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May 23, 2017

When events intrude

The main news in Britain this morning is, of course, the terror bombing in Manchester. Our focus this morning, though, are the fast-changing fortunes of British political parties in the election campaign. At the beginning of the campaign Jeremy Corbyn was portrayed as the ultimate political loser, and the only question people were interested in debating was whether he would resign after the elections. Yesterday we read the first story in a national newspaper asking whether Labour can actually win. The answer is: probably not but, then again, things have already changed a lot since the start of the campaign.

The Independent notes that the Labour share in the polls has steadily risen. They are still about nine points behind the Tories, who benefit from the collapse in support for UKIP. This, not Corbyn, is what is likely to get them over the majority threshold. On the current polls, the Independent writes, Labour would lose about 12 seats, and the Conservatives would win about 16. But Corbyn is actually polling higher than Ed Milliband did. The loss is due to constituency boundary changes. People are no longer talking about Tory landslides - a majority of 150 or so, as they were doing only a few weeks ago. One of the reasons, the Independent argues, is the positive reception of the Labour manifesto - the commitment to free childcare for all two-to-four-year-olds, funding the NHS, free hospital car parking, building of one million new homes, caps on rent increases, or an increase in the allowance for carers. These are genuinely popular policies. 

The Tories, by contrast, are in a complete mess over social policy. The biggest disaster to date has been what was dubbed by the British media as the "dementia tax", a special inheritance surcharge for people who are receiving social care, to recoup some of the costs. The previous cap on contribution was to be replaced by a floor. The backlash against this proposal has been so strong that the Tories were forced to retreat on it yesterday, by accepting that there would be a cap on the levies. Theresa May gave no further details, other than to say that the government will make proposals after the elections, and that the ageing population requires new funding for social care. The fundamental principle the Tories want to establish is that those in need of social care would ultimately pay for it with the value of their assets - minus an allowance. (We note that this principle also holds in Germany - it’s not that extreme, but it is nevertheless highly unpopular). 

Janan Ganesh notes that the confusion in the Tory party stems to a large extent from inexperience. It is extremely rare for a PM never to have served as chancellor or opposition leader before - offices that prepare for the top job, unlike the interior ministry which has a very narrow focus. May is assured on issues such as crime and terrorism - but not on others. The retreat on the dementia tax is the second one in a few months, following the reversal on a proposed increase in national insurance premiums. The real question is not what this government stands for, but whether it is any good. We find his comments interesting because they are telling us that May’s support will only last for as long as she is successful. 

Here is his devastating conclusion:

“Most prime ministers live to see their greatest strength reinterpreted as their greatest flaw. Margaret Thatcher’s conviction became her brusqueness. Tony Blair’s charisma became his skill at deception. David Cameron’s lack of dogma became his tactical, game-playing shallowness. And Mrs May’s reticence will become her self-doubt. Right now, we attribute her terse, rehearsed statements to a clever strategic ruse or an endearing, low-key Englishness that hints at several fathoms of hidden depth. In time, we might put it down to a simple lack of confidence, as though she knew the reality of her premiership before we did.”

And finally, what about Brexit? Will a narrow majority, or even a Labour administration, change the country’s position on Brexit? The answer is no: Corbyn accepts the referendum result, and wants to move on. This is why we think he is ultimately more successful than his critics from the Blairite wing of the party. His reluctant support for Brexit is more in tune with the country, and with Labour supporters, than the pro-European stance of the Blairites. If he became PM, he might well revise the Brexit negotiating mandate but, since he also supports immigration controls, the outcome of the negotiations cannot be to different. 

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May 23, 2017

On Italy's obsession with voting systems

The Italian political class has been spending an inordinate amount of time since the 1990s discussing and changing voting systems, having gone through everything from pure proportional representation to first-past-the-post systems. Now they are discussing the one system they haven’t tried - the German system, which is a mixture of the two. Behind this hyperactivity lies a misleading conviction that voting systems matter in the long-run - they don’t. This misconception more often than not leads to wrong tactical calculations by political parties that they would be better off with another system. Those attempts have a habit to backfire. 

The current discussion is unfortunately necessary because of the December referendum result, which left the Senate in place but without a voting system. Since the voting system of the chamber had been reformed, there is now a need for a unified system. The two proposals being debated now are a pure German-style mixed system, with or without the five percent representation threshold. Under the German system, the total number of MPs are allocated on a proportional basis. But half of the MPs are directly elected. The remainder are made up from lists to achieve porportional representation. The other system under discussion - Rosatellum in the chart from Corriere della Sera below - is similar to the voting system prevailing in Italy in the 1990s. The chart takes its input from various recent polls, but the important underlying message is that it does not matter a great deal which system ultimately prevails. The three large blocks - the centre-left, the centre-right, and the Five-Star-Movement, are broadly evenly divided. Under any of those systems, Italy will require a coalition of two of those forces. 

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