Mainly Macro is a near daily commentary by Professor Simon Wren-Lewis (Oxford University) on global macroeconomic issues. His excellent writing style and explanation appeals to economists and non-economists.
I anticipated that my last post would not be popular in many circles. I want to respond to some of the common themes from the responses in this post, but there was one reaction I was not expecting. First some background. Since the beginning of the year I have had an arrangement with the online edition of the New Statesman (NS) that my Tuesday post should be simultaneously published on my blog and in the NS. The arrangementwas working well.
My last post was published by the New Statesman as usual. And then sometime later it was unpublished. The line my post took was not one the NS wanted to carry. I do not know the details of what happened but I can guess. The post was hardly extolling the virtues of Corbyn as Labour leader, but it suggested any attempt to get rid of him was both futile and would increase the chances of Johnson winning the next election. I don’t think that message was welcome.
Of course any publication has a right to chose what it publishes, and I have no quarrel with that. What was unfortunate was the implicit confirmation of the main concern in the post, which was that the non-partisan and even left leaning media with the support of the Labour centre really believes they can depose Corbyn using the issue of antisemitism. I gave in the post the reasons why I think Corbyn is unlikely to depart as a result of this pressure and any challenge is unlikely to succeed, and none of the responses to my post questioned this logic.
Among comments on twitter, the most offensive was to suggest my post was itself a product of antisemitism, along the lines that I didn’t care about Jews. By implication anyone voting Labour in the future is also antisemetic. The most moderate remark I can make about this kind of comment is that it gives the drive to remove antisemitism a bad name. The implication that you are antisemitic if you support a party accused of badly handling internal cases of antisemitism is an extension of a far more frequent argument: the idea that it was not virtuous to vote for Labour.
A common response was that it was morally wrong to support a racist party or party leadership. Of course Labour is not a racist party and I doubt very much that its leadership are antisemitic, but lets put that to one side until later. The problem with this argument is that you can make lots of other similar arguments. Is it morally right for someone to support a party that was part of a government that caused untold misery through austerity, and where neither of the possible future leaders have apologised for supporting austerity? Is it morally right to support politicians that voted for the hostile environment policy?
Voting should be about weighing the pros and cons of each party’s stance on different issues, and in a FPTP system it means also thinking about whether voting for some parties in your constituency is a wasted vote. It is very hard to rationalise voting or not voting on the basis of I couldn't possibly vote for a party that showed any sign of racism. Would you really not vote if a party that failed to deal with antisemitism adequately even if it meant that another party whose leader actually uses racist speech and has voted for racist policies would stay in power? This is not a trolley problem: it is part of being a good citizen to make this choice.
Another comment I received is that there are no degrees of racism. I think this is nonsense. Once again it is useful to compare the two main parties. Both leaders are accused of being racist. With Corbyn the evidenceamounts to things like not recognising antisemitic tropes in a painting, not mentioning someones antisemitism in an introduction to a book, or being associated with antisemitic people as part of his support for statehood for Palestine. With Johnson we have someone who has compared Muslim women in a certain dress to letterboxes (and those are not his only racist slurs), and who has supported a racist policy: a hostile environment that saw the deportation of members of the Windrush generation. Are these really equivalent?
Or let us look at the two parties. The Labour party has been accused at operating an inefficient disciplinary process for antisemitism or worse, of leadership interference in this process. The Conservative party routinelylets those exposed of making racist comments back in after a few months of ‘re-education’, and has just voted for a leader who makes racist remarks because most members show racist tendencies(to put it too mildly). Are these really equivalent?
Going beyond the UK, is telling non-white Congresswomen born in America to go back home to the crime infested countries they came from the same as anything Corbyn has done? The thing about the antisemitism in the Labour party is it involves no policy against Jewish people and it involves no language by members of the Labour leadership team against Jewish people. Some Labour party members are antisemitic, but there is no evidence that this number is unusually high compared to the population at large. When people try to equate antisemitism within the Labour party to racism in the Tory party they ignore these points.
The most depressing aspect in comments on my post was the number of people who just talked about antisemitism within Labour as if it was the same as racism within the Conservative party. This lacks the key ingredient that is also lacking in the media’s response, and that is a sense of perspective. One of the cheap remarks made in comments was that I was equating antisemitism within Labour to Clinton's email server. This was obvious nonsense, as I was clearly using the Clinton case to show how the media as a whole can lack a sense of perspective, and when it does that it can have terrible consequences.
Perhaps the most common response in comments was that a choice between Labour and the Tories could be avoided by voting Liberal Democratic. Despite the arguments in my post, I was told that the era of two party politics was over. Let me make one final point. The disastrous events that we have recently seen in the UK started in 2010, with in particular an austerity government during the worst recession since WWII. For more than half of the 9 years since 2010 the Liberal Democrats were in power, and the two candidates for leader were both ministers in the Coalition government. Their actionsand voting recordsspeak for themselves. As I have said in the past, I think the UK needs radical change to ensure nothing like the disaster of the last 9 years happens again. Only Labour at present provides that. Simply returning things to how they were before 2010 allows what happened from 2010 to happen all over again.
Corbyn may not be a great or even a particularly good leader, but it seems few in the media recognise he is the only viable opposition to the far right we have.
While I have been critical of the Labour leadership’s Brexit stance for some time, and still do not thinkCorbyn has gone far enough to maximise Labour's chances of General Election victory, he has done enough to ensure one thing: his survival. While his Brexit stance, together with continuing problems with antisemitism, will have lost some members and made others luke warm, there is little appetiteto replace him amongst most members. This view will only strengthen as the likelihood of a General Election increases. It is Labour party members who choose the party’s leader.
But what about antisemitism? Could this issue be the downfall of the Labour leadership? The answer is almost certainly no. As the poll discussed hereshows, while 66% of Labour members think antisemtism within the party is a genuine problem, 77% think the problem is deliberately exaggerated to damage Labour and Corbyn himself. On the basis of current evidence, and that includes any rebuke from the EHRC investigation, Corbyn’s position among members on this issue is secure.
The only other factor that might raise questions among the membership about their leader is very bad poll ratings. But two factors mean this is not a risk factor for Corbyn’s leadership. First, the new Brexit policy will win some voters back. As Rob Ford notes here, there are signs that the electorate’s flirtation with four party politics is coming to an end, as both Labour and the Conservatives move their own Brexit position. Second, Labour under Corbyn have been there and done that in 2017, such that there will always be the hope of a pre-election surge for Labour.
Could Labour’s continuing antisemitism crisis createanother serious split between MPs and the leadership, along the lines of the vote of no confidence in 2016 after the Brexit vote? A split of this kind would only make sense if Labour MPs believed that they had a chance of defeating Corbyn in a ballot of members, and as I have already suggested they would be delusional. MPs may demand this and that in terms of how disciplinary procedures are handled within Labour, but any attempt to unseat Corbyn, or mass defections by Labour Mps, seems unlikely.
The security of the Labour leadership’s position within the party is one of two key factors in which to evaluate the impact of continuing criticism of Labour within the mainstream media and elsewhere. The second is the threat we face from what has become the most far right and dangerous government the UK has experienced for decades if not centuries.
The Conservative party is looking increasingly like the US Republican party, and its likely leader increasingly looks like a UK version of Donald Trump. However the Conservative party has got itself into a far more dangerous position than the Republican’s have ever faced. The Tories have Nigel Farage and a right wing press pushing them to implement a No Deal Brexit that goes way beyond anything Trump might be contemplating with tariffs. Furthermore opposition within the Tory party towards Johnson’s leadership ideas and No Deal looks vanishingly small.
Two recent events have underlined how far the UK government has descended into far right territory. The first was of course Johnson’s failure to stand up for one of our own ambassadors in the Darroch affair. A corrolorary of No Deal is that a trade deal with the US becomes politically essential, and that in turn means that Trump’s not so polite requests become the UK’s actions. This is a President who tellsnon-white Congresswomen born in the USA to go back to “the crime infested places from which they came”. In practice a US trade deal that UK politicians desperately want will be disastrous for UK agriculture, UK consumers and many more, people already hit hard by the UK leaving the EU with no deal.
The second recent event was Amber Rudd preferringa job in any future Johnson government to her previous opposition to No Deal. It has been an object lesson to those who thought Conservative MPs would always stand up for business and the Union to see how quickly all but a few have chosen political expediency instead. Again parallels with the Republican party in the US are instructive. Just as the right wing media in the US was able to use the Tea Party movement to shift the Republicans to the right, so the right wing press have used Farage to shift the Conservative party in a similar way.
The net result will be the normalisation of a No Deal Brexit over the next few months. Leaving without a deal was not what all of the 52% of Leave voters in 2016 voted for, but virtually no one in the broadcast media will be brave enough to push this point. The lie that the 2016 vote provides a mandate for No Deal will go unchallenged. Broadcasters will balance the nonsense that the impact of No Deal on the UK will be, to quote Johnson, “infinitesimally small” against the truth that it is the biggest act of political and economic self-harm ever inflicted on the UK.
Allowing Johnson to become leader shows that the Conservative party has completely lost its moral compass. All of Johnson’s misdeeds in his past mean nothing, just as Trump’s behaviour means nothing to his supporters and the Republican party. Both individuals lie all the time, but it doesn’t matter to his own side. Johnson encourages a friendto beat up a journalist, but it doesn’t matter. Johnson uses racist language on many occasions, most recently comparing Muslim women wearing the niqab and burqa to letterboxes, but this was deemed acceptableby his party. Johnson gets advice from Steve (“Let them call you racist. Wear it as a badge of honour”) Bannon, and even the BBC does not think Johnson lying about these contacts matters.
And so, as the Conservative party loses its moral compass, the chances are that large sections of the country’s elite will do so as well, and our standing overseas will plummet even further. Although Tory party members may find Johnson’s insults acceptable, don’t expect other countries to take a UK run by Johnson as more than a bad joke. Don’t expect other countries to do business with a UK that proposes to destroy its trade relationship with the EU and many other countries at a stroke. An elite that treats threats to prorogue parliament as acceptable will not be respected by countries that value democracy, although some otherswill welcome the development.
Yet those who say not in my name need to ask themselves whether they are prepared to make the choice required to stop this happening. There is only one realistic opposition to a Johnson led government. Believing the Liberal Democrats could ever play that role was unrealistic, because Labour has enough loyal voters to ensure that the anti-government vote would be split. Farage along with the LibDems might also take away votes from the government, but it would be foolish to rely on an English vote split four ways just happening to go against a Conservative government.
The awkward truth for those who for whatever reason dislike Corbyn’s Labour party is that Labour is the only party that can defeat this government, and its leader in the next election will be Corbyn. Voting is always a choice between the lesser of two evils. Supporting smaller parties when that lets the Conservatives win, or supporting none, may make those who dislike Corbyn’s Labour feel better, but it is in effect a statement that Corbyn’s Labour party would be just as bad for the country as a whole as out current government, and that is simply not a credible belief. Corbyn is not going to leave the EU with no deal, and in practice will be unableto leave the EU in any way. Corbyn is not threatening to prorogue parliament, is not desperate to do a trade deal with Donald Trump, does not lie all the time, does not get friends to beat up opponents, and does not have a history of using racist language. Whereas Johnson promises tax cuts for the rich, a Corbyn led government would help the many, not the few.
Yet there are few in the mainstream media who seem prepared to recognise the choice we face for what it is. Even wise and perceptive commentators like Martin Wolf, who lamentthe situation the Conservative government has led us to, often feel it necessary to balance their piece with a derogatory remark about the Labour leadership. Those remarks may or may not be accurate, but a plague on all your houses just allows this Tory government to stay in place.
Worse still are those in the centre or centre-left who refuse to give up hope of getting ‘their party’ back and will do anything that in their view helps that cause. In the first year after Corbyn was elected many MPs and journalists waged a constant war against the left in the media. I saidat the time it was utterly futile and self-destructive, and I was right. It led to an attempt to unseat Corbyn that everyone on the left calls a coup, and a clear majority of members saw it the same way. Polls suggest the same is true today. Those in the centre and centre-left need to realise that for all Corbyn’s faults and mistakes he will be Labour’s leader going into the next election, and if they repeatedly attack him they are helping Boris Johnson do terrible damage to our country.
Of course the right wing press will do anything to discredit Labour: that is what their owners pay them to do. But often their task is made easier by the non-partisan media who think they are making choices using simple journalistic criteria, such as going with the story. What we are in danger of seeing with 24/7 criticism of Corbyn is a repetition of what happened to Hilary Clinton in the US elections. As I showed here, the mainstream media spent much more time talking about her email server than any of the sins of Donald Trump, or indeed all those sins combined. In that sense the US media chose Trump over Clinton. It was of course not a thought-through or considered choice, but just the outcome of lots of individual decisions that seemed to make sense in journalistic terms, but were disastrous in political terms.
Of course the constant tunes the media play matter. One of the incredible poll findings of that US election was that more people trusted the serial liar Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton. That makes no sense unless you note the constant stream of media stories suggesting Clinton had something to hide. No one is suggesting Labour’s failures over antisemitism should not be exposed, just as no one was suggesting that Clinton should not have been criticised for using her own email for government business. What is missing in both cases is a sense of perspective, as herefor example, or here. Without that perspective constant attacks on Corbyn will have an impact. The impact will be to keep a destructive far right government in power.
Labour has finally agreedto back a People’s Vote unequivocally on any Brexit deal. That includes any deal it might itself negotiate after winning a General Election. It will campaign for Remain against No Deal or any Tory deal. Whether it will try and negotiate its own deal after it wins a snap General Election will be decided quickly as soon as that General Election is called.
This differs slightly from the proposal put forward by five biggest affiliated trade unions, which proposed that Labour would negotiate its own Brexit deal after winning a General Election, but leaving open whether Labour would campaign for this new deal or instead campaign for Remain against the deal it had negotiated. That part of the proposal has yet to be agreed, and may not be agreed, depending on decisions still to be taken.
Will this change in policy be enough to win back 2017 Labour voters who now say they will vote LibDem or Green because they want to remain in the EU? The policy still looks ambiguous compared to the LibDem's policy of calling for a People’s vote whether they are in power or not. Any interview of a Labour politician will now take a predictable form, with “what would you do if you win a General Election” being the first question. Labour have not left ambiguity behind completely.
Postponing the decision on what to do before any General Election makes procedural sense and also some political sense. If the polls start moving back towards Labour from now on then Labour can think job done. If they don’t then it becomes clear Labour need to commit to Remain as part of its General Election manifesto. Of course this is a game with voters and not a game against nature, and voters may realise this and could keep saying they will vote LibDem or Green in order to keep the pressure on Labour.
Another important factor will be if this new policy allows senior figures to start aggressively campaigning for Remain, rather than simply explaining Labour’s Brexit policy. They need, at a minimum, to start appearing at People’s Vote events. The official opposition has a huge (and some would consider unfair) advantage over other opposition parties in getting more airtime, and if they can use that to make the case for a People’s Vote that may win some votes back.
The post-election policy put forward by the 5 unions does have one advantage over the LibDem policy. The question for those supporting a People’s Vote is what deal do you put up against Remain? No Deal is not an actual deal, and would also fail to learn the lesson of 2016: don’t give voters an option that parliament thinks is disastrous. However May’s deal now has few backers, and if it won against Remain it is a pretty hard form of Brexit. The Union’s proposal would, if negotiations were successful, put a softer form of Brexit up against Remain, so it would be less of a disaster if Remain lost a People’s Vote.
Whether voters will see it that way depends crucially on Labour’s position on their negotiated deal. Leaving it open is not a vote winning strategy, because the natural presumption is that a Labour government that spends a lot of time negotiating a deal will want to support it in any referendum. Remain supporters may also reason that Remain would easily beat May’s deal, but might find beating a softer Brexit with Labour support a more difficult task. There is no point arguing that this strategy reduces risk in case Remain loses if it also increases the chance of Remain losing.
If the party wants to retain the proposal of the 5 unions and also win votes, it has to commit to support Remain whatever the results of those negotiations. Only then will Labour’s policy on Remain be seen to be comparable to that of the LibDems. This proposal, together with a commitment to support Remain, has the disadvantage of prolonging Brexit but the advantage of reducing the risk if the referendum is lost.
If this is all beginning to sound a bit convoluted, it is and it doesn’t need to be. If Labour’s only concern was to increase the chances of winning the next General Election it would have adopted a Remain strategy full stop. In other words Remain in all circumstances including a Labour government. Labour could have even gone one better than the LibDems and agreed to put revoking A50 on the table if it won a General Election. The fact that it didn’t simply reflects the minority within the party who either prefer Lexit or are MPs in Leave areas who fear losing their seats.
This minority within Labour have already done enough damage to the Labour cause. They have revived the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats and Greens as an alternative to Labour. By keeping Labour’s policy after a General Election unclear, they further risk the solidification of the support for both these parties among former Labour voters..
None of this matters for the Remain cause, because as I have arguedfor some time there is very little chance of a Labour government ever achieving Brexit even if it wanted to. But voters, including Remain voters, have yet to be convinced of that. Why should they, when the pro-Brexit minority within Labour have not been convinced either and continue to resist Labour adopting a Remain strategy. Indulging this minority for too long could cost Labour crucial votes, and Labour does not have votes to spare.
These proposals are not designed to help the economy, but to keep Tory party backers happy amid the chaos of a No Deal Brexit
I was going to write something about some of the detailed fiscal plans of our next Prime Minister, and then I thought that would be pointless. Part of the remit of being a Tory Prime Minister nowadays is to lie all the time. So how do I, or Tory members for that matter, know if either of these two candidates for Prime Minister are going to do any of the things they have promised when they get into power? All they are doing right now is saying whatever they think Tory members want them to say.
However both campaigns do at least raise the possibility that our next Prime Minister will throw caution (and fiscal responsibility) to the wind and embark on some large tax cuts. It is critical to note that these tax cuts have not been carefully crafted to shield the economy against any demand shock that might follow from a No Deal exit from the EU. They are designed instead to make Tory voters happier with a government that enacts the biggest act of self harm in UK history.
How do I know that this is what the tax cuts are for, when I’m sure the future Prime Minister would say otherwise? Let’s just look at someof the big ticket items. Cutting income tax for higher rate taxpayers, cutting stamp duty on buying a house and cutting corporation tax. If you were looking for fiscal policies to provide a quick boost to demand, these would be a long way down the list. Much better would be to give money direct to poorer households, because they are likely to spend most of it, or to add to demand directly by increasing public spending, and in particular public investment. High up on my list would be to increase local authority funding to prevent some local authorities going bust. These kind of demand boosters are, however, not the kind of thing that would be attractive to Tory party members, which is why they are largely absent from the wish list of each prospective Prime Minister.
There is an equally important point about timing. Any demand shock following a No Deal exit is likely to be temporary, like a sudden stop in investment by business or in housing. The best measures to counteract that are ones that can easily be reversed. Again bringing forward public investment is an excellent example. In contrast, cutting taxes is politically difficult to reverse. None of the tax cuts proposed by either leadership candidate are explicitly temporary.
What we are seeing from both candidates is the fiscal policy of Donald Trump, and to be fair to Donald Trump also the policy of the Republican party since the second George Bush. Cut taxes under any pretext you can, and watch borrowing increase. After a suitable interval say that something must be done about borrowing, and propose a raft of cuts in public spending or welfare payments to stop the government debt to GDP ratio rising. It was the right’s preferred way of shrinking the state before the Global Financial Crisis and austerity came along.
There are two traps that the left can fall into by a Trump style give away to the rich. The first, which you may find among Lexiters, is to believe that fiscal stimulus is the means by which you stop permanent damage to the economy from any form of Brexit. The danger this leads to is to support the concept of a large permanent fiscal stimulus, even if you do not like the details. I am all for a large increase in public investment, of the kind that I hope a future Labour government will deliver, but that increase in investment should happen anyway, whatever the outcome on Brexit or aggregate demand. If the investment projects are beneficial, they should be undertaken whatever happens to Brexit.
Brexit’s main impact is to gradually hit the supply side of the economy by reducing UK trade with the EU and most of the countries the EU has trade agreements with. As we do less trade, the UK’s productivity falls. This causal linkage takes many forms, such as dynamic firms choosing to produce elsewhere or UK participation in supply chains ending, but the net result is that the UK produces stuff less productively than it would without Brexit. The empirical evidence for these effects is very strong, and we have already seen some of it happening.
You cannot counteract this long term loss of productivity by pumping up demand. All this will do is create inflationary pressure which will lead to higher interest rates designed to offset the fiscal stimulus. There is nothing the UK government can do to offset the negative impact of higher trade barriers on the UK. What the government can do is help offset any Brexit induced negative shock to demand, where demand falls more quickly than supply or falls temporarily, by using fiscal expansion alongside monetary policy.
This leads to a second trap, which is to think about the Johnson/Hunt proposals in terms of conventional fiscal stimulus to offset this temporary demand deficiency. Or in other words to think about them in macroeconomic terms. That is not their main intent. Their intent is to redistribute money from the poor to the rich, in order to keep the party’s backers (in terms of money or votes) happy despite all the chaos of No Deal. No doubt any actual proposals made after the winner becomes Prime Minister will include sweeteners (this couldbe a bad pun) designed to distract from this purpose, but reporting and comment should not be distracted.
Which brings us to the issue of how popular any package will be. Stephen Bush rightly pointsout that our future Prime Minister, if they stick to anything like their current fiscal plans, will blow the Conservatives' reputation for economic responsibility out of the water. The OBR will be quick to tell the next Chancellor that a No Deal Brexit will create one of those famous black holes in the public finances, yet rather than respond as Hammond would by fiscal retrenchment the new Prime Minister wants to shake the magic money tree for all it is worth.
In contrast Aditya Chakrabortty worriesthat this reputation loss will have little impact on voters, who will instead be dazzled by the goodies that are being thrown at them. If I had to choose I would agree with Chakrobortty on this. Labour are deemed irresponsibleon the economy by the media even when they are not, so I suspect the reverse will be true: the Tories will be deemed responsible even when they are not. The IFS and the Financial Times will raise an eyebrow but their impact on most media comment will be regrettably small.
I fear we are returning to an age of deficit bias, which I have to remind younger readers was the tendency in many (not all) countries to gradually increase their debt to GDP ratio during the 30 years before the Global Financial Crisis. There is always the temptation for politicians to cut taxes or increase spending by increased borrowing to gain popularity. Austerity during the Global Financial crisis may be an exception to that rule, or more worryingly deficit bias may be how right wing politicians shrink the state in normal or good times and austerity (deficit deceit) is how they do it in bad times.
As a result, it is entirely legitimate for the left to criticise these plans on fiscal responsibility grounds as well as citicising their impact on the distribution of post-tax income, should these plans survive either candidate becoming Prime Minister. I make no apologies for saying this again: the Labour party is the only UK political party to have set out a fiscal framework that both prevents austerity and also prevents the kind of irresponsible fiscal giveaways that are being proposed by our future Prime Minister.
I have just been rereading “Populism and the People” by Jan-Werner Müller in the London Review of Books (May 2019). It is the most concise and I think perceptive account of the most worrying political development of our time: the rise of the right wing populist. This is Trump and Farage, but also Orbán in Hungary, Erdoğan in Turkey, Kaczyński in Poland, Modi in India and Bolsonaro in Brazil. What they have in common is a
“populist art of governance ... based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for the ends of partisan loyalists and, less obviously, on weaponising the economy to secure political power: a combination of culture war, patronage and mass clientelism.”
But there is one standout paragraph for me, and so I will reproduce it in full.
“But have so many people really been converted to the views of the far right? Contrary to the domino theory propounded by pundits, and by the populists themselves – first Brexit, then Trump, then Le Pen etc – the fact remains that no right-wing populist has yet come to power anywhere in Western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservative elites. Farage did not bring Brexit about by himself; he needed Michael Gove, Boris Johnson et al to assure voters that it was a jolly good idea. Trump wasn’t elected as the leader of a spontaneous grassroots movement of – as the cliché has it – angry white working-class males; he was the candidate of the ultimate party of the establishment and needed the support of Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich – all of whom vouched for him. What happened on 8 November 2016 can in one sense be explained in the most banal terms. Citizens who identify with the Republican Party came out and did what voters do on election day: they cast a ballot for their party. What took place was utterly normal, except that the candidate himself wasn’t quite so normal.”
This process can seem perfectly normal if you take it for granted that the right has to sell out to the far right if it is to survive, and the right has no other choice. But it is not inevitable that the Conservative party sat back and allowed its ranks to be swelled by ex-UKIP members, who promptly started trying to deselect candidates who spoke out against No Deal. It was not inevitable that Cameron pledged to have a referendum on EU membership where he allowed the Leave side not to specify what kind of Brexit they were proposing. And in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Tory opposition and their backers in the right wing press did not have to start using immigration is a political weapon. It was not inevitable that Osborne chose austerity, which helped create the conditions for Brexit.
As ever, this is about going for short term gains that have the risk of far greater longer term costs. No doubt someone at Conservative party HQ thought that increasing membership had its advantages. The Conservative focus on immigration lead to the rise in UKIP, and in 2010 setting up immigration targets that were never going to be hit strengthened UKIP even further. It was that strength that led Cameron to make his ill-fated pledge. Osborne’s austerity might have embarrassed Labour and shrunk the state but it intensified anti-immigration attitudes.
But I think, in the UK at least, there is something more, and that is the normalisation of the far right by the BBC, coupled with a demonisation of the left by the centre more widely. That the BBC has been pressured by the government and its press into adopting a more favourable stance towards the Conservatives than Labour is well known and beyonddispute, except of course at the BBC. But I think that has also led to the normalisation of the far right, which is equally dangerous. It is made up of a lot of little things: unchallenged coverageof the Brexit party launch, not bothering to highlight links between Bannon and Johnson (hereis ITV’s coverage), invitinga far right representative on Newsnight straight after the Christchurch terrorist attack, and so on. It is worse at the BBC, but other broadcastersare not totally innocent. The Brexit party is not a party but an organisation where no one can challenge the leader, a leader who is well versed in 1930s fascist imagery.
Coupled with the centre’s normalisation of the far right is a demonisationof the main opposition to the Conservative party. To quoteGary Young:
“Throughout this time media elites, drawn from the same class as their financial and political counterparts, have mostly been obsessed by the crisis in leadership in an ostensibly “unelectable” Labour party, which has had the same leader for four years – and gained seats and vote share in the last general election. Those media elites have called pretty much every major political event, from Brexit to the last two elections, incorrectly.”
When the democratically elected leader of a party of half a million is considered beyondthe pale, you get an environment that inevitably enables the rightward drift of the other main party. Every news organisation worth its salt should be hounding Johnson about his failure to rule out proroguingparliament as a direct attack on democracy. Just as it makes no sense to balance truth with lies, it makes no sense to tolerate attacks on our democracy. Without that kind of defence from our media and politicians, it becomes an easy slide to the populism that Jan-Werner Müller talks so incisively about.
The dynamic of today’s service based economy means that social liberalism is in part generated by class.
Imagine someone with a piece of thin card. They draw a circle with a compass and cut out the circle. Two people arrive and pick up the card. One says look, someone has cut out a circle. The other says there is no circle, its just a thin bit of card. The debate over Brexit within the Labour party is in danger of following a similar structure.
For most Labour voters and members its position should be absolutely clear. Labour should stand for openness and international cooperation. Brexit is the opposite of these things. However a minority says that many in Labour’s working class heartlands support Brexit and we should not abandon them. The first side sees a circle but is in danger of ignoring that it is made out of card, and the second side sees only a piece of card.
We need to think about politics in two dimensions rather than just one. The first dimension is the traditional left/right division that used to be the mainstay of politics. The second is the dimension of culture or identity. At one end of the cultural dimension you have social conservatives, who value local communities and the nation and are suspicious of outsiders, where being an outsider can involve sexual norms, race or religion. At the other end are social liberals, who value diversity and tolerance, and who dislike borders of most kinds.
People see in three dimensions, so the card circle is both a circle and a piece of card. Equally people care about issues in both the left/right dimension and the cultural dimension. For most people Brexit is an issue on the cultural dimension. The call for Labour to represent Remain is straight forward. Labour has for decades been on the liberal side of the cultural axis, and so they should support Remain. It is the main reason why the majority of Labour voters and members support Remain.
The response of a minority in the Labour movement is to talk about Labour’s traditions as a working class party. Examples are John Cruddas or Lisa Nandy. It is a powerful argument for Labour party members, who both respect the traditions that Labour represent and do want the party to represent the working class. It is particularly powerful because there is some guilt that the Labour party, like other parties of the left, has moved from a party of the working class to being a party of what Piketty callsthe Brahmin left, and Paul Mason callsthe new core of the Labour project. But this argument could be accused of seeing the card circle as a piece of card.
Of course Labour should represent the working class along the familiar left/right dimension, in terms of labour market policy, industrial policy, reducing inequality and so forth. Cultural politics in no way replacesclass politics. But just because working class communities tend to be more socially conservative than professional classes does not mean we should abandon Labour’s liberal stance on issues like immigration and, of course, Brexit. Labour should represent the working classes in the economic dimension but not the social dimension.
To reinforce this point Danny Dorling pointsout that Leave was as much a middle class as a working class vote. Furthermore, as I noted here, once you take London out of the equation the North is now only slightly more pro-Brexit than the South, and there is as much a divide between the West and the East. Why should Labour be the party that supports middle class social conservatives?
Adding the dynamic of today’s big cities
This conceptualisation of Brexit as essentially a culture war and not a class war is powerful and contains a lot of truth. But it leaves some puzzles unresolved. The first is geographical. If Brexit is a guide to people’s position on the cultural axis, why is London along with other dynamic cities full of social liberals and the towns, depressed cities and countryside much more socially conservative? The second is about class. Again if Brexit is a measure of social conservatism, why is the working class more socially conservative than the professional class? If where we are on the culture axis reflects innate preferences, why don’t we find as many social liberals as conservatives in different regions and classes?
One possible answer may relate to the geographical and social dynamics of an advanced, service based economy, where towns and cities based around manufacturing plants are an exception rather than the rule. Suppose in countries of this kind, where the state does little to intervene (it is neoliberal), it is the cities that provide the dynamic that propels the economy forward, while cities based on old industries and rural areas are more stagnant. This does seemto be true for the UK and other advanced countries. In addition, people flow constantly between the dynamic and stagnant areas, in part because cities tend to be younger.
If this is the case, then this dynamic could play a geographic sorting role. Those who are more open, who like change and diversity will move to the city. Those who prefer continuity and community will stay, or may even move from the city to the town after a time. So over time you will find the more socially liberal tend to be in cities, and the more socially conservative tend to be in more rural areas.
In addition, those from middle class backgrounds will find it easier to gain the skills that the city needs, while those from working class backgrounds will find it harder through no fault of their own. The less the state intervenes to assist social mobility, the more this will be true. If you are middle class the more likely you are to be in environments (universities and then cities) that are diverse and therefore encourage social liberalism, while if you are working class you are more likely to get stuck in towns or stagnant post-industrial cities. This helps explain something else about Brexit: lack of education is one of the strongest predictors of support for Brexit.
I would like to add one additional dynamic here. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be familiar with multiple sources of information, and the more open you will be to different perspectives. You are more likely to value expertise because your position in the labour market depends on your own expertise. As a result, you will be less likely to be influenced by what you read in one newspaper, and more likely to seek out what experts are saying on issues like Brexit. In my view newspaper coverage, both of immigration and then of Brexit itself, were important factors behind Brexit, and may be part of the reasonthat Scotland voted for Remain.
This suggests two social processes. First, this economic dynamic based on growth in cities sorts those at different points of the cultural axis by geography. Second, and I think more importantly, where you are in this cultural axis may not just be the result of your genes, but may also be a result of this sorting process itself. Liberal attitudes may be encouraged by a university education and working in dynamic, diverse cities.
In a dynamic environment where there are plenty of opportunities, diversity seems like a natural consequence of that dynamism. Indeed it may even be seen to contribute to the dynamism, which in fact it does. And of course a university education often gives you a skill set that defines your class position. In contrast, if you live in areas that are economically stagnant you are more likely to see things in terms of a zero-sum, us and them mindset. If immigrants arrive, or you fear they might arrive, you naturally think that they must take away something you already have. These are all tendenciesof course. There are plenty in the cities who see little benefit from their dynamism, and plenty in the countryside who are much wealthier. There are Leave voters in dynamic cities and Remain voters in the countryside.
Power and Populism
There is one additional point about this segregation between dynamic cities and more stagnant towns. Political power generally resides in dynamic cities, and this leads to a perception at least that the political elite acts only in the interest of the cities. As a new and fascinating paperby Will Wilkinson argues for the US, this economic divide that both sorts for and encourages certain social attitudes among those in cities can cause resentment and alienation in the rest of the country to a degree that can create the conditions for populism to flourish.
Trump’s support, like support for Brexit, comes from rural America or areas of industrial decline, while most in dynamic cities view this type of populism with incredulity. Population sorting, where power and growing wealth lie in cities where the governing elite rule, leads to self-reinforcing resentment against the elite from those who live elsewhere. That resentment can manifest as simply protest, as happenedwith the gilet jaunes in France, or it can be captured by politicians or policies that pretend to attack the elite.
Where does that leave our original two dimensional conception where most of the Brexit action takes place on the socially conservative to liberal axis? We can now add two key caveats. First, while a position on this axis is often portrayed as reflecting innate characteristics, it may also be in part a consequence of economic forces and class. Second, support for Brexit may in part reflect some basic economic forces to do with the geography of economic dynamism in predominantly service economies.
Does this mean those arguing that Labour should support Brexit because the working classes are more likely to support it are right? Of course not. Brexit, like Trump, will do nothing to help the working class, and Labour should never become a socially conservative party. Indeed Brexit will do precious little to help any of those that voted for it: it is an utterlystupid policy. But equally seeing this as a culture war that the progressive side have to win is much too simplistic. The roots of our current populism are based on an economic dynamic where growth occurs in large cities, and an economic system that does not spread enough dynamism, knowledge, wealth or power to the rest of the country.
Some background for non-UK readers. The contest for the next leader of the Conservative party, and therefore our next Prime Minister, is now between two: Boris Johnson and someone else. Johnson is the clear favourite to win. Johnson has a pretty colourful love life, such that uncertainty about how many children he has produced is a talking point.
Last week neighbours of Johnson’s current girlfriend heard screaming, crashing and shouting coming from her home very late at night. One particular neighbour, Mr. Penn, knocked on the door but there was no response. He then rang the police, who quickly came to the property. The police were satisfied that all occupants were OK, they had no concerns and left. One other neighbour described the earlier noise as so bad they thought someone had been murdered.
That would have been that, except that one of those neighbours, a Mr. Penn, contacted the Guardian about the story, and had also switched on his phone inside the flat when the noises started. The reason he gavefor contacting the Guardian was simply that the story was of public interest. The Guardian rang the police and they initially said there was no incident that night. When the Guardian rang back with further details the police corroborated the story.
The story was of course of public interest. It was on the front page of every newspaper the next day, including the right wing press. So far, the right wing press were acting as proper newspapers. It is what happened next that tells a more interesting tale. Mr. Penn decided to go public (the Guardian had kept his identity secret) because
“The unpleasant things being said about myself and my partner, and some quite frankly bizarre and fictitious allegations, have been upsetting for not only us, but also for family, friends and fellow Camberwell neighbours, who are currently being harangued by the media. I would ask that you leave private citizens alone and focus instead on those who have chosen to run for power within the public eye.The attempts from some areas of the press to instead focus their stories on us, and in particular my wife, have been eye-opening, and very alarming.”
Here is a headline from the Mail the day after the incident hit the front pages that gives you a flavour of what he meant.
“'Leftist' millionaire's daughter whose playwright husband called police on Boris after recording screaming bust-up 'gave the finger' to PM-hopeful in the street - as it's revealed Johnson's girlfriend Carrie no longer feels safe at home.”
Here is some more from the text:
“Most curious of all is what the couple did – and why they did it – after they were assured by police that there was nothing to worry about, that no one was hurt, no crime had been committed and that there was no cause for further action. At this point many in their position might have slunk away, faintly embarrassed they had dropped their neighbours (with whom they share a tiny communal landing) in it with police.”
Other right wing newspapers joined in. The Times searched through Mr.Penn and his wife’s twitter accounts to find ‘incriminating evidence’ that they were Remainers, left wing, disliked Johnson and so on. The Telegraph gave two pages over to comment of a similar kind.
The hypocrisy of the follow up reporting had two aims. The first was to distract attention away from the fact, which no one denies, that Johnson had had a blazing row with his girlfriend that frightened many neighbours and to instead focus attention on the messengers. The implication of rather a lot of the reporting is that if you hear a woman screaming next door best keep it to yourself. The hypocrisy is that every newspaper had run the story as a front page lead the day before, so Mr. Penn had been absolutely correct that the story was of public interest.
The second aim is to ensure that any other member of the public that might have potentially important information about a Tory politician that was in the public interest keeps it to themselves. They will keep it to themselves because they know that if they reveal it they will have the full might of the Tory press trying to destroy their character in the days after the information was revealed.
Adam Ramsey describesthis as anti-journalism, but I think that does not fully describe what is going on. If it had been a Labour politician of any rank these same journalists would have gone to any lengthto find the dirt on the politician, and not reward their sources by investigating them as well. What these newspapers are doing is propaganda: providing information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, designed to promote a political cause or point of view.
Why have these papers not yet descended to the level of Fox News in pretending bad things (for Trump) did not happen? These papers know that most of their readers will get their news from one of the broadcasters as well. If they are not reporting what is a top story for these broadcasters their bias is all too obvious. They cannot hide the story that is embarrassing to one of their own, but they can do their best to prevent similar stories in the future never seeing the light of day.
Mr. Penn and his partner have left their flat after receivinga large number of death threats as a result of this newspaper coverage. Our right wing propaganda machines has achieved its goal.
Brexit could be a gift to Labour that will keep on giving, if the Labour leader is able to grasp it
One of the sentences you are sure to hear nowadays is: “Brexit is not going to go away anytime soon”. It is true because Conservative party members will not let it go away. A recent pollshowed a majority of those who will elect our next Prime Minister would prefer achieving Brexit to Scotland saying in the UK, Northern Ireland staying in the UK, or even the survival of their own party. They want Brexit even if it causes severe damage to the economy. The only thing that the poll suggested might make a majority forsake Brexit is the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.Therein lies the cure for our current Brexit blight and the opportunity for more than one period of Labour government.
In the short term Brexit fanaticism is extremely scary. The wish to see Brexit happen even if it leads to the destruction of the Tory party is utterly extraordinary coming from Conservative party members. Of course Conservative MPs do not want to see that, but their survival in government now seems tied to getting Brexit done, and so most seem prepared to contemplate a No Deal Brexit if that is what it takes. Our only hope to prevent this are a small band of Tory MPs who might put country before party, who could then combine with most opposition MPs to stop this happening.
Even if the attempt to leave with No Deal in October fails or does not happen, the Tory party is not going to give up. This radicalised membership will do its work by selecting Brexiters when MPs retire or leave for other reasons, and they may well deselect some of those who oppose No Deal. At some point those willing to stand up in parliament against a No Deal Brexit on the Tory benches will shrink to become insignificant. At that point Conservative party members will get their prize, if they are still in government.
How did the Conservative party descend to this level of fanaticism about just one issue? Robert Saunders’s New Statesman articleabout the closing of the Conservative mind is well worth reading. It is particularly useful for those young enough to think that Conservatives were always neoliberals. He writes:
“For most of its history, the Conservative Party has embraced ideas, while disclaiming ideology. Yet today, a party enslaved by ideology is almost barren of thought, just as it faces a historic set of challenges.”
Sauders has some ideas about why this happened but I think it remains a puzzle. One possibility is simply the scale of their intellectual victory under Thatcher, such that their Labour opponents showed they could operate in the UK that Thatcher bequeathed but with a more human face (including more NHS spending). The Conservatives became, to use Theresa May’s words, the nasty party in voters minds. The only way forward was to double down on reactionary xenophobia (Hague’s “foreign land”) or ramp up the neoliberalism (Osborne's austerity).
How did the Tory party membership get so radicalised about Brexit, when all the talk was about radicalism and entryism in the Labour party? The reason is that the Tory press that spent so much ink on talking about an imagined hard left Labour membership was also busy radicalising the Conservatives. Brexit embodies a mixture of nationalism, xenophobia, nostalgia and neoliberal zeal that Conservative party members cannot resist.
In all this scary stuff there is a potential light at the end of the tunnel, a way out of all this mess. And despite all the talk, it isn’t a Remain victory in a People's Vote. Even if we have another referendum, which seems only likely in a last minute panic created by an EU ultimatum, it will not de-radicalise the Tory membership. If, as seems prudent, the referendum is about the withdrawal agreement, then Brexiters will say that the right question was not asked. If it involves No Deal, then any loss by a few percentage points (and the press will ensure at least that) will just become unfinished business.
The best way for Brexit to end is not in the drama of another referendum, but instead with a whimper. The only way that can happen, with a radicalised Tory membership, is by electing a Labour government. As I have argued with little challenge, the Tories would oppose any sort of softer Brexit a Labour government might propose, so together with Remainers they would have a blocking majority in parliament or the country. How far a Corbyn led government would go down this road to nowhere we do not know. But he would never be allowed to put a Labour government at risk by pursuing a lost cause, so Brexit will not happen as long as a Labour government remained in power..
What we know a future Labour government would do is undertake a lot of measures designed to help one section of the Brexit electorate, the so called left behind. Very soon those and other voters would lose interest in Brexit, as politics became all about what the Labour government was actually doing. People would increasingly look back at the years following the 2016 referendum as wasted years, and an example of something never to be repeated.
At first Conservatives would try and keep the flame of Brexit alive. Doing so would only ensure their unelectability, as Labour would only have to remind people of the chaos of the Brexit years. Conservative voters and MPs would gradually realise that being the Brexit party was like being the nasty party, a sure way not to be re-elected. It may take one or two more elections, but as that poll of Conservative party members suggested, the only thing that could make them give up Brexit is a Corbyn government. That is in essence why a Labour government is the best, and I suspect only, way of disposing of the Brexit blight that has infected the Conservative party and therefore the UK.
This is the light at the end of the tunnel, such that Brexit ends with a whimper. However you have perhaps already wondered why, if this is all true, so many Labour voters and Remain supporters chose not to vote Labour in the European elections? Why have the Liberal Democrats suddenly managed to break free of the shackles of being in the 2010 Coalition government to be among the four contender parties in opinion polls?
I think there are two answers, one that acted as a trigger and one underlying force. The trigger was the Brexit talks between Corbyn and May. Although political commentators rightly gave these talks little hope of success, their length would certainly have provoked a fear among Remainers who had voted Labour in 2017 that Brexit could happen in this way. In addition the European poll seemed like an appropriate time to protest.
The underlying factor is that many voters are now identifyingthemselves in political terms along a Remain/Leave divide instead of a political divide. Remainers were getting fed up with the absence of a strong political voice making the case for Remain, and instead hearing endless discussion of impossible Brexit plans from the ERG. All they hear from Labour (because most voters do not read political speeches) is the latest version of Labour’s position on a second referendum. Labour seems to be mufflingits own voice on the issue of the moment.The Liberal Democrat campaign sloganof ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ was just want Remainers had been waiting to hear.
Which brings us to the current shadow cabinet meetings. Corbyn has moved another iota, agreeingthat an option on the ballot would be “a real choice” for Remainers, but not moving nearly as far as many want. There is a certain symmetry in the two main parties position on Brexit, but also major differences. The symmetry is that, during May’s period, both parties wanted some form of compromise compared to what most of their party members wanted. Both parties eventually encouraged an insurgent party, the Brexit party for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats for Labour, that was able to take a large number of their votes by offering policies that forsaked compromise. But there the similarity ends.
The Conservative party will decide, in one way or another, to come to some kind of accommodation with the insurgent party. That will happen by changing their Brexit policy to mirror the policy of the insurgent, or to cooperate with the insurgent party in any general election, or both. The Conservatives, as they always do, will adapt to the threat they face in order to stay in power. .
The Labour leadership, in contrast, is in denial. All the evidence points to their failure to campaign for Remain as being a critical threat to an election victory, an election that could come very soon. Even before the European elections there were as many Remain and Leave maginals, because many working class Labour voters had changed their mind since 2016. In addition, it turns out Labour leavers do not feel that stronglyabout Labour taking a Remain position, but Labour Remainers care about it a lot. I have not come across a single reputable pollster that suggests Labour are increasing their General Election chances by keeping its pro-Brexit position, and plenty arguingthat to win they have to back Remain.
The argument that Labour needs to support Brexit to win the election is no longer credible. Instead the leadership’s support for Brexit puts at serious risk a Labour government that could rule for more than a decade. When you add in the impossibility of a Labour government enacting Brexit, and I just do not see why Lexiters remain in denial.
Incremental moves until conference also makes no sense as a strategy. The longer Remain voters get used to thinking they are going to vote Green or Liberal Democrat, and as long as the Labour leadership resists what appears to be overwhelming force, there is a strong risk that many will carry that habit into a General Election, if only because Labour’s eventual change will lack credibility.
If the shadow cabinet are interested in maximising Labour’s chance of being in power, it has to change Labour’s official position to one of supporting Remain now. No one is asking Corbyn himselfto campaign for Remain, and it would probably be better if he didn’t, because there are plenty on his front bench who can do so more credibly. But their campaigning has to reflect Labour’s official position, which is to become the only party that can make Brexit go away.
On the relationship between finance and fiscal policy
When Momentum put out this tweet following the latest spat between Corbyn and Blair
“Blair favoured deregulation of the banking industry - leading to one of the worst crashes in modern history. While spending on public services was higher, his legacy will ultimately be the austerity that followed his failure to stand up to big finance.”
I responded with this
“This is parroting the Tory line that austerity was Labour's fault. As wrong coming from the left as it was from the right. Austerity wan't inevitable after the Global Financial Crisis. It was Osborne choosing to shrink the state, because Labour hadn't. Know your true enemy.”
Big mistake. I had criticised momentum and, in some eyes, supported Blair and twitter did its stuff. Among those supporting the momentum tweet was Clive Lewisand (maybe) Grace Blakeley, and among those agreeing with me where Tom Kibasiand Chris Dillow.
A lot of these tweets were totally irrelevant to the original tweet and my response. The original tweet is pretty clear. Blair’s failure to regulate the banking industry led to austerity. So the gradual appeasement of austerity we saw from Labour from 2010 to 2015, which I have strongly criticised elsewhere, is not relevant. Nor are Darling’s plans for cutting the deficit before the 2010 election. As I have said before, it is unfortunate that Darling won his battle against Brown and Balls and allowed reducing the deficit to be part of Labour’s short term objectives. But that has nothing to do with the momentum tweet, which involved the financial sector. 
Did Labour’s failure to regulate finance lead to austerity? In a very basic sense the answer is clearly no. Osborne didn’t need to embark on cutting public spending in a recession for the simple reason that no Chancellor since Keynes has done so. It was his choice. Perhaps if Labour had been tougher on banks the UK might have been less vulnerable to the Global Financial Crisis. UK banks collapsed largely because of overseas assets they had on their books (little to do with domestic debt), so the regulation would have had to stop them buying those assets, or forced them to substantially reduced their leverage. But I find it hard to believe that we would have avoided a recession of some kind.
A recession - even a mild one - was all Osborne needed. He was looking for ways to reduce public spending, and he saw a rising deficit as his opportunity. He committed to his policy in 2008, which was well before the extent of the recession was known. So it seems almost certain that the deficit would have risen sufficiently to allow Osborne to undertake austerity.
But why did he undertake austerity. I think it is because he wanted to shrink the state, something he had failed to convince voters to do on its merits . What I call deficit deceit is using the supposed need to reduce the deficit to cut spending. But Grace Blakeley and Clive Lewis suggest something more complex. Here is Grace:
“I suppose it depends on how you view the emergence of neoliberalism - I see it as an ideology that both emerges from and reinforces a change in the balance of class forces under which finance capital becomes hegemonic. ‘Shrinking the state’ is generally political cover for empowering or enriching a particular group and disempowering another - eg PFI used to allow investors to profit from state spending, and austerity used to disempower small l labour at a time when it otherwise might have organised to challenge the status quo.”
Suppose Labour had regulated finance to a much greater degree, and that would include not giving it a central role in Treasury decision making, much as Brown had in 1997 with the Bank and financial sector regulation. If that had reduced the size of the UK recession that would be a good thing. But would it have prevented austerity. I cannot see how. Would it have changed Osborne’s mind about wanting austerity? I cannot see how.
Did finance assist in some ways with the austerity bandwagon. Of course it did, from City folk who said the market for UK bonds was about to collapse to pressure brought through the Treasury. But much of that would have happened even if there had been greater financial regulation. Again there was nothing a Labour government could do to prevent all that, short of nationalising the entire sector. So calling austerity Labour’s legacy makes no sense on these grounds.
Another way to link finance with austerity, pointed out to me by Clive Lewis, was in this paperby Obstfeld. The idea is fairly simple. Too big to fail is all about the state bailing out the banking system. The state has to have the ‘fiscal capacity’ to do that. Ergo we need to moderate government debt levels to preserve that capacity. To look at this argument we need to examine the concept of fiscal capacity and fiscal limit.
Can a government run up a stock of debt relative to GDP that is unbounded? MMTers are quite right to say that, in a country that prints its own currency, a government can never be forced to default. But debt to GDP might get so high that the political burden of paying taxes or curtailing spending to pay the interest on that debt becomes more than the political cost of defaulting. Defaulting can take two forms: a literal default (failure to pay interest) or excess inflation devaluing the value of nominal bonds.
That limit is clearly way above the level of current UK debt. When some say we do not know where that limit is that may be a prelude to saying ‘and it might be near the current level’ which is just designed to scare governments. Governments know their own fiscal limits and the strength of their inflation targets. But Obstfeld’s point is that a financial crisis might push a government beyond its fiscal limit.
I do not think this argument held much weight with Osborne. As I noted above, he chose his policy in 2008, and I think it would have taken him a little longer to work this one out. (Obstfeld’s paper is 2013.) It might have influenced King and some Treasury officials in 2010. But you can see how weak the argument is in a recession by looking at what the Labour government did. In 2008 it bailed out the banks and in 2009 it undertook fiscal stimulus. The reason is straightforward: a recession is as bad for the financial sector as the real economy. The financial sector is hurt by loans going bad in the real economy, something that is made more likely in a recession. The priority in a recession should always be to get out of recession. Indeed I suspect Obstfeld would agree, as his paper is not an argument for austerity.
Even though I do not think there is much credence to the argument that Labour’s failure to regulate the financial sector caused UK austerity, that does not mean that the influence of the financial sector was not crucial elsewhere. Fear about the health of the financial sector in core Eurozone countries lead directlyto the imposition of first austerity, and then to a second recession. Greece was hit hardest. In 2010 Eurozone leaders were happy to let Greek leaders pile on extra debt rather than default on debt their banks partly owned. That finance ministers in the Eurogroup were then prepared to tell a subsequent Greek government that they had to pay every penny back or Greece would be out of the Eurozone. (This episode tells you a lot about the Eurozone and those finance ministers and nothing about the EU.)
Banks, and politicians failure to be honest about the need to bail them out, were central to austerity in the Eurozone. Mark Blyth’s phrase “what starts with the banks ends with the banks” remains very apt there. In addition the desire to cut taxes on the rich, many of whom work in finance, is clearly a key motivation behind austerity in the US. But if austerity in the UK is anyone’s legacy, it is George Osborne and not Brown/Blair. He, and he alone, chose to cut spending in the middle of a recession, something no Chancellor has done since Keynes wrote the General Theory in 1936.
 For what it is worth, a different economic policy might have changed the 2010 election outcome: Labour might have got more or less seats. But it is absurd to call something a government’s legacy just because the other side were able to do it because they won an election. Under this logic Brexit is Corbyn’s legacy etc etc.
 Chris Dillow and others have suggested that his main motive was just to have something to attack Labour with. Some have suggested he just got the macroeconomics wrong (or more accurately it was at least 10 years out of date). It is difficult to bring evidence to bear on this debate, but all three explanations suggest Labour’s financial regulations policy had little to do with it.
The Tory party has lost its battle with reality. But there remains one hope, a man with a joke and a smile that can set the UK free from the EU. Unfortunately to do that he may set the UK free from democracy as we know it.
For those not familiar with the film Matrix, there is a scenewhere the hero Neo encounters a boy bending a spoon with his mind. The boy hands the spoon to Neo. The dialog goes on:
Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
Neo then appears to bend the spoon with his mind. In the film the spoon isn’t real, but a digital simulation fed to unconscious humans to keep them alive. But what would happen in the real world if you really, really wanted to bend that spoon, and there was another world where you could make that happen? You could get tothat world by talking a blue pill offered to you by a kind of anti-Neo.
Welcome to the contest for our next Prime Minister, where the electorate is just a small group of party members and Conservative MPs. The current contest is all about Brexit. Brexit is stuck. The goal of Brexiters, taken up by many (but definitely not all) who voted for it, is to gain complete independence from the EU and all its rules and regulations. They hoped to do this by leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, and replacing them with a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU. Unfortunately they brushed asidetwo obstacles: the Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement.
Together they areaspoon that so many Conservatives want to bend by wishing it so. The Irish government and the EU live in the real world, so they know that an FTA with the EU would require a hard border on the island of Ireland. A hard border is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement. As a result, either Northern Ireland or the UK has to keep their trading rules such that there cannot be a hard border in Ireland. The backstop ensures this will happen. Complete independence for the UK from the EU is therefore impossible, just like bending a spoon bythought alone.
Most Conservative candidates for Prime Minister pretend they can really bend the spoon. Many suggest it can be bent using soon to be invented technology. Technology that would make a hard border anywhere near the actual border unnecessary. But these candidates have a problem. If such technology could be found, the EU have said they would be happy to apply it. And if such technology is just around the corner, why would the Brexiters object to the backstop that will soon be removed? The fact that the same Brexiters who say the technology is almost apon usalso refuse to accept the backstop suggests they do not really believe inbending spoons.
One or two candidates say that, if only they are given a chance to stare into the whites of the EU negotiators eyes, they can make the EU bend. This is also impossible. Others suggest that we can leave in October with No Deal and then we can do the FTA we want, because the EU will want the £39 billion that we have already agreed we owe them. In reality if we break our existing agreements with the EU after a No Deal Brexit the EUcan do things like fail to let our airplanes fly.
Many of those voting for our next Prime Minister mayunderstand all this deep down. They agree with the spoon boy that you cannot bend a spoon by thought alone. Instead they want to take the bluepill, and go to a world where almost anything is possible if you want it enough.A world where you can wish away the Irish border problem. The same world where we once stoodalone and wonWWII all by ourselves.
These Conservative party members are not hanging on every detail of alternative arrangements for the Irish border to check that they will actually work. They don’t mind too much how we leave and what is done to parliament to make that happen. They just want their bluepill and their anti-Neo to make all their difficulties disappear. They want someone to get Brexit done and banish Farage and then diminish Corbyn so they might actually win anotherelection. They want there to be no spoon, because life would be too difficult if today’s reality turned out to be all there is. In particular, and to mix imaginary tales horribly, if they recognised reality they would have to give up their precious, Brexit.
Just after the 2017 general election I wroteabout the Zugzwang that the Conservative party found itself in. Zugzwang is a term in chess where a player finds themselves in a position whereevery move that it is possible to make ends up making them worse off. In that situation the chess player would like to skip their move, but the rules say they cannot. What I had in mind then was that most Tory MPs wanted to be rid of May because she was clearly a hopeless leader who had called an unnecessary election with a commanding lead in the polls and lost it all. Yet these same MPs could not get rid of May because they would get a Brexiter instead.
I underestimated the Zugzwang the Conservativeswere in. I hadn’t realised the depth of the rabbit hole that Brexiters were prepared to take the Conservative party and its members. Brexit could have happened if the Brexiters had not voted against May’s deal. Instead they have taken a referendum that promised the easiest trade deal with the EU in history and pretended it is mandate for No Deal at all. Their supporters in the press egg them on and most in the broadcast media let this pass.
At the bottom of the rabbit hole of Brexit, where only complete independence for the EU is acceptable, you can only survive bytaking the blue pill. The blue pill takes you to another place where most Conservative members and MPs want to live. And Boris Johnson, who can seemingly make any bullets fired at him stop dead in mid airwith a joke and a smile, is the person who can make this happen. Boris Johnson will offer you a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill that is reality and the blue pill where thought can bend spoons. Pills like the two articleshe wrote before he decided to champion Brexit.
Unfortunately that other place where you go if you take the blue pill is not fictitious. They have seen it across the Atlantic. Johnson is in reality their Trump. Trump can get away with so many things that once were considered outrageous, and he only gets away with it because he has a party machine and media behind him that is prepared to tolerate and justify anything Trump does so they can stay in power, as long as the party serves its backers’ interests. A UK version of Trump is the only way of delivering an outrageous thing like No Deal Brexit.
Johnson, like Trump, is criticised for his lies and personal behaviourbut he just laughs it off and nothing seems to matter. There aremuch more worrying similaritiesbetween the two. Johnson, like Trump, cannot concentratefor long, says or doesthe wrong thingat critical moments, has no vision except his own advancement, and makes serious mistakes that go beyondhis words and his personal life. His genius is to turn his own incompetence into a joke, so he appears so refreshing compared to most politicians. Although the jokes may be well rehearsed, the incompetence is real. When you are worse offbecause of his incompetence it isn’t funny anymore, but you just need enough people who are yet to experience his incompetence first hand and who appreciate a funny politician and the job is done.
Which leads to a critical realisation. If Johnson is the UK’s Trump, then the spoon is not just the Irish border, or the consequences of a No Deal Brexit. The spoon has to be politics as we onceknew it, democracyas we once knew it.
The first spoon that will be bent is an independent media that asks critical questions based on facts. As William Davies and others have observed, Johnson’s first leadership press conference was positively Trumpian. Journalists who ask tough questions werebooed. Later pressure will bebrought through the Tory media or elsewhere such that journalists quickly learn that asking such questions is more trouble than it is worth. Small outposts of critical thought may remain, because you only need to control what most people see and read to bend the spoon to your will. Whereas Trump plays the media through his tweets, Johnson can shrug off using racist imagery about Muslim women by offeringthe MSM cups of tea.
The spoon may become the judiciary, that has already raised the wrath of parts of the governing party, its press and its members by daring to allow parliament the final say in enacting Article 50. The already unprecedented number of attacks by politicians on the civil service will morph into a politicisation of the civil service that Thatcher would never have dreamed of.And very soon the spoon may be parliament itself. Johnson is committed to imposing the most devastatingkind of Brexit on the UK if he cannot get a deal by October, and parliament may well try to stop him. Johnson has not ruled out ignoringor suspending parliament and goingahead anyway. If his poll numbers are not as favourable as some hope, or the deal he offers Farage is rejected, he may be tempted to bypass parliament rather than call an election.
The spoon that Johnson and his party want to bend or to pretend doesn’t exist is pluralist democracy itself. It will happen slowly, each stage seemingly not so bad because each happenswith a joke and a smile. We can only hope that just because most Conservative members want to live in a world where there is no spoon, enough voters prefer changing the real world in ways that enhance rather than diminish our democracy.