50 years after Macmillan retired, what can Cameron learn from ‘SuperMac’?

Harold_Macmillan_number_10_official

Image used under an Open Government License

A slick Tory toff is Prime Minister. He struggles to maintain Britain’s status in the world, wrestles with disunity in his party, but seeks to win an election promoting a land of opportunity. I refer not to David Cameron, but to Harold Macmillan, who resigned as Prime Minister almost exactly 50 years ago.

So how does David Cameron compare to Harold Macmillan, and what can the current Prime Minister learn from ‘SuperMac’, the Conservative politician who served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963?

Macmillan and Cameron are cut from the same cloth in that they can both be seen as actor-politicians. Both were and are superb at the set-piece occasions. Indeed, Macmillan’s motto, borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan was ‘Quite calm deliberation disentangles every knot.’ He even had that quote pinned on his Cabinet door. Underneath, Macmillan was anything but calm: he was regularly sick before the weekly jousts at Prime Minister’s Questions.

By contrast, Cameron is a natural leader in public and in private, conveying the air of someone born to rule. His Commons handling of the apologies over Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough were exemplary. He handles the big state occasions well. In short, he looks and sounds like a leader in a way that Ed Miliband doesn’t.

Macmillan and Cameron face similar problems in relation to foreign affairs. One of Macmillan’s greatest achievements as Prime Minster was to repair the ‘Special Relationship’ with America, which had been blighted following the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956. Macmillan used his charm with Dwight Eisenhower, the American President to negotiate the 1958 Nassau Agreement, which governs the British-American nuclear relationship to this day. Fast forwarding to 2013, Cameron must repair the Special Relationship, following his recent humiliation over the Commons defeat on British military action in Syria.

Both Macmillan and Cameron have had to reshape Britain’s relationship with Europe and have landed in trouble thanks to resistance from the French. Whereas Macmillan’s attempt to enter the European Economic Community in 1963 was met with a loud French raspberry from General de Gaulle, Cameron’s decision to promise an ‘In-Out’ referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in January 2013 has again upset our Gallic partners.

The two Prime Ministers also share the problem of rebellious traditionalists in their parliamentary parties. For Macmillan, it was Empire loyalists who opposed his ‘Wind of Change’ decolonisation policies in Africa. For Cameron, it is a massive Tory right-wing, numbering more than a 100, who have opposed him on a whole range of issues from House of Lords reform to gay marriage.

But if there are similarities between the two Prime Ministers, Cameron is different in that unlike Macmillan, he is prepared to move with the times. Macmillan hailed from an Edwardian era where men especially didn’t show their feelings. His prudishness about all matters sexual was cruelly exposed during the Profumo Scandal in 1963. Already haunted by the fact that his wife Dorothy was having a long-term affair with Lord Boothby, Macmillan froze and handled the issue badly. Ultimately, it contributed to his downfall.

By contrast, Cameron is attempting to drag his party kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century by supporting gay marriage. Ever since Macmillan’s day, the British people have moved in an almost relentlessly liberal direction on social issues, and Cameron realises that he has to change his party to reflect that fact.

In terms of economic policy, there is a huge gulf between Macmillan and Cameron. Macmillan believed in the so-called ‘Middle Way’, a happy medium between socialism and capitalism. Macmillan’s economic views were shaped from his experiences in the First World War when officers and men from different social classes mixed more easily than in the past, and during his encounters with his impoverished Stockton constituents in the depression years of the 1930s.

Constantly fretting about the return of another depression ‘SuperMac’ wanted to go for economic growth, almost at any price. Many in his Cabinet disagreed. In 1958, Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor resigned along with his entire Treasury team in protest at Macmillan’s expansionist policies.

In truth, Macmillan’s support for the ‘Middle Way’ is much closer to New Labour’s adherence to its ‘Third Way’. Were Macmillan alive today, he would be thrown out of the Conservative Party for being a socialist. In his retirement, remember, Macmillan attacked the Thatcher government for ‘selling off the family silver’ through its privatisation policies. When Alistair Horne, Macmillan’s biographer admitted that he wasn’t a very good Tory, ‘SuperMac’ replied, ‘Nor was I dear boy.’ As Cameron embarks upon flogging Royal Mail to investors and selling publicly owned banking shares at a discount price, he should heed Macmillan’s warning.

Cameron could learn most from Macmillan in terms of his ability to win elections. Macmillan’s greatest triumph came in 1959 when he won a landslide majority of 100 against Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour Party. Labour had launched a highly professional campaign, making good use of television for the first time, but Macmillan trumped that by appealing to the British people’s innate love of the consumer society. Macmillan won big in 1959 because he realised that voters wanted a washing machine, a fridge and a television set. Cameron’s recent Conference speech where he extolled the virtues of a profit-making economy surely echoes Macmillan’s rallying cry of 1959.

Although Cameron is unlikely to repeat Macmillan’s 1959 feat of winning an outright majority at the next election, he remains the Conservative Party’s biggest asset because he, like ‘SuperMac’ realises that elections are fought and won on the centre ground.

Mark Stuart

Polling Observatory conference season update #4 – Conservatives

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

Conservatives

The summer saw a slight revival in the fortunes of the Conservatives, clawing back some ground lost during the UKIP surge of the spring of 2013. At their low ebb, immediately after UKIP’s local election breakthrough in May, we estimated the Conservatives at around 28% – they have picked up about 4 points since then.

Although support for the Conservatives has recovered slightly in the last few months, the longer term trend is much less encouraging, as our chart of support since the last general election makes clear. There are short term rises and falls, but the long term trend is clearly in a downward direction. Each slump in support hits new lows, and each rally peaks below the last. In particular, it is clear that the Conservatives lost a large chunk of support following the “omnishambles” budget of March 2012 that they have been unable to recover. Prior to this budget, we estimated Conservative support in the high 30’s. Since it was delivered, the Conservatives have struggled to reach 30%, and even after their latest rally they are still below 32%.  Over the past 18 months, Conservative support has fluctuated between 28% and 32%, well below the level of support they need to be the largest party in parliament at the next election, let alone win a majority. Where might hope of a political recovery lie for the Conservatives?

One of the areas where the Conservatives are widely agreed to be in a position of strength is their leader, David Cameron, who consistently out-polls his party and his fellow party leaders with the electorate. Much political science research has highlighted the importance of leaders in electoral success, but the impact on voters is very often over-stated – and is often factored into current support for the parties anyway. Further, while Ed Miliband’s poor ratings with the public signal a vulnerability that the Conservatives might seek to exploit, taking advantage of this is not always straightforward. With recent measures such as the proposed freeze on energy prizes, Miliband has staked out a brand of economic populism that may be difficult to counter – requiring the Conservatives to decide whether to paint him as either weak or dangerous, where the latter may perversely serve to improve his reputation for strong leadership with voters – on issues where the Labour leader also appears to have public opinion on his side. Meanwhile, the self-imposed constraints of austerity budgeting will make it difficult for the Conservatives to offer popular but expensive gifts to the electorate themselves, without undermining their argument that tough budget cuts are economically essential.

Unable to offer voters many gifts in the current economic climate, the Conservatives must therefore place their bets on a recovery before polling day. Economic optimism has been on the rise in recent times, which suggests the government is at least less likely to be punished for its austerity agenda than looked the case when the UK economy was flatlining. With Labour continuing to be blamed by a large section of the public for the state of the economy, the battle for economic credibility will be important as 2015 nears. Indeed, the economy seems to offer most scope to the government for selling a constructive story to voters about its achievements: a recovery will enable the party to claim vindication for its austerity policies and perhaps even offer a few goodies to the electorate. Without recovery, the Conservatives will struggle for a compelling message to win new support. It is not clear that a continued focus on right wing social issues like welfare and immigration can deliver many gains. The electorate has long known where the party stands on these issues, and growing discontent from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners will make further right wing reform in these areas difficult to accomplish, and if the Conservatives campaign on these issues without being able to act on them they risk increasing the appeal of UKIP to frustrated voters. The Conservatives will be looking to set out a clear agenda for a second term, starting with this year’s conference, but the nature of this agenda and their chances of being in government to implement it are now very much in the gift of economic forces beyond their control.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Why party conferences still matter

5116060964_9d608b9458_b

The annual Party Conference season is now well and truly under way. It’s a time when each political party’s enthusiasts – what I call the badge wearers – spend a week debating obscure composites, resolutions and amendments. Little wonder then that the general public generally switches channels to see if there is a decent repeat available on Dave.

To their detractors like Tony Benn, party conferences have become like American political conventions in which ‘we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if you’re lucky, have the occasional debate.’

So, do party conferences still matter?

The answer partly depends on whether a party is in Opposition or in Government. Opposition parties and their leaders are generally ignored by the media for the rest of the year, so the party conference becomes a vital occasion for Leaders of the Opposition to explain to the voters what they stand for. But if the party is in Government, conference defeats can be more easily discounted, as in 2003 when Tony Blair simply brushed off a conference defeat on foundations hospitals, and pressed on with the enabling legislation regardless.

In reality, the power of the annual conference largely depends on which political party we are discussing. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, currently gathered in Glasgow, genuine democracy prevails. As Nick Clegg admitted this week, ‘one of the joys’ of the Liberal Democrats is that their party conference truly decides matters of policy. Party delegates will largely determine the content of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto; at least in terms of policy, if not priorities. It matters, then, that Clegg narrowly won Monday’s debate on economic policy, not least to avoid the appearance of disunity.

If we go far back into its early twentieth century roots, the Labour conference was the sovereign body of the party. Labour MPs were seen as delegates whose role was to implement Labour party policy in the House of Commons. In theory, that part of the Labour rulebook – Clause 5 – still remains in place (‘The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of the party conference’)  But in practice, as the parliamentary Labour party grew in size, so its MPs started to flex their muscles. Initially, Conference defeats were rare, as the union block vote rallied behind the leadership. Indeed, between 1949 and 1960, the Labour leadership only suffered one defeat. It was only in the era of Hugh Gaitskell that the Labour leadership suffered a couple of serious reverses on the issues of Clause IV and nuclear disarmament. Since the Gaitskell era, defeats have simply been ignored.

Despite suffering these defeats, successive Labour leaders since Gaitskell have understood the true value of party conference speeches: they give Leaders of the Opposition a chance to be seen to be facing down critics in their own party. Famously, Neil Kinnock’s speech against the Militant Tendency in Bournemouth in 1985 demonstrated to the wider electorate that Labour was serious about modernization. His successor, John Smith, risked the leadership of his Party in 1993 in order to secure One Member, One Vote for the same reason. Twenty years later, Ed Miliband faces a similar challenge to that presented by Smith: he must show the public that he is serious about reforming Labour’s historic link with the unions.

In theory at least, the Conservative party conference is one in which the leadership is all powerful. But in practice, Tory conferences have shown a marked tendency to spark into life. Back in1978 when the Tories gathered in Brighton, a vigorous debate ensued in which delegates called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Ian Smith, the white supremacist ruler in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Replying to the debate, Tory frontbench John Davies gave a rambling speech, during which he was heckled loudly from the Conference floor. Sadly, the splitting headache he suffered from on that occasion was not the result of the heated debate, but a malignant brain tumour, from which he died a few months later. But no senior Tory frontbench still alive can forget the mauling Davies received from delegates on that occasion.

For decades following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, the annual capital punishment debates at the Tory Party Conference became awkward events requiring careful handling by the conference platform. In his memoirs, William Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s first Home Secretary, acknowledged that his over-emotional response to the capital punishment debate at the 1981 Conference damaged his standing in his party. Later on in the decade, Douglas Hurd, a consistent opponent of capital punishment, recalled having to contend with emotive speeches from retired police sergeants who were capable of stirring the Conference delegates into a froth. Mrs. Thatcher felt she had to attend these law and order debates, even if she took a different view from her Home Secretary. As speaker after speaker called for the restoration of the death penalty, she would clap her hands under the platform table, out of sight of the delegates.

Unluckily, it was Douglas Hurd, by this stage Foreign Secretary, who had to cope with yet another lively Conference debate in 1992, this time over Europe. On that occasion, the Party hierarchy allowed Norman Tebbit to make a poisonous speech against the Prime Minister, John Major. As Hurd prepared his reply to the debate, Major peppered him with ‘Give ‘em hell’ notes. Hurd was able to face down his conference critics, but only just.

The very fact that the Tory leadership has to respond to the occasional bout of sustained criticism from their members is surely good for our democratic system. Granted, the party leadership normally gets its way. But what the public don’t see are the fraught negotiations behind-the-scenes between delegates and the leadership over the wording of those aforementioned composites, resolutions and amendments. It’s what Richard Kelly in his seminal 1989 work on Conservative Party Conferences called The Hidden System.

Hardly the sort of political intrigue to persuade the public to miss a repeat of Would I Lie to You? on Dave, but important nonetheless.

Mark Stuart

David Cameron perpetuates factually inaccurate link between immigration and welfare dependency in pre-G8 speech

Image by Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance

Image by Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance

On 10th June, David Cameron gave a speech to DP World at London Gateway in Essex. The speech was wide-ranging, covering globalisation, Britain’s place in the world and, inevitably, immigration. In this speech, he made claims that have become ‘common knowledge’ in the UK. He said:

“Those who are starry-eyed about the benefits of globalisation refuse to see the link between uncontrolled immigration and mass welfare dependency. But when you had a welfare system that effectively allowed large numbers of British people to choose not to work, and an immigration system that encouraged people from across the world to come here to work, the results were predictable.

“A large proportion of jobs went to foreign-born workers so to get people back to work we needed to get a grip. We have capped non-EU economic migration. We’ve shut down the bogus colleges that were a front for illegal immigration. And today, net immigration is down by more than a third. The number of immigrants coming to the UK is lower than it has been for over a decade.”

There are many ‘truth claims’ that underlie this statement and that deserve a fact-based rebuttal. Broken down, these claims are:

1.    Britain had ‘uncontrolled immigration’.
2.    Immigration leads to ‘mass welfare dependency’.
3.    Immigrants have taken British jobs from British workers.
4.    Capping economic migration will protect British jobs for British workers.
5.    Lower net migration is an accurate measure.

These are huge claims with strong policy implications. But how do they stand up against the facts? Let’s break each of these down.

1. Britain had uncontrolled immigration

The UK has never had uncontrolled immigration. In recent years, the closest this has come to occurring is through EU freedom of movement, but even this is not truly uncontrolled, and non-EEA migration is very tightly regulated. Freedom of movement means EU citizens and family members can move and reside in another member country for up to three months. For those wishing to stay longer than three months, they must be (self-)employed, have independent means or be a student/in vocational training. EU citizens cannot simply enter Britain and sign onto the benefit system, contrary to widespread myths. With all of these requirements, EU freedom of movement is not the same as ‘uncontrolled immigration’.

2. Immigration leads to mass welfare dependency

Underlying this statement is the truth claim that the UK has mass welfare dependency. It is a common claim right now that the UK has a ballooning welfare bill caused by too many people living off of benefits. Several studies have shown conclusively that the largest increase in the welfare bill is comprised of payments to pensioners. If pensioners are removed from the figures, government spending on other benefits has remained basically flat for the last 25 years. Furthermore, of the non-pensioner benefits, the majority are paid to people working in jobs that don’t pay a living wage. Only 10-13%  of people are unemployed and receiving benefits. Many of these are un-/low-skilled workers who face cyclical unemployment. This evidence refutes the claim that the UK has a welfare dependency problem.

Furthermore, several studies have shown that immigrants are less likely than Britons to draw benefits even when they are in the same socioeconomic circumstances and qualify to draw benefits.

3. Immigrants have taken British jobs

Linked to point 2 is the accusation that immigrants have caused ‘native’ unemployment by taking away British jobs. There are many nuances to be disproved in this claim. In fact, many immigrants are self-employed, which means that their jobs are self-created and would not have existed if they were not present. There is some evidence that un-/low-skilled migration affects the lowest skilled British workers slightly, but there is no evidence overall that immigrants take away British jobs.

Immigrants are also net contributors, which means that they put more into the economy than they take out.

4. Capping economic migration will protect British jobs for British workers

In fact, capping migration could have disastrous effects on the British economy. Nearly a third of health workers are foreign born. British R&D and universities are dependent on highly skilled foreign workers. Decreases in foreign student numbers have wider impact on local economies where those students would have spent money. There is no conclusive evidence of widespread abuse of the student visa system. Caps therefore mean less money coming into the UK economy.

5. Lower net migration is an accurate measure

Net migration = people coming into the country – people leaving the country

It includes both Britons and foreigners. Because of this, the number of people entering the country could decrease, but net migration could remain steady or even increase because of a decrease in the number of people leaving the country. This is exactly what happened when the recession hit in 2008: Britons who had been emigrating to countries like Australia in their droves stopped leaving the country, so even though the number of immigrants arriving decreased, net migration did not.

Unlike many other developed countries, students are included in UK net migration figures, despite the temporary nature of their stay. Also included: EU citizens; spouses, children and dependent relatives; and refugees. Around half of immigrants entering the UK each year are Britons and EU citizens. Once spouses, dependents, British and EU citizens are excluded, relatively few people are left whose entry government policy can bar; and most of these are highly skilled or working in occupations with skills shortages.

All of this should at least make you question the accuracy of claims like those put forward by David Cameron. There is no evidence of uncontrolled immigration, of benefit tourism, of a welfare dependency culture, of lower unemployment from stopping immigration. When national leaders say otherwise, they perpetuate the myths.

Want more evidence? Try Full Fact, Channel 4’s FactCheck, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and Oxford’s Migration Observatory.

Helen Williams

Cambo Chained

cover_2013We’ve been producing end-of session reports on the behaviour of government MPs at Westminster for almost a decade. Last year’s was a record-breaker: Coalition MPs rebelling more often than MPs in any other session since 1945. This morning we’ve launched the report on the 2012-13 session. It tells a more nuanced story, but with plenty to concern the party whips:

1.    A rebellion in 27% of divisions, down from the 44% in the last session. But still relatively high for the post-war period.

2.    Conservative MPs have broken ranks in 19% of divisions (down from 28% in the 2010-12 session), Lib Dem MPs have done so in 15% (down from 24% in the 2010-12 session). So the decline in rebelliousness has been equal (down nine points for the Conservatives and nine for the Lib Dems) for both parts of the Coalition. The figure for the Conservatives alone is still higher than for all but seven sessions of Conservative government during the post-war era.

3.    And the Parliament still remains on course to be the most rebellious since 1945. Even if the rate of rebellion drops again by half – down to a rate of around 13% – in the remaining two sessions, we would expect the overall total for the Parliament to be 29%, still (just) enough to make it the most rebellious in the post-war era.

4.    Why’s it down? Several reasons, but a key one was the withdrawal – under fire – of House of Lords reform. This had the effect of removing considerable combustible material from the Government’s legislative programme. Had (somehow) that Bill gone ahead, past Second Reading, we would be reporting a considerably higher number of rebellions.

5.    A total of 185 Coalition MPs have voted against their whip so far during the Parliament. Most (148) of these are Conservatives; the most rebellious nine Coalition rebels are Conservatives, headed by Philip Hollobone, who was also the most rebellious in the last session. He has now voted against his whip 129 times since the election in 2010.

6.    Of these 185 MPs, 144 rebelled during the 2012-13 session, and there was a very strong (0.79) relationship between behaviour in the two sessions of the Parliament.

7.    Of the 148 Conservative rebels, 90 (or six in ten) are from the 2010 intake, and of Conservative members of the 2010 intake who have been on the backbenches throughout the Parliament some 85% have now rebelled.

8.    And on the Lib Dem side of the Coalition once you exclude those Lib Dem MPs who are or were at some point members of the payroll vote, either as ministers or parliamentary private secretaries, and thus expected to remain loyal to the government, there is now not a single Lib Dem MP who has been on the backbenches throughout the Parliament and who has remained loyal to the party whip.

9.    The government still win most votes easily – the median majority in whipped votes this sesson was 71. But close run things are becoming slightly more common (in its first 24 months in power the government’s majority only fell below 50 on 22 occasions; in the last twelve months it has fallen below 50 on 17 occasions).

10.    And, crucially, David Cameron has now joined the list of Prime Ministers defeated in the House of Commons as a result of their own MPs rebelling, a line which dates back unbroken to Edward Heath.

Download the full report.

Philip Cowley