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.

Never mind a UKIP surge, a UKIP collapse would be just as dangerous to the Labour Party.

New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall celebrates his victory with outgoing leader Nigel Farage on Monday.
New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall celebrates his victory with outgoing leader Nigel Farage on Monday.

Since the election of Paul Nuttall as the new leader of UKIP, a lot has been written about how he is set to bring about a UKIP surge in the North of England. This viewpoint is based on pretty sound principles: on average, Labour voters is the North of England voted in favour of leaving the EU by a margin of around two-to-one, with this even higher in some areas. Therefore, given Labour’s lack of clarity on where they stand in terms of continuing EU membership and their simple lack of voice in the whole debate, it stands to reason that many of their voters could be up for grabs at the next general election. Step forward Paul Nuttall. Many believe that his working-class Liverpudlian roots could propel UKIP to a string of seats in the North. As you’d expect, Nuttall holds the same hardline views on immigration, crime, and the European Union that were held by his predecessor as Leader of UKIP (not counting Diane James), Nigel Farage. But, what he lacks is Farage’s privileged background, with Farage having been educated at Dulwich College and then worked as a commodities broker in the City of London. The argument goes that Nuttall can gain the support of Labour voters who voted to leave the EU, but were never going to back Nigel Farage when it came to a general election.

Veteren Labour MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field, alluded to this in a column for The Times on Wednesday:

“UKIP was an accidental threat to Labour. It stumbled on disgruntled Labour voters and yet it picked up nearly a million by the 2015 election. Now that UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, is focused on wooing them, Labour faces an unprecedented threat.”

Nuttall himself alluded to this in his acceptance speech after winning the leadership on Monday,

“My ambition is not insignificant: I want to replace the Labour party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people.”

However, it remains to be seen quite how he plans to do this. For a start, UKIP remains in disarray. After pitching himself as the ‘unity’ candidate in the leadership election, Nuttall did what he needed to do and gave jobs to those who previously opposed his candidacy in an attempt to unify the party, the likes of Peter Whittle and Suzanne Evans were given top jobs. However, this is all well and good, but if he had any hope of targeting Labour in the North then the main thing that he would need to address would be his party’s future funding. The party’s main benefactor has in the past been businessman Arron Banks, but he backed Raheem Kassam in the leadership election and he remains very close to Nigel Farage. In addition, in recent weeks he has been talking about his own political project aimed at ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster, although it is not clear as to whether this is going to directly involve UKIP or not. What is clear, it that financing from Banks is by no means a sure thing, and with financing not forthcoming from anywhere else (remember that UKIP fell behind even the BNP in last month’s donations rankings) the party’s ability to function effectively in the future is surely in doubt somewhat.

But, perhaps more relevant, is whether there are actually many Labour seats in the North of England that UKIP have any real hope of claiming. Recent research from academic Matthew Goodwin classed twenty Labour seats as being vulnerable to UKIP under the leadership of Paul Nuttall, including seats held by high-profile MPs Alan Johnson, Tristram Hunt, Jon Cruddas, Gloria De Piero, Caroline Flint, and Rosie Winterton. In most of these seats UKIP are already in second place, or a strong third place, and all voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU. However, most still have pretty strong majorities. For example, in the 2015 General Election, Alan Johnson won his seat by 29.3 percent, Caroline Flint won by 21 percent, and Tristram Hunt by 16.6 percent. Yes, it is true that in this week’s Richmond Park by-election, the Liberal Democrats were able to overturn Zach Goldsmith’s majority of 23 percent. Therefore it would be, in theory, possible for UKIP to overturn majorities of these size. However, the key difference is that in Richmond Park it was effectively a head-to-head between Goldsmith and the Lib Dems: the Conservatives didn’t field a candidate and nor did UKIP or the Green Party; whilst although Labour fielded a candidate, they didn’t campaign particularly hard, and it has been reported that many local Labour activists actually campaigned for the Lib Dems in order to force Goldsmith out. For UKIP to perform in a similar way in these seats would require some sort of deal with the Conservatives to stop the anti-Labour vote being split, I see this as being extremely unlikely, and as such UKIP overturning majorities as large as these. Where they could make inroads is in seats such as Heywood and Middleton where Labour MP Liz McInnes has a majority of 10.9 percent, whilst in the 2014 by-election for the seat, McInnes was only able to defeat UKIP candidate John Bickley by 2.2 percent. With a Leave vote of 62 percent, Heywood and Middleton would certainly be a realistic target for UKIP. The same could be said of seats like Dagenham and Rainham where Labour have a majority of around 11 percent, but UKIP received almost 30 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election, despite not putting much in the way of resources into the constituency. However, on the whole, it is hard to see a surge that would allow UKIP to usurp Labour as the party of the North. It is easy to see UKIP taking a few Labour seats, maybe as many as six to eight — although this would require a seriously strong performance, and quite a lot of money — but to suggest that UKIP could directly destroy Labour in the North seems fanciful.

However, the same could not be said of a UKIP collapse. There are approximately sixty Labour seats where the Labour majority over the Conservatives is less than the UKIP vote. Were UKIP to collapse and haemorrhage support, then it’s difficult to see UKIP voters migrating to Labour, a party which still doesn’t seem to have much of an idea as to where it stands on Brexit. Instead, these voters are more likely to vote for the Conservatives, who have committed themselves to ensuring the Britain leaves the EU. It is difficult to know exactly which party UKIP voters backed before they voted for UKIP, but although UKIP have recently been suggested as a real danger to Labour, historical evidence suggests that in the past they have been far more successful at winning Conservative voters than they have Labour voters. The British Election Study has found that of voters who voted Conservative in the 2010 General Election, approximately twelve percent switched to UKIP in the 2015 General Election, and this was despite David Cameron having promised a referendum on EU Membership if he won. For Labour the figure was estimated at five percent. Surely it will take more than Paul Nuttall’s Scouse accent to reverse this trend?

Nuttall could definitely attract some Labour voters in the North, who backed Brexit and are disillusioned with their party’s stance. However, could they win enough to take a number of seats? Almost certainly not. What is more likely is that at the next general election we see the Conservatives make gains in Northern England that would have been considered impossible ten years ago. This could be from UKIP eating into the Labour vote and allowing the Conservatives to come through or, from UKIP collapsing and their vote going to the Conservatives. With UKIP’s financial problems well documented, I would argue that the second possibility is a little more likely but, who knows? Despite the EU Referendum having taken place, there is still scope for UKIP to continue to fight on the issue of the EU.

If UKIP can secure funding then they could take Labour seats at the next general election. If they can’t secure funding, then their collapse could allow the Conservatives to take a significant number of Labour seats in the North of England. Either way, Labour MPs should be worried.

The Lib Dems win in Richmond Park won’t stop Brexit, but it is significant for other reasons.

Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night's by-election in Richmond Park.
Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night’s by-election in Richmond Park.

The result of yesterday’s by-election in Richmond Park is an interesting one in that although it may foreshadow a somewhat remarkable political comeback for the Liberal Democrats, it is extremely unlikely to actually change anything.

When Zach Goldsmith forced this by-election following his resignation from Parliament over the Government’s approval of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, he did so to honour a promise he had made to his prospective constituents prior to being elected in the 2010 and 2015 General Elections. He hoped that he would be comfortably re-elected to served as a quasi-independent champion for those against the expansion of Heathrow. But, with all the major candidates running in this by-election being against Heathrow expansion the Liberal Democrats were able to turn the by-election into a referendum on Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, with candidate Sarah Olney pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 and to “resist Brexit in its current form”. In Richmond Park, whose residents voted more than two-to-one in favour of remaining in the European Union, this strategy seems to have worked. The Liberal Democrats were able to overturn Goldsmith’s majority of 23,000 with a swing of 30.4 percent, to ultimately win by almost 2,000 votes which, in a seat which Goldsmith was widely expected to retain, is quite some margin. The Lib Dems pro-EU stance clearly helped them win, but as Editor of The Spectator (and Richmond Park constitutent) Fraser Nelson recognises, it was also “it was a victory for good, old-fashioned campaigning. And the fact that it was, in effect, a two horse race. A referendum on Zac, and his decision to call a by-election.” The two-horse race point is particularly significant with the results suggesting that many who would ordinarily back Labour, switched to the Lib Dems to block Goldsmith. Labour candidate Christian Wolmar received 1,515 votes, which is less than the number of Labour members who live in Richmond Park, whilst there was also reports that many Labour activists were campaigning on behalf of the Lib Dems in the days before the vote. What this comes back to though is Goldsmith’s Brexit stance which, in a constituency as pro-Remain as Richmond Park, was never going to go down well.

But, although the Lib Dems victory was impressive, and there pro-EU message clearly had a significant effect, it is not really going to change the direction of travel. In short, despite what the Lib Dems have promised in campaigning for this by-election, Brexit will still go ahead. The Lib Dems now have nine MPs who will vote against Article 50. The SNP have indicated that all their 55 MPs will vote against Article 50, whilst five Labour MPs (David Lammy, Catherine West, Daniel Zeichner, Geraint Davies, and Owen Smith) have said that they will vote against the triggering of Article 50, as has Conservative MP Ken Clarke. This would make seventy MPs voting against Article 50, not nearly enough to ‘overturn’ the referendum by voting down Article 50. So to suggest that last night’s Lib Dem victory in Richmond Park will change the course of Brexit is pretty absurd.

Where it might have an effect however, is in highlighting the views of those 48 percent of voters who didn’t back Brexit, which may in turn lead to the Government pursuing more of a ‘soft Brexit’, i.e. leaving the European Union but looking to remain a part of the Single Market. This is something that many in the Government would likely support, and David Davis and Boris Johnson have both indicated that they may support something like this. Davis indicated yesterday that the Government would strongly consider a deal which involved paying into the EU budget in return for Single Market membership, whilst Boris Johnson is reported to have sad that he’s in favour of the continuing free movement of people between the EU and the UK.

However, overall this by-election is set to have a relatively small (if any) impact upon the direction of policy. Where it may have an impact is in the re-alignment of the political parties on the back of a Liberal Democrat resurgence. As Leader, Tim Farron has looked to establish the Lib Dems as a so-called ‘party of the 48 percent’, and the results in the by-elections in Richmond Park, and last month in Witney, suggest that he is being successful in doing so. Farron described last night’s result as, “ a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives.” It seems a bit strong to suggest that it will terrify the Conservatives, but it could certainly give the Conservatives some difficulty at the next General Election. Remember that it was typically Conservative surges in Liberal Democrat seats which secured them their majority at the 2015 General Election, and many of these seats like Bath, Cheltenham, Kingston and Surbiton, and Twickenham voted Remain in the EU Referendum. It would be unsurprising to see swings towards the Lib Dems in these constituencies similar to what we’ve seen in Witney and Richmond Park. In addition there are the likes of Wokingham and Chipping Barnet which both voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU but are occupied by Conservative MPs who backed Brexit, John Redwood and Theresa Villiers respectively. It would be unsurprising for the Lib Dems to also challenge in these seats.

But, arguably it is not the Conservatives who are giving the Lib Dems a way back. Given that the Conservatives have a huge lead in the polls (with a recent poll putting them on 44 percent — a lead of sixteen over Labour) losing a few seats to the Lib Dems isn’t really going be a blow to their chances of forming a majority government at the next general election. It is Labour who should really be fearing the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s terrible showing in Richmond Park highlighted their weaknesses, and this could allow the Liberal Democrats to squeeze them nationwide. Labour are going to forced to take a decision on whether or not they back Brexit very soon. Given the number of Labour constituencies which backed Brexit, the Labour Party are going to be forced to back Brexit or face seeing a UKIP surge under Paul Nuttall do the same to them in Northern England and Wales, as the SNP did to them in Scotland. But, this stance could have a negative effect in the urban areas which voted Labour in 2015 but also voted to remain the EU. It remains to be seen, but it does not look as if these voters have particularly warmed to Jeremy Corbyn, and so their vote is arguably up for grabs. What the Richmond Park result (and Labour’s terrible showing) highlights is the Labour Party’s complete lack of a voice on Europe.

The vote in Richmond Park was effectively a futile protest vote against the UK leaving the EU, and as a result it won’t exactly have the Conservatives running for cover. However, the same cannot be said of Labour. What the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats proves is that they have opponents everywhere. In Scotland, the SNP took almost all of their seats in 2015, and Labour show no signs of winning them back, having fallen to third in the polls behind the Scottish Conservatives who have surged on the back of Ruth Davidson’s strong leadership. In England, the Conservatives dominate Labour in all of the swing seats which are essential to forming a majority government — in the South and West of England, Labour are polling lower than ever. In the North of England, this week’s election of Paul Nuttall as the new leader of UKIP could put the squeeze on Labour at the next general election in areas which voted heavily for Brexit. Whilst the Lib Dems resurgence proves that Labour can’t be complacent in urban areas either.

Whilst the Liberal Democrats will be celebrating their win in Richmond Park and what they may see as a nationwide resurgence, Labour will be worried, as they are now truly teetering on a cliff edge.

Will Richmond Park ‘Sack Zac’?

Zac Goldsmith.

On 25 October the Government announced that they would be supporting a third runway for Heathrow Airport. Following this announcement, Zac Goldsmith the MP for Richmond Park announced his resignation, triggering a by-election which will come to an conclusion on Thursday. Goldsmith was honouring a promise made during his first election campaign (when he defeated Liberal Democrat incumbent Susan Kramer in 2010) that he would resign his House of Commons seat were the Conservative Government to ever support a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. Originally it seemed unlikely that Goldsmith would have to act upon this promise given that then Conservative leader David Cameron had said in 2009 that his future Government would not be supporting a third runway. However, when Cameron left his post in July the issue was back on the table, and Theresa May’s government approved the proposal for a new runway and terminal in October. 

Goldsmith is standing again but this time as an Independent, and hoped to make the by-election solely about his opposition to the expansion of Heathrow — a stance supported by most of the constituency’s residents. His expectation was that he would be able to make a point about the expansion, and then get easily elected to Parliament once again without compromising his principles. Goldsmith has said that he would remain an independent for a “full term in Parliament”, but beyond that he has not ruled out rejoining the Conservatives. 

However, in actual fact, the by-election has not been quite so simple for Goldsmith. Once the candidates were announced, it became apparent that all of the main candidates were against the expansion of Heathrow. In addition to Goldsmith himself, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney is against expansion, as is the candidate for the Labour Party, Christian Wolmar. In addition, the Conservative Party ultimately declined to field a candidate against Goldsmith which has made his stance of standing against Government policy lose quite a lot of steam. With Goldsmith’s main rivals all agreeing with him on the issue of Heathrow, commentators (and voters) naturally looked for the issues which divided the candidates, with the most prominent of these being Brexit. 

Goldsmith has long been an outspoken supporter of leaving the European Union, following on from the father James Goldsmith who founded and financed the Referendum Party in 1994. His opponents on the other hand were staunchly in favour of a Remain vote in June’s EU Referendum. As well as his opponents, his constitutents were also strongly in favour of remaining the the EU. London as a whole voted by 60–40 to remain in the EU, in Richmond Park the vote for remain was 69.3%. There is evidence that many of the voters in Richmond Park were concerned and angry about the Brexit stance of their otherwise popular local MP, and recent polling has reflected this. In late October, BMG research released polling where 25 percent of respondents identified Brexit as the most important issue in the upcoming by-election, compared t0 just 21 percent who identified Heathrow expansion as the most important issue. This suggests that Goldsmith has been outflanked somewhat, and the by-election has turned into a referendum on his stance on Brexit, as opposed to a ratification of his views on Heathrow. 

As the holders of the Richmond Park parliamentary seat until 2010, it is reasonable to suggest the Liberal Democrat to be the closest challengers for this seat. Although, the Lib Dems were reduced to just eight House of Commons seat at the 2015 General Election, there have been recent signs of a resurgence in support with the Lib Dems attempting to court the votes of those who voted to remain in the EU by promising a second referendum, and pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament. Nationwide I am not convinced that this is a good strategy for winning House of Commons seats, however in an area with such a high vote for Remain like Richmond Park there is a fairly decent chance that it will help the Lib Dems gain support. Similarly, in the by-election earlier this year for David Cameron’s old seat in Witney (another constituency which voted heavily in favour of remain) the Lib Dems experienced a surge in support (into second place), in part because the Conservative Party fielded a candidate who had campaigned in favour of a Leave vote. The Lib Dems are hoping that a similar strategy will help them here. 

In their attempts to pigeonhole Goldsmith as a supporter of a ‘hard Brexit’ and defeat him this way, the Lib Dems have been inadvertently helped by UKIP. On 27 October, UKIP announced that they wouldn’t be fielding candidate in the by-election and instead chose to endorse Goldsmith — praising him for the stance on Brexit, among other things. As well reminding voters of Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, this perhaps also served to remind them of the divisive campaign that he waged against Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral Election in May. The Lib Dems have used this endorsement to their advantage by printing imitation newspapers with Nigel Farage on the front page, and suggesting that he has personally endorsed Goldsmith. In an area where Farage is clearly not going to be the most popular guy around, this kind of thing will almost certainly have an affect. Clearly Goldsmith has recognised that his stance on Brexit is having an adverse affect on his campaign as he used a recent interview with The Independent to register his opposition to Theresa May challenging the Article 50 vote decision in the Supreme Court, and to make it clear that he supported a House of Commons vote on the triggering of Article 50. 

Early signs suggest that making the campaign about Brexit has had an extremely negative affect on Goldsmith’s attempts to retain his seat, although having said this it seems that with just under a week to go he still has just enough support to be confident of retaining the seat on Thursday. Polling leaked from the Liberal Democrat campaign suggests 46.7 percent, less than the 58.2 percent he won in the 2015 General Election. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat support has jumped to 43.3 percent, well up from the 19.3 percent they won in 2015 and within touching distance of Goldsmith. 

Ironically, were Goldsmith to win and retain his seat, it is the Conservative Party’s decision not to stand a candidate that will have saved him. Although this decision was perhaps understandable given the expectation that Goldsmith would rejoin the Conservatives at some point, as well as the high likelihood that a Conservative candidate would have split the vote, it still means that Goldsmith’s decision to call a by-election in order to stand against his own party was basically pointless. Equally, however, you could argue that the decision of the Labour Party to stand a candidate will have cost the Liberal Democrats the seat. Leading Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, and Jonathan Reynolds had urged Labour to refrain from fielding a candidate in order to have the best chance of unseating Goldsmith, however the party disagreed and fielded Wolmar, a candidate with no chance of winning but who will likely cost the Lib Dems a fair few votes. 

What seems clear is that this by-election is set to go down to the wire. More so than the Witney by-election earlier in the year, the result in this vote will be of real significance to the ongoing debate over Brexit. Were Goldsmith to retain his seat, Theresa May could use the result as tacit consent amongst those who voted remain for the pursuit of a ‘hard Brexit”, but were Olney to defeat him, then this would serve to increase the growing divides that have been evident within the electorate since the referendum. 

Whoever wins, it is going to be close.

Arron Banks attempts to become the UK’s Donald Trump.

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Arron Banks (left) with Nigel Farage. 

At the weekend Nigel Farage and his group of hangers-on travelled to New York to visit President-elect Donald Trump. Among the group was millionaire UKIP and Leave.EU donor Arron Banks. Clearly the visit had some effect upon him because he has since announced his plans to launch a new political party solely dedicated to ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster.

Banks has suggested that he will be funding a new movement which will look to stand candidates against 200 MPs deemed to be the “worst, most corrupt MPs”. His aim is to harness the ‘anti-establishment sentiment’ which he believes is sweeping through world politics, and which has led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

The idea is modelled somewhat upon the candidacy of Martin Bell, a BBC journalist who stood against disgraced Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in the 1997 General Election, ultimately winning his seat of Tatton. Incidentally Hamilton is now, like Banks, a member of UKIP.

Banks has suggested that the targets will be chosen by some form of direct democracy, however he does seem to have some ideas about who he would like to get rid of. He has said that he would rate MPs by undesirability with “Keith Vaz at number one”, whilst a picture released on the Leave.EU twitter page also suggests prominent Remain campaigners Nick Clegg, Anna Soubry, and David Lammy as targets. One would assume that UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, for whom Banks doesn’t conceal his contempt, would also be a target for the new party.

Banks’ new party won’t take party positions in the traditional sense, however he has suggested some causes that they would likely support, including: “forcing through a change of the rules so that MPs can only hold office for two terms, abolition of the House of Lords and pushing for an elected senate, and insisting on a lower age limit of 40 for MPs to stop career politicians.”

Now I get that Banks wants to harness some of the hateful rhetoric that came from the Trump campaign for the Presidency, and bring it into UK politics. However, I have some questions about how he thinks he can achieve this.

Firstly, Banks’ attempt to unseat MPs is modelled somewhat on the one-term independent candidacy of Martin Bell, and its success in unseating Neil Hamilton in 1997. Whilst Bell was successful in unseating Hamilton and won the seat with a majority of 11,077, this was in part because of a plan masterminded by Alastair Campbell where he arranged for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their candidates for Tatton so as not to split the anti-Hamilton vote. Banks wouldn’t have this advantage. In most seats he’d face the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green Party, and UKIP; whilst in some he may also face the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru — therefore splitting the vote even further. Therefore, the likelihood of one of his candidates being successful in gaining election is very, very low.

Secondly, Banks suggests he wants to field, “a great candidate, a military guy, doctor, someone who has done something with their life.” However, the chances of him finding 200 candidates that fit this description, and who are also willing to stand on a platform created by someone like Banks (who was a key part of the racist Leave.EU campaign), seem very slim to me. What’s more, Bank’s suggests an upper age limit of forty for MPs. Therefore, quite how he expects to find 200 candidates with amazing life experience, who are also under forty, and are also willing to stand on a platform created by him, is beyond me. Overall, the likelihood of him finding the personnel to complete this ridiculous pet project seems to be very slim indeed.

Thirdly, this project by Banks is an attempt to ride the populist wave from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. However, Theresa May still insists that the next general election won’t be until 2020, by which time Brexit will be four years in the past and Donald Trump will be struggling to be re-elected. Populism in politics seems to be something which moves extremely quickly, and who knows what its status will be in four years time. My guess is that voters will have long grown tired of the non-solutions offered by populist politicians.

Finally, some of the suggestions which Banks has put forward as issues which his new party might support just don’t seem workable to me. In the previous paragraph I mentioned the proposal of an upper age limit of forty for MPs, but there is also the insistence that each MP should be limited to just two terms in the House of Commons. Although this might sound good when he says it too himself, it just wouldn’t work. With Parliamentary terms being a maximum of five years long, we would never have a Prime Minister with more than ten years experience as an MP — this would not be good for governance in this country. Our last Prime Minister, David Cameron, took office as PM after serving as an MP for nine years. Most of his predecessors had served for much longer: Gordon Brown for twenty-four years, Tony Blair for fourteen years, John Major for twenty-one years, and Margaret Thatcher for twenty years; and the list goes on. I am confident that none of these people could have done the job of Prime Minister after less than two terms as an MP, and I don’t think that the British public would have let them do the job of Prime Minister without this experience. What’s more, I think that it is extremely unlikely that someone could come in with no experience of the workings of Parliament and simply become Prime Minister. For all the talk of Donald Trump’s lack of political experience being a virtue, there have been reports that President Obama is having to spend extra sessions with Trump before the inauguration because his knowledge of government is so lacking. Realistically, to ask someone with no knowledge to do the job of Prime Minister straightaway seems a non-starter to me.

Ultimately, this is pretty typical from Banks, a ridiculous idea attempting to get some publicity and massage his ego — all whilst bringing the likes of Nigel Farage and himself further into the limelight than anyone wants them to be. In an entertaining article from earlier today, Iain Martin describes Banks’ new party as, “The Stupid Party”. That seems like a pretty good name to me.

The resurgence of the Lib Dems should have the Conservatives worried.

tim-farron-getty
Tim Farron’s party surged into second place in the Witney by-election. 

Yesterday, the residents of Witney cast their votes in a by-election to decide who would succeed former Prime Minister David Cameron as the constituency’s Member of Parliament. As a safe Conservative seat, Witney was rated the tenth safest Conservative seat following the 2015 General Election, the result of this by-election was never really in doubt. However, what everyone was watching for was how Theresa May’s new Conservative Party would do in David Cameron’s old constituency; and in the first electoral test following the EU Referendum, how would the opposition parties fare.

As expected, the Conservative Party retained the seat, with Councillor Robert Courts winning 17,313 votes for a majority of 5,702. However, although this seems like a comfortable win, when compared to the result in this constituency in the 2015 General Election, it is anything but.

In the 2015 General Election, David Cameron won a huge 35,201 votes, which led to a very safe majority of 25,155. Admittedly given that this was only a by-election, and that the country at large is suffering from electoral fatigue, the turnout was quite low (just 46.8% compared to 73.3% in 2015). However, it is the percentage of the vote which is significant. In 2015, David Cameron won 60.2% of the votes in Witney. Yesterday, Robert Courts won just 45%, a huge fall from 2015.

The main cause of this has been attributed to a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats who won just 6.8% of the vote in 2015, but managed to increase this to 30.2% yesterday. This resurgence tallies with the Liberal Democrats’ surge in party membership following the EU Referendum, where they were the only party to come out in favour of a second referendum. Party figures suggested that in the days after the referendum, the Liberal Democrats gained 15,000 new members, and their membership has continued to grow since. This is perhaps due to a combination of reasons, but chief among these is the Lib Dems pro-European stance, as well as the centrists who supported the Conservatives in 2015, flocking to a different party due to dissatisfaction with the more right-wing new Government.

Given that Witney is a constituency which voted 53.7% in favour of remaining in the European Union, and the Conservative candidate Robert Courts supported Vote Leave, the Liberal Democrats made a big thing about their pro-European stance in this referendum, and it appeared to pay dividends as they surged past Labour into second place.

This huge swing of 19.3% to the Lib Dems could statistically wipe out the current Conservative majority in the House of Commons were to it be replicated across the country. Statistically speaking there are twenty-six seats where the Conservative advantage over the Liberal Democrats is less than this, and where they could therefore prosper in a general election. Of course, we must consider the fact that the Liberal Democrats absolutely threw the kitchen sink at this by-election in a way that would be impossible in a full on general election. Party Leader Tim Farron made five visits to Witney over the course of the by-election campaign. In a full general election campaign there is no chance that he would have the time to do this, and in addition the Liberal Democrats would not be able to commit as many party staff to a single constituency.

However, the result of this by-election is telling in several ways. Given how the Conservative have underperformed relative to their polling numbers, it shows that the Government isn’t nearly as popular as polling has suggested, and that the Government’s current haphazard handling of Brexit has lost them some support. In addition, it further shows the malaise affecting the Labour Party, which has the potential to lose them their place as the main parliamentary opposition. Labour suffered a significant reduction in their share of the vote, falling back into third place. It is realistic to suggest that many centrist or left of centre voters who may typically have voted Labour in this by-election, were put off my the way Jeremy Corbyn has dragged the party to the left, and so instead cast their vote in favour of the Lib Dems.

Overall, this result suggests the Theresa May is not as close to the political centre as she seems to think. Whether voters are put off my the government’s handling of Brexit, or whether it is policies like the expansion of grammar schools which is causing the problem, we don’t know. But what is certain is that Theresa May has to do a lot more to appeal to the centre if she wants to be Prime Minister in the long term. This is something David Cameron did particularly well, moving the Conservatives away from the divisive policies which resonated with their base, and instead moving them toward the political centre. By bringing back policies like grammar schools, Theresa May has done the opposite, and this could cost her dearly in the polls.

Senior Conservatives have suggested that the result is not so bad, because it was pretty much the same as what David Cameron was getting in his early days as an MP. This is true, David Cameron did also receive 45% of the vote in Witney in the 2001 General Election. However, they should consider the overall result of this election, which resulted in a huge Labour majority. Given that the share of the vote in safe seats often indicates the level of nationwide support for a party, the Conservatives should be very worried about this result. If they are only getting the same share of the vote that they got at a general election in which they suffered a devastating defeat, then what will the result be nationwide when a general election is next held?

Conservatives can perhaps take comfort from the unelectability and unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but they should by no means think that this guarantees them an increased majority at the next general election. With a current working majority of just sixteen, the government can’t afford to lose many seats, and so they should not be ignoring the significance of this result. The Liberal Democrats definitely have the potential to cause them serious harm in a general election.

In this by-election, the Liberal Democrats made a great play out of the fact that Witney voted Remain, yet the Conservative candidate had supported Leave. There are many other constituencies where the same is true, and the Lib Dems can use this to gain an advantage at a general election. Perhaps a better test than Witney of whether this surge will be replicated is the by-election which is probably forthcoming in Richmond Park, where Leave backing MP Zac Goldsmith is expected to resign and stand as an independent due to opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport. This is a seat which the Liberal Democrats held from the seat’s inception in 1997 until 2010, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could win it back in a by-election.

In any case, yesterday’s by election should give Theresa May food for thought. Although she has been keen to say that she doesn’t want to hold an early election, it is looking increasingly like she is going to have to. If this week’s House of Commons vote for chairof the Brexit Select Committee is any indication, MPs may not vote in favour of the government’s EU repeal bill. In this select committee vote, MPs overwhelmingly voted for Remain backing Hilary Benn to chair to committee as opposed to Leave supporter Kate Hoey. Were the government to lose this vote, it would effectively be a tacit vote of no-confidence in the government. This would allow Theresa May to call and early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is only then that we will see just how much the political landscape has been altered as a result of the EU Referendum. One thing’s for sure, as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Witney, Liz Leffman, said last night: “The Liberal Democrats are definitely back in business”.

Labour rebels shouldn’t fear the fate of the SDP.

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Could Corbyn’s re-election prompt a split?

On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn will be announced as having retained the leadership of the Labour Party. I strongly expect that he will have achieved a higher percentage of the vote than in 2015. This is little to do with Owen Smith, rather a reflection of the extent to which the membership of the party has changed since Corbyn’s election as leader.

Once Corbyn is announced as having retained the leadership, talk will invariably return to whether the party will reunite or whether it will split.

For many months, there have been suggestions that the moderates (or Blairites) in the Parliamentary Labour Party are planning to split off if Corbyn continues as leader. Many moderate Labour MPs have been vocal in their concerns about Labour’s electability under Corbyn, and it is clear that they want things to change.

However, up to now one thing that they have all been unequivocal about, is that they don’t wish to see the party split. Generally, when asked the standard question regarding the prospect of a split, Labour MPs have responded by citing the example of the Labour MPs who split from the party in 1981 and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

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The ‘Gang of Four’ who formed the SDP. 

The SDP was founded by four senior Labour Party members known collectively as the ‘Gang of Four’: David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rodgers. They were joined by twenty-eight other defecting MPs from the Labour Party, and one MP who defected from the Conservatives. However, despite their early success in attracting MPs, the SDP would struggle to retain them in general elections. In the 1983 General Election, the First-Past-The-Post system meant that just six SDP MPs were elected. It is clear today that this failure still haunts Labour MPs who might otherwise consider a split.

Writing in the i on Wednesday, Labour MP and former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, suggested that in the event of a split, any new party would simply suffer the same fate as the SDP.

Twenty-eight MPs defected from Labour to the SDP back then but just 6 SDP MPs were elected in the 1983 election that followed. That split of the Left was a gift to the Right, which saw 18 years of Tory rule as the consequence. This is why I know of no Labour MP now who wants to repeat the same mistake and doom our country to the same fate.

From this, it would seem abundantly clear that Umunna believes that any split would be unsuccessful, and that this view is backed up by the evidence from 1981, as well as evidence that the First-Past-The-Post electoral system tends to discriminate against third-parties.

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Labour MP Chuka Umunna has suggested that a split would be unsuccessful. 

However, the political landscape is much changed since then. Nowadays, it would definitely be possible to make a success of a similar sort of split.

One of the main reasons for this is the advent of the internet, in particular social media, and its use in political campaigning.

The 24-hour news cycle which exists primarily as a result of the internet, means that any new political movement can gain instant traction all around the country, and indeed all around the world. Recently, we have seen abundant examples of how internet savvy campaigning has brought success to campaigns which experts dismissed as having little chance. Take the example of Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President. Trump recognised the power of social media and the internet in order to build his own political movement, and managed to build something which differed hugely from the campaigns being run by his opponents, most of whom were firmly part of the political establishment.

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Donald Trump’s success has been built around the savvy use of social media, and the ability to differentiate himself from the political establishment. 

Similarly, Labour rebels can take inspiration from inside their own party. Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely rise to the leadership of the Labour Party was characterised by his use of social media to draw young people to his rallies and build a movement in support of his candidacy.

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Corbyn used social media to draw huge crowds to his rallies, and build a social movement from nothing. 

Overall, although it is still desirable to able to call upon a party machine of volunteers to roam the streets and knock on doors when campaigning, it is no longer the only way to gain support. Online advertising and fundraising can reach out to potential voters like never before.

Trump and Corbyn show the way to go. Both attracted the votes of people who wouldn’t normally be voting in their respective elections. Now Corbyn has as good as populated the membership of the Labour Party with these supporters gained during the first leadership campaign. Rebel MPs need to do a similar thing. There will be millions of available voters who want a credible alternative to the main parties, and it is these people who can be targeted when creating a new party. This targeting can be done in a way that wasn’t possible in 1981, and means that a split today could be significantly more successful than the SDP debacle.

Potential rebel MPs also tend to cite our First-Past-The-Post electoral system as cause for concern, by stating that it discriminates against third-parties, and that as such any new party would be doomed to failure. However, although FPTP has historically been difficult for third-parties, it doesn’t have to be. In the 2015 Canadian Federal Election, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party showed that it is possible for a third-party to win an election under FPTP. The Liberal Party began the campaign in third place in the polls with only 26% support, but when the campaign concluded, they had won 39.5% of the popular vote, which equated to a parliamentary majority. In Canada, The Liberal Party proved that it was possible for a third-party to win under FPTP if they were able to appeal beyond their usual base of support, whilst also campaigning on a platform distinctively different from other parties in the election. If a new party formed of rebel Labour MPs were able to follow the blueprint set by the successful Canadian Liberal Party, then they could be successful regardless of our electoral system.

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The success of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party provides a blueprint for success for a new third party. 
With the Conservative Party having shifted to the right under Theresa May and Labour having lurched to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, their is a large enough space in the political centre for a new party. With such a large gap in the centre, it would easy for a new party to campaign on a platform reasonably distinctive from the offering of the two main parties, and as such they could be successful regardless of FPTP.

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Theresa May has shifted the Conservative Party to the right, leaving a space in the centre. 

In any case, Labour MPs would have absolutely nothing to lose by splitting off and forming a new party. Although they may feel a great degree of loyalty to their current party, they certainly won’t feel the same degree of loyalty to Corbyn. As such, it is hard to see many of the moderate, centrist Labour MPs will be willing to pledge allegiance to a Labour Party run by Corbyn and John McDonnell. It increasingly sounds as though any Labour MPs who chooses not to support the leadership will be deselected at the next election, whilst many more could lose seats through a combination of the boundary review and Corbyn’s unpopular policies.

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It’s difficult to see moderate Labour MPs pledging allegiance to a party run by Corbyn and McDonnell, meaning many will be deselected. 
As a result, many of these Labour MPs could lose their seats anyway. Therefore, why not split off and try and save themselves, and their ideals, from extinction. With the political landscape in such a state of flux, there should be little to fear from splitting off. Rebel MPs should take the plunge and give it a go, because the way their party is heading it could be just about the last chance they get to ensure their values continue to be represented in the House of Commons.