Britain’s improved growth points to more government austerity

The UK economy has improved dramatically in the last six months. This is one of the most important developments in British politics. This week’s good news on employment is just part of a wide spectrum of measures showing the economy’s improving health. Economic commentary, with its narcissistic obsession with monetary policy, has concentrated on the implications for interest rates. But a more important question I whether the economy’s recovery is sustainable. And the answer to that seems to be… not yet. And while it isn’t government austerity has to be the priority.

The political debate around the economy has focused on the wisdom or otherwise of the government’s austerity policies, designed to fix the country’s massive gap between public expenditure and tax. The Labour opposition suggested that there should be less austerity, and even some temporary tax cuts to try and push the economy into a virtuous circle of growth. But the country is now embarked on just such a virtuous circle without the need for any fiscal stimulus. Additional private consumption is the main cause of this stimulus, according to the latest bulletin from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). This shows that the Labour policy might well have worked (i.e. that a bit of stimulus could set off a virtuous circle), though in the event proved unnecessary.

So intellectually developments have far from proved Labour wrong. But they are the big political losers. Labour’s policy might have been sensible in the circumstances, but they also suggested that the Coalition’s policies were doomed to failure, which has proved not to be the case. It gets worse for them. This level of growth undermines the case for any reduction in austerity polices – which could cause inflation. And yet their hard-core supporters have been rallying to the idea that the cuts in government services and benefits are ideological and unnecessary. Labour have switched their attack to the cost of living, which is still running ahead of personal incomes, but this too runs the risk of being undone by events. Politics is a momentum business, and all it would take is a general improvement in wage levels before the election in 2015 to sink their propaganda offensive. Their poll lead has already shrunk.

Meanwhile press attention has switched to the Bank of England, which has embarrassingly been taken by surprise by the growth spurt. It is not long ago that it suggested that unemployment would not fall to 7% until 2016 – we are nearly there now. I find the focus on monetary policy very irksome though. It allows commentators to pontificate well inside their comfort zone, and talk about short-term developments in financial markets. But, as longer term followers of my blog will appreciate, I think that the usefulness of monetary policy is exaggerated, and the theory behind it has been comprehensively shredded.

Instead the big question should be sustainability. Mainstream economic commentators don’t seem to be that concerned by this. Their analysis is based on the idea that sustainable growth depends on whether or not growth exceeds the trend rate. This trend rate, about 2% per annum, is the average rate of growth since the 1950s, and is primarily driven by a steady increase in productivity. Up to 2007 the UK economy was neatly conforming to this trend. Then the recession hit, putting it well behind the trend rate, with a lot of catching up to do. This sort of commentator often mentions a large gap between the current size of the economy, and what it would have been if it had stuck to the trend – with the implication that this gap is a matter of policy failure. Chief amongst these commentators in my eyes is the FT’s Martin Wolf. In a recent article he dismissed the idea that growth up to 2007 was unsustainable.

This is macro blindness: a failure to question the neat patterns created by aggregate economic statistics. In my view the UK economy cannot sustain a growth rate as high as 2% in the long term, hasn’t been able to do so since perhaps 2000. The reasons are demographics, the changing impact of technology, and a reversal of the gains from trade achieved with the rise of China and India. The main evidence, not mentioned by Mr Wolf in his article, was provided for me in a lecture in 2007 by Professor Wendy Carlin, my economics tutor at UCL. It is the combination of an appreciating real exchange rate and a wide trade deficit. This provides an illusion of growth, but it is not supported by the advances in productivity that are required to sustain growth in the longer term.  It was not fashionable to say this at the time, but it proved prophetic. Productivity, incidentally, is an almost impossible factor to measure satisfactorily, and can only really be inferred indirectly. It is my feeling, not sustained by hard analysis, that a lot this growth illusion was from the reduced costs an increasing amount of goods, and some services, bought from China and India, and an important element of that trade deficit. This boost to the economy had “temporary” and “reversible” written all over it.

And the bad news is that the current spate of growth has suspiciously similar symptoms. The trade balance reported by the ONS deteriorated from under negative 2% of the economy in mid 2013 to over negative 3% in November (the latest data). I don’t have direct figures for real exchange rate (a rather tricky calculation), but sterling has appreciated since a low in about March. There seems to be no offsetting productivity gain, since employment figures have been very positive (a very good thing, in spite of some economists moaning about productivity). So we’ve just reverted to the unsustainable growth patterns of the early 2000s, without the benefit of cheaper imports to sustain living standards.

What, of course, we need to see is a rebalancing of the economy to something more sustainable. This will show through in increased levels of investment (still low) and a stronger trade balance. The confidence engendered by the recent spurt of growth may help with this. Meanwhile the government’s austerity policies need to be strengthened, if anything – otherwise the economy will be even less sustainable. Grim news for politicians of all persuasions.

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Nick Clegg is right to aim for the centre ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One cheer for Ed Miliband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The battle for Britain’s political centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Will the Dark Forces save the Tories and crush Ukip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How is Labour’s economic stimulus meant to work?

ON Monday at lunchtime Labour’s leader Ed Miliband was subjected to a fierce interview by Martha Kearney on the BBC Radio 4’s World at One. The main subject of contention was Labour’s economic policy, and in particular whether the party’s plan for a temporary cut in Value Added Tax would increase government borrowing. Mr Miliband did not want to say this, only that, because it would stimulate growth, it would help bring down government debt in the medium term. This was not an assured performance by Mr Miliband, but beyond that it seemed to me, perhaps unfairly, that he only had a superficial grasp of the economics involved. If so, he shares this superficial understanding with many members of his party, who lap up quotes from economic commentators such as Paul Krugman, and marry it to half-digested economic theory. So how is it meant to work? How can a temporary tax cut reduce government debt?

Let’s start with the Keynesian multiplier, which is widely taught in basic economics, and which I suspect comes to mind to most people here. You really have to do a bit of maths to understand the implications. Suppose you have an economy with a national income of £100bn a year, and an average tax take of 40%. You decide on a 1% stimulus with a temporary tax cut of £1bn. As people receive the extra money, 40% of it goes in tax, and they spend, say 80% of the rest on domestic goods and services (it doesn’t work if people use it to pay off debt or spend it on a foreign made car…). This adds £480m to the economy with extra expenditure straightaway. And this process continues in a virtual but diminishing circle, as that £480m is taxed, spent and so on.  If everything turns out to be mathematically consistent the stimulus adds over £900m to the economy. You have nearly 1% growth! This has cost the taxpayer (added to national debt) of £1bn in the first instance, but a lot of this has come back in extra taxes from the growth.

This is what people half remember when economic experts like Mr Krugman say that stimulus can reduce debt. But there are two problems. First of all, although on my fairly realistic assumptions most of the cost is clawed back, about a quarter of it isn’t. Keynesian stimulus cannot pay for itself at this simple, basic level unless people increase their spending by more than the stimulus itself. And secondly, it is a one-time event, so that you get 1% growth for one year, and then it stops, unless you repeat the giveaway. This tax cut is temporary. When you put taxes back up again, the whole process goes into reverse and the economy shrinks back to where it started. Something very like this happened to the last Labour government’s temporary cut in VAT: a small bounce that was undone when the cut had to be reversed, which, of course, they then blamed on the Coalition.

All this is well known to the Paul Krugmans of this world though, otherwise they wouldn’t be writing economics textbooks and winning Nobel laureates. When they advocate stimulus they are actually talking about something else: the effect of such a stimulus on the national zeitgeist. That 1% lift may make people and businesses happier. Businesses go out and invest more money; people save less, perhaps thinking that their share and property values will go up, and consume more. If this happens then all bets are off; the economy grows further, the government gets more taxes and the stimulus can pay for itself quite quickly and easily. Investment is particularly important; Maynard Keynes’s critical insight was that recessions happen when investments don’t match the amounts people save.

What to say about this? There are two potential snags and an irony. The first snag is that  the zeitgeist is a hard thing to manage. The whole thing can be undone by another crisis from the Eurozone, for example, which might reduce prospects for exports and dent confidence generally; or there could be some other crisis. The second snag is that this model of short-term growth assumes that there is spare capacity in the economy. When people and businesses go out and spend, domestic companies can readily ramp up production, employ new people and so forth. This is usually the case in a recession. But not always. In the 1970s, after the price of oil skyrocketed, the economy had to be restructured in order to grow – which was particularly hard because of the trade unions. Attempts to stimulate the economy simply led to high inflation while doing nothing for unemployment. Today, more flexible and globalised markets seem to have reduced the inflation threat – but stimulus can still be dissipated on imports and asset prices. What of the British economy now? Many commentators think that the British economy should be “rebalanced”, reducing its dependence on financial services and North Sea oil, as well as excessive private consumption fuelled by debt and property prices.

These potential snags to stimulus are why many critics of the government, such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, and many Liberal Democrats, such as the Social Liberal Forum, say that any stimulus should take the form of added public expenditure on investment, in infrastructure and homes. Since these have an inherent value, and help expand the economy’s capacity, there should be much less risk. This is a sensible idea in theory that is a lot less easy in practice. The public sector has a tendency to invest in wasteful projects for political rather than economic reasons.

This is where Labour’s plans are quite distinctive. They talk about temporary tax cuts, and hint at increased current expenditure. This is founded on a belief that there was not much of a problem with the pre-crisis economy, or unsustainable about the growth rates achieved in the years leading up to it. The crisis was simply a problem with the global financial system, and the country’s poor performance since is down to incompetent economic management from the Coalition. This is pretty much what Tony Blair said in his recent piece for the New Statesman. If you believe this then capacity is not at issue, and the zietgeist should be readily easy to fix.

And the irony? Left wing economic commentators like to laugh at the “Voodoo economics” of Laffer curves and self-funding tax cuts advocated by far-right commentators. Paul Krugman talks about their belief in the “confidence fairy”. But the left’s economic beliefs are no less dependent on their own confidence fairy.

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Will Labour let the Tories win the 2015 election?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Lib Dems hope for a turning point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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