Tax and immigration will be the key issues between Labour and the Conservatives

Graphic: Statista.com

After Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and the post-2017 version of Theresa May, most Britons have been yearning for a time when their main party leaders were ordinary competent politicians. But now Sir Keir Starmer has taken over the Labour Party and Rishi Sunak the Tories, that day has come. Both men had less political experience than their leadership positions normally warrant, and accordingly had uncertain starts, but now both are now hitting their stride. It promises to be a fascinating, if unedifying, contest, at least for those who follow politics as a spectator sport without worrying too much for the consequences for the country.

Sir Keir matured first. Indeed earlier this year he decided that he had to hammer Mr Sunak’s apparent weakness as hard as he could. I was uncomfortable with this: it didn’t matter to Sir Keir whether the attacks were well grounded or not – he ruthlessly went for the man rather than the policy. It seems unpatriotic to keep undermining your country’s prime minister just for the hell of it. But that’s politics – Mr Sunak would not hesitate to do the same if the roles were reversed.

Mr Sunak has survived this, and it is Sir Kier who has lost momentum as a result. The turning point came with his renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol that had been spoiling relations with the European Union. This was a thoroughly competent piece of statecraft that moved things along. Few doubted that this deal was the best that Britain could get – and opponents seemed to be the sort that did not really want resolution at all. Better still, Mr Sunak was successful in selling this to his own party. Only 22 MPs voted against it in parliament – with many formerly troublesome Eurosceptics lining up behind Mr Sunak. That both Mr Johnson and Ms Truss were amongst those 22 underlined just how little threat his predecessors now pose. The deal has not convinced the Democratic Unionist Party to rejoin the Stormont government – but most observers thought that nothing was going to pass that test that would not cause even bigger problems in the province. In UK terms the DUP is very isolated.

That’s a good start. Mr Sunak had earlier set out five priority areas for his administration: inflation, NHS waiting lists, growth, national debt and “small boats” – the influx of illegal migrants across the Channel. It was widely assumed that his specific pledges on these issues were designed to be easy to pass – but with the economy poised on an awkward knife-edge, this should not be assumed. He needs to do two things if he is to a reasonable chance of winning the next general election, widely assumed to be in the autumn of 2024. The first is to win back the Brexit-voting, conservative working class and lower middle class voters that flocked to the party in 2019 – many of these are telling pollsters that they will abstain or vote for a protest party such as Reform UK. To these he needs to show that he is true to the Brexit vision, and especially on immigration; these voters, who tend to be older and retired, may be not so sensitive to the economy, but they are sensitive to the NHS and crime. The second thing is to win back or win over Labour- and Liberal Democrats-inclined floating voters with a less conservative political outlook, who generally voted Remain, but who were put off by Labour under Mr Corbyn. For these voters a display of competence is critical.

Sir Keir Starmer starts ahead, with substantial poll leads, following the Johnson and Truss fiascos. He may also have had a stroke of luck in Scotland. Scottish seats used to be critical to Labour’s success, but the party was wiped out there by the SNP in 2015, and then they struggled against resurgent Conservatives. But now the SNP seems to be imploding after Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as leader. To watchers from south of the border this episode has all the hallmarks of a bloodletting and collapse after a long period of imposed stability – all Britain’s main parties experience this from time to time. Things are always a bit different in Scotland. Pro-independence voters don’t have many convincing alternatives – Alba and the Greens each have issues of their own. But the case for independence will have taken a temporary knock, and Labour is prevailing over the Conservatives in the anti-independence camp, with a stronger appeal to independence-waverers. A resurgence by Labour there would be doubly good news for Sir Keir. It makes winning an overall majority in the UK much easier for him, and it reduces the risk of the SNP holding the balance of power in a hung parliament – which would be a nightmare outcome, and a prospect that might scare the voters too. But for all this lead, Sir Keir knows that a lot can go wrong, and that the electoral system is in many ways tilted against him.

A lot of how the battle will play out is obvious. Labour will attack the government for incompetence on just about any issue that comes up, regardless of how justified the complaint may be. The Conservatives try to divert the blame onto world events and cast doubts on Labour as being soft lefties. Most of this be just noise to voters and unlikely to change minds. Beyond this I think there are two issues where voters’ are more open, and which could cause a shift in balance between the parties: tax and immigration.

Tax-and-spend arguments are as close as we’ll get to a debate over economic strategy. We will not get any kind of sensible discussion of economics, of course – even though there is an interesting debate to be had between the parties. Labour’s approach tends to focus on macro-economic policy. The priorities for them are ensuring that aggregate demand is sufficient to ensure low unemployment and decent bargaining conditions for workers, and getting decent headline figures for investment. The Tories rather focus on microeconomics – the idea that prosperity must be based on the efficiency of businesses and public agencies and how hard we work – where the question of incentives and competition loom large. Instead of that, the Conservatives will accuse Labour of wanting to dramatically increase public spending, leading to higher taxes and a less productive economy. They remember fondly John Major’s success with the “Tax Bombshell” campaign in the last week or so of the 1992 general election, when fortunes suddenly turned in their favour. The problem for Labour is that almost all public services are crying out for more spending, and it is very hard not to criticise the government without suggesting a substantial increase. Which leads to the question how you pay for it. This question is dealt with as if a nation’s budget operated like a household one, which is far from how it actually works. But it is too hard to try to explain that extra public spending might simply lead to better use of the economy’s resources and higher wages, and not necessarily to higher taxes. This argument is in any case a lot shakier when inflation is taking hold, as it is now.

The obvious answer is for Labour to try and sell the idea of higher taxes in order to have more effective public services at a time when the ratio of working people is falling. The tax burden may be at a historical high as a proportion of national income, but it is still moderate by European standards. There is even polling evidence that this has majority support. But Labour still carry the scars from 1992 (and indeed 2019) when the Conservatives successfully scared many floating voters with the prospect of higher taxes. Instead they want to follow Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s strategy of 1997 of promising to hold back taxes and spending – and then increase both after the second term, when people are more used to the idea of a Labour government. Meanwhile they will try to dream up a number of painless taxes on other people to pay for selected areas of higher spending – non-doms, oil companies and so on. Against this the Conservatives will try to promise that better public services can come without higher taxes; since many voters are under financial stress, they will not relish the prospect of higher taxs. The arguments of both parties are unconvincing, and it is hard to see which way the public mood will swing.

Neither party is convincing on immigration either. There is panic over the number of people trying to cross the Channel in small boats, and then claiming asylum. Actually this is a real enough problem: overall numbers may be modest by the standards of international refugee flows, but it is placing public resources under pressure, and and it is a bit of a slam-dunk for organised crime. Immigration is not a top issue for voters according to opinion polls in the way it has been in the past. But both parties know that with the chaotic situation in the Channel, it can be pushed up the agenda easily enough. Housing the refugees (and others) while their claims are processed is creating stresses right across the country. Mr Sunak knows that he needs to do two things. To motivate conservative working class voters (and a lot of conservative middle class ones come to that), he needs to promote a tough line that will be hard for Labour to follow. The second thing is that he needs to make a substantial dent in the numbers making the crossing – to demonstrate competence, and woo back more liberal floating voters, as well as convincing those conservative voter that he isn’t just grandstanding. The first of these things is going well enough. The Home Secretary makes a good hate figure for liberal types, who make all the noise that Mr Sunak needs to demonstrate his toughness. But few understand how he is going to achieve much in the way of actual results, though. The much vaunted scheme to deport migrants to Rwanda does not look remotely adequate to deal with the sort of flows that we are seeing, even after the government has bulldozed the legal objections.

The Tories can sense Labour weakness here. Sir Keir has one sensible idea – to make legal routes for refugees more accessible, and the processing quicker, and so reduce demand and the numbers having to be put up in temporary accommodation. This means increasing legal flows of refugees, which will annoy many – but it does tackle the disorderly aspect of the current situation, which is what is most dangerous. But it is a stretch to think that this will stop the flow of channel boats by itself. The incentives for people traffickers remain strong. The only thing that might work there is rapid return of the migrants to France or elsewhere in Europe. But why would the Europeans agree to that? Only a substantial change to legal routes for refugees might possibly unlock that. that would be too brave.

It is hard to discern public attitudes to immigration post Brexit. There are two competing visions. The first is the Japanese one: that any immigration disturbs the cultural identity of the country and undermines social cohesion – as well as placing stress on housing and public services. So numbers of immigrants should be kept low, and definitely reduced. Or there is the Canadian/Australian vision, which accepts the desirability of substantial flows of immigrants, including refugees (at least in the case of the Canadians) – but wants the flow to be orderly – and abhors the idea of queue-jumping by unregulated arrivals. The small boats are abhorrent to both – but there any agreement ends. Both visions seem to have substantial support, and it is hard to see which way the zeitgeist will go. Labour seem to be more clearly pitching for the Australian/Canadian position, which is popular amongst the immigrant communities themselves – while the Conservatives are trying to play both visions at once. And as with tax, it is hard to see which side will end up on top.

There is a third issue which has the potential to sway voters: the environment. This covers not just the mission to reduce carbon emissions, but also threats to the countryside through habitat loss and pollution (and especially sewage overflows). The government is under attack for competence, as well as its heart not really being in it. But Mr Sunak has left it out of his five key targets – so presumably his party’s polling shows that this is not a critical issue. Labour are making a lot of the idea of green growth – but this may be more to motivate their core supporters than to win points over the opposition.

It will be an interesting contest. My guess is that sir Keir will prevail decisively. Whenever I try to write “Sunak” my computer changes it to “sunk”; I think he is, such is the low regard his party is held in by the voters..

Guest post: AUKUS – more than just submarines

US Virginia class nuclear submarine.
Picture: By U.S. Navy photo by General Dynamics Electric Boat – This image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 040730-N-1234E-002 (next). https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8224242

By Cllr Noel Hadjimichael

More than 100 years ago, Liberals were often the party challenging military spending, security and defence of the realm. We took Britain into the First World War in defence of an invaded Belgium and served in the 1940s Churchill Government. We got defence and voters knew it.

In the Cold War, we were champions of pluralism, liberty, decolonisation and western values. This was in opposition to USSR state centralism so loved by many current day dictators. We were, and remain, realists: radical but responsible.

This week’s announcement on a tripartite (Australian, American and British) submarine deal is not the subject of this blog. However, the framework, context and geopolitics behind the announcement is. Progressives, social democrats and liberals should take notice. 

What has made three of the Five Eyes [also including Canada and New Zealand] turn so purposefully and publicly in this direction? The answer: defence science, capacity building, capital investment and operational structures. Realigned, tweaked and reinforced for today’s threats.

It is more than just the behaviour of Russia, China or Iran. It is a breakdown of the liberal world order that has positioned Britain poorly in this post Brexit era. There is a new global security setting that was unleashed by the pandemic: rogue states undermining democracy, leading to peer to peer warfare. 

Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have a monopoly on patriotism. Serving personnel and their families (as well as veterans) are a sizeable demographic in many constituencies. Not just the South West shires, Norfolk, the Midlands or natural cities like Portsmouth. In every region of the United Kingdom, there is an increase in voter concern about our security (food, logistics, technology or military). 

The war in Ukraine has heightened our focus. But so has the poisoning in Salisbury and the cyber attacks on our critical infrastructure. 

The AUKUS framework is a long term and strategic pressure point to revisit our defence stance. We should ask ourselves: how do we protect our people, communities and institutions? 

We don’t do borders well. Just ask the Government about its frustrating failures on Ireland or the Channel. 

We don’t have the luxury of being the dominant global leader. But we still rank highly in critical capabilities: soft power, science and technology. 

Our people are universally respected for professionalism, training and creativity. They deserve our resolve to get the politics correct.

Our new aircraft carriers have effective and demonstrable reach to the western hemisphere, the Straits of Hormuz, the Asia Pacific and beyond. Our airpower is critical to NATO and the European friends and allies many of us yearn to be closer to. Our Army is still seen as having the punch needed in the field. It has also offered Ukraine best in class training. We count. We matter in this space.

Understanding the new challenges and being the adults in the room come naturally to LibDems. We think, talk and debate. 

We also often come down on the side of evidence, experts and the engaged voter. 

Conference at York this weekend will deal with the nuclear deterrent. A sensible and suitable proposal. Those serving deserve our thanks and gratitude for their commitment. We as active party members must also play our part. We should reassure millions of LibDem voters that we understand the current global landscape.

As it is. Not as we may want it to be. 

AUKUS is part of that landscape, as is an effective and continuous at sea deterrent. 

Question it, challenge it but don’t ignore it. It is the same with our Conference. A liberal Britain is worth defending.

More on this can be found on nlcdefence.org.uk

Noel is Chair of the Defence & Security Circe of the National Liberal Club London. He is also a Liberal Democrat councillor on the London Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames

Weak leadership gets the BBC into trouble

Nadine Dorries – who gave an astonishing interview on World at One

The BBC is one of my main sources of news, but it often annoys me. Recently I wrote that the choice for mainstream media is either partisan and useless (like Fox News) or impartial and dumbed-down – like the BBC. But now it seems that pressure from Conservative politicians is making the institution erratic, and editorial management weak.

The narrative amongst British conservatives has for some time that the BBC is part of a liberal elite, which also includes the civil service, that constantly undermines conservative policies, which represent the will of most people. This narrative became politically dominant after the Brexit referendum, and seemingly unassailable with the landslide victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in December 2019. Pressure on the BBC mounted, as the government sought to influence senior appointments and news coverage. The outcome has not been more rightwing bias, though, so much as weak editorial leadership.

This was illustrated recently by the news that the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, was in the process of recruiting the senior civil servant Sue Gray to be his chief of staff. This was a pretty unremarkable episode of itself. Unlike most British politicians, Sir Keir is not a lifelong career politician – he had a substantial career as a lawyer in government service – a “securicrat” I have seen it called. It is easy to spot an affinity with another career securicrat like Ms Gray, though she is not a lawyer – they had known each other professionally for some time, apparently. The move shows that he is serious about the business of becoming prime minister. It also shows that senior civil servants, among others, think that he has a serious chance of doing just that. Senior civil servants have taken up this role before, for both Labour’s Tony Blair (Jonathan Powell) and the Conservative David Cameron (Jeremy Heywood, though he had a more overt relationship with the Conservatives). Nevertheless many Conservatives were incandescent at the news. This is doubtless because it is an intimation of their own political mortality – after such a dramatic fall from their seeming invincibility after the 2019 election. They suggested that it threatened the impartiality of the civil service – though their usual complaint is that the civil service isn’t biased enough. Their argument isn’t really sustainable, but it is at least arguable. That cannot be said for the line attempted by some supporters of Mr Johnson, who suggested that the report on parties at 10 Downing Street during lockdown prepared by Ms Gray was part of a malign conspiracy that caused Mr Johnson’s resignation. This is so wrong-headed, on so many levels, that it hardly needs refuting. Suffice it to point out that Ms Gary’s report was much delayed and pulled its punches, allowing the former prime minister to escape until his next series of blunders.

So there was a political kerfuffle, and clearly the BBC had to report it. But I was astonished when immediately following the news on Radio 4’s World at One, the BBC aired a long and unchallenging interview with Nadine Dorries, a former minister under Mr Johnson, in which she aired the conspiracy theory, and several clear untruths about the affair. Even the BBC admitted that the interview “in hindsight” should have been a bit more challenging – though the whole thing was so mad and implausible, challenge was hardly required. It was a display of astonishingly bad editorial judgement, which can only be explained by the sort of hidden political machinations that so often lie behind the BBC’s news agenda (which, to be fair, don’t just benefit one party or faction). What was even more astonishing was that in the flagship Ten O’Clock News on BBC television that evening the whole story barely rated half a throwaway sentence from one the political correspondents. If it was top story at 1pm, surely it counted for something at 10pm?

Alas this sort of muddle is becoming typical. But the BBC then became engulfed in a much more serious episode. The government last week launched a policy on what it calls “small boats”, headlined “Stop The Boats”, which, among other things, is designed to cancel asylum claims from refugees crossing the English Channel in dinghies. This policy deserves a post all of its own – though I’m a bit more sympathetic to the government than most other liberals. This generated the political controversy it was designed to. During the general shouting BBC sports presenter Gary Lineker tweeted his outrage at the policy, and compared the language used to justify it to 1930s Germany. There is a debate to be had, if anybody is interested, as to how far this claim is justified. The Holocaust came in the 1940s: Mr Lineker was talking about the propaganda that preceded it, building up the conditions that allowed it to happen. Still, the government has never encouraged violence against refugees. Actually, as the FT’s Stephen Bush points out, the government’s approach can be more fairly compared to 1930s Britain, who ignored the plight of refugees from Nazi Germany, on the grounds that it was somebody else’s problem (as did almost every other country in the world). The usual suspects complained that this was an outrageous act for a BBC personality, and undermined the institution’s impartiality. They’d had Mr Lineker’s card marked for some time as a member of the sinister liberal elite.

The BBC Director General responded by withdrawing Mr Lineker from his presentation of Match of the Day the following weekend. He had breached BBC guidelines – or as it guidance? Normally BBC guidelines allow freelance sports presenters to express political opinions – anything else would be an outrageous infringement. But they had been modified to impose extra standards on big stars. This undoubtedly applied to Mr Lineker, the BBC’s best-paid presenter (best-paid anything, I think). In fact I suspect this policy was adopted with Mr Lineker in mind after an earlier round of complaints. This turned a minor media skirmish into a major news story – as Mr Lineker’s colleagues pulled out of the BBC’s weekend sports coverage. They couldn’t even give us the main football scores on the evening TV news. It wasn’t hard for critics of the BBC to point out inconsistencies in the way the BBC applied its guidance (the political presenter Andrew Neil was an oft-quoted example). More to the point, the episode had clearly touched a raw nerve amongst BBC journalists, doubtless including many who disagreed with Mr Lineker’s expressed view.

I haven’t seen any public polling on the issue. Many people have been cheering Mr Lineker on. Many more feel that a sports presenter should be allowed to express political views. Conservatives often make pleas for freedom of speech for “politically incorrect” views – and it’s hard even for them to understand why this should be an exception. Opposition parties have piled in criticising the BBC management – though they mostly draw a connection with a row over the apparently politically connected appointment of BBC Chairman, an entirely separate episode. The top priority for Conservatives seems to be to re-energise their more conservative supporters, who are in a funk; they seem less bothered by trying to win back more liberal former supporters. If that is so they shouldn’t be too worried by the political fall-out. Still, liberal supporters aren’t just a tiny elite, and if can’t be good for the government to keep crossing the street to slap them in the face.

But for the BBC, the episode shows what happens if you keep giving in to political pressure. You don’t just get fairly harmless nonsenses like the Nadine Dorries interview: you ultimately lose credibility.

Nicola Sturgeon: a very British politician

Picture: Scottish Government, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I was going to title this blog “A very British failure”; this follows a lot of the political commentary here in England on the Scottish First Minister, after she announced her resignation. She has been one of the most successful British politicians of this century so far, and she is leaving on her own terms. She has taken the Scottish National Party from its defeat in the independence referendum in 2014 to complete political domination north of the border. Her communication skills have won her plaudits across the whole country, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, putting to shame occupants of 10 Downing Street. This can hardly be called failure.

And yet. There are two clouds on Nicola Sturgeon’s reputation. The first is that she has not succeeded in winning a second referendum on independence, let alone victory at that referendum. The British government has refused, and there does not seem seem to be majority demand for it in Scotland either. And the problem is a bit deeper than that, so far as independence is concerned – there is no clear majority for the move. Younger voters are in favour, though, so this may just be a matter of patience. The second cloud is that she and her party have made no progress on improving public services north of the border. For people (like me) who advocate decentralising public services, Scottish (and indeed Welsh) devolution provide no support. During the pandemic Ms Sturgeon may have been an excellent communicator, but the outcome, including the death rate, was no better than England’s. The Scottish NHS is beset by the same long waiting lists and overstretch as England’s; Glasgow has one of the worst drug problems in the developed world; Scotland’s school standards trail England’s.

It can be no surprise that Ms Sturgeon’s record on delivery is a weak one: she is a pure, careerist politician. She was active with the SNP from a young age; she did train and qualify as a solicitor, but by 29 she was a full-time member of the Scottish Parliament. In this career path she is little different from most other British politicians. And the situation appears to be getting no better. Those vying to succeed her are of the same ilk. With little flair for actually running things, such politicians gravitate to what they are good at: politicking and communicating. For Ms Sturgeon that meant elevating the issue of independence to be of all-consuming importance – though without properly addressing the practical questions that arose from it. In England the issue of EU membership has been similarly elevated, as a distraction from administrative competence, or as a way of undermining those in power. Culture wars play a similar role in America. In Scotland, the government has also placed a lot of energy into changing the law on transgender issues, partly at the insistence of their Green allies. This is the sort of “values” issue that professional politicians favour – though there are administrative issues there too, but these tend not be well dealt with.

In Scotland, the SNP has devoted much energy to consolidating its hold on political power by, for example, disempowering local government. Meanwhile it has not taken on the vested interests in public services as vigorously as it should. They did push through a major reform of policing (to centralise it); this did have some merit, but it did not go well, or not at first. I find the lack of progress in education standards the most shocking, though, perhaps because I know about what this entails. It isn’t rocket science: what is required is rigorous accountability down to school level, measuring the progress of every child. The techniques are well-established, and huge progress has been made in England, though some areas have made more progress than others. But this is unpopular with teaching unions, and the Scottish government seems to have been unwilling to take them on.

The SNP, of course, has a ready excuse for its poor track record: it’s the fault of the union with Britain. But this is unconvincing. It is hard to see how an independent Scotland would have access to more money for public services, especially now that North Sea oil and gas is in decline, and politically tainted because of climate change. If the Scottish government wants to show some of the administrative flair of its nordic neighbours, such as Norway, Sweden or Denmark, why doesn’t it try and get started now, rather than waiting for independence to arrive? Wouldn’t that make the case more convincingly?

And yet we can’t be too hard on her or the SNP, because all Britain’s political parties are like this. Scotland is mired in a very British set of problems. And yet breaking away from the United Kingdom offers no escape from the country’s essential Britishness.

Brexit: the capitalist advocates have been proved wrong

Picture: Institute for Government

The third anniversary of Britain leaving the European Union caused of a spate of comment in the media a couple of weeks ago. For me it was a moment of great sadness, but I’m trying to move on – though I still wish political destruction on every politician that advocated it. But it is as good a moment as any to reflect on what has happened.

Opinion surveys show that people who voted to stay in still think they were right to do so. They think that the arguments made in favour of staying in have been borne out. Some of those who voted to leave feel they made the wrong choice, though. But mostly they don’t – they think that it is too early to tell, or that the opportunities have been mis-handled, or they are actually happy with they way things have unfolded. What unites most from both sides is a sense of gloom, and a lack of confidence in the government. Another thing that seems to unite both sides is a wish not to reopen the debate.

In terms of the economic statistics it is very hard to isolate any economic effect of the change, especially when the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the escalation of energy prices is confuses the picture. There is abundant anecdotal evidence that smaller British businesses have given up exporting to the European Union, or indeed to anywhere. But the aggregate trade statistics don’t paint such a clear picture. Investment has fallen since the referendum result: Brexit is an obvious culprit but it would be hard to prove it.

But if we step away from the economic statistics, some things are becoming clearer about Brexit. It isn’t too early to look at how the reality is working out against the vision. There never was a single vision, though. I can see three main ones: the globalist case, the isolationist case and the socialist case. The globalist case is the closest to the one the government espouses. This regarded the EU as a barrier to trade and free enterprise, for two main reasons. Firstly it entailed a substantial regulatory burden, covering not just products, but the way they were made (for example labour and environmental standards), and this raised costs. And second the EU raised barriers to trade with countries outside the union, which included rapidly growing markets in Asia in particular. Britain could be a country of free-wheeling (or even buccaneering) enterprise. Sometimes this was called “Singapore on Thames” – apparently by people who had little idea what of Singapore actually is – though doubtless an authoritarian, technocratic one-party state with a taste for intrusion into private life actually appealed to many of them.

It is becoming clearer by the day that this idea is nonsense. British people draw comfort from regulation, and every attempt to lighten the burden is met by howls of protest. And it is far from clear that changing regulation will have an economically beneficial effect in more than a few limited areas. Indeed it seems to many that life outside the EU involves more red tape, not less – for imports and exports, travel and immigration. Meanwhile almost all trade deals so far struck with countries outside the EU are little different from what the country had inside. The exceptions are Australia and New Zealand, which will have little impact, and probably not much that is positive for British businesses (but maybe better for British consumers). Doing deals with China, India and America – the big prizes, has proved much harder than envisioned. Brexit supporters are now talking darkly of a conspiracy of Remain-supporting establishment types undermining progress – but a lot of the trouble comes from their on side (especially so far s reactions with India and China are concerned). But the logic never was very convincing. The kindest suggestion is that it is 20 years too late – perhaps there would have been more to play for when globalisation was going full throttle, rather than in its current gentle retreat.

But it is unlikely the most people who voted for Brexit shared this vision. They were drawn to an idea of Britain that was less integrated with the world around it, not more. This was focused on one idea in particular: “control over our borders” – limitations to immigration, rather than the free movement within the union. Supporters of this idea, like Nigel Farage of Ukip and the Brexit Party, did not point to any other countries as a model: Britain was one of a kind. Perhaps some people thought of Australia, a fiercely independent Anglo-Saxon heritage nation, with strict immigration rules. Suggesting an “Australian-style points system” to manage immigration received widespread approval, even though few people understood it or its implications. Another model might be Japan. Japan is an island that trades with its giant continental neighbour, China, but emphatically maintains its distance politically. It limits immigration, and, whisper it, prides itself on ethnic homogeneity (unlike modern Australia). It is also a highly successful country, that scores well on many indicators of quality of life. Economic growth in the last thirty years has been anaemic, but that only invites the question of what economic growth is for.

How is Britain doing under this isolationist vision? Free movement of people between Britain and Europe is now gone; many people from other European countries have left, and immigration from there is is now a trickle. All immigration is now subject to bureaucratic controls. If labour shortages have resulted, then this may simply be a first step towards giving local workers more opportunities. On this vision, things are going much better. There are three problems, though. One is an influx of refugees and others arriving in small boats on the Kent coast. I don’t think anybody had expected this to be so much harder to manage outside the union than within it; but the country can’t simply deport people back to France as it could before. This has turned into a major headache, especially for the authorities in Kent, and there are no convincing solutions that don’t involve doing a deal with the EU, which would involve accepting many more refugees legally, and undoing one of the perceived benefits of Brexit to isolationists. It is possible to take a bigger view of this: even allowing for this influx the country is taking fewer refugees than before. Unfortunately for the government, people supporting the isolationist view tend not to get such things in perspective. It is undoubtedly disorderly – though chicken feed to what Italy or Greece have to deal with.

A second issue is that, notwithstanding the hurdles, immigration has not reduced overall. Instead of people arriving from the EU, they are coming in from elsewhere. Fortunately for the government, the public seems much less stressed by this than by the boats. It is a relatively orderly flow of people after all, and by and large they are going into better-paid (or “high-skilled”) jobs that the economy needs, or paying extortionate student fees. But it does complicate the scorecard. The government can’t claim reduced immigration as a Brexit achievement. Indeed, every idea for reducing numbers, like cutting back on foreign students, looks like self-harm.

The third problem is that real wages are in steep decline, as inflation runs ahead of increases in pay. And the government is aiding and abetting this by putting maximum pressure on public sector pay. Brexit was supposed to increase wages by stopping low-skilled immigration. Perhaps supporters of the isolationist case, often retired, aren’t so bothered. But it is a long way from the case made for Brexit at the time of the referendum.

All this is indicative of a hole in the heart of the isolationist case. Australia has abundant natural resources it can exploit (or pillage, if you prefer – sustainability is not high on the Aussie agenda); Japan has a manufacturing industry that is still world-beating. There are world-beating bits of the British economy, but not enough. Nostalgia won’t bring back Britain’s once world-class manufacturing industry. Coal, oil and gas are in steep decline, if not dead. And some of the successful bits of the economy, like global financial services, benefit few, in the wrong parts the country, and have a distinctly dark side (the country was very popular with Russian oligarchs for a reason). The country has been running a current account deficit for over two decades, and, notwithstanding the depreciation of sterling, it isn’t getting any better. This turns out to be more sustainable than many economists thought – in the sense that it does not seem to be leading to the sort of financial instability that other deficit countries (like Argentina or Turkey) have suffered. But it does seem to be affecting the country’s terms of trade – though it is statistically hard to pin this down. According to one calculation the country’s real effective exchange rate is 83% of what it was in 2005 (i.e a fall of 17%). British people can buy less foreign goods and services with each hour’s earnings than used to be the case. There isn’t enough high-productivity, export-generating industry in the country. This problem has its roots in the relative industrial decline of the 1950s to 1970s, and the hollowing out of the the manufacturing economy under Margaret Thatcher. This largely pre-dates membership of the EU, and arguably was made worse by it. But somehow it was easier to cover the cracks within the Union.

The third case for Brexit I mentioned is the socialist one. This case has not yet been tested. According to this the EU is a capitalist-designed, anti-democratic system that prevents governments for taking their economies in a socialist direction. Not all (or even most) socialists followed held this view – hoping to reform the union from within – but its logic is solid enough. Holders of this view are fiercely defensive of national sovereignty – their aim being to take democratic control of the country, and drive through radical reform from there. Their economic reform ideas are not particularly popular (though perhaps not that unpopular either), but their ideas about national sovereignty are widely shared. Ironically, since the main advocates of Brexit were at the more aggressive end of capitalism, it is perhaps socialist policies that present the main national opportunities after Brexit. These will not fix the country’s export problem – export industries, other than mining or drilling perhaps, tend to need capitalist leadership succeed. But it may set in train a fairer distribution of income and wealth. I suspect that there is a hybrid of modern socialist and liberal ideas that could lead to a thriving society – and perhaps it is easier to pursue that path outside the EU, though I doubt it would make all that much difference. Other European citizens would be at least as interested in such ideas as the British are. Alas there are too few people anywhere who are pushing in that direction.

Is Liz Truss right about the “economic establishment”?

UK Treasury: Picture by Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19020165

Last weekend former British prime minister Liz Truss reentered the public sphere with an essay in the Sunday Telegraph, and an interview with The Spectator, publications that are both relatively sympathetic to her cause. This has occasioned much derision in the wider media. While I share much of this derisive view of her, I’m not going to join the chorus – it’s been said too well by others. Ms Truss has simply reminded most people why they dislike her so much. I want talk about the issues she raises, both in terms of economic policy, and how it can be implemented in Britain’s institutional environment.

Ms Truss’s starting point is what is widely seen as the UK’s dismal economic performance since the great financial crisis of 2008-09. Economic growth has been dismal, and if Britain has been able to maintain the pre-crisis trend of growth, then, according to Tim Harford in the Financial Times, it would be a staggering 40% better off. She attributes this to policy mistakes – a view that seems to be widely shared, even if not many agree on what those mistakes were. Personally, I differ from this – I think that the lack of growth is a reflection of adverse economic conditions, which started before the crisis – principally demographics and a changed world trade environment, made worse by Britain’s lack of a strong manufacturing industry. Liz Truss’s solution is to go back to policies popularised by the US president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and often attributed to Britain’s Margaret Thatcher too, though in fact she was much more cautious. These are mainly a matter of tax cuts, especially for businesses and the well-off, and deregulation. What she particularly favours is to proceed with tax cuts without regard to short-term effects on the public budget deficit, in the belief that an expanding economy will make things good in the longer run. She was always reluctant to talk about cutting public spending, and in the case of defence, advocated a substantial increase.

Her views on tax are largely magical thinking. Tax cuts might directly stimulate growth by increasing demand, but not as efficiently as many other policies, such as more generous state benefits, and not at a time when inflation is running riot. Lower corporate taxes might attract inward investment – but they are not widely thought to be a major factor, especially when the country’s politics seem so unstable. To her credit, though, apart from tax cuts, she advocated supply-side reforms that stand a much better change of promoting growth. These included easing immigration rules and making it easier for parents of small children to reenter the labour market. These weren’t popular in her own party, though. In her speech to the Conservative Party conference she decried an anti-growth coalition – which it struck many observers as being mostly her own party. However, her supply-side ideas had nothing like the heft to make more than a small difference to the country’s growth rate. Tax cuts (or forgoing tax increases) were her only big idea.

She has a second huge blind spot: inflation. She does not appear to understand that this usually arises from excess economic demand – and therefore that taming it requires deliberately crimping economic growth. She persistently seemed to think that inflation was somebody else’s problem – in particular the Bank of England’s. I find it astonishing that somebody whose degree course included economics (PPE at Oxford) can have thought this way. Everything interacts with everything else, and if you are the head of government, you are ultimately responsible for all the tools of macroeconomic management. What individuals do with their personal time may not be government’s problem; what public institutions do most assuredly is, even if they are run at arms length.

But amid all this foolishness and and failure to understand how things actually work, she did touch on something that is true. She railed against the “economic establishment” (the Sunday Telegraph unhelpfully added “left-wing” to this in their headline, but she neither said that nor meant it). She was particularly vehement about Treasury orthodoxy, which she saw at first hand in two years as a Treasury minister. The power of this orthodoxy undermines, usually fatally, any attempt to implement policy that contradicts it. That included her fiscal policies. They didn’t have her back when things got rough, and they forced an about-turn on most of them. What is a bit less clear is how Ms Truss fits the people controlling the world’s financial markets into this orthodoxy. She and her supporters are trying to blame the derivative based policies used by many pension funds for creating an unstable situation, about which nobody warned her or her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwateng. The Bank of England, also part of the orthodoxy, should have handled this better, they suggest. Rather interestingly, when she describes these polices as allowing the funds to invest more in businesses rather than bonds, they sound like just the sort of pro-growth idea she should be supporting. Of course the real problem here was the imperious arrogance with which she and Mr Kwateng treated financial markets. And as for the Bank of England, it was widely known that it was struggling to manage markets because inflation had caused a reversal of its loose-money policies, especially Quantitative Easing, upon which markets had come to depend..

I have some radical economic ideas of my own, though quite unlike Ms Truss’s. These are that Britain is far too centralised, and that responsibility for the many trade-offs required in financial and wider policy need to be radically decentralised. It’s not surprising that people oppose housing or industrial investments in their local area, when they will not be accountable for the benefits. The tough decisions are made in Whitehall, leaving with nothing else to do but complain. But this is part of the Treasury orthodoxy too – they don’t want a chaotic decentralisation, with corrupt nobodies taking decisions without the Treasury having ultimate sign-off. When the government wanted to distribute funding for its “Levelling Up” agenda, it didn’t distribute funds for disposal by the city regions and councils, it made these institutions put in bids for the imperious mandarins to pick from. To be fair, government leaders seem a bit embarrassed about this, and say there will be changes in future. But how did they allow this in the first place? And what credibility do their promises to do things differently next time have? The Treasury will undermine any effort they make to reform things. It is now reported that the Treasury is refusing to authorise any capital projects proposed by the Department for Levelling Up. The Treasury isn’t all in the wrong here: the levelling up funding was originally envisioned by former prime minister Boris Johnson as a politically directed slush fund to help win marginal constituencies. The power of the orthodoxy is that it is often right.

So the “economic establishment” would undermine my ideas for reform just as surely as they did Ms Truss’s. It’s a real thing. Any serious attempt at political reform therefore has to take on the orthodoxy and beat it. It can be done. Mrs Thatcher did it, and, to some extent, so did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for Labour in the early 2000s, especially with their radical expansion of health funding (and it required both of the double-act to do it). It took these leaders years and all their political skill. The remarkable thing about Liz Truss is that she thought she could break the Treasury in an afternoon, based on a mandate she had won from 100,000 or Conservative Party members.

And that is the point. We need political leaders who understand the orthodoxies and how to challenge them – people with political skills high and low. The current government possess few, if any, people of that description. Do Labour? I really don’t know. I haven’t been that impressed with Sir Keir Starmer, their leader, or Rachel Reeves, his Shadow Chancellor. But I could be wrong – they are becoming more effective. One opposition politician I am sure has the necessary heft and skill is the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, having honed those skills as energy minister in the coalition government of 2010-2015. Perhaps he will get another chance.

Sir Keir Starmer: the tortoise of British politics

Picture: Randy Browning, US Fish & Wildlife Service

Uncharismatic politicians are gaining the ascendency. In America Joe Biden bumbles away in public and looks his age, and yet his record of achievement in difficult political conditions is remarkable. In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Sholz is hardly more impressive in public, and yet his awkward three-way coalition government looks solid and is managing stresses that could hardly have been imagined when it was formed. Meanwhile in France the charismatic Emmanuel Macron is not out, but he is down. In Britain the Leader of the Opposition, the dull Sir Keir Starmer, is looking getting stronger by the day.

Sir Keir has caused a lot of frustration among Labour supporters, along with anybody that wants to see the back of the Conservative government. He seems unable to spell out a compelling vision of what Labour stands for; as a speaker he is uninspiring. But Labour’s poll ratings are sky-high, and his own public approval ratings are higher than they have ever been. These ratings may not be decisively better than those for the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, (though one recent put them on that path) but the steady upward trend is what is remarkable. Usually politicians start by sparking high hopes, and then gradually disappointing. Sir Keir is achieving the opposite.

Partly this reflects the chaos stalking the Conservative party, to which Sir Keir’s colourless Labour party presents and appealing contrast. Boris Johnson had bags of charisma, but no grip. Liz Truss lacked charisma but did communicate a clear vision effectively – but people found it detached from reality, and she could not control her parliamentary party. Mr Sunak presents a favourable contrast to these two, but he struggles to reassure voters about the state of his party, and doubts grow.

But Sir Keir’s performance has been more assured of late too. He remains extremely cautious about putting clear policy proposals out into the public domain. Instead he and his team have put out two much vaguer themes in early 2023. These build on the theme developed in 2022 of placing a high priority on environmental sustainability, and the goal of “green growth”. The first of these was developed by Sir Keir himself: when he made an attempt to hijack the Brexit slogan of “Take Back Control” to promote the idea of greater devolution to the nations and regions of the UK. This is cheeky, not least because Britain has little tradition of devolved power, so the slogan is suggesting people take back what they never had in the first place. That is forgivable because the idea is the right one: decisions need to be taken closer to the people affected by them, and people need to have a greater sense of involvement in them. Whether Labour proposals will actually deliver much that is worthwhile is open to doubt. The party has a tradition of being highly centralised, and Sir Keir has batted away more radical ideas like electoral reform. It is hard to think that he will go down the road of a local income tax, for example. I’m unconvinced that anybody in the Westminster ecosystem really “gets” what would be involved in the sort of reform that would make more than a minor difference. Still, the verbiage is better than nothing. It is more worrying, if unsurprising, that Labour spokespeople have not tried developing the theme since Sir Keir flew the kite in the New Year.

The second idea to be developed this year comes from the party’s health spokesman, Wes Streeting. The NHS needs radical reform, he says, not “sticking plaster solutions”. Unlike the “take back control” idea, this one has been regularly repeated by Labour since. The idea seems to be that a reformed NHS can deliver better results without requiring an “open cheque book”, as sir Keir put it. At one level this looks like muddle and nonsense. Currently the NHS is suffering an emergency as it fails to cope with demand, following a decade of under-investment; this demands urgent solutions and not reforms that will take much longer to deliver benefits. The NHS badly needs sticking plaster right now, and lots of it. And radical reform has been tried before, and the results have almost always disappointed – most recently with the coalition government’s attempt in the early 2010s. To make a real difference, some kind of open chequebook will be needed, alongside sensible reforms – including to social care. Meanwhile Mr Streeting is vague about what reforms he has in mind – beyond tearing up the contract for general practitioners (GPs) – which came as a surprise to GPs. Still, politically these words make more sense. Labour does need say something about the NHS, and not just throwing money at it. Perhaps it is the inverse to 2010. Then the Conservatives promised that there would be no radical (“top-down”) reforms to the NHS, and then promptly broke their promise by embarking on a huge reform programme. Labour are probably promising radical reform but planning to deliver sticking plaster with spin.

Tactically this is all very shrewd. My feeling is that Labour will manage to consolidate their advantage over the Conservatives, which still has a certain fragility – polls show few people making a switch between the parties, and many more former Conservatives abstaining or supporting the Reform party of radical Brexiteers. It is the race of the tortoise and the hare. The hare lacks the attention span to win.

But there is a dark side to Sir Keir’s progress. In his campaign to party members to win the leadership, he promised to stay true to the party’s broad policy agenda, developed under his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. He has broken this promise. according to Stephen Bush, of the Financial Times and formerly of the New Statesman, this isn’t because he was deliberately misleading. He just didn’t understand the implications of his words, and found that when the time came he was unable to keep his promise. What he said was driven by the political exigencies of the time, without having been properly thought through. This is surely true of his emerging policy agenda now. Britain’s many problems can’t be fixed except with additional public spending, and this must be done when adverse demographics, among other things, mean that there will be little economic growth. Meanwhile Britain runs a substantial current account deficit. To my rather conventional mind, this means that there will have to be higher taxes, and the sort of taxes that will crimp domestic demand – income tax, VAT and National Insurance. Whether or not this is so in theory, Ms Truss has surely shown that it is true in practice – the government needs a degree of confidence from financial markets, which like to see a degree of prudence in public finance. Sir Keir will not say this, but once in power he will surely be faced with the need to raise taxes.

Two other areas worry people about Sir Keir’s caution. One is relations with the European Union. He avoids talking about Brexit, and has set his face against rejoining the Single Market or customs union. With the electorate slowly but surely coming to view Brexit was a serious mistake, surely he has the opportunity to be bolder, while forcing the Tories to defend a sticky wicket? Actually in this case I think Sir Keir’s judgement is sound. Re-integration with the EU brings with it awkward choices, surrendering sovereignty while acquiring little influence. Besides, the EU itself will be sceptical. And though the public may be regretting Brexit, they show little appetite to reopen the debate.

The second issue is electoral reform. Labour members support this, but Sir Keir is ducking and weaving, and is committing to nothing. This is disappointing because it is hard to see the British political system changing for the better without it. British politics has got itself stuck in an awkward groove, which in effect disenfranchises most voters, contributing to a huge sense of frustration. Of course countries with other electoral systems suffer problems too – but Britain’s are deep. Sir Keir’s caution is understandable though. I suspect many Tories think that Labour adopting electoral reform would be a gift to them. It gives them a chance to change the subject from their own record, and to awake the innate conservatism of the British electorate, with all sorts of lurid stories as to what the implications of reform are. Still, I don’t think it would work for them. Maybe Labour can promise electoral reform at a local level, as part of their “take back control” agenda. That would be a worthwhile step.

None of which takes away from Sir Keir Starmer’s relentless rise. It is a striking political achievement that deserves wider recognition.

Britain’s failing public services need a new management approach

British public services are flagging – even without the wave of strikes provoked by the government’s attempt to force below-inflation payrises. Many are assailed by staff shortages – health services in particular. Backlogs mount in health, the courts and the processing of immigrants. The police seem to be dealing with a diminishing proportion of crimes. The government seems to have little idea how to address this.

What is the cause? There are three obvious ones. The first is the austerity policies in place since the great financial crash of 2008/09, ratcheted up by the coalition government of 2010-2015, and intensified by the Conservatives alone from 2015 to 2017. The second is more demand for services from an increasing population of elderly. On top of these came the disruption of the covid-19 pandemic, which caused many backlogs. These have all doubtless contributed, but the problems go deeper, and will require a new mindset to fix. Take the issue in hospitals of patients who cannot be released back into the community, causing a shortage of beds. This problem goes back a very long way. I remember people talking about “bed-blocking” thirty or more years ago. Or the bullying, racism and misogyny that are rife in the police and fire service, and doubtless elsewhere. Most of us thought that these problems were being stamped out after the 1960s – it is shocking to see that they are unchecked in this day and age. This bespeaks generations of weak management, fending off the modern world with defensive strategies, like extra bureaucracy, rather than true problem-solving. Every time that one or other service says that lessons will be learned after some failure (and it happens more than weekly), you can guarantee they mean that some extra rule has been layered onto the existing thicket of unmanageable procedures.

A lack of leadership, from senior politicians down, is clearly part of the problem – though more in some services than in others – in fact there are many pockets of excellence. But this problem results from institutions being trapped by a system that constrains initiative and crushes rather than rewards enterprise. This arises from how the work is organised – which leads to two related problems. First of all the system is heavily biased to fixing problems rather than preventing them. The best way of stopping health service backlogs is for people to be healthier, after all. Secondly almost all the difficult problems, and especially those that focus on prevention, require multiple agencies to cooperate without adequate structures to ensure that cooperation is effective. Somebody on the radio recently listed all the agencies that had to come together in a criminal trial (courts, police, prosecutors, defenders, the prison service, the probation service, and so on); it’s no wonder that they don’t work efficiently. No wonder, but also nobody’s responsibility.

Problems with public services are nothing new. People have been wrestling with it for as long as I can remember. The Thatcher government of 1979-1990 had the big idea of privatising large swathes of services, which then included many public utilities. In many cases this was very successful – in telecoms and energy, especially. But it soon became clear that there were limits. Privatising prisons, for example, may have solved some problems, but created many others. The next major push came from the Blair/Brown government that took power in 1997. They had two main ideas: establishing quasi-independent agencies in a sort quasi-market economy (academy schools and NHS Foundation Trusts, for example), an idea more closely associated with Tony Blair; and close performance management, with the use an array of performance targets, and managers being disciplined if they were not met, an approach more closely associated with Gordon Brown. For convenience I will call these the Blair and Brown approaches, though both men supported both approaches to some extent. We can learn much from what became of them.

The Blair approach had easily the best press – praised by many right-leaning think tanks and journals like The Economist. They were picked up, and in places turbo-charged, by the coalition government that followed Labour. They had one important success: university education in England. This was linked to a dramatic increase in student fees, linked to a student loan system that works like a graduate tax. This gave the universities a degree of operational independence. Problems continue, but Britain’s university system remains world-class; rationing of university places, as required by Scotland’s directly-funded system, has not been required, with the result that a higher proportion of the population can attend. Elsewhere the reforms are being quietly buried. Much success has been claimed for academy schools, and there have been success stories – but the main thing that can be said for them is that they have not made things much worse. They have been linked to the waste of public money, however, with senior management overpaying themselves. In the NHS the system is being quietly dropped, as it entails much bureaucracy, while doing little to address fundamental performance issues, like integration of care or patient safety. In both health and education, the services were linked to massively complicated and prescriptive funding models, which failed to work like commercial tariffs in the way the designers hoped. This is one way in which it differed from the university reform.

The Brown model, on the other hand, received a much worse press. People complained of complex targets, misaligned incentives, and macho sackings of senior managers – creating a climate of fear that undermined creative problem-solving. All of these criticisms were well-founded, but the system had some notable successes. The Labour government oversaw a dramatic improvement in the quality of teaching in schools, and especially in London. The new academies were part of this success, but local authority schools did just as well, if not better. As a primary school governor, and chair of governors, I saw this improvement happen at close quarters. There was some rather crude top-down management from the ministry, but the professionalism of school and local authority leaders by and large rose above this – and pushed through dramatic improvements. I have seen a quality of management that easily matches what happens in the private sector. Four things stand behind this success. Firstly, schools already had a huge amount management autonomy compared to other public agencies, as their services are relatively self-contained; second standards were enforced by an independent standards agency, Ofsted, which carried out regular inspections of schools and local authorities, and used well-designed metrics to act as benchmarks; third, local authorities proved effective intermediaries between central government and the schools; finally funding was increased, which gave managers more ability to achieve change. Interestingly the coalition government, while pushing the largely irrelevant academies initiative, picked up were Labour left off, by sharpening the focus on quality of teaching, and dramatically improving the funding system with the (Liberal Democrat) pupil premium system, and its attendant focus on disadvantaged pupils. Since the coalition, the focus has been somewhat lost, and funding squeezed; Ofsted went off the boil (doubtless thanks to funding cuts) by easing pressure on top-rated schools.

The Brown model was applied to the NHS too, and the quality of NHS services drastically improved over the Labour years. But this is mainly attributed to an equally dramatic increase in funding. The easiest thing to say about this is that the combination of extra funding and close scrutiny of results achieved much more than either of these would have alone. The Brown government, towards the end of the Labour period, did try to address some of the problems with the performance management system. I remember a new system called “team around a child” which aimed to bring multiple agencies together to address issues around individual cases. But it wasn’t clear whose job it was to knock heads together. Most of this was swept away when the Labour government ended.

Over the last decade or so, the Conservatives have adapted rather than overturned the previous Labour government’s approach, with the important difference that they have squeezed funding relative to demand. They have revived and extended an older idea too: tendering and outsourcing to outside agencies, be they non-profit enterprises or commercial providers. This has been disastrous. The aim has been to save money, and this has meant redefining the services as a skeleton of what they should be to play a fully functional role. The outsourcers then duly cut the service back, by, for example, replacing skilled professionals with less skilled recruits following standard scripts, and who are unable to to make proactive interventions or prevent difficult cases becoming “frequent flyers”.

The problem is that none of the various things that governments have tried in the last forty years have addressed the fundamental organisational problem – which is that responsibility is divided among so many agencies, which in turn are managed at national level. The system is centred around specialist service provision, and not people. Crime, housing, mental health, physical health and family dysfunction are all closely linked together. We may find all these contributing in a particular serial offender, say, who causes multiple agencies to commit resources. But instead of the agencies coming together to find a solution, the system encourages them to continually pass the parcel.

So how to progress? Public services need to be more focused on their users, and services intermediated by professionals empowered to bring different elements of service together. This means more localised control of services, so that those intermediaries don’t have to escalate issues far up the chain of command in order to resolve blockages. It means a local political leadership able to focus on the needs of particular people, and accountable for the overall results in a particular locality. That, inter-alia, means substantial devolution of political power to regions and local authority areas. That is necessary but not sufficient. Scotland and Wales have just as disappointing record on public services as England, in spite of substantial devolution. We need more specific policy reform ideas.

Interestingly Labour’s recent proposals on constitutional reform (proposed by Mr Brown) show that there is a political consensus around further devolution. However the narrative is based more transport infrastructure and economic growth, rather than making public services more effective. I’m not sure if many politicians grasp what is needed to improve public services. Still, in the dying days of the coalition a deal was done make a more substantial devolution of public services to the Greater Manchester Mayor, including some NHS and social care services. As I recollect this was criticised by Labour at the time. According to this study, it has been a modest success, with a slight improvement to life expectancy.

Still the forces of conservatism are powerful. It is always tempting to try and make the current, departmentally bound and centralised system work, rather than undertaking risky reforms – especially ones designed to give credit to regional and local politicians. But politicians need to improve the effectiveness of public services urgently – and through the extra effectiveness reduce demand by solving problems. This needs a huge change in political culture, but once one area starts leading the way, that should generate momentum. With Scotland distracted by the debate on independence, the most promising place to start looks like Greater Manchester. we will probably have to wait for the next government, though.

The British Left needs to moderate its obsession with austerity

I’m not reviewing this book, but title reveal the left’s attitude to austerity

As a Liberal Democrat I’m often described as being on the political left. One word shows that this is far from true: “austerity”. To people on the left, especially in Britain, this word brings up a visceral reaction. To them austerity is the quintessence of evil: the crushing of all attempts to promote the public good, perpetrated by a brutal government out to protect the interests of the rich. But to me austerity is a government policy that is often necessary – and is part of a healthy tension that keeps the state efficient. Still, I always like to understand the arguments of people I disagree with, and when I saw a link on my New Statesman email to an article by William Davies entitled Fascism’s liberal admirers, I thought I’d take look. The sub-title was Austerity is a fiction designed to uphold capitalism – and it has a dark history. The pretext (I would not call the article a review) for the was a book by Clara Mattei called The Capital Order – How economists invented austerity and paved the way to Fascism. The subheadings demonstrate what I mean about the left’s attitude.

Which is why I was expecting a lot of nonsense – and by and large that is where the article ended up. But along the way it constructed a narrative that was fr from nonsense. The book is about the rise of Fascism, and how the pre-Fascist government in Italy in the 1920s was being pressured by Britain (as a creditor nation) to adopt austerity policies. The British ruling establishment had taken on the austerity narrative after the First World War, and was delighted when the Fascists in Italy followed through with these policies after they took power. Ms Mattei’s and Mr Davies’s point is that this narrative came about as a reaction to a socialist narrative that the success of war economies showed that there was an alternative to market capitalism, with economies led by, and substantially owned by, the state. Revolution was in the air. The capitalists needed to stamp this thinking out, and they aggressively promoted pro-market policies and a rolling back of state intervention. It was not a narrative based on economic necessity, but one developed to protect vested interests. It is but a short step for Mr Davies to suggest that this is what has been happening in the 21st century, following the financial crash of 2008, and now – with the fall of the Liz Truss government. That, historically, support for austerity led capitalists to embrace Fascism shows how they will turn on democracy to protect their interests, and economics is just camouflage. The fight against austerity is the fight to preserve democracy.

There’s something in this. Pretty much all economic policy, whether capitalist, socialist or anything else, is a conspiracy of vested interests: people try to persuade the public at large that their ideas are for the public good, using any argument that they think might gain traction, spurious or otherwise. That is how large, complex societies get anything done. Truth is incidental. And, though I’m not an expert, I think that the British ruling establishment over-reacted to the prospect of more socialist ways of working in the 1920s, and their arguments in support of the package of policies that Mr Davies calls “austerity” do not stand the test of time (though economies in the 1920s swiftly moved to growth after austerity – and it was not until the depression of the 1930s that the narrative seriously came to be questioned). After all they did something quite different after the next war, and capitalism (and wider society too) has never flourished more. It is a stretch to say that the same applies to 21st century episodes of austerity in Britain and the Eurozone, but there is a case to answer. Many of the justifications put up by the supporters of austerity policies were nonsense. So if you want to believe that austerity is always and everywhere economic nonsense promoted by self-interest, you will always find plenty of evidence. That is the insight I gained by the article. Evidence, but not proof.

The resources required to make an economy work are always limited. The bottom line is that economic policy will always be limited by resources, and that the more efficiently those resources are used, the more successful an economy will be. There are times when it pays a government to spend money to do things that are useless. Keynes wrote of getting people to dig holes and fill them in again; Hitler ramped up spending on armaments. That is when the economy is running slack and needs pump-priming. The people digging holes or making tanks spend their wages buying other things, creating a virtuous circle of job creation. Austerity is a bad idea at such times. But when the economy is running at close to capacity, or overheating (as is the case in most developed economies in 2022) then that logic disappears. If anybody, anywhere is employed doing things that don’t enhance society, it is means that the economy is running less efficiently than it should. If the government is running inefficiently, then austerity policies can be justified to cut waste, and move people from doing useless things in the public sector to being more useful in the private one. That is the basic intellectual case for austerity. And it is why governments of all economic stripes, capitalist and otherwise, will often carry out austerity policies. For example, Cuba’s socialist government after Soviet subsidies were withdrawn in the 1990s.

It goes deeper. All human organisations have a tendency to become complacent, and settle into inefficient ways of working to minimise internal conflict. In private enterprise this tendency is tempered by the need to compete, and by downturns in the business cycle. I well remember this from my work days. Things would seem to be going well, and then there would be a crisis. Savings had to be made, usually, eventually, entailing job losses. Workers were disappointed and often angry; but the overall effect of this stop-start was a more healthy, efficient and focused organisation. Some good things might be lost in the process, but that was outweighed by the reduction in waste and follies curtailed. The public sector is generally insulated from such commercial pressures, and so has an even greater tendency to become inefficient. Bouts of austerity act as a check on this, and force managers to focus on what needs to be done – though they won’t thank you for it.

But the timing is often difficult to decide. It is not always easy to tell if an economy is running slack or close to capacity. There is an argument to be had about that in Britain in the 2010s. But the real problems happen over resources transferred between countries. Economies are often sustained by using resources provided by other countries. But this creates international obligations – as well as the temptation to profligacy. If people in one country supply resources to people in another one, they do so because they expect to be repaid in some shape or form, usually profitably. If it turns out that poor economic management (or any other problem) puts the repayment in jeopardy, then the creditor countries will often insist on austerity. This is not always the right thing to do, but the basic premise that the debtor country is consuming more resources than it is producing, and needs to adjust to something more sustainable. This can be a capitalist conspiracy, but it doesn’t have to be. The politics around it get messy with truth, as usual, a casualty; creditors accuse debtors of profligacy – debtors accuse creditors of gratuitous cruelty. Some governments practice austerity simply to prevent getting into this sort of situation – the socialist president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is an exemplar of this.

All this is common sense. Austerity – and this is best understood as cuts to government spending, rather than raising taxes – can simply be about the management of finite resources in a changeable environment, and doesn’t have to be ideological. So why do the British left react so violently to the idea? I’m not sure how deep the history goes. The New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of the mid-1990s embraced austerity, but they were hardly of the left – but the left seemed happy enough to keep in tow. I think the issue originated from the coalition government of 2010. In the five or so years before this, the state payroll, direct and indirect, had expanded considerably. Many parts of the state had become very inefficient. At the time I could see this in both education (I was a school governor) and health (I was following health affairs closely, as I was looking for a job there). In both areas I could see over-complicated management structures and performance grids, and lightweight policies implemented to placate some lobbyist or other. Capital funding was tied to a bidding process that required the use of consultants on both sides. The bidding process was a matter of verbiage – the trick being to find the right trigger phrases. I read my borough’s bid for primary school expansion (which was successful), and it seemed to carefully saying nothing at all – but it was the work of many senior people, with external advice. In the NHS, funding was driven by something called “World Class Commissioning” – a vastly over-engineered superstructure designed to provide employment to consultants and middle managers. I could go on. The writing was already on the wall before Labour lost the election of 2010, as the crash put government finances under strain, but the government had been slow to apply austerity. Not so the incoming Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. They put in place a vicious programme of spending cuts. Suddenly a whole class of public sector employee found their livelihood at risk – and worse, political leaders were suggesting that their endeavours had all been a waste of time. That triggered an angry backlash. And just as the right tends to be controlled by the interests of capitalists, the left tends to be controlled by the interests of state employees.

By and large the angry people were university graduates trained to look for abstract principles to make sense of events. So instead of just protesting against the concrete adverse effects of particular cuts, they spied an abstract idea to focus their anger on: austerity. Austerity was evil; the cuts were not necessary but ideological. Many economists criticised the cuts as excessive, causing a needless recession and economic wasted resources – and this was seized on as evidence of the evils of austerity. As this line of thinking developed in the usual echo-chambers of social media and friendly journals, it morphed into the idea that austerity is always and everywhere evil. Mr Davies’s article shows how entrenched that thinking remains.

And that is a problem. The left seeks to achieve political power, and to do so democratically they must persuade people that they can be trusted. But most people’s attitude to austerity is pragmatic: sometimes it is required. Most people probably have their own hobby horse of perceived government waste that austerity could be used to sort out – though there will be no general agreement on what these actually are. A class of politicians that cannot let the idea that austerity can ever be justified pass their lips are going to find it very hard to win that trust. And yet it is more than easy to campaign convincingly against specific cuts – at a time when so many public services are wilting under pressure, and the public safety net is obviously inadequate in many places. The politically sensible thing to do is to allow for austerity in theory, but oppose it in the here and now: or to follow the example of Gordon Brown who advocated austerity in the mid 1990s, but once in power and having established public trust, launched the expansion of the British state.

The left are part of the Labour Party, but do not control it. The Labour leadership understand well enough the politics of all this. Polls show that they are maintaining credibility on economic management. The left’s obsession with austerity in the abstract undermines their political influence. Which means the advocacy of any good ideas they have is weakened. In a world when many long-held beliefs are being challenged, the left should challenge this shibboleth.

What does a high-wage economy actually mean?

Labour shortages mean that the pay of refuse workers is advancing

It turns out that the leaders of Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties agree on quite a lot. The latter, Sir Keir Starmer, gave a quite a weighty speech to the Confederation of British Industry this week – which did much to help his gravitas as prime-minister-in-waiting. What has drawn most attention is his opposition to excessive immigration (not clearly defined, of course) and commitment to making Britain a high-wage, high-productivity economy. This was one of the main planks of Tory policy in at least the last two general elections, and still is – in contrast to integration with the European Union’s labour and product markets. Many in the CBI want a more flexible approach to immigration (to say nothing of more integration with the EU) – but they weren’t getting it from either leader.

The politics are obvious. Immigration is a touchstone issue in Britain, as it is in much of the world. The public thinks that the ruling elite were too relaxed about immigration and this was one of the main factors behind the populist backlash of the last decade, and the Brexit referendum result in particular. Labour are less trusted by the public on the issue, and so need to show a visibly firm line, or they won’t win back the voters that have deserted them since their last election victory in 2005. And the idea that choking off cheap labour from abroad will raise living standards is superficially plausible. In fact it was one of the more plausible claims made by the supporters of Brexit. And having done Brexit, I can understand how mainstream politicians feel the need to try and make the idea work.

But how does political necessity fare against reality? Most people seem to have very little idea of how the high-wage economy is actually supposed to work. It’s a bit like the “Australian-style points system” to manage immigration, which most people think is a jolly good idea, without having much clue about what it actually is, and how it compares to alternatives. The main target audience for economic policy ideas seems to be property-owning retired folk in the English North and Midlands (and in the English South and Wales, to be fair), who have little direct stake in a modern, functioning economy – which is all somebody else’s problem. Meanwhile they insist that there is “no room” for more immigrants – and fear that it erodes English national culture. There is therefore no particular need to explain the actual impacts of policy.

The overall economic theory is clear. If we can raise economic productivity, there is more money per head to go round to support higher wages. By choking off the supply of cheap labour from abroad, employers will be forced to use the available resources, i.e. local workers, more productively. There are two basic problems with this line of argument. The first is that higher income per head on average does not guarantee higher income for everybody. An imbalance of power in the labour market leads to high pay for the powerful at the expense of the powerless. The hope is that cutting immigration strengthens the bargaining power of less powerful. Academics argue about whether it is true – but it is not hard to find anecdotal evidence of just this. A shortage of lorry drivers following Brexit has recently driven up their pay – and with it incomes workers in related fields, like refuse collection. Still, we shouldn’t forget, as Tories sometimes do, that better wages depend on the bargaining power of workers.The second problem is that productivity is only part of the equation – the proportion of working people, or working hours per head of the total population, is critical too. In fact in a modern developed economy it is probably more important – and it has been falling due to demographic pressures, the propensity of older workers to retire on their savings, and (perhaps) lack of access to health care for longer term and mental conditions. Immigration raises the ratio of working people in the short and medium term – which is why so many people think it is a good idea.

Still, let’s put these problems aside, and try to imagine what a high-wage society looks like. It is in fact not too hard to find such societies. They are usually located in spots in the developed world with a low population density. These are often tourist hotspots and it is mainly as a tourist that I have visited them: in Australia, New Zealand, Western Canada, Norway and Switzerland. The first thing you notice is that there aren’t many workers. If you are on safari in Africa, you will get a tour guide and driver as a minimum. In Canada and Australia the same individual does both roles. Go into a shop and there are few people to serve you. And there aren’t many shops. At hotels you carry your own bags. You get something of the Tesco automated checkout phenomenon. Self-service amounts to higher productivity for Tesco, but all they are doing is making you do more work for yourself. An experienced cashier is much quicker. In a high-wage economy you may find yourself eating at home instead of at restaurants – or inviting friends for drinks at home rather than trying to find a bar. The cost of services involving human contact is relatively higher.

So where are the workers? Not so many in the tourist spots, though there will be people delivering high-end products or services at quite a cost. They are mostly somewhere else, delivering highly productive goods or services. In Australia and Canada there is mining; in Norway there is oil; in Switzerland there is sophisticated manufacturing (chemicals and such) and banking. These are linked to exports, so that high-wage countries tend to be high-exporting ones, usually running trade surpluses.

Here’s the key. Some gains to wages for the less well off can be made by reducing profits and cutting top-level pay. But not enough and not sustainably. A large proportion of workers need to be employed in highly productive fields. If businesses simply raised prices to pay for higher wages, we end up where we started by putting so many things out of the reach of less well-off workers. But high productivity industries in the modern era are very productive indeed. They don’t employ many workers and usually need exports to to be sustainable.

And so we can start to see the characteristics of a high-wage economy. Workers must have strong market bargaining power, generally by being in short supply. There must be a strong, highly productive core to the economy, generating a substantial export trade (overall trade doesn’t need to be in surplus in theory – though in practice this often seems to be the case). And most people will have to put up with doing more things for themselves, as the price of services is high – and especially in rural areas. Taxes are also likely to be quite high to to support public services such as health and education – as a strong state underpinning of these, and an effective social safety net, is all part of the ethos – and supports the strong bargaining position of workers generally.

In Britain the problem is obvious. Labour shortages are improving the bargaining position of workers. We are moving towards a self-service economy as these labour shortages sweep through the hospitality industry amongst others. But what of the highly productive core? Here we are faced with a fleet of ships that have sailed. Fossil fuels are depleted and anyway a problem in the zero-carbon future. The country’s manufacturing has been hollowed out – the trade deficit is of very long standing. Financial services provided a lot of punch in the earlier years of the 21st century, but are going through rough patch in the 2020s. Brexit is widely blamed, but in truth the problems are wider. A lot of the strength of the mid-noughties turned out to be fictional – and it was very centred on London. The country needs to look to the future, and not try to recreate old glories. Here the parties do differ a bit. There doesn’t seem to be a coherent Conservative strategy at all. Their basic idea is to create fruitful conditions for investment and sit back and wait. Liz Truss, Mr Sunak’s predecessor, did lend some coherence to this approach. She wanted to create a low-tax, low-regulation haven for footloose international businesses. This idea quickly collapsed, leaving Mr Sunak plying platitudes about innovation. His government looks increasingly paralysed by internal divisions and unable to implement any decisive strategy.

Labour’s big idea is the green economy (something promoted by the Lib Dems and Greens too). This entails a massive investment programme designed to transform the country’s infrastructure as well as develop export industries. This is a good idea, but a lot of the work involved (home insulation for example) is not high-productivity. And there is intense competition for the rest – batteries and wind turbines for example. Still, it doesn’t do to underestimate British inventiveness, and public-private partnerships in this area surely provide part of the answer. Also renewable energy does offer high productivity, without the need for exports. There are other ideas. I have often talked about health care and related services, where Britain has a promising base – and where the NHS offers world-class data for developing new treatments – as the covid episode showed.

But there is a gorilla in the room that the politicians don’t want to talk about. This isn’t Brexit (though they don’t want to talk about that either). This has created problems for developing export industries – but other EU members are further down the path of developing exports and British industries struggled to compete with them in the single market. Britain’s trading problems got worse within the EU, after all, even if there were compensations. The gorilla is public sector pay – especially if we include the issue of social care. High wages mean high levels of pay in the public sector. Not all public sector jobs are badly paid, but the pressure of a tight labour market is putting public services sector under pressure. Staffing shortages are rife in many parts of it. Meanwhile part of the government’s anti-inflation strategy is to hold back public sector real pay levels – which is making matters worse. The answer is either to shrink the public sector or to raise taxes. Of course the politicians hope that an explosion of high-productivity private sector jobs (with associated tax revenue) will come to their rescue. But it won’t happen in time, if it ever does.

This is a tough place to be in, so it’s no surprise that our politicians are slow to confront the truth of it. I have to admit that it is forcing me to rethink some of my assumptions. But I do think that the vision of a high-wage economy is worth pursuing. The main alternative being offered by those interested in social equity is a universal basic income paid by the state. I am deeply uncomfortable with that idea for a number of reasons. Given that, here are two things to be thinking about.

The first doesn’t involve any great rethinking on my part, but remains politically toxic. We need higher taxes. This is not just on various soft-spots and loop-holes in the wealthier parts of the economy – schemes that are predestined to disappoint. Higher taxes need to affect most people. This is because public spending will have to rise to accommodate higher public sector pay – and we need to manage down the level of demand in the rest of the economy to help stabilise it, to say nothing of limiting the need to borrow money on world markets. Of course public sector productivity can be improved (though I prefer the word “effectiveness” to “productivity” – as a lot of the solution is lowering demand by forestalling problems), reducing the need for spending. But our political class, our civil servants, and the commentators and think tankers that critique them, have almost no idea how to achieve this. They are stuck in an over-centralised, departmental mindset. What is needed is locally led, locally accountable, cross-functional, and client-centred services – an idea that is so alien to British political culture that most people can’t even imagine it. So we can’t count on that idea and must settle for replacing the dysfunctional with the merely mediocre, with no cost-saving.

The second idea is even more contentious, and I haven’t properly thought it through yet. It is that inflation is an essential part of the process of readjustment, and we have to tolerate it to a degree – provided that the source of that inflation is a rise in pay for the less well-off. As somebody who grew up in the 1970s, I hate inflation. I think it undermines trust between the state and the governed. I have never subscribed to the view of liberal economists that it can be a tool of economic management. But there have to be exceptions. One example was Ireland in the 2000s, as that country worked through its economic transformation as it integrated with the EU economy, which did involve a spurt in productivity. Wages rocketed, driving inflation up. Ireland was in the Euro, so there was no ability for the currency to appreciate to ameliorate the effect. This was the only way for the country to reach the sunlit uplands – which didn’t stop the European Central Bank from criticising it – something my economics lecturer at UCL said was absurd.

Britain’s position is different from Ireland’s. We haven’t had that productivity spurt. There is nothing to drive an appreciation of the currency. But we want wages amongst the less well-off to rise. Price rises are part of the adjustment – with inflation acting as a tax on the wealthy, as part of a redistribution process. Meanwhile we need to drive capital investment – most renewable energy is very capital intensive, for example – as are most of the ideas for developing higher productivity. That means keeping interest rates low. Which won’t happen if interest rates are jacked up to combat inflation. And, as suggested already, to the extent that inflation needs to be managed, higher taxes are a better way to do it.

This is quite a progression in my personal thinking (and thank you to regular commenter Peter Martin for helping me along the way – though doubtless we still disagree). But trying to get to the fairer, more sustainable society we seek is going to require many of us to change our thinking – and put up with some things we don’t like.