BNP and only just ahead of the Monster Raving Looney Party candidate). If you don’t like the look of Labour, who are you going to vote for that will likely show up well in the polls and look suitably protesty? Hello Ukip. Let’s not forget the tagline they used in the last General Election:

So for reasons 1 and 2, copying Ukip policies would be disastrous for the Tories, and would appeal to very few voters while alienating many. Moderate Tories and swing voters won’t like the change, while the anti-politics protest voters will be rightly cynical that they’re genuine. See the Republicans in the US reaching out to the Tea Party movement for the electoral cul-de-sac this heads towards.

3) Local elections aren’t the same as Westminster elections

The BBC has a piece on the history of mid-term local elections and what happened next. Interestingly, the Lib Dems attract around 25% of the vote in the locals before they entered government, which is exactly where Ukip landed. Now I’m not suggesting the Lib Dem voters all climbed on the Farage bandwagon, as we know that Ukip attracts votes from all parties, as well as non voters (though disproportionately from the Tories, I should add), but the point here is what happened next: No Lib Dem breakthrough at the election.

When it came to the vote, our rather undemocratic system meant that left leaning voters held their nose and voted Labour, rather than risking letting the Tories back in. Both Labour and the Tories have played off the fear that voting for a third party will see the others winning out in the past, and you can bet they’ll do it again (though personally I’m looking forward to any political canvaser who visits mine telling me that, because I’ll inform them they should have backed AV then. Hah.)

A 25% share of the vote, even assuming they could hold onto that which as we’ve seen above, protest parties seldom manage in Westminster elections would get them very few seats. A Rallings and Thrasher projection published today based on the local turnout got them a grand total of… zero seats, due to the First Past the Post system, and the reasonably even spread of Ukip supporters throughout the country (that is to say they don’t really have strongholds, as such). I actually suspect they will get between 1 and 5 seats at the 2015 election - I’m reasonably sure Farage will get elected with his new resident interviewee position on BBC current affairs programmes, provided he doesn’t make the mistake of standing against the Speaker again.

There is, however, a quite legitimate fear the Tories have that Ukip will eat into their support in key marginals, allowing Labour MPs to win in areas where combined Ukip and Conservative votes would outnumber them. That’s no reason to copy Ukip: all they’ll do is get a handful of 'kippers back at the expense of horrified centre ground voters: essentially as Tony Blair (who, whatever you think of him, knew a fair bit about winning FPTP elections) insists: elections are won on the centre ground. Let’s overlook the fact that the British centre ground is actually in the centre right, because that’s not going to have changed by 2015. All the Tories need to do is resist the voices trying to appeal to Ukip voters (who in many cases aren’t voting for policy anyway) and go with a thoroughly negative campaign in 2015, depressing though it’ll be. Expect a whole load of 'don’t let Labour back in by voting Ukip, back the side that can win’. It’ll work too, depressing as that is. The question is whether it’ll work enough to grant them a second term, but electoral mathematics states that’s more down to their policies and the economy than what the 'fruitcakes’ next door are up to.

The majority of Ukip voters tell pollsters that the Conservatives are their second-choice party. That gives Tories reasonable grounds to hope that many can be won back at a general election, when they will present the choice as a binary one between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. There is only one problem with this strategy. It requires the Tories to keep their heads and holding their nerve is something they find hard to do for two minutes, never mind two years

Relying on the Tory party staying united is possibly an even bolder strategy than trying to appease them, but it’s the only way I can see them being competitive in 2015.

  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

Sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 words. In theory this makes hitting low wordcounts a doddle, though editors tend not to agree with that piece of common wisdom. Nonetheless, here are some pictures about my upcoming changes

A little light reading to prepare for some pitches…

My office on Fridays going forwards. Not as glamorous as my current digs, but I could fill up that water bottle I guess…

This is absolutely what I won’t be spending Friday doing (unless somebody wants me to write a retrospective on Sensible Soccer… which I’m totally open to, by the way).

There you go, three pictures at 1,000 words each. That’ll be 3,000 words, so where should I send my invoice?

  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

I’ve been reading the media coverage (both left and right) about welfare reform for some time without really commenting. But today’s intervention by George Osborne finally pushed me into belated action. The part of the speech that caught me was this little snippet:

“Now, those who defend the current benefit system are going to complain loudly. These vested interests always complain, with depressingly predictable outrage, about every change to a system which is failing.”

As if the Tory Party is without its own set of obviousvested interests’, but I digress: here are my thoughts as one without any vested interests. I am not a member of the Labour Party, I have never voted Labour, I have never claimed Job Seeker’s Allowance or Housing Benefits and I don’t work in the public sector. I am unlikely, thanks entirely to good fortune I believe, to ever need to fall back on the welfare state for survival. And yet I think it is absolutely essential that the welfare state does survive.

That is down to one thing: empathy. I may not have the experience of living on a tiny amount of state handout, but I’m good enough at Maths (and that’s not really very good at all, by the way) to realise that £111.45 (Job Seekers Allowance at its absolute top end) per week isn’t very much to get by on. As I have no experience of this, you can get an excellent breakdown of how that money would get eaten up in no time elsewhere on the web. I actually believe that most politicians are privately aware that their rhetoric about ‘strivers vs skivers’ is a cartoon caricature of a problem that is massively overblown, but they don’t dare challenge it as being soft on welfare is political kryptonite. This is not an excuse: just because it’s political rather than intellectual cowardice doesn’t make a great deal of difference: it’s still cowardice, however you paint it. Ultimately, what’s the point in an opposition party if they don’t challenge the government’s implausible definitions? This probably goes a long way to revealing the reasoning behind my earlier statement that I have never voted Labour, but I digress again. You can read a brilliant response to the tired arguments against welfare here, rather than me regurgitating the same thing again.


Which brings me onto the recent petition to get Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary to put his money where his mouth is and live on just £53 per week, after he casually tossed off that he could do it if necessary. I signed it myself, but have been kind of questioning whether I should have done since, mainly because it risks trivialising the issue. It’s not so much that living on £53 for a week is impossible - I reckon I could have a stab at it, uncomfortable as it would be - but that doing it as a temporary stunt misunderstands the very nature of true grinding poverty, where it’s truly endless, and a sudden unexpected expense could ruin you. I could go on at great length here, but Alex Andreou in The New Statesman explains why much more articulately with genuine experience to back it up, so I shall leave that there. Since I started writing this piece, Duncan Smith has told his local constituency paper that the whole thing is a ‘complete stunt’ - he’s right, of course, but entirely wrong if he thinks that’s going to end the whole thing. Also, in saying that he’s been ‘on the breadline’ twice before (a claim that has come under some scrutiny already) kind of misses the point when he is in the process of cutting rates to levels comparatively lower than what they were when he used them, in a time when there are barely any jobs around, and his government is in the process of demonising people using the safety net as ‘scroungers’ (though not, to his credit, something that Duncan Smith does. According to a Telegraph blog post he was “absolutely livid” when he heard about a Tory poster campaign contrasting a nice family in work with a feral one on benefits).

But that’s an aside, really. Duncan-Smith’s most controversial moment so far has come through Workfare, a scheme encouraging people to work in return for their benefits to give them experience to get a job in the long run. Laudable on paper, but making it compulsory with sanctions for those that decline, and giving free labour to multi-million pounds like Tesco and Poundland is oddly counter-intuitive for a country so clearly desperate for growth. In my experience working in the media has taught me anything, it’s that free trumps paid for everything. I think most people would be in favour if the work was for not-for-profits, or local council projects for the good of the community, but it’s hard to sympathise with saving Tesco a few quid on their salary bill, that would then be taxable income for someone no longer drawing JSA. The whole benefits for work thing reminds me vaguely of Keynes’ not-to-be-taken-seriously idea that you could pay people to dig holes and fill them in again, rather than having them idle. It’s not the first time government rhetoric feels like it’s from a bygone age.

DELIBERATELY BLURRED DEFINITIONS The government say that the welfare bill is enormous, and that’s kind of true, but the trouble is they’re deliberately vague about what’s covered under welfare, because people automatically assume this is mainly housing benefit and job seekers’ allowance: in other words ‘the scroungers’ in the cartoon rhetoric they choose to frame the debate in. This actually isn’t fair, as this handy tax calculator will explain. Simply pop in your earnings there, and it will break down your daily tax return. With my salary, I pay just over £11 per day to ‘helping others’, but just over 50p on unemployment and housing benefit. Old age is over half of that, but the elderly are rarely hammered by budgets because they tend to be the group most likely to get out and vote and the public are a lot more sympathetic to the elderly than the unemployed. If you put the maximum salary of £200,000 per year into the calculator, JSA and housing benefit comes in at just over a fiver a day: hardly generous, compared to the £46.83 old age care goes up to. Sadly it’s hard to imagine Labour hammering the Tories over benefits in the same way they did with ’the granny tax’. Suffice it to say, a lot of the hostility towards social security comes from the misinformation about it, shown in the infographic at the top of the page, and expanded on in more detail here.

But even if you do object to paying a fraction of your taxes to the unemployed or underpaid (yep, as the graph at the top says only 3% of the welfare bill goes to the unemployed) the point about taxation is that you don’t get to pick and choose the bits you want to fund: it’s a social obligation. I put up with funding the monarchy (which went up £5,000,000 or 16% this year), nuclear technology and bank bailouts as part of the collective tax burden, and don’t particularly like it, but accept it as part of my social contract. Yet part of the rhetoric in the attack on social security is it being about getting value for the tax payer by getting the most out of those in the safety net. Odd: you don’t hear the government offering to launch our nukes when they’re expiring to get our money’s worth with a nice firework display.

Ultimately all this comes down to priorities. Don’t believe the argument that welfare is no longer affordable: it is if enough people deem it to be a priority, and it becomes politically expedient again (though support has dropped by half in the last 20 years). Personally my views on welfare can be summed up as follows: I’d rather we overspent and some people exploited the system, rather than we underspent and many genuinely needy people couldn’t survive. This doesn’t seem that radical an idea to me, so why won’t the opposition do the right thing and speak up convincingly for the most vulnerable, without needing to cover themselves with so many caveats that their support is essentially meaningless?

[CORRECTION 7/04/13: Someone with a great deal of knowledge about the workings of Job Centre Plus tells me that you can claim interview travel costs, so this wouldn’t come out of JSA. I have removed the suggestion that it would.]

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