Friday, November 25, 2016

A tale of two elections

OK, I was on the losing side in both. Obviously, I didn't have a vote in the US presidential election, which was won by the candidate with the fewest votes (other than the two fringe candidates). I did vote in the EU referendum, which was won by the side with the most votes. My view is that both results raise serious questions about democratic processes.

So why should we respect a majority in one case and not the other? Am I just trying to find reasons to wish away results I don't like? I hope not. Let me try and explain.

The most important point is that these votes were utterly dissimilar. One was to choose a president to head the executive branch of government, and the other to take a crucial and irreversible decision about the future of the country, arguably the most important for more than forty years.

In the US, the President is not a representative of a state or region, but the President of the whole country. Yet the Electoral College proceeds on the basis of state representation. This year, 55,000 people in three states delivered victory to the candidate with over two million (and still counting) fewer votes than his rival. If they had voted differently Clinton would have won. I might have met this troubling outcome with a resigned shrug if the winner hadn't been Trump, the most outlandish and unsuitable candidate imaginable. This was a critical election to be decided so bizarrely. The consequences of his election are unknowable, but it doesn't look good at the moment.

(Yes, and I know that if it had been a straight fight based on the popular vote both sides would have campaigned differently, but it is very unlikely that what may turn out to be a majority of two and a half million would have been overturned).

Now to Brexit. Here the majority did win. So what's the problem? Well, in elections for parliaments and presidents you get the opportunity to change your mind. Every four or five years the country gets to re-run the general election. A referendum like Brexit gives you no second chance, which is why the majority has to be secure and represent a broad consensus. If it isn't and minds change, we could see a decision being implemented against a majority of public opinion, despite a majority in favour being the sole justification for that decision. This is the reason why most referendums on irreversible constitutional change, like Brexit, require qualified majorities, rather than a simple one. And the onus should be on those seeking to make the case for change rather than on those wanting to keep the status quo. A 52/48 majority is fragile, and there is evidence that the result may well have been different if it had been run once the full consequences and the high cost of this decision were understood.

The polling has been interesting. A survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation in August, more than a month after the referendum, found that,
56% of British citizens wanted to stay in the EU, compared with 49% when a similar survey was conducted in March.
A more recent poll found that 90% of leave voters wanted to remain in the single market, but without the free movement of labour. This was something that the leave campaign insisted was possible, despite the EU constantly repeating that it was not an option. Once staying in the single market became contingent on accepting free movement, opinion divided 50/50 again. This is not a secure basis to enforce an irreversible decision, especially with a majority of both Houses of Parliament opposed to leaving, but acceding to what they refer to as 'the will of the people'.

Of course, this shows that the very notion of 'the will of the people' is a fiction. There is no such thing as a unified will. In this case there are deep demographic and regional divisions, so we can't point to a nationwide consensus. These two interesting posts suggest that even the original narrow majority no longer exists. There may be elements of wishful thinking in both, but one thing deserves close attention. When I talk about people changing their minds, it isn't just about individuals switching sides having learnt from experience; it is about the churn in voters too. At each election the electorate is different. People move, migrants become citizens, and, obviously, people die and are replaced by new voters coming of age. Surveys suggest that people under 25 voted by a majority of 70% to 30% to remain in the EU. They have lived with membership all their lives, appreciate the freedoms it brings, and are far less concerned with immigration. They are now facing up to living with a policy, which they have overwhelmingly rejected, being imposed on them by an older generation of voters, when it is only the young of today who will experience the full consequences of that decision.

In the years it will take to negotiate Britain's departure, the slender majority for leaving may well have evaporated. We could leave the EU against the wishes of Parliament, all our major allies and trading partners, most businesses, and the EU itself, on the basis of a small popular majority that has since ceased to exist. Yes, we could enact 'the will of the people' just at the moment that 'the people' will the opposite.

The moral of this story is that politics is a serious business with far reaching consequences for people's lives. It is not a tool for advancing the ambitions and prejudices of frivolous ex-journalists and dodgy businessmen. Therefore, it is imperative that the methods of democratic decision-making are fit for purpose. When I look at Trump and Brexit, I can only think, "FAIL."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Out of proportion

As the remaining votes in the US presidential elections are being counted, it's now becoming clear that although the election was still close Hilary Clinton's 'win' was more substantial than first thought. With millions more votes to be counted, it looks like she will end up with something like a million and a half more votes than Trump, perhaps even two million. It's troubling that this should have resulted in a Trump presidency. I want to raise three points.

The first is trivial, the popular vote shows that the polls were not that far off. The result falls within their margin of error.  Most were predicting a 3-4% Clinton lead. She will end up with a lead of between 1-2%. All polls are issued with a margin of error, usually around plus or minus 3% for voting intention. Unfortunately, the headline figure is generally reported as gospel and the error margins ignored. There seems to be a common pattern in polls though, they overestimate support for the left. It's an overestimation that pollsters are trying to adjust their findings to correct, but it still seems to persist. YouGov's initial response is here.

Secondly, this highlights the problem with first-past-the-post, winner takes all, constituency systems. Elections are decided by swing voters in marginal constituencies alone. They are the only votes that count. Get those voters and you win regardless of how poorly you do elsewhere. Swing voters may be small in number, but they hold disproportionate power at election time. They, and they alone, determine the result, and so politics becomes a contest as to who is the most attractive to that small group. Trump won key states with tiny majorities and gained all their votes in the electoral college as they are not cast in proportion to the popular vote. This is what can produce a distortion.

The final point is the most challenging to mainstream parties, we now have a new category of swing voter. In the past, it was assumed that the swing voter was predominantly middle class and 'moderate'. To win their support you had to be control the 'centre ground'. That was the basis of New Labour's strategy. We are now seeing something else. There is a second group with a strong strategic position. The continuing count is showing that the turnout did not drop significantly and so is not responsible for the Democrats' defeat as I suggested in my previous post. I was wrong. Instead, it was Democrat voters switching directly to Trump that won it. Significant pockets of small-town and working-class America voted for Trump, and put him in the White House. There are now two groups of swing voters, but their demands are contradictory.

I don't think the reason for this can be wholly attributed to economics, more on that in a subsequent post, but political economy did play a role in detaching formerly loyal voters from the parties of the centre-left. Prosperity has not been evenly shared, working conditions can be crap, people work hard and still struggle. They feel that they deserve better and are not respected. And they're right. That leads to two things, cynicism about the political process and a resentment of others, who they see as either getting more from government than them and being favoured at their expense. This is not to the advantage of the left today, it is opening the door to right wing populism and therein lies considerable dangers.

The policies that were designed to appeal to middle class floating voters helped create the conditions that detached the working class ones from their automatic party loyalty. It was assumed that they would stay loyal because they had 'nowhere to go'. They did of course, they stayed at home. Turnout dropped. The left hoped that a core vote strategy could win them back. It failed. Social conservatives are also repelled by preachy liberalism. The left, of course, could not and should not abandon its commitment to rights and liberties that have been hard won. They are caught in a trap. Trump offered economic interventionism and cultural conservatism. He posed as being on their side against the government and those they saw as their rivals. That was his appeal.

This isn't new at all. It is what Eric Hobsbawm was writing about in the late 1970s in "The Forward March of Labour Halted?" His argument was not that the working class was disappearing, as embourgeoisement theorists suggested, but was becoming fragmented. And this fragmentation was graphically displayed in America with the division of the working class vote on urban, rural, and ethnic lines. A system that cannot accommodate that fragmentation is not fit for purpose. On the constitutional level we need to think seriously about the quality of our systems of representation, of proper liberal safeguards and democratic processes. Crude majoritarianism is not democracy, but then neither is an election that allows a minority to gain victory on the basis of a tiny majority in a small number of places. Politics is realigning. Current American and British electoral systems cannot cope with that realignment. The time for sophistries in support of the status quo is over. We must reform. Trump's election shows that the risks of not doing so are now too high.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


I haven't blogged for a bit. It's been a difficult time and I have been preoccupied. Ideas have been swirling round my head though not making it to the screen, but Trump - something as horrendously bizarre as Trump - how could I not add to the noise?

I don't really like instant judgement, which is why I am attempting some, and I have read a lot of commentary since the American election. Most of it is saying that 'Trump's election shows I have been right about everything all along.' You have the standard tropes about the white working class. Either they are uneducated, stupid hicks, or they are racists, or they are the left behind victims of the system, protesting about their poverty. Either the media is to blame for indoctrinating them or the liberal intelligentsia is at fault for ignoring them. Not many bothered to look at Trump's middle class support. Then there is the internet and Facebook taking a kicking. And, of course, there are tales of a right wing populist surge. Others pick on the weakness of Clinton as a candidate and sigh, 'if only …' There are elements of truth in all of them, but few are looking at the complete picture. Let's look at some facts that tend to be overlooked.

The first thing, though this is now getting a lot of attention, is that Clinton won. She won very narrowly, but none the less got more votes than Trump. She lost in the Electoral College because her votes were in the wrong place. It's crazy. Any presidential electoral system based on a simple plurality would have given her victory. She had just about held off the challenge. She may also have been hit by the loss of votes to the Greens and Libertarian Party in very close run states, though we have no idea how those votes would have been cast if there had been no other candidates. Trump lost, but still won. It's another example about how we cling to institutions created for a different era because they appear to work approximately or conveniently. As I have argued before about the design of the Brexit referendum and proportional representation, we need to reconsider the appropriateness of our democratic systems for a modern mass society.

Second, Trump had an automatic advantage. Not because he was a crazed racist bully, but because he was a celebrity. He was familiar to millions. His TV image was that of a ruthless, successful businessman. The apolitical already admired him. They had watched him hosting The Apprentice on TV for years. They knew him. Many of his supporters did not vote for the demagogue, they voted for the businessman from the telly. Those in the know about his methods thought he was a crook, but not the average punter. Clinton was a mystery to them. Bill Clinton's presidency ended sixteen years ago.

Third, despite that advantage, he only performed moderately. He polled fewer votes than either McCain or Romney when Obama roundly beat them. There was no vast populist surge. He lost votes rather than won them. But the support he did pick up was in the right places for the Electoral College. He had the good fortune that the Democrats' vote dropped further than the Republicans. Democrat voters didn't turn out. If Democrat numbers had held up, he was toast. For whatever reason, Clinton did not inspire.

Fourth, this was not wholly a working class insurgency. Though there was strong white working class support, it could not have won on its own. His support was an electoral coalition between the poor and the affluent. Neither could have won without the other. What appears to have held that alliance together was cultural conservatism rather than economics, and, just like Brexit, it was the older generation that formed the bedrock of Trump's vote. The black and Hispanic working class were firm in their support for Clinton. The ethnic divide was critical.

Finally, it didn't come out of the blue. There were authoritarian and culturally conservative movements that had prepared the ground. Conservative Christian fundamentalists and The Tea Party had led the way. Fox news and shock jocks on the radio had built an audience by preaching anti-elitism from their own elite pulpit. More importantly, the Republican Party had deliberately targeted blue-collar workers since the Reagan era. This had been years in the making - it had been a conscious effort. It was never intended to pave the way for a Trump presidency, but he was a perfect fit for the paranoid and reactionary political style that had been mainstreamed by this movement. Once the campaign was underway, his team devised a highly professional operation that completely understood the uses and abuses of communications technology. Liberals had hardly challenged this movement. They didn't take it seriously, and preferred to mock it and talk amongst themselves.

I am reading lots of angry stuff about the Democrats. 'Why didn't they choose a better candidate?' 'They should have done this rather than that?' 'Why didn't they do what I have been saying all along, even if I didn't say it then?' They rarely say just who is this mythical beast that would have inspired the masses. Some of this is relevant, but as a whole it misses the mark. The real anger should be directed at the Republican Party that adopted and adapted to a candidate absolutely unsuitable for any public office, let alone the presidency. Individual Republicans did distinguish themselves by refusing to support Trump, but the rest either persuaded themselves that he would be OK or were crazy enough to join in the hatefest. The Republicans not only let down their country, but those of us in the rest of the world who depended on the result. They allowed a candidate to go forward who was the reflection of the wildest fantasies of their most extreme membership. They were grossly irresponsible.

At this point, it is easy to cue the Hitler analogies. There are plenty around. There always are. But Trump is not Hitler. I think we should consider historical parallels, but this is one of the rare times I agree with Niall Ferguson. In a very good article he looks back to the populism of the 1880s in the wake of a previous economic crisis. 1873, not 1929, is his model.

This is not the sanest moment in American history, but not all of the USA has gone mad. What it is though is extremely dangerous. The racism, the demagoguery, the authoritarianism, and the Putin-friendly isolationism don't bode well. And if this particular evil does turn out to be banal, the huge conflicts of interests over his businesses promise a presidency devoted to self-enrichment at the expense of the people who foolishly hoped for something different. And before we get too hung up about Americans, our European crazies are on the march too. I am very anxious about the French presidential elections.

The presidency is passing into the hands of an inexpert, sociopathic narcissist. He has issued wild promises and don't kid yourself that he won't try and deliver on them. The big problem is that they will not work. Niall Ferguson again:
Indeed, populists are under a special compulsion to enact what they pledge in the campaign trail, for their followers are fickle to begin with. In the case of Trump, most have already defected from the Republican Party establishment. If he fails to deliver, they can defect from him, too. 
Of course, populists are bound eventually to disappoint their supporters. For populism is a toxic brew as well as an intoxicating one. Populists nearly always make life miserable for whichever minorities they chose to scapegoat, but they seldom make life much better for the people whose ire they whip up. 
Whatever the demagogues may promise—and they always promise “jam today”—populism tends to have significantly more economic costs than benefits. 
And what will happen in the wake of that failure? Who knows? But it certainly makes Britain's own act of isolation look even more foolhardy.