Tag Archives: George Osborne

To see the significance of IDS’s resignation we must look past the dead cat

My last post on the Budget took on the gorilla cliché. This time I want to talk about dead cats. What brings this on is the spectacular resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, popularly referred toas IDS, who had been the Work  and Pensions Secretary.

Is this a dead cat moment? The metaphor comes from election strategist Lynton Crosby, who guided the Conservatives to their spectacular election win last year. He suggested that if the news agenda goes awry, you should “throw a dead cat onto the table” to distract attention. The IDS episode has certainly done that. It has dominated the news for well over a day now, pushing out all other political stories from home and abroad.

In whose aid would the dead cat have been brought into play? That would have to be the Leave campaign in Britain’s EU referendum, and indeed much of the comment suggests that this issue lay behind the resignation. But Mr Duncan Smith says it is about the Budget, and how it juxtaposed tax for the wealthy with withdrawing allowances for the disabled.

But it is hard to see what the dead cat was meant to distract our attention from. The Budget was hardly a triumph, and was pretty neutral in the great EU debate. The Remain side wanted to claim a coup with regard to VAT on tampons, which has got tangled up in EU rules. But that’s small beer. Maybe the Remain campaign were plotting something. There is surely frustration about how easily the Leaves seem to be able to hijack the news agenda, but it was surely too early for a news coup. If it had been timed to coincide with President Obama’s future visit to the UK, then that would have been different.

Indeed Mr Duncan Smith is a particularly guileless politician. This lends him a certain charisma, which briefly took him to a disastrous period as Conservative leader, but his general lack of political and management skill is very evident.

Which leads me to think that he can be taken at face value this time, which is what Observer commentator Andrew Rawnsley suggests in what looks like an authoritative analysis. The referendum has created the general context of tension, but Mr Duncan Smith and George Osborne, the Chancellor, have been at loggerheads for many years. Mr Osborne tweaked his tail once too often.

Which means that much of the chatter about the episode being linked to the referendum is misplaced. It is very hard to know what its impact will be on that campaign. It’s effect on two other issues may be more significant.

The first is the fate of IDS’s pet project: Universal Credit (UC). This aims to replace a complex system of tax credits and benefits with a single scheme that is linked to income levels in such a way that incentives to work are not destroyed. This idea has wide political support, and it is the a centre piece of the government’s benefit reform narrative. But it is technically difficult to do because it depends on near real time data on income levels. This, incidentally, is the opposite approach to that taken by the Treasury, which prefers to focus its data gathering on a small number of better off people, rather than tangling with the sometimes chaotic lives of the less well off.

The technical challenges mean that the roll-out of UC is a long way behind schedule. It had really only been sustained by Mr Duncan Smith’s political capital. Now that is gone, surely the project will collapse? That will be a victory for the Treasury, but it will leave a hole in the heart of government policy. What will the government do next?

But there is a bigger issue for the government than even that. In my last post I pointed about how hard it will be for the government to force through further cuts in public spending, leaving the government’s financial plans dependent on a sudden, and unlikely, spurt of old-fashioned productivity (as opposed to the new-fangled sort that will leave tax revenues untouched). The government has a small majority. It needs political will, discipline and cohesion to push its fiscal plans through without breaking promises on tax. Mr Duncan Smith had shown that solidarity until now. The Conservatives will have to find a way to rebuild it after the referendum, probably under a new leader. That is now more difficult than ever.

Who might that new leader be. Mr Osborne looks to divisive. The London Mayor Boris Johnson probably lacks support within the parliamentary party, and has a credibility problem. He’ll lead the polls under the going gets serious. I would not rule out that dark horse: Theresa May.

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Tax is the Budget gorilla

As a rule I hate clichés. I cringe whenever I hear about a “perfect storm”. But I have a soft spot for the gorilla in the room, who is sometimes an elephant. The huge thing, obvious to everybody, but which it is impolite to talk about. In responding to Britain’s annual (OK, twice yearly) Budget I’m looking at one of them.

Britain’s Budgets are political theatre staged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as our senior finance minister is known, annually, or whenever there is new government. There is also an Autumn Statement, which amounts nearly to the same thing. The whole exercise is a process of heavily manipulated speculation in advance, followed by a tumble of instant reaction. All this shows how news is the enemy of information. By the time facts are known, contextualised and properly analysed the news media have long since moved on. People who try to be a bit more serious, like me, are torn. By joining the circus of speculation and premature response we get more readers and more reaction. But this is often at the cost of saying anything that is worth saying. My compromise is not to respond until after I have read the reactions the morning after.

The Budget process seems particularly farcical at the moment. The government is trying to set out its plans over a five year period, and in particular over the five years of a parliament, which in both cases means up to 2020 at the moment. This means they depend on five year projections of the economy. These projections are produced independently of the Treasury by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR). Without the smoothing hand of political manipulation, the five year outlook is highly volatile. Last Autumn the OBR “found” £27 billion; a mere six months later they had “lost” £56 billion. I can’t offer much help about what is going on here, except to point out that economic forecasting is a dodgy business, and this sort of volatility simply shows the absence of manipulation. It is no basis upon which to carry out serious economic planning. And yet the government says that it is doing just that. Last Autumn it used the £27 billion windfall to relax its fiscal plans. This time it was forced to tighten up a little, plus deploy a few accounting tricks to pretend that it is on course to meet tis five year target to move the budget into surplus, even as interim targets fall by the wayside.

But nobody is convinced, and nobody cares. It is far too early to worry about 2020, with so many unknowns. The critical thing is the next year, and nobody disagrees much with the overall thrust of George Osborne’s strategy. The muddle is particularly noticeable on the left. They are trying to capitalise on the fact that the government is missing its short-term austerity targets, while at the same time condemning austerity. Since 2010, the government has taken a pragmatic, Keynesian stance to fiscal policy, while pretending that it is being austere.  This means that the country’s fiscal deficit and levels of public debt are higher than pretty much any other major developed economy apart from Japan, having started the crisis in a much stronger position. That this has still meant dramatic cuts to public spending shows just how out of control the government finances had become under the previous government, as it pursued the illusory goal of Scandinavian public spending backed by US taxes. The left are still in denial about this.

So what did Mr Osborne do? Not much. There were promised tax cuts on personal allowances and higher rate thresholds. He failed to increase tax on petrol, even after petrol prices have fallen so far. There were cuts to company taxes and capital gains. I don’t approve of much of this, though many liberals do. But the impact will not be huge. He stepped up the ratchet on public spending, without being too specific, but pushing the hard decisions way into the future in the hope, no doubt, that the economy will come to the rescue. There were gimmicks and irrelevances aplenty, like a sugar tax, and pushing schools towards academy status, which I comment on in another post.

But here’s the problem. Constraining, never mind cutting, public spending is getting harder. Benefit cuts are causing anguish that even Conservative MPs feel; the ambitious idea for Universal Credit could yet collapse amid its technical problems. The attempt to drive efficiency savings in the NHS through ratcheting up financial pressure annually, a policy that predates 2010, has now collapsed. Hopes that the NHS can achieve substantial savings through re-engineering are vanishing. The ugly behemoth is unmanageable, and the reforms made by the Coalition aren’t helping. Outsourcing bits of it will not help. Meanwhile demand continues to rise. The government’s bid to reform schools finance requires a lot of extra money to placate the losers if it is not going to run into big problems. Social care is in crisis. Attempts to curb the defence budget have collapsed.

Behind this can be spied a strategic problem. Or, rather, two. The first is a growing proportion of older people, with an added demand for public pensions, and health and social care support, while dropping out of the tax base. The second is that the benefits of a modern economy are increasingly going to the richest, leaving many behind without adequate savings, and putting pressure on the social security safety net. Rising property prices are exacerbating this, burdening many younger people with huge rents and no prospect of joining the property bonanza. I could add a number of further issues which suggest that the days of easy economic growth are over.

So demand for public services is rising, but the tax base is shrinking, or at least stagnating. There is a substantial current account deficit, which limits the scope for creative government finance (like “people’s QE) we need lots of foreign currency to buy the all those foreign goods we depend on. There is really only one way out. Taxes will have to go up, and not just on the richest. That means the sacred trio of income tax, national insurance and VAT. But nobody talks about this. Not even the opposition parties.

And that is the gorilla.

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Osborne uses an accounting trick to implement People’s QE

When Jeremy Corbyn, was running his successful campaign for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, he floated the idea of “People’s QE”. “QE” stands for Quantitative Easing, the means by which central banks try to loosen monetary policy in an economy without reducing interest rates – handy when interest rates are near zero. It attracted quite a bit of attention from economists, much of it quite approving. That is because the idea touches on one of the most important aspects of modern economic policy: the suggestion that governments can sustain quite big deficits simply by “printing” money. In the end we find, not for the first time, that the current Conservative government acts much further to the political left than it talks, as did its Conservative-Liberal Democrat predecessor.

Back in the 1980s, when monetary policy first became the height of fashion, we had uncomplicated views about what it was about. Although most money was in bank accounts, economists painted a picture as though it was all in notes and coins, and the various actors behaved as if they were kids spending pocket money (and even then was probably too simplistic…). They talked of a “money supply”, which could be manipulated, and the size of which affected spending behaviour. We are older and wiser now, though many economists and journalists still talk about “printing money”, even though physical money has almost no role to play, and bank accounts are different in very important ways. Even trained economists who should know better sometimes trip themselves up in this way. For example there is much excited talk about how commercial banks create money rather than the central bank – which turns out to be a red herring on reflection [That link from Paul Krugman includes a broken link to a masterful essay from James Tobin in 1963, read it here]. It is better to look on monetary policy as a series of policy instruments under the control of the central bank, which have not entirely knowable effects on the economy at large.

The most important of these instruments is the short-term interest rate the central bank charges to commercial banks in their interactions with it. These ripple right through the economy. But when they are very low, as they are now in the UK, it is very hard to lower them further. Some European banks are using negative interest rates without the sky having fallen in, but these negative rates aren’t very high – fractions of a percentage point. So how to “loosen” policy – that is encourage a greater level of economic activity? Here the invention of QE comes in, pioneered, as so much of modern policy, by Japan in the 1990s and early 2000s. This is often talked of as if it means printing physical money and handing it out to the kids to spend on sweeties. What it actually means is that the central bank goes into the market and buys bonds, usually government bonds, like British gilts.

How does that help? Well the people who held the bonds now hold cash instead, which they should spend on something else – which might include new capital investment, after it has changed hands a few times. And it might reduce bond yields, which will reduce long term interest rates right across the economy, and increase asset prices. This creates a “wealth effect” that might encourage the mass affluent to spend a bit more money on stuff that people make. Or all that could happen is that there is a merry-go-round of money chasing various flavours of pre-existing asset to create an asset price bubble. It’s not very clear what has happened to the Bank of England’s QE over the years. The bank produces various statistical associations as evidence that it has helped stimulate the wider economy. Others are sceptical.

Which is where People’s QE comes in. What if, instead of buying government bonds in the market, the money went into extra government spending, such as infrastructure investment, or even current spending. Because the Bank controls the currency in the UK, it can fund the government’s deficit without the need to borrow money from investors. It borrows money from itself. This amounts to supporting looser fiscal policy (i.e. government tax and spend), which should provide a more predictable stimulus to the wider economy.

Mr Corbyn’s advisers developed the idea with the suggestion of administrative structures to channel the extra money into infrastructural investment. This puzzled some economists. There is no need for such engineering. All the government has to do is spend the money, increasing its deficit, issue bonds as normal, which the Bank of England then buys in the existing QE programme. If the Bank is buying bonds, the government is less beholden to the bond markets. In Japan, which has been practising QE on a massive scale, the government now issues little net debt to the bond markets, making large deficits sustainable.

But how does this work? Surely it is something for nothing? The answer to that is that it only works if there is slack in the economy, and the government steps in to create demand because businesses are investing less than the public is saving, creating an imbalance. If this is not the case, you can get inflation, which is what happened to Germany and Austria in the 1920s, Zimbabwe more recently, and is happening in Argentina now. Alternatively you get a asset price bubble. Which in the modern, globalised financial and trading system is in fact more likely for developed economies – though this seems to be a blind spot for many economists, who think that asset markets are too efficient for that.

But in the developed economies, including the US, the Eurozone and Japan, as well as the UK, there does seem to be scope to do this kind of stimulus. There is a lack of business investment, while, it appears, too much money ends up in the hands of rich people, who don’t spend it. Nobody knows how long-term this problem is, but it does look as if large government deficits are much easier to sustain than before. If the bond markets refuse to fund all of the deficit, then central banks can simply “print the money” as the popularisers would put it. Prominent British economist (Lord) Adair Turner (whom I am something of a fan of) suggested that this could be a long term policy in a recent book.

In Britain there is an accounting wrinkle which is having an important impact. The Bank buys government bonds, but it holds them rather than cancelling them, so that it can sell them should it want to tighten policy. So the government still pays interest on the gilts the Bank holds, and this used to count towards the publicly declared deficit. But the Coalition government changed the rules, so that it does not count the interest on the Bank’s holdings against the deficit. That reduces the fiscal deficit and allows the government to spend money on other things instead. Also the effects of QE on longer term gilt yields reduces the deficit projected by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which plays such a pivotal role in longer term government spending plans. According to the FT’s Chris Giles £22.4bn of the £27bn that the Chancellor, George Osborne, “found” to allow him to loosen austerity measures in the Autumn Statement resulted from these accounting tricks. This boils down to People’s QE, and Mr Osborne used it to fund his U-turn on tax credit cuts, amongst other things.

The problem, as Mr Giles points out, is what happens when the Bank feels the need to tighten policy in, say, a year or two’s time? Then the whole thing goes into reverse. Politicians have seen gain in blurring the distinction between fiscal and monetary policy. That could return to haunt them, at both ends of the political spectrum.

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The Autumn Statement shows the conflict of short and long term Tory priorities

George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered his Autumn Statement yesterday. This is a very British piece of political theatre, delivered by somebody with a very theatrically British job title, that adds up to “Finance Minister”. In the statement Mr Osborne announced financial plans for the next five years of the Conservative government. It is a set-piece event designed to score political points and attract good publicity. The dust has not had time to settle, but some important issues are clear.

The main headlines were these: the government dropped the central part of its plans to reduce tax credits to top up the incomes of people working on low pay. It also withdrew plans to cut police budgets. Various other goodies were doled out; schools had their budget protected in real rather than nominal terms; there was more money for the NHS, and various investment projects. This was all part of a familiar game of managing expectations, which Mr Osborne now handles with competence. The reversal on police cuts was particularly well managed. The short-term politics has worked very well for the government, helped by the Labour opposition spokesman John McDonnell’s misjudged stunt using Chairman Mao’s Red Book.

But let’s step back a bit.  The first point to make is that this exercise is one of completely false precision. The justification for a greatly reduced level of cuts to departmental spending (according to the FT’s Martin Wolf, from £41.9bn in pre-election March, to £15.6bn in post-election July to £7bn now) was a £27bn reduction in 2020’s projected borrowing. This £27bn figure is widely reported in the media, but it is nearly meaningless. It is based on economic forecasts which have almost no chance of being fulfilled – though at least they are produced independently by the Office for Budget Responsibility. That £27bn can appear out of nowhere in four months simply reflects this imprecision; it can disappear just as quickly. Personally I feel that the projection of a steady 2% plus of GDP growth, which underlies this forecast, is most unlikely to be fulfilled; it is an artefact of a deeply flawed process of economic modelling that still has a grip on conventional economics, because nobody has found a substitute.

So this needs to be taken in a broader strategic context. The government has two stated economic aims for the medium term. The first is that the state should run a surplus in the middle of the business cycle; the second is that overall government spending should be cut to about 37% of national income- low by postwar standards. Both are entirely arbitrary. There is a good case for a government deficit to fund investment, especially if the private sector is reluctant to invest its profits, which has been the story of the 21st Century so far. There is no convincing evidence that I know of to suggest that a lower level of government expenditure is more economically efficient.

But all this makes more sense if you think about the politics rather than the economics. And here the Statement was balancing long and short term aims. The long term aim is to crush an ecosystem of political bureaucrats in central and local government, and a range of agencies, consultancies and NGOs that hover around them. This is the principal power base of the Labour Party, and flourished mightily under the patronage of Mr Osborne’s predecessor but one, Gordon Brown. What is set to replace it is series of soulless, hollowed out agencies that are as easy to deal with as modern big businesses like phone companies (BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, etc) that are unable to manage complexity, so try to deny that it exists. The government’s new Universal Credit system is shaping up to be just such a nightmare. I see both sides of the argument here. I hate the old Labour bureaucracy and its hangers on with a passion, and I am not sorry to see it being dismantled (though a lot of excellent professional services are going too). But its hollowed out replacement lacks credibility, and at will be a partial solution at best.

The difficulties with this Conservative dystopia are apparent in the short-term politics. Welfare, security, health, education and social care are proving politically highly resistant, and hence the retreats evident in Mr Osborne’s statement. The Conservative fight to crush the opposition Labour and Lib Dems is going very well. But this is in large part due to Labour’s ineptitude. What if it woke up and led a serious fightback?.

The Conservatives’ drive to cut government budgets leaves them politically exposed. They stand a real chance of shutting Labour out of power for generations, but only if they secure the votes the working class and and the less secure middle classes. The changes to tax credits would have made these voters very angry. Mr Osborne’s U-turn is unsurprising – but leaves the question of how he managed to get into the mess in the first place. Meanwhile added demands of an ageing population on health and social care services is a challenge that will not go away. The extra funds found for these are unlikely to be equal to the challenge.  And the problem of an economy polarising between low and high wages, while housing costs are escalating, is placing huge stress on welfare.

The hollowing out of the state at both national and local levels will continue apace. But a weaker than expected economy, and mounting pressure on health and social care services are likely to break Mr Osborne’s plans eventually. Whether the political opposition, outside Scotland, will be in any shape to exploit this situation remains open to doubt, however.

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Saving tax credits means raising taxes. I’m OK about that.

The current political storm over the British government’s proposed scaling back of tax credits is not showing politics at its best. On one side a cynical Conservative government is pushing through changes will make the poor poorer and reduce social mobility. On the other we have opposition grandstanding that has no interest in suggesting alternatives. I despair.

First of all, what is the fuss about? Tax credits were introduced by the Labour government in 2003. They are a way of providing means tested benefits to those already in work, but on low incomes, and especially those with children. They are designed to taper off as income grows, so that claimants will always benefit from any increase in earned income. They are copied from a US idea, but they have been Britannicised so that they can operate within the country’s system of taxation at source, PAYE. In America claims are made at the end of the tax year when tax returns are filed; the UK use a monthly system.

Originally the problem with tax credits was the operation of the monthly calculations. Inevitably the information they used was often out of date, and so many claimants were faced with clawback claims, for which they were not prepared. We hear much less of this these days. Nowadays the problem is the cost. Claims about this vary, but it was always expensive, and, with low paid jobs multiplying, it has grown sharply. And yet they are well targeted to those most in need, especially families. They do not penalise work, so many means-tested benefits do, while costing much less than universal benefits.

During the coalition years of 2010 to 2015 the government trimmed back tax credits, in particular they tapered off the withdrawal more sharply. Previously incomes up to around £40,000 (from memory – this figure may well be incorrect) could claim something, but this has been reduced. Now the government proposes to reduce tax credits even more harshly, and especially for larger families. It estimates that the savings will be between £4bn and £5bn. That will cause real hardship for many families that include working people. In fact, the very “hard-working families” that we got so sick of hearing about from politicians at this May’s election. The cuts will also be a setback for attempts to give children from poor families a better start, and so reduce inequality.

For all that there is a certain honesty about the plan from the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne. The government’s financial deficit is running at about 5%, far higher than it should at this stage in the economic cycle. During the election the Conservatives made it very clear that they wanted to balance the budget. They also made it clear that they would do so by making cuts to benefits. They were very coy about where these cuts would fall, and even suggested that child tax credits might not be affected – but there really is no other way to make their plans work. This is what politicians do in a democracy: vaguely promise “tough” measures before an election; implement them soon after, and hope the fuss has blown over by the time the next election comes around. A lot of publicity has been attracted by a Conservative voter saying that she felt very let down – but I’m afraid that’s political naivety. If the issue was that important to her, she should have voted for somebody else.

The government are honest, by the standards we have to apply to politicians (no truly honest politician would get elected), but misguided. But a lot of the opposition is a nonsense. It amounts to no more than a collective yelp of pain, and wishes for the government to “reconsider” without offering any kind of escape route. This is particularly annoying from Conservative MPs. They offer no alternative. The various mitigations proposed, such as raising the minimum wage, or tax thresholds, are badly targeted and won’t help much. Tax credits are the most efficient way of doing what they do. Any change is going to make things worse. There is no clever wheeze that will make the problem go away.

The opposition parties: Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems are at least a little more honest than the Tory moaners. Labour initially got itself into a tangle, but soon put that right. I personally dislike the way these parties (and especially Labour) treat the status quo as a sacred thing to be “defended”, and any change that makes people worse off as tantamount to robbery. It’s still somebody else’s money. If systems of benefits, or public services, aren’t doing what they are supposed to, they should be changed, even it makes some people worse off. Still, that’s what politicians do. And in this case I think they are right. There is so much evidence that poverty in early life ruins chances later, which is why benefits focusing on families are a good idea. The system could be improved, no doubt, but not in a way that makes it any less expensive.

But these parties still should be clearer on what they think the government should do instead. All three of those parties have said they want the fiscal deficit reduced. They make an exception for capital spending – but tax credits is patently not that. Neither are they advocating cuts anywhere else (with exception of nuclear weapons systems, in some cases, but they usually want to increase spending on conventional forces instead).

Neither is it realistic to appeal to economic growth. This is not something that can be turned on and off like a tap by politicians. If it was the Conservatives would have that tap in the “on ” position already. Keynesian stimulus, which may have been relevant in 2010-2012, does not apply at this point in the economic cycle.

The only way to convincingly square the circle is to raise taxes. Of course the far left think they have the answer here: to crack down on tax avoidance and evasion, and to reform corporate taxes. Closer examination reveals these ideas to be chimerical. That still leaves the idea of taxing the rich harder. But the rich are slippery. There are still some things that can be done: taxing land, in particular, and tightening inheritance tax, rather than loosening it, as the Conservatives are doing. I wouldn’t bet on these ideas yielding much new money quickly though.

To have real credibility in “defending” tax credits, the NHS, local government spending, the police, or any other aspect of expenditure, politicians will not carry conviction unless they are prepared to raise one or more of the big three taxes: Income Tax, National Insurance, or VAT. Alas on this all parties are silent.

But such is the importance of tax credits to me, that I would indeed support the raising of one of the big three to keep them in being at current levels. I just wish the governments’ critics would say so too, and so start some real debate about the country’s fiscal priorities.

 

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David Cameron: master of the middle ground

After diverting my readers with the fringe entertainment of the Labour Party, and the even more eccentric fringe of the Liberal Democrats, it’s time to look at the politics that really matters: Britain’s Conservative Party. They had their annual conference last week, and this gives us some idea of what to expect in the next five years.

The speed with which the Tories, led by David Cameron, have assumed the ascendency in British politics is astonishing. Not six months ago I, along with many others, thought that they would be unable to win the General Election in May, and that they were so toxic to the other parties that they would have difficulty in forming a new government. But they succeeded in securing a narrow but decisive victory. I had failed to understand how England’s centrist voters regarded the political scene, and how cleverly the Conservatives were able to exploit those voters’ anxieties.

And as if that result wasn’t good enough for the Tories, the subsequent left-wing takeover of the Labour Party has removed the principal opposition party from the field for the time being. The Labour leadership’s priority seems to be to consolidate the left’s power in the party, rather than take on the Tories.  Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have been crushed, and even Ukip, the Tory’s rivals to the right, look like a busted flush. Only the SNP look in fighting form, and they are confined to Scotland, which is of minimal electoral importance to the Tories. The next General Election is due in 2020, and at present nobody can see that it can produce anything other than another Tory victory, and quite possibly a landslide.

How the Conservatives take things from here is therefore the most important question in British politics. The first thing to note is that the position of its leader, David Cameron, looks secure. The vultures were circling for his expected failure in May, so his triumph is a very personal one. And he has earned his strong position. He has a powerful instinct for the middle ground in English politics (which extends to much of Wales too, though he seems to have little grasp of Scotland’s politics). What he understood in a way Labour politicians did not is that this middle ground, the floating voters who decide elections, had not moved to the left, as it was fashionable to suggest. These voters accept much of the economic conventional wisdom that the left dismisses as “neoliberal”. They do not want higher taxes; they think that the previous Labour government spent too much on benefits and public services; and above all they fear the loss of private sector jobs that might arise from a new economic crisis. These are concerns that Labour failed to address, because, as we now see, much of its core support disagreed. Middle ground voters in England became so afraid of the consequences of a Labour government (and especially one dependent on the SNP), that they happily ditched the Lib Dems, who were also trying to pitch for their votes.

But Mr Cameron understands other things about these middle ground voters, which make both Labour and Lib Dem politicians uncomfortable. They are suspicious of the European Union, but open to pragmatic arguments for staying in. They are nervous about immigration, especially (whisper it) of those from Islamic countries. But they also don’t want to be racist. Mr Cameron treads this ground with skill.

What the conference made clear was Mr Cameron’s strategy for his party, shared by his chief ally, the Chancellor George Osborne. He plans to set up a fortress in the centre ground, much as the Labour leader Tony Blair did for his party, to secure its hegemony over British politics. He will continue to push through his largely neoliberal economic policy, and in particular a dramatic rolling back of tax credits. They hope to reduce the overall cost of the state to a historically low level, by making further cuts – though trying to preserve the beloved National Health Service. Within this overall framework Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne want to tackle three important issues: the European Union; the economic weakness of northern England; and the country’s overheated housing market.

On the EU, Mr Cameron aims to “renegotiate” Britain’s terms, and then present the country with an in-out referendum. This is a bold enterprise, not least because his party cares deeply about it, and mainly disagrees with him. It could profoundly change the party he leads; it could even destroy it. Losing the referendum (i.e. taking the country out of the EU) would cause his whole project to unravel.

On the north, the duo’s approach is to devolve and invest. This will be very interesting to observe – their approach is surely sounder than previous attempts to address the issue. They hope that it will revive the party’s fortunes in the north, much as Mr Blair revived Labour’s in the south (ground that Labour has now lost).

On housing Mr Cameron seems to be surrendering to the conventional economic wisdom – that is a simple game of numbers, and that setting targets for new homes, and taking a firm hand on planning delays, will help ease the crisis and make home ownership more widely available. Social housing plays no role in their thinking; neither is there a recognition of the pernicious role of cheap finance. Few feel that their strategy has sound foundations. Housing looks like something of a Tory blind spot – they draw too much support from owners of homes who enjoy the sky-high prices. They may yet surprise us though.

The biggest problem with Mr Cameron’s plan to establish Tory hegemony is his wish to step down as party leader and Prime Minister before the close of the parliament. None of his possible successors has his touch. Mr Osborne is a better strategist, but the public will find it harder to trust him. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is playing to the party’s right, endangering her centre-ground credentials as she does so. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, has flair but lacks depth. A messy transfer of power could easily upset the project.

Two other hazards await, just to deal with the known unknowns. The first is Scotland. The SNP’s dominance remains unchallenged. Mr Cameron has not played his cards well here, with a particularly foolish bid for “English votes for English Laws” made too hastily of last year’s independence referendum.  He does not like to fiddle with the British constitution, and yet some kind of federal settlement, involving much such fiddling, looks to be the only way to seize the initiative. If the SNP were to secure a second referendum and win it, it would be catastrophic for the Tories – who set much prestige on the union, even though it actually makes life harder for them politcally. Just fighting them off could be a massive distraction.

The second hazard is the economy. All looks well for now, and yet the growing problems in “emerging” economies threaten the developed world’s financial system. This could cause a new financial blow-up just as the US sub-prime market did in 2007 and 2008. That could dent the government’s reputation for economic competence, which is core to its appeal.

But such is the weakness of Britain’s opposition parties, that it is hard to believe that even these troubles could stop the Tories. But things can change quickly in politics.

And this demonstrates a political truth that all should ponder. Political success requires both a strong core vote and an appeal to middle ground voters. It is a hard conjuring trick. Labour failed to, or were unable to, understand and appeal to the middle ground. The Lib Dems failed to develop and retain a core vote. Mr Cameron has pulled off this trick for the Tories. He successor may fail. And that would make British politics very turbulent indeed.

 

 

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The political isolation of Britain’s working class: liberals should reach out

Conservative Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget last week, his first without the need to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats, was widely hailed as a feat of political brilliance. It has put the opposition Labour Party into disarray. At its centre was a direct attack on Britain’s working poor. Nothing could demonstrate that group’s political weakness better.

Part of the political acuity was the spread of confusion over where the budget pain was to be felt. Mr Osborne, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had earlier set out their intention of wooing working class voters to their party. Huge cuts to tax credits, the Budget’s centrepiece, were camouflaged by rises to the minimum wage, to be renamed “living wage”, by more than even Labour had been proposing before the election.

Britain’s tax credit system was implemented by Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown. It is designed to top up the wages of those not earning enough to meet basic needs, in particular the costs of bringing up children.  Various arguments were used to justify this. It was said that companies were paying workers less because they were anticipating the effect of tax credits. The system was created by Labour so as to create a bank of dependent voters. Aspersions were cast on claimants as being shirkers, or feckless, especially poorer people who dare to have larger families (one proposal is to stop support for children after the second). It would be better to pay people more, and to tax them less, than to hand out state aid.

None of this really bears up to scrutiny. The minimum wage and higher tax thresholds are pinpricks on the wider problem for low pay. There was no sign that the public sector, for example, was going to be any more generous in its treatment of lower paid workers, many of which it pays for, directly or indirectly (through outsourcing contracts). Academic research does not support the idea that tax credits lead to lower pay – or at least, not by much. Claimants for tax credits are already working; they are very clearly not part of the army of shirkers, who, so far as they actually exist, claim direct state benefits. With an ageing population it is far from clear that the country needs fewer children with working parents – and poverty can adversely affect the progress of those children, reducing their chances of playing a full and active part in the economy.

This was nicely illustrated the Economist’s Bagehot column this week. He (Jeremy Cliffe) visited a local estate in south London (not all that far from where I live, as it happens), and talked to some of Mr Osborne’s proposed victims. He found a number of working women, with a diverse range of heritages, facing up to a difficult predicament with dignity. At the school where I am governor, such families demand increasing levels of support if their children are to keep pace with those from more fortunate families. We are lucky that the proportion of such families is manageable: but their needs will grow; our funding will not.

What our society is confronting is one of the most important issues it faces. It is the disappearance of mid-level blue and white collar jobs, and their replacement by less secure and less well-paid ones. These new jobs are overwhelmingly in service industries – carers, cleaners, call centre operatives, security guards, and so on.  This change is overwhelmingly due to new technology – but it has been helped along the way by globalisation. These new jobs often do not pay enough to allow their workers to fully participate in society – especially if they have children.

But it is not at all clear what the solution is. Two traditional answers do not look promising. The first is to improve productivity. And yet in these jobs it hard to see how this can be done without increasing general alienation. In any economy some jobs lend themselves to advances in productivity (think factories) and other don’t (think hairdressers). As the former become more productive, the proportion of workers in the second group increases. This is a phenomenon known as “Baumol’s disease” by economists – and it is a large part of what is going on here. The economy is stratifying between a small number of highly productive jobs, and a large number of relatively unproductive ones.  The former can lift up general levels of pay for everybody – but only so far. Improving productivity may simply help an elite of better off workers, without doing much for everybody else.

The second traditional answer is to increase job protection to improve the bargaining power of those in poorly paid jobs. This is the route favoured in such countries as France. It tends to lead to either or both of two things: higher unemployment or a growing army of temporary workers with fewer rights.

We are left with three routes that look inadequate, but must still be pursued. The first is redistribution through tax, benefits and freely available public services. Our tax credit system is a key element of this. The fact that its cost has escalated well beyond the scale originally envisaged simply shows that the problem it is trying to fix has grown. The answer is as surely to be higher taxes and not reduced benefits. The second route is universal education, and initiatives to ensure that children from poorer backgrounds get more support. This gives more people access to better paid jobs, and makes the job market less easy to stratify. Progress has been made on this, but it remains under pressure from lack of finance. The reduction of tax credits associated with children will be a step in the wrong direction.

And third is the strengthening of local communities and local economies. This may not make the economy much more productive in the traditional economic sense of creating more goods and services to consume, but it serves to humanise society and to tackle the exclusion that is the biggest cost of poverty. Tax credits have no role to play in this. They are a giant, soulless centralised system controlled by rules made by bureaucrats and politicians far, far away. They only help by improving incentives to work, and participate in communities that way, rather than dependency on straight benefits – which is corrosive of communities. But nothing the current government is doing, or the political elite is thinking about, is advancing this third, important approach. It does not follow from grand initiatives that make big political careers.

And the sad thing is to see how politically marginalised the modern working class has become. Our old picture is of white men, working in factories and belonging to unions. But this strata of working class is disappearing. Instead we have a growing army of male and female workers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They are not unionised, and split into multiple communities. They often do not vote. The Labour Party, the traditional sponsors of the working classes, is now more interested in chasing their more engaged and better off cousins in what is left of the traditional working classes and in the middle classes (“Middle England” as I have called it). Middle England is not very sympathetic to the plight of the new working class. This has weakened the party’s opposition to Mr Osborne’s budget – though thankfully three of the four prospective leaders see that their stop-gap leader Harriet Harman has gone too far in suggesting that Labour will not oppose the cuts to tax credits.

Liberals, I believe, must stand firm behind tax credits, accepting tax rises to support them if need be. We should also support education policies to ensure the full participation of children from poorer families. But the real hope lies in reinvigorating local communities. We should remember that this is not just a middle class thing. The Liberal Democrats in particular have been forced back into a middle class ghetto, and I suspect that many find this a comfortable, if small, place to be. But the real need for liberal solutions is amongst the country’s new working class, and that is an important area for outreach, based on community politics.

 

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Britain’s politicians scrabble over a weak economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Polly Toynbee is right – we need more honest debate on tax and spend

I don’t approve of Polly Toynbee. She’s so deep in the Guardian bunker that she rarely has anything useful to say. She writes polemic that will entertain the left, but not persuade anybody else . So I wasn’t expecting much from her article last week Economic dishonesty is the deadliest deficit of all. I was expecting her to repeat the Labour myth that the economic crisis was somebody else’s fault, and that austerity policies have strangled the British economy. But she was making a point of value. It was that the Conservatives and Labour have very different views of the future government finance – but they were both concealing their differences.  The Conservatives do not want to spell out the implications on services and benefits; Labour do not want to look irresponsible, or to be painted as the party of high taxes.

She wrote her article before the Autumn Statement delivered by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Ms Toynbee should be pleasantly surprised at how things turned out, though I doubt that she is. The British government’s future policies on taxation and public expenditure have taken centre stage, and important differences have emerged between the political parties.

It started with some rather excitable coverage on the BBC Radio Today programme, which pointed out that Tory party plans for future spending would take it back to being the lowest proportion of national income since the 1930s. The bare statistics were factual (inasmuch as future projections can be described as factual) – but a comparison with the 1930s is farcical. National income is incomparably bigger than then – so a similar ratio of spending to income will not produce destitution that is in any way comparable. For similar reasons, the economic crash of 2008-09 is no way comparable to that of the 1930s, in spite of some of the ratios to national income being similar. Mr Osborne rather publicly objected to the coverage, drawing attention to the whole issue. Up to that point Ms Toynbee’s forecast seemed to be coming true.

In turns out that though Labour and the Conservatives are aiming at the same date to eliminate the structural deficit in British spending (i.e. cyclically adjusted spending less taxes), beyond that the difference between Labour’s spending plans and the Conservatives’ is as high as £27bn per annum. Differences on this scale are significant.

The next act in this drama was an attack by Mr Osborne on his Liberal Democrat coalition partners that they had lost the plot on economic policy because their plans were closer to Labour’s than the Conservatives. Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, made a robust response about the impossibility of Conservative spending plans. Ms Toynbee, in typical Guardian bunker style, had painted the Lib Dems as indistinguishable from the Tories, so she would have been less than pleased about this – but not too upset since she no doubt thinks that the Lib Dems are a political irrelevance these days.

It is to be hoped that these spats are the beginning of a serious political debate. Up until now we have experienced manufactured political rows over the immigration, the European Union and the NHS. Admittedly the Tory preparedness to take big risks with Britain’s membership of the EU is a serious political issue – but the row is more about tactics and competence than strategy. On the other issues the politicians have very little of practical value to say. But the gap between left and right on state spending (I refuse to call it “economic policy” as most commentators do) foreshadows very different visions for how the British state should work.

The right has an economically liberal view of the state, with both state services and benefits being pared back, leaving more space for private enterprise and consumer choice. The left does not seem to have such a clear vision – much of its energy is being devoted to keeping public services and benefits as they are and avoiding serious questions about the future. That is a pity, because shifts in both demographics and the distribution of economic power point to a larger role for the state.

The problem with the debate, though, is that none of the political parties is being clear about what they want to do. It is good that we are talking about broad numbers on the size of the state – but this needs to be brought down to specifics. The Conservatives need to be clearer about what they plan to cut, and how they want to reshape benefits. Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to do this too – because their plans also involve big cuts. But they also need to talk about taxes. The Tories are quite right that the only tax raising idea that they will talk about, the Mansion Tax, is small beer.

Britain, along with most of the developed world, needs to rethink tax, state benefits and public services. I do not believe that they can be shrunk in the way the right suggests. But neither are they sustainable in their current form, as the left seems to think. That, not immigration, exactly who delivers health services, or even membership of the EU, is one of the critical issues of our time.

The more politicians debate these issues, the better. But if they obfuscate, then Polly Toynbee’s angry rhetoric will for once be justified.

 

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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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