Archive for March, 2020


The exit door. The state of Labour as Jeremy Corbyn departs

Sunday, March 29th, 2020

What of Labour?  This is a question that almost no one is thinking about as, almost unnoticed, Jeremy Corbyn slips out of the limelight.  Like the Magnificent Ambersons, Labour have got their comeuppance. They’d got it three times filled and running over. But those who had longed for it were not there to see it. And they never knew it, those who were still living had forgotten all about it, and all about them.

That irrelevance bodes ill for Labour.  Just how bad is the electoral landscape and what does the new leader, expected to be Sir Keir Starmer, need to be thinking about?

The post-election analysis has concentrated on two main possible causes of Labour’s problems: Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.  One simple way of testing the importance of either of these is to look at the before and after position. What were Labour’s challenges after the 2015 election (before Brexit, before Jeremy Corbyn) and what are they now?

In 2015, Labour won 232 seats.  In 2019 it won 203. So it has gone backwards by 29 seats over the course of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.  Obviously, that is not good.

I had a look at Labour’s performance then here.  I did not have a crystal ball.  Brexit was just a twinkle in some evil fairy godmother’s eye.  Jeremy Corbyn was still an obscure MP. What did I think had been happening then?

“Where do Labour retain strength?… London, the English Core Cities, Hull, Leicester, Coventry, Stoke, south Wales, the north east as a whole and the wider north west surrounding Liverpool, including north east Wales.  Or, to put it more briefly, by and large, big cities.  With worryingly few exceptions, Labour have become an almost exclusively metropolitan party.  They have lost Scotland and they have lost smaller town England.”

“Labour made ten gains from the Conservatives.  Only two of these seats fell clearly outside the Labour fiefdoms listed above: Hove and Lancaster & Fleetwood.  Meanwhile, the Conservatives took Plymouth Moor View, Telford, Southampton Itchen, Derby North, Vale of Clwyd and Gower.  Labour are getting close to maxing out in the metropolitan areas, but all the time are being edged out of smaller towns and cities – and Southampton, Derby and Plymouth are not really that small.

Many of the exceptions to the general picture – Norwich South, Cambridge, Oxford East, Exeter, Lancaster & Fleetwood – are constituencies with a large university presence. They may be smaller places, but they have much in common with the metropolitan areas. They are places where the words “urban professional” would not produce a curl of the lip.”

“If the Conservatives can broaden their appeal, they will be circling around seats like Barrow & Furness, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Derbyshire North East and Wrexham.  In all of these seats the Conservatives closed the gap on Labour from 2010.  There are others on the Labour defence list that are becoming increasingly marginal.  However the boundaries are drawn for 2020, there will be constituencies like these that are trending away from Labour.  Unless Labour changes course significantly.

More generally, if Labour does not start to broaden its appeal, it may even find that other apparent heartlands that are outside its current metropolitan focus are vulnerable to attack if other parties get their acts together. South Wales and the north east, for example, don’t fit particularly well with the rest of Labour’s current heartlands.  Fortunately for Labour, its opponents in those areas are UKIP and Plaid Cymru, and neither has so far demonstrated much seat-winning prowess.  But things can change.  Labour needs to recognise the danger fast.”

I was not blessed with second sight but 2019 is highly consistent with all of that.  I listed four seats that the Conservatives might be circling around. All four are now Conservative-held.  I noted that the north east did not fit particularly well with the rest of Labour’s then heartlands. The north east swung massively to the Conservatives.

It’s always nice to be right, of course, but that’s not my main point (it is a subsidiary point, I admit).  My main point is that neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Brexit seem particularly to have altered the axis between Labour and the Conservatives.  If anything, it is striking how little that has happened. The pendulum seems simply to have swung more in the Conservatives’ favour.

So the first thing that the new Labour leader needs to realise is that Labour’s problems are very deep-rooted indeed.  Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit may well not have helped. A successful Labour leader, however, is not just going to remedy the damage they might have caused but also tackle the pre-existing difficulty that Labour had in talking to those who live outside Britain’s biggest cities.

Having looked back to how things have changed (or not changed) since 2015, what new electoral trends should the next Labour leader be thinking about?  That will be for my next post.

Alastair Meeks


CO-19: It won’t be long before the global total tops the million mark

Saturday, March 28th, 2020


Joe Biden: tough seasoned candidate or bumbling geriatric?

Saturday, March 28th, 2020

How to reconcile his stumbles with his success

I have not covered myself with glory during the 2020 US presidential election so far. To date, I have tipped, successively, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden for victory – and I’m not exactly convinced at the moment that it’ll be any of them.

To be fair, I don’t think my reasoning has been a million miles out. At the start of the year, I assumed that impeachment would leave Trump broadly unaffected and that the strong economy would ensure his re-election, aided by a relatively weak Democratic field and a structural Republican advantage in the Electoral College. There was always the possibility that the economy could falter during 2020 but on New Year’s Day, that was just a hypothetical known-unknown in the mix; on balance, it didn’t look that likely.

However, Trump’s clearly complacent, arrogant and inadequate response to the Covid-19 outbreak made me reverse that assessment. His early inactions (partial Chinese flight restrictions apart) and wishful, dismissive attitude to it convinced me that he stood a high chance of being blamed for the outbreak becoming as bad as it was likely to – not least because those early inactions were likely to foreshadow his later attitude and decisions, as they have. His comment about ‘churches packed for Easter’ still speaks of a president who doesn’t understand the gravity of the developing situation.

As was also predictable from early on, once an outbreak became established in a country, the only alternative to a near-universal domestic epidemic was a shut-down of the economy and society in affected regions – which would come with a terrible economic toll.

On the face of it, the US is now suffering an even more severe outbreak than Europe: the US has gone from 5,000 to 100,000 reported cases four days faster than the combined EU figure and with the patchy lock-downs and continuance of domestic US flights, chances are that trend may well continue. That said, the number of reported cases is not an entirely reliable metric.

The economic data, by contrast, is more reliable – and awful. Words struggle to explain how dreadful this week’s unemployment claim figures were, with 3.3 million signing on: close to FIVE TIMES the previous record. A Reuters-Ipsos poll yesterday found that 23% of the US workforce had been laid off or furloughed during the Covid-19 outbreak. Those are not numbers against which you win re-election; those are numbers Herbert Hoover would recognise.

It is true that Trump’s approval ratings have risen during the epidemic but the election is more than seven months away. That’s more than enough time for the gloss to come off and for the Democrat’s to attack his decision-making. This should very much be their election to win.

Until we get to the candidate. For a long time, I expected that to be Joe Biden. The national polls were clear through 2019 that his initial lead wasn’t just about name recognition but there was genuine positive support too. Name-recognition candidates do not survive as front-runner in the months before the primaries begin if there isn’t substance there too; Biden did.

What changed my opinion was not the Iowa result (an unrepresentative state ‘voting’ using a cumbersome and undemocratic system), so much as clips of Biden’s campaigning: he looked utterly worn out. Against a rampant Sanders, I didn’t really see a way back if that was representative of where Biden was. Question was – question is – is that representative?

And there now is the crux of the 2020 Democratic nomination campaign. The 77-year old Biden has had more than enough mental stumbles along the way to raise serious questions as to whether he’s suffering from a degenerative mental condition. It’s true that Biden has never been the most verbally sure-footed politician and as such, his slips can be to some extent discounted as Joe-being-Joe. But only to some extent.

However, against that we have to weigh the fact that he has beaten two dozen rivals, including several heavyweight opponents. He has come through eleven debates, most as front-runner, without suffering any terminal gaffe and through most of them without any meaningful damage at all. The most recent of these was a two-hour head-to-head with Sanders: you do not emerge ahead from something like that if you’re suffering from dementia.

(It should be noted, as an aside, that Biden has not yet won the nomination. Sanders remains in the race albeit 300 delegates behind and with a 20% deficit, going on current polls. However, the Covid-19 epidemic has forced so many states to move their primaries back that more delegates will now be determined in June than in April and May combined and New York may well join that flight, back-loading the contest even more. There is potentially time for Sanders to recover – but it’s a very uphill task).

So, where does this leave us? My instinct is still that Biden will win and that while he’s far from a shoo-in, he’s also stronger than a lot of people give him credit for. The fundamentals look very poor for Trump and while he’s a master at negative campaigning, he’s never had to run against the background of his own record before – and chances are that record has two very serious failures this year not yet incorporated into the polling and approval figures.

But there are two known-unknowns we have to recognise. Firstly, he’s an elderly man engaged in a demanding campaign, meeting many people in the middle of a pandemic. There are clearly risks there given the fatality rate of Covid-19 sufferers among male 70-somethings. (This of course also applies to Sanders and Trump). And while I think Biden’s reputation as ‘gaffe-prone’ is exaggerated – there was nothing during his eight years as Vice President that caused serious embarrassment – there’s always the potential for a campaign-ending howler.

At evens, Trump remains a clear lay. Biden ought therefore to be value at 5/4 and is, even if it’s a bet I’d feel uneasy about. So despite the maxim that things don’t usually happen in politics out of the ordinary as often as media and pundits would have you think, there may still be value down the list. Sanders is now out to 50/1, which I think underestimates his strength and Biden’s vulnerability. Likewise, Warren at 250/1 looks over-priced should something happen (Cuomo as flavour of the month is too risky to justify 50/1, I think).

Biden remains an odd candidate: unusually weak for someone who’s dominated the polls for most of the last year and has a commanding lead in delegates. He should still be odds-on favourite and yet there’s more than a nagging doubt at the back of the mind as to the state of his.

David Herdson


The Past is Not Another Country

Friday, March 27th, 2020

When I was a child in Naples, the trams had signs on them telling people not to spit and also to offer up seats to the “mutilati di guerra” (the war wounded). The first sign always puzzled me. Spitting was terribly bad-mannered, of course, but why was this instruction so much more necessary than any other? It took one of my many elderly relatives to tell me that spitting and coughing into the space where others were could spread disease. And diseases could kill. This was not just about good manners but health. It was obvious to those who had grown up before WW2, had lived through it and WW1, had known a world without antibiotics and vaccines, a world where childhood diseases, some of them quite debilitating and often lethal, were commonplace (my mother and her siblings caught every childhood disease going), a world where pneumonia killed the young, where TB was a lethal disease not a romantic backdrop to operas, where childbirth was still a risk, where formula milk was not available for those mothers too sick to nurse their infants, where cuts were bathed with iodine to prevent infection. (I still remember how it stung and the fierce determination with which it was applied, no matter how loud our childish cries.) 

This was a world away from the post-war world I grew up in – where public health and vaccines and cures for all sorts of once lethal diseases were readily available, of antibiotics and astonishing medical developments of all sorts, a world which my generation and those after me have largely taken for granted.

It’s a long time since those signs were common-place or the ones reserving seats for the mutilated. War – such a common backdrop to every generation in the past – has, for those in the West at least, become a limited event, carried out in far-away places by professionals. The wrenching disruptive impact on individuals and societies of war and disease has faded into memory, into history, into books and dramas. We have forgotten that they have more often been normality for most societies and most generations. It has been our immense good fortune to live at a time and, for many of us, in a part of the world where peace and good health – and cures – are the norm and taken for granted. Even HIV is no longer the killer it once was.  If that virus could be beaten, then surely this new one will too?  We hope so. We should not assume it.

It may not be – or not for a while. In the meantime we will have to learn to live with the realisation that hygiene and cleanliness and care and precautions are necessary, that vulnerability is part of the human condition, that there may not be a pill for every ill. We are – for now and maybe for some time – living in a world and in a way which seems foreign and difficult for us but which would be recognisable to our grand-parents and great-grand-parents. We are more vulnerable than we think. We depend on others. We hide ourselves away when ill to protect ourselves and others. It is not heroic to struggle on when sick. Death comes to the young too. 

And even if a vaccine is found, other contagious diseases may develop and spread. Covid-19 is not the first such disease: there was SARS in 2002 and 2003, MERS in 2012. There have been warnings before, not taken as seriously as they should have been. (In 2007 scientists were warning that the presence of SARS-like viruses in bats, the trade in exotic wildlife and a culture of eating exotic mammals were creating a serious risk). This is not to criticise the steps taken now by countries in the face of an immediate problem but rather the previous complacency about the risks being taken and a failure to take action to mitigate or eliminate them.

All the focus now is on viruses and vaccines. With luck, hard work and scientific ingenuity we must hope we will get through this. And then we need to take very seriously indeed the issue of antibiotic resistance and the steps needed to deal with it, set out here. Rocket boosters should be put under those efforts. 

If we think 12 weeks of self-isolation, no visits to our favourite venue and having to ration loo rolls a bit of a pain, imagine a world without antibiotics. Most modern medicine would become impossible or much harder or much much riskier. We would be returning to a pre-war world. The past – in this respect anyway – would indeed become our country



9% of members of the UK cabinet have now tested positive

Friday, March 27th, 2020

Let’s hope the same proportion doesn’t apply to the country as a whole

On a morning of dramatic developments in the UK it has been announced that both PM Johnson and Healthsec Hancock have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Given that there are just 23 members of the cabinet that means that just under 9% of its members have been afflicted. Maybe that is not surprising because the two have obviously spent a lot of time in each other’s company of late.

They add to the two other MPs who are in the same position.

In many ways this might help to bring over even more just how serious this is and will reinforce the case that the government has been making for social distancing.

Mike Smithson


The football season should be completed even if matches are behind closed doors

Friday, March 27th, 2020

At least we’d be talking about something other than the virus

The thing that I find most weird about the current lockdown situation is that there is no football or other our professional sport. At this point we would be having the build up to the Grand National, the Boat Race and the final stages the football season.

The lack of things to bet on has huge implications for the betting industry because so much of their turnover is driven by live sporting events mostly football and horse racing. I don’t know whether it is still the case but it used to be that about a quarter of all the betting each year was on the Grand National.

I’ve been a soccer fan all my life and the default radio station that comes on on in my car is talkSPORT which is managing to fill the hours and days at the moment with sporting discussion even though there is no sport itself taking place.

I just long for normal football weekends to return turn but that seems highly unlikely. My team is Burnley and before soccer was suspended we were going into the final nine games relatively confident of avoiding relegation and looking another season in the Premier League.

Next week a decision is due to be made on what should happen to soccer th Given that the coronavirus crisis looks set to go on for months that raises questions about what happens to promotion and relegation in the Premiership the championship and the Football League in England. This has huge financial implications for the clubs involved.

In my view the best thing that could happen is for the remaining rounds of games to be played but behind closed doors. This is far better than any of the other proposed options like freezing the season where it stands. Maybe a special TV arrangement could be concluded so all fans could watch their teams live.

Mike Smithson


Without intensive social distancing the UK death-toll could reach 500k – leading epidemiologist

Friday, March 27th, 2020


WH2020: New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, moves to 3rd favourite in the Dem nomination betting

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

With the coronavirus epidemic dominating the headlines almost right across the world a new name has appeared in the top three on the Betfair WH2020 Dem nomination market. He’s Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York which has the worst figures of any state in the US .

Everyday in the US, usually at 1115 EST, Cuomo gives his daily report and observations on the continuing crisis which threatens the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. Even though he is totally concerned with his own state millions are turning to this each day rather than Trump’s White House briefings for the latest analysis and detail.

His tough no nonsense approach contrasts sharply with the White House which has talked optimistically of things getting better after by Easter. Cuomo’s sessions also appear far better and informative than the Boris Johnson daily briefings.

One name that is almost totally absent at the moment in the US is the Dem nomination front-runner, 77 year old Joe Biden who is struggling to find something relevant to say. In media coverage terms the main opposition to the White House is seen as Cuomo.

This has inevitably led to speculation that he might be a possible for the nomination. Quite how that would come about is hard to say but if things continue as then Biden could come under pressure.

Last week I reported here that I’d had 180/1 bet on Cuomo. That is starting to look very good.

Mike Smithson