Monday, 2 April 2018

The Conservatives' Prospectus is Plain Wrong

The UK’s Conservatives are probably feeling pretty chipper at the moment. They’ve managed to just about hold together during the process of leaving the European Union, a drawn-out crisis that has the potential to blow their party apart. The economy is still growing (and producing many, many more jobs than most thought possible). The main Opposition Labour Party is engaging in one of its tragi-comic periods of internal confusion and red-on-red civil war – while wearing a nasty-as racist face that many of its activists simply refuse to see. For the first time since the disastrous snap election of 2017, they are ahead in most of the polls. Theresa May’s rating as Prime Minister (above) just reached a new post-election high against the numbers plumping for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps, Conservative activists might hope, things are finally on the up.

They are wrong if they think that they are emerging from their lack-of-comfort zone. Their lack of ideas is going to continue to hurt them all the way to next polling day. The economy looks unlikely to come to their aid. If nothing is done, public services are also going to seem threadbare indeed – a prelude to the party’s disastrous defeat in 1997. And most of all, their basic presumptions, and their backstop case to the electorate, is total nonsense. Let’s look in turn at some of their psychological furniture, and elements of their rhetoric, each bit of it as unimpressive in analytical power and descriptive force as the last.

The Brexit dividend. Let’s not rant on about Vote Leave’s notorious red bus any more, please. You know all about how misleading that was. But Ministers, including both the Prime Minister via omission and evasion – and the Foreign Secretary, in person – continue to encourage the damaging illusion of increasing public spending via the return of Britain’s EU membership fees. To which the only response possible is: are you joking? Where have you been for the last twenty-one months? Let us spell it out for you yet again: There. Will. Be. No. Brexit. Dividend. Slower growth will eat almost all of that money up, and then some. The whole idea of a Brexit dividend is a myth - just like many of the other old saws that the Leave team has always treated us to. 

We could even throw some numbers around, if you like. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has talked, in his usual pie-in-the-sky manner, about using Britain's now-unspent EU membership fees on increasing National Health Service funding by £5bn a year. The Office for Budget Responsibility has, again and again, pointed out how nonsensical that is, with up to £15bn per year going missing from the Treasury's coffers. If the UK were to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market - and it looks like it will leave many of the latter's functions - the cost could be very significant indeed. Even on the most recent and quite optimistic estimates of a good and solid free trade agreement with the EU, Whitehall might be £3bn-£4bn short of where it would have otherwise been every single year. So, yes, you can cut a quarter of the Transport budget, or get rid of unemployment benefit altogether, but get real. The real Brexit 'dividend' will be even more cuts than we're already likely to endure.

The repatriation of powers. The Leave campaign held out the promise of Britain controlling its borders; making its own laws; deciding its own destiny. Fair enough, in some ways. There is no doubt that membership of the EU means sharing sovereignty – inevitably giving up or merging some of it, in the hope of wider gains as everyone’s power is multiplied. But Brexit’s transition phase is going to take a great deal of the shine off this promise. Britain is pretty much going to remain in the EU until the end of 2020, with not much to show – on migration, spending, even fishing – for leaving. Except being excluded from the European Council and Parliament, where all the decisions are made. Even more seriously, life after the transition period won’t look like a clean break either. The Prime Minister is clear that Britain wants to participate in all sorts of institutions – from the EU’s aviation rules, via the Erasmus student exchange scheme, to the European Space Agency – that the country used to be a member of as of right. That’s going to cost the UK quite a bit of cold, hard cash.

Not only that: through the mechanism of a ‘deep and special’ trade partnership, Mrs May wants to recreate key elements of the Customs Union without actually calling them that and scaring the frightened Eurosceptical horses within her own party. That’s fine (and entirely rational): she’s proceeding, albeit very slowly and crabwise, to isolate the ultras within her own Cabinet, and on the backbenches, so she can seal a historic compromise. But the trade deals that Britain can then reach will be much paler things than they might once have been – kind of obviating the whole point of leaving at all. Once, the British strained to secure opt-outs: from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, or the creation of the Euro. Now, they want a load of opt-ins, to rebuild a relationship they just throw on the floor, like a 1,000-piece jigsaw they’re now going to have to put back together in a wonky pastiche of the relationship they spoiled just a few months ago.

Falling immigration. There is no single term that explains Brexit more than the single word ‘immigration’. The relatively sudden entry of millions of Eastern Europeans into parts of the UK that had often not experienced much immigration just stretched the elastic of consent to the limit. So the Conservatives think that lower immigration will help them with those relatively low-income voters that often flocked to their banner in 2017, winning them some seats that had been Labour for generations. It’s likely that’ll succeed, to some extent. But it may do the Conservatives more harm than good overall. For there’s also little doubt that immigration helps the British economy, overall, to reach towards those growth rates that pay for public services. That if Britain isn’t careful, labour shortages will replace a relative glut of workers. And that growth will be held back as a result. It would of course be open to London, then, to issue more work permits and visas. Sovereign states all round the world take a view every year, or every few years, of what they want, and act accordingly. Will immigration go on falling, as it has over the past year or so? We wouldn’t bet on it.

Yet again voters will say: ‘Is that it? Is that what we voted Brexit for?’ In those circumstances, it should be little surprise that the British seem to have been warming a little towards immigration, as recent figures from Ipsos-Mori reveal (opens as PDF). This has the potential to get poisonous for the Conservatives’ new coalition of hard-up workers and richer, older people. They will get caught in a vice, between that bedrock of hardcore anti-immigration feeling they’ll have disappointed, and more mainstream voters if they start to get a case of the Bregrets.  If they see EU citizens making for the boats, voters will get very, very worried about the staffing of schools and hospitals, at the same time as they face up to higher prices for all sorts of goods and services (including food) that they have become accustomed to grabbing on the cheap. Keep in mind that a General Election electorate looks quite Remainer-y compared to that of the 2016 referendum: and that older Leave voters will have an inevitable tendency to exit that electorate as time goes by.

A growing economy. It looks like the economy is going to keep growing over the next few years. Not as quickly as it probably would have done without Brexit, it has to be said, and at a rate that would make a snail blush. There’s lots of reasons for that. British productivity increases, for one thing, are so embarrassingly bad that the word ‘embarrassing’ doesn’t do them justice. Brexit has caused something of a confidence blow to the system. British consumers are becoming very indebted again, and the UK’s service- and retail-based economy is probably straining against the best it can do. On the other hand, even Britain’s anaemic rate of growth should be enough to clear the deficit. At last. About six or seven years after the Conservatives first said that they could manage that feat. That will allow the Tories to get a bit more spending going in the public sector (we now already see the first signs that pay restraint is fading), and to promise more in the next Parliament.

But no-one’s going to feel this for a long, long time. The best projections we have for real wages is that they’re going to creep up,very slowly, only crawling past their 2007/2008 peak over the next year or two. Things are going to feel gritty, in the longest, slowest, most underpowered recovery we’ve experienced for perhaps two centuries. That’s going to hurt the Government. And at a time when record low interest rates and lots of savings in emerging economies might accelerate and attract more investment (in a country with an almost laughably child-like public transport system, for instance), the Government just is not doing nearly enough to head off such damage. It could force up what it calls the National Living Wage even more than it already has. It could allow cities and regions to borrow more. It could unleash the power of the housing market to buoy up its political fortunes, as Conservatives did in the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s. The present signs? They’ll do none of these things, but rather leave Britain on its current slow road to prosperity.

More opportunity all round. One key point Mrs May lasered in on during her early days in No. 10 was the plight of the so-called JAMs – those Just About Managing citizens who were working hard, perhaps at more than one job, but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. They have enough to get by, but there’s absolutely no leeway at the end of the month. Just a little thing – a car bill, in policy terms a small interest rate rise – could tip these families into insolvency. There’s millions of these people, often disappointed that capitalism hasn’t granted them much actual capital, and there’s lots of them in swing marginals across the English North and Midlands. If the Tories could just reach them, went Nick Timothy’s reasoning while he remained as Mrs May’s key adviser, they’d sweep the board.

Well, yes – except that inequality is likely to get a lotworse over the next few years, after many years of stagnating, or even gently falling. That won’t do much for the JAMs’ sense that the world is fixed against them. Tax credit cuts, the egregious cruelties of Universal Credit and the like, and stagnating real wages, are unlikely to open up any opportunities for anybody - at a time when there is real suffering in parts of the country. What was the Conservatives’ answer? Grammar schools. A system that was ripped up in the 1960s because the ‘science’ behind selection at the age of eleven collapsed, and also because precisely these sorts of economically in-betweeny people revolted against them, when their children failed to gain entry. And not even a lot of grammar schools – just their extension where they already exist, and where the Conservatives, perhaps, are powerful enough to push them through. Given the party’s lack of a majority, even that’s now been kicked into the long grass. Some meritocracy.

No doubt the Conservatives are enjoying their little bump in the polls. Foreign policy, and in particular Russia’s reckless attack in Salisbury, has come to their aid – for now. The Leader of the Opposition is busy reminding voters about all those doubts they first had about him. When it comes to their own dirty laundry, Labour is bumbling around like a blindfold man in a sealed room. Inside a shipping container. On a boat that’s sunk. To the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

But zoom back from the day-to-day, and the Conservatives’ basic presumptions, and their direction, are wrong. Their crippling caution speaks to a dim low-on-thought twilight zone that desperately needs pepping up. But that’s hard to do while you’re governing: it's certainly very, very difficult indeed without a majority, and in the midst of Brexit. They have options. They could adopt a startlingly liberal appeal to a kind of new, surprising Toryism – modern, dynamic, fissiparous and liberating. Right now, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson could probably win many, many more urban and suburban Labour seats than any other potential Conservative leader. Or they could grab hold of a working-class agenda that focused on fairness and opportunity, spreading wealth and power in all directions – as their MP for blue-collar Harlow, Robert Halfon, constantly urges them to do. Instead they’ll probably drift, hoping that Labour’s hand-to-hand fighting gifts them the next election. As we’ve seen, that’s a very dangerous presumption indeed.

You can break all that down into its constituent parts. The Conservatives apparently believe that Brexit will bring some money back into the Treasury’s coffers, and untie their hands to reform the economy. That is vanishingly unlikely. They think that falling immigration is going to continue to burnish their nativist credentials with ex-UKIP and ex-Labour voters. That may be true, but squeezing the numbers much more will be hard – at a time when the public seems to be thawing to the idea of people coming in anyway.

Tories seem to believe that the ‘free market’ is a thing of beauty, as well as a fact of nature. In a world economy increasingly likely to look nationalistic, protectionist and competitive, we sincerely doubt that shrinking the state even further – even the continuation of Britain’s slightly comic-opera status quo – will help anyone. At a time when the economy will be growing, but people may still be feeling both objectively poorer and as if they’re falling behind Britain’s elites – enormously fertile ground for Labour’s new and relatively populist cries. Last but not least, Mrs May’s rhetoric about an economy and a society that works for all looks very unlikely indeed to purchase on actually-existing reality. Britain’s Tories are lucky in the Opposition they face – for now. But their whole outlook is just fundamentally wrong. In no world does that not hurt them, and hurt them grievously.

Next time, we'll look in late April at what the local elections across England tell us about the state of the parties. Then, in May, 'Public Policy and the Past' will even-handedly take Labour's programme apart, since it's just as laughably threadbare as the nonsense the Tories have rolled out. See you there!

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Does neoliberalism exist?

Neoliberalism. It's the buzz word of the day. Well, okay, it's not bandied around all that much in everyday life, but engage with anyone on the Left these days, and it's pretty much a done deal that the word will crop up in some context. Here's a sketch of the case you might get if you talk to a common-or-garden social democrat or Soft Leftist in the West. Neoliberalism saw all sorts of markets liberated and governance itself spun out to the private sector from around the mid-1970s, but that system of marketisation and free trade has been in crisis since the 2007-2008 financial crash, an age of falling wages, rampant inequality and government failures - typified by the UK's 'left behind' voters plumping for Brexit and the awful tragedy of Grenfell Tower, consumed by fire after the local council outsourced its everyday care to an arms-length management company.

But if this word is to do all the work it's asked to - represent a critique of an entire economic and social system, ripe now to be abolished and replaced by something rather more collectivist - then we've got to be sure that it's meaningful, useful and above all accurate in what it's trying to describe. Here there are many doubts, as we'll be outlining in this blog, though they are concerns that are perhaps in the end outweighed by the analysis that can actually be forwarded by using the idea of 'Neoliberalism' as a tool.... provided that it is mobilised in a considered, precise, thoughtful, conciliatory and above all historical way.

First, some definitions. We don't usually spend too much time on these, assuming that you know what we're talking about anyway, but here - when we're talking about a Big Word - we're going to need to get some real clarity in place before we can proceed to test its efficacy. One place to start could be the dinky-but-handy Very Short Introduction to Neoliberalism (2010). As tiny as its name suggests, this slim volume nevertheless contains some really sharp comments as to what we mean by all this talk of 'NL'. As an ideology, it is apparently always portraying 'globalizing markets in a positive light as an indispensable tool for the realization of a better world'. As a governing ethos, neoliberalism is supposedly 'rooted in entrepreneurial values such as competitiveness, self-interest and decentralization'. Then, finally, the concept contains and necessitates an actual policy agenda: 'deregulation of the economy; ...liberalisation (of trade and industry); and... privatization (of state-owned enterprises'.

We could give any number of similar examples, sometimes overlapping, sometimes differing in detail. Here's the estimable David Harvey, in his older but very readable A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2007 edition), with his definition:
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly process enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit.
The first thing the reader will note is that all this isn't very snappy. The very posited ambition of neoliberalism itself, and the multi-pronged, broad-fronted attack that recent critics have mounted on it, has made the whole field look like a zig-zag of intellectual barbed wire and back-and-forth advances and retreats. The idea is, in short, shrouded in the fog of war. It is in the end, and given such fire, fury and confusion, no wonder that many authors have come to question whether neoliberalism really exists at all. It is an every-shifting, shifty, conceptually hard-to-capture concept in the first place; there is significant temporal slippage everywhere you look about its edges, with very few hard-nosed historians willing to deny that it's an idea in search of an epoch; and even as an analytical tool, there's a thick mist where it meets almost all of those underlying realities that spring to mind when we think of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Let's take a quick look at these objections, in no particular order.

Conceptual confusion. One grave difficulty with neoliberalism is the very range of the term as it's used. That makes it slippery. Are we talking about an intellectual agenda, an ethos, a philosophy, a general outlook, a governance agenda, a set of more discrete economic and social policies? No-one has done a truly great job of sharpening up the concept so that it truly cuts through everywhere. It does relatively well in describing the ethos of central government organisations, advised as they have been since the 1960s by management consultants, and increasingly subject to the idea that potential providers - inside and outside government - should compete for business. Even here, there's a problem, in that some of the assumed hallmarks of neoliberal governance - the Private Finance Initiative, for instance - have never added up to anything like a majority of government contracting. But set that to one side. The idea, at least, of 'competition' as a good has taken hold - even if it has ended up building something akin to a Perestroika Britain, a half-public, half-private jumble of built and imagined environments that has copied across some of the worst elements of each. Elsewhere, however, neoliberalism's reach is even less impressive.

Consider public spending. If we look at any good time series of how much the Government actually lays out (above), it doesn't vary all that much. Now neoliberal theorists have two good answers to this: firstly, that they never said that governments would vastly shrink, but rather change their nature; and, secondly, that neoliberal states demand strong governments to enforce the changes that they seek (think of the use of well-organised and more centrally-directed police forces during Britain's 1984-85 miners' strike). Well, yes. But the problem with both of these arguments is that they don't take account of the way in which the state hasn't changed. Until the last few years - when neoliberalism was apparently in relative retreat - British health and education spending had been going up for decades, and actually surged spectacularly under New Labour. More than that: as the economic historian Jim Tomlinson argues in his (very good) new book, Managing the Economy, Managing the People (2017), the liberal Keynesian managed economy never went away. When did public spending surge? When governments had to let the 'automatic stabilisers' - welfare payments, for instance - blow out and support the economy during the recessions of the early 1980s, the early 1990s, and 2008-2010. Whitehall and Westminster adjusted its micro-economic outlook, but its macro-economics? Well, they proved harder to change. Which brings us to the influence of long-term changes, and the burdens of history - as opposed to the influence of philosophers.

Historical reality. Then there's the problem of how policy change actually happens. And? It's slow, mixed, piecemeal, confused. It doesn't bear all the hallmarks of a single idea. Take the creation of East London's Enterprise Zone and the construction of Canary Wharf - usually an image of 'neoliberal' freedoms. Well, actually, that was built on a decade of public transport and infrastructure planning for a more mixed-use development, and to ensure its success civil servants took powers much like New Town Corporations (£) - supposedly the built examples, par excellence, of the social democratic age that followed the Second World War. Historians have here adopted the idea of 'assemblage' - policy as mosaic, jigsaw, blurry sketch - rather than directed ideological drive. That seems to fit the In the Thick of It nature of actual administration much better than a single word. Take another example. Is the egregious cruelty of the present Conservative Government's welfare policies 'neoliberal'? Well, yes, in that it to some extent depends on the idea that everyone should work in the paid market, if they possibly can - and in that it evokes the first-stage liberalism of the New Poor Law of the 1830s. But no, in that it has carried from its origins the hallmarks of recent conservative - very much not 'liberal' - thought on the compassionate rehabilitation and assistance of people on the margins of paid work. Its foundations are built on many things. A very tight labour market. The passage of economic power away from medium-sized Western countries like the UK, putting pressure on all sorts of public spending. Administrative confidence and ambition, rather like that displayed by Gordon Brown over the power of tax credits, not doubt that any neoliberal state - according to Harvey's definition - 'cannot possibly process enough information to second-guess market signals'.

Eras are just signposts. They merge into one another. Post-war governments built welfare states, yes, but also pursued free trade via the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, while most governments have remained more than wedded to under-the-radar protectionism during the era of so-called 'neoliberalism'. Social democrats maintained some controls over capital and income, it's true - but they also bulldozed controls and cut taxes. The Conservative government of the 1950s built lots of council houses: but they built more dwellings for private ownership. And any periodisation contains a multiplicity of running clocks, timeframes, caesuras... even ironies. On an international level, shock capitalism was all the rage in the 1980s and early 1990s - the period of the so-called 'Washington Consensus'. That didn't last. These days, the World Bank is more likely to turn up and agree with The Guardian than The Road to Serfdom. So where does the 'neoliberal' age begin and end? In Britain, it's for instance very hard to argue that public - as opposed to elite - attitudes have changed very much. As Andrew Hindmoor argues in his new book, What's Left Now? (2018), the electorate overall moved to the Left in the 1990s - as Thatcherism was seen to reach its limits - and then back again to the Right during the later Blair and Brown years. But those changes happened within very tight boundaries: one academic index of these things, measuring 'policy mood' on a Left-Right scale of 100-0, shows that in the modern age it has always remained within a range of 45 and 55. Yes, young people today are quite conservative: but the public mood, on inequality, on public spending, on many social judgements about what government should and shouldn't do, hasn't changed for decades. 'Neoliberal state', maybe: 'neoliberal people', no.

'Real' forces. The changes unleashed in recent years aren't all down to government decisions, and that matters. There's a problem here with our basic governance model. In our minds - partly because we still learn far too much History and Politics via the records of Cabinets and Parliaments - is the following structured story. Ideas emerge. Governments latch onto some of them. They put them into effect. Then they either succeed or fail. Governments monitor this, using statistics and qualitative reports, and then adjust the policies they've announced - or bin them and start again. So it's easy to talk about the influence of Hayek, or Milton Friedman, or the Mont Pelerin Society - all thinkers key to neoliberal concepts - and then lay out how actually-practising politicians put their views into effect. The problem is that governance doesn't actually work like that. You should often actually start with policies as they were last year, which will always form more than ninety per cent of this year's strategies - the so-called 'iceberg effect'. Then and from there the numbers come in, and influence policies that are therefore shaped not so much by universities and thinktanks as by the shape of just those statistics that are available. Hence the 'assemblage' with which we are already familiar.

The question of where to place technology in the causal change is important. The way the 'neoliberal' word is used is very often idealist in concept: that is, it starts at the realm of ideas, and then demonstrates their effects. How else to explain the constant emphasis, on the Left, placed on 'fighting neoliberalism', 'rethinking neoliberalism', 'challenging neoliberalism' - as if a new form of verbal cues and connections could cure the body politic? Well, it's just as important to say that a mix of transport revolutions (shipping containerisation in particular, in train since at least the 1960s), information technology, China's entry into the world economy, India's surge away from poverty, a set of regional trade deals (NAFTA, the EU) far more powerful than 'globalisation' or 'free trade' taken in the round, ageing Western populations, the vast power of computerisation, and so on, are far more powerful than ideas. They're affected by concepts of governance, of course - how else to explain Chinese Communists' decision to join the World Trade Organisation? - but it's just as possible that those ideas are borne aloft on structural convulsion, like barnacles on a whale.

And yet, and yet. Neoliberalism's still there - yet to be knocked off either its academic perch or off its (increasingly) popular patch. And such success has to mean something. The idea lurks in the corner of the eye all the time. Yes, it's hard to pin down, but that doesn't mean that it's not there. It's like the blast zone of an explosion. Maybe there's nothing there any more right at the point of impact, but the blackened lines around the crater tell you that even an absence can add up to a presence. To be more specific, people use this word, and they find it meaningful; and you know what they mean, even when you can raise a great big list of clever objections to almost its every use. That means that it does exist in at least some form or another.

Consider some of the key UK sectors, pretty much at random - air travel and airports; her railways; the car building industry; universities. Are we really going to say that there's nothing we can do, analytically, to distinguish between the way they were run in the mid-1970s and the early twenty-first century? The old British Airways and the British Airports Authority were sold off in the 1980s, and now the airports that constituted even the newly-privatised BAA PLC compete one against the other. State-owned British Leyland has now been replaced by a welter of foreign-owned builders who have vastly raised productivity, reliability and output, but aren't subject to anything like the same amount of national direction or Whitehall oversight. Universities used to get student quotas and block grants from the old University Grants Committee: now they dive in for just as many students as they can get, given that those students bring with them up-front loans for which, ultimately, they as well as the Government are responsible. And so on. It's hard to argue that these changes don't, in any way, meet the definitions with which we started: either 'deregulation of the economy; ...liberalisation (of trade and industry); and... privatization (of state-owned enterprises', or an insistence that 'if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary'.

All concepts, eras and causal chains come with fuzzy edges. We historians sometimes call the late nineteenth century 'an age of Empire'. Actually, it was just another age of Empire, following on from the very different Murghal, French and British Empires which a new world of steel and coal replaced. It often wasn't very 'imperial', with free trade ruling the world from the 1840s until at least the 1880s, and ideas about human liberation and equality beginning to bubble up everywhere. And the forces governing all that weren't often the imperialists. New technology - the telegraph, the machine gun, the steam propeller - were probably more important than Benjamin Disraeli and Otto von Bismarck. But we still say 'age of Empire'. We have to say something.

It's the same with 'neoliberalism'. It's a helpful myth - a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, because it allows us to understand some fundamental elements of our times. As long as we don't think that it's an unchallengeable way of knowing, an impermeable answer, or more than a helpful word, we'll be all right. One way to think about this is to say that 'neoliberalism' is an adverb or a verb, a way of understanding the moving parts in our economic and social system, rather than a noun. 'Neoliberalism' both does and does not exist. It explains some of the blur we grasp and fail to grasp about our own evolving world - and whatever new and ill-understood systems are emerging now. But it is not a thing, an obelisk-like McGuffin that explains everything else.

So if someone comes to you and says 'this policy reflects neoliberal ways of thinking in some ways', or 'these policies bear the hallmark of neoliberal ideas about efficacy', or 'that person is talking about the state and its capabilities in a neoliberal framework', you can nod and say 'that's interesting'. If instead your interlocutor says 'you're a neoliberal', or 'that's neoliberal', 'that's a neoliberal party', or just shouts 'neoliberal' at you, then you can safely dismiss the rest of what they say. Block and mute. Block and mute. It's the safest way. In the meantime, the rest of us can get on with the actual work of trying to understand public policy, rather than spinning a load of old rope and calling it a story.

Next month, we'll go back to poking people in the eye, when we begin a series about the presumptions that lie behind the main UK parties' policies. Needless to say, almost everything the two Westminster Front Benches hold dear as background assumptions is just plain wrong. In the meantime, we apologise for the balance, nuance and reasonableness displayed above, and in future will try to start some more fights in empty rooms. Never fear: normal service will soon be resumed.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Waiting for the conservative reaction

It's hard to look at the horizon. All sorts of things get in the way, especially in the hurly-burly of politics and public policy. There's always something to attend to, isn't there? A reshuffle. A Prime Minister's Questions. An opinion poll. A scandal. But what we should be doing instead is looking at the strategic setup: the forces and structures likely to shape the policy battlefield for the decade or so to come. We should be looking to the medium-term future, and if possible beyond it - all the while quantifying, specifying, showing our workings, thinking, and even imagining. Otherwise, it's all just running around and shouting. Fun, maybe, but rather more energising than helpful.

So this week we're going to try to look a bit beyond even the likely Corbyn government that 'Public Policy and the Past' believes is the better-than-evans chance at the next election. Because there are significant dangers to the Left that are much more long-lasting than just a single election or term in power. Yes, there's a popular cod sociology around that looks at young Labourites and older Conservatives, as well as the Tories' shrunken membership, and says 'British Conservatism is (literally) dying out'. But that's a bit like the commentary that said Labour could never win again in the early sixties, because the electorate was becoming ever more bourgeois. Or that Labour could never win again in the mid-1980s, because of widespread affluence among working voters. Or that the Conservatives were doomed by their antediluvian social attitudes in the mid-2000s. What happened next? That party started on a determined walk back into the public's good graces.

Beware the bear market in partisanship. When the last buyer of shares in Labour or the Conservatives becomes a seller, that's when you should pile in. So it is now, when the Tories look to have run out of ideas and renewable philosophy - an impression we have ourselves long chronicled. Because it is possible to divine just the first faint contours of what might be a fierce and determined conservative reaction to the Corbyn ascendancy. Stick with us for a bit: you'll see what we mean.

The first thing to note is that the young have not suddenly become a load of left-wing firebrands. In fact, their views are more right-wing, in many ways, than that of their elders. Take a look at YouGov polling on rail nationalisation. Young people and older Britons take a very similar attitude to that (they are for it), but 18-24 year olds are less likely, not more likely, to be in favour of nationalising the energy sector. Peer into the new Britain Thinks focus group work on young people, and who do they often blame for their travails? That's right - 'scroungers', not the rich elites much-beloved of Labour's new populist foghorn. Think that Jeremy Corbyn is particularly popular among young people? Well, he moved the dial in the election towards Labour among under-35s, but more among thirtysomethings than millennials. And when we turn to Labour's new (and huge) membership, it's oldsters, not youngsters, who first spring to meet the eye.

Young people are hacked off - very, very hacked off, in our experience - not by capitalism, but by capitalism's failure to deliver. Who can blame them, as the prospect of ever buying a house recedes from view across great swathes of southern England and in most of Britain's successful cities, and as real wages stagnate? They are libertarians. They are social liberals. Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexity rhetoric and fearful Daily Mail-style talk, as if everyone without a semi-detached bungalow and a car was a 'saboteur', has turned them off faster than a freezing cold shower. But they're not socialists. They believe in privacy, and personal freedom, and - well - Remain. They are advocates for the environment. They want to be optimists at a time of pessimism. Their whole outlook bears very little relation to Mr Corbyn's Bennism with bells on.

And if and when that project runs into trouble - as every government does - the swing against Corbyn-Labour, which isn't particularly interested in Europe, or really in the environment, or issues of personal liberty, will be much the fiercer for the young's initial swing towards him. Just as his project looks increasingly Blairite, all spin and triangulation over issues as apparently far apart as Universal Credit and the Single Market - and with attendant layers of spin doctors and intellectual praetorian guards - so, one day, Mr Corbyn won't be able to go to Glastonbury, because just to appear will be met with derision. Because: do we really think that Labour's housing targets can be met, especially if immigration dips and wages stabilise? Not really. Do we really think that Britain's long-standing and deep-seated problems with the housing market, particularly its financialisation, the rigidities of the planning system, and the sheer weight of intergenerational capital inequality, can be solved in one or two terms? Er, no. Supply bottlenecks and high prices have defeated many a government since the last really fierce housing drive in the middle 1960s. Without a bit more honesty about the tradeoffs involved, they'll defeat Mrs May's attack on the problem now (such as it is), and the next one too.

So it may be inevitable, from this point, that young people turn rightwards under Labour. Labour's challenge, in this respect, is to use Corbynism as a gateway drug for socialism - just as supporting Mrs Thatcher led to lifelong Conservatism for many in the 1980s. There's little evidence for that yet. But Labour in government will be in a race, to entrench their statist modes of thinking and doing among the under-30s before all the issues that plague the government now begin to close in again. It'll be a hard task. It'll be fertile ground for the Conservatives to offer yet more housing subsidies that throw more petrol on the fire, or tax cuts for younger workers, or more apprenticeships, or all of the above. All we can say is that this will be one crucial part of the battlefield, and that Labour is not so advantageously placed as it looks right now.

The Conservatives will also probably seek to change their image. Mrs May is the epitome of Oxfordshire Middle England, where she grew up: her age and manner and voice all mark her out as trustworthy to older voters who like the impression of hard work and duty. To more liberal ex-Conservative voters, to those great big chunks of Remain Britain that peeled themselves away from her project last year, in the cities, among Britain's ethnic minority communities, and above all among the young, she sounds like a black-and-white BBC announcer from the 1950s. These impressions matter, since they go straight into voters' brainstems in a way that (most) policies never do. But shift the dial a bit, and put someone else in who speaks much more directly to those urban and upscale areas where the Conservatives went backwards last June, and things change quite a bit.

Imagine an election in which the Conservatives were led by someone who looks and sounds very different to Mrs May - who challenges people's presumptions about the Conservative Party far more than David Cameron, that son of gilded privilege, ever could. Ruth Davidson, say (above). A gay liberal kickboxer who wasn't even interested in politics until very recently. Or a Conservative leader who emerged amidst the now-impressive ranks of Conservative MPs from ethnic minority communities - Nusrat Ghani, perhaps, the Conservatives' first Muslim member of the House of Commons, or Kemi Badenoch, who was brought up in Nigeria. That could change things quite a bit. The very different mood this would create might necessitate just such a new Conservative leader, with a wholly novel image designed to appeal to voters lost in 2017, to shove the gears rightwards to keep their party happy. Unlikely? It's no more of a paradox than the apparent leftiness that is at the moment allowing Labour to engage in nearly as much Brexiteering as their Conservative opponents.

Consider also the real roots of the culture of rage that our politics has been incubating for some while. Is it caused by inequality? Well, that great defect of modern societies hasn’t really been going up very much for more than two decades (it has actually trended down from its peak in 1990), though admittedly the headline Gini figure probably under-estimate the influence of the really, really wealthy and over-emphasises changes in the middle of the income spectrum. We're probably just at the start of a period of increased inequality, and wealth inequality definitely has started to rise. So: a bit. Is it caused by the 'left behind'? Well, again, there's some truth to that, but it's limited. The great cry of rage that 2016's Leave vote represented was raised in wealthy old Spelthorne, as well as in Hull and Stoke. It was a cultural phenomenon of perceived helplessness as much as it emanated from poverty. So some of the targets Labour will tilt at in office, trying however imperfectly to rebalance incomes and the economy's spatial inequities, might not aim quite at the heart of the problem.

As we've tried to sketch out before, the roots of the age of hate were planted with other seeds too. Divisive social media, driving a wedge between people where once they could talk. The now-inevitable drain of wealth and power away from the Atlantic world, and towards South Asia and the Pacific. Complex, time-pressured lives among the 'squeezed middle', constantly rushing around each city in their cars trying to get three children to three different schools they've 'chosen' to be at. The hedonic treadmill of consumerism, forever offering you enough to keep offering you more. Tiny inequalities of access and difference that throw up anger via the narcissism of small differences, as you watch people with very similar incomes to you make just slightly different (and rather more successful) choices. And so on. Are these fury escalators going to stop? Well, no. They are encoded into late modernity. All governments will struggle even to address one or two of these trends. Labour will touch any of this hidden wiring's latticework at its peril, though it is probably confident enough now to have a go. But governing at all these days is like standing out in a lightning storm with an umbrella. Sooner or later, the forks will hit you and blast you to bits. Ask Mrs May.

This is an especial danger if you've spent your time in Opposition undermining some of the pillars of civic society. It will not have escaped your notice that one skill Labour's new iteration has mastered is the emission of hatred and threats on social media, coupled with a faustian bargain with 'new' outlets such as the Skwawkbox - purveyors of fantasy news prejudice to the Left that sit nicely alongside Britain's tabloid press in their two-bit makebelieve and poisonousness. That's all very well for now. Such sites regularly gain hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook, all of which rebound to Labour's gain. But when Labour sinks low in government, and it needs to explain its policies, it will find itself faced with the obverse: a whole new raft of right-wing ranters who are watching the Skwawkbox experiment, and sharpening their tongues for when they can give the opposite type of government a really, really good lashing. Put it like this: Labour's most 'radical' MPs spend their time undermining the so-called 'mainstream media', or MSM. When they're hit by a US-style flood of right-wing shock jockery, they'll come to regret that choice of paranoid style over calm engagement. 

Labour are doing really well at the moment. They're surfing a wave of discontent with malfunctioning economics and an economy that just isn't helping under-35s move up the ladder in the way that they are used to - and which they expect to. But there are big risks involved in that strategy. One day the Conservatives are going to wake up and see the opportunities they've been granted by the way the current Opposition plays fast and lose with promises, and indeed with Britain's civic culture itself. Her Majesty's Opposition is slowly bulldozing its way to power, but it's sweeping away all the defences that protect us from the radical Right, as well as from governments formed purely and unequivocally on the Left. Labour are seeking to ride the tiger. But one day they're going to end up inside the tiger - and the rest of us could well end up sitting in there with them.