The NHS: how the accountants are hiding dubious policies

The NHS is quite high up the news agenda these days. From the media there seem to be two big issues: culture and privatisation. The mainly right-wing press say that much of the NHS lacks a caring culture and this often leads to a breakdown of service. Left-wingers, and NHS insiders, worry about the new commissioning rules, and whether unscrupulous private companies will bid their way into contracts that destroy what is good about the service. These are both valid concerns, but a third issue should be causing more controversy than it does: funding. Not so much the NHS’s overall budget, though that too is worthy of debate, but how it allocates what it has. Recently the Health Service Journal has highlighted no less than three quite distinct issues on the topic. Politicians should be paying attention.

The first was an opinion article on 14th February by Robert Royce, a visiting fellow at the King’s Fund, the health think tank. His subject was the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust: but not the Francis report, but the preceding report by Monitor, its regulator. This report questioned the trust’s financial viability, suggesting that the hospital lacked scale. Hospitals like Mid Staffs are funded mainly through something referred to as “the tariff”, and which used to be called by Orwellian name “Payment by Results”, which was put in place by the New Labour government. This puts a price on every service episode the hospital performs: payment by activity, rather than by results. This system is often portrayed as being a commercial, market type discipline, but the tariff looks like no market tariff that I have ever seen. It is massively complicated, requiring big information systems resources to work.

What the tariff does remind me of is a transfer pricing system to allocate costs internally between two fractious units of the same organisation, who hope that by referring the problem to management accountants they can find an objective resolution. As the accountants grapple with the complexity of the problem they add layer upon layer of detail, in a hopeless quest to replicate the infinite complexities of real life, resulting in something which is nearly useless for management purposes. The system is designed for a political rather than a commercial environment, with the aim of pretending that strategic value judgements are mere technical problems. In the NHS almost all commentators go along with this pretence.

Mr Royce points to one pernicious value judgement in the tariff. It is that emergency services are bad, and elective services are good. Mid Staffs is perfectly viable financially on its elective services, but is being dragged down by losses on its emergency services. What if the tariff were raised for emergency services and lowered for elective, to genuinely reflect the underlying costs? The the hospital’s viability might look altogether different.

The second article was in the magazine’s “Resource Centre” section on 14th March, and is entitled The real reason for “failing” hospitals. It is by Sheena Asthana and Alex Gibson from Plymouth University. This is dressed up a piece of academic data analysis, but it is politically pointed. The authors look at the funding formula for Primary Care Trusts (PCTs: the bodies that fund the hospitals, at least until 31 March), and tries to correlate troubled hospitals and underlying population characteristics. They find that there is a strong correlation between hospital stress and a high proportion of older people in their catchment area. Their claim is that the funding formula is diverting financial resources away from these areas of greater need towards areas that are less wealthy – and this is the fundamental reason why so many hospitals are failing.

The last government was obsessed with addressing “health inequalities”, an expression that I hate because it implies that the solution is making things worse for the better off, rather then improving the lot of the worse off. And if Ms Asthana’s and Mr Gibson’s study is to be taken at face value, that is exactly what is happening. The present government show no sign that they want to address this awkward issue, and, according to the authors, much the same allocation is being ported into the new system.

The third article was another opinion article, this time by accountant (sorry, independent consultant and former NHS finance director) Noel Plumridge on 21st March. This looks at something that has been bothering me. If the NHS budget is protected, and increasing at a rate faster than most people’s pay is rising (2.6% as against 1%), how come so many NHS organisations are under such financial pressure? He finds the figures for next year’s budget less than transparent but concludes that there are no plans to spend a large chunk of the money at all: they are destined for unspent surpluses or contingency funds to “mitigate risk”. These surpluses are a point of difficulty: the individual trusts that make a surplus are supposedly allowed to reinvest them in future years. But under Treasury rules the NHS as a whole must hand the funds back to the Treasury for good. Is this just a backhand way of breaching the promise to ringfence NHS funding?

I only subscribe to the HSJ because I forgot to cancel it after my attempt to find a job in the NHS ended in failure – now I find interesting articles nearly every week. What these three articles show is that there aren’t enough accountants in politics. NHS leaders are being allowed to get away with some highly contentious political policies by dressing them up in complicated accountancy.

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David Graeber’s Debt the First 5,000 years – the emperor has no clothes

Graeber DebtOne of the books I received for Christmas was David Graeber’s Debt, the First 5,000 Years. Mr Graeber is an American anthropologist, now working at Goldsmiths in London, who has been active in the anti-capitalist Occupy movement, and describes himself as an anarchist. The book promises to give some intellectual heft to the anti-capitalist case, by examining the origins and history of debt and money, and how we need to rethink it. So far so good. But after the book promised so much at the beginning, I can hardly contain my disappointment with its limp ending.

The book starts well enough. He immediately focuses on modern economics’s weakest point: the theory of debt and money. He may labour the nonsense of the economist’s creation myth of a barter a economy a bit too much: economists aren’t really interested in history after all. But economists’ confusion over the role and meaning of money is evident; personally I wouldn’t use the barter myth to illustrate this, but the way economists still talk about printing preses and helicopter drops when trying to explain monetary policy. Mr Graeber runs his hand across the soft underbelly of economics, but then, instead going in for the kill, he throws away the knife. He rejects the whole, quantitative, mathematical language of economics. He thinks that the discipline’s attempt to preserve moral neutrality is in fact condoning immorality and violence. Like it or not, numbers and mathematics are central to our society’s workings, and rejecting these tools out of hand leaves Mr Graeber’s arguments with very little purchase.

The full, awful implications of this are not immediately clear, however. Mr Graeber puts the question of money and debt into an anthropological context, and this is a good read. I found his categorisation of human interactions into three types very illuminating. These types are exchange, what he calls “communism” and hierarchical. The exchange relationship is the typical arms length commercial one: one item is exchanged for another, typically money, and there are no further implications for the relationship between the parties; it ends with the transaction. A communistic (or perhaps communal would be a less provocative word) transaction is typical of close communities: transactions aren’t exchanges, those who are able give to those who are in need, all a part of a wider, long term relationship. Relationship is also key to hierarchical transactions, but it is one of authority. A lower individual pays tribute to a higher one, while the higher one may cast beneficence to those beneath. Mr Graeber is careful to say that none of these is inherently superior to the others, and any society needs to use all three. But he complains that the modern world puts exchange relationships on a pedestal at the cost of communistic ones, costing the quality of human relationships.

All this leads into a broad historical narrative – the 5,000 years – of the Eurasian continent. Originally money develops as a credit relationship, and is not seen as a thing in itself: its accounting function is the critical element, and it is woven into the fabric of society, based on trust. But then the idea of precious metals, gold and silver in particular, becoming money in its own right rapidly took hold across the entire continent. The effect, in his telling, was malign. Money existed independently of states and relationships. Soldiers could loot money from one place as they destroyed it and spend the proceeds elsewhere. It facilitated both the running of armies and trading of slaves. Sinister, cynical empires came to dominate the world in Europe, India and China in the centuries before and after Christ.

These empires then broke down (or changed nature in China) as precious metal (bullion) money was drained from the system. In Mr Graeber’s telling this has much to do with the new world religions (Christianity, Islam and Buddhism) in what he calls the Middle Ages. His account is admirably even handed in its geography, rather than the customary focus on Europe. In this age Europe is a barbaric offshoot from the civilised worlds of the Middle East and China. Credit becomes central to commerce, which operates independently of the state, and is based on trust. This is something of a golden age to Mr Graeber, though not the European end.

This unravels in the Renaissance, with the Europeans leading the way. Gold and silver is looted in America and then traded with the Chinese. An age of violence and destruction is born, as trust is no longer required in trade and commerce.  Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries the malign instruments of modern finance, bonds and shares, are invented in order to fuel society’s appetite for war. Meanwhile, the slave trade takes off, destroying African society amongst other victims. An age often portrayed by western historians as one of progress, Mr Graeber portrays as one of a descent into destruction. This is deliberately provocative, but he has a point: this is an age of war, colonialism and slavery.

And it is here, as the industrial revolution begins, that Mr Graeber’s account runs out of steam. All the building blocks for capitalist society are in place, and its evil roots clear; he almost says “and the rest is history”. He swiftly moves on to his final chapter, where a new era begins with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, and with the inevitable collapse of capitalism in its wake. I was expecting to read an account of the era of economic growth, but there’s practically nothing there. And the awful truth dawns. Up to this point I had been giving Mr Graeber the benefit of the doubt, for all his provocations. But the emperor has no clothes. When it comes to describing the modern world he is utterly out of his depth and as a result anything of consequence he has to say (and there are some) seems a matter of random chance. An example is his idea that the purchase of US Treasury securities, which will always be rolled over rather than repaid, is in fact paying tribute to the primary military power. the USA. He spots a problem with this account: the Chinese are amongst the largest buyers, and they are power rivals. He then has to concoct a story that this is part of a long term Chinese game. This is really very silly. The Chinese are buying US Treasury stock because they are running a big trade surplus and there is nowhere else for its surplus dollars to go; the power transfer implied is minimal; but the trade surplus is an important element of the Chinese development strategy, which involves building up production in advance of consumption, and in the great scheme of things the dollar surplus isn’t that important to them; it’s only money – if they lost the lot in a crash tomorrow, how much does it really matter? The Chinese seem to have grasped Mr Graeber’s message about money rather better than he has himself. Mr Graeber’s lack of economic literacy has him floundering to comprehend what is happening around him.

His thesis is that modern capitalism is a typical bullion economy based on power and violence, and the absence of trust, with exchange and hierarchical transactions driving all else out. Most people in developed economies are little better than slaves, tied to their employers and struggling to pay off debt. Debt is used to enslave people. But this system is fundamentally unstable and is in the process of collapsing.

But after the emperor-has-no-clothes moment there is no aspect of Mr Graeber’s thesis that doesn’t look questionable. Is is really true to say that capitalist transactions are based on the ultimate sanction of force, and not on trust? Is it not trust that distinguishes advanced capitalism in say, Denmark, from the less developed versions in Russia and China?

And he misses the whole issue of growth. This process, driven mainly by increased productivity, has improved the lives of countless millions – and is genuinely popular with most people in both the developed and developing world. It is by no means evident that today’s workers can be compared to Roman and African slaves. And debt has played a critcal role in lubricating this growth process, by allowing investment: payment now for a later gain. The whole culture of investment is omitted from Mr Graeber’s analysis: debt for him has but one purpose: to enslave the debtor by forcing him to make a promise he cannot keep.

Mr Graeber’s failure is underlined by the absence of any practical ideas about how the world should change to make it better. His only idea is a Jubilee: a systematic forgiveness of debt. But he hasn’t thought about the social chaos that would result as all savings were wiped out. The modern way of doing a Jubilee is called hyperinflation. It is hardly evident that the phenomenon that created Nazism is necessarily helpful to the development of society and the empowerment of the poor.

Is there anything to be retrieved from Mr Graeber’s spectacular collapse when confronted with the modern economy? He happens to be right about an awful lot of things. Money is best regarded as an abstract concept, a social invention without underlying reality. Debt also is a social convention that can outlive its usefulness, and should not be treated as sacred promise. The exchange method should not be idealised as model for all life, as Chicago School economists do. And economic growth in the developed world does seem to have hit natural limits, whose consequences we still don’t understand. Capitalism may indeed collapse if it continues in its current form.

But the answer is not to condemn capitalism as the work of Satan, and hope for something better to turn up. Mr Graeber’s work is pure antithesis. Progress is made by synthesis: by taking capitalism and making it better. And you can’t do that by rejecting the discipline of economics, for all its manifest faults.

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As aqua fades, should the Lib Dems drop Helvetica?

Helvetica example

Today British political commentators are absorbed by the 2013 Budget. I don’t believe in the value instant comment, and my commentary on the 2012 Budget proved way off the mark anyway. So I will talk about graphic design instead.

In the run up to the 2010 the Liberal Democrats launched a new house style, featuring a new colour palette and a new font, Helvetica Neue, in three weights (light, medium and heavy) and with an “italic” (which sloped rather than really italic). This was all part of the party’s new, professional image. Getting a political party’s activists to stick to a house style is a pretty hopeless task, but this time the party did quite well. The central campaigns department stuck to the new principles, and centrally produced literature still does. The picture comes from the conference agenda for this March in Brighton.

The most conspicuous part of the new house style was extensive use of the colour aqua, a hue on the blue side of turquoise. At times this even seemed to replace the traditional gold (an orangey yellow) as the party’s main colour. This was certainly new, but not very popular with the activists: too similar to Tory blue. Conference sets have now returned to almost exclusive gold, with aqua relegated to contrast work, alongside a dark red.

What about the font? Political fonts are meant to be boring, and Helvetica certainly fulfils that objective. You see it about a lot (I’m looking at a set of Marks & Spencer vouchers printed in that font as I write this). Graphic design types don’t like it, but I think it works well enough if there isn’t too much text: on posters and title pages and so on. Having three weights makes it a bit more flexible than the very similar, and free, Arial which just comes in normal and bold – though I really don’t like the Helvetica heavy. In text blocks, though, it is much less happy. It reminds me of marketing brochures which are meant to be seen rather than read, and where anything interesting in the text has been edited away long ago as a hostage to fortune. Unlike marketing guff, political text should have content and it should be read.

There is another problem, which will bother only a few. It’s a cheap font without lower case numbers (or “old-style” numbers, contrasting with upper case or “titling” figures). This is a bit of problem because the style guide recommends avoiding the upper case where possible. You can see this in the date “saturday 9th march” in the picture. The number 9 sticks out horribly – compare it with the one in the text of this blog (where lower case numbers, unusually, are standard). Unfortunately being cheap is no doubt one of critical features for any Lib Dem standard font. Probably easier to drop the advice about avoiding upper case letters: the text above would look much better if day and month had the normal initial capitals.

An alternative to dropping Helvetica is adopting a text font to work alongside it, perhaps a serif one. There are many cheap ones available, though  the commonest, Times New Roman, is probably too over-exposed.

Will the Lib Dems adopt a new house style for the 2015 campaign, to reflect the fact that the political context has completely changed? A new image for an older and wiser party – and distancing itself from the rash pledges of 2010? Or will it want to emphasise continuity – like the keeping of the pledge on personal allowances. I would prefer the former. After all the centrally directed campaigns in 2010 did not work that well in the end: the party lost seats, especially where fresh candidates tried to get away with contentless campaigns with lots of house style. I’m not holding my breath though.

 

 

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Does Britain need the City?

The British governing class has reacted furiously to the European Parliament’s attempt to limit bankers’ bonuses. Once again their central argument is that it is a threat the wholesale financial services businesses that are  based in the City of London, which they say is critical to the British economy as a whole. This is an argument that is regularly wheeled out by not just the establishment, but even by normally sensible commentators such as The Economist. The British public at large seems largely unmoved, however. This is a topic that could do with closer examination.

The City is an astonishingly successful business cluster, where I worked for 18 years up to 2005. The main controversy surrounds an very well-paid elite of traders, fund managers and investment bankers. These people, or the businesses they are part of, contribute disproportionately to national income – though exactly how much I am less clear about. Financial services consist of nearly 10% of the country’s GDP, but this includes a lot of businesses that are clearly not part of the City (retail bankers, estate agents, financial advisers, and so on), in spite of attempts by many commentators to conflate the two. But their high income reminds me of the joke about Bill Gates wandering into your local bar and the average income there soaring (this joke needs updating – Bill Gates’s income will have dropped alot in the last few years). If the City bankers leave, the country’s GDP may suffer, but that doesn’t been that everybody else is necessarily poorer.

But, the argument goes, these well-paid people spend their money here and create jobs. This argument is much weaker than it first appears. Rich people don’t spend all that much of their incomes on the sorts of things that create local jobs. A lot of their income is saved, with little of this saving going into productive investment in the UK economy. A more immediate problem is that a lot of their money is going into property, and other things where supply is limited (plumbers, school teachers at private schools, etc). All this does is bid up the price and put them out of reach of ordinary people. Still, if these businesses really are global, and having them on British soil contributes to the British trade balance, then some sort of net economic benefit is plausible.

A sounder argument can be made through taxes. City businesses and their employees pay a lot of tax under Britain’s progressive tax system (mostly income tax and national insurance on those bonuses – global businesses are very slippery on the matter of corporate taxes). How much? I don’t know: but it could amount to 1-2% of GDP (that’s guesswork working from the 10% of GDP for financial services income as a whole). There is an irony here. Very often we hear that our high taxes are damaging the City – but if they didn’t pay tax there would be little point in having it.

But behind this there is a deeper question. Are the services the City provides socially useful? In principle they should be. Our complex economy depends on finance to link those with surplus money with those who have productive investment projects to get off the ground. It’s what pays most people’s pensions. In principle fund managers, even those in hedge funds and private equity, should be helping this along. But a great deal of scepticism is in order. Too much energy is wasted in various intermediate devices – such as derivatives – whose value is difficult to see. Too much money is lost between one end of the process and the other. High profits, an economist will tell you, are a sign of economic inefficiency. It is the industry operators that are getting rich, not their clients. The aim of public policy should be to bear down on the industry to make it much less profitable, while maintaining its socially useful purpose.

But if it a global industry, can’t the British economy rake in the benefits of this inefficiency at the expense of the rest of the world? There are problems. First is that as global governments get to grips with the dysfunctional wholesale finance industry, it will gradually become less profitable, and the benefit reduces. The EU tussle on bonuses is but one part of this process, even if it is badly directed. The second problem is that the British taxpayer can become more embroiled in the industry than it should be. The bailout of British banks in 2009 surely wiped out many years of tax revenues derived from them. In any case income from financial services tends to be volatile, and so less useful – it disappears when you need it most. A further problem is that high City pay diverts the brightest local people away from more socially useful work.

So overall I find the case for special treatment for the City to be unpersuasive. What we actually want is for London to be a global hub for a smaller, less profitable and more functional financial services industry. The government is doing some quite sensible things: raising capital requirements, and separating investment from retail banking. This should limit the government’s exposure to bailouts, and reduce the level of finance (“leverage” in the jargon) available for trading operations, which believe is the critical issue. Other actions are more ambiguous: tougher regulation sounds fine, but it is in danger of harming decent retail banking businesses and reducing the level of competition as a by-product.

And as for the EU bonus regulations: I don’t think they will help much. They do not tackle the central issue, which is why banks are making so much money in the first place, and able to pay such large bonuses. But neither do I think they will do any real harm. Lower variable pay, and hence higher fixed pay, for banks may sound as if it increases risk, but it will force managers to ask more searching questions about what they are doing. And if more whiz-kids go to Singapore, so be it.

 

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Lib Dems hope for a turning point

The Lib Dem conference at Brighton last weekend was a low key affair. There was enough space in the Metropole hotel to hold the whole thing, including the very limited fringe. All this is in contrast to the last spring conference I attended in 2011 in Sheffield, amid a huge police presence and shouting demonstrators. In 2011 the party was already over the edge of an abyss, though it took that year’s disastrous local elections for many to realise it. This year conference goers thought the outlook was better.

The immediate cause is not hard to see: the party’s victory in the Eastleigh by-election. Most of those there had helped in this election one way or another. The win may not look all that convincing to an outsider, but activists talked it up, as if it was a landslide. This was a reflection of solidarity under assault, from not just the usual suspects, but from the liberal media too, including the BBC. To have overcome those odds, people felt, was a triumph. Also it was a reflection that the campaign was impressively organised, and did not shy away from the party’s role in government, or Nick Clegg’s leadership – issues that many considered to be toxic.

Rather bizarrely the BBC, in its coverage on Friday and on Saturday morning, expected the activists to be a bit grumpy, full of questions about who knew what and when in the Rennard and Huhne affairs. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Eastleigh would overshadow all. In fact a nasty row over secret courts was the second story of the conference: the parliamentary party had backed the government’s plans, in spite of a passionate debate and motion against them at the Autumn conference. There were resignations. But this is not the sort of row the media feel comfortable about reporting, so it didn’t get much coverage. Huhne and Rennard hardly featured, though there were a regular compliments to Mr Huhne’s work on policy and as a minister, and not all from men (Shirley Williams started it). The party leadership chose to confront the Rennard affair frontally at a women’s day rally on Friday evening: and that was all that most people wanted to hear on that topic. There was a second row about government economic policy: an emergency motion on the topic wasn’t taken, as the result of a manoeuvre that most representatives thought was a bit dubious. But cabinet minister Vince Cable’s stirrings on the economy were some compensation: he gave a speech at one of the fringe meetings. The official business was low key. Uncontroversial motions and speeches by junior ministers. An emergency motion on secret courts was a bit of an exception.

The main point of the conference, if there was one, was to lay groundwork for the 2015 General Election. There was a stirring speech by Paddy Ashdown, who is chairing the campaign, as well as Mr Clegg’s leadership speech. There was also a rather low key consultative session on the manifesto. In each these, and on other occasions, the party aired its campaign theme: “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” (“enabling everyone to get on in life” if you have space to pad it out a bit). The plan is to keep repeating this line ad nauseam for the next two and a bit years.

The slogan has its critics. Its direct message is not distinctive: every other political party stands for the same things, even if they define the terms a bit differently. It makes no reference to liberal values. Both criticisms miss the point. The party must win by attracting mainstream voters, who are not particularly liberal, though not anti-liberal either. The slogan is meant to draw people in to two further messages: you can’t trust the Conservatives on “fairness”, and you can’t trust Labour on the economy. The calculation is that each of the two main parties has a severe weakness which the party can exploit, as the only sensible, mainstream party left standing.

Will this work? It might. The Conservatives really do seem to have a problem. David Cameron was never able to mould his party in the way that Tony Blair moulded Labour. Many of the party’s MPs are right wing fanatics, as are their grass roots supporters. Such people are convinced that they have caught the public mood, because their views are reflected in much of the press. But most voters are put off. Mr Cameron has a good instinct for the “centre ground”, or the public mainstream – but his party looks divided. The very bendable word “fairness” is a good as any word bring attention to this Conservative weakness. In policy terms it is cover for taxing the rich and preserving social insurance, such as social security and the health service.

And Labour has a problem too. Their situation is not unlike the one that they faced in the early 1990s under Neil Kinnock, which led them to lose the 1992 election against a lacklustre Conservative government under John Major. They were riding high in the opinion polls, and the economy was in a mess. But they were inclined to make promises to spend more public funds, and their leader wasn’t trusted. Right now Labour are drawing a lot of energy from activists (many of them public sector workers) who feel that government cuts are motivated by ideology rather than economics. They grasp at a Keynesian critique of current government policy to think that sorting the economy out is as easy as boosting public spending, which will sort the public finances out through the multiplier effect. But polling shows that the public does not share this view: they feel that public expenditure should be cut back. That leaves Ed Miliband with an unenviable choice. If he pushes ahead with a publicly credible economic policy, and says he will match the government’s public expenditure plans, subject one of two populist tweaks, he will anger his activists and trade union donors. If he fudges, his campaign is likely to break apart under pressure, as Neil Kinnock’s did in 1992. It doesn’t help that his economic spokesman, Ed Balls, is closely associated with Gordon Brown’s economic policies, which are widely viewed as disastrous. Mr Miliband’s own public standing is weak, as was Mr Kinnock’s, though for different reasons.

This could give the Lib Dems an opening, especially in seats where the party has plenty of activists to deliver the message, tack in local issues, and get out the vote. With fifty or so seats the party may be able to win a place in another coalition government. Buoyed up by Eastleigh, Lib Dem activists think they can do it, and that an important turning point has been reached.

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The public’s foul politcal mood: symptom or disease?

Is depression an illness? It can be. Many people suffer depression that is so severe that it overwhelms them. They need help and we categorise it as mental illness: a condition with a life of its own, where medical intervention is recommended.

But for most of us, most of the time depression is just part of the ordinary fabric of living. It is a necessary step in the way the mind adapts to new realities in the world around it, especially changes that are unexpected or unwelcome. We don’t understand why the human mind has evolved in this way, but it clearly is not a malfunction. We must accept it and work through it. This common wisdom is summarised in popular models such as the Kübler Ross model of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

We can compare this personal mental phenomenon to current public attitudes to politics, especially here in Britain, but elsewhere too. This is partly a simple metaphor; but also some of the same psychological forces are at work. The public mood with politics is foul. Is this a disease, or merely a symptom of an inevitable change that is taking place in our society, that we simply have to come to terms with? And how should politicians respond?

The latest evidence for the public’s mood comes from the recent Eastleigh by-election. The main established parties locally, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, both lost votes, and much of their support was grudging, based on keeping somebody else out. The grumpy anti-establishment protest party Ukip jumped from nowhere into second place. The official opposition, Labour, made no headway. And, in more classic depressive behaviour, turnout fell significantly from the General Election in spite of an extremely intense campaign, where voters were getting daily leaflet drops and their phones did not stop ringing.

If this is an inevitable response a changed reality, we don’t have to look very far for a culprit. In the 15 years from 1992 to 2007 Britain has enjoyed steady economic growth. If the benefits of this growth have gone disproportionately to the rich, they have neverthless been spread widely. Pay-rises regularly beat inflation. The benign effects were reinforced by easy money which supported both consumption and rising property values. This didn’t seem like a golden age at the time (though there was a brief note of euphoria at the turn of the Millennium), but it served to set some fairly stable and benign expectations. Politicians squabbled of the extra things they could do with “the proceeds of growth”.

But this collapsed in 2007, when the financial crisis started, with a sharp economic contraction in 2008-09. Worse, in 2013 there seems no sign of things getting any better. While politicians on the left and right argue that growth can be restored, the public remains entirely unconvinced. You have to be a real optimist to think that Keynesian stimulus would offer more than temporary alleviation; and it could make things worse in the long run by taking the national debt sky high. The right wing’s supply side revolution would make things worse for most people in the short term, and probably only better for the already wealthy after that. Monetary loosening seems to involve sucking life out of the Pound, and so making things like energy, cars and foreign holidays yet more expensive – probably with only share and bond prices showing any benefit.

What on earth has happened? The public suspects that something has changed about the economy and society which means that the benign years before 2007 will not return. This builds on the natural human tendency to project current circumstances into the future. It so happens that I feel that this public instinct is well grounded. Slow growth is here to stay. Much of the growth before 2007 was a mirage.

This need not be a bad thing in itself. There is plenty enough resources to ensure a decent standard of living for everybody. But the political priorities in a low growth world are very different from what they used to be. Distribution of wealth becomes a top political issue. Government must learn to be frugal. We must focus on improving wellbeing rather than monetary wealth. But these changed priorities require a big psychological adjustment, so it is no wonder that there is anger, frustration and depression amongst the public.

If that is all, then the bad mood is simply a symptom of the changing times, and politicians should see through it to focus on the changed priorities. Politicians need to show empathy with the public, but not be panicked into populist policies. Aided and abetted by an unhelpful press, much public anger is directed at such things as immigration, the European Union, health and safety legislation, and human rights. But politicians should not be fooled by this anger; the public is in fact deeply ambiguous about all of these things. Deep down they sense they are necessary to the way we want to live our lives, the odd silly excess notwithstanding. Instead politicians should focus on reform to the tax and benefits system, improving public services, developing a housing strategy, securing energy supplies and fixing the still-broken financial system.

But many thoughtful observers, Paddy Ashdown for example, are convinced that the bad public mood is much deeper than this. Its beginnings predate the financial crisis of 2007 after all. There is a deeper feeling of disenfranchisement that will not go away. This needs more direct intervention. While I am not apocalyptic as Lord Ashdown, I think he has a point. British politics is not corrupt, but it is conducted by an elite class that does all it can to avoid being held to account. Reforming this will be hard work though. Devolving more power to local level is surely part of it – though fraught with danger. Whether the current government’s localism reforms have achieved anything useful is open to doubt – though the growing number of City Deals are more promising. Taxation powers are the critical issue, and nobody shows signs of grasping this particular nettle. The opportunities to re-enfranchise voters are surely mainly at the local level – but that means the delegation real power, and responsibility for real trade-offs – rather than the one-sided lobbying of the centre that currently dominates local politics.

The public mood is both a symptom of change that is running through our economic system, and also a deeper problem in its own right. Both call for honest liberal reforms, and not the sour populism that it immediately encourages. Let us hope that the public, through its anger and frustration, recognises this. They often do, if any politician has the courage put the case to them.

 

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Eastleigh: a blow for the Westminster bubble

My first reaction to the overnight result of the Eastleigh parliamentary by election was, as a loyal Lib Dem, relief. For once the party isn’t having to explain away a lost deposit. A more considered reaction is that it shows just how out of touch with ordinary people the Westminster bubble is – I nearly wrote “has become”, but I think it has always been thus. Will they will be chastened by the experience? Alas, there is no chance of that.

By “the Westminster bubble” I mean that community of London-based politicians, journalists, lobbyists and their hangers-on, who control the main levers of political power, but who talk chiefly amongst themselves. There are plenty of enthusiastic Lib Dem bubble-types, but the Lib Dems are better grounded than most. They mainly responded to the Eastleigh challenge by actually going there and talking to the voters, rather than just trying to influence the media coverage in classic bubble fashion. The by election has been a sobering experience for the party, along with the joy of victory. First the Lib Dem vote share fell sharply, and the voters showed no great enthusiasm for the party. Second, the experience has shown just how much the party is disliked by most inhabitants of the bubble. This is hardly a surprise when it comes to Labour and Conservative politicians – but that it includes most supposedly objective news journalists, including at the BBC, is a little disappointing.

Exhibit A in this case is the Chris Rennard sexual harassment scandal. Almost all the news media have been giving huge prominence to some rather old accusations about sexual harassment by the former Lib Dem chief executive. I can do no better than refer readers to the Guardian’s fair-minded Michael White on this. The media coverage has everything to do with trying to influence the Eastleigh result against the Lib Dems, and little to do with the merits of the story. I will give a partial exemption to the BBC’s Martha Kearney on the World at One on this. She has given the story very heavy coverage – but does seem to have been genuinely interested in exploring the social issues the story raises about the behaviour of men to women. For all its flaws it sounded like good journalism to me. But the glee shown by BBC’s Today presenters about the possible effect of the story on the election was entirely another matter. The BBC should be ashamed of itself.

But the voters of Eastleigh just weren’t interested. Mild and old accusations of sexual harassment against somebody that has never held elected office was not the same thing as MPs overclaiming expenses. Neither did the other Lib Dem scandal, that of Chris Huhne’s confession of getting his wife to take his speeding points, seem to have played all that heavily. That issue was at least a legitimate issue for the by election, since Mr Huhne had been their MP, and his resignation is what triggered it. The Westminster bubble’s inhabitants seem incapable of understanding the voters’ lack of interest.

Meanwhile the bubble seems equally incapable of comprehending the extraordinary performance of Ukip, who stormed from nowhere into second place, and came  close to winning the seat. This seems to vindicate the stand of some right-wing bubblies, exemplified by Daily Mail journalists, on Europe and other issues, but Ukip themselves are complete outsiders – more so than even the Lib Dems. They have been trying to link the party’s rise to Westminster’s own obsession with the country’s relationship to the EU, and whether or not to hold a referendum. But it seems highly implausible that this had much to do with it. It seems much more likely their rise is a reflection of an anti-politics mood: a bit like the success of Beppo Grillo in Italy. Of course the journalists in the bubble are doing much to stoke the anti-politics mood, in order to help their own standing within the bubble. But this is turning out to be a highly destructive game. No doubt the journalists calculate that what they have built up, in the rise of Ukip, they can just as easily destroy when it presents a real threat. But politics as a whole is being degraded.

Instead of reflecting on this, the bubble journalists are emphasising the humiliation to the Conservative and Labour parties and their respective leaders. But for these parties the election should be seen as a useful reality check, and no more.

My politically objective advice to David Cameron is: don’t panic. The election says nothing about his recent policy move on an EU renegotiation and referendum. I think this is a brilliant move: but it is part of the groundwork for the 2015 General Election, and will show few benefits before then. The election also shows that the Lib Dems will be no pushover, even though many bubblies think the party will vanish without trace in 2015. Ukip are a challenge, but their weaknesses are poor organisation and lack of media friends. There is plenty of time for them to burn out, and the time for pricking their bubble is after the 2014 European Parliament elections, and not before. Tories might reflect that if the by election had been held under the Alternative Vote (the system that they so vehemently rejected in 2011), they they might well have won. Though, to be fair, Ukip would have been more likely victors on this occasion.

For Labour, the result is pretty unsurprising, but it may help their more enthusiastic supporters to confront reality. The public does not share their view of the economy: that austerity policies are laying criminal waste to the British economy. And it will be hard work for them to make progress outside their diminishing working class heartlands. The leadership probably realise this already, even if Polly Toynbee followers don’t. But the time to fix this is not necessarily now.

And for the Lib Dems? It’s difficult not to see this as a small, but positive step forward. The party is earning a place as part of the political establishment: a party that is capable of progressing even when the media is against it. The party can’t pretend, as it liked to, that they are super-clean, and new kids on the block. The public see all the human frailties they see in other parties. But Labour and the Conservatives have succeeded in spite this. In the end people like to vote for respectable, establishment parties when the stakes are high. Instead of trying to promote themselves as a new kind of political force, they need to focus on promoting policies and competence. For all the noise, that is happening.

 

 

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