Must democratically-run political parties be lousy at elections?

Three weeks after Theresa May announced a snap General Election in the UK, the Conservative dominance shows no sign of abating. Mrs May looks as if she will achieve a majority for her party of between 150 to 200, with over 400 seats, compared to about 150 for Labour.  Tory success is primarily a product of Labour failure. That poses some challenging questions for how you run a political party.

That prediction of Conservative success is somewhat higher than many are making. It reflects two things. First the Conservatives have stamped on Ukip and picked up the lion’s share of their votes, taking their overall vote share up to about 45% or more, their best since the 1990s, and presenting all the opposition parties with a formidable challenge. The second thing is an analysis by Alistair Meeks of politicalbetting.com, which shows particular difficulties for Labour in a swathe of seats that voted Leave in the EU referendum. Meanwhile the Lib Dems have lost some of their early momentum, and my prediction for them of 20 seats counts as optimistic in the current betting market.

Part of the Tory success is the result of ruthless competence in the art of electioneering, led by their strategist Lynton Crosby. A compelling national message, based on Mrs May’s personal brand, is crushing all before it. Labour is chaotic and confused by comparison, and the Lib Dems’ lack of media weight is telling. Rage over Brexit appears to have limited appeal – though an attempt by the Lib Dems to broaden the message into NHS funding is a valiant attempt to broaden out. The Lib Dems’ best hope is to exploit the inevitability of a Tory landslide, concerns about Tory policy and Labour’s hopelessness into a vote for an alternative. That may yet happen.

For now I am interested in something else. Labour is clearly the principal author of its own demise, after they elected a clearly inadequate leader in Jeremy Corbyn. This immediately punctured their chances; the party then fluffed the EU referendum, letting Leave win by a narrow margin. That gave Mrs May her chance to put the boot in. But how did Labour get into this mess? The answer is “democracy”. The party opened up its methods of choosing its leader, and then its policy making processes. This led to record numbers of people joining the party, and taking part in selecting their leader. Contrast this with the Conservatives. Mrs May won selection by systematically destroying each of her opponents before the party’s weak democratic procedures could get involved at all. Meanwhile the process of creating Tory policy is completely dictatorial.

Which leads to a thought: internal party democracy is toxic for political parties’ electoral success. Labour’s troubles started with their selection of Ed Miliband as leader in 2010, in the most open selection process until then. Mr Miliband was responsible for a series of catastrophic misjudgements, including the further opening up of the party’s leadership selection process. Mr Miliband looked inwards for salvation; he thought he could win simply by picking up Lib Dem voters disillusioned with the coalition government, and by stoking up his political base. This had the virtue of avoiding hard choices within Labour’s ranks, and of rallying behind the left’s supposedly superior “values”. These are the sorts of mistakes that leaders make when they think that appealing to their own supporters is more important than challenging political opponents. Mr Corbyn is repeating this strategy in a ghastly death-spiral.

We might also reflect that something similar is happening in France. The two established political parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, opened up their leadership selection processes, and were then both knocked out of the race for president by one party leader who challenged her own party to make it more electorally appealing, and another who simply created a new political party in his own image. Internal party democracy is not real democracy at all. It is about building up appeal amongst the like-minded, and not about appealing to the sceptics. Labour may have involved record numbers of people in its processes, but they are numbered in hundreds of thousands, and not millions.

It is worth casting a glance over to the USA at this point. Their internal party politics is clearly highly democratic, and challengers to the system from outside the established parties fail to get going. But they have a state-sponsored system of primaries not tied to party membership that brings in millions of people who aren’t necessarily loyal to the parties’ core values. Donald Trump succeeded by involving formerly Democratic working class voters.

This poses an interesting challenge to the Liberal Democrats, my political party. Time an again I hear activists praising its democratic processes, and asking for these processes to be given even more say over policy. This, of course, helps draw in new members and keep them. As a member of this political party you aren’t just treated as cannon fodder, as you are in the Tories, but you are given a say. And as the party struggles to build a core vote, it naturally tends to look inward, or at least towards the like-minded.

But to succeed the party has to broaden its appeal to beyond the like-minded to voters who are sceptical of the party, and will never be very loyal to it. As the party tries to hold and win seats in a general election, it is getting a taste of how hard this is. Still, the party is what it is. The members and activists will have to take on the challenge of broadening the party’s appeal themselves, and choose leaders and policies that will fulfil that aim. Since inclusivity is one of the core liberal values that the party treasures, that might help. What the party must avoid is the trap that Labour members have fallen into: the feeling that like-minded people are natural majority, and that elections can be won by motivating this group rather than challenging it.

That’s for the future. Meanwhile the catastrophe that is engulfing the Labour Party should be  warning to all political activists.

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Diane Abbott’s troubles show all that is wrong with the British election

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Another week passes in Britain’s election campaign and the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s grip tightens. The more Labour tries to seize the initiative, the better it looks for her. Diane Abbott’s intervention yesterday simply proves the point. And yet she was trying to raise a subject people should be talking about more.

Ms Abbott is Labour’s shadow home secretary, and was the first black woman MP when she was first elected in 1987. But she has also become a bit of a figure of fun on the British political scene; this has racist and misogynist undertones which I deeply dislike. So I want to be very careful in what I say. Yesterday morning she introduced Labour’s topic for today, which was the idea that the party, if elected, would recruit 10,000 more policemen to act as “bobbies on the beat”. This was an attempt to move the debate on to specific issues of policy.

Now the call to have more bobbies on the beat is one of the traditional cries in British politics, and it has been around since bobbies on the beat were invented in the 19th Century. Everybody wants more visible policing from these reassuring community figures; it’s like calling for more nurses. So Labour’s first problem was the sheer banality of the proposal, and the fact that it looked like a silly election pledge and not a thought through policy. It is said that you can’t overestimate the intelligence of the public, but this looked like a valiant attempt. Then the costing fell apart under close examination. Meanwhile Labour promised to raise the money from reversing Conservative plans to reduces taxes on capital gains. This, of course, plays exactly to the Conservative economic narrative that any increase in the level of public service must be paid for by increased taxation – an idea designed to undermine Labour’s complaints about austerity policies.

This last was the initial source of challenge. The Tories quickly claimed that Labour had spent the same money several times over. This was the main focus when Ms Abbott was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. She did not defend herself confidently, but she got through. The whole policy still came through as a bit of election nonsense. Ms Abbott fell apart later in another radio interview, when she got into a complete muddle over the numbers. At this point it did not sound as if she had any grip on what the actual policy was. That became the story. Her party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, then defended her with what amounted to a shrug.

The Conservative election message is a simple one: the election is about competence, pure and simple. It is not about what the government will actually do – which will not stop them claiming public endorsement of a series of policies that will barely get mentioned. Labour’s dismal performance yesterday, from a badly designed policy announcement, to Ms Abbott’s lack of grip, and finally with Mr Corbyn’s apparent unconcern, could not have gone better for the Tories if they had scripted it.

And yet Labour were raising an important question. It seems to a lot of people that government cuts to services and benefits are eroding the very fabric of society. This includes the police, where community policing has been decimated. True, this may not have much immediate impact on crime levels – but community policing is about gathering intelligence, and making sure that the various components of public service join up. It is about solving problems before they become problems. So far it is not clear how much police cuts have impacted on levels of crime (recent rises in reported crime, which Labour used as justification for their intervention, look as if they are more to do with reporting methods). But Londoners have been alarmed about a sharp uptick in knife murders in the last few weeks. This could have been the basis of a much sharper attack on the government.

This is not actually about bobbies on the beat. In London it is not so much the vaunted bobbies being cut, as community support officers. It is also about cuts to youth facilities, mental health services and other interventions to prevent young people drifting into a life of crime (including early years interventions). The government seems unconcerned. They talk about helping “just about managing” citizens, and lifting an elite of poorer children into the middle class through selective schooling. The former idea has merit, but not at the expense of those who aren’t managing at all. The latter idea is trying to solve the wrong problem, and making things worse in the process. Labour is right to move the conversation on to these issues, and to challenge the Conservatives hard. But they are criminally ineffective.

All of which makes me very gloomy. Part of me actually wants Labour to be crushed in this election, following the way they behaved towards Liberal Democrats when they were in coalition. Labour stands for a certain complacent and tribal way of politics that we could all do without. But without them the Conservatives are being offered a blank cheque. And the signs are that they will not use that opportunity wisely.

My main hope is that the Liberal Democrats can grow up fast to fill the vacant space. That seems a better bet than the creation of a new political movement. They will need to broaden out their narrative from anger over Brexit to defending and reforming public services. They also need a way to challenge the Conservative economic narrative. Their leader needs to be less of the energetic campaigner and more a statesman in waiting.

Can Labour pull itself back? It has before, but it seems to lack the quality of politician who can do the job. They are set to replace the incompetent with the mediocre. If a route back could be found for David Miliband or, perhaps, Ed Balls, that would be another matter.

And maybe, as FT columnist Jana Ganesh says, we are paying the price for public indifference to politics, which is leaving the field open to people who are obsessive, but without the vision and grounding from which true leadership must be built. Perhaps things have to get worse before they get better. That is not good outlook for Great Britain.

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A progressive alliance would help the Tories not hurt them

Last week, I was still in shock from Theresa May’s announcement of a British General Election three years early on 8 June, and I predicted that the Conservatives would end up much where they had started. A few other Lib Dems were coming to similar conclusions (see this from Richard Morris)  But I closed with the thought that I might have underestimated Theresa May. A week later I think I did.

The campaign is taking shape. The Conservatives are dusting down their campaign from 2015 – portraying themselves up a stable government against a “coalition of chaos”. This message is being repeated relentlessly with discipline. Mrs May looks good at discipline. While the principal opposition party is Labour, this line of attack must surely resonate with the public. No government led by Labour in its current state can be anything other than chaotic. And all the other parties (bar the now irrelevant Ukip) have ruled out working with the Conservatives.

The Tories are making headway on three fronts. Firstly they have won back their direct defections to Ukip. Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP who defected to Ukip, has given up the ghost. Mrs May’s support for Brexit and turn against social and economic liberalism has satisfied them. This victory may look good in the polls but matters least where the Tories need it most: in the marginal seats. They had done a good job of squeezing Ukip there in 2015.

The second area of Tory success is picking up votes from Labour, even from Labour’s low point in 2015. A lot of these seem to be coming via Ukip. After former Labour voters rejected the party to support Ukip, they are ready to switch to the Conservatives this time – especially under Mrs May. And it isn’t hard for the BBC to find people in their vox pops who have defected directly from Labour ro the Tories. She has accomplished a significant detoxification of the Tory brand for older, working class voters at least. This will help the party make headway against Labour in England, and Wales (where local polls show the Tories with an unprecedented 10% lead over Labour). All this gives the Tories a high poll share in the mid 40s in the country as a whole, and the prospect of winning many seats from Labour.

The third area of Tory success is that the party is gaining ground in Scotland. It is now firmly established as the second party after the SNP, whose poll share is coming off the boil from its high point in 2015. It could be that the SNP’s policy of advocating for a second referendum on independence will push unionists in the direction of the Tories, allowing them to pick up many more seats than I thought (perhaps as many as 10). After the cataclysm of the 2015 election, who can say that there will not be some very sharp movements in some seats?

What to make of Labour? Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, looks to be in good form – confidently pitching to bands of his supporters as he did in the Labour leadership election. Even in 2017 a hard left campaign can develop momentum, as has just been shown in France by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, somebody whose political attitudes look quite close to Mr Corbyn’s. Still, he only achieved 20%, and the other left-wing candidate, Benoît Hamon, the official Socialist, failed to reach 7%. Mr Hamon was also a left-winger, and put forward a radical policy agenda, but was regarded as an irrelevance by the public. That looks closer to Mr Corbyn. Perhaps Mr Corbyn will attract a sympathy vote; perhaps local MPs can rely on a personal vote. But all this reminds me of the clutching at straws indulged in by Liberal Democrats before their disaster of 2015. The party is disorganised and disunited; Mr Corbyn’s spokespeople are very much a B team, if that. The Tories are content to let Labour make all the running in the media they want to  because, they are making the case to vote Tory better than the Tories themselves.The party is out of fashion and demoralised.  A rout looks a distinct possibility.

And the Lib Dems? They are in good heart. New members continue to flow in (my local party has grown by over 20% in a week).  They are getting plenty of media coverage after a period of being ignored. And they are well led. This week’s Economist said no less than three times in three separate articles that the party is suffering from weak leadership under Tim Farron, while otherwise being quite encouraging for the party. They offered no evidence for this assertion: so what can they mean? Tim is not highly regarded at Westminster; he has not made much impact on the public – his approval rating is negative. But as a party member I have seen somebody who understands campaigning much better than his predecessor, and has pushed through some very well-judged changes. First was preparing the party for a snap election last summer, by ensuring that all constituencies had selected candidates. Second was forcing through changes to selection procedures to ensure that more women and ethnic minority candidates would be selected in target seats. This will be critical to any rebranding of the party. He did take a little longer than he should have done to rule out a coalition with the Conservatives, after ruling out one with Labour – but he got there quickly enough. And now he is talking up the idea of the party being a the real opposition – so as to undermine efforts by the Tories to talk of a “coalition of chaos” – and move it on to not offering the Tories a blank cheque.

So the Lib Dems have momentum. And yet they have a mountain to climb. Taking back the seats that they lost last time to Labour and the Conservatives will be hard work. The new MPs are well entrenched – and the sheer scale of the Conservative popularity under Mrs May makes it an uphill battle. At every general election since 1997 the Lib Dems have failed to live up to my hopes and expectations. I am trying to keep them under control this time.

Furthermore some Lib Dems are being distracted by notions of an anti-Tory “progressive” alliance, by doing deals with Greens and Labour, up to the point of even withdrawing candidates. The Greens in particular are talking up the idea. While there may be virtue in some local arrangements (covering Brighton and Lewes perhaps?), and especially local non-aggression pacts, this looks like a very bad idea.

The main electoral task for the Lib Dems is to detach some of the 30% or so of Conservative voters (15% of the electorate) who think Brexit is a mistake. Being part of an alliance, especially with Labour, will make this task much harder and indeed plays right into the hands of the Conservatives’ “coalition of chaos” mantra.  Labour and the Greens are making no serious attempt to challenge for these voters – and yet any anti-Tory coalition is doomed without them. The first problem for the progressive alliance is that the Tories are too damn popular. The second problem is that any alliance is not credible as anything more than a temporary electoral arrangement.

Unlike some Lib Dems, I am not against electoral alliances in principle – indeed it may be the only way to beat the current electoral system. But any such alliance needs to have clear, agreed objectives, and momentum. Labour are so far away from agreeing to such an alliance (to many of them, Labour IS the progressive alliance) that there is hardly any point in talking about it. Labour still dreams of recreating on the left what Mrs May has achieved on the right.

Until and unless Labour sorts it self out, rids itself of the hard left, and starts to embrace the compromises required to win back voters from the Tories, the best hope for progressives is that the Lib Dems surpass Labour and can build an electoral alliance from a position of strength.

 

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Don’t underestimate Theresa May – but the Lib Dems will play a critical role in this election

Today Theresa May announced her intention to hold a General Election in Britain on 8 June. She is certain to get her way, notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Personally I’m not happy – this is an unwelcome distraction from other things I need to do – and my post on mental health has been swamped. Unable to concentrate on much else, I’m going to post again.

The first thing that strikes me is that British politics is littered with people that have underestimated our Prime Minister. This election was an almost total surprise. Rumours had circulated earlier in the year of a a General Election, but faded when it was clear it would not be on the first Thursday in May, which has now become the traditional date for elections in Britain. (A practice established by John Major in 1992, and only broken in 2001 because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. But before that Margaret Thatcher preferred June elections, a parallel that will no doubt please Mrs May). This surprise shows how tight a ship she runs compared to her ill-fated Labour predecessor Gordon Brown, whose career had otherwise had some striking parallels. Mr Brown’s reputation was destroyed because he let speculation about an early election get out of hand, and then lost his nerve.

The second striking thing is how unusual it is for us to have a snap election in the UK. Until now Prime Ministers have waited until the fourth or fifth year of parliament’s term. The date has been widely known well in advance (though in the case of the four year terms favoured by Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher, not for certain), allowing for a lot of pre planning. We have to go back to 1974 for one like this one, unless you count 1979, when the Callaghan government was brought down by a vote of no confidence less than six months before its term had run. And even the 1974 parallels aren’t that strong. This is uncharted territory. The parties will be fighting with much less pre-planning. The campaign could be much more chaotic than the carefully choreographed ones we have been used to.

Politically the election is dominated by the weakness of the Labour Party. Already demolished by the SNP in Scotland, it shows no signs of recovery there, and looks very vulnerable everywhere else. Its opinion poll ratings are very low – about half the Conservative vote. I have not seen any analysis of what this means in terms of the party’s vulnerability in particular seats. It has a large number of very safe seats, so it might well hang on in lots of places, while doing catastrophically in Middle England.  The party has two huge problems. The first is that the political agenda is clearly on Brexit, where its message is weak – it will not be rewarded for reflecting the confusion that much of the voting public has on the topic. Much as it would like to move the debate on to austerity, where cuts are now looking quite alarming in places, this looks like a doomed enterprise. And that is because of their second major problem: a spectacularly inept leader in Jeremy Corbyn. By itself this ineptitude is not fatal – after all he has done well in Labour’s internal elections – but the public don’t see him as a prime minister in waiting. Time an again that has proved a fatal handicap at election time. Without that credibility Labour can’t change the agenda.

So the Conservatives are looking confident. It seems that their key electoral message is that Britain needs a strong government right now, regardless off what that government actually plans to do. But the messaging will not have been exhaustively tested, so we don’t know how this will actually play. It seems clear that they will be able to beat off any threat from Ukip, but they may find it harder to manage the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems are in a very interesting position. Most people considered them wiped out after the last general election in 2015, when they were punished for having been in coalition with the Conservatives. But the Brexit referendum result has energised the party. It has now reliably retrieved third place in the opinion polls (though still only half of even Labour’s disastrous score), and its membership is booming. It has a clear position on Brexit. The Tory strategy in 2015 was mainly to destroy their coalition allies – on the principle that you should always go for the weakest opponent first. That meant they won many more seats from them than they did from Labour. But holding those seats could be tricky, since the messages that worked so well in 2015, which relied on a strong Labour threat, lack punch now -and the Tories are unlikely to have the same organisational strength, since this is a snap election.

So the Lib Dems could make a big comeback. Big enough to stop the Conservatives from getting a majority? Almost nobody would suggest that. The closer the party gets to achieving that aim, the more powerful the Conservative message about strong government will become. But after the last year we have started to expect the unexpected. The Tories will make little headway in Scotland (even though they now outpoll Labour there). They may find that taking many seats from Labour means going deep into their strongholds. Their high poll rating could simply mean piling up votes in seats they have already won.

So, much as I find this election personally unwelcome, it will be an interesting one to watch. My hunch is that the Conservatives will end the election in much the same place that they started it – but with fewer Labour seats and more Lib Dem ones on the opposition benches. But am I making the fatal sin of underestimating Theresa May?

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Labour shows the problem with a core vote strategy

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Last week’s British by-elections prompt me to make one of my occasional posts. It is about the bizarre predicament of Britain’s Labour Party and the wider question this poses for the British left.

The first thing to say about Labour is that I am not a neutral observer. As a supporter of the Liberal Democrats I have endured near continuous vitriol from Labour supporters, especially since the coalition government of 2010. It doesn’t help that these Labourites were right to predict disaster for my party – against my constant efforts to look on the bright side. So I take some satisfaction in being right this time. I cannot deny a sense of schadenfreude. Perhaps it takes a victim of delusion to recognise the phenomenon in others – though to be fair quite a few Labourites are in despair rather than delusion.

The immediate fuss is over Labour’s loss to the Conservatives of the Copeland by-election. For an opposition party to lose a seat in these circumstances is nearly unprecedented. Labour did see off a challenge from Ukip in the Stoke by-election on the same day – but they cannot take much comfort from that. Their vote fell, and they only retained the seat because Ukip and the Tories split the anti-Labour vote between them. It was a bit like the Lib Dem by election win in Eastleigh during the coalition, though the margin was much better.

But this fuss is a bit overdone. The main news politically is that Ukip is on the back foot, and the Conservatives seem to be picking up much of their vote. That’s still a big problem for Labour, though: while seeing off a threat from Ukip, the threat from the Tories has become much deadlier.

But the by-elections are only the start of it. It is Labour’s complete lack of political effectiveness since Jeremy Corbyn took over that is behind the criticism. Labour are totally unable to exploit the government’s difficulties over Brexit – a political gift that most opposition parties can only dream of. Just compare the party’s performance to that under John Smith and Tony Blair as the Conservative government pushed through the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s. Labour was then able to put aside its own differences and ambiguities over Europe to harry the Conservatives to near political death. This was an object the lesson in how to be on both sides of the argument at once – one of the chief skills in politics. Labour could unite pro and anti Brexit forces by rallying round a form of soft Brexit – and using every opportunity in Parliament to make the government’s life difficult. Instead Labour’s opposition sounds like whingeing Islington dinner table chat.

And what about opposition to austerity? The government is pressing ahead with cuts, and seems unable to handle a crisis in the NHS and social care. Schools are now under threat. Austerity was supposed to be the rallying cry for Labour under Mr Corbyn, and the basis of a popular revolt – with determined resistance both inside and outside parliament. Labour was going to employ high quality economic minds to develop an alternative narrative. Instead, Labour contents itself with more quiet whingeing, and austerity has dropped way down the list of politically current issues. The economic thinkers who had been commissioned to help the party have been sent on their way.

And Scotland? There was supposed to be a fightback here – but instead the party has fallen back to third place. At his speech to the Scottish Labour conference this weekend Mr Corbyn undermined the Labour’s Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, who is attempting to recapture the political initiative from the SNP with a call for a UK wide constitutional convention. Unable to come up with strong political initiatives himself, Mr Corbyn undermines any attempts to do so from anybody else. Politically Labour has stalled.

But a recent poll revealed something quite interesting. It confirmed Labour’s poor standing amongst the country at large, and the lack of confidence in Mr Corbyn, which is felt by over three quarters of the electorate, with remarkably few don’t knows. But among Labour’s remaining supporters, Mr Corbyn has majority support. His position looks secure.

And this reveals a problem for Labour, and the political left generally, that goes beyond Mr Corbyn’s profound lack of political competence. It is the temptation to retreat into your own comfort zone. For Labour, this process started under Ed Miliband, Mr Corbyn’s predecessor. It took the form of the so-called 35% strategy – whereby Labour was supposed to secure power by consolidating its position amongst left-leaning voters, especially those that had supported the Lib Dems, without having to persuade voters that had voted Conservative. They were relying on the idea that the right of centre vote would be split between the Tories, Ukip and coalition-supporting Lib Dems – and hoping that non-voters would rally to the party too. It left them helpless against a surging SNP in Scotland, and an entirely predictable and ruthless Tory campaign to pressure Lib Dem and Ukip voters in marginal seats.

But the idea of staying within your political comfort zone is enticing. The Liberal Democrats are now taking this up under the guise of a “core vote strategy”. This is designed to attract loyal supporters rather than marginal votes. This is more rational for the Lib Dems than it is for Labour, given how low the party’s fortunes have sunk. But neither party will pose a serious challenge to the Tories unless it works out how to appeal to marginal voters too. And neither will they be able to achieve this by forming some form of “progressive” alliance between themselves, with or without the Greens and the SNP.

And that will mean taking core supporters out of their comfort zone. Just where is open for debate. Conventional wisdom has it that this must mean embracing elements of what the left calls “neo-liberalism” – such as marketising public services and holding taxes and public spending down. This isn’t necessarily the case – but the electorate will not be convinced by the traditional left wing idea of accruing power to the centre and declaring “trust us: we are the people.” Political power is not trusted enough for that.

Personally I think Labour needs to embrace devolution of real political power to regions, municipalities and even neighbourhoods, even when it means passing it to opposition parties. This should involve a new constitutional settlement (just as Ms Dugdale advocates). And it includes breaking up central control of such hallowed institutions as the NHS and national public sector deals with trade unions. For Lib Dems I suspect it means developing a new narrative on rights – and the idea that key economic rights (as opposed to basic human rights) must be earned by contribution and residency, rather than being open to all comers. Also the parry’s doctrinaire line on the right to privacy needs to be rethought for the modern age – it feels too much like yesterday’s battle. Both parties needs to break out of the strait-jacket of political correctness and victim culture – while continuing to promote inclusion. And both parties need to think about a future Europe, rather than retreat into its past.

But once the left moves out of its comfort zone, power is there for the taking. The conservative coalition is not robust, and demographics are against it. Brexit will place huge strains on it. Populism will fail. But, alas, there are few signs that the left yet understands what it needs to do.  It may take another disaster.

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The Labour Party is not dying, but it is in retreat

To judge by the stories coming up in my Facebook feed, you would think that Britain’s Labour Party was in its death throes. The party is further away from winning national power than ever, but it is far from dying. Something more subtle is happening.

The chatter arises from the two most recent parliamentary by-elections, where Labour’s vote has crashed. I have written about Richmond Park already – this was a straightforward squeeze to get the Tory out. A week later came Sleaford and North Hykeham – and this is much harder to explain away. This is a safe Conservative seat in Lincolnshire, which voted heavily for Brexit (unlike Richmond Park).  The Conservatives lost a couple of percent in vote share, but Labour crashed by 7% to 10%, from second to fourth place behind Ukip (whose vote share fell by 2%) and the Lib Dems (who increased by 5% to 11%). Various other candidates scooped up an unusually large 11% (up 5%), including a Lincolnshire Independent who took nearly 9%.

The first thing to say about this result is that it is a remarkable victory for the Conservatives, a year and a half into this parliament. While Whitney and Richmond Park showed that pro Remain voters distrust the party, in pro Brexit seats (which are in a hefty majority in England and Wales) there seems to be no problem. It seems likely that they are picking up votes from Ukip, while losing a few Remainers to the Lib Dems. This seems to explain Ukip’s lacklustre performance in what should be home territory for them. But Ukip and the independents clearly picked up votes from Labour.

And thus come the predictions of Labour’s demise. Their lack of a clear message on Brexit, the main issue in British politics for the foreseeable future means that they are being squeezed by both the Lib Dems and Ukip, and will not be able to hold the line between the two. Voters sceptical of Brexit will be attracted to the Lib Dems; enthusiasts for Brexit will be tempted by Ukip or the Conservatives. Meanwhile Labour members’ attention is being drawn by its internal politics, as far left activists led by Momentum, fresh from their victory of re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as their leader, try to take control at all levels, and dictate the candidate selection process. The spectre of the party repeating the collapse it has already suffered in Scotland in England is raised. Amidst all the chatter, though, it was instructive to read Andrew Rawnsley in the Guardian. He describes how Labour veterans are consolidating their hold on the Labour organisation through solid, grassroots organisation. Momentum, an awkward alliance of veteran hard leftists (many expelled from Labour) and younger idealists freshly recruited to politics, is, in fact, losing momentum. Internal splits within the pressure group have been widely reported.

The truth is that in much of the country, Labour does not face a serous political challenge, and in a few places it is mounting a serious challenge to the Conservatives. The threat from from the Lib Dems is grossly exaggerated. The Lib Dems have barely begun to claw back their standing amongst both metropolitan leftists (who will not forgive the coalition with the Conservatives and the breaking of the party’s pledge on tuition fees) and working class voters of all ethnic groups. Richmond Park showed that such voters may once more hold their noses and vote tactically for the Lib Dems, but this logic does not affect areas where Labour is already strong. The Lib Dems seem to be mainly picking up Conservative Remainers – and that may help Labour rather than hinder it. Certainly in the area of London where I live the Lib Dem revival, such as it is, is evident in Tory areas, and there is no evidence of it all in the poorer estates.

Ukip threatens more, with an appeal to white working class voters, an important part of the Labour coalition. Labour seems unable to craft a message that appeals to these voters, or not without upsetting other important parts of the coalition, such as ethnic minority voters and metropolitan liberals. But Ukip is not a well-organised party. It lacks maturity. Furthermore its culture celebrates the awkward squad – the oddballs and angry types – from which it is hard to forge a cooperative team, as can be seen from the farcical attempts to replace Nigel Farage as leader. Liberals have a big advantage here – having a predilection to listen and cooperate. Ukip’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, is rightly focusing on Labour voters, but delivering a credible challenge will be an uphill struggle. They do not remotely present the scale of threat to Labour as the SNP have in Scotland.

And we must remember that Labour remains strong in large parts of the country, particularly London. They have plenty of members, strong local party organisations, and councillors. They have the ability to reach out to voters person to person to establish local bonds of trust. The party was not strong in either Sleaford or Richmond Park, so the results in these seats say little about how the party will perform in its strongholds. Around where I live the party is comfortably winning the local by-elections – and is as strong as I have seen it in 25 years or so.

So Labour is long way from dying. But it does seem to be in retreat in areas where it was not so strong in the first place. The Lib Dems do seem to be picking up here, resuming their role as the main challengers to the Conservatives in rural areas, to judge by a steady record of success in local by-elections (with another good set of results last night). As last week’s Bagehot column in the Economist points out, Britain’s political geography is fragmenting, with the country becoming a patchwork of different political contests. Labour will find it very hard to break out of its strongholds, as Lib Dems, Ukip and the SNP consolidate their hold on other areas.

Can Labour break out of this dynamic and regain a national appeal? It has been done before, in the 1990s by Tony Blair. The party’s current leadership, hopes to do so, with a re-launch promised. It hopes to pick up on an anti-establishment mood, using Mr Corbyn’s  persona and a left-wing policy platform. We will see. Labour’s problem is less its policies than a perceived lack of competence, something that Mr Corbyn’s persona will do nothing to correct. The public may yet be attracted to radical left-wing policies in these strange times – but the platform is being developed in a process of members talking to themselves (which activists optimistically regard as “democracy”) rather than engagement with a sceptical public.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have little to worry about from Labour. Their main worry is the internal tensions in their party arising from Brexit – a process that will be quite unable to sustain the expectations placed on it. As doubts over Brexit grow, the party’s support is bound to melt. That will be the big political opportunity. The Lib Dems and even Ukip are readying themselves for that moment. There is little evidence that Labour are. But the party is far from dying.

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What is the meaning of Richmond Park?

My (many) Liberal Democrat friends are ecstatic. The party has just won the parliamentary by-election in Richmond Park, overturning a massive majority from the sitting MP,  Zac Goldsmith. As the dust slowly settles, what is there to learn about the state of British politics?

Richmond Park is quite close to where I live. I have been visiting it since the 1980s, helping out the local Liberals and then Liberal Democrats, including a few visits this time. It consists of the suburb of Richmond, together with a slice of Kingston, near Richmond Park, nearly up to Kingston town centre, and including the local hospital. The seat, and its predecessors, has been the scene of epic battles between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. After a series of close results, the Lib Dems won it in the Tory collapse of 1997, with the rather eccentric Jenny Tonge as their MP (she kept testing the boundaries of what respectable politicians it could say about the Israel-Palestine conflict, transgressing on occasion – she has now left the party). She held the seat in 2001, but then stepped down. In the high water mark election of 2005 for the Lib Dems, which gave the party the illusion that seats that could be readily handed on from one candidate to another, the Lib Dems held the seat with Susan Kramer.

But in 2010 Zac Goldsmith, a local boy and inheritor of a substantial fortune, took the seat back for the Conservatives. He held it with a crushing majority (with 58% of the vote) in the Lib Dem meltdown of 2015, though the Lib Dem candidate, Robin Meltzer, managed to hang on to second place with 18% – a feat that could by no means be taken for granted. Many Lib Dem activists sighed and suggested that the influx of rich voters meant that the seat was gone for good.

But Mr Goldsmith was an independent minded MP, who had campaigned hard against the expansion of nearby Heathrow airport – which blights an area that otherwise offers sites of outstanding beauty. This is necessary for anybody that aspires to be an MP there. When the Conservative government under the new prime minister, Theresa May, finally opted to expand the airport, Mr Goldsmith fulfilled a campaign promise by resigning and standing as an independent. But the Conservatives did not put up a candidate against him, undermining his claim of independence.

Notwithstanding the mountain that the Lib Dems had to climb, expectations on the party were high. They had surged in the Witney by election, and a similar surge might take the seat for them. The Lib Dems had been doing well in local by elections (as well as Witney) over the summer, though their national poll rating remained dismal. To prove that that this improved electoral performance had substance, many commentators suggested that it was an election they had to win. All Liberal and Liberal Democrat revivals since 1945 had been led by spectacular parliamentary by election wins. If not here, where was that boost going to come from?

But Mr Goldsmith had clout on the issue that triggered the election: Heathrow. The Lib Dems had campaigned just as hard on the issue, and the government’s decision had proved the party’s contention that the best way to prevent the government from pressing ahead was for a strong Lib Dem party in coalition. Five years of coalition had held off the considerable political pressure for expansion. (Though Lib Dems might want to ask themselves why the party showed backbone on Heathrow, but not student fees). Barely a year of even a small Conservative majority and the resistance to expansion folded. But that’s a subtle argument, and the Lib Dems needed something bigger to shift enough votes their way. And so they campaigned on Brexit. Mr Goldsmith is a prominent supporter of hard Brexit, while the constituency voted 69% to remain in the EU. That did the trick.

What does this mean? Let’s start with the red herrings. First it says nothing about the state of play in Britain’s battle over Brexit. One of the strongest Remain  constituencies voted for an anti Brexit MP. That does not change the calculations for a large majority of MPs, whose constituents voted to leave. What would change the nature of the debate is a large number of Brexit voters changing their mind. With 45% of the electorate still voting for Mr Goldsmith, there was no sign of that.

A second red herring is that the collapse of the Labour vote (they lost their deposit, polling less than their party’s membership in the constituency). This is what happens in this sort of by election, and says nothing about the party’s chances in a future general election. A resurgent Lib Dem party could be a worry, but Labour still holds the aces, and this should not be a problem for a half-way competent leadership. Indeed if the Lib Dems draw off Remain voters from the Tories, it could help Labour. That Labour voters can be persuaded to vote Lib Dem tactically does not hurt Labour at all. The reversal of this trend in 2015 was a disaster for Labour.

The first lesson I would draw is that the Lib Dems have nailed their colours to the pro-EU mast. That seems to cover about a quarter of the electorate, a big enough pool for the party to fish in in its current state. It answers the question “what is the point of the Lib Dems?”, as the Tories adopt Brexit as their own, and Labour collapse into muddle. Those Lib Dems, like me, who are inching towards some form of reconciliation will have to bite their tongues. We need to understand that this is the best way of that the party can demonstrate its open, liberal values and present itself as a bastion against the rise of nativism and intolerance. It does not quite answer the question of whether the party is going for a core vote strategy, though. If the party gets the by election bug they will be tempted to water the message down in pro Brexit constituencies.

The next lesson is that organisation matters in British politics, and that the Lib Dems still have it. It was possible to feel sorry for the Zac supporters, overwhelmed by a blitz of Lib Dem literature and canvassing, while not having adequate data themselves. Many of them felt shell-shocked, and the graceless Mr Goldsmith whinged about being crushed by a machine. This delighted Lib Dem activists. Having been written off in 2015, after being crushed by a ruthless Tory machine, to be accused of being a ruthless machine themselves is a compliment indeed. The party pulled together, mobilising old members and new, in an optimistic, cheerful campaign, led by their candidate, Sarah Olney, who only joined the party in 2015. Both Labour and the Conservatives, with their bigger and better party machines, will take note, and will not be too upset. Breakaway parties, such as some Labour members were contemplating earlier in the year, look as hopeless an enterprise as ever. Lesser parties, including the Greens and Ukip, are presented with a big challenge.

A further point of interest comes from the fact that Ukip and the Greens did not put up candidates, and instead deferred to Mr Goldsmith and the Lib Dems respectively. The former reflects Ukip’s current  turmoil, and the party is weak locally – it has created no debt on the Conservatives. The Greens’ move is more significant. They too were in a weak position, and faced being crushed by the Lib Dem juggernaut, as Labour were.  By pulling out they made a virtue out of this weakness and will have softened the attitude of Lib Dems to do electoral deals with party in future, as part of a “progressive alliance”. Under Britain’s first past the post electoral system this kind of dealing is a logical response that may well take hold. Labour came under quite a bit of pressure from many of its members to do the same. There was never much chance of this from the still very tribal Labour party with its weak leadership – and Lib Dems will be relieved. They do not want to be under any kind of obligation to Labour under its current leadership.

What we don’t yet know about this election is whether it will boost the Lib Dems national standing amongst the public. The media is starting to take the party more seriously, but it will be some time before we have enough polling evidence to tell. What is clear is that the party is in fighting form, and has a much greater political weight. That is good news for supporters of liberal values, for which it is the clearest upholder on the British political scene. If Labour and the Conservatives can take their reluctant liberal supporters less for granted as they face the challenge of the populists, it will make all those efforts by the party’s volunteers worthwhile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lib Dems mission must be to pick up disillusioned Tory voters

Not so long ago the idea of a “progressive majority” was popular amongst leftish intellectuals. They noted that if you added together the poll ratings, and even general election votes, of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and (for some people) the Scots and Welsh Nationalists, there was a clear majority of the electorate, outnumbering the hated Conservatives and Ukip. This majority was regarded as a state of nature, and so, it was argued, proportional representation would lock it into the political system for good.

It was always optimistic. Both Labour and the Lib Dems drew voters who would happily support parties that were not “progressive”. This word is left’s own favoured description for itself. Since, in practice,  most “progressives” oppose any kind of reform to make the state or the economy more efficient, I really can’t bear not to place it in quotation marks when it is used to represent the broad left, rather than those who genuinely favour ideas that stand for the positive progress of society..

The flaw in the progressive majority idea is now open for all to see. In the 2015 General Election the Conservatives and Ukip outpolled the “progressive” parties. And that is before any disqualification of the Lib Dems after they entered coalition with the Conservatives. And if that wasn’t enough, the clear majority for Brexit, not supported by the “progressive” parties, confirmed it. Most parliamentary seats for “progressive” parties voted to leave the EU.

This is a fact that the far left (I almost used the word “radical”, but once more the word would be seriously misplaced for a bunch that includes so many people nostalgic for the 1970s). Many are convinced that Labour did so badly in 2015 because it was not left wing enough, with its half-hearted embrace of austerity. Challenged, they suggest that there is an army of disillusioned non-voters who could be drawn into voting for a party of the true left. Certainly there are a number of under-30s that could fit that description, but not enough. In fact most people who explore the polling data suggest people who do not vote are often less-educated and supportive of populist right wing policies. The Brexit referendum was relatively successful in bringing these non-voters out, and they did not vote Remain.

And yet calls for a progressive alliance persist. The Labour left is sceptical, to be sure – to them Labour alone should be the progressive alliance. But many Greens and Lib Dems would contemplate ganging up with other parties in order to push forward progressive reforms. These include constitutional and electoral reform, sustainable economics, and stronger environmental protection. In principle I would support such an alliance, but only with a Labour Party genuinely committed to political pluralism – which rules out the current leadership.

And yet, even if Labour could be brought into the picture, the numbers don’t add up, even if the SNP could be brought into it. An alliance would need to present a serious challenge to the Conservatives in English constituencies. Labour and Green support might help the Lib Dems recover some of their lost seats; the Greens might pick up one or two seats. But it is very hard to see how Green and Lib Dem support would give enough help to Labour. Instead it is more likely that the Tories would successfully exploit Labour muddle to destroy the whole alliance.

So, is it game over for progressive politics? Not quite. Brexit may have won the referendum, but Remain still managed 48% of the vote. But that 48% includes a lot of people who normally vote Conservative. If a way can be found to peel these voters away into a progressive alliance, then it could be back in business.

And it isn’t hard to see what might do this. The Prime Minister Theresa May is enjoying a political honeymoon, but her party is at sixes and sevens over Brexit. It is not at all clear what shape a post Brexit Britain will take because her party is hopelessly divided on it. The moderates want to create a cosy relationship with the EU, in order to protect investment and the economy. But the Eurosceptics that make up so much of the party will not stomach the compromises that entails. Meanwhile, if the British economy goes into recession, as many fear, the pressure on government finances will drive further division. It is not beyond imagination that the only way out will involve a second referendum.

The Conservatives might split under the strain. That is unlikely. As Labour will find out as its MPs contemplate their position, the pressures for the large parties to stay in one unit under Britain’s electoral system are huge. There are no safe seats for breakaway parties, and safe seats are most MPs have no real idea of how to fight a hard seat or the stomach to do it. But the splits will undermine the Tory credibility, giving the chance for other parties to take their votes.

And surely this is the historic mission for the recovering Liberal Democrats. Labour has lost interest in anybody that has contemplated voting Conservative (as both leadership contenders vie to prove how left-wing they are), and the Greens have never had it. There is nobody else to fill the vacant space. For once the coalition experience may prove a positive. That might then revive the idea of a progressive alliance, though the credibility of the Labour Party would be a major obstacle. It remains the best chance for progressive politics.

The Lib Dems are understandably focusing on their core vote, and not on scooping up flighty floating voters. But in order to achieve anything the party will have to return to appealing to these voters in due course. Disillusioned Labour voters will not be enough. The party will have to detach centre-right voters too. That should be food for thought for the party as it tries to redefine itself in British voters’ minds.

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Was the coalition’s austerity policy a colossal mistake?

Politics is dominated by historical myths, about which the different political camps disagree. Examining these myths critically is one way that societies can find reconciliation. While “austerity”, the favoured shorthand for government cutbacks, is fast sinking as an issue in British politics, long since overtaken by Brexit, its mythology remains a defining issue. This mythology has right and left versions. I want to look at the mythology of the left.

Few in the Labour Party would disagree with Oxford Economist Simon Wren-Lewis in a recent article that austerity “will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.” We in the Lib Dems are implicated in this criticism, as part of the coalition government of 2010-2015 that implemented austerity. It is exhibit B in the Labour case that the Lib Dems should cease to exist as a political party, and that all “progressives” should simply join their party (exhibit A being the tuition fees fiasco). So what are we to make of it?

Mr Wren-Lewis sets out this narrative very clearly in his article. He is an open Labour supporter, so his comments come with a political slant – but he is a proper economist and the case he makes is a substantial one.

This narrative runs something like this: in 2008-2009 Britain followed the world into a severe recession, brought about by a global banking crisis. This inevitably created a government deficit, of which he says: “We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.” The Labour government used fiscal stimulus to moderate the effects of the recession, but the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that came to power in 2010 rejected this approach and focused obsessively (so the story goes) with reducing the deficit, using austerity policies – cutting government spending severely. He claims that this focus on austerity had no economic merit, and is best understood as a political exercise to reduce the size of government, with misery as its by-product.

Mr Wren-Lewis says that the government defended its policy with three arguments: that innovative monetary policy would provide the necessary stimulus; that improved business and consumer confidence would do the trick; and that financial markets would not finance the national debt unless action was taken. He demolishes each of these arguments, and I would not disagree with him, though there is an element of hindsight and the first two ideas came good in the end. As a result, he says, the British recovery was extremely slow, costing the average household £4,000 a year – coincidentally about the same as the Treasury’s estimate of the costs of Brexit.

But Mr Wren-Lewis is being disingenuous. There was a fourth argument for austerity. And that was that most of the deficit in in 2010 was “structural” – in other words had a deeper cause the recession. If I remember correctly, the Office of Budget Responsibility estimated that about 8% or so of the 11% deficit was structural. In other words a lot of the pre-crash tax revenues were gone for good, and would require more than short term demand management to bring them back.There is plenty of scope for disagreement amongst professional economists here – but it does suggest an alternative narrative, to which I personally subscribe.

This narrative posits that the British economy was not in a stable position when recession struck. It had already been pumped up by excess fiscal stimulus; there was too much private sector debt; and there was an unhealthy dependence on international finance and, to a lesser degree, North Sea oil. The evidence for this is not just the precipitate nature of the crash – bigger in Britain than in other developed nations – but the large current account deficit before, during and after the crash, and the high level of Sterling beforehand, and its abrupt fall. It is true that the public deficit did not look outsized by international standards before the crash, but, as my macroeconomics lecturer pointed out at the time, the overall economic context had classic signs unsustainable fiscal stimulus. The crash was more than an ordinary business-cycle downturn, it was Britain’s financial chickens coming home to roost.

So what does that mean? It means that fiscal stimulus as a response to the recession would have only a limited impact, and would not have restored the economy to its previous health, and in particular it would not have solved the government’s deficit problem. Before long the additional demand generated would have led to inflation (in fact unlikely outside economics textbooks) or (much more likely) a worsening current account deficit, i.e. stimulating other countries’ economies rather than ours. That put the British government in a bind. There was a case for stimulating demand through fiscal policy, and yet government expenditure had to be cut back towards something sustainable in the medium term. The government in fact plotted a middle way and, far from obsessively focusing on deficit reduction, moderated the cuts when the recovery proved slower than they expected. The trajectory of deficit reduction was close to that projected by the outgoing Labour government in 2010.

But many distinguished economists were and remain highly critical of the coalition’s austerity policies. Labour supporters can quote any number of famous names. But you need to read what these distinguished people actually said, rather than the mood music they fed into. In fact they hedged their bets. They focused criticism on the lack of public investment, and not across the board austerity. Investment, in theory anyway, is a magic bullet in this context. It generates future productivity growth, so helps to put the economy on a more sustainable future path, while at the same time providing short-term demand. This is a perfectly valid criticism of the coalition record, shared by many Lib Dems who were part of the government. But it does not suggest that the majority of austerity policies were wrong in principle. Taxes and spending were badly out of line and something had to be done to return them to balance. All I can say in the government’s defence is that public investment is much harder to do in practice than in theory – so often the money ends up in wasteful white elephant projects. But it would have relatively easy to allow the building of more council homes, for example.

Where I agree with Mr Wren-Lewis (though he does not explicitly say it) is that the macro-economic policy presented by Labour at the General Election in 2015, under Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, was much more sensible than the one presented for the Conservatives by George Osborne. Mr Osborne proposed a charge towards fiscal surplus that made little economic sense – and one year on it is being buried by his successor. The Labour strategy would have knocked some of the hard edges off austerity, while promoting a higher level of investment. The left is right to call to call it “austerity-lite”, but wrong to suggest that this was a bad thing.

So criticism of austerity is warranted, but this does not amount to what the left wants it to do: to prove that cuts to government spending and benefits were unnecessary, and still less that they can be reversed. Extra spending will require higher taxes. Economists may feel that austerity policies are self-defeating in many instances, such as in some of the Eurozone adjustment programmes. But there is also growing recognition of a deeper weakness in many advanced economies, including Britain’s, signified by the stagnation of productivity. That is limiting tax revenues and what governments can afford to do. That weakness should be the central topic of political debate.

 

 

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