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.

Prediction

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

http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-election-forecast/?ex_cid=rrpromo – 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.

http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-swing-the-election/ – 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!

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/upshot/presidential-polls-forecast.html?_r=0 – 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.

http://www.270towin.com/ – very strong independent site that allows you to build your own map quickly and effectively and keep track of the latest polls and predictions.

http://www.electionprojection.com/presidential-elections.php – A professional, yet Republican-leaning predictions site.

http://www.electoral-vote.com/ – A professional, yet Democratic-leaning predictions site.

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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’.

WJR

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.

WJR

1EU reform deal: What Cameron wanted and what he got’, BBC News (20 February 2016): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-35622105

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.

WJR


Endnotes:

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.