The Eastbourne Ultimatum

November 16, 2018 § 16 Comments

An open letter has been circulating, which has a range of over fifty signatories from across the party from ordinary members to federal committee members and a number of PPCs, calling for the suspension of the Liberal Democrat whip from Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne. I was the author of the text of the letter, and I wanted to put a post out to explain why I took the decision to write the letter.

I did so because, in short, whip withdrawals are a disciplinary tool used for issues as important as the budget or greater. This vote is of significantly greater importance than any single budget in the last half-decade at least; it’s a vote where the government’s position is directly antithetical to our core values, our party policy, and our constitutional position. The idea that we can’t or shouldn’t validly impose a full whip with effective sanctions on a vote of this magnitude is, to me, utterly bizarre. I have absolutely no interest in making a party that is too jumpy to apply sanctions to MPs, and I absolutely respect that MPs should be allowed a significant amount of leeway in disagreements with the party. But even a broad church has to put its walls somewhere, and voting for a relationship with the EU and the world that is as limited and bleak as the one that Theresa May’s deal envisages? That steps outside those walls for me, and for many others across the party.

I say this not as someone who disrespects in any way Stephen Lloyd’s electoral achievements – but we can’t continually put the career of one MP ahead of the wellbeing of our party and our movement. We lost significant quantities of support, and our reputation was damaged well beyond party circles, over Cable and Farron failing to turn up for a Brexit vote a few months back; we can’t afford in terms of manpower or finances to be seen as a split house when it comes to this vote. The question isn’t just one of Eastbourne alone, it’s about balancing Eastbourne with our ability to win across the vast majority of our other targets and held seats. In those circumstances, the suspension of the whip is an entirely proportionate response. Suspending the whip doesn’t revoke someone’s party membership, and it isn’t even necessarily permanent; it is however an important way of signalling to the vast bulk of our members and voters that we are a party led by our values and policies first and that we do require people to uphold them if they want to sit as a Liberal Democrat in elected office. That’s absolutely vital if we’re going to rebuild our political identity with the public.

Some people have expressed concern to me about the optical issues of suggesting disciplinary action against one of our own MPs: the truth is that ignoring this sort of thing won’t make it go away, not when there are much bigger fish in the pond like Labour who are happy, however hypocritically, to repeatedly hammer us on things like this in order to try and stop us recovering amongst centre-left voters. I see people’s concern, but I think it’s based on the false premise that there’s a route to sitting there quietly and hoping this all blows over, which really isn’t the case. Waiting to act until the Labour wing of the media catch up and start attacking us on it is waiting too long: we need to get on and give a firm signal here. People expect us to be a party driven by internationalist values, and signalling that we’re not prepared to take disciplinary action when on vital parliamentary votes an MP votes with the government in opposing our flagship policy and core values is a far, far worse optical message to send than taking clear, calm, measured action to show the public what our values are.

People are welcome to disagree with my assessment of the situation, of course, and I respect that disagreement, but I think the call I’ve made is the correct one. To the people who suggested I should “consider my position” (what position, I’m not sure), I can inform you that I have done and on full consideration I’m content with it. I don’t have any antipathy towards Stephen or anyone else here – but I do think that when it comes to what may be one of the most pivotal parliamentary votes in a generation, it’s reasonable to expect that the party should look after its own interests and values.



If you’d like to join myself and others in signing the letter, you can find it here.


Edit 17/11/18: It was correctly pointed out to me that I had discussed us losing members, rather than simply support, over the Farron/Cable vote failure, which was too specific a claim in view of the fact that we don’t have those numbers available. I did hear from numerous people and sources about that issue at the time, and have edited the text to more generally encapsulate that problem as I saw it. Thanks to Paul Holmes for the query.


The real men behind the “Real Men”

November 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

Predictably, I saw yet more memes yesterday lauding the “real men” of the UK’s wartime generations, and comparing them favourably to the “offended, mentally ill gender neutral vegan snowflakes” that men supposedly are today. I didn’t make this post on remembrance day itself because yesterday was a time to reflect more than to argue, but I am going to say it now – that attitude is monumentally disrespectful.

The war generations in the first half of the last century were people like us. They weren’t some kind of invincible demigods, and building them up as if they were doesn’t respect the reality and hurt that they went through. War and the resulting mental ill health damaged those people permanently. Many had post-traumatic stress disorder for life – men who couldn’t listen to the whistling of a kettle without flinching, or for whom loud noises could trigger dangerous flashbacks. For others, the violence of what they had seen made them erratic and dangerous to be around – a knock-on effect that damaged the lives of them and their loved ones.

Living in a society that often didn’t recognise those effects on them, let alone one that severely repressed other parts of their lives for many of them – because yes, we had gay, bi, and gender non-conforming soldiers fighting just like all the others, who had to go through the same hell as everyone else without being allowed to admit to parts of their own identity – wasn’t something that strengthened those people later in life. Quite the opposite, it was something that increased the pain they went through. A lot of the time, rather than being able to admit to who they were or how things were affecting them, they killed themselves. The 1930s, a decade in which many First World War survivors were also having to grapple with being unable to feed their families properly during the depression, saw suicide rates three times higher than they are today.

People today have made significant, though by no means complete, progress towards respecting and accepting people for who they are and towards accepting that mental illness is something that needs compassion and support, not shutting down. And that’s good, for ex-service personnel and for everyone else. So I’m sick of seeing social media posts attacking the fact we have a more caring attitude to trans people, a less rigid attitude to people’s roles in life, a sensible compassionate approach to mental illness. Every time you post or share one of those, you send the message that the military service of those who are trans or those who don’t eat meat is somehow worth less. You send the message, too, that you don’t care about looking after folk who need it, when they need it – hardly the world that the world war two soldiers who came back and voted in droves for a government that would build a National Health Service wanted. Perhaps most self-defeatingly, you send the message that we should paper over what the soldiers on the battlefields of the world wars went through in favour of some sort of plastic cut-out rose tinted view of what people endured.

One final point about “real men”. Think about the men in your life when you read this, the ones you love and care about, and ask yourself a question. If that person was struggling, if that person was trying to deal with horrors in their mind, would I rather know and do something to help? Or would I rather that person kept the mask up, kept trying to be a “real man” like people claim “real men” used to be, until it got too much for them and killed them? I think there’s only one of those answers that really respects what wartime PTSD sufferers, or anyone else with mental health issues, goes through. Which society would you rather live in?

If there is one thing which people of all generations deserve, then, it is this; that we allow them to be vulnerable, that we show them compassion, that we respect, above all, that they were and are human.

Thanks for reading.

(A brief note that this was originally written as a post on my Facebook wall – if you use Facebook and want to share the original directly, you can find it here.)

Constitution changes: or, where leaders should tread lightly

September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

Large, far-reaching constitutional changes can be an important way to revitalise a political movement, refashioning it for new challenges and to bring in more people or engage members better. They can also be embarrassing, gimmicky wastes of time and money that at best are never spoken of again and at worst consign political careers to ignominious fates. The stakes are by nature high – which is why it’s vital that the process for consulting and deciding on such changes is fair, open, and engages members in making fully informed decisions. Whilst the leadership have been quick to try and reassure members in general terms that this will occur, there are some specific measures that the leadership may be tempted to use to strengthen their hand within the party – but which could be unwise in practice.

One temptation might be for the leadership to call a special conference, rather than leaving the amendments until a vote at our usual Spring conference. The attractions of this are obvious; it could attract those members most motivated to vote for the policy, and would allow the whole thing to be sorted before the expected Brexit furore in March. It would however, I believe, be a significant mistake.

First, it restricts the timeframe on an issue that isn’t obviously time limited, and may mean that there will not be time to properly scrutinise and, if necessary, redraft any amendments before attempting to pass them. Introducing a supporters’ scheme is likely to require significant additional burdens on local parties (who will need to be the ones signing people up for it) and on HQ, which will need to find the funds to vet the presumably large number of people who’d sign up for a vote in our leadership elections. The constitutional, manpower, and financial implications of this move all need proper consultation and it would be unwise to rush into this without giving members the chance to fully consider them.

Second, the travel and accommodation costs of getting to an additional special conference may restrict the people there, in particular leaving out lower income, younger, or disabled members who struggle to get to conferences as it is. Passing a motion to theoretically broaden our movement in a situation where the full diversity of our membership can’t be consulted might (rightly) be seen as a strange road to take for a party that has for some years been talking about the need to commit itself to diversifying decision-making to bring in people outside a white, middle-class activist core.

Additionally, the leadership may wish to take care when it comes to surrendering the precedent that they have set of informing members that special conferences are too expensive. I was involved in negotiations with FCC in 2017 when the possibility of a special conference over Brexit policy was raised. We were then informed that the cost – estimated by FCC members we were in discussions with at £40,000 for a special conference not connected to the main conference – was an expense the party could ill afford. If the leadership now believes the party is sufficiently flush with cash to make such expenditures to accelerate a constitutional change by eight weeks, party members are likely to take them at their word and decide that issues that have recently struggled to make it onto conference agendas might just be worth gathering 200 signatures for after all.

The other risky option for the leadership would be to use a consultative ballot to find, if I may coin the term, the will of the membership. Given our stance on ensuring that opinion ballots are properly managed, this would need extremely careful handling. It would be a grave embarrassment for the party, not to mention a giant red target for satirists left, right, and centre, if those opposed to changing the status quo were not given a fair chance to make their case and the leadership won such a ballot on that basis. This possibility further emphasises the issue of time-frame too – for members to be able to make an informed choice, the member ballot needs to have enough time attached for local parties to run discussion meetings and both sides to make their case.

We await the outcome of Vince’s speech tomorrow – I will be interested to see his actual proposals in detail when they appear, and I fully hope that they’ll be ones I can support personally. Vince’s job here won’t begin and end with a single speech, though – it’s incumbent both upon Vince and on Federal Board to ensure we have a transparent, well run consultative process that isn’t seen to be bouncing members into any particular decision. Whatever decisions we make about the future of the Liberal Democrats, it’s important that we make them openly and democratically in accordance with our values, so we can move forward together to demand a more liberal Britain.

No Recourse to Public Funds: An unpleasant, unreasonable, unconscionable rule

August 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

“No Recourse to Public Funds” is a phrase which has become surprisingly common in the immigration policies of the British centre-left. The idea is essentially that, instead of the current system of having a flat cap on incomes below which you’re not allowed to bring a spouse to the UK, instead the family simply need to show that they are not going to have to rely on “public funds” (social security, essentially). After a number of clearly inhumane cases where the Conservative flat income cap has ripped families in half the idea of NRPF has appealed to some as a “moderate” alternative; it appeared in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, and it’s reared its head again in the upcoming immigration paper that will be debated at Liberal Democrat conference next month.

Here’s the problem: the No Recourse to Public Funds rule is not moderate by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it a reasonable, decent basis for a progressive policy on family migration.

We know that income caps rip families apart. Even when a family meets the criteria, cases of families who have been forced to spend thousands of pounds on appeals and repeat applications or who have had proofs of income rejected have been all too common. People like Grace Smith, nearly deported for failing to meet income rules despite both her and her partner working full time, Wanwan Qiao, who was nearly deported away from her newborn baby until the Home Office buckled to public pressure, and  Laura Clarke, whose son is growing up without his Ethiopian father, should never have had to be in the situations where I end up mentioning their names in this blogpost. They are people who just happened to fall in love with someone from another country, and for this the state deemed it necessary to put them through thousands of pounds and years of appeals, and a great deal of very real pain and fear at the prospect of being removed from the people they loved.

These are not isolated cases. The Guardian reported this April that fifteen thousand children in Britain are growing up with a parent missing due to the UK’s visa rules. Fifteen thousand children whose growing up may be badly affected by lack of a loving parent who has been told they are too poor to be allowed to see their child, in Britain, in the twenty-first century. Of course there are many couples without children caught in the horrific maze of the UK immigration system too, some of whom likely feel unable to start a family in which their child would have to grow up without one of its parents, and all of whom deserve to have their marriage and love respected by the law. For those who are already here, too, there is the struggle to stay above the income threshold, pressuring those families to keep working any job that will get them to the threshold even when it may not be the right decision for themselves or their dependants.

No Recourse to Public Funds is not a solution to this situation, for two reasons. The first is what I consider the broader moral case: that it is essentially and fundamentally wrong for a government to tell people who they’re allowed to have a consensual, loving relationship with and who they’re not. Banning two people who are in love from having a family life together is wrong, whether you do it by telling them there’s a cap on their incomes or whether you simply force some families to split up by denying them the money they need to live together. It is also a rule that is directly discriminatory against those who are disabled or unwell and need additional support: what kind of society are we if we ask people to choose between the person they love and the ability to cater for their own disability?

The more sinister thing, though, is that when it’s been implemented in practice, as it was in the UK prior to 2012, the rule isn’t as simple as simply preventing immigrants from applying for certain funds once they arrived. Applicants were, in fact, asked to prove in advance that they would not make recourse to public funds. This is actually a logical consequence of any NRPF system, given the potential costs of emergency support or deportations if people were to turn out not to have the means to avoid recourse to public funds. So how do you prove that you won’t have to rely on public funds? You get asked your income, and based on that, someone makes a decision.

Reread the last sentence of the previous paragraph, and think about it for a moment.

Because yes, that description exactly fits the system we have at the moment. The one that removes people from their loved ones, the one that has left thousands of families split apart. An NRPF system might have lower income thresholds than the current cap, but given that the decision would no longer (even in theory) be based on the single metric of a centrally set income limit, there is a real risk of decisions being more variable and arbitrary from case to case, throwing some families into even more chaos.

NRPF is, in short, an income cap by the back door, capable of doing every bit as much damage to family life, causing every bit as much legal confusion, and hurting people for who they love just the same.

Liberal Democrats have led the way in the past decade on moving towards a world where your gender shouldn’t affect who you get to fall in love with; it’s time we stood up and said, clearly and without exception, that nor should you be banned from living with the person you fell in love with because someone decided you were too poor. That rule, in whatever form it takes, is inhumane and illiberal. I will not vote for an immigration paper that contains it, and I think it would be a dangerous and politically incoherent strategy for the Lib Dems to follow Labour in adopting a policy that the paper itself admits was  “already damaging to family life” (Page 18) when it was in force prior to 2012.

It’s time to make both income caps and NRPF a thing of the past – I hope conference has the courage to stand beside the many families who have been hurt by these policies up and down the UK, and commit our party to fighting to do end this system of injustice.

Who owns US Liberalism? (And why it matters)

July 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

The conflation of liberalism with centrism is a topic I’ve discussed before and no doubt will again. Like with all arguments about political terminology it’s an unwinnable argument, by its very nature; I can use “liberal” to mean a certain thing and someone else can attach a very different meaning and there’s no ultimate arbitration on the matter available. Language is arbitrary – but vitally important, nonetheless. In this post, though, I want to look at the

Liberalism is on the rise in the US. Nearly 10% more of the population self-ID as “liberal” today as they did when I was born (Gallup), up to 26%. That’s less than identify as conservative or moderate, but it’s still a large chunk of the population and a plurality if not a majority of the Democratic party’s vote. One can reasonably assume that self-identified socialists make up a small subset of the “liberal” wing in a liberal/moderate/conservative choice poll, though I’ve not found any reliable numbers to give an estimate of how small. What over a quarter of the US population identify as, to put it mildly, matters. This is doubly the case because people don’t just hold opinions en bloc: if someone identifies with a political movement or faction, they’re generally more favourable to literally any political viewpoint if it comes from one of their own tribe (as has been well attested from various studies)

This is why the question of who owns liberalism matters, and why the fact that two specific interest groups within the Democratic party have effectively come upon a mutually agreeable answer they want to push hard on this subject is important. Especially when those groups are the Democratic Socialists of America and the financially powerful centrist bloc within the Democrats. Both of these groups want to push the same answer for different reasons – that liberalism is the ideology of the old guard, to be associated predominantly with figures like Pelosi and the Clintons. In today’s heavily partisan system, being seen as what authentic liberalism means is a bonus for the Democrat establishment with voters where a generation ago it might not have been, and it helps separate them from the more electorally risky DSA. Meanwhile, the DSA benefits too. By pushing a manufactured binary between “establishment centrist liberals” (conflating those otherwise not at all necessarily connected words) and “socialists” on the other hand, they can position themselves and thus socialism specifically as the only route to a more radical, transformative political solution, giving socialism more traction on the progressive wing of US discourse and harnessing the energy of many younger activists whose activism can then be shaped to have a distinctively socialist flavour.

So far, so good for everyone – but there’s a catch, and the catch is that neat binary splits, in political rhetoric as everywhere else, are a really bad way of resolving reality. Both sides of this particular split have particular sets of key policy goals and long-held opinions that may not fit an ideal route for the Democrats.

The DSA is a democratic socialist party – its heroes include people like Sanders and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, and the policy solutions include (along with a wide range of mainstream reforms like the introduction of single-payer healthcare), classic socialist ones like a job guarantee. The Sanders/Corbyn model, however, isn’t always especially radical on some areas, including hot-button topics like border control: Sanders has called open border policies a gimmick and attacked them for “doing away with the concept of a nation state”, and even Ocasio-Cortez, the charismatic and talented younger face of the movement, has couched her calls to abolish ICE in terms of reminding people of the pre-ICE system rather than calling for permanent loosening of immigration controls. There is no leftist pride that can be taken in Sanders-style blanket opposition to trade deals, either; reducing tariff barriers and similar has been a huge force in lifting people worldwide out of poverty. It would be unfair of me to tie the DSA and the new socialists too heavily to Sanders, of course, but at the same time it’s clear that the political tradition upon which the new movement is building is that of a social-democratic, ultimately statist, left; the new US left does not talk so much about cooperativism, open borders, unconditional minimum incomes, disarmament, and other hallmarks of what in other countries might be liberal-radical or ecosocialist-green progressives. Needless to say, the Democratic establishment aren’t all jumping on those bandwagons either.

To put it a different way, drawing the divides between a simple “socialist” grouping which gets to solely represent “the left” and a “liberal” grouping which gets to be run by the establishment may be mutually pleasing to partisans of both of those groups but bad for radical and progressive politics in the USA. Taking away people’s linguistic space to describe themselves as both liberal and radically progressive should be seen as a deliberate railroading tactic, and one that members of all groups involved should see as beneath them. The US’ political structure is pretty bad for permitting difference and fluidity between parties: it would be an especially great shame if the socialist movement, so often in the past losers from exactly that system, were to work towards building a new pole in a polarised system rather than embracing the need for a wide range of progressive stances, some of which will fit more and some less well into their specific movement ideals.

All liberals should in many ways applaud a number of things that groups like the DSA have achieved, such as their effectiveness in pushing single-payer healthcare firmly onto TV screens. Brave calls by Ocasio-Cortez to take the necessary steps to abolish ICE should also give liberal radicals hope that DSA-backed candidates will in the coming years be persuadable away from a Sanders-type isolationist model and prove allies on most of the immediate substantive political fights. It is, however, I think important to avoid a situation where the only sort of progressive you can be is a DSA progressive and the only sort of liberal you can be is a centrist liberal. If partisans are allowed to keep pursuing that sort of political wedge-forming, it will do a great disservice to any sort of forward-looking democratic politics in America at a time when radical ideas to build a better United States are likely to be more needed than ever.

Austria: 8 Scenarios For The Future

January 6, 2018 § 1 Comment

In my previous post on Austria, I explained some of the background to how Austria’s current Conservative-Neofascist coalition ended up in power – the weakened state of Austria’s two main parties since 2008/9, the FPO’s success in outlasting its hard-right rivals, and then their disappointing election result as the slicker OVP electoral machine of Sebastian Kurz provided an acceptable alternative for a slim segment of the electorate – enough to tip the balance and make the OVP the clear largest party. In this post, I want to focus on the different possibilities and scenarios for how this coalition might pan out. It would be a fool’s errand to make hard predictions at this stage, but here are a range of possibilities and an idea of some of the reasons why they may (or may not) happen. (I should also note that I apologise to any Austrian readers for the fact that I’m too lazy to put all the umlauts into the party names throughout this article.)

Scenario 1 – Reversion to the mean

In this scenario, the government suffers “normal” attrition rates of voters from both parties. It manages to accomplish a moderate amount of its agenda, without much spectacle: any more aggressive FPO ideas are restrained by the coalition agreement and EU, and there is neither an economic miracle nor a Kurz crash. Eventually, disgruntled voters leech away from the two parties, probably over the course of two rather dull terms in government, until most likely the grand coalition returns, either because the OVP have no further concessions they feel able to give to the FPO or because the coalition can no longer maintain a majority. This is the “neutral” scenario, and should probably be our baseline expectation at present: whilst I’m not sure it’s per se probable in and of itself, it’s probably the plurality option among those presented here.

Things to watch for: low polling volatility, lack of controversial government actions, strong Austria-EU relations, opposition discipline maintained.

Scenario 2 – Kurz wins

This is almost certainly Kurz’s planned or hoped for victory condition. In it, the FPO, unused to government, are wobbled by scandal – though not sufficiently to hurt the OVP – and government successes in lowering middle & upper class taxes, looking tough on migration, and cutting back red tape reward the OVP whilst making the FPO’s policy goals look comparatively weak. FPO voters abandon the party for the now-proven Kurz as a better guarantor of their interests, and the party begins to collapse into infighting, locked in as a decidedly more minor coalition partner in future.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s a rough parallel with what happened in the 1990s-2000s Blue/Black coalition. The OVP’s stronger traditional status as a safe pair of hands may play toward this happening, as may Kurz’s better personal approval ratings compared to Strache. On the other hand, the modern FPO is a considerably more ideologically cohesive body than its 2000-era counterpart, with Strache leading a disciplined party with a heavy German-nationalist lean and an effective campaigning playbook that mixes elements from other populist movements, probable Russian backing, and a more accepted place in Austria’s political scene than was the case 20 years ago.

Things to watch for: FPO losing ground, a strong economy, high Kurz approval ratings, progress on tax cuts, lower progress on constitutional & immigration reforms.

Scenario 3 – Strache wins

In this scenario, the FPO tail ends up wagging the OVP dog. “Successful” anti-immigration drives and negotiations over the South Tyrol are attributed to the FPO presence in government, and the party uses new referendum powers to outfox Kurz, blocking unpopular economic reforms and maintaining their outsider status despite being in government. Strache, granted a platform and respectability but little real responsibility, is able to position himself as a “man of the people”, dragging votes from older SPO voters and regaining the polling lead with right-wing voters he had before Kurz, now looking besieged and lightweight, took the reins of the OVP.

The likelihood of Strache really being a runaway winner from the coalition is probably low, but the FPO have shown in polling that they can easily reach the mid-thirties, and that in a head-to-head with a centre leftist that they can reach basically half the vote in Austria – in other words, there’s no reason to discount the idea that the FPO could become the largest party after the next election. The main thing weighting against this could well be the extent to which third parties end up as a repository for “systemic change” and “protest” votes, which Strache could struggle to retain with his new establishment status.

Things to watch for: lower Kurz approval ratings, the FPO leveraging new referendum powers, strong progress on immigration & the Tyrol issue.

Scenario 4 – Coalition Wins (Orbanisation)

This scenario (raised as a prospect by Matthias Strolz in recent comments) would see a still popular but increasingly Eurosceptic Kurz firm up a continued alliance with the FPO by leaning increasingly heavily towards anti-democratic policies over time. The “Orbanisation” term refers to the Hungarian leader, whose right-populist Fidesz party has become super-majority dominant and now has an excessive level of control of public discourse in the country. Unlike in Hungary, the left is far less severely shattered in Austria, such that this scenario is one of the more unlikely ones – especially as NEOS, whose votes are required for a supermajority & constitutional change, are unlikely to endorse any constitutional amendments seen as threatening to democratic norms.

Things to watch for: good FPO/OVP relations, action against public broadcasters, strengthened libel laws, strong relations between Kurz and Hungary, Russia & Visegrad leaders

Scenario 5 – Coalition Wins (Europhilic)

In this scenario, a popular coalition continues to be a success in office, aided by the FPO morphing into a new sort of party altogether: an authoritarian-eurofederalist entity. Continuing their anti-Islam and socially authoritarian positions domestically, the FPO would progressively drop their anti-EU policies and instead work to ensure authoritarian policies were protected at an EU level – defending Poland and Hungary from EU sanctions, for example, and pushing for the EU to be less welcoming as a whole to middle-eastern refugees. With the hard-right social policies of the government mostly falling heavily on the unemployed and refugees and unnoticed by much of the public, Kurz is able to claim success for an expanding economy, perhaps successfully negotiating for parts of the collapsing London financial sector to move to Vienna after Brexit. Ultimately, large chunks of the NEOS vote and some SPO voters switch to the OVP, who win an increased mandate with their FPO partners seeing a stable vote share. This scenario would require a significant level of discipline in FPO circles, however, as Eurosceptics in Strache’s base could seek alternative electoral options.

Things to watch for: a strong economy, good OVP-FPO relations continuing, major fractures in the SPO or NEOS, strong FPO party discipline.

Scenarios 6, 7 & 8: Opposition Victory

None of these scenarios are very likely, but all are worth examining – they cover scenarios in which the opposition, mainly NEOS and the SPO, reach a position where they can entirely take over government after the next election. All of these scenarios would require that both coalition parties significantly lost support and made serious missteps – economic contraction, scandal, simple incompetence, botched disagreements with the EU, etc. Most of them also require that NEOS angles itself with a view to muscling Kurz out of government and replacing the OVP as a potential centrist coalition partner for the SPO, whereas it seems at present more likely that Strolz will continue to appease Kurz in the hope that a NEOS-OVP coalition will be possible in future (though a pink-black coalition is perhaps unlikely as long as NEOS are seen as economically on the right: the OVP and NEOS may simply be competing for too many of the same voters to add up to a successful coalition, unless the OVP were to absorb a lot more of the FPO’s support).

The three most obvious paths to an opposition victory are I think as follows:

6, SPO populism: freed from the constraints of having to govern, and facing a government that ends up mostly trying to gut the social security net in Austria rather than pursuing the FPO’s authoritarian goals, the SPO revives itself by soft-pedalling its socially liberal policies and building a wave of economic populism in a Corbyn or Sanders style mould, dragging more votes from the Pilzers/Greens and most importantly eating a large chunk (up to half) of the FPO vote, as socially conservative but economically statist voters desert the party. The SPO has something of a history of pursuing socially conservative and anti-immigration policies when in coalition, such that a tack right on immigration nationally to appeal to FPO voters is a plausible option for them.

7, NEOS claim the centre-right mantle: This could mathematically happen in conjunction with the previous, though a different scenario makes it likely. Whereas the coalition focussing on right-economics would give the SPO their best shot at grabbing FPO votes, if they focus too hard on authoritarianism and veer into Euroscepticism then NEOS could paint the OVP as having abandoned the centre ground and sensible pro-business policies.

8, NEOS populism: A scenario where NEOS either moves to a localist social-liberal position (more like that held by the British Liberal Democrats) or a spikier position towards internationalism (as with their German FDP counterparts) would be an interesting, if improbable, scenario to consider, as it could put them in contention for small business OVP and FPO voters in rural areas for the first time. A good deal of localist, anti-elitist sentiment probably tends to manifest in FPO voting patterns: a liberal attempt to undercut that could threaten parts of the party’s voting base. These possibilities would, however, require NEOS to move into uncomfortable territory compared to their preferred mix of Europhilia and sharply “pro business” right-wing economics.

So there you have the scenarios. Which are more and which are less likely? So far the government is still in something of an electoral honeymoon, with both coalition partners on a polling high, but some things are already noticeable. Kurz seems to be positioning internationally as a Europhile, with the new government declaring allegiance to a strong European Union in their core coalition agreement. At Vienna’s famous New Year Concert, Kurz appeared to be getting along well with the Dutch right-liberal leader Mark Rutte, and apparently plans to conduct more intra-EU negotiations from the Chancellery rather than the foreign ministry. The FPO seem to be focusing on a “hard” anti-immigrant stance, including publicly suggesting using abandoned army bases as refugee internment camps. Overall, though, the core of the government’s approach seems to be likely to involve a focus on cutting social security and financial support for refugees. The fiscal outlook for the EU generally is rosy, and the opposition, if not wholly in disarray, are fractured, with NEOS in particular pursuing a soft line toward the new government on certain issues and the SPO perhaps likely to face internal disagreements between its statist/anti-immigrant and liberal/europhile camps.

Our initial expectation should probably involve a reversion to the mean, but Kurz’s personal popularity and a rising economy may put him in a good place to dominate the FPO as time goes on if he manages the situation intelligently, putting 2 as probably our second most likely scenario at present. Mutual victory seems less probable, as the combined right-wing alliance probably needs significant further fractures in its opposition to gain much overall ground, and it is too early to say how the opposition parties will position themselves or see how Strache uses his own position (though 3 is probably our third most likely scenario here, perhaps followed by 6). It will, in short, be a few months before we really have a sense of how the new government partners attempt to position versus one another and whether the government’s initial push, focusing on punitive attitudes towards the least fortunate, helps or hinders the maintenance of the electoral coalitions that brought the two parties to power.

Austria, Progress, and Regress: How Did We Get Here?

December 22, 2017 § 1 Comment

Austria’s new government is, broadly speaking, bad news from pretty much any sort of progressive political perspective. It is the second time that Austria has embarked on a “blue-black” rightwing coalition between the anti-immigration, hard right Freedom Party, or FPO (led by Heinz-Christian Strache) and the traditional right-wing bloc, the Austrian People’s Party or OVP (led by Sebastian Kurz, now one of the youngest heads of government in Europe). Together, they have constructed a programme of government that involves heavy-handed anti immigration sentiment mixed with taking an axe to social security systems, breaking from the previous balance between the OVP and the social-democratic SPO. In this post, I’m not going to go into the likely policy effects of this coalition – my aim is to give a brief overview of how Austria got to this point, which I hope to follow with a second post on what some possible political outcomes might be in the long term.

Firstly, an overview of how Austria got here. Since electoral reforms in the 1970s and the end of one-party government in the early 1980s, the norm in Austrian governance has been “grand coalition” – a coalition between the centre-left SPO and the centre-right OVP. The exceptions to this have been 1983-86, when an FPO/SPO government was in power (though at that point the FPO was more placed as a right-liberal bloc, and their sharp turn to right-populism broke the coalition), and 1999-2006, when an FPO-OVP coalition was in power. Grand coalitions are often fractious affairs, but for the most part the two parties have been unable to get strong enough to rely on smaller & more ideologically compatible partners, and have preferred one another to the anti-immigration, anti-EU vitriol and far-right links of the Freedom Party. The hard right has been Austria’s traditional third force since the 1980s, and probably tends to be a repository of localist and anti-government protest sentiment during the long periods of grand coalition rule as well as simply winning support for its hard-right positioning.

The last OVP/FPO government was a catastrophe for the Freedom Party, collapsing back from the mid twenties to around ten percent support and then being split as their then-leader, Jorg Haider, split the new “BZO” party off, primarily strong and based in his native Carinthia (of which he was governor). From this low water mark, though, the two populist right parties rebounded in opposition to the reformed grand coalition (which returned in 2006). The 2008 election was actually the major collapse point for the SPO and OVP – the SPO had slid down into the thirties as a standard level of support back in the 1990s, but 2008 saw them dip below 30% for the first time, and the OVP also got their worst result ever. This effect was however masked by two counterbalancing factors in the country’s politics. Firstly, the hard-right vote was neatly divided between the BZO and FPO, and secondly (though less importantly) a few percent of the vote went to parties that failed to reach the 4% parliamentary threshold.

The masking effect of the right split was retained in the 2013 election, when the BZO failed to enter parliament after Haider’s death in a car accident, but still ate some right-wing vote, and “Team Stronach”, an ego-project of a right-wing mogul, entered parliament and scooped up some of the potential FPO vote. The Austrian (classical) liberals, who had dipped in and out of parliament over the past two decades, had reformed into a new right-liberal bloc, NEOS, which appeared in 2013 for the first time, and the Greens reached 12% of the vote.

The destruction of the BZO and the transient nature of Team Stronach meant that after 2013, Strache’s FPO could finally unite the hard-right populist vote, and act as a repository for frustrations with a two-party coalition that had dragged on in an increasingly fractious manner since 2006. The FPO, SPO, and OVP were all running neck and neck by late 2013: in 2015, new anxieties over the Syrian refugee crisis were probably the spur that pushed the FPO vote up and clear of its rivals. In January-April of 2016, the FPO were recording leads as high as 12% in the polls and a vote share well into the thirties, whilst the SPO and OVP struggled in the low twenties. The presidential election (the Austrian president is a largely ceremonial post) saw the SPO & OVP candidates come fourth and fifth respectively, as the FPO’s Norber Hofer got 35% and his closest rival, former Green leader Alexander Van Der Bellen, got over 20%. This among other things triggered a change of Chancellor to Christian Kern, who helped pull some votes back from the Greens and returned the SPO vote to the high twenties. Der Bellen won after two tense run-offs with Hofer, and in early 2017 it seems likely that the FPO vote slid a little back to the SPO, though they still held a continual slim polling lead.

It became the OVP’s turn to switch leader in May 2017, when Sebastian Kurz took the reins. Giving a more acceptable face to anti-migration sentiment and promising conservative reforming policies, he saw an immediate surge in the OVP’s numbers. The FPO’s vote flopped into the mid-twenties practically overnight, and the OVP leapfrogged (as well as taking votes from) the SPO to take a clear lead in the polls. Throughout the campaign season, the OVP were clearly angling for an FPO coalition, though Kern suggested that an FPO/SPO coalition was not impossible, a sign of how acceptable and normalised the FPO have managed to make themselves across the Austrian political spectrum. The Greens imploded, with the breakaway “Pilz list” overtaking them in vote share and their voters often opting to prop up the SPO, which held up a little better than polling suggested and retained second place above the FPO, whilst the OVP in fact did a little worse but still easily enough to become the leading party in the new government. The Greens narrowly missed out of the 4% parliamentary threshold, leaving a parliament with the Pilzers, NEOS, FPO, SPO, and OVP, in ascending order of votes/seats. The only possible coalitions involved two of the three major parties, and so as expected the FPO/OVP coalition was agreed.

Compared to other European countries and equivalent parties, the Austrian FPO is perhaps most able to enter government thanks to its longer standing within the country’s political scene: OVP voters especially may not find the FPO toxic as a potential coalition partner in the way that many Merkel voters would find the AfD, Rutte voters would find the PVV or Les Republicains voters would find the FN. This is despite the FPO sharing a European parliamentary group with these extreme anti-European and neo-fascist forces. The lack of pushback to FPO positions from the Austrian left may have been unhelpful in this regard: the SPO moving to oppose Merkel’s pro-refugee stance and joining with the OVP to pass a burqa ban, for example, has meant that genuinely liberal positions on migration have been left rather poorly argued in Austrian politics in recent years. The FPO under Strache have not adopted as anti-EU a line as their counterparts, either, especially recently – something that may have helped allay fears of their extremism. Whilst the FPO’s anti-immigration line is undoubtedly a large part of their appeal, though, we should not assume that it is the only one, nor that their supporters lack other deal-breakers with the party: it is very worth noting the likely place of the FPO as an anti-government sentiment repository up to this point, and the fact that it took the implosion of almost all alternatives for the FPO to unify as large an anti-government vote as at present. Whether the combination of factors that have led to the FPO’s current success is one that will be maintained under coalition conditions, and whether alternative populist forces can capitalise on their new position as a somewhat ideologically restricted establishment force, is still very much unclear.

In the next article in this series, I’ll examine some of the possible outcomes of the new coalition from a political perspective, and who the winners and losers of the new parliament might be in various political circumstances.