One step forward for student fees, two steps back for housing.

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This week’s Conservative Party conference began with Theresa May pledging action on student fees and housing, pitched as a generous offer to young voters — long considered her party’s achilles heel.

First was a pledge to ‘freeze’ university tuition fees at £9,250 a year, a change from the policy announced earlier in the year to allow universities to increase fees by £250 a year. Calling this a ‘freeze’ is clearly taking positive spin to the extremes, as in reality it’s hard to see this as anything other than a u-turn. In any case, it’s generally accepted that the actual annual rate of tuition fees has little impact on deterring university applications from any background, and given that the vast majority of graduates never pay back the full amount anyway, it’s a change that will only be financially beneficial to the highest earners. This is just a cosmetic change in an attempt to compete with Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to completely scrap tuition fees — a pledge that somewhat misses the point of the problem, which isn’t the existence of student loans (many people agree that students should pay something for further education and the subsequent increase in wages) but the steep repayments, and the seeming pointlessness of a system where loans are so high that almost no one can actually pay them off anyway.

But, what followed was the promise of a much more consequential (and welcome) change in policy — to increase the repayment threshold on student loans from £21,000 to £25,000. When the new system of student loans was originally brought in by the Coalition Government in 2012, one of the key parts of the policy was that the repayment threshold would rise (to account for inflation), but ultimately this was scrapped and the repayment threshold has remained at £21,000 for five years. Theresa May’s decision to increase it is a welcome one, and one which will actually have an appreciable impact.

On housing on the other hand, Theresa May pledged an extra £10bn for the Help to Buy scheme, which offers 20 percent equity loans to buyers of new builds worth up to £600,000.

This is a misguided policy decision. It is indeed true that many young people struggle to get on the housing ladder. And the PM is correct to pick it out as an issue she should look to address. But the problem is, in reality, one of a low supply of affordable housing (particularly in certain areas) and high demand.

As anyone with any knowledge of basic economics knows, if you pump money into increasing demand or purchasing power, without any attempt to address a fundamental problem of lack of supply, all you will succeed in doing is increasing prices. This change is therefore unlikely to have any real benefit for those struggling to afford a first property.

Additionally, the fact that Help to Buy is limited to new build properties causes further problems, making it more difficult for existing homeowners to sell their properties (and devaluing them in the process) and slowing the market down even further.

It is true that radical reform of housing is required and neither of the two main parties seem to have the answers. Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for rent controls, announced at last week’s Labour Party Conference, also wouldn’t help. Whilst capping rents would reduce costs for some, there would be a concurrent reduction in housing supply as it would effectively kill the buy-to-let industry.

I confess that I do not know the answer to the problems of the housing market, but new and radical ideas are clearly needed.

It seems unlikely that they will arrive in this Parliament, where the Government has decided to be cautious on account of their lack of a parliamentary majority and the herculean task of implementing Brexit.

But really, Theresa May has a very real opportunity to attempt the radical reform to help the ‘just about managing’ that she promised when the first stood on the steps of Number 10 last summer. No one else in the Conservative Party has the stomach to carry the can for Brexit; so although Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister looks insecure, in fact it is anything but. This gives her an enviable opportunity to attempt radical reform. It’s is generally expected that she will lose the next election (although given that nothing seems certain in politics these days, I wouldn’t count on it), so she’s got nothing to lose. And by attempting radical reform of housing (and public services too), May could arguably save her premiership, rather than letting it become completely defined by Brexit.

Is the Five Star Movement the blueprint for political parties going forward?

The leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, former comedian Beppe Grillo.
The leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, former comedian Beppe Grillo.

The Five Star Movement is an Italian political party which was established in October 2009 by former comedian Beppe Grillo and web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio. Despite having only been around for seven years, the Five Star Movement is now considered to be the second most popular party in Italy, behind only Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. In the 2013 General Election, the Five Star Movement managed to gain 25.5 percent of the vote, amounting to just under nine million votes in total, an astonishing result for such a young party. Following this result, party candidtae Luigi Di Maio was elected as the Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies. The following year, the Five Star Movement gained seventeen MEPs in the 2014 European Parliament Elections; whilst in June of this year, the party managed to win key mayoral races in Rome and Turin, and on Sunday they were able to defeat Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts at constitutional reform.

Like many of the rises forces in politics around the world (think Trump, Farage and UKIP, and Le Pen), the Five Star Movement prides itself on being populist and anti-establishment, a stance which is clearly proving to be successful in politics all around the world.

However, although the Five Star Movement are Eurosceptic and have advocated closer ties with Russia (bread and butter issues for populists), they haven’t been especially ideologically close to existing populists. The populist, anti-establishment politicians you hear most about are the people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders. The likes of Le Pen, Wilders, and Norbert Hofer (who was just defeated in the Austrian Presidential Election) can comfortably be described as being ideologically far-right, whilst Trump and Farage are also very right-wing. This is not the case with the Five Star Movement, with the Northern League (or Lega Nord) the only large far-right political party in Italy. Instead, the Five Star Movement hold a syncretic political position, and operate outside the traditional left-right paradigm.

For example, whilst the Five Star Movement has taken a Eurosceptic position (one of the party’s key positions is withdrawing Italy from the Euro), it has avoided the xenophobia of the Northern League, and the overt nationalism of UKIP and the National Front (although having said this, party leader Beppe Grillo has expressed his support for Nigel Farage and Donald Trump). By doing this and instead focusing its attacks on the political elite and the privileges that they enjoy, the party has been able to gain the support of voters on both the left and right of the political spectrum. In the UK, perhaps the closest that we currently have to a syncretic party is UKIP, who despite being predominantly a right-wing party, have attempted to take some more left-wing positions in a attempt to court traditional Labour voters in the North of England, with this likely to continue in earnest following the election of Paul Nuttall as the new party leader. However, overall UKIP remain a right-wing party, and so are not easily comparable to the syncretic nature of the Five Star Movement, whose key issues include public water and environmentalism, nonviolence, and Euroscepticism, whilst party leader Beppe Grillo has also supported the payment of a universal wage in Italy — positions which don’t ordinarily go together. Although, like many populist parties, the Five Star Movements policies are rather vague and it’s difficult to predict exactly what they would do were they to win power. However, ideology is not at all relevant to why the Five Star Movement could provide the model for political parties in the future. What is relevant is the way that the party is organised.

The Five Star Movement are committed to direct democracy and E-democracy, and have advocated asking party supporters to pick both policies and electoral candidates online. After demanding that snap elections be held following Matteo Renzi’s resignation as Prime Minister, party leader Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog, “From next week we will start to vote for the government programme online, followed by the government team.” The party used a similar system of online voting when selecting Virginia Raggi as their candidate for Mayor of Rome, an election which Raggi subsequently won. The Five Star Movement touts this online process as being more transparent than they ways in which the traditional parties choose their election candidates, and idea which is proving popular given the anti-establishment mood in Italy and the anger at the perceived cronyism and corruption prevalent in Italian politics. However, although the Five Star Movement claim that the process is transparent and democratic, party founder Grillo still maintains strong control over the party’s direction and the party hasn’t used a third-party monitor during any of its primary elections, leaving them open to tampering. However, given the Five Star Movement’s electoral success, this kind of party organisation has clearly worked well. Perhaps the closest we have to this in the UK is Momentum, the organisation set up to support Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party. However, given recent reports of infighting and power struggles over Momentum founder Jon Lansman’s plans to open Momentum up to direct democracy, it is up in the air as to whether Momentum will be able to replicate the Five Star Movement’s success. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s unelectability (in terms of Prime Minister at least) I would guess that Momentum will struggle to replicate the Five Star Movement’s success. Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have also suggested organising UKIP like the Five Star Movement, in part to achieve Banks’ professed goal of ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster, but there has been no sign of this happening just yet. But, what it is clear is that parties at both ends to the ideological spectrum are noting the successes of organisations such as the Five Star Movement, and are acting upon them in order to improve the effectiveness of their own political parties.

Where the Five Star Movement has been particularly successful is in campaigning, with this being demonstrated with the significant part they played in causing Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform (which was much needed in Italian politics) to be rejected. Beppe Grillo is undeniably an engaging and entertaining speaker, particularly at his rallies, and campaigning in this style was shown to be very effective by the election of Donald Trump as US President. In addition, the Five Star Movement have pioneered new methods of online campaigning, with a lot of support having been gained from Beppe Grillo’s blog, which is published daily in Italian, English, and Japanese, and has been ranked as one of the top ten most visited blogs in the world. Although despite the Five Star Movement clearly being strong when it comes to social media and internet campaigning, not all of this has been above board, with an investigation by Buzzfeed finding that sites connected to the Five Star Movement are among Europe’s leading proprietors of fake or misleading news coverage, much of which has likely helped the Five Star Movement electorally.

Now, obviously the recipe for political success around the world is not for parties to copy the Five Star Movement. But, the Five Star Movement clearly show how in today’s world a political party can be built from the ground up very quickly. The Five Star Movement was only established towards the end of 2009 and already, just seven years later, it is the second largest party in Italy. The focus on internet campaigning has clearly been very significant to this success. Even since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Leader of the Labour Party there has been talk of a Labour split, with moderates going off and forming their own party. In recent months there has even been talk of a split from pro-European members of the Conservative Party. What is said to have stopped all these people is their belief that a new party cannot be built from the ground up and be electorally successful. The Five Star Movement clearly disproves this hypothesis, by showing that if you’re campaigning on issues that enough people care about, and you have the ability to reach those people through the internet and social media, then you can be successful. British politicians who feel marginalised by their own parties would do well to remember this.

The ‘No’ vote in the Italian referendum wasn’t a populist revolt in the style of Trump.

Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy's stagnant political system.
Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy’s stagnant political system.

Yesterday Italian voters went to the polls to vote in a referendum concerning the Italian political system and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts to end the gridlock which has plagued it for many years. Despite opinion polls prior to polling day suggesting that the result would be extremely close, the ‘No’ campaign won a decisive victory, with the reforms rejected by a margin of 59% to 41%, and Renzi subsequently set to tender his resignation later today. Following the result many were quick to place it in the same bracket as the result of UK’s EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump as US President, and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. In short, as another victory for anti-establishment populists, and part of a growing trend across the world.

However, this analysis is deeply flawed, and far too simplistic. Whilst anti-establishment feeling was certainly a factor in the result, it was by no means the most important factor, and it is very difficult to equate this result with the likes of the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election.

Rather than a populist revolt, the referendum result was simply a vote against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

During the referendum campaign, Renzi (who at that point figured that he had a pretty good chance of winning) announced that were he to lose the referendum then he would resign as Prime Minister. After this statement, Italy’s opposition parties united somewhat in an attempt to unseat Renzi.

This ‘rag bag’ group (as Renzi himself termed it) included the populist left-leaning Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo, the far-right Northern League, and the centre-right Forza Italia, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In addition, some members of Renzi’s Democratic Party campaigned against the reforms, with the Democratic Party being such a ‘big tent’ party that there were many who weren’t particularly enamoured with Renzi’s leadership.

The most interesting case is that of Silvio Berlusconi. In 2006 Berlusconi himself, then serving as Prime Minister, attempted constitutional reform. Similarly to yesterday’s referendum, the 2006 referendum aimed to streamline the Italian political system by giving more power to the Prime Minister. Berlusconi’s reform was defeated at the ballot box by 61.3% — 38.7%, incidentally a larger defeat that Renzi’s was yesterday. But what this proves is that Berlusconi himself has himself been strongly in favour of reform in the past, but his reasons for campaigning against this reform rested more on a desire to remove Renzi as Prime Minister than anything else.

Realistically, although in this referendum voters have overwhelmingly backed the side supported by the populist parties the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, this is no guarantee that an actual election would go the same way. It was no surprise that following the referendum, the centre-right party, Forza Italia, said that they didn’t believe an election should be called, and that they though that the next Prime Minister should come from Renzi’s Democratic Party. The truth is that there is no way that the likes of the Five Star Movement, Northern League, and Forza Italia would be able to work together in Government, and therefore they would not have been able to combine to defeat Renzi in an actual election. However, when Renzi turned the referendum into a confidence vote on his leadership, he enabled an alliance between all opposition parties, and his fate was settled. At a time when Renzi’s popularity was hardly through the roof, in large part because of Italy’s economic woes, it was undeniably stupid for Renzi to stake his future on the referendum.

In addition, it is incorrect that the referendum was purely an expression of anti-establishment feeling. Yes, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement were one of the main opponents of the constitutional reform, and as a result anti-establishment feeling certainly played a part, however it was not as significant as many have claimed. For a start, look at how many members of the supposed ‘establishment’ supported the campaign against the proposed reforms. Silvio Berlusconi and his establishment centre-right party, Forza Italia, have already been mentioned, but there was also former Prime Minister Mario Monti as well as a fair few senior members of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. Although the establishment Five Star Movement were prominent during the campaign, it was not a campaign where it was simply establishment versus anti-establishment — as was the case during the US Presidential Campaign. The sheer number of establishment figures on the ‘No’ side suitably demonstrates this. In addition, it must be remembered that Renzi himself was never really considered a particularly establishment figure. He came to power as Prime Minister from the relatively obscure position of Mayor of Florence, and he has taken on a somewhat anti-establishment persona during his time as Prime Minister (with a vision of a government which could wipe out the corruption which had plagued Italian politics for decades), particularly during this referendum campaign. He alluded to Donald Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric during the campaign when he described the Italian political system as a ‘swamp’ where he would be unable to remain if he didn’t pass the proposed reforms. Given the dramatic change that Renzi wanted the Italian political system to undergo, it is perhaps more apt to describe him as anti-establishment than his opponents during the referendum.

No, rather than a vote against the establishment, this was a vote against Renzi himself. Although he came to power with promises of constitutional change, he also promised an end to the economic malaise that has afflicted Italy for many years. The referendum result is more to do with Italy’s continuing economic difficulties than anything else. Renzi perhaps overestimated Italy’s desire for constitutional change ahead of economic progress, and sorely paid the price. For most Italians, rather than constitutional change their priorities were seeing a return to a thriving economy and economic growth, and the end to the unpopular bailouts of big banks. Renzi’s failure to deliver in these areas made him considerably unpopular and so when he staked his future on the referendum result, the voters saw their chance.

Add to this the complex nature of the reform, very few people understood exactly what it was that was being asked, and there were even reports that start-ups were charging $150 an hour for classes explaining the referendum question. Contrary to what is often claimed, most who vote are not keen to vote in favour of something they don’t fully understand. With the complex nature of the constitutional reform, is was unsurprising that most were keener to keep the status quo, because at least then they know exactly where they stand.

Rather than a vote for anti-establishment politics, this was a vote against Renzi, pure and simple. Although Renzi has arguably done some good things, he doesn’t seem to have done enough to gain the continued confidence of the Italian people, although his statement yesterday suggests that he does not intend to retire from politics and could yet seek to return as Prime Minister in the near future. Although Renzi served as Prime Minister for under three years, he is still the fourth-longest serving PM in almost thirty years, which tells you basically all you need to know about Italy’s infamously volatile politics. Bearing this in mind, a political return for Renzi in the future is by no means out of the question, and in fact it would not be at all surprising.

David Petraeus would be the most ironic appointment to Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

President-elect Donald Trump.

Throughout the Presidential Campaign much of Donald Trump’s pitch for the job rested on his promises to “drain the swamp” and clean Washington D.C. of corruption. By this he meant (and generally said) that he wanted to reduce the impact that special interests and Wall Street had on policy making. In addition, he repeatedly looked to whip up anger around Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State, with chants of “lock her up” commonplace during his rallies, as well as at the Republican National Convention. Although Trump’s promises to clean up Washington undoubtedly gained him some of his support, those that he is now considering for appointment to his Cabinet have proved that it was simply empty rhetoric.

To start with, his transition team is a who’s who of K Street lobbyists. Given that many of these people undoubtedly know what it takes to create a government, then you could argue that it isn’t the worst thing in the world, however it flies directly in the face of what Trump campaigned on. In addition, just look at some of the names that Trump has suggested for Cabinet appointments. For Treasury Secretary, Trump is said to be considering ex-Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin, as well as investors Wilbur Ross, Carl Icahn, and Tom Barrack. There was even a suggestion that Trump had offered the role to JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon (a high profile supporter of Clinton and the Democratic Party), only for him to turn the role down, probably in large part because of his opposition to Trump. Those being considered for many of the other Cabinet roles are much the same. Trump is said to be considering venture capitalist Robert Grady, as well as oilmen Harold Hamm and Forrest Lucas for Secretary of the Interior. He is said to be considering the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, as the Secretary of Commerce; and a variety of oil executives have been suggested as Secretary of Energy. Although many of these people directly supported Trump’s campaign, are they not the exact people Trump pledged that he was going to remove from Government?

The latest irony comes with the consideration of retired general David Petraeus for the role of Secretary of State. Now, experience wise, Petraeus would arguably be a pretty good pick for the role. Petraeus was key during the invasion of Iraq, he has led the US Central Command, he has served as the Commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, and he has served as the Director of the CIA. In short, his experience is close to unrivalled. However, the scandal which led to his departure from the CIA in 2012 would surely make it difficult for him to be appointed. In 2012, Petraeus resigned from his position as Director of the CIA following the fallout from his affair with the author of his biography, Paula Broadwell. Later, in January 2015, Petraeus was charged with providing classified information to Broadwell. Ultimately, in March of the same year, Petraeus pled guilty in Federal Court to a charge of the unauthorised removal and retention of classified information, for which he was sentenced to two years probation and a fine of $100,000. Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly criticised Clinton for her handling of classified information, despite the fact that following an investigation by the FBI, James Comey chose to recommend that she not face any criminal charges, but describing her as careless. Whilst Clinton was careless yet not actually guilty of any criminality, Petraeus pleaded guilty to a charge of mishandling classified information, yet he is now being strongly considered for a place in Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

Retired general David Petraeus, under consideration for the role of Secretary of State in Donald Trump’s Cabinet

Republican Senator for Kentucky, Rand Paul, recognised the problem were Petraeus to be appointed when he said on Monday: “You know, I think the problem they’re going to have if they put him forward is there’s a lot of similarities to Hillary Clinton as far as revealing classified information.” And Paul is right, how can you spend an entire campaign criticising someone for their alleged mishandling of classified information, and then appoint someone who was actually guilty of mishandling classified information to your Cabinet? The same way that you can fill the rest of your Cabinet and your transition team with special interests only days after pledging to eliminate special interests from Washington, I suppose.

What this proves is that, as many suspected all along, Trump’s pronouncements over the course of the campaign were simply empty rhetoric designed to curry favour with a neglected part of the electorate and get him elected. I suppose that really it is no surprise that he is already going back on so many of the promises that he made during the campaign.

With a friend in the White House, will Putin soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace too?

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin

When Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States earlier this month, the media was quite rightly full of stories of how this may affect the relationship between the United States and Russia, given that Trump had made several statements over the course of the campaign which suggested that he was in favour of a very different relationship with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin than his predecessors had pursued. Trump regularly praised Putin during the campaigning describing him as more of a leader than President Obama, and praising his “very strong control” over Russia. Following the election result, many in the Kremlin were understandably very pleased as Trump had seemingly been their favoured candidate over the course of the election process. Many in the Russian Government will likely feel that the election of Trump will have given them more scope to carry out the type of expansionist policy which they have pursued in the likes of Ukraine, and which has been opposed by Nato up to now. 

President-elect Donald Trump was very pro-Russia throughout the Presidential campaign.

Whilst it seems that Russia now have a friend in the White House in Donald Trump, it seems as though they may well soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace as well following the 2017 French Presidential Election.

The current frontrunners for the French Presidency (and the two candidates expected to progress from the first round into the run-off) are Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Francois Fillon, who is expected to wrap up the Republican nomination this weekend. In the past, both have made very positive statements with regard to Russia, in much the same way which Trump did throughout the US election campaign. 

Le Pen’s longstanding pro-Russia views are well known and have been well documented, but she built on that last week by describing how the trio of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and herself as world leaders “would be good for world peace”; whilst it is also known that the National Front has accepted loans from Russian-backed banks in order to finance their election campaigns. 

Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russia views have been well documented.

However, her likely opponent in the final round of the Presidential Election Francois Fillon has also espoused very pro-Russia views in the recent past, although these have been less publicised than Le Pen’s.

Francois Fillon has also been known to be pro-Russian and has a close relationship with Putin.

Between 2007 and 2012, Fillon served as Prime Minister of France under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy (one of the candidates vanquished by Fillon and Alain Juppe in the first round of the Republican Presidential Primary last weekend). During this time he overlapped with Vladimir Putin who served as Prime Minister of Russia between 2008 and 2012, under the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Following Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency, Fillon was asked if he was at all worried about the possibility of impending close relations between the United States and Russia, he said he was not, saying: “I don’t only not worry about it, I wish for it.” Fillon has argued that all the sanctions levied against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine should be lifted, whilst he has also backed a coalition between Western countries and Russia, along with Bashar al-Assad, to defeat ISIS in Syria. On Tuesday, following Fillon’s unexpectedly strong showing in Sunday’s primary, the Kremlin described Putin as having “rather good relations” with Fillon. 

All this is worrying to many observers. With Le Pen and Fillon the overwhelming favourites to contest the final round of next year’s Presidential Election, it seems almost certain that Francois Hollande’s successor as French President will be sympathetic to Russia, and Russian expansionism. 

This adds to a growing trend across Europe of pro-Russian leaders winning power, or at least winning significant support. 

Viktor Orban, the populist Eurosceptic Prime Minister of Hungary has long favoured close ties with Russia, at least in terms of business; this led to Hungary agreeing a loan from the Kremlin believed to amount to €10.8 billion to finance the expansion of a nuclear power plant which supplies almost half of Hungary’s electricity. Previously the European Commission had sought to challenge the deal as they felt that it increased Hungary’s dependence on Russia, and would plunge Hungary into debt. 

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

Another European leader who has sought to cultivate close relations with Putin is Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who came to power as leader of the Syriza party in January 2015. Tsipras has looked to Russia for help with Greece’s economic travails and has described Russia as “Greece’s most important ally”. 

Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.

There have also been signs that this pro-Russian sentiment is being echoed by others across Europe, in particular among some of the Eurosceptic political leaders who have come to the fore over the past couple of years, and who have recently been emboldened by the political shocks of Brexit and Trump being elected President. 

But, it is the development that France may soon have a President who is sympathetic to Putin along with the signs that the United States has one in Trump which will be most worrying to many other members of the international community. Most significant is the impact these countries have upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is made up of fifteen member States but of these fifteen, five are permanent members: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Any of these permanent members have the power to block or veto a UN resolution. If the US and France were to begin offering support to Russia in the UN, then this would greatly increase Russia’s ability to act as they please in the international arena. 

Of course, although Trump espoused pro-Russian views during the election campaign, we do not know whether he will row back on this in the same way that he has on other issues, for example his pledge to appoint a Special Prosecutor for Hillary Clinton, which he has now confirmed that he won’t be taking any further. Indeed, it has been rumoured that both John Bolton and Mitt Romney are being considered for the role of Secretary of State. Both are known to be anti-Russia, and as such the Kremlin would likely be extremely unhappy if they were to be appointed. However, it does seem that Trump himself is keen for closer relations with Moscow. Similarly from what we can see that is the aim of both Le Pen and Fillon as well.

Trump could row back on his pro-Russia views by appointing Mitt Romney as Secretary of State.

Of course, it will be a while until we know anything for sure about how these recent political developments have changed international affairs in terms of Russia. But, on the face of it, it seems that the real political winner of 2016 politics so far, is Vladimir Putin and Russia. 

Can Emmanuel Macron win the French Presidency?

macron
Emmanuel Macron announces his candidacy for President of France on Wednesday. 

In French politics much of the news over the last few days has been of the centre-right party Les Republicains holding the first round of their presidential primary with former Prime Minister Francois Fillon emerging as the unexpected victor.

However, last Wednesday, a less well known politician announced his candidacy for the Presidency: Emmanuel Macron.

Until August, Macron was the Economy Minister in the Manuel Valls government under the Presidency of Francois Hollande. Macron was a member of the Socialist Party between 2006 and 2009 but since then he has been an independent, and has recently established a political movement called ‘En Marche!’ (the initials of which conveniently match his own).

It is under the banner of ‘En Marche!’ that he will run for the Presidency, although he is effectively running as an independent, given that he lacks the party machine which the candidates from the major parties will enjoy. Given the dire record of independent and third-party candidates in French Presidential Elections, one would be forgiven for thinking that Macron doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Presidency. However, although it will undoubtedly be difficult for Macron, he certainly has a fairly decent chance in the upcoming election.

emmanuel-macron-3_5023144
Macron in his previous role as Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs.

 

Currently leading in the polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, with polling overwhelmingly suggesting that she will finish top in the first round of voting scheduled to be held on 23 April 2017. However, commentators have typically predicted that Le Pen will be defeated in the second round of voting, due to be held on 7 May.

Traditionally, French voters have a strong record of coming together to defeat extremist candidates for the Presidency. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) was the candidate for the National Front and advanced to the second round along with Jacques Chirac, the candidate for the UMP (the precursor of Les Republicains). In the second round of voting, the anti-Le Pen vote came together to give Chirac 82.2 percent of the votes and with it a huge victory. Many observers expect a similar situation to arise this time, although opinion is almost unanimous that the margin of victory for the consensus candidate will be far lower than in 2002, and that given the worldwide trend toward right-wing populist political candidates that it would be extremely unwise to completely rule out the possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the Presidency. However, the high likelihood of Le Pen’s opponent in the second round winning the Presidency means that, in theory, all Macron needs to do is win enough votes in the first round to advance into the second round.

One thing that could potentially make this easier is the fact that Francois Fillon has emerged as the likely winner of the presidential nomination for the Republicans. Previously, the overwhelming favourite to win was current Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppe who is considered a centrist. Given that Macron is also marketing himself as a centrist candidate in the election, Juppe as the Republican candidate could have made it very difficult for Macron to make any headway. The polls reflect this. So far in the Presidential race, and including the polls conducted before he announced his candidacy, Macron has been polling between 12 and 25 percent. Typically, his lower numbers have come when the pollsters have listed Alain Juppe as the Republican nominee. However, in polling which has listed Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Fillon as the Republican nominee, Macron has tended to score considerably higher. Therefore, the emergence of Fillon as the likely Republican nominee could be of huge benefit to Macron. If Macron is able to hoover up some of the voters who would have backed Juppe in the first round of voting, then he would stand a pretty strong chance of getting enough support to advance to the second round. As I explained previously, this would give him a very good chance of winning the Presidency.

The other variable to consider is whether incumbent President Francois Hollande will run for a second term. It has been reported that many of the President’s confidantes have advised him against seeking a second term given that his exceedingly high unpopularity would likely render the result a foregone conclusion — Hollande’s approval rating recently dropped to an historic low of just four percent. Macron was a key advisor on the Hollande Presidential campaign in 2012, and although he has been accused by Alain Juppe, among others, of ‘stabbing Hollande in the back’, he remains somewhat associated with the Hollande Presidency. This relationship is reflected in the polling with Macron scoring higher ratings when current Prime Minister Manuel Valls is listed as the Socialist Party nominee rather than Hollande — suggesting that Macron would be able to bring Hollande backers into his camp as well as Juppe backers. This coalition of centre-left, centrist, and centre-right supporters would stand him in good stead, and it is currently looking as though Macron’s insistence that his movement ‘En Marche!’ should not outwardly subscribe to any particular political ideology is looking like a rather shrewd decision. Macron’s own experience allows him to successfully straddle these ideologies. His previous membership of the Socialist Party has won him the backing of some centre-left voters plus the endorsement of Socialist Party members such as the Mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb. In addition, his experience as a banker with Rothschild, and as Economy Minister means that he also has strong connections in various highly influential business networks, although this has led to him being dismissed by Marine Le Pen as ‘the candidate of the bankers’.

What it does mean is that he has the ability to court voters who would usually go with the establishment candidate, whilst his independence from any political party and the fact that he has never before held elected office before means that he can also attempt to gain some of the voters who are keen for an anti-establishment candidate, which his speech announcing his run for the Presidency reflected.

During his speech announcing his candidacy Macron described France as being ‘blocked by corporatism of all kinds’ and unequivocally stated, ‘I reject this system!’ Although Macron is an avowedly centrist candidate, this imagery of a political system which faces gridlock as a result of corporate interests is also one which was readily used by the Leave side during the EU Referendum, and by Donald Trump’s campaign for the Presidency, and although Macron is clearly not a populist in the mould of these campaign’s, he has certainly seen what works around the world and is attempting to use it to his advantage. Macron was also keen to stress that rather than advocating positions on the right or left, his En Marche! movement advocated ‘new ideas’, and therefore he has immediately looked to mark himself out as the ‘change’ candidate, something which has also proved extremely successful in recent elections worldwide. Indeed, exit polling following the US Presidential Election suggested that although many of Donald Trump’s actual policies didn’t find favour with the electorate, many voters backed him because they felt that he could bring about change in Washington D.C. that no other candidate, principally Hillary Clinton, could. By casting himself as the ‘change’ candidate, Macron clearly hopes to tap into the desire of voters to shake up the political system, and whilst similar to the Trump campaign for change, there are also uncanny similarities to Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997 when he was Leader of the Opposition and then became Prime Minister. It is no surprise that some have described Macron as being ‘more Blair than Blair’, with the likeness perhaps coming more from a seeming willingness to do whatever it takes to win as opposed to his centrism.

Although there is evidence that Macron is winning voters who backed Hollande in 2012, there has also been anger in the Socialist Party at his candidacy, with some senior members suggesting that all he would do would be to split the left and allow the far-right to take hold. Jean-Christophe Cambedelis, who as First Secretary of the Socialist Party is effectively the party leader, described Macron’s decision to run as “very annoying”, before lamenting that his candidacy would split the Socialist Party’s vote and make it almost impossible for a centre-left candidate to reach the run-off. However, with the Socialist Party so unpopular on the back of Francois Hollande’s stint as President, surely the likelihood of a Socialist Party candidate reaching the final two was slim at best even before Macron announced his decision to run? Indeed, it seems fair to say that Macron’s candidacy makes it more likely that we will see a centre-left candidate in the final two, given that he has the ability to draw the support of centrists and some on the centre-right. Back in August Macron was polled as being the second most popular politician in all of France, after only Alain Juppe. With Juppe unlikely to play much more of a part in this Presidential Race, out of the remaining candidates it will likely be Macron who is the most popular in the eyes of the voting public. Surely, on these grounds, he is a far better person to be carrying the standard for the centre and centre-left than someone like Hollande or Valls? The fact that Le Pen and Juppe went on the attack almost immediately after Macron’s announcement suggests that they too recognise his eminent electability.

Whilst it is undeniable that Macron’s road to the Presidency will be an extremely difficult one, it is a journey which is by no means impossible. All Macron needs to do is finish second in the first round of the voting and with it progress to the run-off vote where he would have a good chance of defeating Le Pen. Although it is hard to dispute that Francois Fillon remains the favourite for now, with more than six months still to go it would be foolish to rule Macron out just yet. Stranger things have certainly happened.

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Macron’s road to the Presidency will be a tough one, but one which is far from impossible. 

Why did Donald Trump win?

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President-elect, Donald J. Trump. 

So I was wrong, Donald Trump has won the Presidency. Going into election day I still felt sure that the trend towards populist candidates would be halted in its tracks, and that normal service would be resumed thanks to the United States somewhat archaic Electoral College system. Before polls began to close, I didn’t really see a path to the White House for Trump. I mean, to win he had to win Florida, and although that would be close high Hispanic turnout would surely allow Clinton to edge the win. Likewise, I fully expected Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to go Clinton’s way. Michigan and Pennsylvania had voted Democrat in every Presidential Election since 1992, Wisconsin in every Presidential Election since 1988. Surely Trump couldn’t take them, could he?

Alas, I was wrong. Trump didn’t just take one of these States, he took all four. Add to his column North Carolina, Ohio (by an astonishing 8.6 percent), and Iowa, and you’ve got the recipe for a comfortable victory in the Electoral College — currently projected to be 306 votes for Trump to 232 for Clinton. Having said this, it looks as though Clinton narrowly won the popular vote. But, as we know only too well (Gore 2000), it’s all about the Electoral College.

So, why did Trump win? Most of the media and political pundits effectively anointed Hillary Clinton as the next President (and the polls also suggested this outcome), and I must admit that I was only too willing to follow suit, and I am sure that I wasn’t the only one.

Prior to the election, all the talk was about how the sleeping giant of the American electorate, the Hispanic population, was going to play a huge part in deciding the winner. But in actual fact, the Hispanic impact was overstated. Yes, it was arguably the Hispanic population which got Clinton over the line in Nevada (mostly as a result of early voting) but it was always going to be Florida which mattered the most. There was somewhat of a surge in Hispanic voters (particularly in the early voting), and more Hispanics did indeed vote in this Presidential Election than in any previous Presidential Election. However, although Hispanics did vote overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, they didn’t vote for Clinton quite overwhelmingly enough. In fact, Trump actually received around 27 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. This means that he beat Bob Dole’s 1996 tally of the Hispanic vote (Dole got just 21 percent), and received a similar percentage to Mitt Romney’s 2012 share (Romney also took around 27 percent of the Hispanic vote). All this meant that despite the surge in the number of Hispanic voters, Clinton still couldn’t compete in Florida, undoubtedly the most important State in this election.

And on top of this, Trump had a surge of his own. The surge of the white working class. Similarly to those in the UK who voted to leave the European Union in June, these tended to be voters who felt disillusioned by the political elite and left behind by globalisation. Although the results of recent US elections and the ongoing demographic changes in many of the swing states suggested that the Democrats could win an election despite minimal support amongst working class whites, this view proved to be unfounded. In 2012, President Obama won so comfortably in the Midwest because of his strong showing with white working class voters. His low rating with this group was almost purely due to the result in the Southern safe Republican States.

In short, in the swing states Hillary Clinton did not outperform President Obama with Hispanics to the extent required to counteract the huge support Donald Trump was gaining with white working class voters. The biggest surges in Hispanic support for Clinton came in California and Texas, States which were never going to have any bearing on the result. Yes, she did outperform President Obama slightly in some areas of Florida, with Clinton slightly improving the Democratic margins in heavily Hispanic counties such as Miami-Dade, but she did not improve the margin enough to counteract the white working class voters which Trump was winning — many of whom had voted for Obama in 2012.

The same huge support for Trump amongst white working class voters was evident in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In counties which President Obama had won by twenty points in 2012, Trump was drawing level. In counties which President Obama had won by double figures in 2012, Trump was winning handsomely. In these swing states, the same was true as in Florida, Clinton wasn’t over-performing President Obama in the Democratic strongholds. For example, in Pennsylvania, Clinton was unable to get close to the margin needed in Philadelphia to overturn the white working class vote in over areas of the State. The same was true in Ohio, with Clinton not winning cities like Cleveland by enough to overturn her deficit elsewhere.

In short, Clinton certainly made gains among minority groups and the well educated during this election. However, these gains did not seem to occur in the swing states which needed them the most. Either this, or they were simply overwhelmed by the unexpected huge support Donald Trump had amongst the white working class — a group everyone expected him to win, but very few suggested he would win by as much as he ultimately did.

Perhaps the Clinton campaign’s real failure was to misread which were the actual swing states. Throughout the campaign, Clinton barely visited Wisconsin and Michigan, with the campaign putting out hardly any television advertising in these States. Given that they had voted Democratic in Presidential elections for so many years, they thought that they were absolutely safe. Even in nearby Minnesota, typically an even stronger Democratic State in Presidential Elections, the margin of Clinton’s victory was very, very low.

Given how wrong the polling was about these States it is, in hindsight, no surprise that the Clinton campaign didn’t foresee the problems that they were going to have in these States. The same was true in the Trump campaign, who said that their polling results were much the same as professional pollsters. Very few people saw the surge in Trump support in any of these States, apart from perhaps Ohio — although even there the polls generally only had Trump a point or two ahead, nowhere close to the 8.6 percent margin he ultimately took Ohio by.

It is difficult to now what caused such a huge polling error, but perhaps the most simple explanation was that voters were simply not willing to tell pollsters that they were backing Trump. We saw a similar phenomenon in the recent European Union referendum, where polls before the referendum gave the Remain campaign a surprisingly strong lead, seemingly because many Leave voters were telling pollsters that they planned to vote remain. We also saw a similar thing in the recent referendum in Columbia on the agreement on a peace deal between the Columbian Government and the FARC rebels. Whatever the error is, it will take far a far deeper evaluation of the polls and the methodology used, in order to ascertain what the errors were.

So it was the surge in white voters which took Donald Trump over the line, but that isn’t really an explanation for why Trump was able to win the Presidency.

Was he able to win because of Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity? I’m not sure I buy into this argument, mostly because I think that generally both candidates were disliked, and personality wise Trump probably was disliked more than Clinton. Indeed according to the results of the preliminary exit polls, 54 percent of voters viewed Hillary Clinton unfavourably, whilst 61 percent of voters viewed Donald Trump unfavourably. Therefore, to some extent, I feel that this debunks the argument that Clinton lost because of her national unpopularity — although it was arguably a contributing factor.

Delve more deeply into the exit polls, and I think they shine more light on why Trump won. The exit poll revealed that among Trump supporters, 92 percent felt that the country was on the wrong track, 88 percent were angry with the way the government was working, and 70 percent were voting for a candidate who they felt could bring about change. For Clinton supporters, they were found to generally feel as though the country was on track, and only fourteen percent were voting for a candidate who they felt could bring about change.

So, in short, voters were switching to Trump because they felt that he was the only chance to bring about change. For these voters, many of whom had voted for Obama in 2012, they were willing to vote for Trump despite their misgivings about him purely because he could bring about change, and shake up the Washington establishment. This is much the same as in the EU Referendum, where many people voted Brexit purely to give the Westminster political establishment a bit of a kicking.

Typically, when a single party is in government for an extended period of time (in this case, Obama had been President for eight years) their supporters grow disillusioned, particularly if their ‘champion’ is failing to enact the change that they voted for. This is the main reason why since 1952, there has only been one occasion where the same party has held onto the Presidency for three consecutive terms, with this of course being between 1980 and 1992 when Ronald Reagan was succeeded by George H.W. Bush.

In recent years, gridlock has characterised the workings of Washington D.C., and in his second term President Obama has been able to accomplish little without the use of executive orders. It was here that Clinton’s status as a member of the political establishment counted against her. Throughout his campaign Trump kept saying things along the lines of “she’s been in Washington for thirty years and she hasn’t solved these problems, don’t expect her to solve them now.” Whilst it isn’t true that Clinton had been in Washington D.C. for thirty years, the view that she wouldn’t be able to end the gridlock in government was clearly one shared by many. Indeed, even Clinton’s most ardent supporters would be hard-pressed to support the notion that Clinton would have been able to enact transformative change. It was this reason, that so many voters chose to go for Trump. They simply thought that he was the only chance that they had to change things with regard to healthcare, immigration, manufacturing jobs.

Whether or not he actually has the ability to do, they are not really that bothered. Having exhausted every other avenue for what these voters perceive to be positive change, they are willing to give a complete outsider a go, in the hope that he can shake up the establishment.

This trend in favour of populist and anti-establishment political candidates is one which is replicating itself around the world, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Of course we’ve got Trump, and we also had Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Primary. Before that we had the win for Leave in the EU Referendum. Even earlier we had the win for Syriza in Greece. Next year we’ll find out whether the trend continues in the French Presidential Election, where Marine Le Pen continues to look strong.

All over the world, voters are concluding that they want a change from the political establishment who they blame for the poor economic situation which many voters experience in their daily lives. For those who have been more insulated by the economic problems experienced by the developed world over the last eight years, this is perhaps quite hard to comprehend. But the truth is perhaps that voters are willing to vote for anything that they feel will bring about change, and shake up the political establishment.

Overall, Trump won because the voters felt that he was the only candidate who could bring about change. We will soon see whether he manages this task, and if so what changes he brings about.