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I was delighted to see that a London Christmas institution has had a rebrand. Comedian, writer and very public atheist Robin Ince has been running Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, what The Guardian described as a “silly but rousing celebration of rationalism”, for a decade. He packs out venues with audiences who want to see scientists, mathematicians and philosophers riff on the season of goodwill, rather than bible readings. It always looked a lot of fun, but I’ve never been because the name appeared to exclude me.
Maybe I will go this Christmas because it has been renamed Nine Lessons and Carols for Curious people. The shift from a self-consciously anti-religious stance seems to go deeper than just branding, because the charity receiving support from the event this year is The Trussell Trust.
The Trussell Trust is most famous for running food banks, mainly in partnership with local churches. It describes itself as an:
So, we can still assume, a mainly ‘godless’ audience will be donating to churches that are helping those in need this Christmas.
Thank God for some good news. Not because religious people can stick some kind of flag in Robin Ince, or his very successful event (we can’t, and shouldn’t). But because in increasingly tribal times, with lines drawn ever tighter and positions held more strongly, this is a move in the opposite direction.
The last shadows of the New Atheist movement must really be fading when a public atheist can acknowledge (even if only implicitly) that religious people might be curious too, might like science and maths and reason too. And not only acknowledge it, but financially support a charity founded on a bible verse. Maybe there is reason for hope in the season of peace to all mankind after all.
Last night’s decisive victory for the Conservatives ensures that Boris Johnson will be returning to Downing Street with a much bigger majority than before. It also means that Labour are consigned to the Opposition benches for a fifth election in a row, with the widening schism in the party thrown into full display. As the party’s civil war unfolds, here are UnHerd’s five interesting moments from the past 24 hours.
1. Former home secretary Alan Johnson scolds Momentum founder Jon Lansman for refusing to listen to their working class base.
Alan Johnson vs Jon Lansman pic.twitter.com/7CxdJZOZE4
— The Wilderness Years (@wildernessyrs) December 13, 2019
2. Labour MP Lisa Nandy acknowledges that Labour had ignored the heartlands for too long and promises reconciliation in her victory speech.
WATCH: "This has been a long time coming. They have been telling us in towns like Wigan for some time that all is not right… I have listened. I have heard you. I will make it my mission from this day forward to bring Labour home to you."
Lisa Nandy's victory speech: pic.twitter.com/7KA8Um21tB
— Sienna Rodgers (@siennamarla) December 13, 2019
3. Labour leaver Kate Hoey echoes Nandy’s comments, saying that the Labour Party has “lost touch with its working class” supporters.
"Labour has lost touch with its working class, decent supporters" – former Labour MP Kate Hoey says there'll have to be a "huge, huge debate" within the party#BBCElection latest: https://t.co/4vrwZ0QrmD pic.twitter.com/QZPULsAyq8
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) December 12, 2019
4. Some former Labour members were in a less introspective mood. Instead of confronting his own role as an anti-Brexit mascot in the party’s downfall, Alastair Campbell laid blame at the feet of Lansman.
“If Boris Johnson gets a full term, it will have been 50 years since any Labour leader other than Tony Blair won a general election"
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) December 13, 2019
5. While other Labour activists were left in a state of total denial…
— Sun Politics (@SunPolitics) December 13, 2019
In all the thousands of column inches written about Boris Johnson in the past few months, perhaps the most common critique has been that he has no principles. The line is that he’s an opportunist, who having been the liberal mayor of London, became a populist nationalist in service of his own career goals. “He doesn’t believe in anything but himself,” is the refrain.
But in the face of this historic election victory, it seems that that very weakness – that Protean adaptability — has really been his greatest strength; and in an important sense it mirrors the strength of this extraordinarily adaptable country.
When the country feels so divided that one half cannot understand the other, only a hologrammatic character like Boris Johnson stands any chance of bringing it together. The fact that he can say one thing which sounds like three different things to three different people, while frustrating for political columnists, is a necessary requirement to be successful, as he put it this morning, from “Woking to Workington, Kensington to Clywd south, Surrey Heath to Sedgefield, Wimbledon to Wolverhampton.”
The man who famously wrote two columns about Brexit to make his mind up, one in favour and one against, now has to hold two ideas of Britain in his mind and try to bring them into a productive new settlement: the liberal, progressive, Britain of young people and the cities that he himself epitomises, and the more conservative Britain of the towns and countryside, that make up the majority of his voters.
The Conservative manifesto was modest and uninspiring, but certain gestures showed that he understands the potential ground for this new settlement: tilting left on economics so as to protect people from the ravages of the globalised market, pushing back against the libertarian instincts of some of his colleagues — see commitments to intervene to support industry, raise the minimum wage, protect the high street; but tilting right on culture — controlling immigration, fostering and celebrating our national character and traditions.
The astonishing fact this morning is that, while all across Europe countries have large and growing populist parties, in some cases nasty ones, the UK has once again extinguished its populist movements by absorbing them. The Brexit Party won only 2% of the vote yesterday. The Conservative Party, arguably the most successful political party in world history in technical terms, chose a shapeshifting leader and has once again adapted to a new version of itself. What matters now is that that change really happens.
Giles Fraser writes movingly today about the erosion of our ‘imagined community’ as a nation. He worries that that the dwindling of this overarching sense of solidarity could undermine our capacity to recover from political divisions following this most fractious of general elections, and come together as a nation.
I want to offer a message of hope: outside London, Giles, it really isn’t that bad. I live in a small town in the shires and while the invigilators at my polling station report that turnout has been high so far, the mood in the polling station was cheerful. And ordinary small-town life is trundling on: our preschool daughter’s nativity show took place his morning, and the talk between parents over coffee and biscuits afterwards was about three-year-olds in adorable costumes, not whether people who vote this way or that are evil.
It is much easier to feel as though communities have collapsed into antagonistic echo chambers if you live in a big city with a large and relatively transient population. Only these conditions can provide both the volume and turnover of people necessary to cherry-pick your acquaintance for perfect consonance with your own views, and to excommunicate friends for a single political transgression.
It is far harder, if you live in a small town, to have a political quarrel with (say) the local butcher, given you are likely to want a pound of mince off him next week as well and the next nearest butcher is five miles away.
All of this is really to say that a key thing that binds communities together, even more fundamentally than imagined communities, is needing one another. If we want to bring the nation together, we could do worse than starting with how and why we need each other, and working backwards from there to the values that we share.
It’s absolutely bucketing it down in north London, where I live. I voted a few hours ago, back when it was merely overcast, because I am very virtuous and you should all admire me greatly.
Now, I’m sure >80% of people reading this have watched The West Wing, because the sort of person who reads blog posts about electoral turnout are also the sort of people who watch The West Wing. And they’ll remember that scene in the season four episode Election Night, when Will Bailey stands outside, invoking the rain gods, praying that they unleash a storm to suppress voter turnout.
(Spoiler alert: the storm arrives, a dead guy gets elected to Congress as a result, and the upshot is that Sam Seaborn is written out of the series because Rob Lowe got greedy with his wage demands. But I digress.)
The idea that the weather affects turnout is a persistent one. You can understand it — if you’re umming and ahhing over whether or not to vote, and then the heavens open, you might decide against it. But the evidence that it actually does is pretty weak.
One widely cited 2007 study in the US found that an inch of rain suppresses voter turnout by 1%. That is a lot of rain — the average monthly rainfall in London in December is 58mm, just over two inches. But they did find a result, and say that it may have been a large enough effect to influence the 2000 election, when Florida was extremely rainy. Other studies have found similar small impacts in the Netherlands and Spain.
That finding doesn’t appear to replicate everywhere else. A big Swedish study found that rain had no discernible effect on turnout. It may be an artefact of different voting systems: for instance, the Swedish and American voting systems are very different — not least in that Swedes vote on a Sunday and Americans vote on a Tuesday, meaning that Americans are more likely to be rushing to fit it in around work.
And neither system is exactly like the British one. But Chris Hanretty, a political scientist at Royal Holloway University, looked at correlations between rain levels and voter turnout during the European referendum in 2016, and found no statistically significant link. Also, if you eyeball this graph of turnout by season, it doesn’t seem obvious that winter/autumn elections have lower turnout than spring/summer ones.
But *even if there is a link*, it’s very unclear how the turnout suppression will actually affect things. Let’s imagine that the one inch of rain = 1% reduced turnout claim is precisely accurate. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there actually will be an inch of rain in London today. (Which is unlikely. In reality, at the time of writing, according to this endearingly nerdy hobbyist in NW3 with a rain gauge on their roof, there has been about 1mm of rain, or about 1/25th of an inch.)
Then let’s say that the 1% of voters who don’t vote when it’s raining are much more likely to vote Labour. Let’s say they’re 60% Labour, 40% Tory, compared to the rest of voters who are 40% Labour 60% Tory.
(Please note: Chris Hanretty also did a Twitter thread along these lines the other day; go and have a read. I’ve used my own, simpler numbers.)
So imagine a constituency of 10,000 voters, all of whom vote every time apart from that 1% who don’t like the rain. 9,900 of them would turn out in the rain; you’d get a Tory win of 5,940 to 3960.
If it *didn’t* rain, and all 10,000 turned out, you’d get a Tory win of 5,980 to 4,020. Under these super-idealised situations, assuming that the strongest possible weather effect is real, assuming that the constituency is in the middle of a Biblical storm such as only comes once or twice a year, and assuming an implausibly large difference between the voting habits of people who own an umbrella and people who don’t, we can make the rain have an effect of a bit less than half of 1% on the result.
That’s not nothing. In 2017 there were about 20 seats in which that could have theoretically changed the result. But, again, this is incredibly idealised. The real effects would be much weaker; I suspect that they would be indistinguishable from zero.
The polls suggest Labour are going to lose, probably badly. That may not turn out to be true, but going out and calling upon the rain gods to either come or go (depending on your political preferences) probably won’t help very much. And it turns out you can’t trust The West Wing for psephological information, that’s what really hurts.
The last few polls are dribbling in, then it’s nothing until the exit poll at 10pm (oh, and the actual results). Not until 10pm, anyway. But to tide you over, here’s one from America.
It’s by Quinnipiac, and it’s mostly about the race for the Democratic nomination. The top line isn’t that exciting — Joe Biden is still out in front, despite everything. The interesting stuff is in the data tables, which reveal a chasmic generational divide.
Among the under-35s, Biden limps in third on just 11%. So who does find favour with young and young-ish voters? Is it Pete Buttigieg — who at just 37 is the youngest frontrunner by several decades? Er, no. He gets a humiliating 2% from his fellow kids.
Instead, way out in front, it’s the veteran socialist, Bernie Sanders. He may be 78 , he may have had a heart attack on the campaign trail, but among 18-to-34 year olds, he’s on a commanding vote share of 52%. Among his own 65+ age group, however, he gets a mere 2%.
Class, race, sex, income, education, geography, religion: all have an impact on political preferences. But as Ed West argues here there’s an urgent debate to be had around age.
Whether in the US or UK, the popularity of hoary-haired old men bearing free gifts isn’t a seasonal effect — but a desire among the young to transform a system that has let them down.
Issues like the affordability of housing and higher education are obvious, though unanswered, concerns, but it goes much deeper. As Freddie Sayers explained earlier this week, we’ve raised a generation that has struggled to find meaning and purpose in life.
Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic need to start thinking what they’re going to do about that.
Of course, over here, it’s too late for the current election campaign. If the Tories fall short, it will be because, beyond Brexit, they’ve offered too little hope of change.
For those who doubt that family structure denialism is a thing on the Left, one need only open the pages of The New York Times this week. They ran an op-ed titled “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home” which sought to minimize the importance of family structure when it comes to “black kids’ success”. According to the article, “resources, more than family structure” are what really matter.
Drawing on her own research on high school completion, Harvard sociologist Christina Cross argued that “living apart from a biological parent does not carry the same cost for black youths as for their white peers, and being raised in a two-parent family is not equally beneficial”. The article’s broader message: for black children, the intact, married family is not so important, indeed not even close in its importance compared to structural factors like racial segregation and poverty.
Yet if one looks at the literature, what this amounts to is an egregious exercise in cherry-picking, which draws on only two studies to make the argument about family structure and black children; in fact, she completely passes over a finding from her own study that showed the link between family structure and college enrollment was not lower for African-Americans.
So, what does the research really tell us about family structure and race? One of the least understood areas of research is the so-called “neighbourhood effect”. This refers to everything from racial segregation to concentrated poverty, and here family structure is a big part of the story — on outcomes ranging from economic mobility to incarceration.
In fact, new research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that one of the strongest predictors of a big racial gap in adult income between black and white men traces back to the absence of black fathers in the wider neighbourhood where they grew up.
By contrast, black boys who grew up in neighbourhoods with lots of black fathers (and, the study finds, married adults) are much more likely to earn about as much as white men when they grow up. “That is a pathbreaking finding,” William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, told The Times. “They’re talking about the presence of fathers in a given census tract.”
In other words, more black fathers in the village translates into less racial economic inequality for black men.
To talk then, about, the “myth of two-parent home” when it comes to thinking about “black kids’ success” does a profound disservice to confronting racial inequality in America. While family structure is not the only factor implicated in this divide, it is a central factor when it comes to racial gaps on outcomes as varied as school suspensions, poverty, and affluence.
If we wish to close the racial gap, it will not be enough to address the structural barriers in the path of black kids. We must also figure out new ways to increase the share of black children being raised in intact families and in neighbourhoods with lots of father-present families.
W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the National Marriage Project. Additional writing by Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep, a charter school network based in New York, NY, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
There was much hand-wringing at around 10pm last night, as the final YouGov MRP model arrived, showing a dramatic narrowing and the theoretical Tory majority slashed from 68 to 28.
Every election, the polling world tries to correct for the errors of the previous cycle, and usually end up over-correcting. Last time, it was the YouGov MRP model that was much-derided and ignored, and ended up being eerily accurate; so this time, everyone is taking the YouGov MRP as gospel.
The trouble is, what the result most powerfully shows is really how astonishingly small changes in the vote share can produce totally different results. The previous YouGov model had the Conservatives on 43% and Labour on 32%, ending up with a majority of 68; the new model showing a majority of 28 has the Conservatives still on 43% and Labour on… 34%. This small change means 21 more Labour seats and a totally different world. But look at how many of those Labour seats only just get over the line since the previous model:
A tiny movement in the other direction and all those bottom seats can go blue again.
Two weeks ago, when the first YouGov model came out, I wrote:
Well, that seems to have happened, or nearly. The momentum could continue today or go in the opposite direction. Literally nobody can know, and it would be foolish to predict.
Forget the 48/52 closeness of the Brexit referendum result — this general election will take it to a whole new level. Tiny shifts in vote in each direction — less than any pollsters’ margin of error, fewer than anyone can argue is a clear expression of the ‘will of the people’ — will move large numbers of seats in or out of the Tory column and potentially change the future of the country.
Ultimately, the reason for this is that no party has managed to inspire voters with a vision of the future that puts them into proper victory territory; until that happens such tiny changes will remain decisive. This model reveals that, even if it goes the Tories’ way and ends up looking like a decisive victory tomorrow night, they’re skating on thin ice. They haven’t convinced yet.
This is a high stakes election, but a low energy campaign. This week it finally flared into life, but with just three days to go it’s too little, too late.
Why was the rest of it so boring? Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I can’t help feeling that election campaigns used to be better. If so, here’s what’s gone wrong:
Election campaigns last forever these days. It’s not just the official campaign period, but getting the election called in the first place — a process complicated by the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Let’s hope the next government repeals it. That way we can go straight into the campaign without the endless run-up, and get the whole thing done in three or four weeks.
2. TV debates
We’ve had these in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 — and they don’t get any better. They simply don’t suit a country with two big parties and lots of small ones (especially when most of the latter are grouped on one side of the political spectrum). The only way to be fair to everyone is not to have them at all.
Let’s go back to interviews only, with the parties and broadcasters agreeing to a full schedule well ahead of the campaign.
Television changed electioneering forever and now social media is doing the same. By allowing tiny slivers of the electorate to be identified and targeted, there is no such thing as the election campaign anymore, but rather many micro-campaigns that the conventional media can neither influence nor report upon.
There’s no turning back the clock on this one. Our democracy is digital now — in fact, our entire culture. Increasingly, the only place where people come together outside their online silos is where they live in the real world. Politics should be localised accordingly.
When one of the major parties has lost all sense of fiscal continence, election pledges lose all meaning. There’s no point in parties setting out their priorities — because the unlimited spending party will simply promise to spend more than anyone else on everything.
Unable to have a sensible argument about money, the debate inevitably moves on to ‘values’ issues like Brexit. Those may be what we should be talking about — but usually we already know where the parties stand on such matters. The detailed, costed manifesto is increasingly irrelevant.
5. Dead cat strategies
The metaphor of putting a dead cat on the table refers to the introduction of a deliberately shocking topic to the conversation. The idea is to distract everyone’s attention from where it isn’t wanted or keep it fixed on where it is.
Dead-catting has become more subtle. After all, it doesn’t take much to distract the media — a row about who does what interview with whom is enough to do the trick. Meanwhile, using a dodgy statistic or anecdote to court controversy can do more to set the agenda than a properly thought-out case.
Spin has always been part of politics, but there’s a difference between embellishing the truth and deliberately displacing it with arguments about arguments.
I have never enjoyed general elections — and have never voted positively in one. Sometimes I spoiled my ballot, as a protest against the injustice of being asked to hold my nose and pick the least worst of a god awful bunch. Sometimes I couldn’t be bothered. But having voted to Leave in the referendum in 2016, I feel completely different this year.
Even in 2017 General Election, those of us who had voted to Leave were still convinced we’d get our political demands recognised — I was complacent. But this Thursday is giving me a hernia — even in a seat as immovable as mine in Hackney North, I’m completely torn.
One thing is clear — I cannot and will not vote for a party that further jeopardises the democratic will. Voting for the Labour Party’s insulting pretend Brexit deal (on the condition we beg for it in a referendum) or the Liberal Democrat’s kamikaze assault on democracy is not an option. To do so would not only deny the value of voting itself by undermining Brexit, it would be one more stat to bolster the opinions of sneering idiots like Hugh Grant who took a break from his foppish existence to inform the British public via the Today programme that we’d been sold a ‘pack of lies’.
But what’s not clear is whether sacrificing all my other political values and voting for the Conservatives (or the Brexit Party) would produce the result I want. Like millions of other voters, I want to leave the European Union — but that’s just the beginning of my plans. Boris Johnson’s ‘oven ready’, microwavable, quicker-than-making-angel-delight approach to Brexit is decidedly unappetising. For him, Brexit is merely a policy to ‘get done’ so that the Tories can go back to being the Tories.
As for Nigel Farage, his decision to guard against vote splitting instead of taking a principled stand has meant that no party now represents the so-called ‘hard’ (what I call full) Brexit option of leaving the European Union with no strings, no IOU’s and no bits left behind.
For what it’s worth, my own daydream of grasping political power (almost as delusional as Jo Swinson’s) would take the form of a radically left-wing populist approach. I want to smash the monarchy, not just because of the likes of Andrew but because of its elitist and defunct position in society. The House of Lords would have to go too. I wish just one party would take the democratic spirit of Brexit, harness the fear expressed in the demonisation of it from the British elite, and mount a radical movement to revolutionise British politics. If Brexit doesn’t happen, it will be catastrophic for the future of British democracy. But if it gets watered down by Tory nonsense, it might not be worth it at all.
But, much like an inflated ego, I’ve had to pop a giant hole in that dream. This general election isn’t going to be about making positive choices, it’s about weighing up tactical voting vs principled stances and seeing which one convinces you most. It doesn’t feel good — but then again, politics rarely does. As for my little nugget of political power — I still haven’t decided who, if anyone, can have mine.