Are we sure that Corbyn’s Labour would lose in 2020?

So, judging by the panic and the increasingly desperate attempts by John Mann MP to oust him from the Labour leadership contest, it seems there are now real prospects that Jeremy Corbyn may actually become the next leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

All of which is odd, because right now, only those on the extreme left side of the political commentariat disagree with the overwhelming consensus, that the Labour party would almost certainly lose the 2020 General Election, if led by Corbyn.

The Tories seem to agree, many of them allegedly having paid £3 to join the Labour party and vote for him, while those on the left, supporting him, are being painted as intransigent idealists. Indeed I’ve heard many of my left wing friends suggesting that it’s better to lose fighting what you believe in – as if they’ve given up on the 2020 election already. Are they really so unimpressed by the other candidates?

I confess, all my instincts push me towards the majority view; that the Labour party is preparing to commit electoral suicide, just as it did in 1980 when electing Michael Foot over Dennis Healey, and just as the Tories did in 2001 when electing Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke.

But might we have judged this wrong?

It’s a theory which appears to be underpinned by three supposed historical precedents, which I will examine in turn:

1) Elections are won from the centre ground.

Certainly in 1983, and to a lesser extent 1987, Labour were some way further left than they are today, and they lost; just as in 2001, and to a lesser extent 2005, the Tories were further to the right, and they lost.

But in the two 1980s elections, the only party anywhere near the centre (the Alliance) came 3rd. So we’re left with only two historical precedents (2001 & 2005) which are both recent and relevant, where a centre ground party fought against idealist opposition. And yes, Labour, the party closer to the centre, won both.

Significant, perhaps, but as a basis for electoral certainty, it strikes me as more than a little flaky.

So let’s have a look at the second:

2) Labour lost the 2015 election because it became too left-wing

If the first theory is flaky, then this one strikes me as positively leprous.

Labour failed to build up a lead before the election because the electorate widely believed their leader was not Prime Minister material, and because the Coalition Government were seen to have managed a difficult economic period, pretty well.

Despite this, the election should still have been pretty close, and in my opinion it certainly would have been, had it not been for the SNP tidal wave in Scotland, and the consequent fear (justified, and ruthlessly exploited by the Tories) in England & Wales, of a Labour minority Government propped up by the SNP.

While the SNP sweep owed far more to patriotism than economics, the scale of their impact on the overall UK result, coupled with fact that they campaigned on very left-wing rhetoric (albeit rather more so than was justified by their manifesto), makes it very difficult to conclude that Labour’s defeat flowed from their policies being too left-wing.

So how about the third pillar of wisdom?

3) Labour also lost the 1983 election because it was too left-wing

At first glance, this seems a more solid premise. In 1980, left-wing leader Michael Foot was elected by an inward looking Labour party, and a landslide Tory election win followed in 1983.

But again, I think there is reason to doubt the central premise.

Michael Foot’s Labour were supposedly ‘unelectable’ in 1983, but it’s also widely believed that Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands triumph of 1982 was the crucial factor in turning around the Tories’ fortunes. Both of these can’t be true, unless one really believes that the Alliance were on course to win the next election (they began eroding the Labour vote in late 1981 and polled well in 1982, but that was in mid-term).

Moreover, Michael Foot himself was an electoral liability – even more so than Ed Miliband this year. Can we really be sure that similarly left-wing policies, presented by a more charming leader, during a period when Tory policies were far more socially divisive than anything seen since 2010, might not have returned Labour to power in 1983 or 84, if the Argentines had kept their gunpowder dry?

I don’t think we can.

So is there no other basis for the Corbyn-doom theory, beyond the three pillars of wisdom, upon all of which, a seed of honest doubt can apparently be sewn?

Because if not, I don’t think we can be quite so sure that a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, would go down the tubes in 2020.

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The LibDem House that Jack Built

Last Thursday at 10pm, we all got a shock.

Sky's Exit Poll Graphic

A few minutes later, Fraser Nelson tweeted this:
Fraser Nelson's Tweet

He may well have been right. It was certainly surprising, and yet despite the plaudits handed to BBC psephologist John Curtice, it turned out to be the most inaccurate exit poll since 1992. Just as on that occasion, the poll correctly predicted the unexpected direction of travel, away from other opinion polls and towards the Tories, but fell some way short in terms of the distance travelled.

316 seats for the Tories was a big surprise; 58 for the SNP was shocking if not entirely surprising. But for me, the real eyeballs moment was when the BBC, who didn’t start with Sky’s all-encompassing graphic, revealed a few seconds later, the extent of the LibDem collapse.

bbcpoll1

Just 10 seats? How was that possible? Even the most pessimistic polling in the last week of the election put them on 17, and that was considered an outlier. High 20s was the average prediction and YouGov’s own exit poll put them on 31.

But hours later, it was clear that the extent of the LibDem disaster, just like that of the Tory triumph, had in fact been slightly under-stated.

In the week that’s passed since, something has become very clear from analysing the pattern of results, together with anecdotal evidence from LibDem campaigners in the south of England in particular. The LibDems lost almost as many seats as a result of the Tories’ “stop the SNP” scare tactic, as they did through the coalition backlash.

The backlash saw left-sided voters deserting the LibDems in disgust at Nick Clegg helping David Cameron into Downing Street. It was fully expected, if in my view undeserved, as I explained in this video last year.

Nobody expected their vote share to be much more than half of the 23% they achieved in 2010. But I, and many others, still thought they’d hold on to 30-odd seats.

This was partly because their ground operation (on which they concentrated most of their funding) was known to be effective in seats where they were incumbent; but mainly because in 38 of their 57 seats, it was the Tories, rather than Labour, who finished 2nd in 2010.

That Labour, even on such a bad day for them, gained 16 out of the 17 seats where they were 2nd to the LibDems last time, was no surprise. It was likely, too, that LibDem votes seeping to Labour or the Greens, would cost them a handful of seats to the Tories, in marginals where the tactical vote wouldn’t be enough to save them.

What nobody predicted was that LibDem voters would defect en masse, directly to the Tories. After all, that hardly seemed a credible punishment for the electorate to inflict upon Nick Clegg’s party, for joining the Tories in Government.

As the dust settled, it quickly became apparent, from LibDem campaigners, that the Tory advance against them had little do to with the coalition. As their Maidstone candidate Jasper Gerard (whose Tory opponent Helen Grant was described by the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman as ‘toast’ the day before the election) explains here, it was the effect of David Cameron’s hugely successful scare tactic which dominated the latter days of the campaign:

Tory Election poster featuring Alex Salmond

Tory Election poster featuring Alex Salmond

I mentioned this in my blog on Tuesday, which looked at David Cameron’s victory and concluded that Scotland was largely the reason for it, since it was the SNP surge in Scotland, and polls giving advance warning of this, which allowed the Tories to play the SNP card, which in turn held back the expected Labour gains from them and allowed the Tories to decapitate the LibDem vote in the South West, winning 32 of the 38 seats in which they finished 2nd last time.

I always thought Paddy Ashdown and the LibDem campaign should have used different tactics, and stopped trying to persuade the electorate of the good they had done in Government. The public never bought it. I think it was Albert Einstein who once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”; the LibDems had been singing the same song for three years and seen no change in the opinion polls. It was never going to work.

However, considering the event, one wonders if there’s anything Paddy Ashdown, Olly Grender and the team could possibly have done. Nobody could have expected the indirect effect that the SNP surge would have on the LibDems. Any campaign which attempted to limit the coalition backlash – as they surely had to – would have been blind-sided, because it wasn’t their decision to go into coalition, which cost the LibDems all those Tory seats.

Or was it?

I would argue, on further reflection, that the coalition backlash probably was a big factor in the LibDems losing all those seats in the South West after all. For two reasons:

Firstly, the reason the Tory scare campaign worked, was because a Labour/SNP government was a perfectly genuine possibility. With so many of their seats obviously falling to the SNP, it was clear that Labour were never going to get more than 280 or so, unless they made a massive breakthrough and won a near-landslide in England & Wales on polling day, which nobody thought likely. However much Ed wriggled, he couldn’t escape the numbers. To get to no. 10, he would need the SNP.

But he wouldn’t have done, if the LibDems had been on course to keep their 57 seats, or anything close to that number; in those circumstances a Lib/Lab deal would have been possible. But of course, the LibDems were never going to keep all those seats, because of the coalition backlash.

And there’s another, more interesting point which was made by a writer friend of mine, Alan Barnes, after he read my earlier blog on my Facebook page:

The SNP surge was an indirect consequence of the Independence Referendum. The Referendum only happened because the SNP gained a Holyrood majority in the 2011 Scottish election. One of the major factors behind the SNP Holyrood landslide was the collapse of the LibDems. While Labour made losses too, the SNP victory came primarily at the expense of the LibDems, and was a direct consequence of their support for the Tories in Westminster.

Alan & I are both Doctor Who geeks (old school of course) and when pointing this out, he reminded me of a quote from former Time Lord Sylvester McCoy, in one of his more successful episodes:

“Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.”

“Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.”

That line was written by Ben Aaronovitch, brother of Times columnist David. But maybe what the world’s most famous time-traveller was really talking about, was this year’s General Election.

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Labour Lost because of Scotland. It’s that simple. [Almost]

So, the Labour party is having a post-mortem, leaders are jockeying for position and David Cameron has already cracked out the popcorn. We’re seeing senior Labour MPs with their hitherto invisible partners, while commentators have descended from every sphere of Labour party influence, into the BBC’s temporary studio, to insist that Labour lost because the party vision wasn’t similar enough to theirs.

If you’re Owen Jones, Labour weren’t anti-austerity enough, if you’re Peter Mandelson, they ignored the aspirant middle classes; and while such views seem to be mutually exclusive, they may actually be compatible, with the public’s attitude towards these things clearly fractured by region.

But while Labour may not have been in the best shape to fight the election, they were in good enough shape to make it very close. That they failed to do so is for one reason, and one reason alone.

Scotland.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Miliband was the best leader Labour could have chosen. Of course he wasn’t. And yes, Mandelson was absolutely right that they ignored the middle classes. And no, they weren’t trusted on the economy as a result of the events of 2007-10.

But that was all true three years ago, when Labour were enjoying a consistent 10 point lead over the Tories. I don’t recall anyone complaining then, about Labour ignoring the aspirant middle classes.

All this talk of the wrong policies, the wrong emphasis, and even the wrong leader, are important discussions for improving Labour’s chances next time, but they obfuscate the only reason why Labour lost this election so badly.

Without Scotland, the Tories certainly would not have won a majority, and it’s very possible that Ed Miliband would be in Downing Street right now, despite all those ignored middle class voters.

The surge of SNP support was, in itself, arithmetically, a hammer blow to Labour’s chances. But almost equally important, was the promulgation of opinion polls in recent months, setting out just how well the SNP were doing.

Lord Ashcroft Poll, 4 March

Lord Ashcroft Poll, 4 March

At the start of this year, we knew the SNP were on the rise, but nobody really knew how their support would hold up. Everyone was expecting a hung parliament, and at that time, Labour were widely expected to make significant electoral gains in England & Wales. It was just a question of how many. Nobody I spoke to in Cardiff North (2010 Tory majority of 194) in March, thought Craig Williams had a chance of holding the seat.

But as the campaign got underway, the polls rolled in, and the SNP vote was holding firm. They were set to win 30, then 40, then maybe even 50 seats, and it became increasingly clear that only a landslide victory in England & Wales, could deliver Labour a majority government. There was no chance of that, and with polls also pointing to a significant reduction in LibDem seats, it was obvious that Ed Miliband’s only realistic chance of making it to no. 10, was with SNP backing.

The Tories saw their opportunity, and this subject soon began to dominate the campaign. Tory warnings of a Lab/SNP Government, with the only alternative being another term for David Cameron, was probably the single most effective campaign message in recent UK electoral history.

It’s perfectly possible that the Tories’ tactic hardened SNP support in Scotland and won them a handful of extra seats – after all, few predicted Labour ending up with just one seat north of the border – but suggestions that David Cameron is somehow responsible for the SNP rise, is absurd. He reacted to the events in Scotland; he didn’t cause them.

Fatally for Labour, the Tory “beware SNP” campaign had far more dramatic effects in middle and southern England & Wales, one of which nobody foresaw.

The small decline in the UKIP vote was largely predictable. Less predictable was the extent to which the anti-SNP message held back the expected tide of Labour gains from Conservatives in marginal seats, the net gain being just one. This was a surprise. Even the most confident Tories were expecting to lose at least a dozen or so seats to Labour; most pundits were predicting between 30-50.

But an even bigger surprise was the effect of the SNP fear factor in the marginal Tory/LibDem seats.

We’d all known, ever since the LibDems flatlined in the polls in Autumn 2010, that they would be punished for putting David Cameron in Downing Street, with many disaffected LibDems turning to the Greens or Labour. Everyone expected Labour to make gains from them, and in very tight marginals in the south, we thought LibDem votes seeping to Labour or the Greens might cost Nick Clegg’s party a few seats to the Tories.

But perhaps the biggest shock, of the many that unfolded on polling night, was the mass migration of voters switching directly from the LibDems to the Tories.

The Tories gained 27 seats from their erstwhile partners, and the reason nobody foresaw this, is because it (self-evidently) wasn’t a backlash for the LibDems’ time in coalition, but a result of thousands of LibDem voters believing David Cameron, when he told them the only way to keep the SNP out of Government was to vote for him. Incredibly, this message cost the LibDems almost as many seats as the coalition backlash.

The 2015 Election without the SNP Effect

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the SNP surge never happened.

They’d have gained a few seats anyway, from the LibDems, benefitting from the coalition backlash, and perhaps a small swing away from Labour, which was delayed in 2010 as a result of Gordon Brown’s popularity north of the border. Let’s be generous to the SNP and say, even without the recent surge, they may have gained 5 seats from the LDs and 2 from Labour.

Without the SNP fear factor, Labour, the LibDems and UKIP would have all fared a lot better in the south of England and Wales. Labour were hoping to make 50 gains from the Tories. That was perhaps optimistic, but even allowing for the “shy Tories” in the polls, 20 LAB gains is a conservative estimate, with Tory gains from the LDs reduced from 27 to 12. Labour’s gains from the LibDems would likely have been unaffected.

So let’s have a look at the change in 2015 seats, without the SNP sweep.

Projected 2015 seat change with no SNP surge.

Projected 2015 seat change with no SNP surge.

If you remove the overall SNP effect from this election, despite the Tory advantage on leadership and the economy, Ed Miliband gets very close to Downing Street. It’s in the margin for error; he may well have won more seats than the Tories.

Either way, the backlash over Ed Miliband and his campaign, would not be happening to anything like the same extent.

So in a sense, Owen Jones is closer than Mandelson, to being correct. Anti-austerity was a major factor in the SNP surge, and if Labour had campaigned on a similar agenda, the SNP gains, while perhaps inevitable to some degree, may well have been much less calamitous for Labour.

Of course, an anti-austerity ticket might have alienated the south of England, and seen Labour punished to some degree, but it’s hard to imagine it being worse for them in England/Wales than the eventual result. The LibDems, meanwhile, would have ended up with a seat tally much more in line with expectations.

This Labour soul-searching is all well and good, but to re-establish themselves as a major force in 2020, Labour need to ask themselves just two questions. How did we lose Scotland? And is there any way back?

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Dodging TV debates isn’t hypocrisy. It’s politics.

Is ‘hypocrisy’ really the right word to characterise David Cameron’s attempts to wriggle out of the TV debates?
David-Cameron_2074203c

Nobody doubts that’s what he’s doing, indeed Labour’s latest campaign video has neatly exposed his inconsistency on the subject.

A clever move, but not nearly as clever as Nick Clegg’s reply to Miliband.

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By refusing Clegg’s invitation, as Miliband surely must, he’ll lay bare his own “hypocrisy” on the same issue.
Ed Miliband

But the truth is, it’s not hypocrisy, it’s politics.

No leader would agree to a debate if they didn’t think it would be advantageous to their party. Without the support of disillusioned LibDem voters from 2010, Labour would likely be looking at the wrong end of a landslide defeat, so for Miliband to give Clegg any chance to tempt those voters back, would be crazy.

Debates never happened before 2010, and they only happened then because the circumstances were such that both Labour and the Conservatives thought they could benefit from them.

That’s very unusual. Tony Blair would have been mad to agree debates in 1997, 2001 or 2005, as would Thatcher in 1979, 83 or 87.

The party unsuccessfully pushing for debates is always the one which expects to lose.

But this election looks like being just as close as the last one, so why would David Cameron not be up for the debates?

To answer that question we must look at 1992, the only other election in recent memory which was expected to be very close, and which might conceivably have seen both parties agreeing to debates.
johnmajorbriansmit_1521808c

They didn’t happen because John Major refused. He thought he would win without them, and he turned out to be right, because he had two crucial advantages: the incumbency effect, and his advantage in personal popularity over Neil Kinnock.

The Prime Minister holds both these advantages and is thinking along similar lines.

Only if the Labour lead were consistently in the 3-6% region, would both David Cameron & Ed Miliband agree to debates. If Labour were further ahead than that, they’d be confident of victory (as Blair was in 1997) and wouldn’t do them. And with their lead only around 1%, the Tories are confident of turning that around.

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Prime Minister’s Questions should be just that.

In recent years, there’s been much talk of the decline in Prime Minister’s Questions. In the first instalment of the BBC2 “Inside the Commons” series this week, exchanges between David Cameron & Ed Miliband were labelled ‘juvenile’ by Labour MP Sarah Champion, while Father of the House Sir Peter Tapsell bemoaned the descent into apparent personal disrespect between the two leaders, over the past 25 years – in other words, since Prime Minister’s Questions was first televised, in November 1989.

Certainly the exchanges I’ve heard (radio coverage had been available long before ’89) between Margaret Thatcher and Jim Callaghan or Michael Foot, seem to have been courteous by comparison. But it’s not so much the abuse and the rabble rousing (though that is lamentable enough) that frustrates me, but the increasing tendency, from the Leader of the Opposition, to hurl accusations in addition to asking questions, and worse still, the Prime Minister’s view that there’s no requirement to actually answer any of Ed Miliband’s questions at all.

During yesterday’s exchange, my frustration boiled over when Miliband asked the PM five times for an explanation of why a specific tax relief had been granted to Hedge Funds. I wasn’t aware of this, and was interested to know the answer. Five times he was asked, and five times he didn’t even address the question, instead choosing to attack Labour on various (barely) related issues.

Now, at times, I can understand why Government ministers might dodge such questions. Very often, the counter arguments take too long, and the average voter will be too bored to listen. I get that.

But it took Andrew Neil, on the BBC’s Daily Politics show, well under a minute to summarize the basic argument in favour of the tax break. Here’s the clip.

Sure, the details might be complicated, but the basic premise of the argument is not difficult to understand. Labour says the Tories are helping out their rich friends by removing the tax, but the Tories say the tax reduction results in a higher tax take from the companies overall, which is better for the country. It’s a similar argument to the 50>45p income tax reduction for those earning more than £150k per annum.

So why on Earth can the Prime Minister not simply set out the counter-argument?

Perhaps he wasn’t across, or had forgotten, this particular policy detail and didn’t know the answer? I could understand that, but this sort of thing happens every week. Ed Miliband will ask the Prime Minister about some NHS target or other, and two things are guaranteed – one, that the PM won’t answer the question; two, that he will reply by slamming Labour’s NHS record in Wales.

Sadly there seems to be a mindset amongst political advisers on all sides of the house, that only the most basic issues are simple enough for the average voter to understand. But many voters currently agree with Labour’s line, being that Tories reduce these taxes simply to do their rich mates a favour. By ignoring these questions, when actually he has an answer, surely David Cameron is reinforcing that view?

Would it not have been to the Prime Minister’s advantage to set out the argument explained above by Andrew Neil. He could have done that, and still left plenty of time to get in his soundbites for the Six O’Clock News.

I want to hear arguments like this properly played out at Prime Minister’s Questions, rather than have the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition baiting each other like a couple of Sixth Formers.

Serious political debate is what PMQs is for, the Sun readers aren’t watching anyway, so for God’s sake answer the bloody question!!

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UKIP and the Greens – why TV debates should include both, or neither

Whatever else you might have read, David Cameron is the comfortable favourite to come out of May’s election as Prime Minister. So he doesn’t want TV debates. Of course he doesn’t. Why rock the boat?

He certainly doesn’t want any TV debates which include Nigel Farage. After all, we all saw what happened when Nick Clegg tried to use rational argument against Farage. Everyone in Westminster thought Clegg had won the debate hands down, but the public thought the opposite.

The proposals for TV debates are as follows:
(1) a two-header between David Cameron and Ed Miliband
(2) a three-way debate which also includes Nick Clegg
(3) a third debate which also includes other “major party” leaders
(4) Regional debates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, including nationalist parties

OfCom have now ruled that UKIP is a “major party” for the purpose of the third debate but the Green Party is not, which means the third debate will include Cameron, Miliband, Clegg & Farage.

David Cameron certainly doesn’t want that. He’d rather not debate Farage at all, but he certainly doesn’t want Tory votes seeping to UKIP unless Labour are also going to shed votes to the Greens. So he had the idea of using the Green Party’s exclusion as an excuse to hold the broadcasters hostage. As Paddy Ashdown rightly said, “not since the photos of Cameron driving huskies have green issues been so cynically harnessed to Tory interest.”

But that doesn’t mean David Cameron is necessarily wrong.

Both the Greens and UKIP are, essentially, single issue parties, so on that basis alone there’s a perfectly reasonable argument for neither of them to be included in the debates. After all, what will Natalie Bennet or Nigel Farage have to say about our education policy? You don’t know, or care, do you? It brings to mind the appearance of phone-hacking expert lawyer Charlotte Harris on BBC1’s Question Time. Brilliant on her specialist subject, but when other topics came to be discussed, her opinions were an embarrassing waste of air time.

I’m not sure what good reasons justify the holding of three national debates. Appeasing the three major news channels, each of whom want to claim a debate as their own, hardly strikes me as being one of them, nor does the fact that that’s what happened last time. But be that as it may, the broadcasters want the third debate and it looks like they will get it.

Ostensibly, OfCom’s position seems arguable enough. UKIP are currently polling at around double the level of the Greens and also have double the number of MPs. The line has to be drawn somewhere, otherwise George Galloway would be included as a major party too.

But OfCom are broadcasting experts, not political experts, and the argument is rather more complicated than the one they have presented. Yes, UKIP now has two MPs and the Greens only have one.

But by the time of the election campaign, UKIP’s two MPs will have served for just 6 months each. Not only has Caroline Lucas been a Green MP for 5 years, far longer than the two UKIP members put together, but more importantly, she won her seat at a General Election.

Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell were both elected at recent by-elections, in circumstances where the electorate knew that they could lodge a safe “protest vote” with UKIP, which would not affect the make-up of the Government. Had Prime Minister Ed Miliband been a potential consequence of voting UKIP in Clacton, Or Rochester & Strood, the outcomes of those by-elections might have been very different.

By contrast, Labour had held the Brighton Pavilion seat throughout their years in Government and their voters knew full well in 2010, that voting Green carried a risk of helping put David Cameron in Downing Street, but they did it anyway.

We don’t know whether UKIP will be taken seriously by voters in the General Election. We do know that the Greens will be. This strikes me as at least as strong an argument for the Greens’ inclusion, as the temporary popularity currently being enjoyed by UKIP.

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Andrew Mitchell : What Price Justice?

For a few weeks he was the Haughty Tory Toff, then for two years he was the unfortunate (if largely unsympathised with) victim of police corruption.

But what, now, do we make of Andrew Mitchell?

am

The truth is, in the two years since Michael Crick unearthed the CCTV footage which sowed more than a seed of doubt on the police version of events, no facts have changed. The libel judgment tells us nothing we didn’t know already.  PC Toby Rowland insists that Mitchell called him a pleb, Mitchell insists that he didn’t, and only those two people know the truth.

Make no mistake, if a defendant were on a criminal trial based on the evidence held against Mitchell, a not guilty verdict would be a certainty. Indeed, the CPS would never dream of running a case on such flimsy evidence, with a “beyond reasonable doubt” verdict necessary to secure a conviction.

However, civil trials like this are decided on “balance of probability”.  So Mr Justice Mitting simply had to make his best guess, based on the evidence, and he decided that Rowland’s version of events was the more likely to be true.

As noted in Adam Tudor’s interesting Times article on the morning of the verdict, this was the first judgment since the abolition of jury trials for defamation cases.  It was on my own jury service ten years ago, that I realised Joe Public struggles to distinguish between the above two standards of proof. So the average voter will likely take all of this as another resounding affirmation of Tory MPs’ self-importance.

And in my view, they’ll be right to do so, even if they have reached that view for entirely for the wrong reason.

The result came as a surprise to many. The word around the court was that Mitchell’s lawyers were very confident, and in the political media, it was pretty much the same feeling. Certainly one senior political commentator I spoke to last year, firmly believed the whole thing to be a police stitch-up, revenge for the Tory police cuts, for which any senior Minister would do, but it was Mitchell that gave them the opportunity.

And given the evidence of police corruption, I was initially surprised by the verdict too, although on reflection, the arguments on both sides were very finely balanced. The Judge had a terribly difficult decision to reach, based on little more evidence than one man’s word against another.

So under the circumstances, and given that the burden of proof is on the Defendant in defamation trials (not that that makes much difference in “balance of probability” cases), some will consider Mitchell unfortunate to have lost.

Indeed, even if he did use the term ‘pleb’, many will think he was rather unfortunate to lose his job in the first place. After all, I’m sure Justice Mitting won’t have to resign for his extraordinary, and rather more demeaning summary of Rowlands’ character, which he cited as a key reason for finding in the PC’s favour!

But despite this, it’s much harder to sympathise with Mitchell, than it was a couple of years ago. Not because I agree with the verdict particularly, but because I think his decision to pursue the case through the courts at all, was a display of hubris.

Let’s not pretend there was a huge amount riding on the outcome of this case. There wasn’t. Sure, Mitchell had lost a top Government job, perhaps unfairly, and wanting to clear his name was, of course, understandable. But the financial loss he’d suffered was a drop in the ocean of his wealth, and he didn’t need to save his career – the doubt cast on the police’s conduct had already restored his reputation sufficiently that another top job was only a year or two away.

Mitchell sued because he could afford to risk a few million quid on a 50/50 case. He used his wealth and privilege to place Mr Justice Mitting in a very difficult position, having to preside over a case where the truth was no more ascertainable than if the feuding pair had tossed a coin in a locked room and later disputed how it fell.

No fee paying person of moderate means could have afforded to pursue such a case, so for a wealthy MP to do so in any circumstances would reflect badly. To do so in circumstances where his Government is further restricting access to justice for the common man, in the form of yet more legal aid cuts, is worse still.

He has reinforced the sterotype of the superior Tory not by calling PC Rowland a pleb, which he may very well not have done, but by trying to access a tier of justice that is simply not available for people who aren’t very rich.

If Mitchell’s career deserves to suffer, it’s not because he lost the case, but because he brought it.

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