The European elections don't work as a proxy referendum

Yesterday, a shock Yougov poll came out suggesting Farage's new Brexit Party was set to win a plurality of votes in the European elections. The results suggested a 27% vote share for the Brexit Party, 22% for Labour, 15% for the Conservatives, 10% for the Greens, 9% for the Lib Dems, 7% for UKIP, 6% for Change UK and 4% for SNP and PC. Understandably, there has been a lot of anger about the failure of the unambiguously pro-remain parties to coordinate their efforts. But even if they had done so, the European parliamentary elections were always going to be a very crude indicator of Brexit sentiment, and likely particularly be underwhelming for remain.

This is for two reasons. The first, as Simon Wren Lewis sets out in an article for the New Statesman here, a large number of remain voters are going to vote Labour, and the majority of Labour voters are going to be cast by people who would likely vote remain in a second referendum. Many remain voters also have party loyalty, dislike the three explicitly remain parties for well understood, and very understandable reasons, may have many other priorities and interests other than Brexit, and, as happened in 2017, may even vote Labour for tactical reasons as a way of voicing remain support. Given the margins of any likely referendum, the remain supporting parties would have to win over almost all Labour votes to produce the kind of symbolic victory they might be hoping for in the European elections. That just isn't going to happen. And as long as their attempts to win over some of these votes involve (quite understandably) stressing their differences with Labour over Brexit, it will be even more difficult to claim later that the Labour vote share should be read as read for support for remain, even if some of it should be.*

The second reason has little to do with coordination or interpretation of vote share. Even if it were possible to read off remain and leave support accurately by proxy through the European election results, this would still suffer from the problem that such a vote would only measure abstract attitudes to Brexit. These have shifted in remain's direction, but still dramatically underestimate how remain might fare in a referendum which involved any specific Brexit option. The most recent Yougov polls suggest remain enjoys a 22% lead against ratifying the Withdrawal Act, and a 14% lead over no deal**. Public attitudes towards Brexit in the abstract have always been closely balanced. This was true in 2016 and is true now. The real advantage to remain in a second referendum is not the modest shift in attitudes or demographics since 2016, but the change in what would actually be voted upon. The European elections, in this sense, have the same problem as the 2016 referendum: they don't involve a choice between concrete outcomes, but are instead a measure of general attitudes.

What will matter politically will of course be less straightforward, and is not down to the 'winners' and 'losers' of the European elections, but the perceived impact attitudes to Brexit have had on the vote share of the two main parties. But whatever the effects of the elections happen to be, the one thing they will not do is provide much of a gauge for remain support in a future referendum.

*This is, of course, unless the Labour leadership announces an unambiguous support for a second referendum.

** This figure, while still a very large lead, might give pause for thought over a second referendum, given the consequences of no deal.

Are there significant dangers of exaggerating the risk of fascism? (TLDR: I don't think so).

David Lammy caused a stir yesterday when comparing Farage and members of the ERG to interwar fascists. There are definitely rhetorical and ideological overlaps, though the context is clearly quite different.  What's more, any warning about the dangers and warning signs are always going to be made from a position of uncertainty. People will only ever be talking about risks and probabilities, not definite outcomes, with the aim of warning of them being to prevent them happening in the first place. From this position of uncertainty, it seems reasonable to risk being wrong, given the costs of being right, having failed to act. But are there risks of exaggerating the similarities of contemporary ethno-nationalism with interwar fascism? I think these are ultimately less significant, but they are worth discussing.

The first risk is a kind of 'boy who cried wolf' effect*. If you warn of dangers that don't exist now, people will not believe you when the wolf is really there. I don't think this applies in this context. The only way in which this idea would make sense if there were, at some stage in the future, recognisably different warning signs of fascism, which would make it correct to worry in that future context but not in the present one. We might suppose, for example, that we should only see a risk of fascist government in the event of military or paramilitary organisations that might use force to consolidate or achieve power. But in that circumstance, warning of these dangers would also mean something quite different, as there would be a different contextual backdrop in which the warning was interpreted. The boy who cries wolf would not work as a fable if the villagers were given new and different evidence of a wolf. What's more, it seems reasonable to suppose that greater awareness of the risks posed by the far right generally acts as a useful check. The rise of the far right in Western Europe has coincided with the receding of the experience of fascism from popular memory.

The second risk is that of political censorship of legitimate views. This seems like a straight forwardly bad argument to me as it presupposes a political power those who are most concerned with fascism at the moment do not possess. Social liberals like David Lammy do not have the capacity to censor Nigel Farage in any conventional sense even if they wanted to.

The third risk is that a little more subtle: that terms like fascism and the direct comparisons they elicit might obscure the differences between the interwar and the present day. This is a little more difficult to evaluate, but my gut feeling is the rhetorical force of the comparison is one worth keeping, as a kind of didactic tale, as much as a reference point for historical analysis.

* Chris Dillow also discusses the problems with this analogy here.

Why do we hate waste?

A thought has been intermittently rattling around my head. Why is it that when thinking about environmental problems, there is a peculiar moral condemnation of 'wasteful' consumption? Packaging from unused products contributes significantly to environmental degradation, plastics in particular, but no more so than those which are used. The carbon footprint of a product or activity is quite indifferent to the purpose of the consumer. But wasteful consumption tends to illicit moral condemnation in a way that high levels of consumption in general does not.

Take food waste. The BBC news website has an entire section dedicated to this category. It's certainly true that large amounts of food are bought which are never consumed. But this has no greater environmental impact than just eating more food. If in any given week I buy 20% more food than I actually eat, this would have no greater environmental impact than if I happened to eat 20% more, but I would be judged quite differently for doing so. Perhaps in this specific instance this is a good thing (avoiding body shaming etc), but the same is equally true for the consumption of other many other commodities. If I buy things I proceed to throw away, I'm judged differently and more so than if I live more lavishly and have the means to do so.

It might be argued that this kind of attitude is just a useful check on consumption, as 'wasteful' consumption can more easily and efficiently be reduced than non wasteful. But I'm not sure this is so. Consumption is typically wasteful when people put less effort into planning and are more spontaneous. But the ability to live spontaneously, have addition leisure time and reduce tedious mental effort are generally regarded as valid priorities. The point is not to say that they are more important than environmental concerns. They are plainly not. But it is not clear to me why they are less valid than many of our other priorities. If the point is that environmental concerns are dramatically underprioritised, it is not clear why the focus should not just be on general levels of consumption (or perhaps consumption of particular products) instead, as many environmental activists themselves encourage. And even if it did turn out that a particular focus on waste was practical, it is unlikely that this is why interest in it has come about.

This, I suspect, is an interesting example of how moral attitudes can impact how view the non moral aspects of questions. It is a very common psychological trait to view inconvenient things or things which require effort as virtuous, and things which involve laziness as bad. This can lead to the singling out of particular kinds of behaviour which may well have negative consequences, but are distinguished from other behaviours with similar consequences only in this mentioned respect. It can also even lead to outright fallacies, for example in the case of non-packaged cucumbers, which turn out to not just be less convenient but more environmentally harmful, due to their very short expiry date.  This explanation is not fully satisfying , as abstinence and suffering  are also often viewed as virtuous in a similar way, and when it comes to moral condemnation of consumption waste is still king. Perhaps the psychological sense of revulsion at the thought of laziness is simply greater.

Citizens of Nowhere

Paul Embery, a 'Blue Labour' activist who has gained particular prominence for his opposition to Freedom of Movement made the following statement yesterday on Twitter:

'A nation is not a home.'
I fear this encapsulates the divide in our society - between a rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle-class (in this case a bloke who used to sing folk songs on the BBC) and a rooted, communitarian, patriotic working-class.

This rightly attracted a large amount of criticism, as he used the same juxtaposition of the words 'rootless' and 'cosmopolitan' as Stalin during the antisemitic campaign of 1948-53. His claim that this was a coincidence would be a little more convincing if these terms were themselves part of the every day political vernacular. But let's say for a moment we give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if he was not aware of the antisemitic connotations of the phrase, this does not make it benign. It still appeals to the narrative of disloyal internationalists undermining the nation state. It still separates society into those who have roots, who fit into the community, and those who do not. It still seeks to otherise people who may easily be fitted into the latter group in a way that can pave the way for genuinely troubling developments. This is made particularly clear by their contrast with a ‘communitarian, patriotic working class’, itself a kind of mythologised infantilisation. If nothing else, this is exactly the kind of thought process which at some stage may lead back to antisemitism, though it is quite possible to imagine other groups of people fulfilling the same function in this kind of narrative.

This is equally true of Suella Braverman's use of the term 'cultural Marxism'. The term is very much an antisemitic code on the alt-right, and to unapologetically use the term anyway, and double down once this has been pointed out is quite shocking. But even if it were possible to separate the term from these connotations, and even if she were not using the term with these connotations in mind, it still appeals to this same troubling narrative of the third column of internationally minded intellectuals undermining the nation state. Theresa May managed precisely this, in her famous 'citizens of nowhere' speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2017, echoing David Goodhardt's distinction in The Road to Somewhere. That she did so did not make her speech benign.

The point here is not that the antisemitic connotations of these terms are not troubling. They are very much so, many who use them do so with that explicit intention, and those claim they do not do not seem sufficiently bothered by the knowledge of this once it is pointed out. But even if there was some extent to which these narratives were no longer uniquely a means of expressing antisemitism, they still appeal to a similar narrative of the enemy within and still fundamentally have the effect of otherising a section of society as somehow not of the nation. Even if the similarity of the terms used to historical ones is not conscious, that does not necessarily make that similarity coincidental: it may suggest similar thought processes behind them. I don't know which 'somewhere' this is the road to, but I for one don't want to go there.

The political case for liberal Keynesianism

A number of commentators have said that there is a gaping hole in the centre of British politics, waiting to be filled by a credible political party without the historical baggage of the Liberal Democrats. Definitional questions of centrism notwithstanding, I don't think this is quite right. The big space waiting to be filled in British politics is for a party willing to stand on a progressive, pro-european, Keynesian platform. It would highlight the horrendous social consequences of fiscal tightening on social expenditure, but also make a robust case for an expansive fiscal policy as economically credible. It would stand on an explicitly pro-european platform, but incorporate that into a story about how remaining in the EU, or at least the single market, and preserving the institutional framework for European cooreration as much as possible is part of an overall strategy for a progessive social and economic agenda. In an ideal world, this would have come from the Labour party, as this would overcome the substantial barriers to entry for new parties, particularly under First Past the Post. Owen Smith seemed to recognise this opportunity in 2016, and if Cooper had done so in 2015, we may have been living in a different world. But if needs be, the conditions are there for someone else to fill this gap. The reasons are as follows:

 1. There is considerably more space for an explicit call for a higher level of government expenditure and greater fiscal flexibility about how to finance it. The case for fiscal tightening in 2010 always had strong opposition from what is likely the majority of macro economists, but what economic case there was for fiscal tightening has largely collapsed. The most credible piece of research used by proponents of fiscal tightening was the now infamous Growth in a Time of Debt, better known by its authors, Reinhardt- Rogoff. The specifically British case for austerity was based on the supposition that capacity in the financial sector and the resulting revenue would permanently be lost due to the financial crisis. This has not materialised, and the bout of inflation in 2010-2012 used as evidence for this thesis has proven short lived and due to external factors. A party now in favour of expansionary fiscal policy would have an enourmous amount of support from policy experts as well as many in the private sector.

2. The Conservatives have burned any reputation they previously had for economic competence with Brexit and its handling. This may never have been deserved in the first place, but the point this reputation has now been lost. There is potentially a huge amount of support from businesses for a party that wants to prevent the enourmous costs of Brexit to the private sector, and they are likely willing to be a bit more forgiving of larger government expenditure than they would like, particularly if it is partly funded through deficit financing for longer term infrustructure projects which raise tax revenue over time, i.e which don't involve large tax hikes.

3. Labour under Corbyn have tried to capitalise from point 2. but their success will always be limited by the perception that they are anti-business and ultimately want to confiscate assetts. Whatever views may be held about whether people should think in this way, the fact is that they do. An alternative party or alternative leadership could propose a manifesto similar to Labour's in 2017 while dumping the rhetoric of revolutionary socialism, which is itself of questionable meaning anyway. This would avoid the divisiveness and widely held suspicion of that brand of politics, while still allowing the advocacy of a social democratic platform which after 9 years of austerity likely has wide appeal. The Liberal Democrats and any other potential pro European party (or Labour under a different leadership) would find it hard to capitalise solely on Brexit without being able to offer tangible improvements in living standards, social services and the interests of specific voters which require the willingness to spend more money. This is why the TIGgers aren’t going anywhere fast, but something else might.

4. The Labour leadership's prevaracation on Brexit, and more recently on Freedom of Movement has lead to Corbyn taking a big hit from the progressive left. Freedom of movement and the liberal internationalism it represents are of huge value to progressively minded voters, and standing up for these would present an enourmous opportunity nity for a political movement in a time where the perception of being pricinpled is an enormous assett.

5. As noted by a recent article in The Economist, the conditions are there for a large grass roots support for such a movement. While it is true that some of the more divisive aspects of Corbynism (e.g those mentioned in point 3.) are also of major appeal to some activists, there is a large body of other potential activists who would be there for the taking by a pro-european party with some realistic chance of success. The size of the People's Vote march on March 23rd (even if the numbers were a fair bit lower than 1 million) bears testament to this.

These points may well suffer from a large defect. There is a tendency in political analysis to equate what you want personally with what is politically astute, and perhaps I am falling into this trap here. It is also true that this analysis is somewhat utopian. The individuals with the capacity and possible inclination to lead such a movement, such as the members of TIG, seem more inclined towards vacuous statements of seriouness on economic affairs, and still do not properly seem to have understood why austerity is both politically and economically damaging. But if I'm only half delusional in the analysis, the opportunity seems there for the taking. 

Misunderstanding Germany

"Within minutes of a vote for Brexit the CEO’s of Mercedes, BMW, VW and Audi will be knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding that there be no barriers to German access to the British market." David Davis, 04/02/16

David Davis's now infamous claim that German car manufacturers would provide the silver bullet in Brexit negotiations for the UK has become the subject of much ridicule. But he was not alone in making it. As Chris Grey writes here, this claim was made by the leading donor to Vote Leave, by the campaigning group Out Means Out, and in my limited experience leafletting for remain the idea had real purchase with voters. And it is deeply revealing that it should have been so popular a belief amongst leading Brexit campaigners. For all the obsession with the EU, and Germany's role in the EU specifically, they have showed remarkably little interest in how Germany actually works, and in the dominant themes of recent German history, politics and society.  If they had done so, they would have immediately known how ridiculous a notion this was. 
Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer

European integration and Atlanticism have provided the overriding diplomatic framework for West Germany and later the united Germany after the second world war. This is not just a story about economics. In the aftermath of the horrors of the war, it was widely recognised by the German political class that the only way a German state would be accepted as a legitimate actor on the international scene was as part of a European alliance. It was the only legitimate vehicle for German interests and foreign policy objectives, and the only way Germans could legitimately conceive of their national identity as a subject of pride. The so called 'Stunde Null' or hour zero, on 8th of May, 1945 had to mark the start of something very different from what had occurred before. This notion was, on one level, ridiculous.  There was unsurprisingly a large element of continuity in the state and economy economy in the immediate years that followed the creation of the West German state in 1949¹, and change on a societal level was a gradual process, and the subject of generational conflict². But for the notion to have any reality at all, Germany and Germans fundamentally had to re-conceive their own national identity as part of a wider European story, in which Germans would be not just German, but European citizens. If this sounds like a facile overgeneralisation, it probably is, and I suspect it is also an overly teleological account of the story. But as crude generalisations go, I think this is roughly right. 

When the referendum result came in, there was a real disappointment to be seen in the German press, as the UK had been a large part of this vision of European integration and the Atlantic alliance. Moreover, British culture has real purchase in Germany. When we see the front page of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung comparing the Houses of Commons to a Monty Python sketch, what's interesting is not just the ridicule, but the fact that a Monty Python reference means something to a German audience. This disappointment may have been real, but would ultimately always come second to the broader goal of protecting the overall project of European cooperation and integration. To do otherwise would go against pretty much all of German foreign policy since 1949. And even in terms of raw economic cynicism, the calculation was quite different to the one many British commentators thought it was. Yes, British consumers buy a lot of German cars. But ultimately, efforts that undermined the integrity and functioning of the Single Market were believed to be vastly more significant in their economic impact on Germany. 

The only real point of evidence to the contrary Brexiteers had was the case of the Greek sovereign debt crisis³. Didn't the German government play hardball in order to protect the balance sheets of German banks? I think even here, British commentators have largely misread the situation. The response of the German (and French) government was indeed hugely damaging to Greece, and perhaps born of a misunderstanding of the effects of fiscal austerity on the Greek economy. As someone who has admired Angela Merkel for her actions on refugees, the humanitarian consequences of the terms of Greek loans have been a major source of dismay and perhaps even some cognitive dissonance on my part. But here too, in understanding motivation (if not in defending action) it is important to see that the perception of many German politicians was that a loosening of fiscal rules would undermine the integrity of the eurozone. It was also borne of the fact that to do so would have been seen as a betrayal of the then Spanish and Irish governments, who would have not have been able to defend their own policies to a domestic audience.  This may have been mistaken, and was certainly damaging, but it was not simply a case of the German government ignoring European interests for national ones. 

In the case of Brexit, we now know just how ridiculous Davis's claims were. But frankly, we should always have done so. This lack of knowledge or interest in the domestic politics of other European countries has been a major disadvantage to the British in negotiations. It is mirrored by the repeated bad faith claims made to the British press about post negotiation intentions. It is as if because they have no interest in European domestic politics and never read a German newspaper, they assume German politicians are equally ignorant and uninterested in British politics. On some level, this is perhaps the curse of English being the world's lingua franca. We do not appreciate just how much more ignorant we are of the affairs of other EU countries than many are of our own. But whatever happens with Brexit, if the UK is to go into future negotiations with some chance of a decent outcome, this has to change. Britian's political leaders need to start showing an actual interest in the subject they claim to be obsessed with. 

¹ Kiesinger, the third Chancellor of West Germany had himself been a member of the NSDAP, many firms which had done well under National Socialism continued to do so in the post war era
² The 1968 student protests in West Germany focussed, amongst other things, on former members of the NSDAP continuing to hold academic posts in universities
³ This was always an odd example, as it would hardly bode well for the UK

Transient Theories of Legitimacy and the Remain Paradox

Chris Dillow wrote an interesting piece the other day arguing that political beliefs and preferences are often transient affairs.  We tend to dramatically overstate the extent to which our own opinions are consistent over time, and the search for consistency might well turn out to be counterproductive and delusional. I would be tempted to go even further than this: a lot of the time, what we call beliefs, preferences and opinions do not even exist as things subject to change, their existence does not go beyond their contextual expression.  We do not consciously hold a belief, we are merely so disposed that certain situations will illicit a belief, perhaps momentary, perhaps of lasting effect. The set of questions we will at any point have consciously reflected upon is finite and not coextensive with the set questions that will become contextually relevant in the course of our lives. This is true of any of us. How we respond may be contextually determined. Sometimes this is perfectly appropriate. A teacher’s attitude towards a good teaching style will be a response to educational institutions as they actually exist, in the social context they exist. But they will tend to be believed as if they represented universal truths, rather than contextually specific ones.  Sometimes, on the other hand, what we see is not situational propriety but contradictions. It is, for example, a well known result in experimental economics that people will respond differently to an equivalent trade off depending on whether it is interpreted as an exercise in minimizing loss or maximizing gain, even when the outcomes are logically equivalent.  It is equally well known fact about opinion polling that contradictory results can be achieved by how a question is framed.

Theories of political legitimacy almost certainly fall into that category of things most of us do not have fully fleshed out opinions on. Only a fairly odd bunch of people have spent too much time examining or attempting to develop theoretical justifications for a political system, and it is questionable how useful a thing such an exercise really is. It is not surprising that in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, the dominant response was to accept the fundamental legitimacy of the process. Brexit was what most people voted for, and the majority wins.

It’s tempting to see this as an absolutist position, but in reality it almost certainly isn’t held as such. There are plenty of situations in which very few people would evaluate the legitimacy of a course of action in this way. They might be more inclined to see a certain course of action as immoral. Or, in the event that they are personally adversely affected by a decision taken by a majority, they might see it as a violation of rights. In other circumstances the requirement of consent might be key.

And sometimes, the dominant way of thinking about a situation changes as circumstances change. In the case of Brexit, at the point where public opinion on the topic is relatively static, the view that a majority decision must be implemented is natural enough, and it may well be expressed as an absolutist position. But if public opinion changes significantly, other questions seem more natural. We might instead ask if previous decisions should be binding and whether democracy must allow for changes in mind. The point is not that it is impossible to try and reconcile these two views, or base a constitutional order on whatever synthesis emerges. The point is that most people simply do not ever do so. That is not a slight on them. My own experience of political philosophy has led me to the conclusion that it is largely a waste of time, but that may well be another kind of self delusion – I was never personally particularly good at it.

For remain campaigners this last point is quite significant. Since the 2016 referendum, actually convincing people that remaining is in fact a good idea has been a second order question. Before that could be effective, they have had to try and convince people that this is now a legitimate question to ask, given that the referendum happened. The problem is, the question only becomes one which is likely to be seen as legitimate after a change in public opinion. From the perspective of remainers, this is a kind of bad equilibrium. Public opinion can’t shift until the question is taken as a legitimate one, and the question won’t be seen as legitimate until there has been a shift in public opinion. Like many bad equilibria, random exogenous changes can sometimes, eventually, kick things in the right direction anyway. Eventually the storm might pass, and the ocean will be flat again. Public opinion does indeed seem to have started to shift, and new transient notions of legitimacy are springing up. This might well have happened too late in the day, though.