Core vote or protest vote: what does Witney mean for the Lib Dems?

I seem to be one of the few Lib Dem activists in south England that did not go to the Witney by-election – though I was one of the earliest donors to the campaign fighting fund. The party stormed forwards from fourth place to a respectable second, with 30% of the vote, with the Conservative vote being cut to 45% and Labour holding on to 15% (they had been second). This result has predictably been spun a number of different ways. But what does it really mean?

Let me start with a couple of disappointments. First the swing of 19% to the Lib Dems was dramatic, but not good enough to secure the party much publicity. The coverage vanished quickly, and hardly registered at all in some channels. The Lib Dems badly need some eye-catching event to give them momentum, so that the public will start returning to voting for the party. My impression locally is that people are starting to move the party’s way again, but aren’t ready yet. This result will not do it. Only a win would have given the party real momentum, and that turned out to be too far for the party to reach. The result boosted morale internally, but I don’t see it having much more impact than that.

The second disappointment is that the result illustrates just how low the party has sunk in popularity. The party put out a widely quoted release that if the swing were repeated at a general election the party would win 26 seats from the Conservatives. My reaction: is that all? I wanted to insert a “just” in front of the number 26. It doesn’t seem that long ago when a swing like that would have taken the party into an absolute majority in parliament, with hundreds of new seats. Now it barely recovers half of what the party lost last year. And that was a by-election, where swings of that magnitude are hard to repeat more widely. That feels a distinct let-down.

Moving on, though, I have found two distinct narratives. First consider this from John Rentoul in the Independent, and this from Political Betting’s David Herdson. Both take the view that the Lib Dems are reverting to type as an inchoate protest party, that will say anything to pick up votes in a by-election, or anywhere else. This lack of coherence, they say, would be disastrous for the party if returned to a position of national influence, as whatever they did, they would annoy a large part of their electorate. The other narrative is totally different, and comes from The Economist’s Bagehot. He suggests that the party stuck to a core vote strategy, promoting the party’s open, and pro-European, credentials. Witney, near the university city of Oxford, is promising territory for such a core vote strategy – but it remains a minority strategy. In that light 30% is about the sort of result the party should have been looking for, considering the entrenched Conservative hold on the area.

So which version is nearer the truth? As I didn’t go there, I am at a disadvantage. From where I was sitting I could see evidence of both. There was much talk of squeezing voters (especially Labour ones) and using bar charts to persuade people to vote tactically. The campaign led off with a complaint about cuts to the local NHS, which hardly looked like a core vote thing. But the party also made something of its contentious stand on Brexit – where it is still firmly part of the resistance, compared to the Conservatives’ enthusiastic embrace of Brexit, and Labour’s reluctant one.  And the result, with the Labour vote holding up quite well, points to a core vote proposition.

In fact the party still faces a choice between the two strategies.  It might leap into the euphoria of protest politics, which was such a striking part of the party’s rise in the 1990s and early 2000s. Or it could stick with a more patient but in the long term more fulfilling core vote strategy – where the party builds up a loyal following based on its values, before chasing after floating voters.

Right now the two converge. The party’s core voters are angry and up for a bit of protest voting. But on the showing of Witney, people not in agreement with the party’s open values remain reluctant to vote for it. The party leadership needs to hold its nerve and stick with the core vote strategy.

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Fiscal activism makes a comeback. But it won’t help savers

Even the Prime Minister Theresa May is saying it. Low interest rates are not lifting the economy in the right way. So time for government spending and tax cuts to take over? Or, as economists call it, active fiscal policy. She joins a chorus of academic economists and newspaper commentators.

The story goes back to the 1930s when the Depression was rampant. This hit government tax revenues and the conventional wisdom was that government spending had to be cut to balance the budget. Enter the great economist Maynard Keynes.

Keynes pointed out that the problem with the economy was a shortage of demand – not enough people buying things to pay for the people in jobs. Or to put it another way, there was excess saving. If people are saving, they are spending less than they earn. That means that there isn’t enough spending across the economy to pay everybody’s wages, so the economy sinks. Or it will sink if the savings are not spent on investment, which is another type of spending. Stuffing cash into mattresses is not investment. Neither is putting the money into a bank account unless the bank lends it to somebody who in their turn pays somebody to do something. In a depression people are unwilling to invest, and so saving tends to be higher than investment. And so the economy enters a doom-loop. Before the 1930s economies were marked by severe boom and bust cycles.

Keynes pointed to a way through. If government increased its spending or cut taxes, they would put money in people’s pockets, which would be spent, neutralise the excess saving and bring the economy back to life again. Slowly governments followed his advice, most famously US President Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal.  The most spectacular success came in Hitler’s Germany, which spent freely on infrastructure (think of the autobahns) and armaments. Keynes pointed out that it did not matter what the spending was on provided it was spent at home, or at any rate it didn’t matter at first. As the economy approaches capacity wasteful government spending is a problem, but not before then. The rapid expansion of the US economy as it was placed onto a war footing in the 1940s proved Keynes right beyond doubt. Thus was born fiscal policy as an instrument of economic management, and economics as a discipline entered a golden age. The swings from boom to bust were notably reduced in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then it came off the rails. In the 1970s things changed. The first shock was the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates – it could not handle the excess of US spending on the Vietnam war. This destabilised the international financial system. Then came the oil shock in 1973, as OPEC ramped up oil prices massively. The governments that tried to spend their way out of the subsequent recession merely created inflation and not jobs. The governments that applied stricter fiscal policy, West Germany and Japan in particular, suffered much lower inflation. Enter another economist: Milton Freidman.

Freidman suggested that Keynes had it all wrong. The issue was not managing government spending and taxes, it was managing the money supply. The Depression was severe because the banking system collapsed, and people couldn’t borrow money. A lot of what Freidman said turned out to be nonsense, but what evolved was the neo-Keynesian consensus. This relegated fiscal policy to a relatively minor role. In the conventional wisdom of the time (often referred to nowadays as “neoliberalism”), government spending could easily get out of hand, destroy inventives and make economies less efficient. Instead the main responsibility for managing the business cycle came to something referred to as “monetary policy”, run by  central banks.

Monetary policy is a bit of misnomer, a hangover from Freidman’s emphasis on money supply. To this day people often explain monetary policy as if people paid for things in banknotes, which are printed at will by the central bank. In fact money has moved almost entirely to accounting systems of debtors and creditors, with banknotes relegated to a very minor role. The economic implications of a bank account are utterly different from those of a pile of banknotes. The idea of money supply is nearly meaningless. Instead of that, as regular commenter to my blog Peter Martin put it in a post to Lib Dem Voice, what we have is interest rate policy. Money supply in the economic models taught to students has become a completely theoretical concept that cannot actually be measured . If demand is falling in an economy, this is corrected by reducing interest rates, which should encourage people to spend more. If things look like getting out of hand, then interest rates are raised.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s this system seemed to be working, but it came under increasing criticism. Central banks used inflation targets to judge whether the level of demand was too high or too low. But this measure excluded asset prices, which were directly influenced by interest rates. Asset bubbles were allowed to develop. Then they popped in 2007 to 2009, in the financial crash and the big recession that ensued, which interest rate policy proved unable to correct.

Fiscal policy made a return. But it was tentative. As soon as the worst of the recession was over, governments cut back (widely referred to as “austerity”). Critics argued that this was stalling any recovery. Then the victims of low interest rates, those saving for pensions in particular, started to get agitated. This is most evident in Germany – but Mrs May was voicing concerns amongst her constituents in the UK.

So can fiscal policy help lift economic growth, in place of low interest rates? There is a strong case for this, but caution is warranted. Most economic commentators hedge their bets by recommending that extra spending is on infrastructure projects, that will yield economic returns in their own right.

This hints at the first of three reasons for caution. What if the reasons for slow growth are structural and not to do with low aggregate demand? Are we making the same mistake as the mid 1970s, when economists saw high unemployment and low growth and assumed that this meant lots of spare capacity? In fact economies then had suffered a major dislocation from the oil shock, and were slow to adapt because of excessively unionised and corporatist economic management. That was then, but there are plenty of suggestions as to what the capacity restraints might be now, starting with demographics. Investing in infrastructure should help overcome these constraints, killing two birds with one stone.

The second reason for caution is that economies have internationalised. A lot of the benefit of fiscal stimulus can leak abroad, especially if other countries have a deficiency of demand too. Fiscal stimulus might simply drag in imports from countries eager for export-led growth. Globally coordinated fiscal policy works much better. This was achieved in 2009, but consensus has broken down since. The risk of stimulating other people’s economies can be reduced if the stimulus programme is carefully designed. But it can be quite hard to tell where best to direct spending or tax cuts.

And the third reason for caution is the difficulty in understanding when to turn the tap off and tighten policy. Politicians are prone to fiddling the figures to put the evil day off. British Chancellor Gordon Brown was notorious for this in the mid-2000s, contributing, in my view anyway, to the severity of the financial crash in 2007-09. Anti-austerity has become a political totem on the left – and yet there must come a point in any business cycle when austerity is required. This is also a problem with using infrastructure investment as the prime instrument of fiscal policy – it is not so easy to manage according to the business cycle. Lead times can be long and if an investment project is worth doing, it is probably worth doing at all points in the cycle.

And a final point. looser fiscal policy is unlikely to help savers with raising interest rates. Interest rate policy and fiscal policy should not be working against each other. To raise interest rates we need to see a healthier British and world economy. That looks some way off.

 

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Does the fall in the pound presage a financial meltdown?

The British pound is now at its lowest effective (i.e. trade-weighted) level ever, according the Bank of England’s 168 year index. There was a sharp initial fall after the referendum to leave the EU, and then a further fall over the last week after the prime minister’s conference speeches pointed toward a quicker and harder exit than expected. Is this just a routine fluctuation that can be shrugged off, as bigger falls have been in the past, or does it portend something nasty? It is, of course, too early to tell.

The pound’s fall has been seized on by supporters of Remain as the sole piece of substantive evidence to support their prediction that exit would make Britain worse off. Leavers are predictably unimpressed. Of course both sides seek to gather every scrap of evidence to justify the stand they took in the campaign, and this argument leaves us none the wiser. This blogger is not beyond such things, of course, but I do try to set a higher standard.

The first question posed by the depreciation is what was the pound doing so high before the referendum anyway. The country has a large current account deficit. In other words, as a nation we are spending more foreign currency in imports than we are getting in exports and investment income (or persuading foreigners to accept more sterling than they want to spend on British imports – it boils down to the same thing). In theory this suggests that the currency’s real exchange rate is too high. This has been a persistent and to me perplexing phenomenon since the late 1990s. Demand for sterling has remained high, notwithstanding the deficit. Investment by foreigners in property and business assets (or Britons selling off overseas assets and repatriating the proceeds) has kept the pound afloat for 20 years – though at a much higher level before the financial crisis of 2007-09.

This is, literally, a confidence trick. Investors have had sufficient confidence in the British economy to think that their assets will grow in value in terms of their home currency, rather than ours. It is hard to pin down why for sure. Britain is an easy place for foreigners to do business – we don’t have a xenophobic attitude to foreign investment, sometimes seen in countries as close as France. That encourages footloose capital in our direction. We have seen many takeovers of great British businesses (notably this year the chip designer ARM). Buoyant high-end property values have no doubt encouraged investors too, though it is hard to quantify.

Britain’s membership of the EU is doubtless part of the charm of Britain, for business investors at least. They can set up operations here with ready access to European markets, free of tariff and non-tariff barriers. Leaving the EU, and its single market, must surely dent the country’s attraction. But we don’t know by how much. It won’t change the ease with which foreigners can buy assets here. By itself it should not affect high-end property either.

There is, therefore, a clear case to keep calm. As sterling takes a fall, it makes British assets cheaper. This should be a compensation enough for British exit to the EU, though you might be wise to stay clear of some businesses, like motor manufacturing. A lower exchange rate should help rebalance the economy, reducing the current account deficit, and the country’s dependence on foreign investment flows. This is all self-correcting. And if you are a true Brexiteer you will be confident that a more efficient, better balanced economy will eventually emerge from any transitional wobbles. That may be right – I always thought that the hair-shirt case for Brexit, as I called it, was intellectually their most persuasive argument (referencing a post I made in March which stands the test of time). Could EU membership have caused that current account gap, or allowed it to persist, leaving us with an unbalanced economy?

There is a problem, though. Capital markets are not rational. Nobody really understands how they work, and they are at least as influenced by a complex game of second-guessing short-term movements as they are by cool, calm assessment of long-term prospects. They are prone to bubbles: excessive periods of confidence followed by excessive pessimism.

You can see this by the way market observers talk about movements in prices being persistent trends, rather than asking what the right price is. This is at its most striking in the property market, where price movements are talked as “performance” rather than finding an appropriate level. A long view investor might say that the pound has simply found a new and more appropriate level. A short view investor might suggest that the pound has been performing badly, so that further falls are to be expected. In the former case you have would expect the fall to be limited, in the latter the fall becomes a self-reinforcing trend. And the difference comes down to a not entirely rational quality: confidence.

Confidence is not a nice, mathematically well-behaved quantity. It is prone to behaving in a very non-linear way. It can disappear suddenly. Confidence in Greek government bonds used to be nearly as rock-solid as German ones. And then it disappeared. Could confidence in the pound, and then other British financial investments, like government and corporate bonds, disappear just as quickly? Could the 20 year bubble burst? It doesn’t have to be rational. If it does the wider consequences would be severe. Inflation could take off as the monetary floodgates are opened (by the government funding itself directly through the Bank of England); bank lending could simultaneously dry up causing a recession. Back to the 1970s in other words when, amongst other things, a massive rise in oil prices caused a rapid rebalancing. Is Brexit a similar shock? (even accepting, as with high oil prices in the 1970s, we end up in a better place).

It is hard to believe that things will turn out like this. There are some signs of vulnerability: property prices are high; the budget deficit remains high by historic standards, and so is the level of the national debt. There is little scope to restore financial markets by cutting interest rates. Gilt yields have been rising recently – suggesting that confidence in government finances is starting to fade. And yet the overall statistics do not suggest alarm – foreign exchange reserves, for example, look plentiful. But ultimately if the country has a current account deficit, and if foreign investors don’t want to finance it, there will be defaults or inflation or both.

As the FT’s Martin Wolf points out, a financial meltdown is not likely, but the risk of it has risen in the last week. The capital markets have given Britain an easy ride through its recent troubles, but that could change quickly. The government needs to be very careful about how it handles Brexit. Sovereignty in an interconnected world is always incomplete.

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Can Brexit be reversed?

First was the shock. It seemed as if Britain had driven off the edge of a cliff. Then denial. The dust settled and nothing much seemed to have changed. But now, among those that follow politics and business, there is a slow, creeping realisation of just how big a mess Brexit is. This isn’t so much that the country has ruined itself in the long run (many believe that to be true, but a cogent case can be made otherwise); it is the sheer extent of short-term disruption.  So we might ask: can it all be made to go away?

What has woken people up to the depth of problem is the government’s proposal to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty in the first quarter of 2017, which leads to the country’s departure two years after that. That is not near enough time to put in place new trade treaties, and handle a host of other issues (who pays for British nationals’ medical bills in Spain? How do we manage the Irish border? And on, and on) all at once, given that this is all a matter of negotiation, and negotiations always go to the wire. That means that many businesses with an international dimension (not just exporters – anybody using imported parts or services from anywhere outside the UK) could hit a wall of confusion in 2019.

What makes this worse is the realisation that the split is going to be more “hard” than “soft”, for the reasons I explained in my recent blog. Remain supporters desperately argue for some sort of middle way that protects trading relationships – but no compromise deal looks anything like as good as the real thing, membership with the layers of concessions that Britain had accumulated for itself over the decades. So can we call the whole thing off?

The problem is that as soon as Article 50 is triggered (which astonishingly the government claims does not require a parliamentary vote), then it becomes very hard to come back. The government would have to negotiate re-entry from a very weak position. Such concessions as Britain’s contribution rebate would become an obvious target. So something needs to happen before that. Any hopes must largely rest on a court case challenging the government’s right to invoke the article under royal prerogative. If the government loses, then parliament has the opportunity to throw a spanner in the works.

Could the government fail to find a majority to push through Article 50, if it was forced to? Its majority is small, though some of the Irish parties would support it on Brexit. A rebellion from its backbenchers, or even ministers, is certainly feasible. But would Labour turn up with enough numbers to back them up? In the old days that would have been quite a safe bet. The party in opposition loved nothing more than to make mischief for the government, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the case at hand. But the current party leadership seems little interested in such games. There would need to be strong political reasons to galvanise both Labour and any Tory rebels.

What might those political reasons be?   Remainers are trying to build a case around the idea that the Brexit vote did not amount to a mandate for the “destination”, or what replaces EU membership. This is weak. It suggests consultation just on the question of what type of Brexit we want – a choice between a miserable compromise or a highly disruptive major break. But the best alternative to hard Brexit is to overturn the referendum result itself. For that, something needs to happen to shake confidence in the referendum mandate.

Alas there is little sign of that. The lies peddled by the Leave campaign (most notoriously the idea that £350M would be available to spend on the NHS if we left) are being shrugged off, and set against some of the Remain campaign’s claims, such as that a Leave vote would lead to a draconian emergency budget. But something might blow up in the next six months and catch the public imagination. Or it could be financial instability, which is surely a possibility given the huge uncertainties and the country’s dependence of foreign finance. The wobbling pound is so far the only real sign of trouble – what if it keeps wobbling?

But these are thin pickings for people who support UK membership of the EU. It seems that the slim majority for Leave in the referendum, now routinely described as “overwhelming” by its supporters, has been the basis of a coup, which disenfranchises people like us. The people were consulted, and now the political elite has reasserted full control. The irony, of course, is that the Leave campaign was based on the slogan “take back control”, and appealed to voters who felt disenfranchised by political elites. No student of political history will be surprised that it is being used to consolidate elite power, albeit with some change in personnel.

There seems to be little that Remain supporters like me can do. It will take a feeling of betrayal from within the Leave camp, and a split, in order to give the idea of reversing the referendum result any traction. Unfortunately, if this ever happens it is likely to be too late.

So we must channel our anger into rebuilding the forces of liberalism for the long term. And we need to focus on two problems in particular. How can we give people a greater sense of political control over their lives, while enjoying the opportunities that global connections provide? And how should European institutions be reshaped so that they better serve European people, and so that one day, we may persuade the British people to rejoin? Meanwhile we must watch helplessly as a slow-motion disaster unfolds. “Told you so,” are the most unsatisfactory words in life, but I fear that it is all we are left with.

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The Tories take possession of Brexit; the Lib Dems will benefit

Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, closed the Conservative Party conference yesterday with a striking vision of her political direction, which was consistent with speeches made by other members of her government. This is a marked change of tone from her predecessor, the rather liberal David Cameron, and his Chancellor, George Osborne. Brexit is at the heart of it.

Earlier this week, FT columnist Janan Ganesh suggested that the stream of social policies coming out of the Conservatives were an attempt to deflect the politicians’ obsession with Brexit. But this is to misunderstand what these policies are about – they are an attempt by the Conservatives to tell people that voted for Brexit that they “get it”. The vote to leave the EU is the starting point of the whole thing.

What Mrs May is trying to do is to adopt what I will call the “Brexit coalition” as a political base. This starts with her hinterland: the non-metropolitan middle classes – most especially their older members, as their children are going to university and becoming more metropolitan in outlook. This group has a nostalgic view of the past, and feel threatened by the cultural aspects of globalisation. All the talk of patriotism, the hard line on immigration and the attacks on liberal elites (Oh how sick I am of being told that I am part of a ruling elite when all I am is a school governor!). Other nostalgic policies, like promoting grammar schools are in the mix too.These are bedrock Conservatives, largely taken for granted by Mr Cameron.

What is more interesting is that Mrs May wants to add the disaffected working classes, who voted in droves for Brexit, notwithstanding the advice of the Labour Party. They share the cultural biases of the non-metropolitan middle classes, but add to this resentment about economic insecurity. Mrs May is making a particular pitch for this group: emphasising the struggles of people at the margins, though failing to observe how much austerity policies, such as changes to tax credits, have added to their hardship. For these people she made a strong pitch for “fairness”, and indicated that she would act on a series of economic problems, like housing costs and poor infrastructure. She also rounded on unscrupulous businesses. In parts she sounded not unlike Ed Miliband, Labour’s previous leader, allowing her to claim the “centre ground”. Strikingly she also included a pitch for ethnic minorities, acknowledging discrimination. Ethnic minorities make up large sections of the working class, after all – though the Brexit voters tend to be “I’m not racist but…” types who think it is them who are the victims of discrimination.

But one part of the Brexit coalition is being left behind by all this: the businessmen who called for a bonfire of regulations to make businesses more competitive. On the one hand Mrs May’s tough line on sovereignty, immigration and foreigners points to a hard Brexit, and so little need to heed EU regulations. On the other the threatened policies to limit immigration would add a very hefty layer of extra bureaucracy on businesses, and the appeals to “fairness” suggest a strong role for regulation and government intervention too. Regulation and democracy go together like a horse and carriage. They may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But this part of the Brexit coalition always mattered more for its money than its voter appeal.

It is possible to admire the political cleverness of this. Ukip, who had been harrying the Tories on their nativist flank, are struggling at the moment, and this sort of thing should see them off, in Conservative constituencies at least. One might ask what the point of Ukip is. It also takes advantage of Labour’s disarray. At their own conference Labour failed to discuss Brexit. Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seemed to embrace it – but (admirably) failed to bang the drum on immigration. Other Labour big hitters want it the other way round: oppose or soften Brexit, but wave the flag on immigration. This leaves muddle at the core of Labour’s message on the top issues of the day. The party will no doubt maintain its iron grip on public sector workers, and those vulnerable to government reforms (students, benefit claimants, etc.). I would also be very surprised if their grip on ethnic minority communities was seriously dented. But this falls way short of an election-winning combination. It is not clear what is their appeal to grumpy working class voters, to say nothing of the non-metropolitan middle classes that former Labour leader Tony Blair made inroads on the last time Labour won an election.

But speaking as an ordinary decent liberal and proud citizen of the world (subject to a sneering jibe in Mrs May’s speech), I am aghast at the direction the Tory Party has taken. The are stigmatising foreigners and implying that I am unpatriotic. Many of us are friends, neighbours and work colleagues with people who are not British citizens, and we look on them as equal human beings who have earned our respect and a place in our society. I find that impossible to reconcile with some of the rhetoric coming out of the Conservative Party. And it gets worse. The EU referendum unleashed a wave of hate crime and anti-social behaviour aimed at people who are seen as not belonging here (not just foreigners of course). Much as the leaders of the Brexit campaign claim that this is nothing to do with them, Conservatives run the risk of allowing these attitudes to take root, even as they claim that it is not their intention. In the same way Mr Corbyn will not call off the misogynistic hard left thugs that are part his own coalition, contenting himself with mild disclaimers.

This is now becoming a real political opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. The party is now the best home for open-minded people who do not have a nativist outlook – or those of them appalled by developments in the Labour Party anyway. It becomes easier for the party to take credit for the better bits of the coalition years – which had accrued to Messrs Cameron and Osborne – rather than just the blame for the bad bits.

That opportunity for the Lib Dems will grow if the Conservatives fail to deliver on their new promises, as seems almost certain. As soft Brexit turns into a mirage, and hard Brexit turns out to be highly disruptive, and as the Tories fail to deliver economic gains, such as lower rents and better paid jobs, to working class and other struggling communities, and as the party’s small parliamentary majority bogs it down, then the appeal of Mrs May’s government will diminish. With Labour looking like an empty bubble of hope (or a pyramid scheme as suggested by the Economist’s Bagehot column), there is reason for the Lib Dems to gain.

Of course, the Lib Dems themselves have many serious questions to answer. But it may be easier than people think for it to double its vote share to 15-20% before coming under more serious scrutiny. As the keener Lib Dem activists travel to the latest by-election in Mr Cameron’s old seat in Witney, Oxfordshire, it is impossible not to notice the spring in their step. The bookies are already giving them second place (from fourth in 2015).

But this is a small shaft of light in a very gloomy British political landscape, as the wonton act of self-harm committed by its electorate in the referendum pushes events on a seemingly inevitable course.

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The housing crisis is an opportunity for the left.

“A Britain that works for everyone.” This is what Britain’s Conservatives say they want to achieve under the new prime minister, Theresa May. Partly, of course, this talk is meant as an attempt to divert attention from the difficult choices implied by Brexit.  But there is an issue that is slowly coming to dominate the life-chances of “everyone”, and could be even more important than Brexit: housing.  Or to give this a bit more precision: the high cost of buying or renting residential property. In order to fulfil their slogan, the Tories will have to make progress on this. Will they?

What brought this home to me last week was a report that people born in the 1990s (the so-called millennials) are worse off than those born in the 1980s at the same time in their lives. This is startling for a society that has, generally speaking, benefited from economic growth over the last 30 years, and where educational standards are rising. And the reason is easy to see: compared to people born even ten years earlier, many fewer millennials can afford to buy their own homes. They are unable to benefit from a general rise in property prices that has proceeded apace over that 30 years. Meanwhile rental costs have gone up too, which only makes the gap wider. This phenomenon does not just apply to Britain’s overheated southeast – it afflicts most major urban centres, to say nothing of popular university cities like Oxford and Cambridge.

Why is this such a big issue? The millennials themselves are not particularly important electorally, especially as so many of them show little interest in the political process. But their troubles worry their parents. And the trend is evident from before the millennial generation. More importantly, the generations following the millennials will be equally deprived. The numbers of property have-nots are growing, and property wealth is being concentrated into a smaller number of hands. High rents is a cause of hardship for ever increasing numbers of people – and a cause of rising homelessness, with all the other problems that brings in its wake.

Politicians are increasingly aware of this. Conservative leaders are talking the talk. Mrs May has appointed a new cabinet level minister of housing, Sajid Javid, who talks of a moral crisis. All leading politicians talk grandly of building many more houses. But there are two political problems, which are linked. The first is that the crisis arises from a profound failure of market incentives. And the second is that any policy that actually works is going to hurt a lot of politically influential people. This combination presents a test for Mrs May that she is unlikely to pass. It is one of the few decent opening in British politics for the left.

First consider market forces. Read The Economist and you might think that the housing problem is quite simple at heart. It is a failure of supply to meet the increased demand for housing from a rising population and changes to lifestyle that mean more people want to live alone. And there is a ready culprit for this: restrictive planning laws and NIMBYs who resist new housing developments, which between them surround our cities with over-protected green belts. This glib explanation contains some truth, but it misses two awkward points: much land where development is permitted is not being developed because owners would rather wait – “land banking”; and loose monetary policy has pushed up the cost of housing regardless of supply and demand.

Consider the first point. Property developers profit massively from increasing property prices. Indeed, it is central to their business model. They like to build cheap houses to maximise their profits from land trading, fighting furiously any regulations that might make homes more thermally efficient, for example. It is not in their interests to increase supply to levels where the value of property starts to come down. For all their moaning, they are quite happy with the situation as it is – though they would love to get their hands on green belt land with permission to build, and bank that too. A similar logic applies to rental values, since so many new properties are bought to let. The economic incentives do not point to the private sector solving this problem by themselves. In fact many private sector actors are likely to oppose any policy that actually bites, since that means cutting rental and sale values.

The effects of monetary policy are less understood: by this I mean the way governments and their central bankers have had no real qualms about rising levels of debt used to finance private house purchases. This has been happening since monetary policy was let off the leash by the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates in 1970. The extra monetary demand for housing set off by this increased availability of finance has not been matched by an increased supply of housing. Indeed it is about this time housebuilding slowed down. Easy money has simply led to the inflation of land prices.

To illustrate this, look at this graph of the ratio of house prices to earnings from Wikipedia (By D Wells – Own work):

1200px-uk_housing_affordability_price_earnings_ratio

We should expect to see house prices rising in line with earnings, given its relatively limited supply. We can see that the ratio of prices is tied closely to monetary conditions. Monetary conditions were loose in the late 1980s (the Lawson boom), but had to be tightened as inflation started to get out of hand. That caused a crash that is seared into the memory of older Tory politicians – the years of negative equity. Then things eased, with the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s being years of easy money. The financial crash of 2008 tightened things up, but now conditions are loose again.

Of course easy money and land-banking are self-reinforcing. If property prices dip, property developers can be confident that monetary conditions will ease and come to their rescue.

If I am right about these two problems lying behind Britain’s housing crisis, the solution is quite easy to see. First there needs to be a massive public-sector house building programme, including a large proportion of good-quality social housing, available at rents well below the current market level. This is best done by local and regional authorities, and financed by allowing them to borrow much more. This would put downward pressure on rents, which is perhaps the most urgent aspect of the housing crisis. It would also make it much easier to tackle homelessness.

The second thing that needs to be done is to tighten monetary policy. This may be by using some form of quantitative control on housing debt, but it may also mean raising interest rates. The main idea would be to encourage banks to finance local authority housebuilding, rather than private mortgages. This will require political courage, as it means, for a time at least, property prices falling without making property more affordable (since it will be harder to get finance) – as happened briefly after the crash of 2008/09.

The good news is that the first of these two groups of policy is fast becoming consensus on the left – sweeping in Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. And yet it will be very hard for the Conservatives to stomach. They associate social housing with left-wing voters. It may also upset NIMBYs where the estates are to be built, to say nothing of hordes of people who have invested in property to let – all natural Tories. Tory politicians talk freely of raising large sums of money to push house construction forward. But I have not heard any talk of giving a serious boost to social or public sector housing, or giving local authorities more freedom. It sounds horribly like subsidies for the private sector that will end up by inflating prices and developers’ wallets further.

On the second issue – reducing the volume of private housing finance – I see little sign from anywhere in the political spectrum of this being taken up. This is unsurprising. It would mark a profound change in economic management, which is heavily based on monetary policy. And change would cause outrage in Middle England, attached to its property values. And yet the current way speaks danger. It is increasingly dependent on ever increasing property prices, as these lose touch with incomes. It is a bubble that will surely burst at some point. Even so, I am sure that the left is closer to this policy change than the right. One implication is that more of the load of economic management will be taken by fiscal rather than monetary policy. The left is much more comfortable with that, though I suspect few have taken on that it means supporting austerity at the top of the economic cycle.

Mrs May talks much of making life better for the hard-pressed in our society. Lower rents are surely by far the best way to achieve that. Does she and her party have the stomach for it? If not, the left will have its chance.

 

 

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