Why Power is not Enough for Labour

Westminster Bridge and the Palace at dusk.
Destination Westminster?

There’s a flavour of ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ in the Corbyn-led debate over the Blairite legacy. As someone who campaigned enthusiastically for Labour in 1997 and now feels a somewhat detached member of the party, I think I can articulate why -despite the many achievements of the Blair and Brown governments – there might be a lingering discontent with that legacy. Leaving the Iraq War out of this, for right or wrong a product of Tony Blair’s always just visible messianic tendencies, the problem is really the Blairite legacy’s impermanence. The two main manifestations of that impermanence are in the failure to reduce inequality, surely to begin rising again, and the ability of the Conservatives to roar back and dismantle the very achievements for which we should be celebrating the Blair-given years of power.

So there is a feeling that the achievement of power is not enough, if it comes without a clear vision of how the country is to be transformed from one which while comfortable for the comfortably-off is increasingly unpleasant for those who are struggling. Electoral office may not seem quite so pressing to ordinary members and supporters of the party as it does to those whose paycheques and profiles rise and fall with its electoral fortunes.

As to the attacks on Corbyn himself, it is increasingly difficult to separate the nonsensical rhetoric of his Labour party opponents from that of our common opponents in the Tories. The characterisation of him as ‘hard-left’ because he advocates some rebalancing of the private and public sectors, a more positive vision of the value of collective investment and a shift in the tax burden from those that consume and invest to those more likely to hoard and multiply their wealth, is ahistorical and self-defeating. Far from being the authoritarian the term implies, he has rightly advocated the real dispersal of power to the regions of England.

The Labour Party elite need to take a sideways step. This leadership campaign is a symptom of an organisation that has become too driven by the interests of those who serve it, rather than those it serves. For those of the public at large who are struggling in a competitive landscape with minimal collective support, it matters not whose name is on the party leaflet or platform, but whether the social and economic infrastructure presents them with the choices and tools to make the best of their lives. To frame this within a left-right corridor makes little sense to them, and shouldn’t to us either – it simply restricts our thinking. Calibration of electoral offers according to this spectrum – so that if Ed Miliband was to the right of David Cameron and he lost, and we think Jeremy Corbyn is to the left of Ed Miliband then he will lose more badly… seems analytically bereft.

Whether Jeremy Corbyn has the personal qualities to lead a political party, I don’t know, but then the other candidates are also largely untested. If it is any measure, his campaigning industry and willingness to say what he believes in has so far exceeded theirs. Whether he wins or not, I hope this campaign marks a point at which the party thinks rather more deeply about where it sees Britain going beyond the next election campaign.

Beyond Defeat for Labour in the UK

A New Dawn?

After defeat at the 2015 UK election Labour talks about appealing to the ‘aspirational’ and David Cameron pledges before his cabinet ‘to give everyone in our country the chance to get on’. If we accept the premise that speaking to material self-interest is what politics is now all about, we still need to point out that neither party has any analysis or policies that make their proffered goals more likely. Powerful economic forces are splitting apart the have-more from the have-less, with these forces accelerated by the way in which discrepancies in wealth inevitably lead to discrepancies in political power and voice. In a way it makes sense for the electorate to choose the party that is more comfortable with managing this process, revealingly accepting that ‘the dignity of a job’, and ‘the pride of a paycheck’ may be the limited best it can offer its citizens – since any promises over the quality and security of that job and how far that paycheck might stretch appear beyond modern governments to fulfill.

So the upside of Labour’s decisive defeat in the election is the avoidance of the inevitable disappointment many supporters would soon be feeling after victory. This is not to say that the economy would not have performed somewhat better and that the lives of many would not have been significantly easier while Labour were in office, but it is unlikely that the malign trends observed in the British economy and in British society would have been much disturbed. Ultimately we would have ended up in much the same place, with inequality of wealth, power and voice as the dominating features of British life.

It seems that many at the top of the Labour party either do not share this analysis of self-reinforcing national division, or more probably, think that pointing it out or acting on it is not electorally viable. Maybe that is so in the short or even in the medium term, but there is another critical lesson from this election. This lesson is that what is, or is not, going to gather votes beyond cleverly-constructed falsehoods and scare-mongering designed to appeal to a simple and hierarchical vision of the world (described by George Lakoff as the ‘strict father’ view), is difficult to discern in advance.

The Labour party should therefore decide whether it wishes to compete on the same sterile ground as the Tories in the attempt to gain electoral victory above all else (by, for example, offering Lynton Crosby more cash than the Tories did), or whether we are willing to take our chances promoting a positive analysis the vast majority of members can believe in, come what electorally may. If that analysis stands a good chance of being correct, then we should be equipped to weather short-term electoral swings knowing that reality must eventually prove itself over propaganda. Moreover, if we have confidence in this analysis it provides a firm and coherent basis to the difficult arguments we will have, the nuanced stories we must tell and the radical policies we must recommend.

The effective return of Labour to government, whether in a more greatly devolved or even independent Scotland or in a still United Kingdom, must start with this economic and social analysis rather than personnel or strategy debates. In this I believe Ed Miliband’s instincts were entirely correct, but ultimately he was unable or chose not to act on those instincts. That, counter intuitively, was perhaps his major error; he should have been more of a geek, not less.

Politics and Morality

Politics and Morality – Where Conservatism gets it Wrong

Tim Montgomerie wrote an interesting piece a while ago on ‘How the Left went Bad’, which asserted the necessity for Conservatives to ‘take the moral high ground’ from Labour.

Now, I don’t think talking about ‘morality’ gets us very far in politics – different morals are too irreconcilable. But Montgomerie thinks Labour’s advantage is in appearing to ‘have our hearts in the right place’. Of course, since this goes along with ‘messing up economies’ and ‘incompetence’, the true moral superiority and a ‘much superior approach to social justice’ lies with his team, through ‘sound finances, strong families, school choices and unshackled job creators’.

Some of Montgomerie’s arguments are just wrong or odd. The UK’s current debt burden was not acquired by ‘borrowing during the good years’, but by the effects of a global financial crisis. ‘Incompetent’ Labour apparently managed to preside over a decade of prosperity. Delivering ‘fairness’ appears to include public sector pay and conditions falling to match those of the private sector. But despite all this he picks out something important about the difference between the characteristically left of centre and right of centre view. Continue reading

Smaller, Greener Banking: A Response to FOE Scotland’s Report

Response to Smaller, Greener Banking: Banking for Sustainability in a New Scotland: A Discussion Paper by Ray Perman and Friends of the Earth Scotland

Smaller Greener Banking - FOE Scotland
Smaller Greener Banking – FOE Scotland

The authors of this report claim that ‘there has been a failure of government policy to decide the role banks should play, and therefore what sort of institutions they should be.’ and that ‘we have ended up with a banking system dominated by a small number of giant banks…’ These institutions are only able to survive because they are ‘too big to fail’, yet they offer poor customer choice and service, have acted illegally in rigging markets and indulge in ‘socially useless’ activities.

So far, the main government response in the UK and Scotland has been to create new banks such as the UK Business Bank, Scottish Investment Bank and the Green Investment Bank, rather than to reform the existing ones. Continue reading

‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ by Suzanne McGee – A Review

A Review of ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs: How the Masters of the Universe Melted Wall Street Down…and Why They’ll Take Us to the Brink Again’  by Suzanne McGee (2010, Crown Business)

'Chasing Goldman Sachs'  by Suzanne McGee
‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ by Suzanne McGee

This book is an excellent complement to the academic stuff I’ve read on the causes of the financial crisis. These latter accounts are very detailed in terms of ‘what’ happened but tend to be light on the ‘why’. ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ goes a long way to filling that gap.

The academic consensus view seems to be that driven by an increase in demand for safe places to save there was a huge increase in deposits held by financial institutions and collateralised by Asset-Backed Commercial Paper (ABCP). A significant proportion of this paper was comprised of securitised mortgages – many packaged in such a way that their quality was opaque. The toxicity of these was enhanced by dodgy ratings and shuffling to off-balance-sheet vehicles. When problems with some of these mortgages arose it took a while for holders of these ‘shadow-banking’ deposits to sort out whether or not their deposits were collateralised by bad assets or good ones. There was a panic and large-scale dumping of these deposits which led to loss of liquidity in the market for short-term interbank loans. Without these loans banks find it very difficult to balance their books at the end of each day as they are obliged to. (A good guide to all this from the academic point of view and to further more technical reading is at http://www.nber.org/papers/w17778.) Continue reading

Understanding Money

Understanding Money – a non-technical account of the essential role money and its creation plays in a modern economy. This article was previously available as a pdf, but I have now posted it as a blog in its own right. Since it was originally written in 2010, I have made a few revisions and additions.

 

Introduction

The genius of Lehman
The genius of Lehman

Most of us have little idea of what money is and where it comes from. When we think of money, we think of bank-notes and coins. We know that most money is held in bank accounts, but even then we have an image (although most of us are probably aware that it isn’t quite an accurate image) of these notes and coins being held for us by the bank or lent out by the bank to make money for them (and hopefully us, if the money is held in an interest-bearing account). In fact the reality is about as far away from this as it is possible to imagine.

Of the total amount of money (adding together bank-notes and coin held by the general public and the value of all bank accounts in the UK), the bank-notes and coin make up only around 3% ! The reality is that the vast majority of all money exists only as a record held in someone’s name by some bank or other. How can this be? Where does this money come from? Where does it go? In this article I will attempt to answer these questions, and in doing so explain the benefits and the potential downside to our monetary system. Continue reading

Money and the Neo-classics… Again

‘Aggregate Demand, Idle Time, and Unemployment’ – A Critique of Michaillat and Saez

Introduction
Like all neoclassical models, that of Michaillat and Saez (2014) referred to in Simon Wren-Lewis’s Mainly Macro blog on 16th August fails to model money realistically. This renders their model incoherent and in any case incapable of encompassing one of the most important causes of unemployment: inadequate aggregate demand due to monetary factors.

The chief feature of their model is a product market in which matching is the mode of exchange. This produces costly frictions that lead output to apparently run ahead of consumption. To make sense of demand that does not automatically follow from income Michaillat and Saez introduce a ‘non-produced good’ which is endowed to every household. When households meet to exchange goods there is mutual trade of this non-produced good and households’ individually produced goods so as to optimise each household’s joint holding in utility terms. Michaillat and Saez ascribe a relative price p to the production good, which apparently becomes the absolute price when they determine the price of the non-produced good as 1. Since it is determined in equilibrium it is important that p is an absolute price, otherwise quantities of exchanges, production and labour demanded would be indeterminate in the model as they would also depend on the rate of exchange between the produced and non-produced goods. In fact it turns out that claiming p to be an absolute price is untenable. Continue reading

Independence is Nominal

Independence is Nominal – long-gestated thoughts given birth to in response to Brian Barder’s blog post on the lack of post Scottish referendum preparedness and the need for the UK coalition government to resign if there is a ‘Yes’ vote.

The view from Scotland
The view from Scotland ©DWP

Here I am, up in Scotland and strangely detached from the debate. (For comparison I was very active for the Yes side in the devolution campaign.) This detachment is partly due to personal events over the last 18 months, but also to a difficulty in getting a handle on what it all means. Continue reading

Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication

‘Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication’ – Although written four years ago for an essay competition, I still think this piece encapsulates as well as anything my approach to economics, politics and social institutions.

Atomised and helpless
Atomised and helpless
Bertrand Russell, the great British mathematician and philosopher, believed that to be ‘modern-minded’ was to make the error of thinking with the fashion rather than ahead of it. When he wrote about this in 1937 he believed that with God’s role as arbiter of truth and beauty having been usurped, ‘detachment and objectivity, both in thought and feeling’ had also been thrown overboard. Russell, as a rationalist and a non-believer, believed it was ‘possible and important’ to preserve them without recourse to a Creator. To do so, he believed, required ‘solitude’ and ‘a certain degree of isolation both in space and time’. While he may have been right when it comes to studying the physical world and creating great art, his advice is less helpful when it comes to human nature and society. Even if we wanted to, as human beings ourselves, we cannot stand apart from other humans and society as a whole. Unfortunately when this recognition came it was in part responsible for a critical wrong turning in our approach to social phenomena. This wrong turning came about because modern thinking, having dispensed with God guiding from above, had already turned to look for causes and drivers of events at the level below that at which they are observed. The properties of substances had to be derived from the properties of their molecules; the properties of the forces that change the world about us from day to day are derived from the waves and particles into which they can be decomposed. Continue reading

Unemployment – Morality, Money and Increasing Returns

Returns to Scale in Frankfurt's business district
Returns to Scale in Frankfurt’s business district ©DWP

The causes of unemployment make it a moral issue. Radical solutions are required.

In an earlier post I noted some features of unemployment from a UK perspective. The main thrust was that a fairly constant proportion of the population in employment (around 72% of those of working-age) hides a serious decline in the availability of adequate work, due mainly to the increase in women in the workforce and the fall in the ratio of full-time to part-time work. In a paper I wrote and referenced here on welfare I hinted at a moral dimension to the issue of unemployment in a capitalist economy (by which I simply mean an economy where physical means of production tend to belong in more or less concentrated hands).

I have now written a rather more formal paper (pdf 198kb) which I presented to the Post-Keynesian Study Group annual workshop in May this year in which I expanded on why we have a persistent problem with unemployment, and why this has a significant moral implications in our attitude to the unemployed. In this light of this I review the inadequacy of current policy and look at some of the more radical solutions proffered. The following is a non-technical summary of the paper. Continue reading

People, Money and Power