Why Labour are losing the election in 2015

According to press chatter, there is mounting worry amongst those that surround Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. I don’t know anybody in this elite circle, and I can’t offer an opinion on whether this is true. What I can say is that it should be. After ducking hard choices when the going was good, he is now in real trouble.

The immediate cause of the Labour wobble, if that is what it was, was the poll bounce for the Conservatives after the recent Budget by the Chancellor, George Osborne. The previously secure Labour lead simply vanished. This poll bounce disappeared as quickly as it came. Clever charts showing that it was part of a longer-term trend look premature. But it did show that Labour support is not solid, and that the Tories are not quite as terminally unpopular as many suggested.

But what really convinces me that Labour are in deep trouble is this exclusive piece in yesterday’s Independent, highlighting an article Mr Miliband had written for the paper. Here’s the first paragraph:

Ed Miliband has promised to rescue Britain’s struggling middle classes by boosting their living standards as he warns that the “cost-of-living crisis” will last for at least another five years.

This seems to be part of a bid by Mr Miliband to rebuild his electoral standing; today he is launching a policy about devolving more power to “super-City” regions, building on a policy developed by the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, as he will not say.

This political drive builds on two themes that Mr Miliband has been developing. The first is “the squeezed middle” – a deliberately vague reference to people who feel they are neither favoured by government handouts, nor part of the rich elite. It is interesting that this seems to have migrated to “the struggling middle classes”, when it might just as easily refer to working classes (if you get beyond the bureaucrats’ tendency to use the term “working class” to refer to people who are not working, and entitled to state support, as an alternative to the word “poor”). The second idea is “the cost of living crisis”, referring to the fact that for most people incomes have not increased as fast as prices over the course of the last government.

No doubt Labour’s polling shows that these ideas cover a large swathe of generally unhappy people, who might therefore be sceptical of the government’s record. The problem is how to appeal to them. Almost by definition, these people are out of the scope of state benefits. In fact they tend to resent the size of the state benefits bill, apart from the old age pension, whose cost they tend to underestimate. They are not employees of the state, a separate and distinct constituency, even if they share some of the same problems). So how to address their standard of living? There are two ways: tax cuts and a stronger private sector economy. On both counts Labour’s credibility is behind that of the Coalition.

The best sort of tax cut to reach the squeezed middle is a cut to personal allowances, i.e. the point at which people start to pay tax (including its National Insurance equivalent, something all parties seem happy to ignore). But the Coalition has already been increasing this quite aggressively, mainly at the expense of higher rate tax payers, some of whom are now claiming to be part of the squeezed middle too. Worse, it is one of the few policies that is closely identified by the public with the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition, which Labour is extremely keen to denigrate – they have picked up a lot of ex Lib Dem voters. They have floated the idea of a 10% tax band, which is just a less efficient way of delivering the same policy – and has uncomfortable echoes with one of the last Labour government’s policy mistakes.

There is an even bigger problem with taxes. Labour has to convince voters that it will not put taxes up to pay for an expanded state. That means signing up to a series of things, like a cap on benefits expenditure, that will be unpopular with core Labour voters, and not even particularly sensible from the point of view of economic management.

But tax cuts are a fairly minor palliative. What would really cheer voters up is the prospect of incomes rising in the private sector. The trouble is that Labour has done nothing to dispel its reputation for being anti-business. Quite the opposite. Mr Miliband’s view is that there are good businesses (“producers”) and bad ones (“predators”). Wages are being squeezed by the predators to benefit their top managers and shareholders. So his anti-business policies are directed at these predators (banks and energy companies to the fore), while helping the producers. This argument is not entirely without merit, but it is a tough sell. And in practice it is pretty much impossible to create policies that discriminate successfully between the two classes of business, and all those that inhabit the grey zones in between. The result is that Labour’s policies designed to address this problem, such as the devolution to the cities, don’t look as if they will deliver much of a boost to wages in the short term – even if they are perfectly sensible. And sensible policies are liable to get matched or pinched by the coalition parties anyway.

The Conservative counterattack to Labour will point to the fragility of the current economic recovery, and say “Don’t put all this at risk”. Of course one thing that could put the fragile recovery at risk is the Conservative plan for a referendum on the EU. But does Labour want to go out with all guns blazing on that issue? Perhaps I underestimate Mr Miliband, and that is his plan. But so far he is happy for Mr Clegg to take the lead on the issue. In fact you could not  inaccurately describe Labour’s emerging strategy as “I agree with Nick”. A liberal, centre-ground stance that wants more devolution from Westminster, but with a strong attachment to the EU.

So Labour is embarking on an impossible task to convince the electorate that it can out-do the coalition parties at their own policies. This won’t work. But what it will do is to de-motivate their core constituencies of public sector workers and the squeezed bottom, as I might call the voters suffering from benefits cuts.

The trouble is that Labour hoped to get the best of both worlds after Mr Miliband was elected. That they could adopt a “Blair-lite” strategy that allowed an appeal to the centre ground, while at the same time harnessing the wave of anger from their core voters at the government’s austerity policies, which, incidentally, allowed them to harvest a lot of Lib Dem voters. But Blair-lite lacked credibility as soon as the economy started to revive. There was a choice to be made for either Blair II, an unashamed dash for the middle ground, including an apology for the record of the last government’s economic policies (though that would have been too much for Mr Blair himself). Or they could have gone for unashamed social democracy, making a case for higher taxes, a bigger state, and less aggression on cutting the deficit (isn’t going for a balanced budget just willy-waving after all?).  The first of these two choices might well have destroyed the party, given the depth of anger over “The Cuts” – but the second choice was never properly debated or confronted. It would have been perfectly respectable and courageous – even if expanding the state back to the size it was in 2008, or even 2010, would have taken a very long time.

The Conservative General Election campaign has not got started yet. They will allow Ukip their moment of glory in this year’s Euro elections, then quietly mug their voters by stoking up fears of Labour. Labour’s credibility will fall apart, and they will have increasing trouble fending off Tory attacks and keeping their core supporters loyal.

If I was advising Ed Miliband, I would be worried.




The remarkable politcal success of Michael Gove

Shortly before the British General Election in 2010 a headteacher at a local school told me: “Well, however is the new Education Secretary cannot be worse then Ed Balls.” Mr Balls, now Shadow Chancellor, was then Labour’s Education Secretary. He had built up a reputation for political posturing and bullying, while presiding over new Labour’s muddled education policies. I have not asked that headteacher how she thinks the new education Secretary, Michael Gove, compares to Mr Balls. I don’t have to; her prediction was spectacularly wrong. Mr Gove is even more loathed by education professionals than was Mr Balls. But Mr Gove, unlike Mr Balls, counts as a political success.

Mr Gove has been in the news recently. Yesterday he gave a speech spelling out his vision for state schools; over the weekend there was a fuss over his failure to reappoint the Chair of Ofsted, the schools’ inspectorate. His spin doctors have been pushing out a story of his reforming zeal against an educational establishment referred to as “the Blob” after a 1950s sci-fi movie. This has received a lot favourable coverage in the right-wing press. More neutral observers, such as the FT as well as the BBC, seem content to faithfully report Mr Gove’s spin while not openly taking sides.

All this is in stark contrast to the government’s attempts to reform the NHS, led by former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The government side of this argument hardly got a look in, as the picture of chaotic reforms took hold. This negative coverage stiffened opposition to the reforms, muddling them further, so that they have ended up being the biggest blot on the Coalition government’s record – though some good may yet come out of them. There has been little public support for opponents to Mr Gove’s education reforms, however. Mr Gove, an ex-journalist, is clearly a better communicator than Mr Lansley, an ex-doctor. The education system is also much simpler than the health service. But the political skills of Mr Gove’s “Blob” are totally lacking, unlike those of the doctors and nurses opposing Mr Lansley. The teaching unions have long been a bit of a comedy act, resisting basic workforce reforms, like performance appraisal, that non-teaching professionals have long since got themselves used to. Other educational professionals rarely raise themselves beyond the minutiae to give politicians and the public a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve.

Are and were British schools in a mess? Yes and no. International comparisons show a mixture of good and bad news. Overall performance is unspectacular but not awful. We have a long “tail” of under-achieving pupils that schools give up on too quickly. There is a lot of mediocrity, especially amongst rural schools, who “coast” by getting average performance from pupils capable of much more. But over the last two decades, the Blob has pulled off one of the most spectacular episodes in school improvement in the world: the transformation of London schools. This has given the lie to the standard line of the Left that the educational prospects of poor pupils will only be transformed once other social problems, like jobs and housing, have been fixed. The Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s poorest, regularly outperforms much wealthier districts outside London.

The transformation of London’s schools remains one of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. But politically, it is problematic. It owes nothing to the various policies pushed by politicians and think tanks, such as creating semi-independent Academies. It was largely down to good old fashioned management: officials at national and council level holding school managements to account, and replacing heads of mediocre schools. As a result politicians are strangely reluctant to take the credit.

What of Mr Gove’s reforms? They are a mix of good, bad and ugly. On the good side, Ofsted’s remit has been sharpened up a lot. Previously it had expanded into such areas as “community cohesion”, which are highly sensitive to context, and inspectors did not show any great aptitude. Now they focus much more sharply on the quality of teaching. This gets to the core of what drives school performance. Some older teachers hate this – but it really isn’t any different to the pressures that accountants and lawyers find themselves under. Younger teachers seem accept the much greater level of accountability that is expected – and respond well to it. (My evidence on this is rather anecdotal though – based on my experience as a school governor in a London primary school).

Another good thing, though largely unremarked, is that Mr Gove’s Academy programme is putting private schools under real pressure. Many private schools outside the South East are now signing up to be state schools, run as academies. My local Free School is recruiting many middle class youngsters that would formerly have gone private. No doubt some on the left see this as a sinister subsidy to the middle classes – but a much higher level of social mixing occurs at these new state schools than would have occurred at private schools. And social mixing at schools helps the poorer children achieve more. It is worth noting that this policy works as well as it does thanks to two measures insisted on by the Liberal Democrats: a “pupil premium” giving extra funding for poorer pupils, and insisting on non-academic selection. Many Conservatives want to recreate academically selective Grammar Schools. These may once have been engines of social mobility, but now academic selection is simply used as a way of weeding out pupils from poorer backgrounds and reducing mixing.

The bad: there is a lot of wasted energy on changing things that don’t need changing. That particularly applies to changes to the curriculum. Mr Gove and his supporters seem to have an old-fashioned view on what should be taught in schools, to reflect a 1960s private education. Now it is true that the Blob has developed a lot of woolly curriculum ideas that don’t seem to be of lasting educational benefit (especially in “applied” qualifications), but they were gradually sorting out this mess by themselves. Mr Gove seems to have little idea as to what modern universities and employers actually want the product of a secondary education to be. A lot of the drive to turn state schools into academies seems a bit pointless, and will probably create problems of accountability in later years. It has a sinister aspect too: the Academy chains who are the main beneficiaries are politically well connected – and it is their political connections that seem to be critical in their success.

The ugly. We are getting more religiously founded state schools. Given religiously founded schools’ role in cementing toxic community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Scotland, I am very nervous about this. But it could be that making these newer schools conform to modern educational norms, and forcing them to engage with a wider civil society, will bring benefits. But I really would prefer it if our children went to schools attended by children of many faiths and none. But the alienation of some religious communities is such that they would not engage in such arrangements, and for them a state religious school is a second-best.

My verdict on Mr Gove is that he is not quite as evil as he cracked up to be. But he is wasting a lot of time and energy. What should be absorbing energy is teaching standards, establishing a broad curriculum appropriate to modern life, and establishing better systems of accountability which don’t tempt schools to game the system by neglecting “hopeless” cases. Fix these and Britain’s state schools would be world class. But alas, we are distracted by political gimmickry.


Labour are in serious trouble

Not long ago Labour supporters seemed very confident. Their lead in the polls pointed to a comfortable majority; the electoral system was loaded against the Conservatives; they (in their own minds) had won the argument on austerity. It was a good moment to move to the political left and drop the Blairite obsession with the political centre. But now Labour’s poll ratings are sinking, and the Tories catching up.  The 2015 election increasingly looks like a stalemate or worse for Labour. What can they do?

And it is not difficult to see the source of Labour’s problems: Britain’s reviving economy, and rapidly falling unemployment. This is not running to the Labour script – which was that austerity policies doomed the British economy to stagnation and misery. It used to be that Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, sounded easily the most economically literate of the front-bench spokesman of either side (challenged only by the Lib Dem Business Secretary, Vince Cable). Now he sounds panicky and flustered. His arguments, that the recovery is shallow because it is based on consumption rather investment and exports, is technically correct but irrelevant. Labour’s alternative policies of fiscal stimulus were promoting an equally shallow recovery. Labour has no serious ideas on how to promote investment and exports. Meanwhile, the rising economy is giving government spokesmen more confidence: Lib Dem Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander sounded more in control of the economic arguments than he has ever been on the radio this week, managing to pick apart arguments presented by the FT’s Martin Wolf. The Tory Chancellor George Osborne, always more interested in politics than economics, is not wasting any opportunity to skewer Labour using much less sophisticated arguments.

Labour started their damage limitation strategy last Autumn by their leader, Ed Miliband: to try and change the subject. First there was the “cost of living crisis”, focusing on the failure of pay to keep up with prices. Now it is the top rate of tax, where they want to restore the 50% rate rashly reduced to 45% by the Coalition in 2012. Labour’s policy is popular, and the criticism coming in from business groups is unconvincing. These lobbyists say that reducing taxes, especially on the better off, is what is need to awaken dormant business investment. And the government has duly cut taxes (that top rate, and also the rate of company tax) without investment budging. The trouble is that Labour’s policies sound unfriendly to businesses, and therefore likely to stall growth and cause general taxes to rise.

It gets worse for Labour. The energy that drives their activists comes from opposition to austerity: fighting cuts which are seen as mean-minded and ideological. The theory was that the fighting the huge government deficit should be left until later, when the economy was growing. That “later” has now arrived. So how will Labour cut the deficit? Being specific about this, as they will have to be by 2015, will cause huge angst and disillusionment amongst their core supporters.

And in any case Britain’s electoral system is not so weighted in favour of Labour as some supposed. There is a pro-Labour bias in the distribution of seats it is true, but there is also a pronounced benefit to incumbency. When it comes to asking which seats the party will have to capture to win an outright majority it looks hard going. Battersea, the seat where I live, is a case in point. The Conservatives took it off Labour in 2010, but it looks very difficult for them to win back. In the last 3 years I have heard nothing from Labour, but regularly from the Tories; residents aren’t being given the impression that Labour are in contention. The hard fact is that modern politics, with fewer volunteer workers and high postal costs, is an expensive business. Labour surely do not have the money to capture enough marginal through trench warfare tactics in the marginals. They need a national landslide effect, such as they achieved in 1997 under the hated Tony Blair.

So what to do? A change in leadership is out of the question, especially as the most popular alternative, David Miliband, Ed’s brother, is out of contention. A ruthless reshuffle of the front bench might help, but only if it went alongside a wider change of strategy. I think promising more money for the NHS, struggling to keep up with demand, would play to their strengths. But they would have to have credible tax policies to back it up. Taxing just the very rich won’t quite cut it. But taxing a wider body of people would totally undermine their rhetoric on the cost of living. They have dug themselves into a real hole.

Their best bet may just be to keep calm and hope the Tories self-destruct. They show every sign of wanting to do so over the toxic issues of Europe and immigration. Labour’s best chance of benefiting from this tendency to suicide is to appear moderate and centrist. Not a good moment to lurch to the left.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? About half their voters at the 2010 election deserted them for Labour. The polls that show Labour sinking do not show any real benefit for the Lib Dems. But if the contradictions of Labour’s criticism become exposed in the next year or so, then they may get their opportunity. The centre ground, though treated with justifiable suspicion by many of their activists, is a sound place for them to stick to for now.


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.


Nick Clegg is right to aim for the centre ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


One cheer for Ed Miliband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


The battle for Britain’s political centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Will the Dark Forces save the Tories and crush Ukip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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