US Election Predictions, or The Elephant (and the Donkey) in the Room

For those who know me, you will know that I Love American Things.

My love of American things began with the innocent trio of Friends, Baseball and The West Wing then blossomed when I studied US History at university and then travelled by rail around the great nation in the spring of 2008.

My love of US election nights dates back to Obama’s success in 2008. The election party of that year was a truly joyous occasion and the 2012 sequel, though more nervy and more tempered in expectation, was still celebrated as generally ‘a good thing’.

The 2016 election has not been ‘a good thing’ and the outcome will leave most feeling dirty, regardless of who emerges victorious. This may cause Americans to take a long, hard look in the mirror and choose a new, less divisive, less corrupt, less obnoxious political path; it may not.

Nevertheless, for all the uniquely distasteful elements on display in the 2016 election, when the fundamentals and likely outcome are considered it is actually shaping up to be quite a normal, predictable election night.

Who will win the presidential election is of course impossible to know with certainty and those who are paid to crunch the polling, demographic and turnout data and give a level of confidence generally predict a Clinton win in 65-90% of contests, i.e. were we to re-run the election multiple times she would win most, if not almost all times.

The best way I have found to navigate around this not altogether helpful statistic is to ponder (using supposedly authoritative, professional knowledge) what key strengths and weaknesses each candidate has, what electorate these attract/repel, and how likely each strength and weakness is to translate into hard votes. From this I can piece together who is likely to win, and most importantly why. So here goes…

Hillary Clinton: ‘I’m with Her’

Clinton’s campaign is better organised and better funded and as such has a better ‘ground game’ that can identify and target sympathetic voters and get them to the voting booth.

Clinton’s (and the Democratic Party’s) strongest demographic support comes from blacks, Hispanics, the young (18-30), women and the economically less well-off (lower/working classes). Together these make up the so-called ‘Obama coalition’ that delivered landslide Democratic victories in 2008 and 2012 (but failed during the mid-term elections of 2010 and 2014).

Clinton’s campaign has marketed itself as continuity Obama and tried to revive this Democratic coalition for one more big win. However, she has faced problems in motivating blacks (especially young blacks) to the same degree as Obama and has faced similar issues with ‘Millennial’ voters more generally who tended to support her rival Bernie Sanders in the competition to become the Democratic Party nominee.

However, Clinton’s weakness with these groups appears to be balanced by her strength in appealing to the increasingly large Hispanic population and to the votes of women – in this she was helped by Trump’s derogatory comments towards both Hispanics and women on multiple occasions during the campaign. And just as Obama sold himself as the historic first black president, so too should Clinton expect to benefit from attempting to be the first female president.

In summary, Clinton looks likely to do better than Obama with women and Hispanic voters, or at worst should match his support. However, she will struggle to motivate as many young and black voters. This appears to point to an overall neutral impact nationwide, with particular consequences in individual state races.

The Hispanic share of the population in states like Arizona, Nevada, Texas, New Mexico and Florida is significant and rising fast, so the Democratic margin for error has increased in these since 2012. Similarly, more women vote than men across the nation, so if Clinton is able to win a larger share of female voters than Obama then this has a disproportionate benefit in total voting figures.

However, states where urban Millennials and black voters were central to the ‘Obama coalition’ might at risk: Detroit (Michigan), Cleveland (Ohio), North Carolina and Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) were all key focal points of Democratic strength that now look distinctly less encouraging under Clinton.

The ‘Obama coalition’ has thus changed subtly under Clinton’s leadership but not necessarily to the electoral disadvantage of the Democrats nationwide.

However, the wildcard (and probable linchpin of the whole election) are white ‘educated’ and ‘non-educated’ voters (often understood as those with graduate degrees and those without). Educated, white male and female voters appear to have moved towards Clinton for this election, largely because of the character of her opponent, Trump. If properly managed and targeted this shift could pay dividends for Clinton in the traditionally Republican suburbs of major mid-western cities like Milwaukee (Wisconsin), Atlanta (Georgia), St. Louis (Missouri) and Denver (Colorado).

However, Clinton’s ability to keep ‘uneducated’, white, working-class, male voters in the Democratic camp is in serious question. There are indications that her appeal to white, male, non-graduates in the ‘Rust Belt’ (Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, western Pennsylvania and Ohio) is weaker than normal for Democratic candidates – the Party is traditionally associated with industrial workers and good union jobs. She is a defender of free trade deals signed by her husband and successive presidents and by standing for ‘continuity Obama’ is seen as accepting the continued decline of ‘old’ industries’ like steel-making, coal mining and even car manufacturing. The success of Bernie Sanders in places like Michigan on an anti-free trade platform underlines her potential weakness as a candidate in states like this.

The key, when thinking about white voters and especially white male voters, is will the number of affluent, independent and Republican-leaning graduates staying at home or switching to Clinton outweigh the effect of a loss in support from non-graduate, white, male voters? In Clinton’s favour is the fact that the more affluent and educated a person, the more likely they are to vote. Trump may be winning the support of people who are not regular voters and cannot be relied upon to actually register and turnout on the day, whilst losing some of the most reliable Republican voters.

Donald Trump: ‘Make America Great Again’

Which, leads me on to Trump’s strengths and weaknesses. Trump is not the favourite because he has not run a predictable, traditional or even well-organised Republican campaign. He has not worked hard to shore up the mid-western and southern, Christian base, has not tried to make inroads into black and Hispanic support and has not appealed consistently to white, suburban men and women whose primary concerns are the economy and taxation.

However, Trump remains strongest where the Republicans are strongest (South and Mid-West) and weakest where they are weakest (North East and West Coast). In that sense this is a very normal election.

However, Trump has alienated larger numbers of Hispanics and women than previous Republican nominees and so has enabled Clinton to capitalise and thereby expand the ‘Obama coalition’ in potentially fatal ways. Trump has also probably lost some ground amongst those who would consider themselves ‘moderate’ Republicans and conservative independents, particularly when considering Mitt Romney’s appeal was often very directly to these groups in 2012.

Trump’s great hope of overcoming the odds and winning the election lies with his appeal as an anti-establishment candidate, not as a generic Republican candidate. By attacking Clinton, the media and several high profile moderate Republicans, Trump has increased his appeal with non-graduate, white male voters who have previously voted Democrat or not voted in the last few elections. His slogan (the only memorable campaign slogan of the entire election): ‘Make America Great Again’ is a well-calculated appeal to those who feel bypassed or taken for granted by the ‘Obama coalition’ and ‘Obama economy’ since 2008.

The core question of the election is whether Trump’s campaign organisation is sufficient to translate this pool of sympathy amongst a large section of the American population into actual votes, particularly in states that could really hurt Clinton’s electoral college chances. In particular, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania appear to be the best route Trump has to the White House, assuming Florida and North Carolina are won as well.

In this sense Trump’s campaign has more in common with Obama’s in 2008 than many would care to admit. His party base from prior elections is not enough to seal victory on its own. His success depends upon an ability to motivate a section of the electorate that his party has previously been unable to motivate in sufficient numbers to make an electoral college impact. Obama’s campaign was clearly better organised than Trump’s and he was all-round a more popular and polished politician but the pool of voters Trump is aiming at is much larger than the black Americans and young Americans of the ‘Obama coalition’.

Trump’s path to victory is more unlikely than Clinton’s (and certainly less likely than Obama’s in 2008 or 2012) but it does not make it unthinkable. A sizeable turnout of voters in the ‘Rust Belt’ who are traditionally non-voters and former Democrats, combined with an anti-establishment attack on Clinton that dissuades enough young and black voters to not vote for her or not vote at all and he can squeak over the line.


However, my prediction, for what it’s worth is that the shift of white, graduate, suburban, and particularly female voters in places like Virginia, Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) and Milwaukee (Wisconsin) towards Clinton (or at least away from Trump), combined with a rise in Hispanic turnout and Democratic allegiance will provide enough of a firewall in places like New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado to mask the frailty of the Obama coalition in Iowa, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina.

Effectively, if Florida and North Carolina go for Trump, all eyes turn to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada and Colorado because Clinton will likely need 4/6 to survive.

If, on the other hand, Clinton wins two of Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina, it’s probably all over and you can get an early night.

If Trump wins Virginia, it’s going to be President Trump!

Useful websites for predictions and statistical analysis – The daddy of US political predictions sites. Its model famously predicted all 50 races in 2012. The highlight for me is the ‘winding path to 270 votes’ – The Snake. – Part of the 538 site. An incredible tool that allows you to see the practical effects of differential turnout from particular demographic blocs. Warning: highly addictive! – The New York Times has produced a very useful digest of all the major prediction sites which allows you to see which states you should look out for on the night. – very strong independent site that allows you to build your own map quickly and effectively and keep track of the latest polls and predictions. – A professional, yet Republican-leaning predictions site. – A professional, yet Democratic-leaning predictions site.


Thank you for the sandbags

Winter is not my favourite thing. The cold hurts my joints, my skin and my teeth. The earth is dead and hard, everything is grey and damp. But most of all it is dark. Dark when you wake up, dark on the journey home, dark Sunday evenings and dark Monday mornings.

And the darkness penetrates where even the cold can’t reach; right into my core. It sits, angry and suffocating in the pit of my stomach, making it hard to swallow, making me heavy and sad and useless. It grows, it gets darker, it communicates and it hates. It feeds on the cold and the loneliness, it moves up my abdomen and it fills my throat.

That’s how winter feels to me. But I’ve had years in training and I know how to combat it: Plan. Fill the dark nights with things. See people. Move. Get up. Shout back at its angry, clawing, suffocating stench. Light a fire. Make soup. Have hugs.

I know how. And every year I win; every year there’s Spring.

This year, knowing I know how had a new consequence: subconscious anticipation. The darkness knew I knew how and evolved; the darkness woke up in August.

The darkness does not belong in August. I didn’t know it, didn’t recognise it, didn’t understand it. It was scary and I was useless and stupid and stuck. But I know me: I know my obsessive logic in working things out, know my need to write things down, to analyse, to find explanations. Why was I useless and stupid and stuck? There was sunshine, and holidays, and outside and friends. So why was I heavy and lonely and sad? I recognised the darkness; it had looked a little different in the light but it couldn’t hide its own qualities.

Battle stations. Too late for defensive manoeuvres; I needed attack.

Drown the darkness in the swimming pool. Smother it in sofas and series. Poison it with pills. Asphyxiate it with heavy does of friends and activity. Stamp on it when it tries to ruin them.

Realise that stamping doesn’t often work. Admit that big groups don’t drown out its nitpicking meanness as well as well direct hits of good friends. Regroup not retreat.


Rebuild defences:

Shield 1: good films.

Shield 2: lots of gigs.

Shield 3: hot water bottles.

Shield 4: Yorkshires and gravy.

Shield 5: crunchy, frosty, sunny mornings.

But just to be safe, I gathered up sandbags from friends, asked them to help me dig a moat, hoist up the drawbridge and share my castle with things that make them happy too.

Snuggling with pets, family and loved ones. Log fires, woolly jumpers and onesies. Soups and stews. Nice warm pubs with proper fires. Strictly Come Dancing. Putting on your PJs at 5pm. Mash. Pork Belly. Forward thinking: summer is on its way. Blankets. Baked cheese. Mugs of hot chocolate whilst sitting on the windowsill watching the weather with your feet on the radiator. Jumper dresses, massive scarves, kickin’ mittens, handmade hats. Fairy lights. Sparklers. Baked potatoes that warm the kitchen. Pie and mash. People’s faces when it snows. Candle lit bubble baths with wine. Knitwear. Winter coats. Cold, crisp walks ending in pub lunches. Trips to the theatre. Knitting. Lots of candles. Wearing layers. Reading a book in front of the fire. Beautiful coats. Dumplings. Going to bed at 9pm. Winter holidays. Christmas. The Apprentice game. Good books. Thick socks. Cheese and port. New wellies. Slow cookers. Christmas trees. Penrhyn Christmas. Snow. Mulled wine. Mulled cider. Baileys in hot drinks. Masterquiz. All the wasps die.

Thank you for the sandbags.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

A couple of months ago I wrote an intentionally polemical piece on why I may not vote to remain in the European Union. Partly a reaction to the social media-led culture of insular political confirmation which made last May’s exit poll as baffling as it was devastating, and partly to raise some questions of the EU in advance of a campaign that was clearly going to be a right-wing headbutt of no intellectual significance. It was my starting gun for thinking about where I stood in regards to the referendum.

I have spent the interim trying to find some genuinely positive and creative reasons to get up and shout about the benefit of the EU.

I want to return to the questions I initially raised but also to consider the referendum in the wider context of democracy and the current state of politics in Britain. I write having already cast my ballot by post, but prior to polling day and thus the result.

Raking over old ground


Trade and economics has dominated the mainstream debate. How much we trade with Europe, how devastating it will be to have to think harder about how to buy Spanish tomatoes and German electronics in the future, how big business and financial services wants us to stay in the EU, as do our financial services. And what a disaster it would be for all of us if they weren’t happy.

Nothing about the unfairness of trade agreements. Nothing about the charade of ‘free trade’ and its impact on poorer countries outside of the EU. I remain genuinely baffled by people who identify as internationalists and overtly defend the EU.

I completely switched off from the economic arguments very quickly. Economic predictions by people and institutions who were still gleefully backing sub-prime mortgages in 2007 were really of no interest to me whatsoever, regardless of who they’re backing.


I didn’t discuss TTIP in my original post but it was a primary concern for me in regards to the EU. It was a key reason why I considered voting Leave; a secretly-negotiated trade agreement which favoured big business over workers rights and democracy was not something I was keen on.

But hearing from those with more expertise over the past couple of months has meant TTIP became one of the reasons I moved away from voting Leave. Trade Unions and other, more left-leaning, governments across Europe have been lobbying hard to reform and weaken TTIP. This solidarity of the left was something we see too little of but I have been convinced it does happen across Europe, even if Britain’s Trade Unions are too weak or too complacent to take an active part.

The current nature of our government, and the weakness and complacency of the British left, means that something as equally damaging as TTIP would probably be signed into law before we’ve had chance to blink if we left the EU.


I’ve spent some time considering the thoughts of Yanis Varoufakis, the world’s first charismatic Finance Minister and all-too-briefly bête noir of the European Bank. In an article published in April, he reflected on his attempts to negotiate with the EU over the Greek bailout, having just won an election on an anti-austerity manifesto. At a Europgroup meeting in 2015, his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schäuble told him, “Elections cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a member state.”

Varoufakis believes both Greece and Britain should remain in the EU. To leave would lead to a fracturing of the entire Union, leaving a vacuum suited to ‘xenophobes, ultra-nationalists, the enemies of democratic sovereignty’. Instead he hopes his Democracy in Europe Movement can help spark a ‘democratic surge’ to push back both against the Brussels bulwark and hyper-nationalist tendencies.

That’s nice. It’s not an option on my poll card though; all I can do is endorse the EU in its current guise or walk away. Varoufakis acknowledges that his view is a utopian one but worth fighting for. If that’s his utopia, I’m disappointed by his imagination.

Them Blasted Foreigns

Speaking of ‘xenophobes, ultra-nationalists, [and] the enemies of democratic sovereignty’, since I last wrote the EU have made a nice little deal with Turkey. Every time I try to form words to discuss this deal, I just end up spitting. Suffice to say Turkey is not a safe third country. It’s not even a safe first country if you’re a journalist or Kurdish. Those refugees who have been deported there have been detained indefinitely and denied medical care. Those that remain in limbo on the Greek islands are no better off.

There’s a reason Médecins Sans Frontières are no longer accepting funds from the EU or its members; it’s because their attitude and policy towards some of the world’s most vulnerable people is grotesque.

Labour’s Referendum Campaign

The campaign hadn’t really started when I wrote my last post. Now it’s in its final throes of vitriol before the strangled death rattle of near-empty polling stations on Thursday. It’s been as dismal and intellectually void as the General Election last year. Before I stick the boot in to the two choices offered to me by the official Remain and Leave campaigns, a wee word about my fellow lefties.

I’ve seen a lot about human rights, workers rights, paid leave, paternity and maternity rights, equal pay all being protected by the EU. It’s what Labour have been basing their official campaign on (not that their ‘traditional voters’ would know, because they’re avoiding campaigning in white working class areas, for fear of meeting someone who doesn’t agree with them presumably). It’s what I’ve been informed about each time I’ve raised the possibility of not voting ‘in’.

This pisses me off. We don’t have these rights because the EU gave them to us. We have these rights because people fought for them. They fought long and hard. Some died for them. People unionised, petitioned, marched, went on strike, smashed things.

But it doesn’t piss me off because of its historical inaccuracies. It pisses me off because this language of protectionism is debilitating and dangerous.

The EU will not protect you from a state that wants to roll back gains we’ve made in social justice. It will not protect you from a state’s decision to restrict civil liberties. It will not protect you from a state that wants to infringe your human rights. Take a look at the Localism Act, the Welfare Reform Act, the Immigration Act the bill currently working their way through our parliament on surveillance, the manifesto promise to redraw the British Human Rights Act of 1998.

The language from the Labour campaign that the EU will protect us from the worst excesses of Tory rule are not only false but also encourage the complacency and disengagement that allows those excesses to go unchallenged.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

There are two choices on the ballot paper: to Leave and face economic meltdown or to Remain and have to sleep ten to a bed with Polish people. These are the two campaigns officially endorsed by our dear leaders. These are your two options.

Your choice is either to vote ‘yes, I thoroughly endorse the status quo’ or ‘no, I’m a racist bigot’.

The nuances of ‘yes, I’d like to stick around and help reform the EU so it is nicer, more just and more democratic’ or ‘no, I’d like to get away from this brutal neo-liberal monster and rebuild a more just society from the grassroots’ are not on the table, however much you want them to be.

Your choice is either to vote ‘yes, I thoroughly endorse the status quo’ or ‘no, I’m a racist bigot’.

That’s how our voting system works. In general elections, read the small print on your ballot paper and it will say, ‘I vote for everything in Labour’s manifesto plus some stuff they haven’t told us about yet’ or ‘I vote for everything in the Conservative manifesto plus some stuff they haven’t told us about yet’. They’re your only two options, however many candidates are listed.

The options in our voting system are always binary and always flawed. There is no nuance, there is no room for serious debate. There is no choice.

Voting is not democracy.

Your choice is either to vote ‘yes, I thoroughly endorse the status quo’ or ‘no, I’m a racist bigot’.

Engage with Politics

I had considered ending this piece with a conclusion which touched on where my own politics are at present and how that informed my actions in the referendum. But as I’ve been writing it, ‘where my politics are at present’ also required a ‘how they got here’ section and a much more difficult and potentially quite scary ‘where they are going’. It would start picking apart why Labour don’t go and talk to their traditional voters and why they seem to be encouraging complacency towards power-hungry monoliths. My internal anger would need to be better channeled to write that and it’s not there yet.

Suffice to say my politics have remained rooted to two fundamentals: democracy and social justice. Both options on the ballot paper are in flagrant opposition to my fundamentals.

So in conclusion, I don’t care how you vote on Thursday; it’s a scam, a nonsense and an intentional placebo.

Go out and fight for something better.

Today I voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union

Today I voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union.

I feel the need to lay out my key reasons for doing so.

I – Refuse to Remain

I decided some time ago that I could not vote ‘Remain’ because what was on offer was effectively unchanged membership of a political club that is arrogant, corrupt and dominated by a class of people who think they know best but demonstrably do not and are terrible at admitting mistakes.

The collective actions of all three core EU institutions (European Council, European Court of Justice and the European Central Bank) for the last decade have been a catalogue of serious misjudgments leaving a trail of avoidable destruction across the continent. The refusal to learn from or acknowledge policy disasters is bad enough, but the inability to plan for entirely predictable problems is inexcusable. For example:

  • Ever since the Euro currency zone was first implemented economists warned about the contradictions inherent between national sovereignty, collective risk and economic unity but nothing was done to rectify this.

  • Ever since the Arab Spring the mass destabilisation of the Middle East and North Africa was on the cards and yet nobody in the EU appears to have formulated a plan to deal with the millions of refugees this would create. It’s not like there was no precedent for this with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

  • Likewise, the expansion of EU political and economic influence into the former USSR appears to have been pursued with a kind of reckless utopianism by people completely disconnected from geopolitical thinking. Had nobody done a basic assessment of the demographic makeup of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, or studied Russian actions in Georgia just a few years before? Clearly not, yet this is the same unreformed, unrepetent organisation that is pushing for centralisation and integration of European defence policy.

Fundamentally, I cannot cast a vote in support of an institution that appears to be completely unaccountable, that rewards failure and whose answer to every misstep appears to be more integration and more centralisation. This is not just recrimination about the past. More concerning to me is that whilst current challenges, though large, are just about manageable even for an incompetent organisation, there will be much bigger ones to come – more migration, more authoritarian bullies to handle, more economic shocks and inequality.

The main argument in favour of Remain for me is one of climate and environment. Environmental matters are as important as any other matter of state and the British government’s historical record on these is appalling compared to that of European governments. However, this is a country that established the first national park, a country where the biggest private member society is the National Trust, a country where the young generation are as environmentally aware and active as they have ever been, so I hope and believe that we will have the political will and organisation to keep to international (not just EU) climate change and environmental standards, and continue to play a leading role in conservation, recycling and sustainable energy campaigns if we end up outside of the EU.

II – The temptation to destroy my ballot

Ruining my ballot was very tempting because this is fundamentally a Conservative Party-engineered referendum and the two options on the ballot were selected purely to placate the Party membership. I voted Labour in the 2015 election who offered no such Referendum and thus would have been satisfied with not having this vote at all. Although I firmly believe the issue had to be addressed sooner or later by the government of the day, my preference would be for it to be addressed by a government more attuned with my own political leanings. This is certainly the opinion of Paul Mason; a leftist-led Brexit would be a glorious thing but waiting for that would be like waiting for Godot. The day when the Labour Party wakes up to the potential of a radically decentralised, flexible, democratic-socialist system as an answer to the inequality and insecurities of a globalised capitalist world and as the real basis for international co-operation still seems a way off.

III – Voting Leave

I am voting for Leave partly because I do not believe the main argument offered by Remain – that we would be ‘better off’ In. Not only does this seem focused on those who are already ‘better off’, but seems deliberately pessimistic and misleading. We are a rich nation with control of our own currency, a growing, talented, law-abiding population with vast amounts of cultural, technological and military power. The main threat to our prosperity would be domestic mismanagement or international cyclical downturns, which is something we will face In or Out. Indeed, continued integration into the EU makes us even more susceptible to the whims of economic institutions that we have no control over and are completely inflexible when it comes to the concerns of the ‘periphery’. Even experts on the Remain side such as Paul Krugman concede this economic argument, whereas the leading money manager in the country effectively said the decision is an economic irrelevance to broader issues.

Which brings me on to the political concerns about voting Leave. There is a suggestion that this will mean the unstoppable rise of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. However, a reality check is needed here. Nigel Farage under perfect conditions still failed to get elected in 2015 and Michael Gove was locked in a cupboard for the campaign because he was so unpalatable to middle England. Boris Johnson could feasibly become PM at some point in the future but several things would need to happen first: he would have to win the Conservative leadership election (far from a given) and would then only be able to govern with the same thin majority that Cameron has now. It is hard to see this lasting for four years given Conservative recriminations around the result so another election would likely ensue and Boris would have to come up with some clear policies and take them to the country. So ultimately the only way Boris becomes PM in a meaningful sense is if the country votes for him and his party platform.

Now I will take the results of a free and (reasonably) fair general election any day over the suggestion that no matter how many Tories we vote in that somehow the EU will ‘soften’ our decision by tying one hand behind their backs on things like workers’ rights. This leads to soft thinking and acts like a comfort blanket to those on the Left suggesting that things can never get too bad no matter how badly Labour (or the Lib Dems, or Greens) perform electorally. Not only is this dangerous for the future of a sustainable, engaged left-wing movement in this country, it is a strange way of viewing the EU given that this government has completely changed the nature of the welfare state whilst remaining in the EU. Indeed, the EU is now pushing for more ‘competition’ and labour market ‘flexibility’ so is not really a leftist comfort blanket at all. The only difference politically between Cameron’s government and the European Council is that we can do practically nothing to change the EU’s political direction but can do plenty to change that of our own government.

Simply put I am voting Leave because I am more comfortable and more confident in our ability to change the UK government than the EU one so I want the UK government to have sovereign power, as a necessary step to further decentralise that power across the UK, in particular across the English villages, towns, cities and regions which have been ignored for too long by politicians from all parties. In an ideal world this process would take place in a progressive, democratic, decentralising EU led by active citizens but we do not live in an ideal world so in the words of Voltaire, ‘let us take care of our garden’.


Patriotism and the EU

Boris Johnson in his calculated, buffoonish way (BBC) managed to hit upon a key issue about the EU that I’ve been pondering for the best part of five years and this referendum has brought to the fore.

“[…] fundamentally what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe. There is no single authority that anybody respects or understands. That is causing this massive democratic void.” 

Boris Johnson, May 2016

I’ve yet to hear a single argument from Remain that actually contradicts this argument.

Respect and loyalty are fundamental to the the functioning of nation states. When there is an absence of these the state cannot function: the police, legal system, tax system, educational system, military, all rely fundamentally on the tacit consent of the populace – if overwhelming force is not to be used.

All democratic nation states rely upon this ‘daily plebiscite’ of the people; the tacit giving of consent to governing institutions – paying taxes, playing by ‘the rules’ and, when push comes to shove, fighting to protect the ‘nation’.

Boris Johnson has therefore gone straight to the heart of the EU question by highlighting the notable absence of pan-European loyalty and respect for the EU state.

If the EU model was an organisation of individual nation states co-operating and sacrificing their self-interest in a spirit of free, open decision making then there would be no debate and the lack of popular loyalty to a pan-European identity would be as irrelevant as the lack of committed one-world humanists is to the functioning of the UN.

However, the clear direction of travel (from the ECB, European Commission and European Parliament) is towards a more unified, centralised, sovereign EU state that coerces democratic nation states to comply with EU institutions that actually have a weaker democratic mandate and less accountability. As time goes by this can only lead to an unbridgeable gap between the people who govern in the EU state structure and the people who live in European countries, the vast majority of whom are not pan-European socialists or pan-European capitalists. Most people’s loyalties when push comes to shove are firmly with their nation state or failing that their region/aspiring nation state (Catalonia, Scotland, the People’s Republic of Yorkshire, etc.)

Pan-European identity under the EU as a democratic supra-national state has never been ‘sold’ effectively to the people of Europe. The EU is always couched in the language of being good for individual nations whilst the EU state has been built up via secretive treaties and directives and more and more power has been abrogated by EU institutions that few have voted for.

The democratic deficit

Recognition of the danger of this democratic deficit and direction of travel was at the heart of David Cameron’s negotiations in early 2016 as he secured an apparent opt out of the European ‘project’ of ‘ever-closer union.’

It is recognised that the United Kingdom, in the light of the specific situation it has under the Treaties, is not committed to further political integration into the European Union. The substance of this will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties and the respective constitutional requirements of the Member States, so as to make it clear that the references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.”1

And yet the problem remains that the EU, despite this UK opt out, has aspirations to full nation statehood in the long run whilst the people, emphatically, do not (‘Understanding Cameron’s negotations’).

The response to any popular demonstration of this Euro-scepticism has not been to make a clear demonstration of the benefits of membership, to put in place a clear vision of democratic reform, to admit the flaws and corruption of the existing state structure, or to try and forge lasting bonds of loyalty and respect between EU institutions and European people. On the contrary, since 2008 the EU has been systematically trashing what little respect and loyalty it had built up by terrifying smaller nations into submission (IrelandGreece) and alienating the public of Germany, France, Italy and the UK in the process.

There is no evidence – and the optimist in me really wants to find it – to suggest that the EU is becoming more democratic, more open, more deserving of trust and respect.

On the other hand, evidence for a widening democratic deficit is easily found. Turnout for elections to the European parliament across Europe has dropped from 62% to 42% in the last 30 years (turnout, 1979-2014). Only Belgium and Luxembourg, the countries for whom the EU has achieved the status of surrogate national government maintain high turnout. Nowhere else is this the case. In the UK participation has never risen above 40% – electing MEPs is treated with about the same level of enthusiasm as the election of a local councillor.

The 40% of people who do manage to summon the enthusiasm to vote for MEPs, overwhelmingly vote for representatives of national parties who claim to represent their national interests clearly emphasising the hierarchy at work. Only the Greens campaign on an explicitly pan-European platform and even when taken together with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats they have struggled to win more than a fifth of the voters who show up (c.8% of the total UK voting population).

The only possible conclusion from this is that most people want power to be held at a national level (or by ‘none of the above’). It is certainly not a ringing endorsement for more integration, more centralisation, more top-down institution building.

Not once have I heard a European MEP, or member or the ECB or European Commission talk honestly about the democratic deficit as a major hurdle to the plans to form a trusted and respected EU state. The consistent attitude of the entire edifice, of every speaker who purports to represent the EU is that elections and representative democracy are inconvenient, national identities are xenophobic and reactionary, and populism is fundamentally dangerous to all that is progressive and successful in Europe.

In defence of radicalism

Now I can understand, historically, why many EU officials and politicians might try to distance themselves from all forms of patriotic political enthusiasm. Populist, nationalist leaders, be they pro-Russian authoritarians (Hungary), Christian proto-fascists (Poland) or radical leftists (Greece) appear to presage a descent into the dark days before the EU project, when Right and Left engaged in pitched ideological battles that brought the continent to its knees and led to the deaths of millions.

However, from the British (or perhaps more accurately English) perspective this attitude does not sit well because the historical narrative is of the steady growth of representative democracy with bouts of democratic radicalism acting as a positive force for good. There are few examples from 20thC British history of democratic elections delivering genuinely dangerous individuals and regimes into power.

On the Left the touchpoint for radical democracy remains the 1945 election of Atlee’s Labour government that built the welfare state. For those on the Right, democratic radicalism is associated with the Thatcher governments who freed British society from economic stagnation. Both have been incorporated into British political narratives and neither are regarded (by their supporters at least) as reasons to fundamentally fear the democratic will of the people.

There is a very real danger, especially after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election, that if the Remain campaign is successful, the British public become accustomed to viewing any and all suggestions of radical change with fear and this fear becomes embedded as a permanent feature of our politics. For me this would be more permanently damaging than voting Leave and the period of inevitable turbulence it would bring.

Radical change in Britain has frequently been divisive and transformative but it has always been our change, driven broadly by what the voters voted for, delivering leaders into power who, for all their faults, were accountable to us. At no point can the same be said of the EU government and at no point can I envisage that changing.

Historical precedents

To clarify my thoughts, I have recently returned to two political essays that explicitly tackled the question of national identity and its relationship to radical, democratic change: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) and George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941). Both were written at pivotal moments in the political history of this nation.

Paine on the eve of the American Revolution when ‘American’ colonists were organising against the British government advocated independence as an opportunity to become master of one’s own radical destiny:

“I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connexion with Great-Britain, that the same connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty.”

Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

Orwell when continental Europe was under effective Nazi control and the British Empire ‘stood alone’ advocated a policy of radicalism at all costs, against all odds:

“Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.”

George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941

Under incredibly difficult circumstances (much more difficult than we face today) Paine and Orwell crafted patriotic appeals in defence of the radical potential of more democracy, not less; more freedom, not less. In both cases it is clear what the easiest path forward would have been in the short term: capitulation and compromise. Yet, both backed the potential of democratic radicalism to re-invigorate society; to encourage nations to strive towards something greater than what they had been previously.

It is a shame that the closest thing the Leave campaign has to this kind of thinking is Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. If some on the Left could channel the liberal optimism of Paine and the patriotic socialism of Orwell then the democratic deficit of the EU would be brought into sharper focus for a lot more people and the politics of fear could be replaced by the policy of radical optimism.

Therefore, I am likely to vote Leave because I believe we need an honest rethinking of what kind of society and people we are in Britain and I am finding it hard to envisage that happening within an EU that proactively spurns democratic structures and radical visions of the future. A state that has no trust in its people can expect little loyalty in return.


1EU reform deal: What Cameron wanted and what he got’, BBC News (20 February 2016):

Revolution Girl Style…Eventually

I discovered Riot Grrrl a decade too late.

I love music. Music has always been a part of who I am and how I define myself. And yet I would never speak about it; I would avoid discussing it, writing about it, cringe at being asked ‘what kind of stuff do you listen to?’ and certainly never, ever read music journalism. It is only very recently that I’ve begun to step out of this self-made fortress and question why. Why is it that something I’ve always been so passionate about, so interested in and dedicated so much time to, been so private and shuttered? Why is it so utterly removed from how I talk openly and keenly about my other interests, even those in which I have controversial opinions? What I am going to say is not particularly novel, not ground-breaking, not revolutionary. But this is my experience of music as a gendered space.

I went to school in the mid-nineties. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t like the musical genres of my peers, whether it was Britpop, hardcore or 90s dance. Even the friendlier folk who found solace in grunge as it moved from Nirvana to Greenday didn’t seem to offer me a home. My brother was musical and from him I cherry-picked influences, from Guns ‘n’ Roses to black metal. My parents’ folk sensibilities, the splashes of Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones clung on in the background for a while. Black metal offered a reaction against my peers and a veiling fashion to hide behind. With hindsight, it offered nothing positive or constructive for an awkward, angry girl.

Eventually, through luck and a library card I picked up Sonic Youth, the Cure, Pavement at 70p a CD and began to build a small and secretive collection of neatly-labelled copied tapes. I later shook off the grotesque misjudgements of One Hot Minute, Placebo and Silverchair but too easily rejected the Beastie Boys and Debaser. I held a very personal and obsessive relationship with Blind Melon for some years and the chords of No Rain still have the power to sting my eyes with nostalgic teenage angst.

In my second year at college I made two friends. Music stopped being a solitary pursuit. We swapped intricately-constructed mixtapes, inflated phone bills downloading one song at a time from Napster, discovered the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives. Danced in public. Even to Debaser. One evening, listening to John Peel, I heard the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I have a very clear memory of the following day. Walking down the corridor between the cool arts side of college back towards our A Level block, cocooned inside the metal-framed windows and that functionary, comforting public-building smell, asking my two friends if they’d heard the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They hadn’t. This was my discovery, my value. I was on equal footing with my small, select, eye-liner obsessive, single-gender friendship group.

But our social lives were not a vacuum. There were bars, parties. There was dancing, drinking, smoking, boys. The boys knew we liked music. And they liked to tell us that they liked music too.

Boys liked to tell us what sort of guitar Jonny Greenwood played (‘Who’s Jonny Greenwood?’ ‘Who’s Johnny Greenwood? How can you dance to that song and not know who Jonny Greenwood is?’). Boys liked to tell us the intricate histories of musicians as though they were football players switching clubs (knowing Bobby Gillespie’s involvement with illegal stimulants and the Jesus and Mary Chain didn’t change my favourable opinion of either of these despite my disinterest in Primal Scream, much to the chagrin of one young man). Boys liked to tell us what music we liked and what music we didn’t like (‘Aren’t you going to dance with your friends?’ ‘I don’t really like The Smiths.’ ‘Of course you like the Smiths; you just said you liked the Cure. You can’t like the Cure and not the Smiths. And anyway, the Smiths are better.’1)

Boys talked about music as though it were a purely technical, scientific and academic subject with obvious and infallible family trees as sectarian and inflexible as Northern Irish politics. To like this, you had to like that, know him, recognise that riff, remember the acrimonious split with the other guy and thus not like his new band and understand all of this to be fact which must be memorised and repeated twelve times before you could even dare fight through the cellophane and play their new record. To like a band you had to know its members, its back catalogue, its record label and their musical relatives. Only then could you argue that they were good. To dislike a band would require similar knowledge but defamation could be further shored up by knowledge of a ‘Yoko factor’; for example, any band with the exception of Nirvana which had any link to Courtney Love was obviously awful because of her.

There were the grunge boys, the indie boys, the heavy metal boys, the hip-hop boys, the nu-metal boys, the goths. And ne’er the twain should meet. In some ways we had the better deal; we could and did commune with all groups (with the exception of the goths; both my own history with black metal and their particular defensive insularity meant that no one approached their corner of the bar without a suitable amount of dark lace and lipstick). But my musical opinions were of no interest or consequence beyond being corrected on the sidelines of a constant game of one-upmanship. I learnt to just stay quiet.

The music press was written in the same vein. It was uninteresting, intentionally obscure and impenetrable for beginners, and fundamentally misogynist. Boys in bands could talk about their effects pedals and their personal journeys. Girls in bands were often downplayed, frequently photographed but only given agency when involved in a ‘cat fight’ or a band’s demise. I stopped reading.

But still I loved music. I collected up people’s suggestions, spent significant parts of my student loan in Fopp, went to gigs in bars, in clubs, in made-to-measure gig venues. My interest and passion for live music grew. Even now there are times when I can go to upwards of three gigs a week. But I stopped offering my suggestions, I stopped asserting my passions.

I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve gone to a gig with just another woman.

For a long time I would stand back at gigs. Partly to avoid being trodden on. But also because of a sense of inferiority; that I didn’t deserve to be up front, that I wasn’t a true fan, I didn’t know all the words, I might mis-tap my foot or nod my head out of time. There was frequently an atmosphere that reiterated this feeling. Even now, particularly at heavier gigs where the male:female ratio resembles indie pop gigs of old, there’s an identifiable masculine atmosphere of aggression and superiority.

(I want to take a quick sideline here. I am now assertive at gigs. I will happily go alone, at least if I am familiar with the venue and safe ways home. I frequently go with friends who are taller and hang back so I split off and make my way forwards. I like watching drummers so will move to get them in my sightline. I find the most annoying character at any gig is the over-protective boyfriend who sees everyone as a threat to his delicate lady who must keep being reassured with protective holds and unnecessary PDA. I also smile a lot at gigs. This may be a strange and unnatural reaction to enjoying myself which I think can be disarming.)

I discovered Riot Grrrl a decade too late.

I love music. I didn’t like talking about music. I didn’t like reading about music. I thought my views and tastes were invalid. I couldn’t make music because I didn’t have the technical know-how. And anyway, who’d want a potential Yoko in their band?

It’s frustrating because I have loved Sonic Youth since my teens and had picked up Fugazi. I was politically and socially aware and active. Yet I never knew I was that one step away from the music and ethos of Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, Huggy Bear and Sleater-Kinney. That small step in that blindingly obvious direction was blocked by louder voices and disinterested music journalists.

(Another aside. I eventually found a couple of these bands through a male friend. I actually owe a lot to him in terms of finding music and feeling happy to say when I did or didn’t like something. He even gave me Sara Marcus’s book on Riot Grrrl. We jointly and unconsciously created a small space for music which was not gendered. It was small because, until recently, never involved more than the two of us.)

Yesterday I attended an immersive event based around the screening of The Punk Singer, organised by an amazing collective of young women.2 It involved stalls, crafting, workshops, performances and a gig as well as the film. Assertively open to everyone, its primary audience was young women. Late in the evening, between bands, a male friend, intelligent and self-aware, commented that he had felt less welcome in the space than he was used to, almost an intruder; that the event wasn’t for him. I think he probably felt like I have done for years at gigs and music events without ever understanding or questioning why.

I wish I’d found the music and ethos of Riot Grrrl in my late teens, not my late twenties. Maybe it would have given me more confidence. Maybe I would have found more music. Maybe I would have shared more with my friends. Maybe I would have written about music. Perhaps I would have been more confident in my own creativity. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt like I should be apologising for taking up space.


There’ll be a woman in her 30s there, smiling disarmingly.


1The use of the semi-colon here is purely for my own pleasure; I am confident that this young man’s grammar was not up to such flourishes of beauty. Also, the Smiths aren’t better and I don’t need to know the name of the bassist to assert that point.

2Girl Gang Sheffield. They do amazing things.

Why I May Not Vote to Remain in the EU

I should be a natural supporter of the European Union. It was built on the back of the peace which followed the Second World War; a check on national governments, a union of nations, a collaborative enterprise. It supports the free movement of people. It defends human rights at a transnational level, protects employment rights, promotes gender equality… And for goodness sake, look at the nutcases, half-wits and downright contemptible folk who are campaigning to leave: Farage, Galloway, Gove, Johnson.

But these assumptions are misplaced. There is little to be gained from speculating whether or not Europe would have remained at peace after 1945 without an economic union between France and Germany (although it is worth pointing out we were hardly bosom chums with many of our fellow members until the 1990s). We have been at peace with our pals across the Channel. Well done us. Perhaps the EU has prevented us from our worst excesses. But as to the rest? We’re getting on so well with Russia right now…

It supports the free movement of people. Except it has a racist definition of people. It’s a check on national governments; isn’t that the judiciary’s job? It defends human rights; so does the UN Charter, the European Court of Human Rights (Hi! I’m the EHCR, I have 47 members and I am independent of the European Union [yes, that does include Russia and Azerbaijan, what of it?]) and, on a far more practical and effective level, our own Human Rights Act (1998). It protects employment rights, gender equality. So do trade unions, and have done for far longer, far more vivaciously and with a far stronger democratic mandate. And who supports staying in? Cameron, Osborne, May, Blair. All firm favourites of my imaginary boxercise regime.

I may not be a natural supporter of the European Union.

Ideals vs Reality


The EU began life as the European Coal and Steel Community, essentially an economic union tying together France and Germany alongside the Benelux countries (and Italy, because they needed something to do) with the rationale that if you co-operate in these key industries, you can’t start squabbling over Alsace and Lorraine again. So far, so successful. Trade and economic partnership have thus remained the bedrock of the organisation as it developed, first into the European Economic Community (1957 and the Treaty of Rome), then dropping ‘Economic’ and then into the EU with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. Now there’s 28 members, including us since the French stopped being stubborn in 1973.

Free trade between member states, and those who play by EU rules like Norway, prevails. And free trade is good, right? It’s fair because it is the opposite of protectionism which gives unfair advantages to countries or industries to the disadvantage of other, often less advanced or wealthy countries. Except the free trade area in the EU is also a giant protectionist wall against non-EU countries. The Common Agricultural Policy keeps farmers in business (or, at least, landowners in credit) by preventing cheaper foods being imported from non-EU countries, principally poorer countries. So it’s unfair. It also keeps some food prices high because they are protected (any A-Level historians out there, recall the Corn Laws) and so do not compete to market value. So the EU’s economic policy fucks poorer countries outside the EU, and poorer consumers inside.


The old left were right to be suspicious. Nationalised industries are considered to be unfair by the EU because they prevent a level playing field for industry and skew competitive tenders. Even ignoring the hypocrisy of this policy in light of the previous discussion, that’s nonsensical if you put people before profit; some businesses (F.K.A. services) could be more cheaply and effectively provided for by governments or subsidiaries of governments. But they’re not even allowed to bid to provide a train service or a water supply, because that would be unfair competitive advantage.

So instead of a non-profit organisation or an arm of government potentially making a profit to reinvest in a service (like the East Coast Mainline train franchise, for example), any profit made from providing a service gets pocketed by folks who can already afford to travel first class. Perfectly in line with the corporatist foundations of the ECSC; the EU is about business, not people.

Now, bear with me whilst I’m sounding like a (Tony) Bennite because shortly I’ll blow up the notion that I’m pro-big government or have a ‘the state is great’ flag. Or indeed think nationalisation is even a ‘good thing’; I’m just upset by hypocrisy and ripping people off. But before we get onto bureaucracy, let’s talk about democracy.


Blah blah blah, democratic deficit, blah blah blah. Any argument you want to make about the failings of the EU as a democratic entity can just as easily be made for our own national government. Someone duller and better versed in AV+ versus STV and purple ribbons has covered that aplenty.

It is one thing being a check on the excesses of national governments, it is another to complete fuck one over with a strong democratic mandate to do exactly the opposite of what the schoolyard bullies demand. The behaviour of the European Central Bank and the key member states, particularly Germany, to a member country facing financial ruin with a growing degree of desperation and destitution amongst its citizens – EU citizens – has been inherently vile. It’s also been economically unsound; the conditions placed on Greece for its bailouts may look familiar to international political economists who were around in the 1980s and 1990s because they closely resemble Structural Adjustment Policies imposed on various sub-Saharan African and Latin American countries by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. They were exceptionally successful at undermining democratically-elected governments, destroying fledgling national infrastructure and encouraging rampant corruption. They were less effective at helping states to rebuild and recovering their loans. Remember signing that petition for debt relief to a country you couldn’t identify on a world map in the early naughties?

I still believe that Greece would have been better to leave the Euro, it only lacked the confidence. But that’s another debate. This is only to point out that not only does the EU not give a flying fuck about democracy if it doesn’t make money, it also shits on its weakest members. I’ve never been a fan of schoolyard bullies and Greece doesn’t even have lunch money to placate them.

Them Blasted Foreigns

So surely a key function of a supranational body is to have solutions to supranational problems which are also national problems for its members? Maybe even have contingency plans for really obvious and predictable problems? Apparently not. The utter failure of the EU to have even done a back-of-a-fag-packet risk assessment for a spike in people seeking sanctuary is thoroughly baffling. It’s not like the clusterfuck currently occurring in the Middle East is in any way a surprise. And it’s never going to be a quick fix, not least as climate change is busily pushing people north and guaranteeing a longer-term problem of people heading to Europe for their own survival.

I’ve already said the EU’s take on the free movement of people is racist (yeah, I’m one of those No Borders utopian anarchist types dedicated to the collapse of Britain and all the values we hold dear like corgis, the right to queue for a Greggs pasty and rampant paedophilia for celebrities). My logic here is much akin to my earlier critique of the EU’s take on free trade (not the Greggs pasty bit) but it’s not just hypocrisy in this case, it’s also spineless rhetorically bullshit: The Schengen agreement is basically dead. Ask Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden who have all ‘temporarily’ imposed border controls. Maybe Schengen could be saved if it just added the clause, ‘in reference to the free movement of people, the Schengen agreement defines people as rich white people’.


It’s all getting too emotive, right? This should calm things down. And also shake off that burning accusation that this is just the ramblings of someone longing for the heyday of state socialism. I don’t much trust government (nb. not the government, or this government, just government generally, all of them); I appreciate the judiciary acts as a check on the excesses of power in democracies although it too is far from perfect. I don’t much like nationalism; it is exclusionary and somewhat farcical. Does the EU also help with either of these things?

On the latter, no. As I’ve discussed in terms of ‘free trade’ and ‘free movement of people’, the EU simply acts like a giant nation state with the power to exclude very effectively. As to the former, I don’t much like bureaucracy; it tends towards the ineffective, the complex and thus corruptible, they don’t much appreciate transparency or democratic accountability. National governments show this on a regular enough basis; the EU has made it an art form.

I’m a democrat (not a Democrat, or indeed a fan of either Clinton), by which I mean I believe that power should be exercised as close to the people it effects as is feasible. I would like to see widespread and thorough devolution of power from political centres. Previously I had thought this made me a supporter of the EU; a Europe of the regions. But increasingly it feels like it makes me one of the EU’s biggest critics because the EU promotes a privileged, exclusive and unaccountable agenda. It is no better than a nation state, rather it seems to have taken the worst elements of such a political organisation and pumped them full of steroids.


The EU is about money and trade, not union and people. If you don’t really believe that consider the reforms Cameron’s managed to secure in his negotiations: safeguarding Britain’s financial service industry from Eurozone regulation. Because an unregulated financial service industry has proved so super for the people of Britain.

There’s 4 months until the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The level of debate so far has been…crappy. I don’t currently know how I will vote. I do like change though. I’m a big fan of change. And I like being contrary so if I ‘should’ be voting to stay in, I’m sure as hell gonna play the devil’s advocate for a while.

Also, Tory infighting? My favourite.


The Premier League and the immigration debate: lessons from 2015

A very British success story

Off the pitch, the Barclays Premier League has enjoyed another record-breaking summer. Depending on what is defined as transfer spending (fees paid directly to clubs but not fees paid to agents, or to players in bonuses and wages – much of which remains secret) and which source of information you use (many transfer fees remain educated guesswork), it is broadly understood that summer transfer spending by the twenty Premier League clubs approached £1billion in 2015 – more than double that of the second highest spending league in the world – Italy’s Serie A.1

The league has been buoyed by promises of a huge rise in income after a new UK television rights deal begins in summer 2016. This will guarantee £5.136 billion to be divided evenly between the twenty clubs over a three-year period (2016-2019) and represents a 71% increase on the previous three-year deal, which itself was a 70% increase on the three-year deal before that. To put this into perspective, come summer 2016, domestic broadcasting revenue for every premier league club will have almost trebled in six years to nearly £100 million per club, per season.2

This massive influx of TV money, together with the fact that the British Pound is the strongest it has been against the Euro (the currency used by most of the teams that supply the Premier League with players) since the start of 2008, goes some way to explaining the willingness of Premiership clubs to expend unprecedented amounts on acquisitions. Transfer budgets that used to be the preserve of the petrodollar-backed Man City and Chelsea, or ‘world’s biggest club’ Manchester United are now being spent routinely by mid-sized clubs like Newcastle and West Ham (the third and sixth biggest net spenders this summer).3

There is nothing fundamentally new about any of this. The Premier League’s global financial dominance is well over a decade old and the upward trajectory of spending on transfers and wages (both in gross and net terms) was frequently remarked upon in the years preceding the financial crash of 2007/8. Indeed, total spending by the League’s clubs only managed to surpass the pre-crash total (in gross and net terms) in 2014, thereby mirroring the travails of the broader British economy which only managed to recover to its pre-crash size (measured by Gross Domestic Product) in mid-2014.

The parallels between the Premier League and broader British economy do not end there. The Premier League is one of the few domestic industries that is considered to be genuinely world leading: the financial and university sectors, armament, beverage and pharmaceutical industries would probably accompany it on a very short list. Its financial performance is a useful indicator of national economic performance and offers an insight into the kind of economic model that leading industries in Britain are adopting.

The Premier League is a recognised global entertainment brand attracting massive television audiences that translate into advertising and broadcasting revenue. This in turn attracts foreign owners and companies who invest heavily in British football clubs – Roman Abramovich‘s purchase of Chelsea in 2003 was the first major example of this. In this sense, the Premier League has become the kind of product that most industries aim to produce: a product in high demand at home and abroad that attracts significant direct investment to further its development.

These two symbols of the Premier League’s economic success – worldwide demand and capital investment – are not without controversy as the combination of foreign ownership and foreign support for clubs has occasionally antagonised historic, localised fan bases that feel both ignored and exploited. As the economic foundation of the clubs has shifted from this regional fan base to a global marketplace, demand for the product has grown and the new ownership – who frequently have no emotional or historic ties to the area – react by charging the old fan base the market rate for what has become a premium global product.

Such issues surrounding the economic impact of the Premiership’s global success on local fans have been ably covered in recent years by sober investigative reporting on the ‘state of the game‘ and I do not aim to add to this body of work.4 The main concern of my article is to consider a less frequently acknowledged aspect of the Premiership’s global appeal and global success: its voracious appetite for foreign labour and what this can tell us about the kind of economic model that is being adopted by leading industries in twenty-first century Britain.

A league built on mass immigration

When we think of foreign labour in the Premier League we of course think of the players themselves who are the focus of most media attention. However, the players themselves are merely the most visible element in a vast supply chain of foreign-born labour in the Premiership from the managerial and coaching staff to the physiotherapists, cleaners and security guards. Foreign-born workers are intrinsic to the whole edifice. In this sense it is comparable to the finance industry, NHS or university sector for its heavy reliance on non-British workers.

Indeed, like those other leading industries, a key measure of the Premier League’s global position at the top of the pile is its ability to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ from around the world. This is not just a cliché wheeled out by well-heeled managers to justify their own large pay rises. A fundamental tenet of free market capitalism, of the kind that has been at the heart of the British economy since the ‘Big Bang‘ de-regulation of the financial industry in 1986, is the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour so that the market, not government, can set their value most efficiently.

By this standard of measurement, the Premier League is the poster child of what has been dubbed ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism. It sells its goods in relative freedom to the rest of the world, sucks in foreign capital with virtually no moral or legal restrictions – Thaksin Shinawatra‘s purchase of Manchester City in 2007 is a case in point – and brings in workers from wherever they happen to be; the days of work permits threatening to scupper a player’s transfer are long gone despite the efforts of the Football Association (which supposedly regulates the Premier League) to create ‘home grown’ quotas and make work permit applications more stringent.

Its undoubted success in attracting foreign talent and money is what makes the League a perfect case study for free market theorists but places it in a very awkward position politically. The British government is vocal in its praise of industries that export their products across the globe and attract foreign investment – think of ‘UK PLC’, ‘Britain Open for Business’, ‘March of the Makers’, etc. However, they are also cheerleaders for lower immigration and the need to reform welfare and get people born in this country into work.

Prime Minister David Cameron has repeated his desire on many occasions to get immigration down to the levels of the 1980s and 90s and blamed missed targets on the influx of economic migrants from EU countries.5 Theresa May, the Home Secretary, suggested at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that the economic benefits of mass immigration are ‘close to zero. This was a strange comment to make in the self-proclaimed capital of football, home to two of the most successful clubs in the Premier League who are both under foreign ownership and regularly field sides with just one or two British players.

If one takes the Premier League as a case study of the benefits of mass immigration, the importation of huge numbers of players into the Premier League in the last decade seems to have actually fuelled its attractiveness as a product and driven the cost of labour higher – in terms of transfer fees paid and player wages. Far from undercutting the domestic labour market, the arrival of large amounts of foreign competition has actually driven up wages and increased demand for the end product. The government would surely protest in this case that when they talk of cutting immigration they do not mean to stop elite footballers from entering the country, that they are instead seeking to control the numbers of refugees and economic migrants from the EU and beyond.

In this attitude towards immigration they would seem to have the sympathy of a large section of the British public. The mixture of ambivalence and hostility that greeted the voyage of hundreds of thousands of ‘boat people’ across the Mediterranean this summer cemented the conceptual division between the deserving and undeserving immigrant in the public imagination. An anti-immigration zeitgeist, highlighted at its most extreme by the widely circulated suggestion of Katie Hopkins in The Sun that the boats should be sunk by ‘gunships‘. The message is clear: there is no room for low-skilled economic migrants or even desperate refugees who serve only to (and here I paraphrase Theresa May) strain public services like schools and hospitals, depress wages, push people out of work and generally undermine attempts to build a cohesive society in Britain. Footballers and other people of ‘exceptional talent’ get the red carpet treatment; the rest can get in the sea.

However, I would argue that a closer look at the nature of Premier League transfers from this summer alone demonstrates how short-sighted and paradoxical this Janus-like attitude to mass immigration is.

Challenging anti-immigration narratives

Of the 1536 players acquired on loan or permanent transfer by Premier League clubs this summer, 38 have African parentage. Given that it is immigration from Africa via EU countries (primarily Italy and Greece) that is considered a major part of the immigrant ‘problem’ faced by Britain, I will briefly consider the case of these handsomely paid, high-demand African-origin immigrants who represent a quarter of all signings by Premier League clubs this summer and a fifth of all spending.7

What initially jumps out from any consideration of these 38 players with African parentage is the fact that only 15 were actually born in Africa, 23 were born in the EU and five more have acquired EU citizenship.8 This relatively even split between African and EU-born players reflects quite well the nature of general immigration to Britain in recent years with roughly half of all arrivals being EU citizens and half coming from beyond the EU’s borders.9

Indeed, the focal points of the debate about the ‘swarms’ of immigrants arriving in Britain for over a decade have been the EU laws permitting freedom of movement for workers and the supposed status of Britain as a soft touch for those seeking refuge from discrimination and persecution. Time and again representatives of UKIP, the Conservatives and even Labour have insisted that we have been operating an effective ‘open door’ policy which is bad for British society and the British economy. Indeed, the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated his aspiration to cut net immigration ‘to the tens of thousands‘ (a third of its current total) and has made legal discrimination between EU workers a key demand of ongoing treaty re-negotiations ahead of the referendum in 2016.

However, for all the outrage about the arrival of Eritreans, Somalians, Nigerians, Syrians and Iraqis via Calais, or Bulgarians and Romanians via Heathrow, there has been precious little vitriol directed at the Premier League’s cohort of African-origin signings, even when they seem to match the profile of those whom politicians and commentators insist we are better off without:

  • Take Christian Benteke, whose parents fled the Congo to Belgium in the 1990s thus enabling him to gain Belgian citizenship ahead of his move to Aston Villa in 2012 where he displaced English forward Darren Bent before a move to Liverpool this summer which displaced a second England player, Rickie Lambert.

  • Or, take Victor Moses, who came to England as an adolescent asylum seeker after his Nigerian parents died. His arrival at West Ham on loan this year is only the latest stage in an eight-year Premiership career during which he has kept many a native-born player out of a job.

Benteke and Moses both escaped political and religious violence and secured safe residence within the EU as children; children who were not ‘exceptional talents’ in receipt of work visas when they crossed into the EU but nevertheless developed into professional footballers. No doubt as professional footballers in the Premier League they displaced English-born footballers but the market determined Benteke and Moses to be worth millions in transfers fees and wages and identified a need for their talents to aid production in one of Britain’s most successful export industries, an industry that considers the ethnic origins of its workforce to be irrelevant.

Many other examples like these can be drawn from this summer’s cohort of African-origin signings. Yet, the government talks of tightening immigration rules to ensure that it is even harder for children like Benteke and Moses to arrive and stay either in this country or within the EU more generally. The reason given is that Britain is full and that such migrants are of ‘zero net benefit’ to paraphrase our Home Secretary.

The clear problem with this evaluation of the merits or otherwise of immigration is the timeline on which the judgement is being made. There are 28 African-origin players signed this summer by Premier League clubs who already had EU citizenship due to being born within the EU or coming here in their youth. Their talents have been given a value in the region of £124 million (not including wages and various other signing fees). No one would have said that of them or of their parents when they first arrived in the EU but now this small group are some of the highest per-capita contributors to the British economy, not just in value created through labour on the field but through direct taxation of their wages.

These valuations are not produced by some pro-immigration, civil rights advocacy group. This is the valuation arrived at by ruthless, profit-driven sporting businesses hardly renowned for their charitable instinct. They are businesses that have chosen to place a high value on immigrant labour and the offspring of African immigrants and in so doing represent a teachable example of how immigration to Britain and the EU more generally should not simply be talked of as a charitable almost selfless act; it is smart business in the long run.

In case you think I am focusing disproportionately on players of African origin, there are plenty of other players signed by Premier League clubs this summer who can shine a clear light on the hypocrisy of those who claim that those seeking refuge or simply seeking a better chance in life have nothing to offer this country:

  • Xherdan Shaqiri was born to Albanian-Kosovan parents in what was then Yugoslavia. His parents left for Switzerland on the eve of the Kosovan war of independence along with hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women seeking safety in Western Europe. Their son grew up a Swiss citizen, has played 49 times for the national team (scoring 17 goals) and was bought this summer by Stoke City for a fee of £12.5million.

  • Raheem Sterling was born in the drug and crime-stricken area of Maverley in Kingston, Jamaica. His mother brought him to England as a child. He joined the Queens Park Rangers football academy before making his name at Liverpool and then moving on to Manchester City this summer for almost £44 million. Not only has he demonstrated his value at club level but has followed in the footsteps of Jamaican-born legend John Barnes to become an England international.

My argument, of course, is not that every immigrant should be welcomed because they could be the next Christian Benteke or Raheem Sterling. My point is a narrower, more economically-minded one.

An immigration success story

Immigrant labour is now regarded by one of the most globally dominant British industries as hugely valuable, even fundamental, to its continued success. The Premier League is not a refugee charity advocating for open borders out of moral principle. It is a hard-nosed, market-driven, capitalist business. It is precisely the kind of business that our political leaders claim we must listen to on a whole range of hugely significant social matters from the future of our children to the future of our state.

The only time such masters of industry are not called upon to speak on behalf of the national interest is on the question of immigration. When mass immigration is discussed, world-renowned major industries like the Premier League, the universities, or the financial sector are ignored or purposefully misrepresented because they abound with practical examples of how mass immigration can actually be good for business, the economy and society.10

Instead of having nothing to offer modern Britain, the ‘boat people’ flailing in the waters of Italy and Greece, the children gazing through the barbed wire in Calais, may well be your next big signing, or they might become a local doctor, cleaner, or security guard and make their contribution that way. The point is that we know the potential of every single person – whatever their origin – is limitless and there is a mountain of evidence (not just from the world of football) which suggests that open labour markets tend to increase wages, profitability and productivity because they treat people on merit not prejudice. The Premier League is a model case for this centuries old economic theory of comparative advantage whereby free trade, free labour and free movement of capital leads to greater specialisation, production and consumption of a given product, the benefits of which, if properly regulated, are felt by wider society.

People will tend to agree at a certain level that equal access to the labour market is not just fair and right but makes us all wealthier in the long run. To artificially limit the pool of applicants for a role or erect unreasonably high barriers to a profession by blacklisting workers or requiring the completion of lengthy unpaid internships, is generally, and rightly, denounced as a bad thing for the health of the economy and society. Yet few are willing to extend this logic of localised experience in the jobs market to a national or international scale and so fail to envisage what a genuinely free international market for labour might look like. What is denounced as restrictive practice or nepotism in a particular profession or industry is too often regarded as common-sense protectionism when clothed in nationalist garb.

I therefore suggest that there is significant merit in holding up the Premier League as a working example of a free-market, free capital, free labour system in action. It is certainly not without its problems but these are symptomatic of a global industry operating in a national age. By most measures of a twenty-first century globally competitive business, the kind we are told are the harbingers of the future, it is a success – a success built on the back of mass, open immigration. As such, for all its faults, it provides a useful counter example to hold up against the impoverishing anti-immigration rhetoric that threatens to dominate the political landscape in 2016. And in case anyone should doubt the potential power of modern football as an immigration success story one need only to observe the masses of British people who can be found week in, week out, cheering on immigrant workers who are doing what many regard as their dream job.



1 Several news sources (reporting on Deloitte’s figures) put the figure closer to £870m but adding up transfer fees reported on other specialised football transfer websites suggests a figure of around £1billion:  SoccernewsTransfermarkt ; Daily Mirror ; News World India
2 With the ongoing and highly secretive auction of overseas TV rights set to exceed the current £2 billion deal the £100 million per club figure will be easily surpassed. See Reuters.
3 See ESPN for individual club net spends.
6 The figure of 153 players is from Soccernews. Transfermarkt lists 139 not including loan signings and loan returnees.
7 Soccernews figures suggest 22%, whereas Transfermarkt suggests 19%; If, one were to include Kevin de Bruyne, who was born in Burundi and is thus eligible to play for them, in this group then the African-origin footballers would represent 25% of total transfers and 25% of total spending, making them completely representative.
8 France is the most common country of birth, with 12 players.
9 The latest figures demonstrate roughly even numbers coming from inside and beyond the EU: See the official Office for National Statisitcs Quarterly Report (August 2015) and ONS graph re-produced on the BBC (November 2015)
10 See, for example, the University of Sheffield’s response to the government’s proposed immigration cap in 2013.