Friday, 31 July 2015

Well, that's it...

...For the academic year 2014/15. It's been quite a ride, from the Scottish independence referendum to the General Election and beyond. But now it's over, and it's time for a break.

But fear not - though the sun is setting on 2014/15, we'll be back in 2015/16 to comment on what might be a cataclysmic year in British politics. Could the Labour Party split, or indeed be destroyed altogether, under a Jeremy Corbyn leadership? Will the UK hold its long-discussed referendum on European Union membership, and will voters want to stay in? Those two questions will bring to a head two great questions that have hung over us for decades. Firstly, what is the Labour Party for? Is it a progressive, reformist, social democratic party, or a quasi-left campaign group, aspiring to influence the public and policy, but not to win power in its own right? And secondly, is Britain 'European', or does it aspire to some other, globalised, free-trading destiny?

We're soon going to find out - though last year we thought we were in for a decisive autumn, and the Scottish referendum campaign seems to have solved nothing. It's probably more precise to say that, as a historian, we know that these debates will go on undimmed whatever happens. There is no finality - only skirmishes and battles that lead to new alliances and new conflicts (or agreements). All we know is this: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

In any case, we're off now until Monday 14 September. Look for us then in a new once-a-week format, when we'll be writing about all this on Mondays.

Until then, thanks for reading, thanks for powering readership levels to new heights, and enjoy your summer.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead Labour

Well, you should hold onto your hats during this blog, because we're going to tell some home truths.

Here's the main one: Jeremy Corbyn (above) cannot lead the Labour Party. There. We've said it. It's out there. Everyone knows it, in their hearts, but no-one's saying it, out of deference for that internal party 'democracy' the late and unlamented Ed Miliband decided to leave behind, and out of a certain respect for Mr Corbyn himself.

But it's true. Long-serving Labour members know that Mr Corbyn's true views represent only a small sect within the Party, quite apart from those who've recently joined in a rush of admirable (and often youthful) enthusiasm for ideas that seem clear, 'principled', passionate and above all anti-austerity in an era of painful cuts.

But consider. The tradition that Mr Corbyn represents is way out of the mainstream of the Labour Party, let alone the country. Labour's gradualist, parliamentary, reformist and above all mainstream appeal to the people is alien to Corbynism, a form of Marxist Socialism, rather than social democracy, that often revels in 'official' Labour's misfortunes - and which is unrecognisable, even totally inexplicable, to the mass of the electorate. Michael Foot, that brilliant and much-misunderstood Labour leader from the early 1980s, was far to the Right of Mr Corbyn - at a time when the country was much more Left-wing than it is today (and when Labour could rely on electing lots of MPs in Scotland). And look what happened to him.

Do Labour members really want to leave NATO? They shouldn't. Do they really want to be equivocal about our continuing membership of the European Union? They musn't. Do they want to chuck around tax and spending figures that have been plucked out of thin air? Mr Corbyn does exactly that when he commits a small Corporation Tax rise to spending plan after spending plan, and wildly exaggerates how much a rise in the top rate of Income Tax might bring in. Labour members have always been committed to multilateral defence, to the EU, and to telling the truth - however hard - about tax and spending. At present, they are being lured to their utter ruin by a campaign that tries to ignore all these real questions about actual policies. If members do plump for Mr Corbyn, they will wake up to find that their party has been utterly transformed into something they do not recognise, and something they do not like.

Many members have expressed in our hearing the view that 'well, they're all unelectable, so we'll just vote with our hearts'. This is a dangerous and mistaken expression of deep despair that the Labour of the past would and could have dismissed as defeatism. Bevan would never have despaired. Kinnock did not despair. And neither should we. For yes, it is unlikely that Labour will ever win an overall majority again without Scotland. Strong and consistent social democratic politics in these islands might never again be possible without at least some Labour recovery there. For now, that looks a long way away. But consider what Labour might easily do. Win five more seats, and deprive the Conservatives of their overall majority. Win ten to twenty more, and make it impossible for them to pass any laws. Win forty to fifty, and be in power with the backing of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens - and perhaps the Liberal Democrats. Politics is not a zero sum game. It is not about a binary choice of 'winning' or 'losing' in which you say 'oh well, we can't win, so we'll take our toys home'. It's about very small shifts in support and identity - all of which will be dwarfed by the popular cascade away from Labour if Mr Corbyn becomes its leader.

Think about what we know about the 2015 General Election, not just from the polling numbers, now cast into doubt by their patent recent inaccuracy, but reported back by Labour's unsuccessful candidates. Look. There are five reasons why Labour lost. It had a leader who no-one could imagine walking into No. 10. It had no economic credibility, because voters believe that Labour caused the crisis - and shouldn't be allowed to spend anyone's money until they have a credible team in place. Labour failed to listen to what most voters were telling it about immigration and welfare, allowing the United Kingdom Independence Party to tear into its working class vote. It seemed culturally distant, snobbish and arrogant when anyone brought up any concerns about spending, immigration or benefits. And it had no consistent vision of modern Britain, beyond a retail offer listing policies as bitty and confusing as an energy price freeze (when prices were falling) and an attack on zero hours workers (which many workers felt would abolish their jobs). 'Win a microwave' isn't much of an offer, when you really come to think about it.

It's no wonder that Labour candidates who failed to take target seats favour Liz Kendall, the most Right-wing candidate who's least identified with Labour's past. Voters listened with incredulity, and some hostility, as Labour candidates listed the Miliband offer to them on the doorstep. More than a few just slammed the door in canvassers' faces. Labour has to defy stereotypes just to gain a hearing again.

And what would Mr Corbyn do about this? He would make every single one of those failures worse. He will never be Prime Minister. He does not look, sound, speak or feel like one. He will never chair the COBRA emergency committee. He will never go to summits with Presidents and Chancellors. He couldn't even stand up at a Prime Minister's Questions without his own side booing him - and Prime Minister David Cameron just doubling up in a fit of giggles. Mr Corbyn, one suspects, knows this himself, for it is patently obvious that he possesses not the slenderest shred of credibility. Voters rate him bottom amongst the Labour contenders as a 'future Prime Minister', and those numbers will get worse once the Conservatives really get to work on him (they're laying off him for now, hoping that he wins). He will not accept a single adjustment to public spending, entirely beholden to producer interests as he is, at a time when we will be beginning a long shift downwards in the prospects for the public accounts. He will move sharply left on immigration and welfare. He will refuse to listen to everything that Britons (and particularly the English) have told Labour, again and again and again. It's no wonder that the Party is slipping even further backwards in voters' regard. Mr Corbyn will seek to reinvent reality. He will fail.

For shall we tell you how his remedies really worked out in practice? Inequality fell in post-war Britain, it is true - but based more on work, inter-generational mobility and the opening up of hundreds of thousands of white collar jobs, and less on actual government intervention. Solutions designed for that era - National Insurance, nationalisation, economic planning, very high rates of personal taxation - are also not necessarily the ones that we would adopt now that we are faced with the challenges of adapting to globalisation.

Nor did they work very well, even then. Let's take nationalisation. Now nationalisation allowed governments to direct modernisation, concentration and industrial streamlining in the 1950s - with the loss of a lot of jobs, though that wasn't all that painful at a time of high employment. But nationalised industries were run by distant, technocratic, Ministerially-appointed managers who had absolutely nothing at all to do with democracy. Industries such as electricity, telephones and water were progressively starved of investment by a Treasury that always - as now - wanted to save money above all else. Britain was left with a crumbling infrastructure that it took thirty years to put right. Nor did nationalisation lead to social harmony or industrial peace. Quite the opposite. It socialised the contests between workers and management, drew in the Government, and helped ferment an era of bitter industrial unrest and social division in (for instance) the coal industry. There is just so much to do, so much to think about, and so much to change in the privatised utility sector (there needs to be a shift from private borrowing to equity finance, for instance, to make sure that subsidies don't just go to massive offshore monopolies). We could talk more about mutualisation, or non-profit-making companies along the lines of Welsh Water or Network Rail. But this cul-de-sac of ahistorical Leftism will mean that none of that work and that thinking will get done. Mr Corbyn has his history all wrong: not as wrong as he gets his present, of course, but without understanding the nature of his defective pasts, one cannot understand the roots of his future hopes - all of which are destined, come what may, to wither and die.

And yet, at the time of writing, it does seem quite possible that Labour members, trade union associates and registered supporters will vote for Mr Corbyn as their leader. Even though he will probably not be able to appoint a Shadow Cabinet. Even though his own MPs will not support him in debates, and despite the fact that some of them, at least, may defect to other parties. Even though he will have the Conservatives laughing into their champagne. For make no mistake - a Corbyn leadership at a General Election would see Labour lose between 80 and 100 seats, hemmed into the inner cities and able to muster only about 130 to 150 MPs - a defeat unknown since the 1930s. The Conservatives would be able to occupy all of the centre ground where elections are won and lost, even though the public have moved moderately leftwards since about 2005. Labour will have ignored all the opportunities that patently exist, and will have failed to take advantage of that shift.

Corbynism is an elemental cry of pain from the heart. It is about identity, about a tribe that is deeply wounded and that wants to stand for something - for some values and some beliefs. That's totally understandable, but we are driven to say and record the following. Most of those beliefs are wrong, many of them do not belong in the Labour Party at all, and - taken as a whole, rather than as a pot pourri of Milibandite lists - they appall or even sicken the electorate.

Youthful enthusiasm is a good thing. It's fresh, clear, clean and dynamic. But we've been here before. George McGovern mobilised the radical young in his Left-wing 1972 US Presidential campaign. They got utterly, totally, embarrassingly, humiliatingly routed. Once Richard Nixon had stamped on their pea-shooter of a campaign, he went on to fundamentally poison some of the roots of American government and American trust in their leaders. We shouldn't let it happen here, as it assuredly will once the over-60s - who turn out in their droves, and last time chose the Conservatives by a margin of nearly two-to-one - have finished with these misguided enthusiasms.

And then the Corbynites - most of whom have homes, jobs, contacts and prospects - will have to go round and apologise to every mum who's terrified of being pushed out of London because of the bedroom tax. To every worker who wonders how she can possibly afford to go to work now her tax credits have been slashed. To every elderly citizen trapped in their home, who's been left all day to sit in their chair without a home help. To every child who's learning in a dilapidated prefab. To everyone who's sitting, doubled up with chronic pain, waiting for an NHS appointment. To everyone living in a crowded little hutch in an unplanned, sprawling suburb.

Because Labour's plunge off the precipice will mean there will be no-one left to speak up for them.

Monday, 27 July 2015

How on earth did Labour sink so low?

Recall 2001 for a moment. The Labour Party, under Tony Blair, had just won its second landslide election victory. The Conservatives were a laughing stock. They'd just lost badly under an unelectable leader, and were about to pick another one in the shape of Iain Duncan Smith. The economy was humming along. The Prime Minister was pretty popular, especially given that he'd been in office for more than four years. All seemed set fair in the best of all possible Labourites worlds.

Scroll forward just fourteen years, and the party is seriously considering electing a leader - in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn (above) - whose views will assuredly mean winding up the party as a national force, and might even bring its hundred or so years of existence to a close via a series of convoluted Westminster confrontations, plots, coups and counter-coups that will make the fratricidal bloodletting of the early 1980s look like a warm and fuzzy love-in.

How did it all go so wrong? We thought that the best thing a historian could do would be to outline the ten moments when history turned against Labour, and brought it to where it stands today - on a thirtieth story windowsill, wondering whether to jump off or not. So here goes:

1. The Iraq War. The major element of the public's recent disillusionment with politics is the Iraq War. Now, voters were very disillusioned with politics in the 1990s as well, as a wave of Conservative 'sleaze' allegations hit a tired and not-particularly-competent government that had clearly run out of time. But New Labour's advent had, at least as measured in polls and social attitude surveys, done much to resuscitate Britons' faith in their leaders. Well, Tony Blair decided to take all that political and moral capital and chuck it on a bonfire marked 'stay close to the Americans'. He said that he wanted a second vote at the United Nations. He didn't get it. He said that there were WMDs in Iraq. There weren't. He said that he had evidence. Some of it turned out to be of questionable depth and veracity. It was a disaster of British governance akin to Suez in 1956: searing, for a whole generation, and especially for young people who saw that their leaders could not necessarily be trusted. And it did much to undermine faith in New Labour as a whole, and to bring the Blair era in No. 10 to an end.

2. David Cameron becomes Conservative leader. David Cameron is a deeply disingenuous and lucky leader - rather like Margaret Thatcher, actually, another enormously successful politician. In order to win the premiership, he said that he would lead 'the greenest government ever'. He hasn't. He said that he would govern as a 'compassionate conservative'. That didn't work out, either. He thought about all sorts of radical and counter-intuitive departures from mainstream Thatcherite thinking: witness his 'Big Society', all but forgotten now, but at the centre of the ill-fated 2010 Conservative campaign that tried to offer too much, too confusingly. Almost everything he started off saying has been junked. But you know what? It doesn't matter. Hug-a-hoodie and ride-a-husky are so deeply imprinted on the public mind - as are, to be fair, the Prime Minister's deep experience of the NHS given his son's illness - that he can do whatever he likes to public services and many voters will simply think 'that David Cameron, he's all right really'. Unfair, of course: also true. His election, from nowhere really and against the 'big beast' of David Davis from the Right of the party, was less than inevitable. He sealed it, really, with one single impressive speech. Had he not, the whole of the next ten years would have looked different: the chance election of a credible alternative to Labour changed everything.

3. The Brown premiership. Gordon Brown is a brilliant and impressive man, whether it's campaigning for child literacy in the developing world or speechifying about the dangers of Scottish independence. Unfortunately, he had nothing like the skill set to be Prime Minister in an era of hour-by-hour news cycles - and when electors, fairly or unfairly, expect their leaders to be able to emote and sympathise with them. His unchallenged rise to the top, scaring off possible rivals such as John Reid or David Miliband, meant that Labour lacked a really credible leader who could enthuse and convince the public. Now that actually turned out well for the world economy, because the G8 had someone on the bridge who actually knew what they were doing and talking about when the crisis hit in 2007-2008, but it was a terrible shame for Labour, support for which sat in something like suspended animation, just waiting for something better (or just credible) to turn up.

4. The election that never was. For a few months in 2007, Labour had the Conservatives on the run. The banking crisis, though looming ominously, hadn't yet broken; not-being-Tony-Blair, and a few well-chosen 'father of the nation' interventions, had made Gordon Brown pretty popular, on the whole. Labour Special Advisors strutted around behaving as if they would own the political world for decades to come - which they might have done. The natural honeymoon period meant that Labour could and should have held a General Election to give Brown his own mandate. They, and he, bottled it. Private polling showed that Labour might not hold on even to its majority of sixty or so; Mr Brown feared to look even less popular than Tony Blair had been in 2005, in the wake of the Iraq War. He reversed engines and looked absolutely ridiculous. The Great Clunking Fist had become someone who could be defeated. Who you could stand up to. And, like any feared dictator, once someone laughs, that's it, really.

5. Ed Miliband becomes Labour leader. The Labour Left, and some of its left-leaning trade unions, now sensed weakness. David Miliband, who on several occasions might have seized the crown from Mr Brown, now stood for leader, and won the backing of a majority of party members, MPs, MEPs and socialist societies. Unfortunately for Labour, he was beaten narrowly into second place by his younger brother - one of the least accomplished, and least successful, political leaders of modern times. The unions had already met,  decided that the younger Miliband would be more likely to do their bidding than the elder. They proceeded to break the rules governing elections by mailing out ballot papers wrapped in pro-Ed literature. Labour's left were enthused by Ed. He was a thinker, they said. He'd energise the young and non-voters. Above all, he 'spoke human'. No, he didn't. Or at least not any 'human' that the marginal seat voters of (say) Nuneaton or Carlisle recognised, anyway. His self-indulgence and student debating society leftism took Labour to its third-worst share of the vote ever, and saw it wiped out in large swathes of the UK.

6. The Falkirk imbroglio. Mr Miliband was a reactive leader - he let crises build up, worried about them, and then acted to try to shore up his own position. Thereby pleasing no-one, of course, but we've already made this point under (5). One disaster that he genuinely tried to clean up came in Falkirk, where a long-running party selection battle between a Unite-backed candidate and other party members boiled over into a nasty, poisonous old row straight from the textbook of Old Labour nastiness and street-fighting. In response, Mr Miliband brought Labour's electoral college - under which different parts of the party, for instance the unions, had a set share of the vote - to an end. He thought he'd be ending the 'block vote', spreading democracy. That sort of thing. The reform eventually came with a £3 'registered supporter' idea tagged onto it, whereby anyone could sign up and 'support' Labour - and thus have a vote for its leader. Although the degree of entryism to which Labour is now subject is deeply unclear, there is no doubt that the members of other parties - Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, the Greens, TUSC - are now registered, and will have a vote within a party whose values and ideology they do not share. It's a list of unintended but self-inflicted wounds that might never have happened if the party had been firmer in Falkirk from the start.

7. The Scottish independence referendum. Here we can be more understanding. Labour genuinely thought that a united front with all pro-Union parties would look good and seem smart in an era of nice, consensual, inclusive coalition politics. That was naive, but you can see where they were coming from. Unfortunately for Labour, politics never has been and never will be like this - at least not in the confrontational UK, and especially not in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party and Labour have been at each other's throats in a do-or-die battle for decades. What Labour's 'no' campaign achieved was therefore to make it look like they were 'close to the Tories', and all those 'Tory lite', 'they're all the same' and 'Westminster politics' jibes hit home all the harder. Saying 'you can't keep your own currency if you leave', and in concert with George Osborne, isn't the way to endear yourself to voters who've been Labour all their lives. Put that together with a good dose of buyer's remorse, when Scots began to feel as if perhaps they should have been a bit braver and put their crosses next to 'yes', and you had an electoral tsunami that Labour could do absolutely nothing about.

8. Labour's 2015 campaign. If Labour's Scottish retreat was a bit of an understandable balls-up, their 2015 General Election campaign was a total and utter horlicks. It tried to be all things to all voters. Tough on immigration? Oh yes. In favour of asylum and immigration rights? Yes, we're that too. Against cuts? Yep. For fiscal responsibility? Oh yes, we don't want to spend much more. Localist? You bet - we'll fight for you. Except, oh, actually, we don't have any really well worked-out plans for (say) Cornish or North-Eastern or city devolution. Mr Miliband's team thought that they could treat the vote like chunks of Lego. Take off seven or eight per cent of the electorate who'd previously voted for the Liberal Democrats but who leaned to the Left, and you were home and hosed. Unfortunately, if you tack and turn and hum and haw, and you've got a leader who the public never liked and never even wanted to warm to, then that won't work because you'll lose loads of votes - to UKIP and the Conservatives probably a shade more than to the Greens and the SNP, before anyone starts to speak up for the case that Labour was 'too Right-wing', thank you very much.

9. MPs allow Corbyn onto the ballot. Undoubtedly the most bone-headed disaster of the lot here was the decision of many Labour MPs to support Mr Corbyn's nomination for party leader - even though they don't agree with a word of what he says. Now actually this is - as they said at the time - 'good for democracy' and 'good for debate'. At least Labour is having it out, at last, after years of living in denial under Mr Miliband. The youthful enthusiasm of many of Mr Corbyn's supporters is something to behold, and on the whole a pretty good advert for grassroots politics and engagement. But the MPs in question (Margaret Beckett, for instance) now feel pretty foolish, because they've achieved the opposite of what they intended. Labour is now further from power than it was in May, and right now would probably struggle to make it to 200 seats (rather than the 232 seats they actually won back in the spring). Debate is always and forever a good thing - unless the public overhear you, laugh at you, and resolve never to vote for you again.

10. The welfare vote that wasn't. Harriet Harman has a pretty level head and a pretty strong stomach, all things considered. She garnered plenty of plaudits for her interim leadership of Labour after Mr Miliband's self-interested and selfish decision to stand down immediately after the election. All the while, that is, until she made the fateful decision to abstain on the Second Reading of the Government's Welfare Reform Bill. Now put aside the fact that Labour has put down lots of amendments, and indeed voted for its own amendment that night. Place to one side the fact that (despite untruths to the contrary spread on Twitter) the Opposition could never have won the vote anyway. And that Labour will vote against on Third Reading. This decision, borne out of a desire to show voters that Labour at least understood that welfare 'reform' is wildly popular, was political disastrous. It allowed the SNP and - brass neck of all brass necks - the Liberal Democrats, of all people, to pose as Left-wing tribunes of the people by voting against. And it did one other thing. It meant that all of Mr Corbyn's three rivals - Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall - looked both weak and Right-wing. Had Mr Burnham had the spirit to defy the party Whip and vote against, he would almost certainly be in pole position for the leadership right now. He didn't. So the decision is still in deep, deep doubt.

So what's the conclusion? That there's a great deal of chaos in political history. Had one or two - just one or two - of the debacles listed above played out differently, then Mr Corbyn would be nowhere near the leadership of the Labour Party. The idea would be parked exactly where it should be - among the fantastical and unlikely 'what ifs' of history. So think, Labour people: in the list of blunder, malice and aforethought above, who and what is it that's brought us to this place? Why are we here? Because Labour really needs to machine-gun itself in the face, or because it's stumbled into a hole of its own and others' making?

Think. Think about the implications of that question, before it's too late.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Corbyn illusion

The news that veteran rebel and left-winger Jeremy Corbyn (above) now leads the nominations race for leader among Constituency Labour Parties is an unwelcome reminder of how far the Labour Party has fallen over the past few years. From a position in which it bestrode the political landscape in 2001, and from considering an early election that might have destroyed David Cameron and pushed the Conservatives into oblivion in 2007, Labour is now contemplating its own end of days.

Mr Corbyn's prospectus is an alluring one for many a left-wing Labour member. It's full of fire, full of commitment, passion and hope. No to nuclear weapons. No to more 'austerity'. No to the private sector. No to landlordism. No to university fees. No more compromises - not with the electorate, and certainly not with the rest of the Labour movement, which has been singled out for a nasty dose of purge and schism by one of Mr Corbyn's more overexcited supporters.

It's an illusion and a fantasy.

The whole thing is what Aneurin Bevan, the last true leftist to come near the Labour leadership, would have called an 'emotional spasm'. Labour feels bad about itself. It hates itself for its weakness and unpopularity. It is therefore considering committing political suicide by trying to short-circuit everything we know about British electoral dynamics. Bevan knew better than to despair in such a way, and his eventual peace with Hugh Gaitskell as leader allowed Labour to start on the long road back to power in the late 1950s.

No doubt many of Mr Corbyn's activist supporters will point to the example of the Scottish National Party, that extraordinary powerhouse of political successes that has swept the Scottish board in recent elections. Many of them think of the SNP as a grass-roots leftist movement that has supplanted Labour by being more radical than that old and apparently tired socialist party. But they ignore the way in which the SNP has been very careful to shore up middle-class support in Scotland, making sure that university tuition fees are kept at zero (while maintenance grants and Further Education are cut), that Council Tax is frozen (while services decline), that they fought the UK General Election with a manifesto that would have meant more cuts than Labour's, and above all ensuring that income taxes have not risen - and are unlikely to rise, even after the new powers imagined by the Smith Commission and in the Scotland Bill are in place. The SNP also maintains an admirable and well-oiled iron grip on discipline, in a way that even New Labour did not manage: testament, once more, to everyone's admiring glances at Tony Blair's period in charge of British politics. In short, the SNP are like a single-shot antibiotic that kills virtually everything in their way, because as a national party they can pose as both 'moderate' and 'centrist' (as indeed they are on most economic matters) and 'radical' (as indeed on some issues, for instance land reform, they also are).

Labour doesn't have this luxury at the moment, because they lack the first element. No-one in the wider electorate (beyond a handful of Twitter and Facebook-based extremists) doubts their left-leaning credentials. What all swing voters worry about is credibility. It is Labour's competence, moderation and sense of reality. Everything we know about the last General Election tells us that, though not really a contest of Left and Right, it was lost in the field of capability. Labour, and especially its accident-prone leader Ed Miliband, were seen as just not up to it. No less than 67% who voted based on who they thought would be the best Prime Minister voted Conservative - meaning that David Cameron, an unconvincing and risible simulacrum even of a ribbon-cutting frontman, got back into No. 10. 69% of those who voted on the basis of the 'most competent team' voted Conservative.

Here's the reality: Labour is still blamed for the economic storm that hit Britain in 2008-10. That's just wrong, given that Britain's debt fell under Labour up to the point at which the crisis broke, and that the country never ran a current account deficit at all - while running only a tiny capital deficit, which was used to re-equip the nation's schools and hospitals. But watch the election Question Time in which Mr Miliband makes this case. There's an audible gasp which is really the moment when Labour went from losing the election to losing it badly. No-one believes Labour's case on the deficit. It's dead. It's gone. Better far to say 'okay, there's no way every penny was spent wisely, and perhaps we'd have liked to have had a surplus. But it wouldn't have made much difference to the crisis'.

That's realistic. That's what most voters believe, or a case they could be persuaded of. Mr Corbyn's full-on raging against austerity will just have most middle-of-the-road English voters in Telford, Plymouth, Bedford, Croydon or Hastings saying 'well, you put the deficit up there, the economy's recovering, you're offering me nothing'. Across England, in the small towns and long suburbs where elections are won and lost - in Sherwood, in North Warwickshire - the common wisdoms and radical attachments of urban Britain (where Labour did pretty well) are an alien matter of comment and concern, not of attraction. Until Labour works out how to appeal to those huge car-dependent swathes of common-or-garden Englishness, and to win in Canterbury, Stafford and Loughborough, they will win nothing. Labour activists should remember that, while austerity is indeed fierce and cruel, it falls enormously disproportionately on children, the very elderly, the mentally ill and the very sick. Most of them can't vote, don't vote or won't vote. If you want to protect them, you have to be in power. And you won't be in power if you talk all the time about an austerity that most voters never see and don't feel - and you talk about spending money and running the economy as if those ideas never went out of fashion, and as if those ideas are warmly greeted on the doorstep.

Politics and political change are not won by some sort of utopian, once-and-for-all breakthrough towards the commanding heights of the nation's psyche. Ideological and organisational triumphs are won by attrition. Trench-by-trench, field-by-field, house-by-house, hour-by hour, eye-gouging, knife-wielding, teeth-crunching, boot-in-the-face struggles which don't shed much sound or give out much glamour. But which might, in time, allow Labour to gain a hearing again. Labour were a joke in 1983. It took fourteen long years to allow the people of - say - Slough, Harlow and Lincoln to trust them again. That's the challenge that faces Labour today. They must walk the hard yards: organising, talking, listening, thinking and engaging with people's very real fears about economic reality and competence. Most of what people know about the economy is wrong. But shouting in their faces about just how wrong they are isn't a solution. A little humility wouldn't go amiss.

Jeremy Corbyn would prevent Labour taking even the first steps in that direction, and indeed as leader he would spell the end of the Labour Party as an organised national force (if it isn't doomed already). Conservatives love the idea. Some of them are signing up to join Labour and extinguish it forever. The Prime Minister has advised Mr Corbyn on how to win.

But Labour members considering voting for him should consider this: what are they in politics for, if not to seize power and use it to protect and serve those they represent? If they believe in social democracy, and they want to see it thrive, they should vote for any of the other three candidates and leave Mr Corbyn off the ballot altogether.

The alternative is this: British politics' nuclear winter could last for twenty years. Or more. All spent, by Labour, in the purity and helplessness of Opposition.

Monday, 13 July 2015

The madness of King George

Say what you like about George Osborne (above), the UK's Conservative Chancellor - he's grown into a wily, cunning, professional and above all successful political operator. After his totally bungled 2010 General Election campaign and his disastrous 'Omnishambles' Budget of 2012, which imposed unpopular new taxes on anything from caravans to pasties, he's learned what he thinks is the main lesson of recent British politics.

That lesson? All economics is political. And all economics can be used to damage, if not perhaps even destroy, the Labour Party.

That's what he did last week, in the latest of a string of shameless - and enormously popular - political manoeuvres. For while slashing in-work benefits for the low paid, Mr Osborne made sure that he appealed to so-called 'blue collar' or 'working class' Conservatism, with a big rise in the national minimum wage to £9 an hour (by 2020). Conservatives who (rightly) urge that the party's next big electoral move forward must be into those parts of society who've always viewed them as a bunch of aloof, out-of-touch toffs were delighted. It will make the task of such 'Bright Blue' Conservatives, such as liberal-conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie and Harlow MP and Conservative Deputy Chairman Robert Halfon, that bit easier. It makes it rather more likely that there will be a stable, rather than wafer-thin, Conservative overall majority in the House of Commons in 2020, and perhaps in 2025 too. Oh, and in 2030.

So far, so good - politically.

The devil, and the shame, are in the economics, Which alternated - how shall we put this? - between cruel jokes and farce.

First, this Budget is not a Conservative one. It is an unprincipled Whig spectacular, designed to do nothing except undermine the Opposition in their time of troubles. Now, that's nothing new. Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli 'dished' the Whigs when he brought in more radical Parliamentary reform measures than his supposedly liberal opponents were prepared to enact during 1866 and 1867. Harold Macmillan promised he'd do more on welfare than even Labour might in the 1950s (because he'd manage the economy better, and so be able to afford it). Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, Labour's most successful leaders at the polls, posed as national unifiers every bit as 'patriotic' and 'British' as their supposedly more disinterested and poised opponents. Nor does this kind of thing come as any immediate surprise, as the present set of Ministers are essentially nihilists interested in power at all and any price. But this sort of thing is now getting a bit much. Lots of policies that, just weeks ago, amounted to insurgent Marxism are now supposedly common sense: the higher minimum wage, of course (at a more generous rate than Labour was promising in May), but also tax raids on buy-to-let landlords, energy companies and rich 'non-domiciled' UK residents. For now, a leaderless and disorientated Labour Party will have to grin and bear it as lots of their manifesto gets ransacked for crowd-pleasing 'new' ideas. But this lack of intellectual coherence may come back to haunt the Government in due course.

Second, and much more importantly, the Budget does not 'make work pay' or 'fix the roof when the sun is shining' - those two beloved phrases of Conservative Ministers. Nor (to pick from their slogans at random) does it amount to a 'long-term economic plan'. Quite the opposite. Cuts to child tax credits for new claimants will leave people much worse off as they move from welfare into even the slightly higher rates of pay that they will be entitled to by 2020. Poverty, especially child poverty given the type of young parents most at risk from these changes, will inevitably increase. This move also kills forever the promise of Universal Credit, to create a new type of earnings-related welfare state seamlessly easing people into jobs, because it lowers the incentives to find work. It all amounts to the very reverse of the key Conservative principle of just reward for hard work that Mr Osborne trumpeted - while he brought in measures he must have known would have precisely the opposite effect.

Third and last, these Budget measures amount to sub-A-Level Economics posturing by some merely very clever - but not very wise - boys tinkering with their governmental toys. Take the rise in the minimum wage. The actual evidence is that a moderate minimum wage probably raises growth and employment, by increasing the cost of labour and thus the productivity of its use. But that effect stops at about 40% of the national median, and above that might then start to cost jobs. Paying £9 an hour, if a single person were to work for say 38 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, will take minimum pay in the UK way above that level. Now, it's not coming in for five years, and employers' muted response shows that they're not as worried as they might once have been. But the Government's nationalisation of minimum pay legislation - which has been looked at every year by the independent Low Pay Commission since Labour brought in the minimum wage in the late 1990s - bodes ill for the UK's spectacular job creation record. It's a welcome admission from the free-market fetishists among our commentatariat that they were wrong all along on really low pay, but just announcing this change from the despatch box, with none of the care the Low Pay Commission was required by statute to pay to the effect on employment, is a very worrying precedent indeed. Taken together with the Government's imposition of free elderly license fee payments on the BBC, it shows that Conservatives are now not above attacking the little battalions of the state - essential, in and of themselves, for any democracy to thrive - on just about any occasion when it suits them.

The treatment of incentives overall is very troubling. Massive cuts to inheritance tax, while slashing taxpayer support for low paid workers, sends exactly the wrong message about what's important in an economy. It's a deeply un-Conservative signal: that chance should stand in for skill. For now inheriting your parent's house is going to be even more important, when compared to mere wages earned by ability and sweat and endeavour. The playing field has been slanted a bit more towards older Britons, and still more against the young - little surprise given the fact that the former vote in far greater numbers than the latter. That playing field's been tipped up just a little bit more against coming off welfare, and a little more towards making sure that your mother and father seize as much property as they can before it disappears out of normal people's reach forever. Will this raise productivity? Hmm, let's think about that. Oh yes, the answer's a great big 'no'.

So Mr Osborne's politics are wonderful. They may make him Prime Minister in due course. Right now, they make a Conservative victory in 2020 look not just possible, but probable. But let's not pretend that any of this has anything to do with economics. Because it doesn't.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Mrs Merkel: now is your moment

We have now reached a fundamental turning point in the history of the European Union - and perhaps of Europe as a whole. For the whole Greek imbroglio is threatening to tear at the very European ideas that have spread and nurtured peace, prosperity and progress across the continent for nearly six decades now: solidarity; fellow feeling; shared citizenship; equality of opportunity; economic dignity. You know, simple stuff like that.

For in all the commentary on the Greek crisis, what we haven't focused on enough is its moral and political aspects.

Think of it like this. Why should Greeks who've saved all their lives have to pound the streets looking for a cash machine? Why should Greek businesses struggle to find a little bit of capital that'll keep them going? Why should sick and ill European citizens - for that is what they are - have to resort to begging their medicines from charities? Because of the insolvency of their elites? Because of those rich Greeks who long ago spirited their money out of the country in suitcases? Because the Germans want to make an example of them, or the Irish, Portuguese and Spanish resent any suggestion that all their long and tough budgetary pain could have been avoided had they played hardball?

The answer is quite simple. Why should Greek citizens - businessmen, pensioners, savers, nurses, doctors, patients - have to suffer all this? Er, they shouldn't. They have the right to expect to be decently and even well treated, just as Britons who live in Cornwall and Devon expect public spending there, and infrastructure spending in their communities, to be kept up even as their economies struggle to keep up with the rest of the sterling area. Just as Scotland's banks would no doubt have attracted support if an independent Scotland had remained inside a shared sterling zone and the country's ballooning budget deficit (and capital flight) had threatened to see them crash and burn. That's just what you do. If you have the same currency, you have to have the same economy - and the same politics. A banking union. A budgetary union. A political union.

German voters have lived in denial of this basic fact for years. Allowing separate countries pretty much full autonomy within the same currency zone is a recipe for disaster, for those states cannot devalue, selectively intervene or rearrange their debts in the way that a fully sovereign country can - while being able to run up deficits that they have no way of paying back via stronger competitiveness or exports. So the whole system encourages them, instead, to lie about their spending and deficits - as Greece duly did - to stay inside the currency system that's the very reason they're able to raise all the money cheaply in the first place. It's a dynamic but unstable equilibrium, almost designed to end in disaster when the music stops and your creditors open the box you've been passing around - to find absolutely nothing in it at all.

Nor is this all. It was Germany, France and the other Eurozone states that let Greece into the club. It was Germany and France that let their banks pile into Greece and spray money around like a Formula One winner firing off the champagne. It's been Germany that's been taking advantage of Greece's fixed currency peg to sell all those washing machines, cars and dishwashers. Now it's those same states who want to make sure Greece 'pays its debts' - to make sure they go on enjoying all the advantages of a currency union, with none of its attendant costs. Well, there's more than enough blame to go around, and some of the burden should be borne in Paris and Berlin - where many of the costs originated in the first place.

So there's got to be a deal. One that reduces Greek's indebtedness to the institutions that hold her fate in their hands, or at least a rearrangement of them so that the shrunken Greek economy can hope to pay. Some of the historical parallels are overdone here. Yes, Germany's debts were reduced in 1953, after the Second World War, but Germany was completely devastated - and divided into East and West. Her debts were also much lower as a share of her economy than Greece's are today, as well as being a bit of a fictitious construct in the first place given the craziness and impossible-to-measure destruction of the preceding twenty years. But that was still a wise act of magnanimity and statesmanship - a real act of morality and politics designed to hold the Cold War West together. Now we need to hold together again, however much Syriza muck about with proposals-that-aren't, and however much they propose tax rises that seem unlikely to bring in anything like they say they can raise.

Regular readers will know that, in the long term, Public Policy and the Past believes that Greece should leave the Euro in an orderly manner, before coming back later (much later, at this rate). This should have happened years ago, and would avoided a lot of pain in the interim. But deeper sovereign debt relief than has hitherto been offered will do at a pinch, and in fact at the moment it's the only game in town. Because if Sunday's now-crunch talks fail, Greece will suffer the agony - not pain, agony - of a chaotic default. There must be a real danger that emergency airlifts will be required to bring free medical and even food aid to her people, because setting up a whole new currency will take some time. In Europe. In 2015. For who's going to accept the stamped IOUs that Athens will have to issue, coming as they do from a state with such a shriveled tax base, bombed-out banking sector and pitiful export record.

Greeks are standing on the brink. Now, the actual impact of any failure to reach a final agreement on the world economy as a whole might be slight. The Greek economy is tiny - maybe one-seventeenth the size of Germany's - but that won't be much comfort to you if you're on the bread line in Athens. Nor will it matter much if you're a Northern European creditor, all of whom stand to lose their shirts. The former will hurt a lot more than the latter, but everyone will be crying. Not least those of us who believe in Europe, and who believe in purposive and well-planned public policy, watching an entire European society fall apart when it simply didn't have to be like this.

Basically, this is Mrs Merkel's moment. She has to decide who and what she is. Is she a rather dull technocratic time-server, tacking about trying to find a solution that will buy off her voters - and probably hang an entire people out to dry? Or is she a bold and visionary stateswoman, ready to cope with a bit of unpopularity (and perhaps loss of office) in the service of the European dream?

No-one wants history to find them out like this. No doubt everyone wants to govern as if it's permanently the late 1990s, with no real foreign threats on the horizon, the economy humming along, and lots of cash to give away to voters. But we can't pick our times. We can't choose our moments. History is just there, all the time. Stuff happens. The world's not always how we want it to be. It's just what we have to deal with. And history (or History) has now loomed up and confronted Mrs Merkel - one of Europe's most rational, most capable, and most committed politicians - with a choice for the ages. Tactics or strategy? North or South? Germany's narrow, momentary interests - or the future of an entire country?

Mrs Merkel can give a lead. She can give a rousing address about what it means to be a European citizen, and all our responsibilities to that ideal. She can work with the French and the Italians to find a deal. Or she can have historians say forever that she didn't want to - that she turned away, hid, slunk back to what was 'normal', easy, consensual and safe.

Angela, it's up to you.

Monday, 6 July 2015

English university policy gets a bit clearer

Last time we looked at England's university system, we predicted a rather doleful future of massive spending reductions to what remains of state support, increased bureaucracy and an ever-tightening standoff about academic 'returns' and productivity.

Since then, things have got a bit clearer - partly due to an interesting and suggestive speech from the new Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson (above). Mr Johnson, a relatively liberal and thoughtful sort of Conservative as these things go, began to resolve our focus on the future landscape just a little, putting all his emphasis on better teaching that avoids the twin and opposite dangers of 'coasting' and irrelevance in existing institutions. What he had to say was a little comforting, as well as a lot worrying.

So, where do we stand now?

Well, for starters, the Teaching Excellence Framework to 'put teaching at the heart of the system' is coming, whatever heavy-hearted academics think of it. It's probably going to rely on the supervision of existing providers, data-driven metrics of some sort and what Ministers imagine will be akin to 'light touch' regulation (if there ever was such a thing). It won't end with that, of course, and the inevitable behemoth that the TEF will spawn will grow and grow over the years as politicians and officials find ever more inventive new ways to deploy its mechanics for patrol and control.

But for now, the main thing that'll hamper such reforms will be the Government's lack of money. Committed to an utterly bizarre and irrational spending path, of huge, huge cuts over the next two years and then a cash binge towards the end of the Parliament, the universities' sponsor department, Business, Innovation and Skills, is going to have to lose a third of its budget in the near term. So how will the Government deploy a carrot, as well as a stick, to embed the TEF as deeply into the average academic's psyche as its counterpart, the Research Excellence Framework, once was? No-one in Westminster or Whitehall is naive enough to believe that just publishing the data, and letting that fictitious thing 'the market' rip as students follow the best TEF grades, will do the trick. Social and intellectual prestige, rather than transient data, are still key parts of any university's brand and appeal. And Conservatives' commitment to the Higher Education market has always been more in the breach than the observance - lest they lose control of what, after is, is still taxpayers' money when it first goes out to campuses.

Well, there are some suggestive points in Mr Johnson's speech - and in what he didn't say. Perhaps the Government will make charging more than £6,000 (which the Office of Fair Access can still stop) dependent on TEF performance. Perhaps some of what remains of the Student Access Funds will be attached to it - strangely, as there's no necessary tie between 'good' teaching and widening participation initiatives. Perhaps he will make rises in fees to meet inflation dependent on a TEF floor or average score? It's all on the table - and in ways that will (once implemented) slip straight out of the hands of Mr Johnson and his successors, inevitably reshaping the way that academics and their managers engage with and organise teaching for the next decade and beyond.

Some of the impact might just be beneficial, for there seems little doubt that the last three decades have seen research lionised at teaching's expense across many parts of the sector. But the unpredictability of tying information created for one purpose together with a set of policy objectives - not only a using one source to highlight the meaning of another, but a totally separate informational vector to alter 'facts' from entirely different statistical food types - is a classic type of policy-busting category error.

Here's a thought: what if the Chancellor cuts research funding sharply, causing Russell Group institutions to make up the shortfall by stampeding into (the uncapped cash they can raise from) teaching? Then universities further 'down' the traditional league tables will end up with all the research, and 'research-intensives' with all the teaching. Is that really what BIS wants? Has it gamed out that very outcome? Mr Johnson's speech was silent on what - if any - adjustments could meet even these entirely foreseeable unintended consequences - these 'known unknowns', if you will.

Away from undergraduate teaching itself, we're likely to see the raw amount of government direction and control tightened. For the Chancellor and his allies (including Mr Johnson) are very adept at micro-managing small pots of cash, especially important as they shrink further, levering and levering them until they pay off for maximum political capital. Put this together with Ministers' desperate need to do something, anything, to raise British labour productivity, and we're likely to see many more University Technical Colleges, University Enterprise Zones and research and knowledge transfer funding 'pots'. There'll be much less about pure or blue skies research, and a lot of rhetoric about the here and now of business, investment and jobs. It'll only involve a few hundred million pounds here and there - nothing like the billions that are about to disappear from student grants and bursaries, quality resource research funding and Widening Participation. But such eye-catching policy mice will distract from the snarling dogs unleashed elsewhere.

The headlines? The Teaching Excellence Framework could mean just about anything, though in the long term it will probably further pervert and distort priorities in a sector used to instrumentality and game-playing. And an emphasis on strict workfulness - and more close Treasury control - will be the hallmark of what's left of government intervention outside teaching. The sector will become unpredictable, sometimes explosive, hard to understand, desperate for cash - and more and more attuned to the day-to-day needs of what government thinks of as 'the economy'. Whether you think that's a good thing rather depends on your point of view, now doesn't it?