Monday, May 11, 2015

never ending tory, ah-ah-ah ah-ah-ah ah-ah-ah

So, as we all settle down to watch the government snooping on our private communications, gleefully gutting and privatising the NHS, ruthlessly squeezing the poor, disabled, unemployed and the suspiciously foreign, and just generally doing the usual bog-standard cartoonish supervillainy, what should we do?

Well, if "we" in this context means progressive left-leaning liberal types concerned with things like equality, fairness and social justice rather than things like tax breaks for the ultra-rich, screwing the underprivileged and sucking people's brains out through a straw, then your primary concern is going to be with the state of the Labour party, what went wrong this time, and what needs to happen between now and the next general election in 2019/2020.

1) Grow a pair, stand up for your record and stop trying to be the Tories. The biggest thing that prevented a Labour victory this time, aside from Ed Miliband's personal approval ratings, some ill-defined fears about the SNP, voters' understandable but misguided desire to give the Liberal Democrats a kicking, or, almost too horrifically to even contemplate, the notion that voting UKIP might be a good idea, was the success of the Conservative narrative regarding the economy, the deficit, and borrowing under the previous Labour administration.

That narrative goes something like this: Labour spent wildly, profligately, when they were in power, buying Bentleys for Polish plumbers and financing Bangladeshi lesbian dance collectives in Birmingham until the public coffers were empty and the whole country was in hock up the wazoo. Then, when the deficit was out of control and we, the people of the UK, were literally on the brink of all having to sell our children for medical experiments, the Conservatives stepped in, did what had to be done, including making tough decisions where necessary, and brought things under control.

It should hardly need saying that this is bullshit, but apparently it does, as that narrative seems to have been not only swallowed whole by the electorate, but also by the 2015 Labour party. Or, more likely, they decided that it simply wasn't possible to refute given the soundbite-y environment which they're obliged to inhabit during the campaign. That's the trouble: folksy narratives comparing national economies to households and talking of "tightening our belts" and "tough choices" play well with the public because they sound superficially plausible; unfortunately the idea that economies are just large-scale households is nonsense, and they behave differently in all sorts of counter-intuitive ways.

These paragraphs by 1996 Nobel economics laureate William Vickrey (from a longer essay here) are well worth reading:
Deficits are considered to represent sinful profligate spending at the expense of future generations who will be left with a smaller endowment of invested capital. This fallacy seems to stem from a false analogy to borrowing by individuals. 

Current reality is almost the exact opposite. Deficits add to the net disposable income of individuals, to the extent that government disbursements that constitute income to recipients exceed that abstracted from disposable income in taxes, fees, and other charges. This added purchasing power, when spent, provides markets for private production, inducing producers to invest in additional plant capacity, which will form part of the real heritage left to the future. This is in addition to whatever public investment takes place in infrastructure, education, research, and the like. Larger deficits, sufficient to recycle savings out of a growing gross domestic product (GDP) in excess of what can be recycled by profit-seeking private investment, are not an economic sin but an economic necessity. Deficits in excess of a gap growing as a result of the maximum feasible growth in real output might indeed cause problems, but we are nowhere near that level. 

Even the analogy itself is faulty. If General Motors, AT&T, and individual households had been required to balance their budgets in the manner being applied to the Federal government, there would be no corporate bonds, no mortgages, no bank loans, and many fewer automobiles, telephones, and houses.
Just to throw another Nobel laureate at you, here's a longish (but fascinating) piece by Paul Krugman on financial crises and government austerity drives (here's a slightly shorter piece by the same author). Also, here's a graph of the UK budget deficit from 1979 to 2012: as you can see running a deficit is entirely normal (the only times the budget has been in surplus during that period are 1988-1989 under the Conservatives and 1998-2001 under Labour). Note also that the deficit run by the last Labour administration was well within perfectly normal historical bounds until after 2008 (up to which point the Conservatives had pledged to match Labour spending pound for pound anyway), only increasing sharply in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2009. Note also that since the deficit has come down a bit (but not that much) since 2012 the coalition has now borrowed considerably more in 5 years than the previous Labour administration did in its 13 years in power.

It's worth noting also that the economy was recovering in early 2010 during the last days of the Labour administration, and then went back into recession during the early days of the coalition as George Osborne's austerity policies started to bite. Now one can argue about the causes of the recession, but the point is that the central charge of the coalition picking up a Labour economic shambles is, once again, bullshit.

Basically the problem with refuting the simplistic folksy narrative here is the same as the problem evolutionary scientists have when a creationist whips out the old "why are there still monkeys?" gambit. There's an obvious right answer, but it takes a couple of minutes to outline, and people will have stopped listening well before the end.

Another example of a fatal lack of self-confidence: Liam Byrne's infamous note left for his successor at the Treasury. Clearly just a silly (and highly ill-advised) joke, but, scarcely believably, allowed to be brandished by various Conservatives (including David Cameron himself in one of the BBC debates) as some sort of evidence of Labour's economic failure. It must surely have been possible to challenge this sort of nonsense directly and robustly - seriously? it was a joke; get a grip, man - but no-one seemed to have the will to do it, and so it became A Thing, just like the economic argument.

2) Elect a halfway-sensible new leader. There's not exactly a wealth of candidates, but I quite like both ex-Health Secretary Andy Burnham (who seems to be the current favourite) and Yvette Cooper, who will at least have a ready-made campaign manager now her husband Ed Balls is looking for a job. I can't see David Miliband being a realistic candidate, not least because he isn't an MP currently, but also because he's very closely associated with the Blair/Brown administration and he's got a bit of a toxic surname at the moment.

3) Come up with some arresting policies. Here's a couple for you - this is pretty much my manifesto should I ever run for government:
  • A combined affordable housing/green housing scheme. Provide some incentives for building affordable housing, but introduce legislation that says: any new house built in the UK must have one or more of the following built in: a rainwater/greywater collection and re-use system, solar panels, a rooftop wind turbine, a composting toilet. Hell, make it all of them.
  • Electoral reform. There's been a lot of retweeting of this chart about how the 2015 election results would have looked under a pure proportional representation system. That's slightly misleading for a couple of reasons: firstly, there are many variants between the current first-past-the-post system and "pure" PR like the alternative vote or single transferable vote systems, either of which are probably a more likely option than pure PR as they retain some connection with the old constituency system, secondly if people know in advance that every vote counts in a way that it currently doesn't they'd probably vote differently. So to anyone worried about the prospect of UKIP getting 82 seats I say: firstly, that's democracy, like it or lump it, secondly, I strongly suspect that wouldn't happen under a different system. Of course there's a bit of a catch-22 situation here, in that any government elected under the first-past-the-post system is going to have a vested interest in keeping the system that got it elected in place, so they're going to be disinclined to change it. This goes double for the Conservatives, the party for whom the phrase "vested interest in the status quo" was invented.
  • Compulsory voting. This is a bit of a sharp-intake-of-breath one for people: compulsory voting? As in: you can be prosecuted for not doing it? Well, think of it as being like jury service. It's only once every few years, so I think you can reasonably be expected to get off your fat arse and drag yourself to a polling station. Other countries have it and democracy has not collapsed.
  • Legalise drugs. Personally I favour across-the-board legalisation, since I see no rational reason for them to be illegal, but I accept that it might be better to have a phased approach which plucks some low-hanging fruit first. So let's start with cannabis. They tried it in Colorado, and, a year or so later, everything's still pretty mellow.
  • Abolish faith schools. Well, you couldn't expect me to get through a whole, fairly lengthy post without having a pop at religion, could you? Michael Gove, who is now, laughably, justice secretary, is a reliable source of horrible right-wing wrongness about just about everything, and this is one of those things. You can get rid of academies, too, while you're at it. The notion that education should be a) administered by the state and b) secular seems to me pretty uncontroversial, but maybe I'm just a crazy old dreamer.
4) the tl;dr version. Be a proper, left-leaning if not overtly left-wing, alternative to the Tories, and you will find that there is a public appetite for it. Aping their policies won't work, because the public will always be drawn to the self-abasing thrill of voting for something truly, chillingly evil rather than something just a bit evil. Also, if you don't get it together before the next election, and David Cameron is serious about standing down, there's the very real prospect of Boris Johnson being Prime Minister. So think on, and shape up.

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