Tag Archives: Labour

The SNP’s strategic problem is that independence equals austerity

For much of 2010 a barrel of Brent crude oil sold for under $80.

Graphic from Nasdaq
Graphic from Nasdaq

Then it started to take off, so that in early 2011, it reached $125. Around this time, perhaps not coincidentally, the Scottish National Party (SNP) achieved a stunning victory in the Scottish parliamentary election, allowing them to govern on their own, in spite of the proportional voting system. In the following three years the oil price held at around $110, and it seemed quite reasonable for the SNP to assume that prices would stay there for its financial projections for Scottish independence for the referendum in September 2014. But by the time that referendum was held the price was in free fall. And, again perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the SNP lost the referendum. Now Brent crude trades at under $50. It may be stuck there for some time. Hold that thought in your mind; it is the most important thing to understand about Scottish politics. Scottish nationalism has always been closely linked to oil.

After reviewing the fortunes of each of Britain’s major parties after their Autumn conferences (and one minor one: my own Liberal Democrats) it is the turn of the SNP. Notwithstanding the loss of the referendum, the SNP’s dominance north of the border looks complete. The only way from here seems to be down, but when, on earth, is that going to be?

Commentators on Scottish politics from London, of which I’m one, are notoriously bad at understanding Scottish politics. As, indeed, are English politicians. But surely the same laws of physics apply on both sides of the border? We must try to understand what is happening, and where things might go.

First we need to understand how the SNP achieved its dominance. Nothing could be sillier that the narrative I have heard put about by English leftists that the SNP achieved its success through tapping a popular, anti-establishment mood, and in particular anger at “austerity” to become “a broadly based social democratic party” as one article put it. This is silly not because it is entirely untrue, but because it is so  incomplete that it might as well be. The SNP has achieved its success because it has convinced Scottish voters that it is the best party to look after their interests. This is not based on any particular policy stance, but through an appeal to national identity.

First they destroyed the Conservatives, who used to be a  major force in Scottish politics. They were aided in this by the complete ineptitude of successive British Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. They managed to make the English look like an occupying power. The SNP were nicknamed the “Tartan Tories” by Labour, because of their appeal to right of centre voters. Their leader of the time, Alex Salmond, sounded distinctly neoliberal, with his wish to turn the country into a corporate tax haven, like Ireland.

But Labour fared better. In New Labour days, that party’s domination of Scots politics started well. The party delivered devolution and won the first two Scottish parliamentary elections, governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who also performed respectably. It no doubt helped that one of New Labour’s architects, and its second Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was very much a Scottish MP. But doubts were raised about the party’s commitment to Scotland. Its best politicians seemed much more interested in pursuing a career in Westminster than in Holyrood. The party struggled to find a convincing leader after Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first devolved First Minister, died in 2000. Labour’s Westminster “strategists” (as politicos like to call their tacticians) took Scotland for granted. The party’s seats in Scotland were mostly quite safe; there was little understanding of how to handle political competition.

The first cracks showed when Labour lost the Scottish elections in 2007 (by a single seat), allowing the SNP to form a minority government. But the party would not, or could not, understand the implications of giving the SNP such a lift in credibility. After all, Labour did well enough in the 2010 British general election in Scotland. But they should have understood the strategic implications when the party fared badly in Scottish elections of 2011, allowing the SNP to achieve that majority, and a mandate to hold an independence referendum. Labour continued to flounder. To be fair, the party was facing such deep strategic problems after losing power in Westminster in 2010 that it was difficult for them to do other than paper over the cracks and hope for the best. The party’s lack of political skill in Scotland, however, became evident to all in its incompetent leadership of the referendum campaign. The party really seemed to be only about providing careers for talented politicians in Westminster, local jobs for the others, and no use to Scots voters at all.

The SNP, of course, managed to use the referendum to generate a surge of interest in an optimistic brand of politics based on Scottish identity. Its leaders then made a brilliant switch. Mr Salmond stepped down as leader, and handed over to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, who had the reputation of being more left-wing. Ms Sturgeon duly turned the focus onto Labour voters. She used the mantra “austerity” in her messaging, to demoralise Labour activists, fed up by their leadership’s more careful line on economic policy. Labour collapsed to just one seat in Scotland (the same as the Lib Dems and the Conservatives) in May’s British general election.

The Labour left hoped that  Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour leadership, amid a tide of new members, and his supposedly refreshing brand of “straight-talking, honest politics”, would change the party’s fortunes. Alas no. Scots voters deserted Labour because the party was useless to them. The party has merely turned itself from one form of uselessness to another. A chaotic debating society more interested in policy than power is not an improvement. The next Holyrood election is in 2016. Everyone expects the SNP to increase their majority, mainly at Labour’s expense (the Lib Dems were already crushed in 2011; the Tories have quite a robust core vote).

A further departure from the London lefties’ idealisation of the SNP is that the SNP conference was as far cry from the “new politics” they espouse. The Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley said that it reminded him more than anything of a Conservative conference under Mrs Thatcher. The SNP are ruthless politicians, managing their message with discipline, and extending their hegemony to as many parts of Scottish life as they can. There is no open debate of party policy. This is not good for the quality of government there, but the party can and do blame any problems on the Westminster government. The SNP’s record is not all bad, though: the Scottish economy is more buoyant than any other part of the UK outside London and the English South East. Whether that arises from the SNP’s neoliberal tendency, or from its social democratic one, probably depends on who you talk to.

The SNP’s successful discipline arises from a clear, unifying purpose: their quest for Scottish independence. And therein lies their biggest strategic problem. That $50 oil price. That leaves little left to tax. It causes collateral damage to the oil industry based in Scotland.  It makes much of remaining oil beneath the North Sea unviable. This knocks a huge hole in the SNP’s economic plans for independence, which handed out goodies to all interested parties.

The low oil price is a product of America’s shale revolution, and increased energy efficiency. Meanwhile Iran will re-enter that oil market, and demand from China is tailing off. That $50 price could be around for quite a while. The “peak oil” theory is dead and buried. There is no sign that the SNP have any idea how to plug the gap in their plans for independence between $50 and $110.

And here’s the thing. In spite of this price collapse in oil, the Scottish economy is performing well. It is diversified, and the non-oil bits are doing taking up the slack. The tax revenue damage is being taken by the UK as a whole, which unlike Scotland would be on its own, is big enough to absorb it. You could not have a better illustration of why the Union makes such good sense for Scotland. It acts as a wonderful economic shock absorber. And, as Greece and others have shown, joining a currency union does not solve this problem. Before long, Norway will be providing a clear illustration of the challenge an independent Scotland would be facing. Independence means austerity.

Ms Sturgeon used the conference to manage down her party’s expectations of a second referendum soon. But with a low oil price and deteriorating demographics 2014 may have been their best shot. Unless Britain is mad enough to vote to leave the EU, the case for independence will be more difficult to make in future. It will take some time before the penny drops. But surely the SNP’s days of hegemony are numbered?

But for their different reasons, Scotland’s other parties are unable to exploit the SNP’s strategic weakness. Paradoxically, though they may have won the argument on independence, it may not help to make too much of their unionist views.  Just as England’s middle ground voters are not averse to austerity, Scotland’s middle ground clearly prizes its national identity, and isn’t scared of independence talk. Perhaps the tactic should be to concede the idea of a future referendum, especially in the absence of a proper federal settlement. That might clear the field to examine the SNP’s actual record. But that might take a higher calibre of leadership amongst Scotland’s opposition parties. For now the SNP does not face a serious challenge.

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Corbyn’s moral crusade leaves too many questions unanswered

On Tuesday afternoon I did something for the first time ever. I watched a Labour leader’s conference speech. I had been encouraged by the advance billing that it would not be a long one. It lasted a full hour, so on that count I was disappointed. But what to make of it, and the revolution that has overwhelmed Britain’s Labour Party?

The first point to make is that its delivery was very low-key – which is entirely what we had been led to expect. Jeremy Corbyn wore a jacket and tie, but not a suit; and his tie wasn’t quite done up. His delivery was quite flat, and he often stumbled over his words. He was unable to deliver humour successfully. The speech itself rambled a bit – a bit of a struggle for me to concentrate completely at that time of the afternoon. But this is all very novel, and designed to show an unspun “authentic” politician, who is a nice man to boot. He had a rather lovely knowing look which he delivered from time to time in brief pauses. The contrast with Lib Dem leader Tim Farron’s speech last week, a much sharper and high octane affair, was very striking. Each is playing to their strengths, and not being rammed into uncomfortable poses by expert advisers.

A couple of things about its content are worth noting. He delivered a strong attack on the Conservative government’s economic policy, describing the shallowness of its supposed success. In this he was picking up from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speech the previous day. Labour is trying to establish a strong economic narrative to rival the government’s – and one that will garner support from respectable, mainstream economists. Unlike Mr McDonnell though, he said nothing about how Labour would deal with the country’s finances. This was all of a piece with his speech – rallying his supporters by stoking up moral outrage, but not trying to challenge them by hinting at hard choices ahead.

A second point is worth noting: he gave a lot of time to international affairs. I don’t think many previous leaders did this. This may be because he has a bit of form associating himself with international campaigns, not all of them entirely respectable. He made it plain he was for upholding human rights and against warmongering. He condemned Saudi Arabia in particular, and opposed military intervention in Syria. He did not, of course, attempt to tackle rather trickier issues, like Israel-Palestine or human rights in Venezuela, where he has a record of supporting its leftist regime. But this internationalist theme is a striking area of common ground with liberals.

For the Labour Party itself, Mr Corbyn said that he wanted to encourage internal debate, and not worry too much about how this is portrayed in hostile media. He made clear his opposition to the Trident nuclear weapons system, without seeking to impose it on the party as a whole. He also called for political debate to be carried out in in an open and civilised way, in a kinder more caring form of politics – not just within the party, but outside the party too. This gave rise to a standing ovation – though it is possible that this was because his audience mistook it for the end of the speech. Judging by a number of people sneaking out towards the end, the Labour delegates were as misled as I was about the length of the speech – and no doubt some had trains to catch. Those of us outside the party, who have witnessed the tribal abuse dealt out by Labour supporters, will believe any such change in style when we see it. One suspects that they can’t see the difference between plain speaking and throwing insults. Indeed the very next day Deputy Leader Tom Watson described the Liberal Democrats as a “useless bunch of lying sellouts”, among other things. So much for that then.

The whole thing made a lot more sense to me after reading Peter Kellner’s article in the New Statesman, actually written before the speech. In it he points out that by tradition Labour presents its cause as a moral crusade (or jihad if you are a Muslim, though I doubt that Labour politician has been brave enough to use that word!) – and not as a class struggle against capitalism. This helps mask the party’s attitudes to capitalism, which vary from outright hostility, through grudging tolerance, to positive enthusiasm. Mr Corbyn’s speech was firmly in this tradition – morality ran right through it. And it did not take a stand against capitalism – indeed he suggested that small and medium sized businesses should have better access to credit, albeit through a nationalised bank.

And it has to be said that the new Labour party does not seem to be playing to the hard left traditions that many of us were familiar with in the 1980s. The emphasis is on members setting policy in a bottom-up, “democratic” process. I put “democratic” in quotation marks, because a self-selected minority using voting procedures to determine their direction is a far cry from democracy – but Lib Dems adopt the same conceit. Nevertheless this is a long way from party activists acting as a revolutionary vanguard, and setting policy as generals choose lines of attack in real wars. I am told this is “democratic socialism”. Of course, this sort of inclusiveness is quite characteristic of the early stages of leftist revolutions – but I think Mr Corbyn genuinely means it. Some of his supporters may not.

The trouble for the rest of us is this. The shopfront may be a moral crusade that is quite attractive, and behind it may be inclusive and open party processes. But so far all this has produced is a blank slate. And with blank slates there is a tendency to project your wishes onto it. Old-left anti-capitalists think the party stands for nationalised industries and intrusive political leadership. Some of the younger recruits surely think it stands for something more liberal. But outsiders do not know what, in actual, concrete terms, the party stands for.

And based on what Mr Corbyn has said of his own beliefs, and what many of his trade union backers have also said – and what both of these have not said – there is every reason to think that what Labour will eventually come to stand for will not be at all liberal. They do not seem to believe in free markets; they are suspicious of the devolution of power; they do not appear to believe in electoral systems that foster plurality rather than polarisation.

And if the moral crusade turns out not to be based on liberal principles, it will merely consolidate power amongst a different, and likely even narrower, political elite. Until Labour moves off its moral high horse and gets its hands dirty, I will withhold judgement, even if I afford them some benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile I am not tempted to move away from a political party whose liberal principles are not up for debate.

 

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Labour changes the meaning of austerity

So far, so good. That’s my verdict of the remaking of Labour under its new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. I’ll say more about the big picture later in the week, after Mr Corbyn’s speech later today. This time I want to focus on economics and the performance of the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who spoke yesterday.

Like Mr Corbyn, Mr McDonnell is a serial rebel and a political outsider – and he is very much Mr Corbyn’s right hand man. That is why he was given the job of Shadow Chancellor over the much more politically correct Angela Eagle. Both Mr McDonnell and economics are central to the Corbyn project.

The first thing to note is the new regime’s ambition in taking on economics. The previous leader, Ed Miliband, was a bit embarrassed to talk about economic policy. He did not try to defend the previous Labour government’s economic policies, nor seriously criticise them for matter, in spite of the opprobrium being dumped on them by the coalition parties. He was late in developing his own economic proposals, and when these came out, they appeared to be “austerity-lite”, and not seriously challenging the government’s narrative.

Mr McDonnell, on the other hand, wants to take control of the economic narrative. He is enlisting the help of heavyweight economists to both support his own plans, and to undermine the government’s version of events. In this he is capitalising on a remarkable fact. Academic economists have been very critical of government policies and “austerity” generally. Indeed government policy seems to be more based on 200 years of Treasury orthodoxy than modern economic insight. This is an opportunity to undermine the government’s reputation for competence, and make it look ideological.

Labour is still left with the two paradoxes of anti-austerity economics that I referred to in a previous post.  The first is that by opposing austerity Labour will have to make its peace with the global financial markets that it so despises. Mr McDonnell tackled this head-on in his speech, and in an interview with the Guardian newspaper last weekend. He has nominally adopted the government’s trajectory for reducing the UK’s fiscal deficit, with its aim of bringing it into surplus by 2020. With a huge rider: he will exclude borrowing to fund capital investment. Depending on how loosely “investment” is defined, this is perfectly sensible public policy, and not, in fact, very different from Mr Miliband’s. It reduces dependence on international finance – remembering that the Bank of England’s Quantitative Easing policies may come to the government’s aid if the economy takes a turn for the worse.

There is, of course, a problem. It means signing up to austerity as most people understand it. And yet opposition to austerity remains his rallying cry. One of the many weaknesses of the left is its love of abstract nouns, especially as things to oppose – austerity, neoliberalism, inequality, and so on. Ordinary working people don’t understand what they are on about, but the activists work themselves up obsessively – and at the moment austerity is public enemy number one. But Mr McDonnell and Mr Corbyn have an ingenious answer to this: just change the meaning of “austerity”.

To them, the word now applies not to tightening the government’s finances overall, but to cuts and tax rises that might affect low and middle income workers. There will be cuts, said Mr McDonnell, but not to the numbers of policemen, nurses or teachers. Instead the cuts would be to “corporate welfare” – tax breaks to businesses, as well as raising taxes on the rich. He was careful not to be too specific about all this.

There are some pretty solid grounds for scepticism here. Mr Corbyn has brandished the figure of £93 billion for corporate welfare, a figure conjured up by the Guardian. Mostly these are allowances or direct support for investment, exports and research and development – all things Labour will want to encourage. And the small print of the Guardian’s report suggests not that this is low hanging fruit waiting to be plucked, but that it is, to switch metaphors, a rather overgrown hedge that can be trimmed a little. There is reason to doubt how easy it will be to target other measures to raise taxes, or clamp down on avoidance, without collateral damage to the small and medium sized businesses that the economy so needs. This is what undid Francois Hollande’s Socialist government’s attempt to do much the same thing.

But it isn’t nonsense either. Big business, and the pampered elites that run them, are not a benign force these days. They contribute to the hollowing out of much of the economy by destroying middle ranking jobs and sucking the soul out of towns and villages away from the main commercial centres. They also siphon profits out of the economy rather than reinvest them. Labour will do well to be wary of big business, unlike the earlier regimes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But finding policies that will tilt things against big business without damaging the wider economy will not be easy. I think that tax treatments for intellectual property and debt interest are a better place to look than the Guardian’s corporate welfare list. And international cooperation on corporate tax avoidance will help (especially if we can move to unitary taxes, such as the US states apply among themselves).  But such policies will take time.

All this takes us into the territory of my second paradox for anti-austerity economic policy. It calls for more economic growth, and yet bears down on much of the private business that will be needed to generate it. This will be the next challenge for Mr McDonnell and his colleagues. It is fair enough to bear down on many businesses, especially the giants. But Labour also needs to show encouragement and support for more positive businesses, through investing in support infrastructure, improving access to credit for genuine investment, improving public procurement, and through reducing the burden of petty regulation. As yet I see no sign of this – but it is early days.

I remain highly sceptical of the new Labour project. But its leaders have made a competent start, and there is undoubted fresh air. The floor is still theirs.

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Political reform is the acid test for Corbyn’s Labour

Jeremy_CorbynBritish politics has suffered a massive earthquake with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. There is a lot of dust; there will be aftershocks. But what can liberals say at this point?

Let us for now take this development at face value. There is an upsurge of public support for Mr Corbyn amongst people desperate an alternative narrative to “austerity”, and for a political party with real left-wing values. Let us say that the half a million or so people who took part in the party’s election process are not mainly London clictivists, but will join Labour’s campaigning by making phone calls, knocking on doors and donating money, from London to Leeds and from Bristol to Glasgow. Let us also say that Labour will not be riven my infighting but will mobilise behind a concerted attack on government policies.

If this happens there will be real momentum  behind Labour. It will take the wind from the sails of the Green Party; Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader will find it very difficult to attract people to his party through returning to left-wing campaigning. Many working class Ukip voters will consider returning to Labour, now that it has rejected the establishment consensus. Labour will start winning by elections against all comers.

All this would throw down the gauntlet to liberals who reject the government’s creed of economic liberalism. If it looks as if this reinvigorated Labour party might make headway against the Conservatives, do liberals support them in the hope that a transfer of power will be good for the country? Or do they think this new movement is fundamentally wrong, and has to be stopped at all costs? There seem to be three groups of issues that could decide this.

The first is Britain’s place in the wider world and defence. At this point it is very unclear what Labour’s new stance will be. Mr Corbyn himself has been associated with some very extreme views, such as that Britain should leave NATO. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that Labour’s policy line will be more moderate than this.  But surely it will oppose just about any foreign military intervention, and the the odds are it will come out against renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons systems. Not so long ago these views would have been considered so extreme that no respectable politician should entertain them. But now there is a good case to be made. There seems to be little point in such  heavy-duty and expensive nuclear armaments, which will be dependent on US support. There is a respectable case for more limited nuclear weapons, or even complete nuclear disarmament. Likewise foreign military intervention doesn’t seem to be making the world a safer place. They provide no answers to filling the political vacuums that are the real threat to stability. If Labour starts to support leftist regimes that do not support political pluralism, such as those in Cuba or Venezuela, then that will be another matter. But I don’t think Mr Corbyn will be able to take his party to those positions. So liberals may not be given enough reason here to oppose the movement.

The second groups of issues is economics. This is central to Labour’s new appeal, as cn be seen by Mr Corbyn’s appointment of left-winger John McDonnell to the role of Shadow Chancellor. It will define itself through a bitter a bitter opposition to “austerity”. It will oppose this they mean cutbacks to benefits or public services, or raising taxes on anybody but a rich elite. They are also opposed to any serious reform of public services, apart from moves to a model of state-owned command and control organisations, staffed by union members on permanent contracts. Two ideas are offered to make this economically viable. The first is a sort of semi-digested Keynesianism, which suggests that their policies will stimulate demand and so economic growth and, through this, extra tax revenues. The second is that there are vast amounts of extra tax available from taxing the rich more, clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, and attacking “corporate welfare” – tax breaks and subsidies for businesses.

I have commented on these ideas before. For now all I need to say is that there are two paradoxes at the heart of this economic programme. The first is that, almost by definition, rowing back on austerity means a greater dependence on global financial markets to provide funding – printing money is not a long term strategy. And yet these markets are treated with contempt. The second paradox is that their policies depend on a healthy private sector economy to deliver economic growth and tax revenues, and yet they also want to make life more difficult for the private sector, and encourage businesses to take their investment elsewhere. No left wing government, from Francois Hollande’s Socialists in France to Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza in Greece, has found an answer to these paradoxes. The anti-austerity programmes of the former were sunk by the need to attract private sector investment, and the latter by the need to keep borrowing money from abroad without a clear prospectus for paying that money back.

But, if in the end governments will be forced to their senses by the dictates of markets, perhaps we can tolerate a little short-term economic chaos? We can, after all, be sympathetic with the idea of using the tax system to effect redistribution of wealth. That depends on the third group of issues: political reform.

The Conservatives now control the government because the current political system is weighted in their favour. Liberals favour a more pluralistic system, with greater checks and balances. To achieve this we need political reform in a number of areas. Will Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party support these, or simply offer vague platitudes like his predecessor, Tony Blair? That will be, or should be, the defining issue for liberals. What are these areas?

  1. The first is political finance and the reach of big money. The UK is not anything like as bad as the US – but that country points to the dangers. Laws start to be dictated by corporate vested interests – a particular problem in public services outsourcing, and intellectual property. Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party will surely be much more serious about this than its predecessors.
  2. Next is devolution. This means not just protecting the settlements in Scotland and Wales, but promoting further devolution to English regions and councils – including revenue raising powers, and the coordination of public services. There is reason to be suspicious of Labour intentions here – though since Labour also control England’s major cities, there might be some constructive tension. I have not forgiven Andy Burnham’s scepticism of the devolution of health services to greater Manchester.
  3. Then there is the House of Lords. Will Labour support complete abolition, or replacement by an upper chamber with real powers? Personally I think a new upper chamber should be part of a new constitutional settlement for the UK, taking it to a more federal structure. But a proportionally elected revising chamber would be acceptable. Which brings us to:
  4. Electoral reform. This really is the only way of promoting political pluralism in the long run. We need a system based on some form of proportionality, such as the Single Transferable Vote (used in Northern Ireland, and indeed the Irish Republic) or the Alternative Member system (used for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the London Assembly). We have to be careful here; there is real public scepticism about this. And moving to PR at national elections is a big step. But a firm commitment to PR for local elections is an essential accompaniment to serious progress on devolution.

Will Labour deliver on these? I would be most surprised if we get anything more than a few warm but vague words. For the hard left consolidating political power is the whole point and purpose of politics, and they want to monopolise it. They don’t accept pluralism except as a way of identifying enemies. The can’t accept that empowering the people can mean anything other than conferring the mandate of heaven to their own political elite. There are pluralists in Labour, but on political matters the Blairites and the hard left are remarkably close together. If Jeremy Corbyn strikes out on a different line, then the movement he has started may yet be a worthy revolution.

 

 

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A Corbyn win would pose searching questions for the Lib Dems

Clearly the prospect that Jeremy Corbyn might win the Labour leadership election is the most exciting thing in British politics right now. So I will blog about it for the third successive post. This time I want to look at what all this means for the Lib Dems.

According to the rather lazy analysis you often see out there, such a development would be a bonanza for the party. Labour grandee Jack Straw has suggested as much, in a desperate attempt to persuade Labour activists to vote for somebody else. The logic goes something like this. If Mr Corbyn wins, centrist Labour types will be without a political home. They will not be able to bear the leftward lurch implied by an influx of new activists, and, perhaps more sinisterly, the growing influence of trade unions. So, the Lib Dems, being a left of centre party under its new leader, Tim Farron, is natural place to go. It is now exorcised of coalition with the hated Tories – and even that coalition might be seen in a kinder light, now the Tories are unrestrained in government. And this will create an appealing alternative to the Conservatives that would draw floating voters in.

So what would be the political scene if Mr Corbyn won? The left would be cock-a-hoop, and they would have that much-prized thing: momentum. Many people have doubts about the current conventional wisdoms about economic policy – so they might give this new Labour a hearing. This would be bad for the Lib Dems in the short term, as the party would be overshadowed. Disillusioned Labourites are not going to flock to the Lib Dems in the short term either; they will still be in grief for their own party, and may hope that Mr Corbyn can be ousted.

But could that momentum be maintained? The British press, which still sets the media agenda, would be fiercely critical, and it would not take them long to find policy issues that put the new Labour leadership in a bad light. Mr Corbyn has spent his entire political life in the fringes of politics, where saying silly things is rewarded rather than punished. That gives the press plenty of material to work with. Furthermore, there would be a certain amount of chaos in the Labour party, as it argues over a whole range of issues. There are bound to be many disgruntled MPs. Voters may or may not disagree with the party’s new policies, but the real danger is that it starts to look incoherent and incompetent. These voters will not be part of the internet echo-chamber where left-wing activists will convince themselves that they are riding a popular wave – and they may not see the danger until too late.

The Lib Dems would be quite well placed to exploit this, in principle. The Greens’ thunder will have been stolen by Labour’s new direction; Labour will have taken over most of the Greens’ populist agenda. Ukip have lost momentum, with their rather chaotic General Election performance.

But the Lib Dems have two big problems of their own. First the party is very weak. Second it remains divided over its recent history.

The most conspicuous sign of weakness for the Lib Dems is its mere eight MPs, the lowest number for generations. This does not get better on closer examination. There were very few second places in May’s general election, and many lost deposits. The local councillor base has been hollowed out. Ruthless targeting over many years (and from well before the 2010 General Election from when the serious trouble started) has hollowed the party out in the majority of the country. This weakness makes it much harder to exploit any bounce in the party’s wider support. It also undermines the party’s basic credibility. Disillusioned Labourites may be tempted to set up their own party rather than join a weak and flailing one.

This is compounded by the party’s confusion over what it stands for. Its core values are firm enough, but the party’s interpretation of recent history is not. Was Nick Clegg’s leadership, and coalition with the Conservatives, a betrayal of the party’s values that should be expunged, with a suitable purge of those responsible? Just read a few articles in Liberator magazine, or read online comments, and you will see that this is a popular view amongst many in the party, and those who have left the party and could rejoin. Or is that coalition the proudest moment in the party’s recent history, when the party put the country before its own interests, and marred only by a few tactical errors? This view too is widespread, especially amongst those that stuck with the party, and many who have recently joined it. Some kind of reconciliation between these opposing views (that I will call the rejectionists and the coalitionists as a convenient shorthand) has to be engineered or the party will look just as fractious as its Labour competitor.

Interestingly, the outcome of the Labour leadership contest does have some bearing on this contest. However much Lib Dem activists want the party to plough its own furrow, it inevitably moves into the cracks left by the others. A victory for Mr Corbyn would be bad for the rejectionists. It would steal their thunder, and undermine their efforts to turn the Lib Dems into a party of the radical left. To be sure there are big differences between the Lib Dem rejectionists and the Corbynistas. The former are much more wary of state power, and emphasise political reform, especially electoral reform to a much greater extent, rather than the political control of the levers of power. And yet they are both competitors for those who are impatient for change. Meanwhile, of course, a Corbyn victory would give a ready new audience for the coalitionists – for people who are more patient, pragmatic and common sensical about the progress.

On the other hand a victory for for Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper would be a boost for the rejectionist Lib Dems. They would appeal to disillusioned Labour leftists outside the hard core, while more moderate Labourites would continue to place their hopes in Labour,rather than turning to the Lib Dems. Should a Corbyn leadership collapse, and be replaced by something more mainstream (Chukka Umunna is sometimes mentioned) then this dynamic might also come forward. On the other hand a Corbyn collapse followed by a charismatic new Labour leader (whether or not Mr Umunna fits that bill is debatable) could be the worst outcome for the Lib Dems of both camps.

The Lib Dem leader is treading a careful path between the rejectionists and the coalitionists. And many Lib Dems were perhaps hoping for a period below the media radar when the party could gather itself together and consolidate its identity. In the jargon, the party would rebuild its core, rather than bid for the political centre (i.e. floating voters). Too rapid a collapse of the Labour Party could place unbearable strains on the Lib Dems, both in terms of organisation and the party’s coherence.

But a slow motion Labour collapse could be an opportunity for the Lib Dems. Even so, it will be a major challenge for this badly wounded party to do it justice.

 

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Corbynomics: hope, fantasy and shaky foundations

Jeremy Corbyn, the front runner in Labour’s leadership race, is clearly somebody that mainstream politicians and media types underestimate. The standard criticism of him is that he a blast form the past – somebody that wants to take the country back to the failed solutions of the 1970s. No doubt that’s how it looks if you just examine the various things the man has said down the years. But many of his supporters are young and are projecting something quite different onto him.  He has crafted his message to appeal to this group, to look like something much more modern. Today I want to take look at his economic ideas.

These have been set out in greatest detail in his paper The Economy in 2020, published on 22 July. It isn’t hard to see why he is enjoying so much support. He offers the hope of something fresh. He starts by attacking the government’s economic policies, which he characterises as “austerity” in the now familiar language of the left. Thankfully he has shown more sense than to use the word “neoliberal”, putting him ahead of the Green leader, Natalie Bennett, who put forward a strikingly similar prospectus in the May General Election.

“Austerity” is used as a general shorthand for economic liberalism, and in particular the attempt to keep government expenditure and taxation in check – which at present means reducing the scale of government expenditure. It also refers to attempts to reform public services through such policies as privatisation. Instead Mr Corbyn calls for investment to rebalance the economy towards higher paying jobs, though not ones in financial services. He has time for some supportive words for private industry – recognising that private enterprise will have to be part of the growth and investment process. It reads as constructive and hopeful.

This overarching narrative has some macroeconomic credibility. The current British economy is nothing like as strong as the government claims, and many of his criticisms are on the mark. Alas it falls apart on closer scrutiny. I want to quickly look at three aspects in particular: the so-called tax gap of £120bn, corporate subsidies of £93bn, and the idea of “people’s QE”.

But first I must mention a name that keeps popping up, and who ideas seem to be behind much of the document: Richard Murphy, an activist associated with the Tax Justice Movement. There are some striking parallels between Mr Murphy and me: he was born in 1958, he took an economics degree, and he is a Chartered Accountant. The main difference was that his Economics degree was joint Economics and Accountancy (at Southampton) in the 1970s, and mine was full Economics (at UCL) in the 2000s. It is one of the rare occasions when my formal qualifications in economics outrank that of a public policy wonk.

The Tax Gap estimate comes from this paper commissioned by the Public and Commercial Services Union and written by Richard Murphy in 2014. Mr Murphy (like me born in 1958 and a Chartered Accountant) is a prominent campaigner for Tax Justice. I first came across this document when it featured in a 38 Degrees campaign (“it isn’t rocket science”, which suggested that collecting more tax was basically quite easy), and I think its claims are firmly embedded in the hard left mythology. It suggests that the Revenue & Customs vastly underestimates the amount of tax lost through avoidance, evasion and the like – and that the real gap is £120bn and not £35bn (and falling). This is important because it suggests that a huge amount of extra tax could be collected if only politicians were less indulgent of wealthy taxpayers. To give some context, the Lib Dems were criticised in the General election for being speculative when they suggested that £10bn cold be gained by tackling the tax gap (more than the other parties, except the Greens, of course). Mr Corbyn has his eyes on something much grander – and thus funding extra government spending without raising taxes on ordinary working people.

The biggest part of this gap is the untaxed shadow economy, which Mr Murphy says is much bigger than official estimates. I can’t offer an opinion on whether this is true – but I can suggest that this is hardly low hanging fruit, and is by no means confined to fat cats (think small building jobs, domestic cleaners, to say nothing of drug dealers and the smuggling of booze and fags). This does explain a rather tangential reference to cracking down on small business tax evasion though in Mr Corbyn’s document.  It is hard to see how any government could do much more than make a marginal difference without a draconian clampdown on the black and grey economies which would carry a lot of uncomfortable implications right across our society.

Another number that gets an airing is the idea the government subsidises business to the tune of £93bn. The source of that seems to be the Guardian newspaper, and its correspondent Adtiya Chakrabortty (“The 93bn handshake” is their headline). This is unbelievably flaky. The biggest single item is £44bn of corporate tax benefits. This is mainly credits for investment expenditure. Calling this a subsidy is more than a stretch – it is simply putting capital expenditure on a level playing field with revenue expenditure by, in effect, making depreciation tax-deductible on some types of investment. I’m not clear whether the figure includes tax releif for research and development, but that would be entirely consistent with the logic. If Labour is serious about helping manufacturing industry, it will need more of this sort of thing, not less. Another thing thrown into the pot is export credits, which allow British exporters to compete on a level playing field. If George Osborne abolished this the noise from Labour benches would be deafening. Cleaning up old nuclear power stations is in there too. There is something not a little bizarre in on the one hand suggesting that the government should promote investment, and on the other hand attacking all attempts by government to promote private sector investment as corporate welfare that should be stopped.

Next comes the idea that the Bank of England’s Quantitative Easing (QE) programme should focus on public investment in housing and infrastructure and the like – “People’s QE” – rather than buying government and other bonds. This is promoted by Mr Murphy again (his ideas pop up several times – and not all of them are bad), in spite of his lack of economic qualifications. Quite apart form the fact that the Bank of England has ended QE because the monetary conditions no longer apply, it gets the Bank into the unenviable position of evaluating public investment projects.  Getting unelected technocrats to do this sort of thing rather than government ministers (funded by gilts subject to QE) is hardly democratic either. To be fair, Mr Corbyn just says that the idea should be looked at, not that he would do it. But it betrays a very weak understanding of economics. He seems unaware that the Keynesian critique of austerity is weakening all the time, especially now that real wage increases are growing, suggesting that economic slack has been taken up. The Keynesian critique may have had authority in 2010, but 2015 is another matter.

The truth about the modern economy is this: the world has moved on from the easy textbook world of the 1960s, and even the 1990s. Technology has made manufacturing so efficient that there are few jobs in it any more; most white collar jobs have likewise been automated away; we are left with a lot of important jobs (carers, nurses, cleaners, etc.) that cannot be made more productive (and so better paid) through investment programmes. Some things can and should be done: investing in public housing, rail infrastructure and building up renewable energy, for example. But these will not yield the hordes of well-paid jobs that politicians left and right so badly want. Productivity improvement has moved from the workplace to our private lives (think smartphones and search engines). And you can’t tax that. Meanwhile demographic change is adding a further brake to the formal economy. This is the real reason why the economy under the Conservatives is not doing well, not “austerity”. Mr Corbyn is offering 20th Century solutions to a 21st Century problem (as is George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor, I must add).

Slower growth means that it will be a struggle to raise much more in taxes, and certainly not without increasing taxes on middle income people. That is a hard political sell that Mr Corbyn only hints at (“there will be hard choices” he manages at one point). And it means that the government can’t just keep adding things to public expenditure without public services being unable to keep up with demand. That’s why abolishing student tuition fees is such a bad idea, for example – you only have to look at Scotland, where the state pays for university education, to see that. The universities can’t keep pace with demand, and fewer people from poorer backgrounds go to university than in England as a result.

I believe that there is a way forward from here. It does not come from the current government’s economic liberalism. It comes from strengthening local communities and the small businesses that serve them. It will not necessarily produce lots of conventional economic growth, and it will not produce masses of new tax. But it might produce public services that don’t keep failing; it would stop national and multinational chains sucking the life out of local economies; it would harness the potential of the underemployed.

Some of the ideas Mr Corbyn is promoting might help; he seems to suggest devolution of power to centres away from London. But too many look like national solutions that draw power back to London; others look like a path towards mass surveillance in order to collect more tax. I cannot see that it is any better than what the Tories are doing – and frankly I fear it would be worse.

Mr Corbyn promises hope, but his ideas are built partly on fantasy and definitely on shaky foundations. And that is even before he attempts to convince the public at large.

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All the parties are abandoning the centre, but Labour is cutting itself off from it

Notwithstanding my article last week, it looks as if Jeremy Corbyn really is the front runner to win Labour’s leadership contest, after a YouGov poll published this morning.  Also this week Conservative government ministers have been ramping up intemperate rhetoric on immigration and proposing foolish policies to curb it – in what looks like a calculated attempt to hold the far-right Ukip in check. Nobody seems interested in wooing Britain’s centre ground voters.

That YouGov poll, incidentally, is a proper public one, with open methodology. It shows that Mr Corbyn has 53% of the vote, enough to win on the first round. After distributions that would rise to 60% against Andy Burnham – though interestingly it shows that Yvette Cooper would attract disproportionate support from fourth-placed Liz Kendall, and almost enough for her to overhaul Mr Burnham. And yet, as also suggested by my article, she is not as well placed to stop Mr Corbyn – against her he would get 62% after distributions. Mr Corbyn is backed by 67% of trade union sign-ups and 55% of temporary members – and this is giving him a decisive edge.

The idea that political parties should woo centrist voters is scoffed at by Mr Corbyn’s supporters.They either believe that it is possible to work around them with a rainbow coalition of the left, including many who do not vote, or that  momentum for a hard left candidate will build and sweep the pliable voters of the centre in. Evidence for both propositions comes from the SNP’s overwhelming success in Scotland, which followed a sharp tack by that party to the left, and the adoption of “anti-austerity” politics, the current touchstone of the hard left. Of course this shows a typical English failure to understand the politics of their island neighbours. The SNP’s foray to the political left was based on an iron grip on the political centre, and a narrative (all Scottish problems arise from Westminster rule) that appealed to both left and centre. Only last year the SNP were advocating cuts to corporate taxes.

Meanwhile the down-but-not-quite-out Liberal Democrats are also turning away from the centre. This month’s Liberator magazine pours scorn on the previous leadership’s attempt to woo centrist voters. The party must ignore these voters to build up a core vote much bigger than its current 8% of the electorate, the magazine suggests, echoing an attitude that is now widespread in the party. If Labour lurches to the left, Lib Dems hope that this will alienate liberal Labour supporters, allowing it to advance its base. But this is hardly attacking the centre ground.

The Greens and Ukip never were much interested in the political centre. They are attacking the main party bases, left and right (both at once in the case of Ukip).

Who, then, are the political centre? By definition they are not loyal to any particular party, or not loyal for long. They tend to dismiss ideological narratives. Instead they focus on more quotidian issues, such as the economy, public services and tax. And above all they prize competence and stability. They overwhelmingly plumped for Conservatives in England in May’s General Election. They questioned Labour’s economic competence, and especially the idea of a Labour government dependant on SNP support. They did not vote Lib Dem, since they thought this might let Labour in. Also the Lib Dems were thought to lack credibility, after their much publicised tangles over student tuition fees.

And that analysis offers us a clue about what is going on. There is little point in trying to woo these inconstant voters early in the cycle. The early years of a parliament are for shoring up your base. The Conservatives in particular are keeping their powder dry for an attack on the centre in due course. It is not as if centrist voters aren’t sceptical about immigration anyway. The party must weather a bruising EU referendum, which could undermine its reputation for competence. And the economy, upon which the party sets much store, looks a bit too similar to that of the country before the 2007 crisis for comfort. But the party’s managers must be quietly confident.

Even the Lib Dems focus on a liberal core vote does not preclude a bid for centrist voters in key seats when the time comes. They have a big job to do to convince voters that they are still in the game, but mid-term chaos in the main parties might well offer them an opening.

It is Labour that has real reason to worry. It now seems odds-on that Mr Corbyn will take the leadership. The poor political acumen of the party’s soft left has let him in. Firstly it was Ed Miliband’s changing of the rules for electing the party leader, which made it vulnerable to being taken over by the political fringe (centrist supporters are unlikely to be interested enough to take part in such an exercise). Next it was soft left MPs, in particular supporters of Mr Burnham, that let Mr Corbyn onto the ballot. And if Mr Burnham does manage to stop Mr Corbyn (alas Ms Cooper stands less chance), it will be a thoroughly compromised victory. Mr Burnham is already making concessions to the hard left.

It is very hard to see how Labour can make a rapid switch to the centre after this. The hard left narrative is not all nonsense, but idealism trumps all for them – and they are happier railing against abstract nouns rather than addressing the everyday troubles of ordinary working people. Mr Corbyn projects charisma but not competence. And even if he gets ejected from the leadership before the next election, it is hard to see how the party can present a credible face to the country as a serious alternative government.

It is hard to believe that not so long ago (even earlier this year) many thought that the Tory brand was so toxic that they would lose power, possibly for good. But Britain’s incompetent left have found a way to give the Tories new life.

 

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Britain’s politicos don’t get AV. Is Burnham the only person able to stop Corbyn?

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British political journalism continues to plumb the depths. The latest case in point is their reporting of the contest for the Labour leadership. This applies both to the factual coverage and analysis. Nobody seems to have thought through the implications of the party’s electoral system, know as the Alternative Vote (AV). This system was put to referendum in 2011 for parliamentary elections, but alas the argument that referendums promote education and understanding falls short here.

Last week news was made by the leaked results of a private poll. This showed that left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn might just squeak home to victory by 51% to 49%. after second preferences had been distributed, over Yvette Cooper. The poll was interesting, if at all representative of how the Labour selectorate is planning to vote. There is health warning here: as a leaked private poll its rigour is unknown, it is unlikely that anybody has paid a sophisticated poll. The main interest is not that Mr Corbyn is doing well, which is old news, but that Ms Cooper seems to be his challenger. Previously a third candidate, Andy Burnham had been considered the favourite.  The battle between Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper is the the most interesting thing about this contest, at least if your want to predict who is going to win in the end. It is quite possible that Mr Burnham would be able to beat Mr Corbyn in a two-way fight – but it could be that the AV system is counting against him.

Now let’s look as how some of the media reported this poll. Start with Sky News, which comes top of my Google search. This headlines “Corbyn Takes 20 Point Lead in Leadership Poll”. This reports the distribution of first preference votes in the poll, with Mr Corbyn on 42%, Ms Cooper on 23%, Mr Burnham on 20% and the fourth candidate, Liz Kendall, on 14%. The distribution of first preferences is important news, but of limited significance. What it shows is that Corbyn’s support is sufficient for him to reach the final round of the decision process, but not enough to win without second (or third) preferences distributed from other candidates. It also says that Ms Kendall is likely to be eliminated first – and that the battle to challenge Mr Corbyn is a close fight between Ms Cooper and Mr Burnham. The gap between either of these candidates and Mr Corbyn does not tell you very much at all. The brief article does not mention how the second preferences were distributed. Sky’s Chief Political Correspondent, Jon Craig, is quoted as saying that the poll is interesting because because it shows Ms Cooper ahead of Mr Burnham, which is true enough, but then he spoils by saying:

Obviously it is a battle to stop Mr Corbyn, who is ahead. But what this poll suggests is that she (Ms Cooper) – not Andy Burnham – might be the person who can stop Mr Corbyn.

The whole contest is being reported as if it was held under First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral rules, like parliamentary elections. In that event the game is to mobilise votes behind the leading challenger to whoever is in the lead. Under AV the crucial point is which of the challenging candidates has more second preference votes for Mr Corbyn – as that candidate would then be in a better position to challenge him in the final round. That could well be Mr Burnham, who has positioned himself to the left of the field, compared to Ms to Ms Cooper, who resists saying much at all apart from pointing out her sex.

Next on the search is the Telegraph, with headline “Jeremy Corbyn takes 20 point lead in Labour poll with Andy Burnham in third place”. This article again concentrates on the first preferences, but at least this article reports the distribution of second preferences, and makes it clear what the voting system is. It does not delve into the implications of all this, and the headline tells you nothing very useful, but this article is the pick of the bunch.

The next mainstream article in the search is The Independent: “Jeremy Corbyn takes a 22-point lead in Labour leadership race”. This article again focuses on the size of the gap between the first two contenders as if it actually counted for very much. Well actually it reports the gap between the first and third contender: the newspaper is clearly struggling to take Ms Cooper’s campaign seriously. The paper does report that the vote is being conducted under AV, but not what the implications of this are; it doesn’t report that final distribution, which was clearly available, and which is the most important part of the whole release.

Other examples of shoddy journalism abound. The Economist blithely states that the AV system favours the most inoffensive candidate. This is patently untrue, as has been repeatedly shown in places like Australia, which uses the system for parliamentary elections. The inoffensive candidates tend to get eliminated in the early rounds because nobody can must enough enthusiasm for them to give them first preference votes. Often voters are left choosing between two extremes. To win, candidates must achieve a critical mass of first preference votes. Being inoffensive is clearly Ms Cooper’s strategy, and she could pull it off, but it is a risky one. It is not clear how being inoffensive is any more successful strategy under AV than it is under FPTP, which is often decided by “tactical” voting.

Another paper (I can’t remember which, or even if it was a paper) reported that Mr Burnham was positioning himself to the centre-left in order to pick up Mr Corbyn’s second preference votes – long after it was clear that Mr Corbyn was going to make it into the last round, and so that his second preference votes were not in play. And another example: a BBC interviewer suggested to Ms Kendall that she withdrew to improve the chances of the other anti-Corbyn candidates. And yet this makes no sense for her as fourth-placed candidate. It would make for sense for Ms Cooper (or Mr Burnham come to that) to do so.

I suspect what is happening is this. Many Labour members are signed up to the left-wing, anti-capitalist, anti-austerity narrative. Trade unions, for slightly different reasons, tend to think in a similar way: their main concern is to extend the reach of the public sector, where they have more influence. This coalition at first backed Mr Burnham, who tried to position himself to scoop up some of these supporters, while not burning his bridges with the parliamentary party, who are more concerned to pick up floating voters leaking to Ukip or the Conservatives. Mr Burnham became the easy front-runner. But Mr Corbyn entered the race, and proved to have a certain charisma – he tried the novel technique of saying what much of the selectorate was actually thinking, and sticking very closely to the official trade union line. Mr Burnham’s vote rapidly leaked away. This now seems to have reached the point where Mr Corbyn’s campaign has achieved critical mass – about one third of the votes – which means that he gets into the final round. This means that the second preferences of his supporters don’t count.

Meanwhile it does not look as if any of the other three candidates has reached critical mass. But it does look as if Ms Kendall is lying fourth. Which means that her second preferences do matter. It is safe to assume that very few of these votes will go to Mr Corbyn. One popular idea is that most of them will go for Ms Cooper, as being both female and apparently more centrist (Ms Kendall leads the right of the field). That could be enough to ensure that Ms Cooper gets past Mr Burnham and into the final round. If so, the decisive question is how Mr Burnham’s second preferences split. If he’s held on to some of his left leaning voters, they might opt for Mr Corbyn, and allow him to win.

So if you are taking part in this election, and you want to stop Mr Corbyn from winning, it matters a great deal how you rank Ms Cooper and Mr Burnham. If you think that Ms Cooper’s supporters will have fewer second preferences for Mr Corbyn than Mr Burnham, then you should rank Mr Burnham ahead. Which is a pity, because Ms Cooper is the better candidate.

Which speculation leads to an interesting conclusion. The AV system can favour the extremes by hollowing out the centre. The system could let Mr Corbyn in by knocking out the best placed candidate to beat him. Perhaps it’s as well the public rejected AV in 2011.

 

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The Labour leadership race becomes a lot more interesting – but exposes the party’s hollow heart

Jeremy_CorbynApart from one piece shortly after the election I have resisted blogging about Britain’s Labour Party after Ed Miliband’s departure as leader. It felt too much like displacement activity from confronting the predicament of the Liberal Democrats, to say nothing of a depressing turn of world events. I am glad I did so. Because I had not foreseen the turn that the leadership election has just taken.

To start with there seemed be just three serious contenders: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. They all stuck to a standard Westminster narrative that Labour needs to move to right to draw back voters that they had lost to Ukip and the Conservatives. These, it was thought, were put off by Labour’s perceived softness on austerity policies. Ms Kendall attracted real momentum amongst the small circle of media commentators because she proposed a sharper move rightwards than the other two. And she was a fresh face, untainted by the the years of Brown and Blair. But neither of the other candidates was exactly left-wing, though Mr Burnham tried to nuance is message a bit to the left to draw in leftist support.

But as nominations closed a fourth candidate was let in: Jeremy Corbyn, a paid up metropolitan leftist who used to be a trade union organiser, before starting a long parliamentary career in 1983 representing Islington North – and whose views have no moved on since. Some Labour MPs nominated him apparently to liven things up a bit rather than because they actually wanted him as leader. There was a precedent for this. Another left-winger, Diane Abbott, was “lent” nominations by other candidates, embarrassed that the field otherwise consisted of white male ex-ministers. Ms Abbott lived up to her token status and did not get very far. No doubt MPs thought the same would happen to Mr Corbyn.

This has turned out not to be the case. Mr Corbyn quickly attracted nominations from many constituency parties, as well as the support of the vast Unite union. A private poll has reportedly shown him actually leading first preference votes at 33%; the same poll showed Ms Kendal nowhere at 4%. Quite why Mr Corbyn proved a more effective candidate than Ms Abbott I cannot say. Ms Abbott is an engaging, intelligent and colourful individual. It may simply reflect the mediocrity of the other candidates. Perhaps it’s good old fashion sex and race bias (the male candidates were well ahead). Maybe Labour grassroots supporters have moved to the left. No matter, Mr Corbyn is free from the conventions and coded messaging of normal Westminster politics, and speaks his mind more clearly than the other candidates, giving him the prize of “authenticity”. And he is unambiguously of the left – attacking austerity, promoting free university tuition, and so on. His appeal to Labour activists and trade unionists is not hard to see. At last somebody is articulating what they are thinking.

Labour’s opponents amongst the Westminster elite can hardly contain their glee at this turn of events. Mr Corbyn is regarded by them as unelectable. Some are urging Tory supporters to join Labour temporarily to vote for him. They may be right about his electability, but that would be to underestimate the significance of this turn of events. The Labour leadership contest has been turned into a real battle of ideas.

This is unusual in such contests. Usually contenders are mindful of the need to unite the party after their election, and so they tend to deal in coded messages. The recent Lib Dem leadership contest was like that. And that was the case with the contest before Mr Corbyn entered it, apart from Ms Kendall, perhaps. This poses a challenge for the middle of the road candidates, Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper. Do they sharpen up their act and challenge the fantasies upon which Mr Corbyn’s campaign is based? Or do they give Labour members another helping of fudge, hoping to pick up  second preference votes of left-leaning members?

If it is the former, it could be good for the party. Unity is prized too much by party leaders; sometimes it is important to have big row and trample over people’s sensitivities. Otherwise conflict is not properly resolved and breaks out at a much less convenient point. This is something that Tony Blair understood very well in the 1990s. He had an easy victory in the leadership contest, but he then took the trouble of rubbing the leftists’ noses in it by changing Clause 4 of the party constitution. Mr Miliband’s focus on party unity simply left lack of clarity and muddle. The Labour leadership contest has a while to run yet. This gives party members plenty of time for the cold hard logic of a move to the political centre to sink in and elect Mr Burnham (still considered the front-runner) or Ms Cooper (for my money a much better choice); but the leftists will at least have had their moment of glory and been beaten in a fair fight.

But there are risks. If Mr Burnham or Ms Cooper wins by means of artful fudging, rather than challenging the left, they will be stuck in the same mire than Mr Miliband left the party in. They will then need to take on the left in some symbolic fight on a policy issue; they may well not have the courage to do so. And it might risk a fatal split.

Or Mr Corbyn might actually win. With a tiny power base in the parliamentary party, and no experience as a front line politician, this is not likely to go well. He might well turn out to be an Iain Duncan Smith or a Ming Campbell, leaders (Conservative and Lib Dem respectively) who were forced out because they couldn’t take the pace. Or else there might be a split in the party and the more “moderate” elements form their own centre party, seeking an alliance with the Lib Dems.

All this looks very good for the Conservatives. There seems to be a hollowness at the heart of Labour, which makes it very hard to bind together the pragmatic wing of the party with the left wing ideologues who provide the footsoldiers, and, through the trade unions, much of its funding. This is leaving the current Tory creed of economic liberalism without any serious opposition, unless you count the vacuous anger of the left. A landslide win in 2020 beckons.

Of course I believe that there is an alternative political and economic narrative that can offer a credible challenge to this conventional wisdom. The Liberal Democrats are closest to understanding it. The Greens are likely to take it up once somebody else starts to promote it. But almost nobody in the Labour Party is looking for it, as they  furiously debate a false choice between economic liberalism and death by tax and bureaucracy.

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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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