Tag Archives: Ed Balls

The remarkable politcal success of Michael Gove

Shortly before the British General Election in 2010 a headteacher at a local school told me: “Well, however is the new Education Secretary cannot be worse then Ed Balls.” Mr Balls, now Shadow Chancellor, was then Labour’s Education Secretary. He had built up a reputation for political posturing and bullying, while presiding over new Labour’s muddled education policies. I have not asked that headteacher how she thinks the new education Secretary, Michael Gove, compares to Mr Balls. I don’t have to; her prediction was spectacularly wrong. Mr Gove is even more loathed by education professionals than was Mr Balls. But Mr Gove, unlike Mr Balls, counts as a political success.

Mr Gove has been in the news recently. Yesterday he gave a speech spelling out his vision for state schools; over the weekend there was a fuss over his failure to reappoint the Chair of Ofsted, the schools’ inspectorate. His spin doctors have been pushing out a story of his reforming zeal against an educational establishment referred to as “the Blob” after a 1950s sci-fi movie. This has received a lot favourable coverage in the right-wing press. More neutral observers, such as the FT as well as the BBC, seem content to faithfully report Mr Gove’s spin while not openly taking sides.

All this is in stark contrast to the government’s attempts to reform the NHS, led by former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The government side of this argument hardly got a look in, as the picture of chaotic reforms took hold. This negative coverage stiffened opposition to the reforms, muddling them further, so that they have ended up being the biggest blot on the Coalition government’s record – though some good may yet come out of them. There has been little public support for opponents to Mr Gove’s education reforms, however. Mr Gove, an ex-journalist, is clearly a better communicator than Mr Lansley, an ex-doctor. The education system is also much simpler than the health service. But the political skills of Mr Gove’s “Blob” are totally lacking, unlike those of the doctors and nurses opposing Mr Lansley. The teaching unions have long been a bit of a comedy act, resisting basic workforce reforms, like performance appraisal, that non-teaching professionals have long since got themselves used to. Other educational professionals rarely raise themselves beyond the minutiae to give politicians and the public a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve.

Are and were British schools in a mess? Yes and no. International comparisons show a mixture of good and bad news. Overall performance is unspectacular but not awful. We have a long “tail” of under-achieving pupils that schools give up on too quickly. There is a lot of mediocrity, especially amongst rural schools, who “coast” by getting average performance from pupils capable of much more. But over the last two decades, the Blob has pulled off one of the most spectacular episodes in school improvement in the world: the transformation of London schools. This has given the lie to the standard line of the Left that the educational prospects of poor pupils will only be transformed once other social problems, like jobs and housing, have been fixed. The Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s poorest, regularly outperforms much wealthier districts outside London.

The transformation of London’s schools remains one of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. But politically, it is problematic. It owes nothing to the various policies pushed by politicians and think tanks, such as creating semi-independent Academies. It was largely down to good old fashioned management: officials at national and council level holding school managements to account, and replacing heads of mediocre schools. As a result politicians are strangely reluctant to take the credit.

What of Mr Gove’s reforms? They are a mix of good, bad and ugly. On the good side, Ofsted’s remit has been sharpened up a lot. Previously it had expanded into such areas as “community cohesion”, which are highly sensitive to context, and inspectors did not show any great aptitude. Now they focus much more sharply on the quality of teaching. This gets to the core of what drives school performance. Some older teachers hate this – but it really isn’t any different to the pressures that accountants and lawyers find themselves under. Younger teachers seem accept the much greater level of accountability that is expected – and respond well to it. (My evidence on this is rather anecdotal though – based on my experience as a school governor in a London primary school).

Another good thing, though largely unremarked, is that Mr Gove’s Academy programme is putting private schools under real pressure. Many private schools outside the South East are now signing up to be state schools, run as academies. My local Free School is recruiting many middle class youngsters that would formerly have gone private. No doubt some on the left see this as a sinister subsidy to the middle classes – but a much higher level of social mixing occurs at these new state schools than would have occurred at private schools. And social mixing at schools helps the poorer children achieve more. It is worth noting that this policy works as well as it does thanks to two measures insisted on by the Liberal Democrats: a “pupil premium” giving extra funding for poorer pupils, and insisting on non-academic selection. Many Conservatives want to recreate academically selective Grammar Schools. These may once have been engines of social mobility, but now academic selection is simply used as a way of weeding out pupils from poorer backgrounds and reducing mixing.

The bad: there is a lot of wasted energy on changing things that don’t need changing. That particularly applies to changes to the curriculum. Mr Gove and his supporters seem to have an old-fashioned view on what should be taught in schools, to reflect a 1960s private education. Now it is true that the Blob has developed a lot of woolly curriculum ideas that don’t seem to be of lasting educational benefit (especially in “applied” qualifications), but they were gradually sorting out this mess by themselves. Mr Gove seems to have little idea as to what modern universities and employers actually want the product of a secondary education to be. A lot of the drive to turn state schools into academies seems a bit pointless, and will probably create problems of accountability in later years. It has a sinister aspect too: the Academy chains who are the main beneficiaries are politically well connected – and it is their political connections that seem to be critical in their success.

The ugly. We are getting more religiously founded state schools. Given religiously founded schools’ role in cementing toxic community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Scotland, I am very nervous about this. But it could be that making these newer schools conform to modern educational norms, and forcing them to engage with a wider civil society, will bring benefits. But I really would prefer it if our children went to schools attended by children of many faiths and none. But the alienation of some religious communities is such that they would not engage in such arrangements, and for them a state religious school is a second-best.

My verdict on Mr Gove is that he is not quite as evil as he cracked up to be. But he is wasting a lot of time and energy. What should be absorbing energy is teaching standards, establishing a broad curriculum appropriate to modern life, and establishing better systems of accountability which don’t tempt schools to game the system by neglecting “hopeless” cases. Fix these and Britain’s state schools would be world class. But alas, we are distracted by political gimmickry.

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Labour are in serious trouble

Not long ago Labour supporters seemed very confident. Their lead in the polls pointed to a comfortable majority; the electoral system was loaded against the Conservatives; they (in their own minds) had won the argument on austerity. It was a good moment to move to the political left and drop the Blairite obsession with the political centre. But now Labour’s poll ratings are sinking, and the Tories catching up.  The 2015 election increasingly looks like a stalemate or worse for Labour. What can they do?

And it is not difficult to see the source of Labour’s problems: Britain’s reviving economy, and rapidly falling unemployment. This is not running to the Labour script – which was that austerity policies doomed the British economy to stagnation and misery. It used to be that Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, sounded easily the most economically literate of the front-bench spokesman of either side (challenged only by the Lib Dem Business Secretary, Vince Cable). Now he sounds panicky and flustered. His arguments, that the recovery is shallow because it is based on consumption rather investment and exports, is technically correct but irrelevant. Labour’s alternative policies of fiscal stimulus were promoting an equally shallow recovery. Labour has no serious ideas on how to promote investment and exports. Meanwhile, the rising economy is giving government spokesmen more confidence: Lib Dem Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander sounded more in control of the economic arguments than he has ever been on the radio this week, managing to pick apart arguments presented by the FT’s Martin Wolf. The Tory Chancellor George Osborne, always more interested in politics than economics, is not wasting any opportunity to skewer Labour using much less sophisticated arguments.

Labour started their damage limitation strategy last Autumn by their leader, Ed Miliband: to try and change the subject. First there was the “cost of living crisis”, focusing on the failure of pay to keep up with prices. Now it is the top rate of tax, where they want to restore the 50% rate rashly reduced to 45% by the Coalition in 2012. Labour’s policy is popular, and the criticism coming in from business groups is unconvincing. These lobbyists say that reducing taxes, especially on the better off, is what is need to awaken dormant business investment. And the government has duly cut taxes (that top rate, and also the rate of company tax) without investment budging. The trouble is that Labour’s policies sound unfriendly to businesses, and therefore likely to stall growth and cause general taxes to rise.

It gets worse for Labour. The energy that drives their activists comes from opposition to austerity: fighting cuts which are seen as mean-minded and ideological. The theory was that the fighting the huge government deficit should be left until later, when the economy was growing. That “later” has now arrived. So how will Labour cut the deficit? Being specific about this, as they will have to be by 2015, will cause huge angst and disillusionment amongst their core supporters.

And in any case Britain’s electoral system is not so weighted in favour of Labour as some supposed. There is a pro-Labour bias in the distribution of seats it is true, but there is also a pronounced benefit to incumbency. When it comes to asking which seats the party will have to capture to win an outright majority it looks hard going. Battersea, the seat where I live, is a case in point. The Conservatives took it off Labour in 2010, but it looks very difficult for them to win back. In the last 3 years I have heard nothing from Labour, but regularly from the Tories; residents aren’t being given the impression that Labour are in contention. The hard fact is that modern politics, with fewer volunteer workers and high postal costs, is an expensive business. Labour surely do not have the money to capture enough marginal through trench warfare tactics in the marginals. They need a national landslide effect, such as they achieved in 1997 under the hated Tony Blair.

So what to do? A change in leadership is out of the question, especially as the most popular alternative, David Miliband, Ed’s brother, is out of contention. A ruthless reshuffle of the front bench might help, but only if it went alongside a wider change of strategy. I think promising more money for the NHS, struggling to keep up with demand, would play to their strengths. But they would have to have credible tax policies to back it up. Taxing just the very rich won’t quite cut it. But taxing a wider body of people would totally undermine their rhetoric on the cost of living. They have dug themselves into a real hole.

Their best bet may just be to keep calm and hope the Tories self-destruct. They show every sign of wanting to do so over the toxic issues of Europe and immigration. Labour’s best chance of benefiting from this tendency to suicide is to appear moderate and centrist. Not a good moment to lurch to the left.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? About half their voters at the 2010 election deserted them for Labour. The polls that show Labour sinking do not show any real benefit for the Lib Dems. But if the contradictions of Labour’s criticism become exposed in the next year or so, then they may get their opportunity. The centre ground, though treated with justifiable suspicion by many of their activists, is a sound place for them to stick to for now.

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Nick Clegg is right to aim for the centre ground

This morning I got a grumpy email from the Social Liberal Forum, a left-inclined pressure group within the Liberal Democrats. It complained about the apparent support the party is giving to the Conservative policy of aiming for a balanced budget, and so a continuing diet of austerity. It criticised this idea for being economically illiterate. It went on that the policy was

Cold comfort … to the people having to choose between heating their homes and eating this Winter, to those forced to go to foodbanks to feed themselves and their children, to families struggling with the cost of living crisis

They also criticised the party leadership aiming at a “mythical place known as “the Centre ground””, and of being closer to the Conservatives than Labour.

All this illustrates the disarray on the British left on economic policy following the unexpected turn for the better the economy has taken. Previously the left could unite around the proposition that the government’s austerity policy was “too far, too fast”, causing hardship amongst society’s least well off. They took immense comfort from the support of many Keynesian economic heavyweights, who said that, in the absence of growth, the state should disregard the government deficit and stimulate the economy to get it moving – or at least stop making the situation worse through cuts. Hence the government’s supporters being “economically illiterate”.  Yes they said, the government should tackle the deficit, but not until growth has been restored.

Though some might not realise it, that fox has been shot by the economic upturn. It isn’t that those economists were wrong, or that “too far, too fast” did not have economic validity at the time; it is that circumstances have changed. If the economy is growing, it is not a good idea to add further stimulus to it. And the “later” when the government should start to tackle the deficit issue has started to arrive. The awkward question that much government expenditure before the crisis was unsustainable, and would have to be cut in due course, cannot now be dodged.

In response the Labour party has changed the subject. Instead it is focusing on a “cost of living crisis” which they blame on badly behaving businesses, from energy companies to house builders. They are proposing a series of populist but economically naïve policies to change these companies’ behaviour. They appear to have no macroeconomic strategy, and the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, is conspicuously floundering.

Politically, Labour’s strategy is interesting. Instead of following political conventional wisdom by chasing voters who float between the main parties (which is what is meant by the “Centre ground”) they seem to be chasing left-inclined or working class voters who will never vote Conservative, but who do not currently vote at all. Centrist voters are worried about the management of the economy, and seem to think that the Conservatives have the stronger case on that front. Instead of trying to reassure these voters by making it clear that they would continue with austerity policies to bring the deficit under control, they are chasing other voters.

What is even more interesting is that the Conservatives are also showing little interest in the Centre. Centre voters are worried about “fairness”, and the state of public services, where they trust Labour more. But instead of doing much to reassure voters here, they are stirring up headlines on immigration and the European Union, where they are proposing policies that are just as economically naïve as Labour’s. Again, quite apart from fighting off the populist challenge presented by Ukip, they seem so be after right inclined people who are not voting, but would never vote Labour if they did.

So if there is no serious contest for the Centre, and if both of the two bigger main parties are pursuing populist but foolish policies, there is surely an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg, their leader, is right to make a bid for this, which his party is doing with its “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” slogan, which epitomises the centre ground. The critics within the party of this strategy are right to point out that this is not ideological secure space, and will do little to built the party’s weak core vote. But if the party is to hang on to its representation in Parliament it will need the support of floating voters.

And so to economic policy. George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor, is wrong to make a fetish of budget balance – and perhaps deserves to be called economically illiterate to do so. But it is economically sensible to manage the public’s expectations on what the state can afford. It may be that some economists are right, and that a “trend rate” of economic growth of 2-3% per annum is there for the taking in the medium to long term, as everybody seemed to think before 2007. But there are good reasons to suppose that they are wrong, and that much slower growth is “the new normal”, once a bit of catch-up growth is over. If so we will have to get used to a much smaller state and a less generous benefit system. Floating voters sense this, and will not vote for the Liberal Democrats if they think that they might help the Labour party take risks by reversing austerity. Nick Clegg may or may not be economically illiterate, but he is surely right on that one.

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Labour will subscribe to Tory cuts: the battle for the next General Election warms up

Nobody should underestimate the Labour leadership’s will to win the next British General Election, which should be in May 2015. I have been away for a couple of weeks. Before I left I was wondering what Labour’s response would be to the current government’s public spending review for 2015/2016, which will be announced later this week. It has been clear and unequivocal: they will sign up to the deep cuts in public spending that this review is designed to produce. This is breath-taking. What does it mean for British politics?

The spending review looked like a trap being set by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition for Labour. Ambitious targets for savings were set: but Labour would be left with an awkward choice. Up until now Labour has been quite happy to ride the anti-cuts anger. Public sector workers, and many people relying on benefits, and others in the general ecosystem which they inhabit, are livid. Many workers with young families and mortgages are losing their jobs and facing steep cuts in pay. This anger has been fuelled by a myth: that cutbacks in public expenditure were unnecessary and motivated by Tory ideology, with the treacherous Lib Dems meekly giving in so that they can play with the toys that being in government gives them. This myth seemed to be supported by a whole army of economists saying that the pace of the governments austerity policies was undermining growth and making things worse. The Labour leader Ed Miliband and the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls did not quite subscribe to this view if you read their words carefully. But they dog-whistled full support. Every cut was opposed angrily; they used the slogan “too far, too fast”, and mercilessly criticised the government for the negligible rate of growth in the economy, which they put down to its austerity policies. There was a studied vagueness about what they would actually do themselves.

But the 2015/16 expenditure review presented a challenge. According to the anti-cuts movement, the best thing would be to reject it out of hand, promise to reverse the cuts in large measure, so as to stimulate the economy and set off a virtuous circle of growth that would restore government finances and get the economy back to where it was in 2008, before the bankers’ sabotage act and global crisis got started. But if Labour did this, or even if they continued with the ducking and weaving, they would be open to a counterattack: Labour will put up your taxes. And the signs are that most people do not accept the anti-cuts narrative, and are hard-pressed financially – so not in generous mood when it comes to tax rises. No doubt the memory of 1992 haunts Labour’s leaders, when Labour lost a very winnable election after the Tories attacked them in the last week with a campaign based on “Labour’s tax bombshell” by hyping up the vaguenesses in Labour’s plans. But signing up to the coalition’s cuts would be hard too. It makes the manufactured anger about their impact difficult to sustain. Many of their supporters will feel betrayed.

But sign up to the coalition’s plans, with a bit of trimming here and there, is exactly what Labour have done. First in a speech by Mr Balls, and then this weekend by Mr Miliband himself. The message in the media has been very clear. I don’t know how it is going down in Labour’s activist base. Polly Toynbee, who often rallies to the anti-cuts cause, seems be showing resigned acceptance, while hoping than the party will come up with other ideas that will motivate the left. It isn’t exactly a U-turn. The narrative is that the economy, after the coalition’s poor management, is now so weak it cannot support more spending. This is weak fare indeed, and only shows that Labour had in reality accepted the bulk of the coalition’s austerity plans, subject to really very minor variations (like a temporary VAT cut).

The political calculation is clear. The angry brigade have nowhere else to go than Labour. Lib Dems may feel vindicated by Labour’s stance, but their previous public sector supporters will still not forgive them, except maybe in hard-fought marginal seats where they are up against the Tories. Britain’s two party electoral system means that elections are won by wooing floating voters. And these seem convinced by the case for austerity, even if, like Ms Toynbee, you blame this on the relentless right-wing press and the TV coverage that tamely follows in its wake.

The battle ground for the 2015 election is getting clearer. It won’t be about whether there should be cuts, but on where they should fall. For somebody like this blogger who accepts the basic logic of austerity economics in the UK, that should take the political debate into interesting and constructive territory. But others will feel disenfranchised and betrayed. Things are warming up.

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Lib Dems hope for a turning point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Behind the theatrics on Barclays, what needs to be done?

Predictably enough the Barclays Libor scandal is generating rampant theatrics amongst both journalists and politicians.  It is not easy to keep grip on what actually matters.  And yet this is vital when it comes to deciding what the next steps should be.

One piece of theatre is a sort of whodunnit, amongst Barclays senior managers, and government and regulatory officials.  How much did they know?  What did they authorise? One line of attack concentrates on Bob Diamond, the former Barclays Chief Executive, whose evasions at a parliamentary select committee yesterday created predictable anger.  The real point behind this is the question of how far up the chain of command should responsibility for unethical behaviour go?  Should bank chief executives be like Royal Navy captains, as John Kay suggested yesterday in the FT, and take full responsibility for everything that happens on their ship?

A further twist comes from the thought that there may have been an element of government connivance in the second phase of manipulation, as the financial crisis was in full swing.  The hope amongst government politicians is that something can be pinned on Labour figures such as Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.  That looks a long shot.  Experienced political operators like Mr Balls don’t leave fingerprints, and there were legitimate reasons at the time for an interest in the behaviour of Libor.  But the Labour’s case wasn’t helped by a radio interview with Baroness Vadera, Gordon Brown’s economic adviser, yesterday lunchtime.  She was evasive, confusing the two very different phases of the scandal (i.e. the first phase of manipulation for to make trading profits, and the second of official manipulation for wider politcal purposes).  It gave the impression there was something to hide.  Other key Labour figures, such as Mr Balls and Lord Myners, the former City minister, are giving much more confident performances, though.

Centre stage for the theatrics today is the argument as to whether any enquiry should be a full judicial one, like the Leveson Inquiry into the press, which Labour are asking for, or the government’s preferred option of a quicker parliamentary one.  Both options have merit.  A judicial enquiry gives the whole thing an air of importance, and legal interrogators are much more effective than grandstanding politicians; it would keep the City types on the ropes for longer.  But lawyers are unlikely to contribute much of value to designing a solution.  A parliamentary enquiry would be a quicker way to actually change the law, as well as creating less complications for any parallel criminal investigations.  What is actually needed is an expert commission – but we’ve already had one of those, the Vickers Commission – which indeed pointed towards some of the solutions.

But what actually needs to be done?  In principle this isn’t difficult.  Investment banking activities do play a useful role in the modern economic system, and aggressive trading culture can help the process of what economists call “price discovery” – spotting and correcting where the prices of financial instruments don’t reflect the world’s realities.  Short-selling the shares of badly performing companies looks ugly, for example, but it does improve accountability.  But the usefulness of investment banking is distorted by two problems:

  1. Using other people’s money.  Where traders use borrowed money to trade with, which is the bulk of what they do, then they are not taking full responsibility for the rsiks they are taking, and the whole balance of incentives gets skewed.  Trading soon escalates to levels beyond the socially useful. The volume of borrowed money used has risen massively over the last couple of decades, and many traders probably don’t even understand the idea of using their own capital to bet with.
  2. Trading culture struggles to recognise ethical boundaries.  A disagreement over price is one thing, but manipulating systems designed help people is another.  Fiddling Libor (especially in the first phase of this scandal) was one such transgression, as are various scams to exploit the way mutual funds are priced.  The UK regulatory authorities can be too soft on this.

So in essence what needs to happen is this:

  • Isolate banks’ trading and derivative activities from ordinary economic deposit-taking and commercial lending, and attach separate regulatory regimes to each.
  • Clamp down hard on unethical behaviour – with chief executives and directors taking full responsibility for what happens in their organisations.  Ignorance should not be a defence – and if that means some organisations become impossible to manage, then they should be broken up.  Sanctions should hurt, and include the criminal law (though remember that its higher burden of proof can get in the way).
  • The money supply to investment banking operations needs to be choked off, so that only those that fully understand the risks are supplying it.  Isolation will help here, but may not be enough.

The principles are easy, but the details are all important.  The problems are global but it will be very hard for us in Britain.  The City is so important for our overall economy that we are easily scared away from being too tough.  But if the attraction of the City is that it is easier to do unethical business, then this is not a recipe for long-term success.  We can still have a thriving financial services industry with niche operations based on genuine knowledge and expertise of the real world, and the provision of solid, well designed infrastructure and systems.

Next steps?  I think an enquiry is a bit of a distraction, so the government’s option is probably better.  the government perhaps using this enquiry as cover, must go back to the Vickers proposals and implement them in full.  Going beyond Vickers to enforce the full separation of investment and commercial banking should be considered.  And as for culture change, that needs to happen at the regulators, including the Bank of England, as much as the banks themselves.  A change of senior personnel would help here.

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The Guardian’s bubble – the view from my bubble

It’s nearly a cliché, but it still resonates with me.  People accuse each other of living in “bubbles” – and when they do so, the accusation usually has bight.  But the people who make the accusation are merely living in different bubbles.  We all are; and it helps us if we realise it.

A bubble is a small, self-contained world which contains its own atmosphere, protected by a nearly invisible wall, which lets those inside see the wider world outside, and maybe pretend that they are fully part of it.  And every so often the bubble hits an obstacle in the outside world, and bursts.  Suddenly those inside are subject to a catastrophic shock.

As a metaphor it describes a describes an intellectual process.  We sustain ideas by protecting them from the vicissitudes of what is going on in the real world around us, discounting facts that challenge them, seizing on ones that support them – and a similar process goes on with those that we consort with – we prefer people who support our view and avoid those who don’t.  As this bubble existence continues our strength of conviction is increased by this process.  Until one day, maybe, the idea can’t be sustained and it’s all over.  Actually the bubble rarely bursts so dramatically in real life – though we always fancy that other people’s bubbles will.

What bought on this reflection?  Reading Saturday’s Guardian I reached the “Comment & Debate” section, and there were two articles on the same page which seemed to sum up what I think of as the Guardian’s bubble – one that persists in believing that austerity economic policies are a fraud and a failure.  One was by Robert Skidelsky – U-turn for the better – a direct attack government policy, while welcoming the apparent softening of it in favour of more infrastructure investment.  The other was from Jonathan Freedland – Balls has the rare political right to say: I told you so – praising Ed Balls, and especially that he was amongst the first to criticise austerity.  I didn’t read either article, but just harrumphed and moved on.

Still, this is a blog, not a Twitter feed, and I owe it to my readers to actually read the articles before passing comment, and I did so today.  Mr Freedland’s doesn’t fit my bubble pattern.  He clearly inhabits the bubble, agreeing with Mr Balls’s analysis of the economy, but this only affects one non-critical sentence in the piece.  The article makes perfect sense politically, even if you don’t happen to agree with the economics; it’s a good article, in fact.  Mr Balls has been written off, but he’s winning.

But Professor Skidelsky produces pure bubble fare.  He does report the government logic more fairly than some, merely to dismiss it with this: “This is discreditable nonsense.  But it has an air of plausibility.”  Actually precisely what I think of the professor’s article.  To me the give-away was this sentence: “If the [infrastructure] spending had not been cut, the deficit would now be smaller, because the economy would be larger.”  This is either a suspension of the laws of arithmetic, or shows an astonishing faith in in the multiplier effect of this type of spending  – for each 1% of extra deficit spending you need to add 12% or more GDP as a whole to sustain this argument.  By substituting “debt” for “deficit” it may be somewhat more sensible (you need less than 2% growth for each 1% spend -at the most optimistic) – but it still heavily depends on the multiplier idea.  This is an area of ongoing debate amongst economists – and yet Professor Skidelsky presents it as an accepted fact.  And without it the rest of his argument starts to fall apart.

Professor Skidelsky is not a fully trained economist (though neither am I), and I think it shows in his writing; his main claim to credibility is that he wrote an authoritative biography of Maynard Keynes.  But plenty of fully fledged economists agree with him – but that does not make this argument less contentious.

Or less wrong.  From my bubble.  Because I clearly inhabit my own bubble.  One in which the Government’s economic policies are making the best of a bad situation, and, separately that the Liberal Democrats will not be annihilated for a generation.  A more neutral observer would not share either conviction.

Why do we live in such bubbles?  It’s just very hard to stay on the fence the whole time, or to change your mind every few days with the next piece of passing news.  The only way to do it is by not really caring.  But really it helps to have some self-awareness about this – and this is the only way to appeal to those outside your bubble.

The Guardian is a better newspaper than many.  But what is the point of giving such prominence to purely polemical articles like Robert Skidelsky’s?  They need more serious comment, like that produced by Jonathan Freedland, which do not insult their readers’ intelligence just to give the members of their particular bubble something to cheer at.

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Ballsed up – Labour’s economic narrative implodes

Labour’s economic narrative was always a bit of a balancing act, and now it is coming apart.  It is tempting to blame the messengers (Ed Balls and Ed Miliband), but its own contradictions are the real problem.

But what is this narrative?  It is rarely reported sympathetically, so confusion is widespread.  This is how I understand it:

  1. The Labour government’s careful middle way between free markets and social democratic intervention rewarded Britain with a prolonged period of economic growth, and growth too in public services.  Contrary to what political opponents and a hostile media claim, this was perfectly sustainable.  Indeed by 2007 Labour had won over most of its critics and the Tories were saying that they would do much the same.
  2. But in 2008 it collided with a global economic storm, originating in foolish economic policies elsewhere in the world, and misguided financial management, mainly in America.  Since full participation in globalisation was part of Labour’s economic policy, and had delivered enormous benefits, Britain could not but be affected.  After the first shock, sensible economic policies under Gordon Brown were delivering a sustained recovery.  These policies were based on maintaining aggregate demand in the economy, in particular by sustaining government expenditure, with only a gradual, carefully measured slow down.
  3. This was all undone by the coming to power of the Coalition in 2010.  They panicked (or else were driven by a malign wish to undo Labour’s good works) and cut back too far, too soon.  This has set off the classic Keynesian doom loop, where reduced government expenditure reduces private demand, causing further hardship.  There are any number of distinguished economists who point out the folly of excessive austerity (Paul Krugman being a favourite).
  4. The Coalition policy is failing, as growth has tailed off and government forecast after forecast is being missed.  This is doing long-term and lasting damage to the economy.
  5. Because of this long term damage, by the time we reach 2015 it will not be so easy to pump things back up again to where they were before.  As a result, Labour cannot promise to restore the cuts – even as we now declare they are foolish.

It is not my point today to pick holes in the economic logic of this.  Both Mr Balls and Mr Miliband are economically literate, and we have every reason to believe that they believe what they are saying.  It is not falling apart in terms of economic logic – and the likely future turn of events is not likely to undermine it.  The only thing that would be a problem for them is if the economy should start to pick up some serious speed.  Nobody believes that it will.

The problem is the politics.  Labour have been trying to achieve a tricky balancing act here.     The dismantling of so much of Labour’s legacy by the Coalition has sent their supporters into a frenzy of anger.  Labour needs to harness this anger to sustain its political “ground war” – the hard graft of daily political advance, for the most part achieved by unpaid volunteers, even if the wider public seems more sceptical.  This angry brigade has not accepted that any cuts are necessary, and grasp at the writings of Krugman et al, adding a little A-level economics, to sustain the idea that all the economy needs is more government expenditure to reflate its way back all the way to 2008.  They think that the Coalition is waging economic warfare on the poor, as one commenter on this blog put it, with the naive Lib Dems being taken for a ride, along with a large part of the public.

The angry brigade hears what it wants to from the “too far, too fast” mantra and thinks that the Labour front bench is on its side.  But the Labour leaders also know that the economy has shrunk so much that many, indeed, most, of the cuts will have to be made eventually.  Labour’s plans to cut the deficit before they left office weren’t so very different to the current government’s, and very little at all compared the surprisingly slow pace at which the deficit has actually been cut.  Their plan is actually to win back and exercise power again, rather than simply have fun as an opposition party.  They know they need to present credible policies for when they are in power again – after all, look what happened to the Lib Dems when they promised that they could cut university tuition fees to harness student anger for their own ground war.  And a close reading of what Mr Balls and Mr Miliband have been saying is not nearly as reckless as the mood music of anger.

But Labour have encountered a wider political problem.  The passion and anger of their activists burns as bright ever, but the public are simply not convinced.  Why?  It is tempting to blame economic naivety, which allows the government and its supporters to present the government’s finances as if they were a household budget.  Actually I think the feeling runs deep that the economic prosperity of the late Labour years was unsustainable. There is no naivety about that standpoint.  Government debt catches the blame – but in fact it was private sector debt that was more to blame.  And for those that did not have a government job, the suspicion the state was too big and benefits too generous ran deep.  In my description of the narrative most people can’t get past the first paragraph.

And so the two Eds have started to reach out to the sceptics by emphasising paragraph 5 – that the cuts will have to stay.  The hope is that this will then give them an opportunity to get a hearing for whatever else they have to say, on corporate greed, the NHS reforms and so on.  But the activists are apoplectic.  The Guardian‘s weekend article has attracted a whole host of disbelieving and hostile comments from a group of people that is now feeling disenfranchised.

But the narrative is too complex to be accepted by the sceptics either.  Only a confession that the economy before 2008 and unsustainable, even without a financial crisis, will do that.  Alas the two Ed’s don’t think they can say that.  And so politically the narrative falls apart.  I would be surprised if Ed Miliband lasts the year.  He has had some bright ideas, and has begun to take Labour out of its denial phase.  But as denial moves into anger, he will surely be a victim.

 

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George Osborne, Ed Balls and the confidence fairy

Paul Krugman, the economics Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist, likes to talk of the “confidence fairy”.  It is a critique of right-wing “supply side” economists, who advocate cutting back on taxes and public expenditure and reducing government regulation.  These counter the criticism that such policies suck demand out of the economy and cause unemployment with the idea that confidence in the soundness of the government’s policies would boost business investment and consumption, and so create jobs.  But such beliefs have no more substance that a belief in fairies.

Mr Krugman believes in solid government management of aggregate demand of a type that is often called “Keynesianism”.  He was bitterly critical of the Obama government for not trying to enact a much bigger stimulus programme in 2008, at a time when the usual criticism was that he was spending to much.  These same arguments are emerging in the UK between the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and his Labour Shadow Ed Balls.

To be fair, Mr Osborne and his supporters, especially the Lib Dem ones, never made much use of the confidence fairy in the sense that Professor Krugman uses it.  The confidence they that they had in mind in supporting austerity was that of investors in government bonds, and the scary consequences of losing it.  But ultimately Mr Osborne does believe that business and consumer confidence will provide the economic growth and employment he seeks.  But what fewer people understand is that the policies advocated by Mr Balls and Professor Krugman require the confidence fairy too.

Let us consider the logic of the “Keynesian” stimulus.  Cut VAT as Mr Balls suggests and put this money in consumers’ pockets, who go out and spend it, creating jobs, which create further demand.  The Keynesian multiplier (no need for quotation marks here) does its stuff and £10bn of government stimulus might increase total demand in the economy by perhaps £20bn in a year.  But then what?  The extra demand has helped offset the cost (so the £10bn direct cost has been reduced to perhaps £6bn), but the national debt has still gone up.  But growth drops back to zero (or worse) unless there is yet another stimulus package of yet more tax cuts or government spending programmes.  To the extent that these measures are temporary (such as the temporary tax cuts advocated by Mr Balls, or the job programmes and extensions to unemployment benefit favoured by Professor Krugman) then the whole process goes into reverse, multiplier and all.  And if the programmes aren’t temporary, the government structural deficit has just got a lot bigger.  Unless the confidence fairy waves her magic wand.

And it is this boost in confidence that lies behind the case for government stimulus.  It is reinforced by the metaphors used to describe it, such as “kick-start”, “getting the economy moving” or the word “stimulus” itself.  A catalyst that improves confidence and hence gets businesses to invest and consumers spending more and saving less.  And the results would indeed be magical.  By spending and borrowing more you would reduce borrowings in the medium term by more than a strategy based on austerity.  But without the fairy it works no more than the supply-side policies do.  The problem is deferred and made worse, not solved.

So can such a stimulus boost confidence?  In the right circumstances it certainly could, such as those induced by a temporary external shock, perhaps literally as in an earthquake (one of the reasons why earthquakes seem to do such little damage to an advanced economy).  And here there is a genuine divergence of view.  Mr Balls, who perfectly literate economically, does not believe that the British economy pre crisis was fundamentally unsustainable, and so thinks that it should be relatively easy to recover the lost ground.  In economist-speak the British economy has plenty of spare capacity.  A number of professional economists, including the FT’s Samuel Brittan, one of my heroes, seem to agree.  But government economists and many others, apparently including the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, disagree.  The previous economy was over dependent on debt spending by consumers and government and cheap imports, sustained by an overvalued exchange rate and financial support from abroad that can no longer be counted on.  Mr Brittan thinks that the lower capacity of the economy is a self-fulfilling prophesy (i.e the longer the economy is depressed, the more difficult the recovery), but personally I think that the 2007 economy was in a very bad place, and was always going to take a long time to sort out.

But even if you don’t accept this, there is another problem.  The extra confidence induced by a stimulus package can be overwhelmed by outside events, such as the Euro crisis.  The UK economy, much more than the US one, is dependent on the world economy and is open to such shocks.  Right now looks the wrong time to bet on a calm world economy.

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Is Britain about to go bust?

The debate about Britain’s economic policy rumbles on, with a speech by the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls last week.  In previous posts I have dismissed the claim made by some that the government’s cuts are unnecessary, and most commentators, including Mr Balls, seem to accept this, even if they don’t say so explicitly. But there is a furious debate about how quickly the cuts should be implemented: 5 years as the government plans, or 8 years as Labour suggests, apparently including Mr Balls, though in the past he has been suggested longer.  An impressive array of economists seem to support the Labour argument.

The basis of the critics’ argument rests on conventional macroeconomics, and runs that cutting too fast creates needless unemployment and risks a spiral of lower demand which will make things worse.  This argument is open to challenge on its own terms (see The Economist’s Buttonwood column here, or Bagehot here), but the government’s defenders don’t generally try; instead they trump it with an argument about unsustainable levels of government debt.  I want to look at the macroeconomic argument in a future post.  Today I will consider whether unsustainable debt really is such a risk.

If government debt gets too high, it can derail the whole economy.  A default, when governments renege on the terms of their debt, can be absolutely catastrophic.  The problem is that if governments can’t raise the money then all the functions of government are threatened.  For countries like Greece who are part of the Euro, this means that they literally can’t pay the bills – salary payments are stopped and so on.  This is such a frightening prospect that there are strong incentives for other members of the zone to organise a rescue.  Countries like the UK do have another option: they can debauch their currency by paying bills with newly created money.  That’s how hyperinflation starts; the most recent example is Zimbabwe, and its implications are hardly less disastrous than default.

So what are the risks for Britain?  The good news is that before the crisis struck overall debt was modest by international standards at a shade over 50% of GDP.  Even better, the maturity profile of this debt, i.e. how soon it has to be rolled over, was long term – longer than any other major economy.  The bad news is the massive size of the current deficit – 11% in 2009, and the fact that 8% is “structural” or won’t bounce back with the economic cycle.  That means that total debt is increasing rapidly; by the end of 2010 it was already 75% of GDP. This gives two main problems.

The first problem is that debt risks spiralling out of control.  Few think that the current economy is capable of more than modest growth, austerity or not, which means that extra wealth is not being generated fast enough to get us out of trouble.  And debt comes with an interest bill.  There are some classic economic models of this, and on these the warning lights are flashing red furiously.  At some point lenders (characterised as the “bond markets”, but potentially including you and me) refuse to lend, or at least start to put the rate of interest up, making things worse.

The second problem is more subtle.  If total national debt levels off at a high level, this will drag down the whole economy for a long while to come, as we spend too much resource servicing the debt.  One study suggested that serious problems start to happen when debt reaches 90% of GDP – less than two years away at the current trajectory.  Taking longer to eliminate the deficit means that overall debt will level off at a higher amount, unless the aggressive option really does lead to meltdown.

There are three further overlapping problems for the UK.  Debt markets are very open; there is a degree of dependence on overseas support; and the pound is a floating currency.  Government debt problems are much easier to handle if there is ready access to lenders who are effectively forced to lend to you; this has helped such high debt countries as Japan and Italy.  Superficially the UK seems to look this way: pension funds are massive, and traditionally hold lots of government debt (gilts) for actuarial reasons.  But such funds are aggressively and independently managed, helping to make our financial services industry internationally competitive.   That means they switch away from buying gilts as soon as they think it is not such a good deal.  Dependence on overseas investors appears to be relatively modest, as buyers of gilts are overwhelmingly domestic (or so I believe).  But the country still runs a significant current account deficit (unlike Japan, and even Italy), meaning that the economy as a whole does need foreign lenders.  The floating pound is often presented as a get out of jail free card – but the benefits of being able to devalue are two edged.  Foreign investors will be wary of sterling if they think it will devalue; domestic investors will likewise increase their overseas exposures in the same event, reducing their ability to buy gilts (unless these are  issued in foreign currency, but let’s not go there).

But, the government’s critics maintain, there’s no sign of trouble, and never has been.  The government has had no trouble selling gilts, at very low interest rates.  The trouble with this argument is that markets can turn in an instant, and you won’t know until too late.  An investment decision depends on a judgement looking far into the future, and this can move very quickly.  Government ministers seem to have got a genuine fright in May 2010 with the Greek crisis.  By and large the closer a commentator actually is to the debt markets, the less sanguine they are about the whole thing.  There are just too many risk factors.

So what to think?  The Labour plan is probably viable, if backed by a real determination to follow it through (and Alistair Darling, the outgoing Labour chancellor would have been an excellent figurehead, unlike Mr Balls).  But it undoubtedly takes more risks with catastrophe.  Whether it is worth doing so does come back to your view on the macroeconomic risks.  If you think that the austerity programme really will lead to meltdown, then this has real power.  But neither is the government argument implausible.  It’s about the risks you are prepared to run.

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