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.

There may be a path back for the Tories, but it’s a long shot

Photo: Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When Theresa May went to the country in the general election of 2017, she promoted herself under the slogan of “strong and stable”. Polls showed the Conservatives heading for a massive landslide. Polling day came a few weeks later, and the party lost its majority. British politics has not settled down since. The “strong and stable” label for the Tories has never looked less appropriate, though that won’t stop the party from trying to use a version of it again. Reliable predictions are impossible, but it’s still worth trying to get some idea about how things could develop from here.

When Boris Johnson won his landslide for the Conservatives in December 2019, it was commonplace to suggest that it would be impossible for Labour to come back to winning a majority in one go. I always thought that was nonsense – an example of the human cognitive bias towards the status quo. It was suggested that a turnaround on such a scale would be unprecedented. So what? Less than three years later under Liz Truss, Conservative polling plumbed to such depths as to suggest not only a Labour majority, but a landslide. Now she’s gone, and the dust has far from settled.

Slowly the poll ratings are coming back to the Tories, but the Labour lead remains massive. The new Conservative leader, Rishi Sunak, is regarded much more favourably than his predecessor by the public, especially on the critical area of economic competence. It is possible to sketch out a scenario whereby he manages to claw his party back to winning a majority at the next election. Economic competence is at the centre of such a scenario.

Now it is important to understand how the public perceives economic competence. It has little to do with actual competence. The critical signs for the public are keeping a tight reign on public spending, and also for the economy not to be subject to dramatic adverse changes. Economic growth does not count for as much as many people seem to think. The bedrock of Tory support is retired. They have paid off their mortgages, have substantial value in their houses, and receive reasonably secure pension income, some of it from the state. They don’t like higher taxes because their income is relatively fixed. But unemployment, higher interest rates, and so on hurt them little. They shrugged at warnings that Brexit would damage the economy, and still do, even as many of the warnings are being realised. They are for economic growth in theory, but against just about any policy that will bring it about. There aren’t enough such people to produce a winning majority, but without them, or a substantial majority of them, the Tories cannot win. Labour under Tony Blair wooed enough of them over to put the Conservatives out of power for more than a decade.

On top of this bedrock the Tories need to win over another swathe of voters with conservative instincts. These are more aspirational; they have jobs (usually in the private sector) and own their homes, or feel that home ownership is within reach. This group is going to be put under pressure by higher interest rates. Mr Sunak may escape blame for the current rise in rates, justifiably or not, thanks to the political ineptitude of his predecessor. But it’s important that the rates don’t keep going up. That means running a conservative fiscal policy. Both he, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, seem to understand this. If inflation turns a corner, thanks to easing world conditions for energy and food, the pressure on interest rates will ease and it will look as if the government has managed a crisis well. The Tories would be in a position to raise doubts about Labour or a “coalition of chaos”, and, combined with the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries, there lies a narrow path back.

The threat to Labour of such a scenario is real enough. The public retains a serious bias against the party on economic management. This was made worse during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader. This wasn’t so much from what he and the party actually said – his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, proved to be an able communicator – than from a general attitude by the party that used the word “austerity” as a term of abuse. The party made no attempt to pick fights with interest groups on the grounds that “we can’t afford that”. Things are much better under Sir Keir Starmer, though he has not picked able communicators as shadow chancellors – the best that can be said of the current incumbent, Rachel Reeves, is that she is more effective than her predecessor, Anneliese Dodds. Their strategy seems to be, as it was under Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, “the same, only different”: trying to pick only carefully chosen and relatively minor differences, like windfall taxes, but copying Tory policy otherwise. When Tory policy goes crazy, as it did under Ms Truss, this leaves them looking muddled. They were much happier under Boris Johnson, who tried to dodge hard choices altogether, meaning theatre was less pressure on Labour to confront choices it would rather not. Labour will face an awkward strategic challenge under the Sunak-Hunt regime. The “same, only different” strategy is still viable, but it will pose some awkward choices on its attitudes to public spending.

Mr Sunak is left with two major headaches, though. The first is on public services. The government will be forced to constrain resources in order to manage the budget deficit. The timing is awful. Services across the board – health, education, the police, courts, to name only the most obvious – are all under stress, and they are about to be put under further pressure by workers demanding that pay keeps pace with inflation. The job market remains quite tight, so retaining staff is going to be hard. And these public services, mostly, matter to people. The obvious cuts have already been made, and saving money through more competent management is something this government seems to be unable to pull off – years of incompetent leadership are a large part of how they got into this mess. Politicians have lived too long on the notion that message and narrative matter more than operational effectiveness. The government could face constant distraction from one public service crisis to the next, giving the overall impression that they have been in power too long and their time is up. They won’t be able to rely on trying to divert the focus to Labour.

The second problem for Mr Sunak is related: his party lacks competence and discipline. Crisis in public services could be compounded by parliamentary rebellions and questions over his leadership. His need to maintain a broad church of views within the cabinet does not help. Trouble with the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, illustrates this. She goes down a storm with party activists, and helps keep the culture wars burning – but tub-thumping will help little in trying to run a complex and important brief, which has already suffered from years of poor leadership. She had already been sacked by Ms Truss for what amounted to gross disloyalty (thinly disguised as breach of ministerial procedure). She is more a politician than an administrator. But on the backbenches she could be a thorn in her leader’s side.

To people like me, it is hard not to think that these are symptoms of a political system that may have worked once, but which has long since ceased to do so. Politicians achieve high office by playing the gallery to a small coterie of deranged activists and donors, and where administrative competence and negotiating skills count for little. So it is disappointing that Labour are offering no serious political reform. Activists support the introduction of proportional representation, but Sir Kir has no intention of letting that get into his manifesto. He is worried that marginal conservative voters will react against it. That may be a sound judgement. Perhaps if a coalition is forced on him by the Liberal Democrats, he will entertain some degree of reform. There may be something in Tony Blair’s strategy of being cautious before winning power for the first time, and more radical on the next occasion. But for now it is hard to know whether the Labour party is on the right strategic course, and has enough competent people at the top. To me it looks vulnerable.

But there are good odds on Sir Keir being the next prime minister – and that looks justified.

The next election is Starmer’s to lose

Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It looks certain that Liz Truss will become British prime minister this week, and British politics will take a dramatic turn. It is surely an act of political suicide by her Conservative Party.

We are, of course, urged not to underestimate Ms Truss – as so many of us have in the past. And yet, Matthew Parris in The Times tells us that this is a mistaken sentiment – just as it was for Boris Johnson and for Donald Trump – also politicians who won the top job against huge scepticism of their fitness for the job. She really is as shallow and dangerous as she looks.

I agree. During her bid to persuade first Tory MPs and then ordinary Tory members to vote her into the job, she has backed herself into a difficult corner. Her fiscal policies are inflationary; her economic ideas delusional, and she has shown little aptitude for the negotiation and compromise that are essential to any successful political leadership. She is also a stiff and awkward communicator. She enters the job in the middle of an economic crisis – it is hard to see that she has much chance of a honeymoon period longer than a month.

It gets worse for the Conservatives. They have built their political appeal on the basis of being a safe pair of hands with the economy. Whether this claim has been justified is another matter: while the austerity policies with which the party was associated from 2010 until 2019 struck most voters as being careful and sensible, most economists regarded them as being inappropriate at best. Now that reputation for economic competence is under water. Recent polling shows a Labour lead on handling of the economy, as its does in overall voting intentions. This is very dangerous territory for the Conservatives – and Ms Truss is going to do nothing to improve it. The sort of tax-cutting fantasies that are popular on the American right do not play so well with floating voters here. And it is hard to see that inflation is going to improve much under her stewardship – not without a recession, which she is claiming that she can avoid.

Still, many observers think the Conservatives can pull things back. Ms Truss will hit the ground running, as she has had plenty of time to prepare. A new cabinet will be put in place quickly – and the current government lethargy will be replaced by energy and optimistic talk. There is bound to be a honeymoon bounce. Ms Truss might even go straight into a new general election. This would be perfectly justifiable, to give her a fresh mandate, rather than the flawed manifesto of 2019. The Conservatives have been planning for this possibility for some time, as new, and more advantageous constituency boundaries come into effect. They will likely be better prepared than they opponents. But the polling looks dire – and she and all her hangers-on will be dismayed at the idea of throwing away their coup so soon. Opposition is a dismal place to be for those used to government. Still there is a certain recklessness about Ms Truss, and I wouldn’t rule it out.

The main reason that people seem to think that the Conservatives might win the next election is a lack of belief in Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader. He is uncharismatic and cautious. It is hard to say what he stands for, and his polling is weak. But is this a Westminster bubble thing? Activists on the left like their leaders to be charismatic and radical – and so do the journalists and others who follow them. It is easy to see their disappointment. But FT columnist Janan Ganesh warns that this bias against the uncharismatic, also applicable to US President Joe Biden, leads us to underestimate them. Floating voters like their leaders to be reassuring and middle of the road – and, I would add, especially if those leaders are from the left. Radicalism is not a positive attribute. The Conservatives are walking into a trap.

The main equation for Labour is whether they will win the next election by themselves, or alongside the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, is no more charismatic than Sir Keir, though he is more experienced. He has made a lot of the political running in the last few weeks on the energy crisis – a subject he knows well as a former Energy Secretary. Like Sir Keir, he is relentlessly un-ideoligical. He is not trying to move the debate to the areas that his activists want to talk about – such as Brexit – but focuses on the areas that are close to floating voters top concerns. The other issue that the Lib Dems have been able to run with is the water companies’ disposal of raw sewage into rivers and the seaside. The Lib Dems are doing well in many Tory heartland seats where Labour is weak. The public ground is being subtly prepared for a coalition – or cooperation at least – between the two parties – in a way that it wasn’t before the Lib Dem coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, which saw Lib Dem support collapse.

It is reported that the Conservatives are preparing a campaign based on defeating the “Coalition of Chaos”, compared with strong and stable one-party government. This follows the successful deployment of this line of attack in 2015, which nearly wiped out the Lib Dems – though it failed in 2017, to the extent that the Tories are likely to avoid the slogan “Strong and Stable”, the basis of the 2017 flop. This line might gain traction if it looks as if a Labour-Lib Dem alliance will not gain enough seats to prevent the Scottish Nationalist Party from holding the balance of power. The SNP will not want to let in a Conservative government, but they will demand another referendum on independence. Labour and the Lib Dems are going to need to think through their strategy on that front with care, and not just hope that the issue won’t come up. But will the prospect of another Scottish referendum scare English floating voters? Probably not enough.

Sir Keir’s strategy was a risky one. He has done nothing to motivate his own activists – and gone out his way to insult the socialist left, the source of Labour’s most energetic supporters. He is unable to project the flair of Tony Blair, who previously made a floating-voter strategy work for Labour. But the Conservatives are playing into his hands.

I am going to be offline for two or three weeks.

Targeting help to the neediest depends on knowing who they are

This week’s Bagehot column in The Economist suggests that Labour’s policy of freezing energy prices is bad policy (actually “silly”) but good politics. It says that Labour has been too tied to “wonkery” – the design of policies that are clever enough to solve problems without the need to confront awkward choices. Their new policy is a welcome break form the current Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer. But I don’t think the policy is quite so silly – even if Labour’s suggestions about how the costs will be managed mainly are.

The challenge is huge. British energy prices, especially for gas, have shot up this year. But that is just a foretaste. Further steep rises are in the pipeline: the graphic above, showing annualised costs, culled from the New Statesman (featuring widely quoted projections from Cornwall Insight – who seem to be the only people making them) shows the problem. The median annual household income is estimated to be £31,400 after tax – so costs are rising from 4% to maybe nearly 14% of income for the median household, and it could be double this for the bottom quartile. Other costs are rising too, and, for most people, pay is not keeping up (many senior executives and our local refuse collectors excluded). The media has little difficulty in finding cases of extreme hardship – of people choosing between energy and food for example – and, apparently, not even being able to heat that food up. In one case publicised by BBC News, somebody was selling their furniture to pay their bills. And that is before the forecast price rises have gone through, and before winter brings in the need for heating. Overwhelmingly the public feel that the government should step in to relieve hardship – although how many Conservative Party members share this feeling, while they choose their next leader, is not clear. So far, so clear.

This is where The Economist‘s wonkery comes in. The view amongst Britain’s policy wonks is that help needs to be concentrated on those that need it most. Trying to cap the price for everybody, a policy widely favoured in other European countries, is regarded as a bad idea. For two reasons: first it wastes public funds on people that don’t need it, and second it blunts the market signal that people should reduce energy consumption, and so ease the imbalance between supply and demand that is causing the problem in the first place. This thinking has guided government policy to date. British energy prices have been allowed to shoot ahead of those in the rest of Europe – while the government is trying to target the bulk of its help to the neediest. But this bumps into a major problem. How can the government tell who to help, and who can get along without it? They have two main ways of trying to do this. The first is to help those already entitled to other help, such as Universal Credit – and the second is to ask people to apply for help, and then to assess whether they actually need it.

Both solutions are badly flawed. A problem on this scale is going to hit many people not entitled to benefits, which have become notably stingier over time. I have seen this problem in a different context: the supply of free school meals to struggling families. Many families need the help but are just above the threshold for entitlement. The problem with asking people to come forward is that many will refuse to as a matter of pride, while others who don’t need the help will try their luck, and need to be weeded out in some way, or else the system will subject to allegations of widespread abuse. This last has been the case with help for businesses in the pandemic. This problem is what I have called the Information Gap. The state does not know enough about individuals or businesses to tailor its policies to specific need. It either creates universal entitlements, helping those who are not in need, or resorts to a number of very blunt instruments, which often create political backwash.

The Information Gap is not just some technical problem that can be left to policy wonks to solve. It is one of the central problems of the modern state, and everybody in politics, wonk or not, should be aware of it. There are three general philosophical approaches to dealing with the Gap. One is to use the best efforts of the state to gather information and close the gap, compelling disclosure as required. This is the approach we associate with the Chinese Communist Party; it is highly paternalistic, and seamlessly moves into the state intruding into our private lives in unexpected ways. And the state never gets enough information to solve the problem properly. Its opposite is the libertarian approach. This suggests that the state should not involve itself in helping individuals at all. It should establish a system of security and property rights, and not much else. This thinking is popular n the political right, though not amongst populists. The third approach is solve the problem through a combination of universal entitlements and high taxes. This has recently been popularised through the advocacy of Universal Basic Income. Of course nobody, or almost nobody, advocates taking any of these three approaches to the extreme. Practical statecraft involves balancing all three approaches. Politically, though, we need to develop a sense of in which direction is the site needs to tilt at the current time.

Alas politicians rarely succeed by being honest about the difficult choices involved. Tory leadership contender Rishi Sunak seems to be suggesting that we take the more paternalist approach – but without being clear as to how the information gap is to be closed. His past behaviour in the pandemic suggests that we will accept a high degree of failure and try to shrug it off. His rival, Liz Truss, is suggesting a more libertarian approach – but without being honest about the widespread hardship and business failure that is likely to result. And now Labour is suggesting the use of universal entitlements – but without being honest that this will lead to higher taxes. All three are displaying a dependence on magical thinking. Labour’s “costing” of its new policy is laughable – but the economic illiteracy it is showing is the rule amongst serious politicians, not an aberration.

Personally I think Britain needs to move further along the universal entitlements and high tax route – an approach derided by Ms Truss, but one which the better-run European states favour. That does lead to further problems. Public services will require more discipline to improve their effectiveness, which I believe will have to come alongside decentralisation – with political accountability moving in parallel. That will require deep reforms that people may support in theory, but will resist in practice. Without reform, services will simply gobble up resources without becoming more effective. A further problem, shown in other European countries, is that tensions over immigration have to be managed. If entitlements are high, the public resents people it sees as freeloaders – and there is political mileage in stoking up that resentment, whether fair or not.

So that’s two cheers for Labour – and indeed the Lib Dems whose policies Labour seem to be copying. Alas I don’t see any sign that either party is going to be honest about taxes. But the public, surely, will start to see the need for hard choices. The careers of the two British politicians most egregious in suggesting that no hard choices are required – Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – have both ended ignominiously.

Boris Johnson survives another disaster

Image Petr Kratochvil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Boris Johnson, Britain’s Prime Minister, was nicknamed “the greased piglet” by his predecessor and Oxford contemporary David Cameron, for his ability to get out of tight situations. He has demonstrated those skills yet again after last week’s very poor local election results for the Conservatives. Instead the pressure is on his Labour counterpart, Sir Keir Starmer.

The Conservatives lost about 500 council seats across Britain, against the low base of when these seats were last fought in 2018, in the midst of the floundering of his predecessor, Theresa May. Many Tory MPs had supposedly been waiting for these results to decide whether they would ask for a vote of confidence. And yet Mr Johnson looks confident and there is little talk of unseating him. Those Tory MPs will put off their decision until the next event, such as the publication of Sue Gray’s report into lockdown shenanigans. But if these MPs were going to do the dirty, they would have done it long ago. There will always be a reason why today is not the day, and mr Johnson’s supporters are adept at providing them.

Mr Johnson’s confidence is not faked. The party’s disasters in London and Scotland were “priced in” in the popular expression. Not too many Tory MPs seats are at stake in these areas. Meanwhile in the “Red Wall” of former Labour seats taken by the Conservatives they fared better; there is no sign of an impending Tory collapse. The Conservatives also lost a lot of seats in their rural heartlands across southern England. But mostly they lost these to the Liberal Democrats, with some to the Greens, as well as a few to Labour. Mr Johnson seems a lot less worried about these than about the Red Wall. A general election is very different to these local elections, and mostly the parliamentary seats are held with very comfortable majorities. The party knows how to sow doubt into voters’ minds, enough to limit any Lib Dem rise to a small number of seats. Meanwhile his line of attack on Labour, as having been taken over by an evil alliance of out-of-touch metropolitan middle classes and urban lefties, remains intact. There is work to do, but the next election looks quite winnable for Mr Johnson, albeit with a reduced majority. All he has to do is communicate this to his wavering backbench MPS. They seem ready to be convinced.

Which is one reason why the pressure is on Sir Keir. His supporters claim that the results show Labour has turned the corner in the Red Wall. But pulling back a bit from the low point in 2019 is not good enough for Labour. The results show that these seats are still in play – and pose the question of what would happen to Labour in a full strength general election campaign. Sir Keir has devoted all his energy to slaying the ghost of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. This seems to be largely successful: Tory taunts that Labour is in the grip of extremists looks off the mark. That was a huge negative for the party in 2019, when many voters were put off by Mr Corbyn’s leadership. But Mr Corbyn’s leadership came with positives too – he was able to invoke enthusiasm amongst his supporters, and he managed to reach parts of the electorate that others did not. This was most evident in 2017 but was surely still there in 2019. But Sir Keir has lost this, and he isn’t able to rustle up much enthusiasm amongst people in the political centre either – in the way that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were able to. The local elections have done nothing to allay those doubts.

The second reason Sir Keir is under pressure is a police investigation into an alleged breach of lockdown rules in 2021 while campaigning in a by election. This follows a persistent campaign by a tabloid newspaper, in an attempt to deflect pressure from the Prime Minister’s apparent serial breaches in Downing Street. Because Sir Keir has pursued Mr Johnson so aggressively on this issue, he is accused of hypocrisy, in the time-honoured manner of British politics. The truth is that the lockdown rules were unclear, especially with regard to work meetings, and many people pushed the boundaries without being challenged. The police have also levied fines when they shouldn’t. Sir Keir’s lapse, if that is what it was, does not compare to the goings on in Downing Street under Mr Johnson’s supervision. But in order to keep the pressure up on Mr Johnson, Sir Keir has now said that he will resign if he is fined. Which puts the local police in a very difficult situation. It also puts Sir Keir’s leadership in limbo.

What of the Lib Dems? They had an excellent set of elections, and, alongside the two spectacular by election victories last year, they have fought their way back into political relevance. They only did well where they had local strength, and even then, struggled against Labour in places like London. But they have now built a platform from which they can substantially build on their parliamentary representation – provided the voters are not scared that they might let in a Labour government, as they were in 2019. Lib Dems were quite happy with Labour being led by Sir Keir, as he is unlikely to scare off their floating voters. All this is a vindication of the leadership of Sir Ed Davey, and especially his decision, criticised within the party, of not mentioning Brexit. The party has shown an ability to come back in Brexit-supporting parts of the country, such as Somerset. But will they be able to do enough to stop the Conservatives from gaining a majority?

Mr Johnson’s strengths in political survival and campaigning are not matched by skills in government. His avowed radicalism has dissipated into gesture politics. Meanwhile an economic storm is gathering pace. This would be a tricky challenge for any government, let alone the current hapless one. Can the greased piglet survive that too?

A vindication for Ed Davey and Keir Starmer

The Liberal Democrat victory in North Shropshire is astonishing. It is the second stunning victory for the party in a year – Chesham & Amersham could be explained away by it being a Remainer seat and affected by NIMBY issues on house building and railways. No such excuses are on offer here, and the swing was even larger. In fact the last time there was such a large by-election swing between the parties (Christchurch in 1993) it was a prelude to the Tory meltdown in 1997. The Lib Dems have reestablished themselves as the protest party of choice in the Tory heartlands.

The first thing to say about this is that it is a vindication of the leadership of Sir Ed Davey. He has come in for much criticism, from inside and outside the party, since being elected last year. He wasn’t being radical enough, it was said, and in particular he should have spent more energy banging on about the failure of Brexit to deliver its promises. But that would have limited the party’s appeal to a rather well-off and well-educated elite, and probably failed even there with the party lacking wider credibility. He has been proved correct that the public mainly wants to move on. Instead he has revived the party’s focus on local issues, used to highlight the message that Westminster is out of touch. Importantly they were able to convince many Labour voters (the party was a comfortable second in 2019) that they had a better chance of winning in this seat – but the victory was founded mainly on scooping up doubting Conservative voters, and persuading others to stay at home..

Labour failed to do quite so well in the by-election two weeks previously in Bexley, in the London suburbs, in spite of the Lib Dems keeping their heads down there. We can’t read too much into the contrast, since evidently what proved fatal for the Conservatives in Shropshire were their evasions over Christmas parties in December 2020 in Downing Street and elsewhere – and that blew up largely after Bexley.

In fact the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, should feel vindicated too. He too has avoided stoking up told-you-so on Brexit; he has also avoided saying anything radical at all, notwithstanding his promises to Labour members before they selected him. Instead he has chosen to major on competence and “leadership”. In his early months he always stood in front of a backdrop with the word “leadership” in it. This was a failure at first. Criticism of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, seemed to be a Westminster village thing that didn’t “cut through” to the general public, in the village’s terminology. Not long ago I was urging Sir Keir to be be more radical by advocating reform of the House of Lords and the electoral system, allying himself with the Lib Dems and Greens, and capitalising on disillusion with the political system. That has proved unnecessary – it would always have been a risky strategy, but playing it safe can be paradoxically risky too in politics. But now the government’s credibility is shot in the nation at large, and voters are not as frightened of him as they were of his predecessor. That Lib Dem by-election victory in 1993 (in fact there were two that year, like this) heralded a Labour victory after all. Labour is now leading in the national opinion polls.

For the Conservatives this defeat points to two big problems. The first is Mr Johnson’s leadership, the subject of my previous blog. As I said then, I get very tired of the suggestion that Tories tolerate the incompetence because he is an election-winner. What on earth is the point of winning then? The public can and did suspend its judgement on Mr Johnson, but that happy period seems to be over. Many Tories hope that with a stronger team of advisers, his record can be turned around. Mr Johnson is certainly resilient. But is he able to manage his advisers? Personally I doubt it. The party would be better off changing leaders, and fast.

The second problem for the Conservatives is their discipline over covid policy. Covid policy scepticism is rife on the backbenches, and it shows. The most visible sign was the lack of mask-wearing in parliament, before the Omicron crisis put the wind up them. But there has been constant carping, leading both to a big backbench rebellion on the “Plan B” measures this week, and to confused messages from government ministers. Should or shouldn’t people reduce social contact in the run up to Christmas? Many on the right have disappeared down the rabbit-hole of extreme scepticism – stoked up in their social media bubbles, and egged on by increasingly vocal owners of hospitality and other affected businesses. This occasionally breaks the surface – such as with the complaint that the NHS has become the “National Covid Service” by excessively prioritising the disease, and as a result it is neglecting other conditions. I guess they want the covid patients to be left in the car park. While the sceptics make some pertinent criticism of policy – such as how we prioritise saving life over quality of life – their overall position descends quickly into incoherence. More to the point politically, it is an extreme position and incompatible with winning middle-ground voters. Covid is a deadly disease, if not for most people, then a significant minority, often including people we know. People are worried about it, and want to take precautions, and want to know that the NHS will be there for them if they or their loved ones fall seriously ill. They can’t see how that happens if they follow the wishes of the sceptics. As the FT’s Robert Shrimsley points out, Tory sceptics aren’t interested in learning to live with the virus, they just want things to go back to the way they were.

Now I am sure that most Conservative MPs are quite sensible on covid policy, but their sceptical colleagues are making the whole party look like nutters, and are clearly having an effect on government policy. They need to be stamped out just as the rump of Remainers were when Mr Johnson first took the leadership in 2019. But first that means Mr Johnson has to articulate a clear strategy for dealing with covid that takes on some of the points sceptics make – on finding a way to live with the virus, and on quality of life. Which brings this second problem back to the first.

For as long as the Conservatives fail to deal with their leadership and discipline issues, the strategies of Ed Davey and Keir Starmer look to be sound. Moreover their apparent pact to stay out of each other’s way in Tory seats, but not try any formal arrangement, also seems to be vindicated – and is another echo of that 1997 landslide. That still leaves two questions for them, and especially the Labour leader. What happens if the Conservatives change leader? And what do they do if they actually win power at the next election?

Eschewing radicalism will help persuade soft Tory voters to vote Labour or Lib Dem – but there must be a point to it all.

If Labour want to capitalise on Tory sleaze they need a political alliance

As many Conservatives feared, the government’s fiasco over the Owen Paterson affair is giving traction to accusations of “Tory sleaze”. You can argue whether Mr Paterson’s conduct actually merits this description, but a fair appreciation of the facts matters little in this kind of rough and tumble – a rough and tumble that Conservatives are only too happy to indulge in when it is to their advantage. And in any case there have been other examples of dubious behaviour. The Conservative opinion poll lead is evaporating. This must give Labour some badly needed hope. But capitalising on this issue will be tricky.

Labour does come at this with some advantages. They are much less sleazy than the Conservatives, having been out of national power for eleven years. Their MPs tend not to have well-paid consultancies. The government won’t let them award peerages to donors, removing the temptation to do so, and so on. Better still, their leader, Sir Keir Starmer, looks the model of personal integrity, even if he is a bit pompous with it. But for all that, Labour has been slow to see much poll benefit. The Conservative poll share is falling, but Labour’s does not seem to be rising, or not by much. The most conspicuous beneficiary in the most recent poll are the Greens. The Greens have very little prospect under the current electoral system, so in any general election their vote will get squeezed away. A lot of that squeeze is likely to go back to the Conservatives, such is the fear so many people have of voting Labour.

What is the problem? The party’s reputation can be tainted by two lines of attack. The first is that they will be no better in if they win power – “they’re all the same” – capitalising on the public’s general cynicism over politicians. Labour’s record when it was last in power wasn’t particularly clean by British standards. They needed big money donors, some of whom ended up with peerages, or, apparently, other favours; many of their MPs indulged in dubious expense claims. Former leader Tony Blair seemed a bit too relaxed about such things – though his successor Gordon Brown had a stronger reputation. The other line of attack is that the party is being taken over by the far left; their politicians are not beholden to big money, but they might have a tendency to think that the ends justify the means, and play fast and loose with the rules in other ways. And, of course, hard left parties are open to other lines of attack that might drive under decided voters away.

Labour has another problem. They are not articulating clear policies that would make British politics cleaner, beyond vague promises of tightening up the existing regime. They have suggested that MPs should not be allowed to take on paid consultancies. But they won’t suggest that second jobs will not be allowed – as at least one of their number is an emergency doctor, and they like to make the claims to sainthood that such a role allows – and doubtless there are other examples of “real world” jobs that enhance an MP’s job. Besides, all this is just tweaking at the edges, and would hardly make it harder for powerful business interests to get undue influence.

What is needed is something much more eye-catching. An obvious policy is the abolition of the House of Lords, perhaps with its replacement by an elected second chamber. The Lords are already over-large and over-used for patronage; the government is in the process of making things much worse by creating even more peers, of which large party donors will undoubtedly feature heavily; that could give the idea public traction. A second idea is to reform the electoral system for the House of Commons. Nothing is more annoying than Conservative claims that it is up to constituents to judge the behaviour of their MPs, when most voters quite rationally think that party label is more important – and most MPs hold safe seats anyway. Behaviour has to be pretty extreme for an MP to lose his seat, and usually the opposition has to be pretty canny too. Actually electoral reform would not necessarily deliver a better system; proportional systems can produce their own safe seats (though not the Single Transferable Vote, which requires multiple-member constituencies). But it’s a real change that would make established politicians uncomfortable – and it can prove a focus for a public wish to make a real change to politics. The is exactly what happened in New Zealand in 1993.

But Labour has a credibility problem when proposing such policies, which go to the root of why people distrust it. When the party has had the opportunity, they have done little to progress either Lords reform or electoral reform. The New Labour government from 1997 to 2010 made some important reforms to both, but none that changed the system radically, to tackle patronage appointments or safe seats, for example. When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 to 2015 proposed much more significant reforms (in some cases not far from Labour’s 2010 manifesto), Labour undermined them because they did not want the governing parties (and especially the Lib Dems) to get any of the kudos; party advantage came first. Besides, the Leninists on the party’s left probably quite like the opportunities conferred by the current system to create an elective dictatorship. Big constitutional changes are tricky to push through, so the public would be right to question Labour’s determination to make changes when things got a bit rough.

What would give Labour a much better chance of showing that it really wants to change things is to form a cross-party alliance. This would need to include the Liberal Democrats, who have their own credibility issues after the coalition, but who are locally strong in places, and the Greens, who have the momentum. Bringing Scottish and Welsh nationalists into the picture would add even more credibility, but would be much harder. This would have the added benefit of making things easier after the election if neither the Conservatives nor Labour won a majority – which looks more probable than Labour winning a majority on its own.

Alas Sir Keir shows no sign at all that he has either the courage or the imagination to take such a path. The result of that is that the business of British politics will carry on much as normal for many years to come.

New Labour was not about making hard choices

I have now finished watching Blair & Brown – the New Labour Revolution, a 5-part series from the BBC on the Labour government of 1997 to 2010. For politicos like me it was compulsive viewing, for all its flaws. Does it say anything to us about politics now?

One criticism of the series is that it was too long. Five episodes of one hour each is indeed a lot of time, but I was hooked, as were many of the reviewers. We learnt quite a few new things, and the tension between its two principal characters gives the subject a fascinating dynamic. In fact the main problem seemed to be on how much it left out. There was no coherent commentary from the left of the party, for example, and the causes of the Global Financial Crisis were not examined. This left two critical parts of the New Labour narrative (or myth in the word’s broader sense simplified story) unchallenged – that “Old Labour” was unelectable, and that the GFC was something that happened from out of the blue from the USA that the government neither contributed to, nor could do much about. Both warrant challenge, even if emotionally I am bought into the first of those myths, while strongly disagreeing with the second. But neither is a simple question to unpick, and the argument on the GFC is probably asking too much for most political journalists to be able to handle, alas. Instead they took a whole episode to dig into the Iraq War – an editorial decision that it is hard to gainsay. The first episode covered the period before they won power, and there was episode for each of the three terms – so there was a logical structure to the whole series. Quite a bit of time was spent on pregnant pauses within the interviews (which included both main protagonists amongst many other important figures), but the overall pace was not slow.

I am struck by how deeply flawed the partnership was. The two leaders worked as a team before the 1997 election, but after that Gordon Brown jealously guarded the Treasury as his fiefdom and kept Tony Blair at arms length. I have no doubt that it was Mr Brown who was primarily at fault here. One of the most remarkable moments came when it dawned on Mr Blair that the government had to dramatically raise its spending on the NHS, to bring it into line with the average of health spending in Europe. This was a brilliant insight (which I have explained recently on one of my blogs) that very few people in the governing elite seem to understand – instead seeing the NHS as a spending black hole that needs to be contained somehow. But the only way Mr Blair could persuade Mr Brown to follow this line was by announcing it in a television interview. Mr Brown could not see the wood for the trees. It turned out to be one of New Labour’s best, and most popular, policies.

It would be tempting to characterise the partnership as Mr Blair being strong on vision, and Mr Brown being good on the detail. But Mr Blair was wrong about a lot of vision things too. He was wrong to push for joining the European currency (though at the time I was on Mr Blair’s side) – another disagreement resolved through the news media; he was wrong about joining the Americans in the Iraq war; he was wrong about trying to bring a private sector ethos into the public services, such as the NHS and schools. On all of these Mr Brown’s judgement seems to have been better, though he was and remains very unengaged on Iraq. But Mr Brown became complacent, especially with his hands-off approach to the financial sector. He put in place a tripartite system for managing national finance, between his Treasury, the Bank of England, and the Financial Services Authority (FSA). All well and good, but it was clearly his job to ensure that the system as a whole was working. He did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation until the collapse of Lehman in late 2008, by which time he was Prime Minister. His response then was magnificent – but more insight in 2007, when the risks were becoming obvious, would have helped. Instead he cut the rate of Income Tax, which left the country very vulnerable when the bubble burst. He was so blinkered by his success in “no more boom and bust” that he would not see the risks building up in the system.

Though it ended badly, New Labour has to be seen as a success overall, with three successive Labour general election victories, two of them landslides. Can it tell us anything about the future? The obvious parallel takes us back to Labour, which once again is back in the doldrums. The New Labour strategy was to win by courting the political middle ground and holding back on the party’s more left wing instincts; their most important insight was that the middle ground was a rather conservative place, and not the liberalism associated with centrist political parties, though it needed that too. The party needed a firm message on law and order, and a conservative stance on taxes and spending – as well as keeping union power at bay. This meant accepting that a lot of the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s government had to stay. That itself was not enough, because John Major’s Conservatives were firmly anchored in that middle ground, and had used that strength to pull off a victory against the odds in 1992. Mr Blair and Mr Brown also had to exude confidence and competence. This was not too hard, as the Tories were beset by divisions, and their economic prestige suffered a fatal blow with the ERM fiasco in 1992, shortly after the election.

Can Labour follow the same strategy? Its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, clearly thought so after he took over in 2020, with the government floundering with its response to the covid-19 pandemic, and seemingly led by right-wing ideologues. Mr Starmer always appeared on television with the word “leadership” on his backdrop. But the Conservative leader, Boris Johnson, has a clear eye on that middle ground, which remains generally conservative. But he also understands that the middle ground has moved on – largely thanks to New Labour. Now it means a strong commitment to state-funded public services, such as the NHS. Unlike Mr Major (now Sir John), though, he has an iron grip on his party. He has recovered from his wobbles on the pandemic, and the public (or the floating voters anyway) appear to have forgiven him. Mr Johnson’s rhetoric on climate change and the environment also marks out his fight for the middle ground. He is not presenting anything like the target that Messrs Blair and Brown were able to destroy prior to 1997.

But the problem for Mr Johnson, and anybody hoping to win on the middle ground, is that it is a have-your-cake-and- eat-it sort of place. It wants well-funded public services but no more taxes; it wants action on climate change but no addition to heating or motoring costs, and so on. This is creating growing tensions within the Conservative Party. It does not create much of a direct opportunity for Labour – who are no more able to solve the contradictions of this middle ground than the Tories. But division amongst the Tories could allow Sir Keir to appear as a more competent alternative.

But a successful challenge is unlikely to look anything like New Labour. Perhaps Labour can try its own “cake” strategy by allying itself with the Lib Dems and the Greens, each of which can cement its appeal to different segments of the anti-Conservative market while leaving there contradictions unresolved. That alliance would need to be based on the promise of electoral reform. It would be a risky strategy, and it is too early to start playing the cards now. New Labour did create an informal alliance with the Lib Dems in the 1990s, as part of its strategy of leaving nothing to chance. But the Lib Dems are weaker now, while trust between the parties is low. Mr Blair was happy to hint at electoral reform then but in the end was “unpersuaded”. Something stronger would be needed now.

Britain, along with most of the rest of the world, is confronting some difficult choices. This is much more the case than in 1990s, when the opportunities for economic growth were much better. After an initial period of austerity, New Labour did not have to navigate such treacherous waters and was able to present voters with a “both/and” proposition. Alas hard choices do not make good politics – the revolution now would be to make taking those choices electorally appealing. The New Labour experience offers us no clue on how to pull off such a feat.

What is the point of the Labour Party?

People often ask what is the point of the British Liberal Democrats; the same question, for similar reasons, might be asked of the country’s Green Party. The raison d’être of Labour seems self-evident. But the party is failing and the question needs to be asked again.

A century ago Labour broke through the country’s two-party duopoly to replace the Liberal Party as one half of Britain’s two-party system. At that time the point of Labour was clear: it was to represent the interests of Britain’s working classes. The party’s founders argued that working people were ill served by the existing system, and that the Liberals in particular were letting their working class supporters down. Working people needed a more radical reworking of the political economy than the Liberals seemed capable of offering. It was an argument they won as the Liberals were riven by division and failed to offer a coherent raison d’être of their own. Labour then struggled to reconcile their radicalism with the practicalities of government, but eventually, in 1945, they succeeded with a radical programme of welfare reform, combined with relatively conservative economic management and foreign engagement. Ironically the two principal architects of this reconciliation were in fact Liberals: William Beveridge and Maynard Keynes. Such is politics.

Since then the function of the Labour party changed, as the nature of work in the British economy changed. The agricultural and industrial workforces were steadily replaced by bureaucrats and service industry workers. In the 1960s and 1970s trade unionism, which formed the backbone of the Labour movement, seemed out of touch with the times. They opposed more efficient industrial organisation and often entrenched conservative attitudes to race and sex. Labour struggled to adapt. It was riven by division when in government in 1964 to 1970, and failed to convincingly win power back in 1974, finally succumbing to a Conservative monopoly of power in 1979. When it retook power in 1997 it was as “New Labour” under Tony Blair. In its new form its job was simply to oppose the Conservatives by marshalling a coalition of working class and middle class voters. In this view the British political system had become a two-party institution like that in the USA. Political organisation outside the two main parties was pointless, each of the two had to be a broad coalition. The days when a political party could be based on narrow class interests were gone.

The British political establishment, from most politicians to journalists and civil servants largely accepts this idea of what the two main political parties are for. But it has a problem, evident in the USA as well as Britain, though it is resolving differently in each country. It is too tempting for an ideological clique to try and take over the machinery of one of the major parties in order to impose a programme on the country based on minority support. The ideologues may fail, but in doing so they leave the field to their opponents, and the system fails to become truly competitive. That is what has happened to Labour following its loss of power in 2010. Labour was still run by a relatively broad coalition, representing the interests of public service professionals and the “new” working class, dominated by ethnic minority workers in the big cities, but they dropped more conservative supporters.

The two-party system then fractured badly in 2015, when in Scotland as the SNP took almost all the seats. Since Labour had previously dominated there, it has ruined their chances of being truly competitive on the national stage – the party has little prospect of governing on its own, even if they deprive the Conservatives of a majority. An ideologically hollowed-out Labour Party has proved unable to challenge the SNP, and has even lost out to the Tories in Scotland. An ideologically-focused Labour Party has proved just as uncompetitive.

The Labour leadership since this disaster, Jeremy Corbyn followed by Sir Keir Starmer, has chosen to ignore it. Both clung to the possibility that the party can win enough seats in Westminster to govern on its own. Mr Corbyn sought to do this with ideological radicalism in the hope that this would motivate enough disillusioned and apathetic voters to overcome the legions of older, more conservative voters who turn out more reliably. This came closer to succeeding in 2017 than anybody expected, but led to disaster in 2019 – which of those elections was the outlier due to special circumstances remains hotly debated. Sir Keir is going back to the idea of an unideological party that can challenge the Conservatives on competence.

Sir Keir’s strategy seems to be navigating that awkward ground between success and failure. At this year’s conference he needed to show that he was in charge of its party. This he has largely done – the disunity and “chaos” described by some are in fact evidence of authority being asserted. But does Labour look like a competent government in waiting, as Mr Blair’s did before 1997? Not yet. Will it ever? Open to question. And if it can’t show evident competence, what else does it offer? Above all this looks like a strategy that depends on the Conservatives losing the election, rather than Labour winning it. For all the government’s incompetence, however, the current Tory leadership knows how to win elections by changing the subject. And remember Labour can’t just win – it has to win big.

Meanwhile there are those who think Labour should instead break the system that is now so loaded against it. This means changing the answer to the question of what Labour is for. It would cease to be one of the pillars of a two-party system, but an ideological vanguard fighting for the interests of its metropolitan voters in a multiparty system. To do this it has to work with other parties, including the SNP. Above all it needs to adopt electoral reform. That means adopting a system of proportional representation to the UK parliament – lesser reforms such as the Alternative Vote won’t do. This has two advantages. First it allows serious cooperation with the Lib Dems and the Greens, which should improve the party’s chances of winning, and of forming a successful government if it fails to win a majority. After the Lib Dem catastrophe following coalition with the Conservatives in 2015, the minor parties will seek a high price for their support and serious electoral reform must be part of it. Second, once implemented, it will pose big problems for the Conservatives, who will have much more trouble fighting off the populist right, as well as hanging onto liberal Remainers.

But this strategy brings its own problems. There is no upwelling for this sort of political reform amongst the public – support is broad but shallow. It would come under sustained attack by the Conservatives who would claim that it was throwing away the county’s cherished traditions and inviting weak governments. If they want to change the subject away from their competence to govern, this might present them with just that opportunity. This is why I was sceptical of such a strategy when I looked at Labour’s prospects last year. Back then, though, I thought that the Conservatives’ weak performance in government would make them vulnerable. I am much less confident of that now.

As it happens Labour’s conference rejected a motion in favour of electoral reform. It was backed by 80% of constituency members, but blocked by Britain’s ever-conservative unions, doubtless after nudging from the Labour leadership. There is no sign that the current leadership wants to go in that direction. Labour seems too weak to win, but strong enough to prevent any other parties than the Conservatives and the SNP from succeeding. So just what is the point?