Why the Conservatives are the coalition of chaos

The choice is simple: “competence and a clear plan” with the Conservatives, or a “coalition of chaos” with Labour. So says the leaflet just delivered on behalf of my Tory MP, and so every Tory spokesperson has been saying in answer to any question from the media. Clearly this has been a carefully researched formula, since it is part of well-prepared election campaign. That’s a bit strange: since political chaos would certainly follow a Conservative victory – and that would overwhelm any governing competence that they may be able to offer.

The proximate cause of that chaos is easy enough to see: Europe. This starts with the uncertainty engendered by the party’s promise of an in-out referendum by 2017.

Not many people have thought seriously about the consequences of a British exit from the EU. Some predict disaster. Others, like Ukip, suggest that it will unlock a bonanza, allowing more expenditure on the NHS and defence, and tax cuts thrown in. A more cynical view is that if the UK left the EU it would make little practical difference to most people, most of the time. The Ukip view is clearly fantasy; the pessimistic view is a possibility, though the more cynical view is the most probable in the longer term.

But that is to step over the sheer complexity of the exit process. The EU reaches so far into the way the country works that negotiating exit would be a massive undertaking with an uncertain outcome. To get an idea of this the best thing to do is the read the prize-winning entry of the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Brexit prize. The IEA, and the essay’s author, advocate departure from the EU – but they are doing everybody a service by outlining what is involved. The range of outcomes runs from a Norway solution, whereby trading would be little impacted, but the country would still have to abide by many EU rules and contribute to EU funds, to total exit, which would get in the way of much of what we now take for granted. The country does not just have to decide whether it wants in or out, but if it leaves it has to decide what kind of relationship it wants with the rest of the EU. And on top of that the process of exit would be the top item of the policy agenda for government for years following any decision, distracting attention from other matters. Amongst the collateral damage of this might well be the breakup of the United Kingdom itself, as Scotland does not share the scepticism of the EU that the rest of the country does.

The referendum outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion. Much of the British establishment favours staying in the EU, and opinion polls show a comfortable lead for staying in. But powerful forces range against it, including most of the country’s influential press, and exit fits the sour political mood of much of the electorate. So chaos and uncertainty would not only follow an exit vote: it would affect the country in the lead-in period. Both domestic and foreign businesses would be tempted to defer investment until the outcome was known – undermining the economic recovery.

But that is not the half of the problems a Conservative government would face. The party itself would be riven from top to bottom. Euroscepticism runs to obsessive levels amongst the party’s grass roots, and increasingly in its parliamentary party. This was on show until quite recently, with repeated rebellions by Tory backbenchers, two of whom defected to Ukip. But much of the party’s respectable wing, including its leader David Cameron, are more pragmatic. Their plan is to present a claim that they have renegotiated Britain’s relationship with the EU, and that the loss of sovereignty has been moderated. And yet such claims will rest on weak foundations. It is now clear that there will be no revisions to the EU treaties. These have become so difficult to push through that only a deep sense of crisis makes that idea feasible. For now, though, the EU has avoided such a deep crisis, and it has shown strong survival instincts. The EU is changing in a manner that suits British wishes – but not as a result of any renegotiation process that Mr Cameron can take credit for.

This would only make Tory divisions worse. There would be against Mr Cameron’s leadership; it is quite possible that he would be ousted as party leader. More  moderate Conservatives could be forced out. Or if the moderates keep the party machinery under their control, there could be mass defections to Ukip. There will simply be no middle ground around which to rally the party. The coalition that is the Conservative party would surely fragment. Such goings on would affect all areas of government. Chaos would not be a bad description of it, and “coalition of chaos” not a bad description of the party itself.

Conservatives like to invoke the 1992 election, when they, under John Major, fought off a strong challenge from Labour to win an overall majority – defying pundits and opinion polls. This blog has made drawn such parallels itself – Labour was likewise undermined by doubts over its economic competence, and its leadership in general. But people would do well to remember what happened next. John Major’s government was perhaps the most disastrous for the party in its history. It suffered its most severe defeat ever in 1997, and has never been able to secure a majority since. Mr Major could not control the party’s Eurosceptic wing, and the whole government suffered drift as a result. Since then the Eurosceptics have grown in strength and confidence; the referendum issue will be yet more polarising. Matters will be much worse.

And yet few commentators on Britain’s election seem to understand any of this (the Economist’s Bagehot column is an exception). Such is the strange culture of denial and short-termism that stifles British politics.

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Are the Tories winning the air war and losing the ground war?

Britain’s electorate does not choose a Prime Minister in May’s General Election. It chooses a local MP. And enough of them have already made up their mind in England and Wales to make that choice a foregone conclusion in most places, so that the real fight is occurring in a limited number of marginal seats. Has the Conservative Party forgotten this basic architecture of British politics?

That might explain something that is rather puzzling about the election campaign. The Conservatives are having a good “air war” in the expression made famous by Bill Clinton. That means coverage on general media on a largely national level. Labour’s strategy seems to be that government’s lose elections rather than oppositions win them. They have not spelled out a clear alternative vision for the country – preferring to keep party unity intact by concentrating on complaining about the coalition government.

Thus Labour have surrendered the initiative in the air war. The Tories have exploited this brilliantly with “bait and switch” tactics. They fly a kite about some policy or other (public expenditure is the biggest; VAT is this week’s example). Labour duly attack, only for the Conservatives to move in a different direction. And they have undermined Labour’s attempt to create sound-bite policies. For example Labour promised to cut student tuition fees by removing a tax break for pension contributions for the wealthier; the coalition duly  removed the tax break and baked it into the budget baseline. Meanwhile previous Labour attacks, on Keynesian economic management, on unemployment and on energy prices have been undermined by events. The Tory leader, David Cameron, seems at ease and in control – even his supposed gaffe over not wanting to serve more than two terms plays to that impression. In contrast Labour’s Ed Miliband has turned into Britain’s whingemaster general – without giving any impression that he would do any better himself. The Conservatives are well organised; they have powerful allies in the press, which still seem to set the agenda for broadcast media, especially the BBC. Labour are being routed.

But here’s the puzzle: it seems to be having little effect on their poll ratings. Both parties have been edging up slightly, at the expense of the insurgent Ukip. The Conservatives cannot establish the lead they need to overcome the awkward distribution of their vote under the country’s electoral system. Notwithstanding Labour’s impending disaster in Scotland (where, unlike England and Wales, most seats could change hands) the Conservatives do not look as if they will even be the largest party in parliament, still less win outright. Party HQ reassures the nervous footsoldiers that things will turn good in the last weeks. Maybe.

But things are worse than that. A recent survey by the Ashcroft organisation of key Labour-Tory marginals showed that Labour was ahead in all but one. Constituency polls also show the Tory coalition partners the Liberal Democrats confounding their dismal national poll rating in Tory-facing marginal seats. The Lib Dem position grows stronger the more voters are reminded that they are voting for their local MP, and not the national leader. And this poses the question: are the Conservatives losing the “ground war”? The process of direct voter contact by doorstep, phone, social media and locally tailored literature – which is focused on those marginal seats.

The Tories seem to have a weakness here. They don’t attract many younger supporters these days (in striking contrast to Labour), and their policies don’t seem designed to engage with that group anyway. Many of their older activists have defected to Ukip, are demotivated, or are, well, just getting too old. Money can help. One marginal reports literature being delivered at full cost by the Royal Mail. Hired help can make up some of the gap on literature delivery. But it is much less effective in direct voter contact – canvassing – and useless in social media interaction. Direct mail, a past Tory favourite, seems to be losing its value for money.

Labour, meanwhile, have upped their game. They are well organised, disciplined and, in many cases, downright cunning. Here in Battersea – which they lost in 2010 and which many had assumed was out reach this time – they have been using camouflaged front campaigns on the NHS and something called Women of Wandsworth (WoW) Mums. They also seem to be outgunning their opponents on literature. The Lib Dems have always been quite good at the ground war, and are targeting their efforts ruthlessly to make up for their reduced number of activists.

So ground war may be trumping the air war. This runs counter to the conventional wisdom of British politcos, who almost always attribute the success of past Labour or Tory campaigns to the air war (though not those of the other parties). This may always have been overdone. It may be that the parties’ ground war campaigns have cancelled each other out better in the past. But it may also be that British electors make their choices differently these days. The coalition may have damaged the Lib Dems’ appeal, but it has planted the idea that smaller parties matter. Cynicism over national politics has always run ahead of the standing of local MPs – from whom people expect more, even as opinions of politicians in general sink. Besides, national news media may be being crowded out by web and social media (even if their content is overwhelmingly non-political).

It may even prove a mistake for the Conservatives to have torpedoed the leader debates, whose original structure supported their two-party narrative and could have drawn more people into the air war.

Or maybe, as Tory politicians hope, people will come to their senses in the coming weeks: something which both Labour and Lib Dem politicians also hope in their different ways. But my betting is that the game has changed and politicians need to catch up.

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The European Convention on Human Rights is today’s Magna Carta

I’m going to let somebody else do the heavy lifting today. My Magna_Cartanephew and godson James Green has won first prize in the One Essex Court/Times essay competition, with this essay. The subject of the competition’s essays was: “Is Magna Carta more honoured in the breach?”. The essay is about the same length as one of my normal posts, and at least as well written – do read it!

James makes the point that Magna Carta’s main purpose was to challenge King John’s sovereignty, and set limits to it. Today the concept of sovereignty in Britain rests not with the King or Queen, but with Parliament. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), enshrined in British law by the Human Rights Act, was drafted mainly by British lawyers and likewise seeks to set limits on Parliamentary sovereignty. It can be said to be the true successor of the Magna Carta. The British Bill of Rights, an alternative to the Human Rights Act postulated by the Conservatives, seeks to restore the sovereignty of Parliament – or that appears to be the case from the drafts seen so far.

Parliament claims sovereignty based on the will of the people. King John claimed his based on the will of God. King John’s claim may be the more flawed in modern eyes, but the two claims aren’t as different as we often like to suppose. Parliament is a collection of men and women with there own agendas and interests, and elections (which do not apply to the House of Lords anyway) are but an imperfect check. Almost every other democracy places their legislature in check with some form of written constitution. We have the ECHR and not much else. As I think Lord Hailsham put it (speaking as a Tory peer under a Labour government) we live not in a democracy but in an elective dictatorship.

Imposing a written constitution on the deeply conservative British system is probably too big an ask, in the absence of a major breakdown. So in the meantime let’s celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta by affirming our commitment to the ECHR.

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Britain’s politicians scrabble over a weak economy.

Yesterday was one of the great annual set-pieces of British politics: the Budget. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, set out his plans for government finances: taxes and spending. This year, behind the theatricality, it was a bit of a non-event. There were few changes to previously announced plans. Mr Osborne rowed back somewhat in his longer term plans to cut government spending. There were some cheap gimmicks. Political inactivity is not necessarily a bad thing. But what is most remarkable is that neither he, nor the Labour opposition, were prepared to talk about the British economy as it really is. Is it any wonder that politicians fail to be trusted?

Mr Osborne’s speech contained a quite astounding piece of hubris. He claimed that Britain was on the path to becoming the most prosperous country in the world – overtaking Germany in the process.  But there is a big flaw in this notion. Britain’s output as a nation is lagging the impressive growth in the workforce. Britons are working harder but have little to show for it.  Mr Osborne sneered about the French economy – and yet French workers are over 20% more productive. Further, Britain is running a substantial current account deficit – which means that, like its despised Labour predecessor, the economy continues to be built on debt supplied by foreigners (or, perhaps, running down the nation’s overseas assets).

Dwelling on this weakness would have made the political message too complicated. His mission was to point out that Labour’s dire forecasts for the economy had not come to pass. So we heard little of any ideas about how lift the economy from its evident mire. Some talk of making life easier for manufacturing. There was the core idea of economic liberalism (that the left calls “neoliberalism”) that a smaller government will allow the total economy to be more productive. Little was heard of the government’s most promising idea – greater devolution of power to regional centres.

Weak fare. But while Labour love to point out the economy’s weaknesses – especially the low wages of many workers – they haven’t any better ideas of their own. Indeed their thoughts on a more intrusive state clamping down on “predator” capitalism seems destined to make the economy smaller, if a little less unequal. Many of their supporters, including journalists at the Guardian, seem to rely on half-digested Keynesianism. Increased state spending (or less austerity as they prefer to put it) will raise demand in the economy which will then lead to growth. As a formula in 2010 or 2011 this might have had some merit. In the near full-employment world of 2015 it does not. Such policies are more likely to lead to an even worse current account deficit, and an economy even more dependent on debt, public or private. It does not address the productivity problem. To be fair, the Labour leadership seems to understand this – but they are still bereft of ideas to tackle it.

So the Tories say the economy is gathering strength fast, and Labour that it is still on its knees. There is a paradox though. The Conservative fiscal policies are appropriate to the idea of continued economic weakness, and Labour’s on confidence in the economy’s continued strength.

How so? If you think the economy is weak, you need to make sure that government expenditure is kept in check. There is nothing certain about future projections of economic growth – and with a weak economy there will be risks on the downside. With the European and world economies looking weak also, this is easy to appreciate. Fiscal restraint may not appear to be necessary based on forecasts, but it gives the government more options in an uncertain world. In contrast, if you think the economy will bounce back strongly, and that the productivity problem sort itself out, then Labour’s much more relaxed approach to government finances make much better sense.

The problem is, of course, that nobody understands why the British economy remains as weak as it does. Is it because deep structural problems, based on poor skills, changing industrial needs and changing consumer preferences (e.g. towards more work-life balance)? Could it be the progressive hollowing out of local economies outside the main economic centres? Is it because North Sea oil is running out, and the apparently highly productive finance sector just a chimera? Or is it just a temporary blip? Will businessmen respond to the right signals to launch an investment drive that builds economic strength? Perhaps labour shortages will force businesses to use their existing workers more efficiently and pay them better.

Regular readers of my blog will know I tend to the more pessimistic of these explanations – though this is based more on instinct than data. I believe it is perfectly possible to advance human wellbeing in spite of an economy that is weak in terms of income growth. But that does mean that we must break our addiction to debt, public and private. For that reason I like the right’s focus on government parsimony, and the left’s focus on inequality. Alas neither of our main political parties seem to grasp the real nature of our economic plight.

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No health without mental health. The genius of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.

2015-03-15 10.36.55What is the point of Britain’s Liberal Democrats? Most Lib Dems would point to the party’s liberal values. And yet these are shared by members of other parties. The same can be said for the party’s attachment to the political centre. Others will talk of community politics – but it is plain that many modern Lib Dems, including its leader Nick Clegg, aren’t really interested in this political strategy beyond a few local campaigns. Many outside the party would simply suggest that there is no point to the Lib Dems. The party is destined to be just a footnote in British politics.

But attending the party’s Spring conference in Liverpool in the run up to May’s General Election, the penny at last dropped. The party is the grit in the oyster of British politics, from which great pearls are produced. It is a serious political party that aspires to govern, not just to protest and complain. It stops Britain’s two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, from having that ground entirely to themselves. And so it can introduce new ideas to a debate that would otherwise be contrived and stale, confined to a few carefully selected issues, based on focus groups and private polling.

What has given me this insight? It is the party’s campaign on mental health. It is pure genius from a party that looked beaten and irrelevant. The party is demanding “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health, and is in the process of securing serious extra resources for mental health support. It is trying to persuade politicians and the public to talk about the issue more. It is an idea whose time has come.

Consider three things. First is that mental health has an important bearing on just about every aspect of public policy – starting with the NHS, but quickly moving on to crime, employment, social services and onwards – and even defence when we consider the state of veterans returning from active service. And yet almost nowhere is it being adequately addressed. It sums up the dysfunctional element of public service provision better than any other single problem. The failure to handle mental health properly causes untold misery and a huge waste of public resources.

Second: it touches people personally. Most of us will know of people who have had serious mental health problems – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and so on. And increasingly we are aware  that we ourselves are vulnerable, given the stresses of modern life. And people are readier and readier to talk about it.

And third: it’s hard. The reason why dealing with mental health is done so badly is because there are few quick fixes. it goes to the very heart of the centralised and functionalised way in which we organise our state (and much else), our tendency to standardise and dehumanise in the name of efficiency, and our reluctance to consider broader philosophical questions about how we manage ourselves. If politicians and the public now want to take the issue seriously, it is just the beginning of a long, long journey. And yet it is one that could transform the state and the way we live our lives. As an idea, it has huge potential.

This is not a particularly new idea for the Lib Dems. Mr Clegg claims to have brought the matter to Prime Ministers’ Questions very early in his leadership – to the bafflement of mainstream politicians. The policy initiative No Health Without Mental Health, which kicked matters off, came very early in the Coalition government, with Mr Clegg’s imprimatur clearly on it.  But it is only recently that it has shot to serious prominence, promoted by the Lib Dem Care Minister, Norman Lamb. Mr Clegg has made it central to the party’s overall policy presentation, giving it a mjor place in his last two conference speeches.

The interesting thing about this is that there is nothing uniquely Lib Dem in the insight that mental health is central to public policy. The first prominent person to promote the idea was Richard Layard, the Labour peer and a close adviser to to Tony Blair. His efforts saw the promotion of talking therapies, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Lord Layard’s journey is an interesting one. It started with the idea that the promotion of happiness and wellbeing should be the primary aim of public policy, in place of monetary income – he is an economist. Now promotion of mental health is his big idea. This is a journey that I too have followed. But Labour were unwilling to take on the wider policy implications. It is all very well rolling out yet another highly centralised initiative on CBT, but rethinking mental health education and provision from top to bottom would challenge too many vested interests. It wasn’t an issue that the public were bringing up in the polls and focus groups, after all.

For the Conservatives, David Cameron took the first steps on the journey, by taking on the idea of wellbeing as a direct policy goal, But he hasn’t followed the idea through. But, it must of course be recognised,  he and his Tory colleagues could see enough merit in the idea to allow the Lib Dems to run with it in coalition. That is part of its genius. Its implications may be radical, but everybody can agree that something needs to be done.

Nick Clegg deserves enormous credit for promoting mental health. While the right obsesses about Europe, sovereignty and human rights, and the left with the demon of neoliberalism and the failures of capitalism, the Lib Dems have found an issue that is concrete, and yet whose implications are profound. It moves us on from the stale old debates.This is disruptive political innovation at its best – something that a mainstream third party is well-placed to do.

Whether or not it helps improve the party’s fortunes in a difficult General Election, it has given the party a meaningful mission in British politics. A political pearl indeed.

 

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Is it right to vilify homoeopathy? Sometimes. Often, perhaps. But not always.

In a brilliant article for the Guardian Tim Lott decried the intolerance of people on the left of politics. He complained that people, like him, who raised questions about gender discrimination, Islamism, feeling English or complaining about political correctness, risk unleashing intolerant invective from the “liberal” left.  He was speaking as a Labour loyalist – but I recognise the same issue in the Liberal Democrats. Now let me make my politically incorrect contribution to the genre. It’s about homoeopathy.

Homoeopathy is a branch of alternative medicine developed in the 19th Century. Its theoretical grounding might fairly be called mumbo-jumbo. But it has retained a degree of popularity, and has been available under Britain’s NHS, which supports placebo therapies in some circumstances. It is, however, a popular subject of ridicule, particularly from the liberal left. They condemn its availability on the NHS, and want it to be driven off the face of the earth. This article by Edzard Ernst in today’s Guardian is one of the more temperate ones. It follows some publicity from a recent Australian study showing that there was no scientific foundation for its claims.

Let’s clear the decks a bit. I have no doubt that homoeopathy provides cover for charlatans. And practising homoeopaths are their own worst enemies. They persist in using their outdated mumbo-jumbo explanations. According to Dr Ernst they also cite scientific evidence that is spurious. That goes for David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP who is a public supporter. People that suggest that homoeopathy is an equivalent discipline to modern conventional medicine deserve the ridicule that is heaped on them.

But there is another side to this story. Arguments over the discipline’s scientific basis miss a point that should be understood by everybody. Scientific evidence will only ever get our understanding of the world around us so far. Much knowledge is simply beyond its reach. Homoeopathy may not be an alternative to modern medicine, but it may enter space that modern medicine cannot go.

Conventional medicine it is bound up with the idea that people suffer a series of different ailments, and medicine’s job is to find and test therapies for each of these ailments in turn. These ailments are further described in turns of measurable chemical or biological imbalances. The therapies are likewise usually chemical or biological agents – though other therapies may be admitted so long as they are standardised and repeatable. This line of approach (which I like to call the “magic potion” method of medicine) is extremely powerful. It goes alongside a system of evidence gathering  that allows you to place a tick or cross against each therapy. The standard is whether or not the symptoms are alleviated against an alternative “placebo” treatment which uses chemically inert substances. Through this approach medicine has developed a formidable inventory of magic potions over two centuries and prolonged many, many lives.

But it will take you only so far. Now take two places where homoeopathy might help to provide patients with relief. The first is what might be called “mind over matter”. It has been demonstrated countless times that mental outlook can affect symptoms. This phenomenon accounts for the placebo effect.  Scientists do everything they can to eliminate its effects from their evidence. So if homoeopathy is an effective placebo, the scientific studies wouldn’t show it. This is something Dr Ernst’s article is quite careful to state (“no effect beyond placebo”).  Of course there is danger if a patient is persuaded to use a placebo when something else is more appropriate – but not to treat a patient with a placebo when this might be effective also poses an ethical problem. Or it should. Conventional doctors often use antibiotics to treat viral infections; this is surely a much more questionable practice.

The second way homoeopathy might work is holism. Homoeopathic practitioners should (even if many don’t) look at the patient’s complete circumstances – from  the complete range medical symptoms to anxieties and outlook on life, before selecting a therapy that is individual to that patient. This is another place that scientific method cannot go. It cannot produce the sort of repeatable results that science requires – because everybody is a bit different. That still leaves therapies depending on placebo effects, but it could give that effect extra oomph. One of the causes of disillusion with modern medicine is that patients are treated as disconnected symptoms parcelled out to different specialists, with  obvious things (like what the patient eats in hospital) often neglected. Puzzling symptoms are overlooked to focus on ones more within practitioners’ comfort zones. There is much talk of patient-centred medicine, but remarkably little practice. That may be because building up an appropriate evidence base is impossible.

To my mind that leaves space for an ethical homoeopathist who is no simply trying to peddle expensive but inert magic potions. Modern medicine can’t be beaten in the magic potion business. But when it comes to treating mind and body as part of the same human being and looking more widely on how to advance that human beings health and wellbeing – modern medicine does not look so hot.

 

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The SNP is killing Labour north and south of the border

These are exciting times in British politics. The two party system, dominated by the Conservative and Labour parties for s long, is under threat as never before. Other parties are increasing their share of the vote.  But the electoral system will mostly shut them out of parliamentary representation.  The real threat to the big parties is that they will fragment. This looks increasingly likely after the General Election in May.

Both main parties are in fact coalitions covering a wide spectrum of political values. This is forced by the electoral system, but a tribal, class-based loyalty provides stability. But class identities in British society are slowly ebbing. Increasingly people support political parties because of their political values, and not tribalism. The initial threat to the two parties came from the Liberal Democrats, whose appeal was largely in the middle ground. This direction of attack proved electorally successful, but the party was unable to build a solid bedrock of support. Entering coalition government in 2010 caused their support to evaporate. Conservative and Labour politicians gloated, hoping for a return to two-party normality. Alas for them, new insurgent parties are proving a much deeper threat.

First came the UK Independence Party, with its appeal to the populist right. This was a direct attack on the Tory bedrock. It has forced that party to tack hard to the right, especially putting Britain’s membership of the EU in play. The party’s more liberal and internationalist wing is under attack, as the party gradually ceases to look like a credible party of government. Ukip threatens Labour too, but the threat is less immediate. The Labour leadership seemed to be successful in holding a moderately liberal line.

The Greens are another source of threat. They are appealing to the hard left, with a tack away from their environmentalist core towards anti-capitalist ranting. But they are at once too anarchistic and too ideological to have a very broad appeal. They may be scooping up some of the disaffected Lib Dems that Labour was counting on. But they don’t look an immediate threat to Labour. It is highly unlikely that they will do much more electorally than hold onto their single parliamentary seat.

It is the Scottish National Party that is proving to be Labour’s existential threat. In Scotland they have used the independence referendum to launch an attack on the Westminster parliament. Labour had long since treated this as an unchallengeable fiefdom. They seem to have no idea how to fight a competitive election in Scotland. Polling consistently shows that they are facing meltdown there, with the SNP on course to win the bulk of Scottish seats.

Unlike Ukip and the Greens, the SNP are a cunning opponent. They have positioned themselves to the left of Labour, with firm opposition to austerity economics and nuclear weapons. They suggest that they could come into coalition with English and Welsh Labourites, and the result would be more  left wing than Labour on its own. Labour’s counter argument that the SNP might let the Tories in is a clear nonsense. They only way that happens is if Labour themselves prop up a Tory government. If the SNP and Labour have a majority between them, they can keep the Tories out. Labour are struggling to come up with a stronger line of argument.

But the SNP threat is changing the balance south of the Scottish border. Many English leftists rather like the look of the SNP, and they are talking positively about the idea of a Labour/SNP coalition. Scottish Labour supporters must feel like the first wave of soldiers that have jumped out of the trenches and into enemy fire, who look behind them so see the second wave heading for the rear.  English Labourites have written them off and are talking up their mortal enemies.

This poses a serious problem for the Labour leadership. Firstly the party line on austerity economics and nuclear weapons is critical to holding their internal coalition together, and to its wider electoral appeal. Rightly or wrongly they are seen as part of the essential core of a credible British government. If they cave in, then they expect to be condemned to life as a left wing fringe, and all the power and status which comes of being a major party starts to melt away. And yet their most vigorous activists, and their union donors, will be highly sympathetic the SNP demands.

And then there is an even bigger problem. What will all this do to the party’s appeal to English voters? The idea of a Labour prime minister being propped up by the SNP would surely be lethal, especially if Labour had fewer seats than the Tories. English nationalism would rise to the benefit of both the Conservatives and Ukip. The Tories have already brought the idea into their campaign literature. Labour could be right that support for the SNP will increase the chances of a Tory government – but because of how it will play in England, not Scotland.

The leftists who are cultivating the idea of a Labour-SNP partnership are astonishingly naive. The SNP’s goal is to fracture the union by driving a wedge between Scotland and England. Such a fracture will not suit the left’s interests – the left has long since lost its grip on the English middle ground, and is clueless about how to win it back (they demonise the last politician to achieve that for them: Tony Blair). The SNP may not be able to obtain a second referendum on independence this parliament, but that is hardly the point. They have a strategic plan and the left doesn’t. The left needs to create a strong unionist political platform that does well north of the border. If they give up on that, they are lost.

But the Labour leadership, not just the current one, but its predecessors, have done much to create the problem. They have viewed the UK constitution purely through the lens of short-term political advantage. They have suppressed serious discussion of the role of Scottish MPs on English politics. Now it is not just too late, but they have no vision with which to fight back against the looming disaster.

The Labour Party is a tribal affair, with a vicious, partisan face that seeks to crush any idea of political plurality outside their own movement. I will not be sorry to see it collapse. But progressive politicians need to start thinking about how to forge a new political movement.

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British economy: neither Tories nor Labour have the answers

The political parties are playing a blame game on the British economy.  Yesterday another report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) was the unedifying battleground. This debate is interesting but unresolvable. And what matters is what the parties might do now if they were in charge. And on that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are convincing.

The controversy starts with the financial crash which began in 2007, and let to wider economic collapse in 2008 and 2009. The crash was a huge surprise to most politicians, and their electors. Before this steady growth of about 2% a year seemed to be a force of nature. There were squabbles about how best the proceeds of growth should be used. The downturn was very sharp, statistically the worst recession since 1945; comparisons with the 1930s are made. But in human terms things were not so bad as , for example, the early 1980s; we are a wealthier country with more fat to draw on – and unemployment did not rise as fast as earlier downturns.

But two things stand out. Firstly, thanks to steady inflation and frozen levels of pay, real incomes have been squeezed since the crash. Previously those in work tended to do better, but there would be more unemployed. Secondly the recovery was very slow – and not the rapid bounce back typical of previous recessions. There is a very powerful graphic in the IFS report which shows how average household incomes changed, adjusted for cost of living, which illustrates both points:

IFS household income

This shows that household incomes were level at first and then dropped steadily for the 22-30 age group until a year ago and then rose. For the 31-59s the squeeze levelled off at the end of 2011 with a gradual rise since. The over 60s have not done so badly, depending on how you measure their cost of living. Individually many people may be better off (things have get better as we advance through the age brackets), but overall the country has not recovered its economic standard of living.

The Labour narrative runs something like this. The economy was hit by a global financial crisis while they were in power, but a rapid fiscal response limited the damage. Measures included a temporary cut to VAT, as well as maintaining benefit levels, and, of course, a big bailout of troubled banks. In 2010 the Coalition took power and cut back these fiscal measures prematurely and increased taxes, causing standards of living to plunge, with only an anaemic recover since. Labour spokesmen claim, and their more partisan supporters fervently believe, that the government’s austerity has been a disastrous policy mistake, especially for the worse off. There is also a claim that the rich have escaped the pain and inequality risen.

The coalition counter-narrative is that the crisis in the first place was Labour’s fault, through profligate public expenditure and lax regulation of the banks. And the fiscal measures after the crash came at a staggering public cost, with a deficit of over 10% in 2010. This was unsustainable, and the current government’s austerity policies have saved the country from huge levels of debt and a huge future tax burden. If the recovery was anaemic, that was because of deeper weaknesses in the British, European and world economies. Now these weaknesses have been largely overcome, we are doing very nicely thank you. And a previous IFS study has shown that inequality has actually fallen, with the richest 10% paying a greatly increased fiscal burden – though admittedly things have been tough for the young and poor.

What to make of these competing narratives? I think the coalition argument is closer to the truth, even if they play up Labour’s mismanagement a bit more than is fair – not so much because there wasn’t severe mismanagement, but because that insight comes mainly from hindsight. But I’m biased and many learned people think that Labour’s narrative is in fact fairer. There is no decisive way of resolving the conflict, which requires the building of counterfactuals with economic models that are deeply flawed. But that’s the past and the important question is what is the best thing to do now.

And the answer to that question must start with this fact: the British economy is displaying a striking level of weakness. Three signs of this are worth drawing attention to. First is the lack of economic productivity growth. The IFS makes much of this. Employment levels are quite healthy, but this has not led to the levels of production that it should – which means there is no money to pay people more.  Economists have been stressing about this for some years now, but they have not provided a clear analysis of what this is all about. Personally I think a lot of it comes about from the diminution of the finance and oil sectors. The former’s high level of productivity was in fact a mirage; the latter is trying to make the best of ageing oilfields. I also think there is a wider issue in all developed economies, as we transition to a world where improved wellbeing does not depend on higher levels of consumption – which used to be the motor of economic growth.

The second sign of weakness is more concrete. Our trade balance, which was strongly negative before the crisis, is not getting much better, in spite of a weaker pound sterling. This is strikingly different from the previous recovery from a recession, in 1992 – when a trade deficit was converted to a surplus quite quickly, and was the first part of a period of continuous growth that lasted until 2008. Martin Wolf, the FT  economics commentator, has said that in the Euro zone an adverse trade balance was a surer sign of trouble than a fiscal deficit. He seems more relaxed in a UK context, but I think it is highly significant. The country is living beyond is means, and has not solved the problems that led to the 2008 crash.

The third sign is closely related – the other side of the same coin. The vaunted recovery is mainly led by increased consumer demand rather than increased investment. The public (as well as the government) is trying to borrow its way out of the crisis. A strong level of investment would lead us to be more relaxed about a trade deficit – but this is not the case. Investment is recovering, but not by enough. And levels of debt remain stubbornly high.

A lot of the problem is actually beyond the control of any government. It is down to the freely made choices of individuals and businesses, and changes in technology, not just here, but in the countries we trade with.  But we do need our politicians to be on the case.

The Conservatives are unwilling to acknowledge the current level of economic weakness. They keep talking about their long-term plan for the economy, but this mainly boils down to further austerity, mainly cuts to expenditure, to bring government finances onto a more stable footing. They hope that private sector investment will pick up, and focus on things that will improve efficiency and wellbeing, rather than the merry-go-round of property prices. But further austerity will cause public investment in infrastructure to suffer, as well as education. Further, the party wants to “renegotiate” the country’s relationship with the European Union and put membership to a national referendum. The country’s international standing has already been a victim of this policy. Since so much of the country’s fate depends on the wider world, this is sheer folly.

Labour gloat about the current weakness of the economy, but have few answers. I have not heard a Labour spokesman willing to talk about increasing the economy’s productivity. They have ideas to tackle some of the symptoms, like raising the minimum wage to deal with low pay, but have no answers for the disease. And the party lacks a unity of purpose. Its left wants an end to austerity and attack on private business bosses; others talk of devolving power from the centre but have little understanding of what this really means. They do not look like a coherent government in waiting.

Meanwhile there are plenty of things we should be talking about. Encouraging weaker local economies to develop without permanent subsidy from the centre; choosing the right public infrastructure investments; developing a more complete and rounded education of our children and young people; working internationally through the EU and other institutions to tackle multinationals and tax evaders. But these do not reduce to bite-size policies and 140-character debates. So we will keep banging away at the unwinnable blame game.

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Why the soggy centre is a good place for the Lib Dems to be

The most recent issue of Liberator, the anti-establishment Liberal magazine, has more than its usual quota of groans about how the Lib Dems have failed to define clearly what they stand for. There is particular venom reserved for the idea that the party should be of the political centre, which implies a sort of rootlessness, allowing itself to be defined by others.

Much of this comes from seasoned campaigners, and there is much wisdom in what they say. But I also sense a rather wilful failure to address how politics really works.

For example, in his article, the veteran Kingston campaigner Roger Hayes says this:”And why do they think people are turning to UKIP and the Greens? Because they seem stand for something and aren’t afraid to say so.” And yet earlier in the same article he says this: “For all their noise and bluster Ukip are likely to take less than a handful [of] seats if they are lucky. The Greens will probably see their national vote soar….but in terms of seats they won’t do better than see Caroline Lucas returned…”. Which leads to the question: if the Lib Dems articulated themselves more clearly, like Ukip and the Greens, would they end up in the same frustrated but powerless place?

Or take another perspective, from talking to a party worker in one the Lib Dem held seats: she explained carefully that they aren’t looking for votes from just liberals. They needed a broad spectrum of people to vote for them. And that is real politics. Talking to diverse groups of people and trying to forge common ground. To be fair on Mr Hayes, he knows all about this – the Kingston Lib Dems are brilliant at it. But it is easy to see how parliamentary campaigners, when trying to move into a winning position, find sharp, clear messages on where the party stands not entirely helpful. For example, the party has some rather clear views on immigration that many candidates would like to soft-pedal.

And this reflects a wider truth about politics that often seems to be overlooked by people who craft political messages. If you want to say something to persuade voters that you are sincere, you need to say something that hurts; which means saying something that will lose you votes. Otherwise you are just uttering cheap words. Voters used to respect the integrity of politicians like Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, and say things like “their voices should be heard.” But they were politically toxic. And under the British electoral system if you don’t appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, you are unlikely to win any sort of representation. Both Benn and Powell needed to tap tribal loyalties or rank populism (Powell’s disingenuous statements on immigration were intended to stoke up racism) in order to maintain their political platform – and even then they were frozen out of actual power.

Politicians can have a sharp ideological edge and be successful. Margaret Thatcher is the obvious example. But that requires both strong political skills and a thirst for change among the electorate. When for Mrs Thatcher both of these ran out in her third term, she was soon gone, replaced by the un-ideological John Major. Today there is much discontent amongst the electorate, but none of the sense of direction that might support change. The electoral system, for example, is clearly failing, but there no strong political movement to change it. And I don’t think our current crop of political leaders and their “strategist” advisers (including, but not restricted to, the Lib Dems) have the political skills to pull off a platform for radical change. And if there is a clear case for strong, liberal political reforms (and there is…) it is far to late to make these part of a winning platform for the next election.

So sharp political clarity is a quick route to electoral failure. There’s something else though. There is a political gap in Britain’s political centre at the moment. Both Britain’s main parties are tempted by their ideological extremes, and by populism. This partly reflects the rise of the Ukip and Green insurgents, who are eating into both parties’ bases (especially Ukip and the Conservatives). But it is also reflects their own memberships, which are becoming more ideological. Increasingly these two main parties are not fighting each other. Instead they are fending off the insurgents and trying to persuade disgruntled non-voters to come out in their support. They are also trying to secure the votes of the Lib Dem supporters, or rather, their former supporters, some 15% of the electorate.

But because both Labour and the Conservatives are being pulled away by their extremes, the appeal of a party without such extremists, that seems to stand for sensible, pragmatic government, is surely growing. The Conservative Party is no longer trying to shake off its image as the Nasty Party, opposed to diversity and environmentalism. The Labour Party isn’t so openly tempted by the extremes, but its policies don’t look as if they are thought through, or fully accepted by their MPs. So amongst their ideas for regenerating the economy they put forward  devolving powers to the cities of England. But as soon as the government suggests devolving powers on the NHS to Greater Manchester (negotiated by local Labour politicians, even), their leading spokesman comes out with the usual anti-devolution tropes. Likewise their policy on cutting student fees looks like gesture politics that doesn’t even convince its own side. A sensible, pragmatic government in waiting Labour is not.

Filling this gap in the centre, however uninspiring, is surely the best idea for the Lb Dems right now. There may be an ideological liberal vote out there to tap, but frankly the party is not in a good place to win it right now. There is too much anger over the party’s role in the coalition. But if the party can prove its worth as a party of the pragmatic centre – and shows its skill in winning parliamentary representation even when times are tough – then this is a platform from which liberals may be wooed in future elections. I don’t have a better idea.

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