All posts by thomas

Och, Denmark! ☹

A poster by the Danish Conservatives.
A poster by the Danish Conservatives.
Ever since moving to Scotland from Denmark a few months after the 2001 election (which put Anders Fogh Rasmussen into power — imagine a Tory government supported by UKIP), I’ve been increasingly unhappy about the way Denmark is developing.

While Scotland has found its own voice during the independence referendum and is now speaking loudly in favour of tolerance, solidarity and equality, Denmark seems to running away from these values.

The two modern Danish lodestars appear to be xenophobia and neoliberalism. Let’s look at both in turn.

Xenophobia has been on the rise for more than twenty years, and I was already starting to find the tone of the debate uncomfortable in the 1990s. Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish equivalent of UKIP) was always at the centre of this development — I described it like this a while ago:

The typical pattern has been like this: Dansk Folkeparti make a suggestion (e.g., to limit the number of immigrants, or to put some restrictions on Denmark’s EU membership); the other parties at first dismiss it, but the media give it plenty of coverage (because it’s always a good story from a journalistic point of view), and some dissenters within the other parties are quickly found that agree with it, and eventually the other parties implement at least 50% of the original proposal. As soon as this has happened, Dansk Folkeparti start demanding even more, and the whole process starts again, with the result that after 10-20 years, the mainstream parties have adopted policies that are more extreme than those originally advocated by Dansk Folkeparti.

This is making it increasingly uncomfortable to live in Denmark if you’re not 100% Danish. Theresa Nguyen, a Danish journalist of Vietnamese origin, described it well a couple of days ago:

[I’d like to] talk about the feelings that are awakened within me when a candidate for prime minister says that “Denmark is in danger of becoming multicultural” with pride in their voice. Dear Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Lars Løkke Rasmussen, your rhetoric makes me so angry and sad — yes, almost depressed — that more than anything I just want to leave that awful Denmark that I am barely able to recognise any more. […] The Denmark that I see now is quite unrecognisable. I don’t have the words to describe the missing link between the Denmark of my memories and the Denmark I, as an adult Dane from an ethnic minority background, must now contribute to and be a part of. Your debate last Sunday was a disgrace to the generous and bountiful country of my childhood. Your views on people and our global responsibilities frightened me and filled me with shame. […] Your divisive rhetoric is giving a lot of people the desire to leave the country. But those who can and probably will leave are people like me; the educated and resourceful citizens that Denmark strongly needs to stay and pull our weight. The rest, those who have been less lucky to get an education, do not have the ability to leave Denmark. They are forced to stay behind and listen to your words.

([Jeg vil gerne] tale om de følelser, der bliver vækket i mig, når en statsministerkandidat med stolthed i stemmen siger, »at Danmark er i fare for at blive multikulturelt«. Kære Helle og Løkke, jeres retorik gør mig så vred og trist – ja, nærmest deprimeret – at jeg mest af alt bare har lyst til at forlade det forfærdelige Danmark, jeg snart ikke kan genkende længere. […] Det Danmark, der møder mig, er mildest talt uigenkendeligt. Jeg mangler ord til at beskrive den manglende kobling mellem det Danmark, jeg husker, og det Danmark, jeg som en voksen dansker med anden etnisk baggrund nu skal bidrage til og være en del af. Jeres duel på ord i søndags var en skændsel for det generøse og overskudsfyldte land, jeg var barn af. Jeres syn på mennesker og vores globale ansvar skræmte mig og fyldte mig med skam. […] Med jeres splittelsesretorik giver I rigtig mange lyst til at forlade landet. Men dem, der kan og formentlig vil gøre det, er dem, der er som mig; de veluddannede og ressourcestærke borgere, som Danmark har så såre brug for bliver og tager vores tørn. Resten, dem, der har været mindre heldige til at tage en uddannelse, har slet ikke muligheden for at forlade Danmark. De er tvunget til at blive tilbage og lytte til jeres ord.)

I’m so much happier living in a country where Ruth Wishart could say her famous words: “A Scot is someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here.”

The other Danish malaise is neoliberalism. Although the Danish welfare state is working well and is quite affordable for the state, Danes keep demanding lower taxes and most people have grown up with so much job security that they honestly believe unemployment can never happen to them. For a while it was possible to cut costs without great consequences, but it’s now getting to the point where it’s becoming visible in international comparisons. To take but one example, in 2001 Danish unemployment benefits on average gave workers 66% of their previous salary, which was the highest in the EU; by 2012 this had fallen to 40%, which placed Denmark as number 10 out of 14 countries (less than Spain but marginally more than the UK).

When I tell Danes they’ll soon start seeing real poverty if they continue this development, they don’t believe me. Again I really enjoy living in a country that has already learnt the lesson of the Thatcher years — looking at Denmark from Scotland feels a bit like observing a train crash in slow motion from a distance.

Of course not all Danes agree with the xenophobia and the neoliberalism. In the same way as many people in England are still voting Labour because of what it used to be like, many Danes are still supporting the Social Democrats without realising that they’re increasingly a part of the problem. And of course there are several parties that do what they can to change things for the better.

Danes get disenfranchised two years after leaving the country, so I haven’t had a vote for over a decade. However, if I was able vote in the general election on Thursday, I’d probably support Enhedslisten (or possibly Alternativet). I used to be a member of the Social Liberal Party, but although they’re still strongly against xenophobia, they seem to have forgotten their social conscience and are increasingly becoming a neoliberal party (or perhaps more accurately, one of the parties of Necessity), so I wouldn’t really consider voting for them any more.

Varoufaki’s aporia: The ptocho-trapezocracy

Arrivals by EU Council Eurozone, on Flickr.

After putting it off for a while, I finally got round to reading The Global Minotaur by Yanis Varoufakis (Γιάνης Βαρουφάκης), the Greek finance minister.

If you’re not put off by a healthy dose of Latino-Greek loan words and grammatical constructions that sound rather academic and/or foreign, it’s a wonderful book. Here’s a typical sentence: “Our current aporia is a variant of the puzzlement engendered by the simultaneous progression of commodification, financialization, and the crises these processes inevitably occasion.”

The book isn’t really about Greece, or even Europe. It’s about the global financial system that was created by the United States after World War II, how it developed over time, and how it got fatally wounded in the financial crash.

His discussion of the 1929 crash and its aftermath is good, but things get interesting when he starts discussing Bretton Woods. For instance, the following was new to me:

During the debate on what that new syustem should look like, John Maynard Keynes made the most audacious proposal that has ever reached the bargaining table of a major international conference: to create an International Currency Union (ICU), a single currency (which he even named — the bancor) for the whole capitalist world, with its own international central bank and matching institutions. Keynes’ proposal was not as impudent as it seemed. In fact, it has withstood the test of time quite well. In a recent BBC interview, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s then managing director, called for a return to Keynes’ original idea as the only solution to the troubles of the post-2008 world economy.

Of course, this never happened. Instead, the US came up with what Varoufakis calls the Global Plan, “according to which the dollar would effectively become the world currency and the United States would export goods and capital to Europe and Japan in return for direct investment and political patronage”.

The book then discusses why the US chose to make Germany and Japan the regional pillars of this system, rather than some of the WWII victors (and as an aside, how this damaged the UK’s economy hugely).

What Varoufakis calls the Global Minotaur is the system that arose when the Global Plan collapsed after 1970, and the world economy instead started to depend on US deficits: “America began importing as if there were no tomorrow, and its government splurged out, unimpeded by the fear of increasing deficits. So long as foreign investors sent billions of dollars every day to Wall Street, quite voluntarily and for reasons completely related to their bottom line, the United States’ twin deficits were financed and the world kept revolving haphazardly on its axis.”

The book then describes how the financial crash fatally wounded the Minotaur, and how nothing has stepped in to replace it.

A lot of the book is concerned with surplus recycling mechanisms, and the point here is that there needs to be some mechanisms that allow surplus capital to be put to good use elsewhere in the world, so if the US can’t or won’t do this any more, the world economy won’t fully recover until some other way has been found to achieve this.

This is of course also the problem in the Eurozone: Germany and other Northern European countries are generating surpluses but tend to hoard the cash. Ideally they should either invest the cash elsewhere (in Greece, Portugal and so on), just like the US did as part of the Global Plan, or they should start to run massive deficits and in this way create a market for Greek and Portuguese products, like the US did during the reign of the Global Minotaur.

Finally, the book discusses how the bankrupt banks managed to dictate solutions to governments, in the process creating what Varoufakis calls a bankruptocracy or a ptocho-trapezocracy. (Although the book doesn’t discuss it, it’s interesting to compare this with what Iceland did instead.)

I must say the book was quite depressing to read. Varoufakis sees things a bit too clearly for comfort (this is what he calls an aporia), and to realise you’re living in a ptocho-trapezocracy is not a cheery thought.

However, if you can face it, I thoroughly recommend this book.

Cameron wants the UK to leave the EU

PM attends European Council
PM attends European Council by Number 10, on Flickr.
David Cameron has said in the past that he intends to campaign to remain in the EU provided that he achieves a satisfactory deal before the referendum. I’ve just realised he must be bluffing.

The reason for this is Number 10’s announcement that EU citizens won’t be able to vote in the referendum. They didn’t have to announce this yet, so they’re clearly trying to shut down debate on this topic quickly — which again means they must be desperate to achieve this. It would have been much easier simply to let everybody discuss the pros and cons of different franchises, but then the outcome might not have been what they wanted.

And let’s face it: There can be only one reason to be desperate to prevent EU citizens from voting in the referendum, and that’s to achieve a vote in favour of Brexit, given that they’re the only group of people living here who would be almost guaranteed to vote in favour of continued EU membership. It’s worth noting in this connexion that the Tories have also ruled out giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote — another group that are likely to be more positive towards the EU than the average UK voter — while being perfectly happy to let Commonwealth citizens vote, although they’re likely to more lukewarm towards EU membership.

If David Cameron really thought he would be likely to campaign in favour of remaining in the EU, it would be nonsensical to move fast to ensure the EU’s biggest fans are disenfranchised.

My guess is he’s already expecting his negotiations will fail (if for no other reason because he’s asking for things that any EU expert will tell him the other countries won’t give him), and he’ll then go out and say something along these lines: “I really wanted to remain in a reformed EU, but the other countries have turned their backs on us, so I will with a heavy heart have to recommend that this great nation leaves the EU.”

Why is Cameron doing this? My guess is it’s to save the Conservative party. If he came out in favour of leaving the EU already, some pro-business Tories would break out, and if he campaigned in favour of EU membership, a very large number of MPs would rebel. By pretending to negotiate in good faith, he keeps the pro-EU Tories happy, and by setting the negotiations up to fail, he ensures the Eurosceptics will eventually be happy.

Green list voting

People have been busy on social media discussing the pros and cons of splitting the vote next year, i.e., using the constituency vote to support the SNP and voting Green on the list (see for instance this for the positive case, and this for why it might backfire).

I find it interesting that people can disagree so strongly while supporting the same goals, so I decided to have a look at the data myself. I took the 2015 General Election results and fed them into the list vote, and assumed the constituencies would not change hands since the 2011 election (which is not very realistic, but I’ll return to that below). Because hardly anybody voted Green this year, this obviously led to another SNP landslide victory. I then treated the combined SNP and Green vote as one block of Yes votes, and then looked at what happened if a specific percentage of these Yes votes voted Green instead of SNP on the list — on the left-hand side, every Yes voter is voting SNP on the list, and on the right, half of them are voting Green:

Scenario 1

The interesting thing here is that the number of Yes MSPs (SNP + Green) at first falls as the percentage of Green voters goes up, but it then starts rising again, and eventually it overtakes the previous maximum.

In other words, the best solution is that nobody votes Green, or that more than 25% of Yes voters do so. The worst possible scenario is that about 8% of Yes voters vote Green on the list.

What if we assume the SNP will win all constituencies apart from three, just like the General Election result? The graph then looks as follows:

Scenario 2

The effect is exactly the same (and the minimum is still at 8% of Yes voters), but the SNP loses fewer seats (because they get fewer list seats), and so the positive effects of splitting the vote arises earlier, when 10% of Yes voters vote Green.

All of this taken together makes it really hard to give advice to voters. If the SNP looks like doing phenomenally well in the constituencies and the Green party is expected to get at least 5% of the list votes, then all Yes voters should split their votes; if on the other hand the SNP is doing less well in the constituencies than on the list and the Green party is hovering around 2% in the opinion polls, then nobody should consider splitting their votes. And if the opinion polls are wrong (like they were this year), then any such advice could spectacularly backfire — the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. (As an example of this, look no further than the advice I produced before the 2011 election, which was based on Labour doing extremely well in the constituencies, and so my conclusions were all wrong.)

PS: I’ve completely ignored the SSP here for simplicity’s sake. Obviously all the conclusions above would be the same if the vote splitting was benefitting the SSP instead of the Greens; however, if both parties are competing for Yes list votes, it increases the risk of wasted votes.

The SNP would have won 221 seats in England and Wales

The 2015 results if the SNP had decided to stand in England and Wales, too.
The 2015 results if the SNP had decided to stand in England and Wales, too.
The SNP’s huge victory in the General Election saw some truly incredible swings. It made me wonder what would have happened if the SNP had been standing in England and Wales, too.

To find out, I first calculated the changes in each party’s support in Scotland between 2010 and 2015. I measured this in terms of the electorate, so because the turnout went up, the figures don’t add up to zero.

I also decided to calculate the changes separately for each incumbent party, because the swings weren’t exactly the same (to be honest, the swings were actually more similar than I had expected, but they differences were still significant):

In Labour-held seats:

CON +0.7%
LAB -9.2%
LD -7.2%
SNP +26.7%
OTH +0.8%

In LD-held seats:

CON -2.1%
LAB -7.2%
LD -3.6%
SNP +23.5%
OTH +1.0%

In SNP-held seats:

CON +3.2%
LAB -4.0%
LD -4.6%
SNP +14.3%
OTH +1.0%

In the Tory-held seat:

CON +5.0%
LAB -8.3%
LD -11.5%
SNP +22.5%
OTH +1.7%

I then applied these changes to the 2010 results from England and Wales (treating Plaid Cymru as the equivalent of the SNP given they’re sister parties), and the results are truly astonishing: Cons 309, SNP/PC 221, LD 34, Lab 7, others 2.

When we add these figures to the actual results from Scotland, the 2015 election results would have looked as follows for Great Britain: Cons 310, SNP/PC 277, LD 35, Lab 8, others 2. This means it would probably have been possible to form a minority SNP government with support from the other non-Tory parties.

(In case anybody is interested, the seven surviving Labour MPs would have been elected in these constituencies: Bootle, Ealing Southall, East Ham, Knowsley, Liverpool Walton, Liverpool West Derby and Mitcham & Morden.)

Of course the SNP wouldn’t have achieved these results simply by standing in England, but it shows the potential for an English party that tries to emulate the SNP.

Prescribing Blairism today is mathematically illiterate

Happy St George's day
Happy St George's day by Nick Veitch, on Flickr.
Seumas Milne had an interesting wee article in The Guardian yesterday, which rather backs up my recent blog post about Labour:

The fallout from that mistake was clear last week: in the haemorrhage of votes to the Scottish National party, Ukip and the Greens, and the reluctance of many working-class voters to turn out at all. […] [T]he idea that New Labour-style politics would have fixed the problem is clearly delusional. Would Blairism have won back voters from the SNP, which had positioned itself to Labour’s left and campaigned against austerity, or the Greens, or the anti-immigration Ukip, many of whose voters are pro-nationalisation and state intervention, and want protection from corporate globalisation? Where exactly is the centre ground between the SNP, Greens, Ukip and middle-income English voters?

I thought it would be interesting to look at the numbers behind this. I consider Scotland to be a lost cause for Labour, so I’ll concentrate on England and Wales in the following.

Last week’s results were as follows: CON 329, GRN 1, LAB 231, LD 7, OTH 1, PC 3, UKIP 1.

Let’s assume that a successful Blairite strategy would make 10% of Tory voters swing to Labour, but that it would also make 5% of current Labour voters switch to the Green, another 5% to UKIP, and another 5% would go apathetic and stay home on the couch. The 2020 result would then look like this: CON 312, GRN 1, LAB 241, LD 12, OTH 1, PC 4, UKIP 2.

On the other hand, what if a new Labour leader instead decided to copy Nicola Sturgeon’s programme and style, adding 10% to the turnout (all Labour) and taking back half of UKIP’s votes (the half that aren’t xenophobic but just crave a genuine working-class voice), but losing 5% of voters to the Tories? The result of this would be CON 266, GRN 1, LAB 299, LD 4, OTH 1, PC 2 (in other words a clear Labour win).

Of course the swings above have been chosen more or less randomly, but not unfairly — I think getting 10% of Tory voters to vote Labour just because they had a handsome leader with Tory policies is very generous.

It’s very clear Seumas Milne is right. The Blairites cannot win the 2020 election, because the crucial voters that Labour needs are the ones that have deserted the party. 2020 is not 1997, when the political landscape looked completely different, and prescribing the old medicine will simply not work any more.

PS: In case any Labour person reading this doesn’t believe they cannot win Scotland back, the two scenarios above would look as follows north of the border: With Blairite swings Labour would retain their single seat but the SNP would win the remaining Tory seat; however, the alternative scenario sees Labour taking one seat from the SNP. I do realise that’s an increase of 100%, but it’s hardly going to determine whether the UK gets a Labour Prime Minister.

What should Labour do now?

2015_04_10_LabourParty_248_IMG_1104 by Labour Party, on Flickr.
I think Paul Mason might be right that the UK has effectively disintegrated into three tribes: Scandi-Scotland, the asset-rich south-east and post-industrial Britain. At least, when I sat down to write down some helpful advice for Labour, I realised I couldn’t think of any meaningful advice that would apply to both
Scottish and rUK Labour, and the latter might be easier to understand if seen as straddling two quite diverse areas. However, let’s first have a look at the pandaified party north of the border.

Scottish Labour

Some observers — mainly those based in London — seem to think Scottish Labour might bounce back in five years’ time. I don’t think so. Of course they might regain a few seats, but most of the new SNP voters have switched for good — they haven’t just temporarily lent their vote to another party.

Furthermore, they might still be Scotland’s second-largest party, but their voters are in the “wrong” places, making it very hard for them to stage a come-back. For instance, there are only four seats that can be taken from the SNP on a swing of less than 10%: Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk (which will fall to the Tories on a swing of 0.8%), Dunbartonshire East (4.9% to go Lib Dem), Edinburgh West (7.5% to go Lib Dem) and East Renfrewshire (8.1% to go Labour).

All other seats require a swing from the SNP of more than 10% to go Unionist, and a great number of Labour’s old seats require a swing of more than 20% to revert to the status quo ante referendum. This is simply not going to happen unless Labour completely reinvents itself, and even then it might take decades.

Which seats would a Better Together electoral alliance have won last Thursday (purple), and where would the SNP still have won (yellow)?
Which seats would a Better Together electoral alliance have won last Thursday (in purple), and where would the SNP still have won (in yellow)?
Even if the three Unionist parties decided to merge as the Better Together Party north of the border, it wouldn’t save them. If we imagine such a party had been standing last Thursday, only 19 of Scotland’s 59 seats would have gone Unionist (assuming that all current Labour, Tory and Lib Dem voters had supported it). Sadly for Labour, they were the largest of the three amigo parties in only 8 of them (4 lean towards the Tories and 7 towards the Lib Dems).

Nevertheless, the Better Together route is probably the least bad prospect for Labour. The swing required to retake most of the Central Belt seats is so enormous that it’s simply not going to happen. At least as a new Unionist party they will have a chance to win some seats back in five years’ time (if Scotland hasn’t left the Union by then, of course).

rUK Labour

In the rUK, Labour’s main rival isn’t a progressive Social Democratic party, so the way forward is likely to be very different.

At the moment, the most prominent candidates to take over the leadership of UK Labour (such as Chuka Umunna) seem to be focusing on the swing seats they failed to take from the Tories, and as a result they’re prescribing Blairite medicine, i.e., copying the Tories’ policies. However, we know well where that ends: Voter apathy in the first instance, and eventually it allows new parties to take over from the left — it would have been almost impossible for the SNP to become so popular if Tony Blair hadn’t pulled his party so far away from the Scottish consensus. In other words, a Blairite leader might retake some southern seats, but it will probably lead to huge advances for the Greens and UKIP (and perhaps even the Lib Dems) in Northern England in five years’ time. Triangulation might work in the US, where there are only two significant parties, but in multi-party Britain it leads to electoral disaster after a few years.

To return to Paul Mason’s tribes, the Blairite Third Way might work in the asset-rich south-east, but it will eventually cause Labour to collapse in post-industrial Britain, just like what happened last Thursday in Scotland.

I doubt UK Labour are mentally ready to set up two separate parties in England (just letting Scottish Labour go is going to be hard enough), so let me suggest another way forward for them:

In England, the Tories got 41% of the votes, while Labour got 32%, the Lib Dems 8%, UKIP 14% and the Greens 4%. Now, I don’t believe all UKIP’s voters are racists; many of them are just ordinary people who feel abandoned by the political classes in London, and UKIP seems to them to represent the most authentic working-class voice in England, so let’s assume that a more traditional working-class alliance could recapture at least half of them. If such an anti-Tory alliance could unite Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and half of UKIP, it would have won 51% of the votes in England last Thursday, which would have been translated into 299 seats (and the Tories would have got the remaining 234 seats). Given that this alliance would also have gained the majority of seats in Wales and would have found it easy to work together with the SNP, if would have been able to command an enormous majority in the House of Commons.

In other words, UK Labour doesn’t need to copy UKIP’s xenophobic ideas or the Tories’ austerity policies to win. All it takes is a genuine working-class alternative to the Tories, probably with policies very similar to the SNP’s in Scotland. Let’s not forget that the Tories got more than half the votes in only 175 constituencies, so the only reason they’re in power today is because the English opposition is fragmented.

Of course, assembling such an alliance wouldn’t work in Scotland because the SNP is already occupying this space, so here a better alternative for Labour is probably to set up a Unionist alliance, as discussed above.