Occupy: a difficult bandwagon to ride

There was a strained moment at last night’s dinner at the National Liberal Club for the London Liberal Democrats, when the party was challenged by a member over the Occupy protests at the City of London.  Both the guest speaker, Paddy Ashdown, and the Mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, said that the act of protesting was a wonderful, liberal thing to do, and that the party should engage with the protesters (and indeed has), but that there was too little in  the way of constructive proposals for the party to take on.  Given that the anger that drives the protests is shared widely across the population, this seems a rather inadequate response.  But politicians of all stripes struggle to say much more.

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has tried to ride the bandwagon.  It chimes well with his appeal for greater morality in commercial life.  This line seems to play quite well with policy wonks and political professionals, but just seems to underline Mr Miliband’s lack of grounding in the gritty “real” world – a lack which, of course, he shares with most politicians of all parties.  His ideas share with David Cameron’s “Big Society” a complete inadequacy when faced with the big issues highlighted by the protesters.

It is easy enough to accept the core of what the protests are about.  There has been a lot of irresponsible behaviour in world finance which has helped bring about the current economic crisis; these financiers still seem to be attracting outrageous levels of pay; and taxpayers still underwrite the whole show.  After this, however, practical politicians have to deal with four difficult facts in the search for policies.

First: world finance may have failed, but capitalism hasn’t.  To many of the protesters world finance is simply the purest form of capitalism and its failure represents the failure of the whole capitalist system.  Well greed and profit seeking, familiar parts of the capitalist way, had a lot to do with it – but as much of the problem was uncapitalist politics.  Governments borrowing too much money to develop public services; interfering with the market to extend home ownership (especially in the US); China’s distinctly uncapitalist but de-stabilising trade policies, to name but three factors.  The real problem was politicians trying to tilt capitalism to their own ends, even if these ends were quite laudable.  There is in fact no substitute for capitalism if we are to maintain the living standards in the developed world, and to roll back poverty in the devloping world.  Interfering with the workings of free markets is likely to make matters worse, not better.

Mention of politicians brings in the second awkward fact.  The public (especially in the developed world) is at least as much to blame for the economic crisis as the bankers.  Excessive borrowing was widespread, as was pressure on politicians to ride the boom and expand government.  It wasn’t only the bankers that were being greedy.  It is natural enough to blame the bankers, saying like children, “It wasn’t my fault, he made me do it!” – but this isn’t very helpful in the search for solutions.

And a third awkward fact is that banking and finance, apart from the greed and the excess, carry out a vital world function.  The process of linking savers to borrowers, which is essentially what finance does, is vital for economies to develop and poverty to be fought.  It is absolutely no coincidence that the growth in world finance in the last couple of decades happened at the same time as the biggest progress against world poverty that we have ever seen.  And the beneficial effects of world trade that finance facilitated completely dwarf the well well-intentioned works of government aid and charities.  The problem is that the bankers simply creamed off too much of the benefit for themselves.

Which leads naturally to the fourth, and awkwardest fact of all: the bankers are holding a lot of hostages.  We need bank lending to keep productive industries going.  Governments needs finance to keep public services going.  In the UK, and especially London, world finance includes many perfectly productive jobs which we can ill afford to lose.  Vindictive policies will hurt us all.

But finance does need to be tamed.  But doing so is a slow process which requires a great deal of patience.  There are two key sets of reforms, neither of which are quick:

  1. Separate investment banking from utility banking.  There are many abuses in utility banking, but the really dangerous stuff is in investment banking, and allowing investment bankers to run utility banks is a recipe for total disaster.  The Vickers Commission’s reforms are an excellent start here – and seem to be leading the way globally.  The investment bankers are patiently trying to undermine them – but politicians and the public need to stay on their case.
  2. Make investment banking much less profitable.  It is the profits that drive the excessive pay – and policy needs to focus on the causes of the disease rather than wasting time on the symptoms.  There are two main causes of excess profits: lack of competition and the failure of organisations to bear public costs (for example of the public’s underwriting of the banking system).  In investment banking, it is the second of these that is the most important (in retail banking it is the first…), and the most effective way forward is raising capital requirements.  This is being done, and banking profits are duly under a lot of pressure.  At first it will be the shareholders who feel the pain – but in due course it will be bankers pay, as shareholders get fed up with their overpaid servants.

Actually progress is rather good.  We don’t need gimmicks like the “Tobin Tax”.  we need vigilance and patience.  I am proud of the way the Liberal Democrat ministers have been keeping the pressure up (Vince Cable is the star, but Nick Clegg is clearly on side).  The bankers are waiting for the Occupy bandwagon to move on.  It will, but I hope and trust that the Liberal Democrats will still be on their case.

Lib Dems and the Quality of Life

One of the more entertaining episodes of the last Lib Dem conference was the debate on the party’s new Quality of Life policy paper.  This paper had wended a long but largely uncontroversial path through the policy formation process, including extensive consultation, before reaching the conference – and I was a member of the working group – interest declared.  And generally policy that has followed this path gets more or less nodded through.  Not this time.  The motion and paper got the backs up of many representatives, and there were a number of well-delivered and entertaining speeches against.  For a flavour of this ire see Alex Wilcock’s blog – scroll down past the Dr Who stuff to 20 September.  If you click through to the comments page, you will find Alex describing yours truly as “not so much a thinking liberal as a sneering one”!  The paper was passed, but the margin was quite narrow by the usual standards of these things.

And that’s a bit of a problem.  This is policy that stands behind other policy – important not so much for its direct recommendations as its influence on subsequent policy.  I hesitate to call it philosophical – since it does not attempt to develop the core values of the party, but rather to apply them in a new way.  But if it is considered contentious, it may get ignored.  And for all that it is official policy, this would be quite easy.

What’s the fuss about?  The starting point of the paper is that public policy is too dependent on “hard” economic statistics, such as income and economic growth, to measure success.  But these are only intermediate measures – in other words we like them because they lead to good things, rather than being good of themselves.  That is because of the difficulty of measuring success in itself – the hitherto rather woolly concepts of wellbeing and quality of life.  But social science has been advancing rapidly and it is now possible to measure wellbeing in a rigorous way – mainly through asking people to make subjective judgements on their state of mind.

What the paper recommends is to make wellbeing an explicit policy goal, alongside the traditional economic measures.  To ensure this is done rigorously, it recommended that a National Institute of Wellbeing is established to promote standards. Various other devices (a cabinet champion, for example) were recommended to get it embedded into the business of government.

So far, so good, perhaps – but for liberals some loud alarm bells should be ringing by now.  This could be a charter for highly paternalistic government.  And especially when you come up against the evidence that many people seem to have a poor understanding of what is good for their wellbeing.  So the beating heart of this policy paper is the insight that individual autonomy (“agency” in wonks’ jargon) is central to wellbeing.  The idea is to help people help themselves, and not bullying and cajoling them into making better choices.

Education is central.  And, to make a small digression, this takes you in a very interesting direction.  A lot more is understood about life skills – emotional intelligence, resilience, and such – and the wellbeing insight gives these a much higher priority at all levels of education.

Fortunately there is a wealth of evidence to support the liberal view.  There one further thing – the measurement mechanism of choice for social sciencists, self-reported wellbeing, is a thoroughly liberal idea.  Wellbeing is what the population says it is, and not an arbitrary idea imposed by policymakers.  It’s like voting.

What were people objecting to?  One faction distrusted anything with so little in the way of concrete recommendations – especially when those few recommendations sounded like more bureaucracy and a new quango.  At best they interpreted it as harmless, and so a cost-free policy to rebel against; at worst they thought it was opening the party up to being criticised for being irrelevant in times of widespread economic hardship.  Others, Alex was amongst these though he was not called to speak, understood how dangerous the the quality of life idea could be in the wrong hands, and felt that it was too toxic to touch.  Or, possibly, that the detail of the policy paper did not live up to its liberal intent. At any rate that is my reading of what they were saying.

All this put the promoters of the motion in a bit of a difficulty – it is really quite difficult to push abstract ideas in this kind of debate.  In a short speech you don’t really have much opportunity to say more than “I think this is a good idea” rather than why you think it is good – at least not in a way that will connect to more than a minority of the audience.

Does it matter?  The problem is that the wellbeing agenda is slowly but surely infiltrating itself into the public policy process already.  The word (or “well-being”, the spell-check compliant variant which I don’t like) and quality of life come up with increasing frequency in all kinds of public policy contexts, and especially in health.  The concepts, if not the measurements, lay behind so much of the last government’s meddling in people’s lives.  And David Cameron is an enthusiast too, though with an entirely different agenda -but no doubt paternalist in  a different way.  Liberals need to get into this debate and push back hard against paternalism – but using the language of wellbeing, and not just pronouncing the plague on all its works.

And there is something else, even more important in my view, which the paper doesn’t really touch.  And this is the usefulness of the idea in promoting a more environmentally sustainable economy.  It is important to break through the tyranny of current economic measurements to show that a more sustainable way of life does not equate to poverty – and indeed that it can be better for everybody.  This is why the New Economics Foundation is so interested in wellbeing.  I particularly like their paper on Measuring our Progress.

So we need to keep pushing.  As one of the motion’s supporters said to me afterwards “Who remembers how close Nick Clegg’s margin of victory was for the party leadership?”.  Still, we that understand and support the policy have a selling job on our hands.

 

Time the British woke up to the crisis in Europe

It is a commonplace for Britain’s politicos to sadly shake their heads and complain that the Euro crisis demonstrates a woeful lack of political leadership.  Regardless of the fairness of this charge in respect of Angela Merkel, say, it clearly has resonance for Britain’s own leaders.  There seem to be two camps: ravingly impractical Eurosceptics, and sheer paralysis from everybody else.  The mood amongst Europhiles (as I witnessed at fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference) is akin to deep depression.  It is time for this to change.

To be fair some key players have been showing something less than paralysis – George Osborne and Nick Clegg have both been conspicuous in raising the seriousness of the situation with their international colleagues – but their pronouncements are hardly more helpful than anybody else’s.  They aren’t bringing anything to the party and they aren’t trying bring our own public alongside.

The first point is that the Euro crisis has serious implications for Britain, much though most people seem to think it is happening to somebody else.  This is for two main reasons.  First is that this country would be caught up in any financial disaster.  Our oversized banks are deep in the mess; Euro zone countries are vital trading partners for a country very dependent on trade – especially given that international financial services are so important to us.  Our fragile attempts at recovery risk being completely blown off course.  Forget Plan B if this lot breaks.

The second reason it matters to Britain is that resolution of the crisis could take the European Union in a direction that is against our interests.  Britain leads the single market wing of the union: the chief Euro zone countries are more protectionist in their instincts.  We risk being shut out of the design of critical architecture – much as the Common Agriculture Policy was put together in our absence.

How to proceed?  We need to tackle the dark spectre head on: the best resolution of the crisis involves changes to the European treaties.  To change the treaties will require a referendum here (let’s not weasel out of it this time).  If we face up to that challenge now, it will show real courage, and help get things moving.

But, of course, we would need to see something in return.  Changes to the treaties that would further our interests.  These need to be to promote the single market, to protect London (and Edinburgh) as centres for financial infrastructure, and to reduce unsightly bureaucracy and/or operating costs of the Union (the siting of the European Parliamnet at Strasbourg needs to go on the table, at least).  Given our understanding of finance, we might well have useful things to say on the Eurozone architecture too – even though we clearly can’t be part of it.

To do this our leaders (the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in the lead) need to build two sets of alliances.  The first is within the British body politic, so that the referendum can be won.  This needs to cover Tory pragmatists (David Cameron, George Osborne and William Hague), the Labour leadership and, preferably, the SNP.  The Lib Dems have an important role in making this hold together since, by and large, they understand the Union the best.  Mr Clegg’s experience of deal-making in the European parliament counts for a lot.  The next set of alliances is within the Union itself, to create a Single Market bloc.  The obvious candidates are the Nordic countries, Ireland and the Netherlands, together with many of the newer members in central and eastern Europe.

This will be very difficult.  That’s the point, almost.  The reward is a stabler EU, constructed more to our taste, even if we must concede some powers to an inner core of Euro area countries.  Everybody wins.  And by taking on the wilder Eurosceptic fringe, including their newspaper backers, it will cheer all right-thinking people up.  It’s time we stopped being paralysed by fear and came out fighting.

Memo to Miliband: break some eggs

As a political insider it’s very easy to be carried away by partisan emotions, but very dangerous.  Thus I have been watching (not literally) the Labour conference with a great deal of caution.  I want to scoff, but my better self tells me to be more careful.  And that applied especially the Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech delivered yesterday.  After reading the commentary in the papers I decided that I had to read the text of it too.

Let’s start with the good bits.  It set out a clear narrative for the past present and future. His starting point was Mrs Thatcher and the 1980s.  Some good reforms but she started a culture of heedless self-advancement.  New Labour was a step forward because it invested heavily in public services and in tackling poverty – but it didn’t do enough (anything?) to change a reckless business culture, and this brought the whole system down in the financial crash of 2008-09.  After the crash the current government is doing nothing to address this underlying sickness, and its austerity policies are choking off growth and making things worse.  For the future, Mr Miliband wants to transform society by making government more moral, and finally taming the monster that Mrs Thatcher unleashed.

Mr Miliband’s core constituency, the “squeezed middle”, remained firmly at the centre of his narrative – although he wisely did not use that phrase.  These are people who are neither rich nor poor, and whose living standards are being steadily squeezed, as government largesse is focused on those who are poorer.  Mr Miliband identified this key group at the start of his leadership, and he is maintaining his aim.  He is clearly more successful in this than the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who has identified the same group as decisive (using the phrase “Alarm Clock Britain” to describe them, to general derision), but has struggled to hit the right note.

It is easy to pick holes in the narrative, but that would only hint at its main weaknesses. Firstly that to most people it will sound abstract and irrelevant, and second that he failed to tackle the hard choices that would show he meant business.

Irrelevance?  Britain stands in the middle of a global financial crisis, lurching towards another episode on a par with the crisis of 2008.  The Euro zone is at the heart of this crisis, and thus the European Union, this country’s main diplomatic and economic partner, is facing the biggest challenge in its history.  And Mr Miliband’s answer to this global challenge?  To fiddle with VAT rates and implement the government’s cuts a bit slower.  The world situation got hardly a mention.  No doubt the idea is to set a time-bomb for the government, so that as the economy fails to approve he can say “told you so”.  But since Labour’s explanation of the 2008 crisis was the world economic situation, what answer do they have if this government says the same thing?  As George Osborne and David Cameron  scurry round the globe trying to stave off disaster, Labour stays at home and whinges about VAT.  This doesn’t look very convincing.

And he did not have much else to say that would help his squeezed middle voters in the pocket, rather than replicating their complaints about benefit cheats and fatcats.  In fact he did not have much to say on specific policies at all.  He wants to cut university tuition fees (which would in fact help the better off more than anybody) and that’s about it.

The problem is this: change hurts.  People know that instinctively, so that to convince them that you are serious you have to do painful things.  Tony Blair did so by taking on a number of Labour shibboleths: Clause 4 of the party constitution, not raising income taxes and (as few now remember) sticking to the then Tory government’s austerity plans to tackle the deficit.  David Cameron did similar things on socially liberal issues, while eschewing tax cuts.  What will Mr Miliband do to show that he is serious about his mission to transform Britain, and win back trust?

Here are some things he might do:

  • Accept more publicly the logic of the Government’s austerity policies in order to create the funds for tax cuts to the squeezed middle as the economy improves.  We did get statements that they could not reinstate all the government’s cuts, but the delivery of these was so muffled that I don’t think most Labour activists noticed them, still less become angry.
  • Call for reform of the European Union so as to address the unfolding financial crisis, throwing down the gauntlet to Tory Eurosceptics.
  • Pick a serious fight with the trade unions about public sector strikes and participation in Labour politics.
  • Call on the government to get serious about coasting schools and sub-standard health services by in the first case getting tougher on teachers and the second closing sub-critical hospitals and putting serious heat onto GPs.
  • Challenging ordinary voters by pointing out that they also contributed to the crisis by living off credit cards and going for ever bigger mortgages.

Each of these would require a lot of courage – but that’s the point; he must make a lot of people  in his party angry.  Instead we get some rather bland ideas about favouring “good” rather than “bad” businesses.  But these sound rather like things that the coalition is already putting forward on banking reform and reshaping the economy towards manufacturing and green businesses –  Mr Miliband even quoted Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable in his support on the radio this morning.  Other ideas sound like more bureaucracy.

To make an omelette, they say, you have to break some eggs.  Until Mr Miliband starts breaking eggs nobody will take him seriously.

The strange cheerfulness of the Liberal Democrats

I returned from the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham yesterday.  After the March conference, when things were already looking bad, I blogged under the title of “The Strange Cohesion of the Liberal Democrats”.  The cohesion is still there, but to that was added widespread cheerfulness.  This was not expected, but widely commented on .

This is strange for a number of reasons.  The party’s situation remains dire.  The Independent’s cartoonist depicts the party’s bird logo as a dodo.  Though I naturally believe the opinion polls showing the party at 17%, this still isn’t that much better than what was achieved at the calamitous local elections last May.  And plenty of polls show a much lower rating, down to 10%.  Some party leaders (notably Paddy Ashdown) made much of some improved results in local by elections; but these are nearly meaningless, a fortunate confluence of favourable local factors.

And there’s plenty of anger about too, especially over NHS and education reforms, which worry many activists a lot.  And not everybody buys the leadership line that there is no alternative to the government’s austerity policy.  As Steve Richards of the Independent points out, the second conference after a general election should be when it is safest to display dissent in public; so why was it so muted?

Party conferences are always bubbles where attendees can cheer each other up without too much intrusion from the outside world.  And there was undoubtedly an element of this.  One reason for both the cohesion and the at times positively aggressive cheerfulness was a response to adversity.  As a party that is just one step away from oblivion, people did not have the confidence to display of too much disagreement; we are much more vulnerable than the Labour or Conservative parties when in similar straits.  This is not a bad sign; it shows a degree of maturity and survival instinct – in contrast to the response of the SDP in particular to the 1987 election, which resulted the party’s poll ratings dropping into the margin of error of nothing.

Party outsiders will not be convinced that the party’s fortunes are on the mend.  But for insiders there are some reasons for cheer.  First, of course, the thrill of being in government remains strong.  For so long the only hope of getting pet policies into action was that other parties might steal them.  Direct access to the levers of power is the ultimate reward for any serious political party.  It still feels good; almost nobody says that going into coalition with the Tories was a bad idea.

Further, the threat from the other parties does seem to have receded somewhat.  The Left’s rampant anger at the cuts and Lib Dem “betrayal” seems to be burning out.  Compared to Sheffield the demos outside the conference were pathetic.  And Labour’s poll rating are stuck in a rut.  And as for the Conservatives, only last May it looked as if their “human shield” strategy was working to a tee.  Our presence in the government was supposed to help de-toxify the Tory brand, while we took the full brunt of the anger at government policies.  Since then the party has managed its PR better, so that the opposite seems to be the case: that the Lib Dems get credit for anything progressive that the government does.  For example quite a lot was made of the government’s commitment to increasing foreign aid; and yet David Cameron gave this policy much more prominence than we did before the election.  In this, ironically, the party has been greatly helped by the Tory right, and their friends in the press.  The more they complain about Lib Dem influence, the easier it is for the Lib Dems to take credit for the nice bits.

All this gives credence to Nick Clegg’s “centre ground” strategy, first unveiled in March (I think) to widespread scepticism.  That means the party defines itself by what others do, the complaint ran.  But neither of the other parties can win a majority without the centre, so denying it to them improves the chances of a hung parliament.  And there may just be enough votes there so that the party can hang onto enough seats to be a real influence in the subsequent bargaining.  And who knows, if the party stays the course they may even get a little grudging respect from the electorate that so despises it now.

And of course, there is the attention.  The party have never had this degree of scrutiny before, leading to the widespread complaint that nobody knew what the party stood for.  They still don’t, by and large, but as the party learns how to present its distinctive profile in government this is changing.  But will the public like what they see?  Or is liberalism just a middle class hobby?  Getting people to understand what liberalism is, and persuading them that it is good for them is the real challenge ahead.

 

It’s time for the Lib Dems to grow up

I had wanted to include the phrase “growing pains” in the title of this post, but growing is not what is happening to the Lib Dems at the moment.  Not in the sense of membership or votes, a small summer bounce in both notwithstanding.  It is about becoming a more mature political party – and becoming more mature is always painful.

I am going up to the party’s conference in Birmingham tomorrow; I don’t know what I’ll find.  Evidence of pain is everywhere.  There was a moment in April 2010, after the first party leaders’ debate when we dared to hope for something spectacular.  And this wasn’t just a  media frenzy – it was palpable on the doorstep and in the streets.  It has been downhill ever since, apart from the brief thrill of seeing the party enter government – though this left the voters unmoved, as opposed to party insiders.

Last May’s local election results were a massive trauma.  Many of the party’s activists were in the process of winning the country over “one ward at a time”.  They thought that by being relentlessly local, and doing a good job for their local voters, they would be insulated from the national tumult – something that has been by and large true in the past.  So it was a really rude shock.  Many blame the party’s MPs as shameless opportunitists who are out of touch with the voters and activists.  And of course, it showed the party that oblivion is just around the corner.

And there’s everything else.  Endless criticism on the papers; being the butt of comedians’ jokes (and worse) on the radio and TV.  Taking responsibility for unpopular reforms in the NHS and education.  I have an email today from a very long standing member who is about to resign because of the NHS bill.

And yet.  These are all vicissitudes that Britain’s two most successful political parties, Labour and the Conservatives, (leaving aside the SNP for now) have long learned to take in their stride.  It is part of being a grown up political party.  It is part of mattering.  At members’ meetings one of Nick Clegg’s favourite stories is what happened when the party went back to talk to the many voters that slipped out of the party’s grasp in last week of the General Election campaign.  It amounted to, “These are tough times, and we need a grown up political party.”  Enduring this type of pain is a necessary step to breaking through to the next stage of the party’s advance.

The trauma could kill the party, of course.  But if you are part of it you need to be positive, and ensure that it doesn’t.  The opportunity is palpable.  Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are flourishing.  If the party can hang on to something like its current number of seats, especially in a smaller parliament, then another hung parliament, and coalition opportunity, is odds on.  Who needs electoral reform?

And the whole nation is in trauma.  The good times just aren’t coming back.  The apparent economic achievements of the last decade are proving hollow.  Property prices will not rise endlessly to make everybody rich.  We haven’t got the money for the public services we used to have – just as the demographic challenge is about to get much worse.  Labour still haven’t come to terms with their failure, and seem to be stuck somewhere between anger and denial.  The Tories are riven by divisions between a rampant but lunatic right, and the leadership’s more paternalistic vision.

If the Liberal Democrats can get their story straight, there is all to play for.  There are signs that the party is slowly addressing this.  The conference motions don’t really do this, with the Facing the Future motion on strategy (with its 17 priorities) a particular disappointment.  The Quality of Life and Community Politics motions offer some light, though.  But behind the scenes there is a furious discussion over the party’s narrative.  Some good ideas are emerging.

Labour’s vision of a benign and overpowering government, aligned with rampant capitalism, has let the country down badly.  The Tories are chasing after a fantasy of a little England run by an unfettered middle class.  The Lib Dems can offer a sustainable future based on real empowerment of the people, in a proper international context.  Go for it!

British banks shoot themselves in the foot.

Oh dear!  The Vickers review on banking reform hasn’t been published yet, and the news is full of people taking positions and what it might or might not recommend.  I have a lot of sympathy with our Prime Minister, who wants the blessed thing to be published before we have a row about it.  What to make of it?

The reporting is a bit confusing.  The Independent has hyped the thing up to be a war between the Vince Cable and George Osborne, not so much about the proposed reforms, but how quickly they will be implemented.  Meanwhile somebody has briefed the FT that Cable has pretty much given way on timing so there is no real row at all.

The proximate cause of this flurry is a lobbying campaign by the banks.  This campaign will do nothing to redress their general aura of incompetence.  They are basically saying the reforms should be kicked into the long grass because they will interfere with their lending to British businesses, which is critical if business investment is going pull us out of the economic doldrums, as most people hope.  There is some merit in this, because some of the reforms (on capital requirements and liquidity) could have just that effect.  But the ineptitude of their stance is staggering.

Politics is built on simple messages, and the banks are offering the Liberal Democrats a very tempting proposition.  This is a wonderful opportunity for them to show what they are doing in government by showing that they are resisting pressure from the banks.  As the banks themselves continue to insist on paying large bonuses for reckless trading activities, this is a popular stand.  Ed Miliband and Labour have not been slow to take up the anti-banker sentiment.  The Tories, meanwhile, don’t seem to know what’s hit them, and none of their side are sticking their necks out on the banks’ behalf.  Meanwhile John Cridland, the CBI director general, has weighed in on the banks’ behalf calling a rapid implementation of the reforms “barking mad”.  It is difficult to understand what he thought he was doing; the CBI’s credibility has been badly damaged as a result.

There may not even have been much of a row in the coalition in the first place.  There is consensus on the general thrust of the reforms; no doubt Vince Cable was quite flexible on the timings of some aspects, provided others proceed fairly quickly.  Now it is important to him and the Lib Dem part of the coalition that they are seen to get results.  A public row makes things worse for the banks.  If ever there was a time for quiet lobbying based on dry details, this was it.  Using the megaphone is totally counterproductive.

Not that I have much sympathy with the banks.  They are making too much money, and any sensible reform would reduce their profits, both by taking away the implicit government subsidy and by increasing competition.  It’s bound to hurt.  If the banks want to take some of their activities, and even their HQs, elsewhere, then so be it.  I’m not actually sure where they would go though.  Switzerland has dramatically increased its capital requirements for banks, and the stratospheric Swiss franc doesn’t make operating there cheap.  If they don’t have the implicit backing of a big government then their business model breaks down anyway – ruling out places like Ireland and Bermuda.  Going into the Eurozone when its own banking system is under incredible stress hardly looks a good idea either.  In America they have a habit of sending bankers to prison.

The central reform is to separate banks’ trading activities from their “ordinary” ones of taking deposits and lending to the public and non-financial businesses.  This was quite contentious in the commentariat when it was first mooted a year or so ago.  But there seems to be a much greater consensus behind it now.  Who would have guessed it?  A lot of people assumed the bankers would get away with it while politicians tried to make up their minds, and the disaster of 2007/08 faded into the memory.  Not so.  The banks’ inept PR machinery can take some of the credit.

 

Affording the NHS

The British government has been talking darkly about the exploding demands on the National Health Service, which will rapidly make it unaffordable if it is not reformed.  This has recently been challenged by Professor John Appleby, at the health think tank King’s Fund.  This was in a recent article in the British Medical Journal, behind a paywall, but summarised by the BBC here.  This question goes to the heart of health policy in the UK, but politicians dare not discuss it – because it puts the very principles of the sacred NHS in question.  But the problem will not go away.

According to some figures on Wikipedia Britian spent an unremarkable 8% of its national income on health, compared to over 16% in the US, before the financial crisis struck.  Those figures will be higher now, since our income has shrunk, but the relativities will be much the same.  The comparison between the two countries is usually held up to show how ineffective US health spending is, since health outcomes look generally pretty poor there.  But the comparison can be looked at the other way.  The US can afford to spend more than 16% of its national income on health and still remain one of the most prosperous countries on the planet.  There is nothing mysterious about this.  Developed countries are long past the level where basic human needs of food and shelter are met; how we choose to spend the surplus is up to us, and there is no reason why we can’t choose health care over cars, designer clothes or big holidays.  It’s not as if it requires massive imports to sustain it.

You can take this line of reasoning further.  The basic proposition of health care is to reduce pain and prolong life; these are consumer propositions to, well, die for.  Suppose we lived in the economist’s free market utopia, where health spending was a matter of individual choice in a perfectly competitive free market with no information asymmetries.   There is no reason to think that health expenditure would not be higher than the 8% or so we currently spend in Britain, or indeed as high the US figure.  We can perfectly easily afford it.

That’s not the problem.  The problem is paying for it almost entirely through unspecific taxes, the core design principle of the NHS.  And here the government is on much stronger ground.  There is an upper limit to how much tax we can raise for health care.  Up to a certain point, of course, the NHS model works perfectly well.  Look on the taxes as an insurance premium and it helps spread risk in a way that people like.  But the more you spend, the more the weaknesses of the model are exposed.

  • There is no direct line of sight between what you pay and what you get.  How on earth are you supposed to decide whether you are getting value for money?
  • You have no choice in the level of service you get.  One size fits all.
  • People who are better off may feel that they are paying too much relative to what they get.  This may not be quite as strong an argument as it first appears, since the less well off pay a lot of tax through cigarettes, alcohol, petrol and VAT – but the perception is still a problem.
  • Taxes create a drag on the rest of the economy, reducing incentives to work and therefore shrinking the resources available.

America is able to get away with much higher levels of health expenditure because so much of it comes from private insurance premiums and direct private payments for treatment.  But even there a battle royal is developing over how to balance taxes and government support.

Of course, to some putting up taxes is the right way to go.  France and Sweden get away with higher tax burdens than the UK after all.  But this is very fraught.  Some think you can go after big companies and very rich people and leave everybody else.  This is not as easy as it sounds though, since this wealth is very mobile.  Property is not mobile, of course, but raising taxes on property is probably as politically toxic in Britain as taxing fuel is in the US.  There is also a problem if too much tax revenue comes from the very rich or corporations – these start to acquire more political weight.  Which leaves the not-so-rich.  But these people are under pressure and feel over-taxed – Ed Miliband’s “squeezed middle”.

So I think the government is right.  We have hit the limit of what the country can afford for tax-funded free-at-the-point-of-use health system.  But we have not hit the limit of what people are prepared to spend if it’s their own money and for their own benefit.  The risk to the NHS is that the more affluent middle classes start to opt out of NHS services, depriving them of critical mass and undermining the principle of social solidarity.  This has already happened to NHS dentistry.

Nasty.  In the last years of the previous government the issue of co-payments was quite high up the political agenda: the possibility of NHS patients topping up their treatments with their own money to get things not on the basic menu.  This had become politically charged because of the costs of some rather questionable cancer treatments which the NHS were denying but which people were prepared to pay for.  The Conservatives clearly considered the topic politically toxic, since they have fudged the issue of cancer treatments with a bit of extra funding.  Labour and the Lib Dems were inching towards accepting co-payments, though I expect both parties are now bouncing back.

But in my view co-payments is the best way to relieve the pressure.  The NHS should define a basic menu of treatments that everybody is entitled to, but accept payments for anything outside this.  This undermines one of the sacred founding ideas of the NHS, that everybody gets the same, no matter how wealthy.  But it is better than the alternatives.  It’s the debate we should be having.

How would AV change UK politics?

In my post last week I explained why I am supporting the Alternative Vote (AV) in the forthcoming UK referendum.  This case was based on principle.  We have a system of single member constituencies.  First past the post (FPTP) carries a high risk of unrepresentative candidates being elected.  Of the various systems in use around the world to counter the weaknesses of FPTP (primary elections in the US, run-off elections in France, AV in Australia), AV seems to fit the British situation best.  I avoided asking what the impact of any change would be: just that the system is more democratic.  But there are pragmatic types out there for whom the likely impact of the changes is more important than first principles.  Today’s post is for them.  It will help show them why it is best to think about principles.

The trouble with most analysis of this in the UK is that it is based on looking at past FPTP results, supported by some opinion polls on second preferences, and then predicting how the outcome would have been with AV.  This runs into two problems.  First is that the next election is going to be quite unlike the last few, if for no other reason than that the current government is a coalition.  The next problem is that AV will change voting behaviours, and the campaign pitches of the political parties.  The usual conclusion is that the Lib Dems will benefit quite a bit, Labour marginally, and the Conservatives would lose out.  None of these effects would have been enough to change the outcome of elections except maybe the last one.  Extra seats for Lib Dems and Labour might have made the current coalition impossible, and even a Labour-Lib Dem one on the cards.  That’s enough for most Conservatives.  If we had had AV last time, Gordon Brown might still be PM.

The Lib Dems should benefit.  About time many will say – since the party is badly under-represented in parliament.  More pragmatic types worry that this would give a smaller party too much influence in the choice of coalition partners.  But the Lib Dems do face a problem.  In order to benefit their first preference votes need to get past either the Labour or Conservative candidates (in England – it’s more complicated in Scotland and Wales).  They might then attract second preference votes from whichever of these parties gets knocked out.  And yet the classic Lib Dem campaign technique is to persuade voters to vote for them because one or other of the major parties doesn’t stand a chance; this argument has much less resonance under AV.  Voters will say that they will simply give the Lib Dems a second preference, and give their first preference to their most preferred party.  As a result Conservative or Labour candidates currently in third place might sneak into second, knocking the Lib Dems out.  The Littleborough & Saddleworth seat at the last election was a Labour seat that people count as vulnerable to the Lib Dems under AV; but the Conservative vote was strong and under AV they might well have pushed past the Lib Dems into second place, which would, in fact, have made the seat safer for Labour.  This could be a big help to the Labour Party in the South West.  In Australia the two party system is entrenched (one of the “parties” being a coalition in an electoral pact).  The Lib Dems will be desperate for first preference votes under AV, and in the long term it cannot be taken for granted that the party would flourish.

Labour has less to fear.  It might help them pick up in areas where they are in third place – now great swathes of England.  They may not do so well from picking up second preferences from Lib Dem voters next time – but only because they will have done such a good job of persuading them to vote Labour as first preference.  They get some insurance against those voters drifting back.  It is a moment of truth for Labour supporters who believe that there is a “progressive majority” – a majority of voters for whom the Conservative Party is toxic.  If so the system ensures that the Conservatives never get a majority.

And that is the challenge for the Conservatives.  It will be much more difficult for them to sneak in a majority government against the votes of the a majority of the electorate.  But many Conservatives believe in something like a “silent majority” – the opposite of the progressive majority.  There are lot of people sympathetic to their policies that do not say so, and will not give them a first preference vote.  If so, they may pick up a lot of second preferences.  This could be particularly helpful to them at the next election, when both UKIP and the Lib Dems will be trying to pick off their voters.  If Labour succeeds in pulling past the Lib Dems in South Western seats, then this will make a few seats a bit safer for them, since they will get more second preferences from Lib Dem voters than Labour ones.

For the smaller parties AV is ambiguous.  It is difficult to see that extremist parties, like the BNP, will make any headway, since other voters will gang up against them.  Their best hope of an MP is under FPTP in a split seat.  But UKIP and the Greens may well think they can pick up a majority in favoured seats by scooping up enough second preference votes.  In the UKIP case they need to push past the Conservatives, either in what would now be very safe Conservative seats, or in Lib Dem held seats where they can hope to scoop up some Labour voters too.  For the Greens the game is to push past the Lib Dems, and scoop up enough of their votes to push past Labour (or the other way round), to mount a challenge on the Tories.  In both cases these are long shots, but you need a deal of optimism in politics.

In sum, the impact of AV is very uncertain in the UK.  The Lib Dems could assert themselves with a permanently larger block of seats, alongside a scattering of seats for the greens and perhaps UKIP.  Or the two party system could reassert itself, with the other parties finding it more difficult to pick up enough first preference votes.  But the outcome is uncertain for a good reason: electoral politics will be more competitive.  Who knows what voters would do?