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.


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.


Labour can win in 2015. A disaster beckons in 2020.

Is it just me, or can I see a certain spring in the step of Britain’s national politicians? Ever since the party conference season last September they have been focusing on one thing above all: winning the General Election due in May 2015. The perplexing state of the country is now simply a source of ammunition to batter the other side. Actually solving the problems can be left until afterwards. What a relief!

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is having the better of it, if the relentlessly superficial media chatter is to be believed. This is quite a turnaround, since the same chatterers had him as toast as late as August. He has abandoned his party’s “too far, too fast” criticism of the government’s austerity policies, which helped rally the faithful (and rattle Lib Dem activists) but cut little ice with the country at large. The recovery of the country’s economic statistics has not invalidated their argument, but it has made it far too complex a proposition to argue, especially since their rhetoric had placed far too much reliance on these “flatlining” statistics in the first place. Instead they are focusing on living standards, and things, like fuel bills, which affect them.

From a campaigning perspective, this change of tack is astute on at least two counts. First, it appeals to direct personal experience, rather than the ephemeral world of economic statistics, to which the country’s GDP growth statistics belong. Second, it is such an intractable problem that the government is unlikely to be able to neutralise it. All that remains is to find some eye-catching policies to embarrass the government and keep the political debate on their ground. The centrepiece of this is the pledge to freeze energy prices for two years if Labour takes power, while they put in place a longer term fix to limit the damage inflicted by the greedy energy businesses they blame for the problem. A second push has been to enforce a “living wage” significantly higher than the legal minimum wage, through government procurement, and a tax break for employers who raise their wages.

In this line of attack Mr Miliband is the first of our national politicians to make political capital out of one of the most important developments in the British economy, along with many other developed economies, notably America’s. For the majority of people, wages are not keeping up with growth in the wider economy. In Britain this trend was clearly established, I read in this piece by Chris Giles in the FT, 2003/04; since 2010 (i.e. when the current government took over) wages have not even kept up with average prices. The benefits of growth are going to mainly to a privileged elite, while government interventions tend to be focused on the other end of the spectrum: the very poor. While the main economic issue is slow growth of pay, the main flashpoints are in taxes (especially for things like fuel) and energy costs.

There is, however, a snag. How on earth to actually fix it? This does not seem to bother Mr Miliband too much. His policy proposals are at best ineffectual, and at worst will actually make things worse. In the field of energy Britain is being overtaken by a crisis, as old nuclear and coal-fired power stations are shut down, and replaced by renewable energy sources that place wholly different strains on infrastructure. What the country badly needs is investment, in new capacity, and, especially, in distribution infrastructure (e.g. moves towards a “smart grid”). Just how Labour’s attack on the energy companies is going to solve this problem is, to say the least, unclear. And, if some of what I read is true, the pressure will break out into real problems in two or three years time. Labour’s living wage policies are no better thought through. Using government procurement to do heavy lifting in this area, along with many others, risks weighing it down with compliance costs – a process that tends to push out smaller businesses, as well as inviting scandal and fraud. The tax break looks totally unsustainable and an invitation to unscrupulous companies to manipulate the system.

The Conservatives are planning their counterattack. There is growing talk of 1992 (which this blog has long been banging on about), when a well-funded late campaign destroyed what had seemed to be an inevitable Labour victory. They will focus, probably, on frightening voters about the economy and taxes; their newspaper allies will concentrate on personal attacks on Mr Miliband to undermine his credibility as a prime minister. The Lib Dems are crafting a “centre ground” campaign, no doubt hoping to benefit from the damage the big parties will do to each other.

I have urged my readers not to underestimate the Conservatives. That advice still applies. But my current instinct is the Labour will weather the storm enough to form a minority government. That is when Mr Miliband’s problems will start. The country will face electricity shortages; clever schemes to enforce the living wage will unravel; living standards for the majority will stay under pressure; Labour activists and trade unionists will be on the government’s case to raise benefits and expenditure. The calamity that has struck Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems will visit Labour, for very similar reasons. I understand Labour’s strategy for winning in 2015; how on earth are they going to win in 2020?


One cheer for Ed Miliband

The focus of British politics is now clear. The prospects of the different parties at the General Election due in May 2015 dominates everything. No doubt it is with relief that the political elite and their coterie of journalists and commentators focus on this question, rather than the much more difficult one of how to make this country a better place for its citizens. The defining event of this year’s conference season so far has been Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech. For good or ill, he seems to have set the political agenda. But does this tell us anything about whether Labour really would do a good job of running the country?

To read the commentaries, Mr Miliband has made a decisive shift to the left. He did this by focusing his ire on big business, and threatening them with government action. There were two signature policies. One was forcing energy companies to freeze their prices while the government reconfigured the regulatory regime to squeeze them more permanently. The second was forcing private sector developers to “use or lose” their land banks to build houses. All this in an attempt to reverse the decline in living standards that the bulk of the population has suffered since the economic downturn started in 2008.

Commentators of the right and centre, such as the Economist’s Bagehot column, interpret this as Labour vacating the decisive “centre ground” of politics, where elections are won and lost. This is the ground which the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg is trying to push his party into, in spite of grumbles by older activists. The Conservatives’ David Cameron is likely to stake his claim there too, and ignore the voices of his party urging him to adopt right wing populism to fend off the threat from Ukip. They will attack Labour’s policies as unworkable, and part of a failed socialist outlook. Mr Cameron will offer tax cuts as a surer route to improving living standards; Mr Clegg will offer tax cuts too, though rather narrower ones, and something about tackling barriers to social mobility (affordable child care, better schools, etc.).

Commentators of the left, like the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, do not deny Mr Miliband’s leftward lurch and seem quite content. His new policies are popular with the public, and have lifted Labour’s poll ratings; there may be many more populist left wing policies, bashing bankers and big business that will go down well electorally. With a large chunk of the previous Lib Dem vote going to Labour, and the Conservatives struggling with Ukip, the next election is Labour’s to lose.

But rather than evaluate these calculations at face value, let’s pause and step back for a minute. All this looks like the narcissism of small differences. All three parties remain firmly embedded in much same policy space. Mr Miliband would have made a decisive step to the left if he had outlined a policy of increased public spending, funded by extra taxes. In this way he might be able to halt and even reverse the relentless squeeze on benefits and public services. But he has decided not to; instead his party will have to make something in the region of £26 billion of cuts in the next parliament (a number I have culled from this perceptive article by the Resolution Foundation’s Gavin Kelly in the paywalled FT). He has said nothing about where these cuts, or increased taxes, will fall. The Conservatives would be making a radical shift to the right if they were proposing to make deeper cuts to the state, which they can only do if they cut the NHS (or rather make the public pay for more of its services) and old age pensions. There is no sign of that.

And there is something else. None of the parties is embracing more than gradual or token decentralisation of power from Westminster. Instead they argue over this, that or the other centralised tax, subsidy or regulatory regime. This can be seen in the season’s signature policy ideas. Mr Clegg has announced free school meals for English school infants; all of them, everywhere, because it looks like a clever idea based on a couple of pilot schemes. Mr Miliband wants to bash energy companies through central regulation: but how does this help solve the country’s slow path to reducing carbon emissions? And what on earth is the point of the Conservatives’ tax break for married couples?

But Mr Miliband deserves credit for one thing. He, alone amongst the three party leaders that I can see, has pointed out one of the two central challenges of the British political economy. That is that the benefits of economic growth are bypassing most people. This is nothing new, but economic stagnation is making it hard to gloss over. It arises primarily from technological change, and its effect on manufacturing industry and office work, helped along by the rise of globalisation. The problem isn’t that our tax and benefit system is failing to redistribute wealth, it is that increasingly wages are too low in the first place.

But there Mr Miliband’s insight seems to end. He seems content to blame big “predator” corporations, and offer the hope that better regulation will help. He didn’t even mention the second great challenge, which is that real terms funding for public services and benefits will fall rather than rise in the years ahead. He offers palliatives rather than solutions. Britain’s right and centre are no better.

What is the solution? In my view there are three interrelated elements. Improve the education system so that skills better balance where the jobs are in future. Redesign public services and benefits so that they can be tailored to individual and community needs. Strengthen local networks to counterbalance the effect of the rise of centralised, winner takes all networks. These three require a radical decentralisation of power. How long will it take before our political classes start to realise this?


The battle for Britain’s political centre

The idea of a centre ground in politics, where elections are won and lost, is a persistent one, especially here in Britain (and England in particular) and in the United States. Winning politicians are said to “triangulate” a political position in this centre ground; notable exemplars of this idea were Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. David Cameron is supposed to have rescued the Conservative Party from oblivion using this strategy in 2010 to turning it into the UK’s largest party, if not outright victory. Now, in Britain, there is a lot of talk about it, and what political strategy each of the three established main parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) should be; take this article, Both the Tory and Labour leaders need lessons in politcal geometry by Andrew Rawnsley. What to make of this?

This all starts with the idea that political views can be placed on a spectrum with the left at one end, the right at the other, and ground, the centre or middle, in between. Over the years I have repeatedly heard people claim that this idea is no longer a helpful analysis of modern politics. But it is remarkably persistent, and it appears to have been helpful to Messrs Clinton, Blair and Cameron. What seems to define the left-right spectrum is attitudes to social solidarity and the state. On the right there is a strong view that individuals are responsible for their own wellbeing, and that the state should do the minimum to help them, because such help is counterproductive. This view unites social conservatives, distrusting socialist values, and economic liberals. On the left there is a feeling that most people have little influence on their social outcomes, especially poorer people, and that they should band together, organised by the state to tilt the odds back in their favour.

And for all the talk about the differences between the political parties disappearing, it is very easy to see this fault-line separating the core followers and activists in the Conservative and Labour parties. Think of the last Labour government’s attempt to get state supervision, through Primary Care Trusts, local authorities and other agencies to take a broader role in achieving social outcomes, like reducing “health inequalities”. Compare this to Tory ministers who delight in dismantling this infrastructure in the name of austerity.

But elections are clearly won and lost by floating voters, who aren’t convinced by the true believers of either party. Appealing to these voters makes the two main parties look very similar in terms of their election promises at least. Strange then that both parties seem currently more concerned to shore up their core votes and activists, rather than make a play for the centre. By this stage before Mr Blair’s victory in 1997, he and Gordon Brown were challenging the party’s core supporters by, for example, signing up to the Conservative austerity policies and promising not to raise income tax. Similarly Mr Cameron was doing photo ops in the Arctic with huskies to show his concern for global warming well before the 2010 election.

But the political priorities have changed. Neither party has made its activists so desperate for power by being out of office for a decade that they will sign up for anything. Labour needs to nurture the anger felt its supporter by the current government’s austerity policies, especially amongst those claiming benefits and those employed, or formerly employed, in the public sector. The Conservatives are shaken by the rise of the distinctly right wing Ukip, who are stealing away its core activists, even if they are also pulling in actual votes from elsewhere too. Both parties will need its foot-soldiers when the next general election arises in 2015.

But there may also be a bit of a problem for those chasing votes in the centre: the centre itself is fragmenting. This is suggested by some survey work reported in The Economist a couple of weeks ago, here. On the one side are those whose living standards are being squeezed (one definition of the “squeezed middle” of which much has been talked). These people are not just those in the direct line of fire of cuts, but those who were not particularly well off, and are now finding that their income is frozen while prices keep going up. These voters are open to Labour’s rhetoric about the government’s failed economic policies, and ideas for kick-starting it with things such as a temporary cut in VAT. A second group of centrist voters are not badly affected in their personal living standards, and are much more convinced by the government’s line that austerity is a necessary evil, following the irresponsible profligacy (by both government and individuals) that occurred under the last government. Each side seems to be doing a reasonable job of appealing to one of these two groups, but not headway in appealing to both. This does not add up to a winning majority for either party.

The big unknown is how the economy will be faring in 2015, as this could influence the balance between these groups. The Conservatives hope that the current fragile recovery continues, inflation falls and people feel that things are getting better; they will then be less willing to risk any change in economic policy. If economic stagnation predominates, Labour narrative might get stronger, though. No doubt both parties are keeping their powder dry to see how things shape up. The Conservative fall back will probably be to persuade the squeezed middle that Labour’s policies will mean higher taxes for them. Labour might do a Blair and say that they will adopt the government’s current spending plans except for some carefully chosen minor exceptions, and so reassure the better off middle. Of these I think the Conservatives will be the more credible, and combined with Mr Cameron’s politically well crafted policy on Europe, the party will do much better than people currently expect.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? They do not have a heartland in either left or right, but it is wrong to suggest, as Nick Clegg is prone to, that it has an ideological affinity to centrist voters, as the centre is not a coherent ideological group. The big problem for them is that they are very much on the government side of the economic debate, and will struggle to appeal to the squeezed middle, though banging on about raised income tax thresholds is meant to neutralise this. But the collateral damage that the Labour and Conservative party’s do to each other in the campaign could help them. They can try to develop the idea that centre voters are better off backing a centre party, which moderates the left or right through coalition, rather than trusting the main party ideologues to stick to their manifestos. So far though, that line of argument seems to be getting little traction.



Will the Dark Forces save the Tories and crush Ukip?

My advice to Ukip is to savour this moment. After being repeatedly being dismissed and written off, their performance in last week’s local elections was the story of the day. They took over a quarter of the vote where they had candidates, and that was in many more seats than before. They won well over 100 council seats. The commentariat are reeling, and were talking about little else over the weekend. As the dust settles somewhat, what are we to make of it?

The obvious comparison is with the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties in their two separate golden runs, in the 1980s with the rise of the SDP, and in the 1990s after the merged parties recovered from their near death experience. Those were golden moments for their supporters. But by and large they presaged disappointment in the subsequent general elections (though not in 1997). Many predict the same fate for Ukip. But their influence on British politics could be profound.

They are, of course, a very different party from the Lib Dems and their predecessors. The latter always had one foot in the political establishment, however much they were outsiders to government itself. Ukip are complete outiders; while they pick up the odd defector from the Conservative party, they are not high flyers – like Roy Jenkins or Shirley Williams were. Ukip are from the political right, and rebel against Politically Correct notions, where the Lib Dems were liberal and, if anything, more PC than the others. But both parties have a set of clear core values which can bind activists to the cause, and both have proved able to pick up a mid-term protest vote. Many voters feel badly served by established politicians, and want to kick them by voting for somebody else, when not much is at stake.

But the Lib Dems have been able to do more than this. They have built a big wedge of MPs and a solid presence in local government, which in turn has led them into coalition government at national level. Could Ukip do the same? We should put aside two common criticisms of the party. First is that it is a “one-trip pony”, obsessed with Britain’s membership of the European Union, an issue which doesn’t really engage the British electorate. The party has successfully branched out into capitalising on anti-immigrant feeling however, giving it a much broader policy appeal. Attacking immigration policies is a wonderful political tactic for opposition parties; the government can’t do that much in practice about it, and to the extent that they can, nasty consequences would flow. And they can add a few other goodies of more local appeal, like attacking wind farms. The second criticism is that they are too dependent on their leader, Nigel Farage, who is a bit of a media star. There may be some truth to this, but we must remember that it is of the nature of minor political parties that the media concentrate on just the personality of the leader. It was a common criticism of the Lib Dems that they were too dependent on whoever their leader was at the time. In fact strength and depth was being built from beneath. This could easily prove to be the case for Ukip too.

Ukip still has two deeper problems. First are its libertarian and socially conservative policy ideas. Worries about immigration and the EU can rally a broad spectrum of voters, but when you start wanting to dismantle the welfare state and cut taxes for the rich, you are backed into a minority. The second is linked, and it is that both their activists and voters are predominantly drawn from older people. Can such people put together hard hitting and disciplined ground war machines in the way the Lib Dems achieved?

And this leads to their main significance to British politics (this applies almost exclusively to England – but the implications apply to the whole country). To the extent that Ukip are able to capitalise on their current success, it will be at the expense of the Conservative Party’s core vote. Ukip are currently drawing voters from all over the place, but when it comes to activists and committed voters, this will surely mainly come from the Tories. Labour politicians fantasize that they will split the Tory vote, and let Labour into a majority, much as the SDP split the Labour vote and kept Mrs Thatcher in power for so long. Some Tories are suggesting some kind of electoral pact with Ukip to stop this from happening.

Behind all this I see the murky presence of what I call the “Dark Forces”. These are a collection of newspaper proprietors (Murdoch, the Barclays, Dacre and Desmond) and big party donors, who have a political agenda not dissimilar from Ukip’s. So far they have found Ukip a useful stick with which to beat the Conservatives. If Ukip do well, then it proves to them that their policies are vote-winners. But the one thing that unites the Dark Forces more than promoting their conservative-libertarian agenda is their hatred of Labour. If Ukip are posing a serious threat to the Tory majority in parliament that they crave, then they will turn on them.

There is plenty of time for this. The more the Conservatives are running scared, the more they will curry favour with the Dark Forces. There are signs of this already, with the Tories softening their stand on press reform. Ukip will be allowed a clear run up to next year’s local and European Parliament elections, where in the latter case they stand a good chance of being the top party. Then the worm will turn. The press will start stoking up fears about Labour’s plans to raise taxes (the truth never did stop the British press – Labour’s softer stand on austerity policies will give this line all the credibility it needs), and building up the Tories as the only people that can stop them. Will it work? It might. The press remains extremely powerful in the British media (the BBC seems completely cowed by them these days); I can’t see any obvious signs that the Labour leadership understands the danger.

The British political soap opera edges towards a gripping climax in 2015.


Will Labour let the Tories win the 2015 election?

Margaret Thatcher’s death on Monday has distracted attention at rather an interesting moment in British politics. There is a vigorous debate about how Labour should fight the next General Election, which should be in 2015 (one of the very few Lib Dem inspired constitutional changes to get through was one on fixed term parliaments). I have picked this up from two articles. First was an article by Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland last Saturday: Labour must draw the sting from welfare, or lose in 2015. Mr Freedland is nominally an independent journalist, but this article seemed to be very well coordinated with material coming out from the Labour leadership, including a TV interview with deputy leader Harriet Harman. It sounds their leader’s, Ed Miliband’s, party line. Then came former leader and prime minister Tony Blair in a widely reported article in New Statesman: Labour must search for answers and not merely aspire to be a repository for people’s anger. The link is to a summary, which is all I have read; the full article is in a special Centenary print issue. I don’t think either have identified the right strategy for 2015, though Mr Blair is closer.

Both writers attack a complacent view which seems quite popular in Labour circles, and which is often associated with another Guardian writer, Polly Toynbee (though not by either author, and possibly not fairly). This is that the Conservative led coalition is in a mess, having picked the wrong economic strategy, and heartlessly cut important parts of the British system, such as working age welfare. The Conservatives are very unpopular; public anger is raging. They even face a challenge from the far right, Ukip, which is causing panic and leading them to revive their reputation for being the nasty party. Meanwhile Labour have already dealt a mortal blow to their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, who face a private battle with oblivion in a few dozen constituencies across the country, and are reduced to irrelevance everywhere else. On this reading, all Labour have to do is to ride the anger and say as little as possible about what they would do in government, beyond the implicit or explicit promise to roll back the Tory cuts. The coalition parties will lose the election without Labour having to try very hard to win it.

But both authors suggest that the middle ground of British politics has shifted, to something much sourer than it was before the crisis. Before Mrs Thatcher’s death, the left had been stoking up the anger over the government’s welfare reforms, and especially some changes on housing benefit that they dubbed “the bedroom tax”. But into this maelstrom stepped the novelist A.N. Wilson and The Daily Mail who suggested that odious killer Mick Philpott was a product of the British benefit system, showing that cuts were needed. And then Chancellor George Osborne joined them, to apoplexy of the left. Labour’s anger is genuine, but it does not seem to be hurting the Conservatives. Opinion polls put Labour on about 40% to the Tories’ 30%. Add in more than 10% for Ukip and the right is level pegging with the left before the fight has really started. Labour are appealing to people who already vote for them, or who live in Northern urban constituencies where their votes are not needed.

The threat to Labour is quite clear, with a parallel in 1992, another election in difficult economic time. The weak economy is causing hardship across the board, and not just amongst those on benefits. If the economy picks up in the next two years, the government will get credit. If, as most people expect, things stay grim, then that sour mood will continue. People don’t buy the argument, popular amongst trade union leaders, that bit of extra government spending will stimulate the economy into a virtuous circle of growth. As in 1992 the Tories will claim that Labour’s plans to restore the cuts will simply make things worse by raising taxes. This will be very hard for Labour to fight if they follow the Polly Toynbee strategy, and they might lose rather than gain seats. A Lib Dem meltdown, predicted gleefully by Labour activists, will simply deliver a full working majority to David Cameron.

What to do? Mr Freedland suggests a programme of radical reforms to welfare, which will inspire the public with fresh thinking against Coalition incompetence. Ideas include moving towards the contributory principle for benefits (linking benefits more tightly to contributions, as many other European countries do), increased support for childcare, guaranteed jobs after a year of unemployment, and so on. These reforms will tackle the crisis of legitimacy that Mr Freedland highlights as the problem with the benefits system. This seemed to chime with what Ms Harman was saying on the television, and which I had read elsewhere from another Shadow Cabinet member.

What Mr Blair is suggesting is not clear, certainly from the article summary. He asks questions rather than provides answers. He does not seem to be going down the radical reform line, though. He suggests things like building more houses (in his case probably by building private sector houses on green belts), more computerisation of government services, and using DNA databases to tackle crime more effectively. Overall this is much closer to what the Coalition is already suggesting. On the economy, he does suggest industrial strategy, but not re-balancing. He even suggests rebuilding the finance sector. But then he does not accept that the British economy was more vulnerable than others to the financial crisis. More pleasing to liberals, he suggests challenging the right on Europe and immigration – though this can be read as justifying his policies when he was last in power.

Mr Freedland’s approach would be a serious mistake. If the Coalition has shown anything, it has shown just how difficult reform is, especially in hard economic times. All reforms create winners and losers. Politically the winners keep quiet, but the losers shout like mad. And reform ideas put together quickly tend to fall apart quickly. Any programe of radical welfare reform would fall apart under the full weight of attack, led by a press pack that still tends to set the political agenda. They will be portrayed as expensive and muddled; and any areas where savings are suggested will be attacked vigorously so that the losers’ voice is heard. It is simply too late to be radical. The country has reform fatigue. Remember the referendum on reforming the electoral system? An idea that seemed quite popular at first fell apart under concerted attack from the right.

Mr Blair is closer to the mark only because he seems to be less radical. But his central idea of trying to restore the reputation of the last Labour government is surely a dead letter. What Labour should be doing is learning from the way he secured a landslide at the 1997 election. He did this by signing up to 95% of the Conservative government’s policies, with a few carefully chosen and well publicised exceptions, while appearing more cohesive and inclusive than his opponents.

Likewise Mr Miliband needs to sign up to the bulk of the welfare reforms, with some token exceptions. Unfortunately reversing the “bedroom tax” would be a poor choice: the change only applies to social housing tenants, so private sector tenants either have to be included at great expense, or else they will protest as to why they are being left out. Personally I would would focus mainly on reducing the costs of childcare at the expense of some pensioner benefits – though the coalition parties might jump on this bandwagon.

But Labour needs to act now if he is to do something like this. The activists will hate it: so they need enough time for the fuss to die down, before they return to their visceral hatred of the Tories for motivation. But I don’t think Mr Miliband will go down that road, though.

David Cameron is not a particularly effective Prime Minister. But he is the most skilled politician amongst the party leaders. He has an excellent instinct for the political middle ground, and he is slowly but surely manoeuvring Labour into a cul-de-sac. Whether he will win a majority in the 2015 election is open to doubt: but I would bet good money on the Tories being the largest party.




Mrs Thatcher: the lightning conductor

Oh dear! The death of Margaret Thatcher yesterday has unleashed a flood of comment about how she transformed this or that. Mainly it is praise from the right (it’s everywhere and I can barely bear too read them, so I’ll only link to this one from the FT’s Janan Ganesh which manages to be reasonably objective). But the left do not want to be deprived of an opportunity to vent their precious hatred – like this absurd article from the Independent‘s Owen Jones. What she symbolises seems to be more important that her actual achievements.

When I first studied history (I did History Part 2 at Cambridge, graduating in 1979 just as Mrs Thatcher took office) the Marxist view of history was quite prevalent. This saw history as a sort of clash of tectonic plates (I also studied Geology at Cambridge…) formed by social classes or interests (“the forces of history”), which downplayed the contribution of individuals. If one person had not led such a change, it was held, then somebody else would. This was closely linked to the idea of historical inevitability, used by left wingers to predict their inevitable victory, and so contributing to their tactical ineptitude. The Marxists greatly overplayed their hand, but the fashion seems to have gone too much the other way. We associate the process of historical change too much with individual achievements. And none more so than with Mrs Thatcher (as she is no longer alive, I do not feel the need to use her title: she was always Mrs Thatcher to me).

The period when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK, 1979 to 1990, was one of quite dramatic transformation in both this country and the world. I remember the 1970s all too well. The British corporate settlement was in a state of collapse. In common with many democracies the country had been governed through a sort consensus of trade union bosses, managerial types and civil servants. Unfortunately the management leg of this arrangement was very weak: business leaders were more interested in undercutting each other than showing solidarity in the face of common challenges. In this the system contrasted with Germany and Japan who have used the corporate model much more successfully; and unlike in France, the state element had an anti leadership culture. With management and the state weak, trade unions ran rampant. Edward Heath’s government of 1970-1974 at first tried to work with the consensus, but the unions were too greedy – and he lost power in 1974. Though the public mainly agreed with him on the unions, they saw his government as incompetent, leading to an indecisive election result that Labour’s Harold Wilson skilfully exploited. The world economy was reeling from a massive rise in oil prices, which the government tried to treat as if it was a cyclical rather than structural problem with loose fiscal and monetary policy (following principles espoused in our current environment by Paul Krugman et al). Labour wrestled with the impossibility of trade union economics. The turning point came in 1976, when Britain had to go to the IMF for a bailout. Wilson had bowed out, and the messy job of fighting back fell to Jim Callaghan and his Chancellor, Dennis Healey. But the unions fought back, and the notion arose that the country was ungovernable. Enter Mrs Thatcher.

I voted for Mrs Thatcher in 1979, or rather I voted for Sir George Young in Ealing Acton, in support of the Conservatives. I was growing out of my cold war inspired distrust of Labour, but hated the messy process of fudge and compromise that was Mr Callaghan’s way (symbolised by such outrages as the Dock Labour Bill, which thankfully never got into law). Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies were a real shock: sky high interest rates, causing industrial collapse across swathes of the country. But who else had an answer to the simultaneous inflation and unemployment in which the economy had been stuck? But the style, if not the substance, grated and when the SDP was formed out of the wreckage of the Labour Party, I joined it.

Mrs Thatcher’s government swept away much nonsense: trade union power, nationalised energy and telecoms businesses, City restrictive practices, and so on. These acts of destruction were necessary for the British economy to thrive. On the left the Thatcher government takes the blame for the destruction of swathes of British industry, and the communities they supported. The emotion gets very high in the case of coal mines. And yet there is no modern economy that has not seen destruction of such jobs on a similar scale. Walk into a German factory and you will see lots of production, but few workers. Industrial technology has wiped out a whole category of seemingly safe industrial skilled and semi-skilled jobs that were the bedrock of the working class. After Mrs Thatcher, globalisation has continued the same process, but the main destruction comes from technology, not the export of jobs. And, for all the destruction of these jobs, the extra wealth generated by productivity improvements has spread across the whole of society, even if it has favoured the rich proportionately more. This is one reason why our current recession is inflicting less genuine hardship that previous ones.

The process of modernising the British economy was necessary and beneficial. And also, surely, inevitable. Without Mrs Thatcher the changes would have happened more slowly, perhaps. But they would still have been painful, and yes, “divisive”, to use the common word attributed a lot to Mrs Thatcher. But she did take the process of confrontation to extremes. Did this create more social harm that was necessary? We can’t know, though the admittedly smaller and more cohesive country of Sweden managed a very similar transition rather more successfully, I feel. But Mrs Thatcher was a hero to many Swedes.

A more serious criticism of the Thatcher government is that it did little to create sustainable jobs to replace the ones destroyed. The country launched forward on a twenty-odd year credit binge fuelled by North Sea oil. Just how hollow this was is now becoming clear, as the flow of oil slows. A severe devaluation of the pound has not done much to correct a severe imbalance of trade. But it is a little unfair to entirely lay this at the door of Mrs Thatcher, though. The imprints of Labour’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are just as firmly on this failure. And it is no so easy to see what should have been done about it.

And on the world stage? Mrs Thatcher’s most conspicuous triumph was taking on Argentina in the Falklands war. This one was about heroes I think, rather than the forces of history. It helped bring down a nasty dictatorship, and secured Britain a stronger international standing – though I am less clear about what good that led to. To suggest that she and Ronald Reagan’s confrontational attitude to the Soviet Union had much to do with its eventual collapse is nonsense: it needed no outside help to do that. And when it fell Mrs Thatcher was flat footed, failing to understand the implications of what was happening. Her contemporaries Helmut Köhl and George Bush (senior) were much more on the ball. Her reservations about a united Germany may have been well founded, but she had no solution.

Still she deserves credit for one important international development, beyond toppling the Argentine generals. She was instrumental in the launch of the single European market in the EU. This project was making little headway as Eurocrats pushed forward a hopeless programme of bureaucratic harmonisation. Mrs Thatcher, with the Commissioner she appointed, Lord Cockfield, turned this around giving a presumption to free trade. It was a classic synthesis British freewheeling pragmatism and the more bureaucratic and formal French approach. She may have felt with hindsight that the Single European Act that enshrined it in UK law went too far, but her vision of Europe as an open market was genuine enough, and she deserves credit for persuading her European colleagues of the idea’s merits.

Mrs Thatcher was a hugely conspicuous character on the British and world stage, both through her sex and her personal style. It is only natural that we project so many positive and negative feelings onto such a person, as a sort of lightning conductor. But many of the changes she wrought were the inevitable march of modernisation; and many of her achievements were undermined by tactical and strategic errors. She did more good than harm. Faint praise. She would not have liked that, but then she would not have like me.


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.


Eastleigh: a blow for the Westminster bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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