I’ve got Corbyn’s number

Politics is a complex business, people say things, other people react to those things (often not in the way you’d expect a sane person to react) news outlets report these words and actions (usually in a way that happily coincides with the story they’ve been telling for years) and, somewhere down the line, millions of people draw little crosses and we all get to hate new people for 5 years.

Spreadsheets are often considered complex by those who are all too happy to publicly demonstrate their political ignorance, but are really much simpler.  With a spreadsheet and your wits you can make data do what you want, it never throws a curve ball of pig’s head being bigger news than the rewriting of our human rights or the number of people below the poverty line.

Numbers, pictured yesterday
Numbers, pictured yesterday

Thanks to the nice people at the Electoral Commission you can combine politics and spreadsheets, because they let you download the voting data from general elections – for every constituency, for every candidate, you can see how many people voted for them (and how many people could have voted but didn’t).

With that data we can re-run the last election and assume everybody voted just the way they did last time!

Amazingly nothing changes – the Conservatives end up with a small but definite majority in the Commons and Labour fall 98 seats short of them.

Since the election though something has changed.  Labour have elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader, with an unprecedented mandate to take the party to the left.  The hope is that in 2020 his anti-austerity, socialist politics can take on and defeat the Tories.  A gap of 98 seats is a lot to make up, so let’s start small…

To win one seat, specifically Gower in Wales, Corbyn needs 27 votes.  That seems achievable.  He could go there himself, talk nicely to people, promise he won’t have the royal family shot, offer them a lift to the polling station and so on.  With his 27 new friends, and nothing else changing, Conservative and Labour would tie, in which case…I don’t know, perhaps they arm-wrestle or something (I did say politics was complex).

Unfortunately for Jeremy to win two seats he doesn’t just have to convince 54 people, he’s got to convince 68, but that’s still doable, even if the new 41 potential voters are across in Derby.

Then for the third seat he has to lay the charm offensive on another 165, and has to go to Croydon to do it.

By the time he’s won 10 seats he’s across in Cheshire and has given 4,411 people a lift and his personal assurance that the Queen’s life isn’t in danger.

You’re thinking that does sound so bad, but the next 10 seats mean coaxing an additional 20,820 voters into putting their cross next to Labour on the ballot paper, and even if the party buys Corbyn a minibus that’s still a lot of trips.  Plus this is working with a static model.  Nothing else is changing and we’re magicking these voters out of thin air.

Corbyn’s supporters say that he’s not going to compromise his principles to win over voters from UKIP and the Conservatives, and that his new brand of politics will tempt back those who abandoned the Labour party because it had become too centrist.  In real terms this means there are exactly four groups of voters of any size from this year that Labour can now draw upon for electoral success:

  • Those who voted Lib Dem
  • Those who voted Green
  • Those who voted SNP
  • Those who didn’t bother voting at all in

From that list we can cross the SNP off straight away.  The party is tied to the cause of Scottish Independence, and those who support that cause feel that Labour betrayed them.  So three groups, then (I didn’t even need my spreadsheet to work that out).

The Lib Dems and the Greens between them total around 3.5m voters, so attracting them certainly seems easier than bombing round the country in a minibus and, thanks to the magic of spreadsheets, I can give some of them to Labour.

How many, though?  Politically the Greens have a lot in common with JC, the Lib Dems not so much (and the Lib Dems are the larger block of voters, 2.4m to the Green’s 1.1m).  Let’s be kind and say, across the board, one-quarter of all voters for these parties switch to Labour.  This is a generous, and unlikely gift, but swelled by 900,000 new voters Labour would…

…take 7 new seats, and still be 86 seats behind the Conservatives.

How can this be, when just a few paragraphs ago I said that 4,411 people gave Labour 10 new seat?  Well, inconveniently, the Green and Lib Dem voters don’t live in the right place.  Take Clwyd, where Labour were only 237 votes from taking the seat in May; a quarter of the Lib Dem votes there yields a disappointing 229 people and the Greens didn’t field a candidate.

We need to also consider that Labour voters aren’t universally behind Mr Corbyn.  Certainly a lot are happy to see the return of traditional Labour policies, but some also believe that centrist policies are the way to electoral victory, or just the way to run a country.  Maybe they worry a little when nice Mr Cameron tells them that Labour are going to borrow their way into economic ruin, that we’ll be back to the Winter of Discontent and all of the other stuff he says.

The Telegraph trumpets that 37% of Labour voters won’t vote for Corbyn, but then that’s the sort of thing The Telegraph likes to say.  Polls show Labour support holding fairly steady, but as the vote-share of the Lib Dems and especially the Greens is down that’s likely to be those disenfranchised ex-Labour supporters returning to the fold and back-filling those who are leaving.  It would be reasonable to expect that to step up as a general election looms and people feel it’s a straight up-and-down choice between Corbyn or 5 more Tory years.

Let’s be generous again and say that, across the board 6% fewer people vote Labour than did in May, but leave the 25% of Lib Dems and Greens still moving behind Corbyn.

If 6% of May’s Labour voters (about 500,000 people) for 25% from those other parties (900,000 people) sounds like a good deal the numbers show that, compared to May, Labour would take 3 new seats…and lose 4, making them a nice round 100 seats behind the Conservatives in the Commons.

Bugger.  That isn’t good for Corbyn, is it?

Wait!  We haven’t factored in the non-voters.  They weren’t just idle or uninterested in May, they felt disillusioned with politics and disengaged from it.  A new broom could sweep them out of their houses and into the polling stations, determined to be citizens of a Labour-led country.  Gawd Bless ’em.  How many of them to we need to make Corbyn Prime Minister?

For an absolute Labour majority we need a whisker shy of 37% of them, or 5,761,000-ish people.across the country.

Perhaps two minibuses will be required.

Let’s lower our sights a bit.  The SNP have a big block of seats in the house and claim to be anti-austerity and progressive.  How many former non-voters would we have to coax out to form a majority coalition government with them?

Ah, that’s much better – now we only need 20% of the non-voters to (a) turn out and (b) vote Labour.  That’s 3.1m people, so we’re probably still going to need that 2nd minibus, but it’s 2.6 million people fewer to be awoken from their political slumber.

Amusingly, depending on how far Tories get with EVEL reform in this parliament, those 3.1 million votes could lead to the unusual situation where a Labour/SNP coalition is in power, but Labour number 25 fewer English MPs than the Conservatives, making them unable to get through legislation affecting only England.

It would be a cruel irony if, against massive odds, left-wing Labour drew in over 3 million non-voters (the defining feature of whom is that they don’t vote) only to then be unable to run the country for them.

What I haven’t done in all of this is consider how the Conservative vote might change.  The EU referendum next year should cut UKIP’s legs out from under them, securing the Tory’s right flank. Then there’s Osborne’s budget; the parts of that about raising minimum wage and chasing corporate and non-dom tax avoiders were him setting up his pitch for what, at the time, he probably expected to be a battle for the political centre-ground against Burnham or Cooper.  How delighted he must have been to discover he wasn’t going to have to fight for that space at all, just shoo off the Lib Dem party, who really would fit in a mini-bus.

So Labour’s best hope is that between now and 2020 the SNP run Scotland so badly that the nationalists return to Labour and, simultaneously there’s a huge crash that Osborne can’t blame on Labour and which ruins the Conservative’s economic credibility.  If those things happen then Jeremy Corbyn can take his place as head of a shattered, divided and ruined country and, by god, he’d better know a man who can work a spreadsheet.

The original sin of socialism

Adam and Eve, pictured yesterday
Adam and Eve, pictured yesterday

If one could mine stupidity like gold then the Internet would make 19th century Klondike look like Hull on a wet Wednesday, but a few precious rocks of pure stupidium would shine still amongst the everyday nuggets of people who can fix the world’s problems yet have trouble with the complex differences between “their”, “there” and “they’re”.

One such gem was discovered this week in a Bruce Anderson article for CapX.  The article argues that socialism is evil and that only a society based on market forces can work.  Actually, it doesn’t argue that at all; it certainly says that, over and over, and has a big picture of Margaret Thatcher, but as it fails to advance any evidence to support this and doesn’t consider any of the possible counter-examples it can hardly be said to argue it.

This is already beyond run-of-the-mill stupidity, because we have an author who is daft enough to lay out an unsupported and evidentially wrong position, yet educated enough to write in a fashion that almost completely obfuscates their lack of arguments.  But then, in the 2nd half of the 4th paragraph the article holds its nose and plunges to a new nadir of stupidity…

But revolutionary socialism is a battle to transform human nature. It seeks to remove the protection of civil society, personal freedom and the rule of law – all of which serve to insulate man from his worst instincts and attributes. Socialism denies original sin, and in so doing proves that it is still a crucial insight into the human condition.

Given the last sentence of that one would reasonably expect Mr Anderson to devote a paragraph or two to explaining what he’s talking about, but in fact he moves smoothly on to quoting Wordsworth and explaining that his argument isn’t theoretical, leaving his readers to wonder why it suddenly became theological.

Original Sin

In case you’re not au fait with the concept of original sin it all began with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  We’re all familiar with the basics of the story; God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit that will give them knowledge of good and evil, but the serpent talks Eve into having a nibble and giving some to Adam.  God, worried that his creation has taken the first step towards godhood and will go on to eat the fruit that gives them eternal life, curses the legs off the snake, sentences Eve to terrible pain in childbirth, Adam to having to toil in the fields for his food and then makes them a set of clothes and kicks them out of paradise.

The story was originally part of the Jewish creation tale – the book of Genesis, where it appears, and the following 4 books of the Old Testament form the Torah, which pre-dates Christianity by centuries – and to them it was both explanatory and cautionary.  It explained why the world was imperfect and why life was hard, because they’d been expelled from paradise, and it provided a salutary lesson not to disobey God, because he can really carry a grudge.

Early Christians added a few twists of their own to the story.  Eve’s crime, they said, had been so great that it had introduced death into the world (this is directly contrary to what the biblical text says) and the taint of it passed to all of her descendants (i.e. everyone), so that every human born arrived fresh in the world already scarred by her transgression against God.  Baptism became the symbolic washing away of this original sin

Back to the article…

To what then is Mr Anderson referring when he says that “Socialism denies original sin”?

As the original sin, which is never referred to as a sin in Genesis, was defying God’s will then the plain reading of his statement is that to engage in wealth redistribution is to attempt to thwart God’s decision about who should be rich and who should be poor.  This is a view that sits poorly with modern sensibilities, and when I say “modern” I mean “post-feudalism”.

While it is the view that, in a milder form, is inherent in support for a hereditary monarchy it is hard to reconcile with, say, effective medical practice.  If God chooses who rules and who is wealthy then why thwart his will about who lives and who dies?

The truth is that in the UK we’re surrounded by socialist institutions that are world-class (the BBC, say), that we’re fiercely proud of (our public libraries, for example) or both (such as the NHS).  Some socialised forces are so entrenched that we struggle to imagine how they’d work in the hands of market forces; the country is no longer protected by local lords raising their own army and hiring it to the king, the whole criminal justice system, from police to prison, works without having to swipe your credit card en route.  The view that redistributing money to those who need it is them literally taking something which isn’t theirs to have is repugnant.

There is however an alternative reading for which I have to return to a question I conveniently skipped in the previous section…why Christians created the doctrine of original sin.


From hogwash to mouthwash
From hogwash to mouthwash

Listerine was the first over-the-counter mouthwash and by the 1920s, after 30-odd years of being on sale, it generated income of around $115,000 dollars annually.  A tidy sum for the day, but hardly a product to set the world alight.  Then, in a move widely regarded as marketing genius, the company took the term ‘chronic halitosis’ – obscure medical jargon for bad breath – and told the world they suffered from it, and that Listerine was the only cure.

In less than a decade annual sales were up to $8 million as people flocked to buy the solution to a problem they hadn’t known they had a few years earlier. A corporate turn around to warm the coldest of capitalist hearts, for sure, but the early Christian church beat them to it by more than 17 centuries.

Unlike the Judaic religion from which it sprang the Christian church was an organisation with a product to sell.  It had strongly defined concepts of heaven and hell.  The dogma of life everlasting was at its very core, its number one product.  Critically original sin meant that the intercession of the church was necessary.  One couldn’t simply live a blameless and sin-free life outside of the church, the weight of original sin would drag you down to hell.

Original sin was Christianity’s chronic halitosis, which is appropriate because it stinks.  Imagine the thousands of mothers across two millennia who must have believed that their infant child would never gain eternal life because they’d died before they could be baptised.  It centred the church entirely around guilt, making it the foundation of their rituals; confessing of sins, real or imagined, last rites, the Pope selling indulgences, literally passes into heaven, to those who worried their worldly wealth might be a barrier to salvation.  Original sin also served as a constant reminder that the fall was Eve’s fault.  Adam’s sin wasn’t so much the eating of the fruit, but rather taking advice from a woman, so it’s hardly surprising that Christianity has dragged centuries behind the rest of the world in gender equality.

Irrespective of this collateral damage the marketing move worked.  Christianity has grown from a small Jewish sect to a major religion with billions of followers worldwide.  The lesson to take away is the market forces work brilliantly when solving problems that we don’t have.  If your car isn’t fast enough, your TV is big enough or your smart-phone isn’t as good as the competitor model then market forces will rush to your aid.  Socialism instead focuses on solving the problems that are real, because there are enough of them without imaging new ones.

If socialism denies original sin then it does so because that is exactly the right response to a problem that isn’t real, and that’s the crucial insight into the human condition.

Thought it’s not, I feel, what Mr Anderson intended to say.