Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Next Referendum Question


I wrote in January about the “unanswerable case” for a referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement (it is not a second referendum but nor is it a referendum on the final deal), and I have not changed my mind in the slightest. To say such a referendum would not be democratic is self-contradictory. I personally would be happy for parliament alone to call a halt to Brexit, but if MPs believe that to do so would be seen as undemocratic then we have to have a referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement (WA).

Does it bother me that this will not be a referendum on the final deal, because the WA is likely to be vague on the final trade arrangement? No, for two reasons. First a referendum on the final deal will be meaningless because we will have already left (something which I do think is undemocratic). Second, we now have a huge amount of information compared to 2016.

We now know that there are essentially two types of deal with the EU we can do. The first is some kind of FTA (free trade agreement), where Northern Ireland would stay in the Single Market for goods and Customs Union (the Irish backstop). Theresa May says that is something no Prime Minister could agree to, but more worrying from my point of view is that we would be a lot poorer as a result because we would do less trade with the EU and many of the third countries that currently have trade agreements with the EU. Those who tell you that getting our own trade deals with those third countries would be a piece of cake are the same people who told you that we held all the cards with the EU.

The second option is that we stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, but have little say in how those emerge. That avoids the need to implement the Irish backstop, which is why it will be the most likely option that May will agree to in the end. The economic hit from that would be much smaller than the first option, but we end up with substantially less sovereignty than if we stayed in. May would like to persuade the EU to leave open the idea of extending the backstop to the whole of the UK, meaning we stay in the CU and SM for goods only, but I think the chances of the EU agreeing to this at the end of the day are slim, and as geography is as important to services as goods we would be worse off as a result.

This choice was not clear to even experts at the time of the referendum, and it was certainly not clear to voters. The campaign hardly mentioned Ireland (and when it did, it did not imagine a backstop), and voters were told there would be more money for the NHS (there will be less), Turkey was about to join (it is not), EU immigration hurt the public finances (it does the opposite), we held all the cards in any negotiation etc. The Remain side may have exaggerated the immediate economic hit, but two years later GDP is around 2% lower as a result of the uncertainty created by Brexit and the fall in Sterling has in addition cost each household an average of £400 per year. That is fact not Project Fear.

So the case for a referendum on the WA is overwhelming, given all the extra information we have. That nearly all this information has been negative for Brexit is reflected in the polls. So what should the referendum question be? I do not think No Deal should be an option. No one seriously campaigned for No Deal in the first referendum, and only a minority of Conservative MPs (60?) support it. The obvious question to ask is do you want to accept the WA negotiated or do you want to Remain in the EU. This does not disrespect the original referendum vote any more than the 2017 general election disrespected the 2015 one.

John McDonnell on the Today programme yesterday (here, 2:10 hours in) seemed to suggest a question like do you accept the WA, yes or no? Some took the 'no' as implying No Deal, but I doubt that as Labour would be campaigning for no and have already said No Deal is not an option. Instead it would be a suggestion to reopen negotiations. But if Labour cannot force a General Election, and with May saying this is the best deal she can get, what is the point? If you think a no result would put pressure on the EU, see what happened after the Greek referendum in 2015. I think many voters would realise this, and just vote for the WA to speed the end of the paralysis in government that Brexit had created.

Not only does his suggestion make little sense, but it was politically disastrous, given the overwhelming support for a referendum that included the Remain option among Labour voters and members. Just after a composite motion had been agreed which is itself a compromise between Remain members and the leadership, he appears to undercut it at a stroke. The words he should have said came from Starmer later in the day.

So the referendum on the WA should be a simple choice between accepting the WA as negotiated or cancelling Article 50 and remaining in the EU. What about all those working class Labour voters in the towns of England and Wales who will feel betrayed if we stay in the EU? Those people were sold snake-oil, and you do not expose snake-oil by prescribing it on the NHS. Instead you make sure you enact policies that reduce the demand for snake-oil, and hopefully that is what a future Labour government will do.



Saturday, 22 September 2018

Theresa May has qualities, but negotiation skill is not one of them


One of the important criteria I used in selecting posts for my new book out this November, The Lies we were Told, is that each chapter (collection of posts) must tell a coherent story. (It can be ordered at a 20% discount here, rising to 35% if you join the publisher’s mailing list.) So, for example, the chapter on austerity had to contain at least one post that covered each of the mistaken arguments made for rapid deficit reduction, as well as discussing the real reasons the government pursued this policy long after it was obviously damaging the economy.

Those criteria, plus the need to avoid writing too large a book, inevitably meant that I had to end my discussion of Brexit with the EU referendum. It is still impossible to say which of the many things I have written on Brexit after the referendum will be part of a coherent story and which will be tangential. But if I ever do have to select which posts were important, this talking about the qualities of Theresa May as a person would be one. The reason is largely because it contains this quote from a discussion by David Runciman in LRB of Rosa Prince’s biography of May.
“May didn’t do negotiation; in the words of Eric Pickles, one of her cabinet colleagues, she is not a ‘transactional’ politician. She takes a position and then she sticks to it, seeing it as a matter of principle that she delivers on what she has committed to. This doesn’t mean that she is a conviction politician. Often she arrives at a position reluctantly after much agonising – as home secretary she became notorious for being painfully slow to decide on matters over which she had personal authority. Many of the positions she adopts are ones she has inherited, seeing no option but to make good on other people’s promises. This has frequently brought her into conflict with the politicians from whom she inherited these commitments. By making fixed what her colleagues regarded as lines in the sand, she drove some of them mad.”
If you want to know why the Salzburg meeting was such a failure for her, you need only read this paragraph. May invests far too much in whatever plan she puts forward, and presents it as the only possible way forward. She is in that sense the embodiment of Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative). She did that with her Chequers plan at Salzburg, and yet she is surprised that the EU showed no inclination to offer anything new as a counter proposal. Maybe the EU never will offer anything new, but you will never find out if you give no hint of flexibility yourself.

If being a hopeless negotiator is not bad enough, the last two years have also shown that whatever political knowledge she has does not extend beyond understanding how the Conservative party works. Her closest advisers, who she relies on a lot, may be little different. After she became Prime Minister she made a series of terrible decisions that have turned a bad situation for the UK into a terrible position. The most important of course was invoking Article 50 without any plan about what might happen next, for no better reason than the Brexiters were anxious people might change their minds. As I wrote in November 2016
“Anyone who actually wants a good deal from the EU when we leave should realise that the UK’s negotiating position becomes instantly weaker once Article 50 is triggered.”
There are plenty of other blunders: choosing a prominent Brexiter as her chief negotiator, fighting the need for parliamentary approval for triggering A50 in the courts, forcing Ivan Rogers out, her red lines and so on. Her focus on keeping the Conservative party together meant that she failed to understand and continues to fail to understand how the EU works. Above all else she has failed to see that the A50 process is less a negotiation and more like agreeing a terms of surrender.

Does this mean, as Stephen Bush among others suggest, that No Deal is a more likely outcome? In reality all Salzburg and May’s subsequent ‘statement to the people’ mean is more time has been lost. (The statement could mean nothing more than she has a party conference coming up.) As Martin Sandbu explains, there is concession the EU could make that is worth playing for, and that is extending the NI arrangement (in CU and SM for goods) to the rest of the UK. At the very least, she needs the EU to say in the Withdrawal Agreement that they would entertain some trade arrangement that negated the need for a border in the Irish Sea but fell short of staying in the complete single market. Unfortunately May’s lack of negotiating skills and knowledge means she is less likely to get either.

If she does not get those things, will she take the UK out with No Deal? As the quote from David Runciman suggests, many of the positions May adopts with apparent rigidity are inherited, and the EU referendum result is one of that type. She is not a conviction politician, and her primary interest is always going to be her survival. We can also take comfort in her knowledge of her own party, which means she must know her future lies with MPs who are not Brexiters. Enough of this group knows, to use Corbyn’s words, that no deal is not an option. They might tolerate May pretending it is as part of the negotiations, but they will do everything they can to stop her actually going through with it. May is useful, or indeed essential, to that group only so long as she does not give the Brexiters what they want, which is No Deal. All these things point to May being prepared, at the end of the day, to accept the backstop with just warm words from the EU on future arrangements.

If you still think May has recently drawn a line in the sand so deep that she couldn’t possibly cross it without falling, a good exercise would be to list all the other red lines she has drawn but then crossed over. If you doubt her capacity to survive come what may think of the 2017 election. But of course I may be mistaken. One of the nice things about the book was being able to look back at what I got right and got wrong using the device of postscripts. If I ever write up my best posts on events after the referendum two of my mistakes stand out: not understanding the key role Ireland would play until September 2017, and not seeing how May’s inevitable split with the Brexiters could change the dynamics on voting over any final deal. I hope a third mistake will not be in misjudging May’s character.







Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Why Brexiters look defeated





One reason Brexiters split in stage one of the Brexit endgame is that there is no good way forward for them. When Boris Johnson calls the EU’s Irish border backstop “a monstrosity” he is talking about its impact on the plans of the Brexiters rather than its impact on the UK. It destroys their hope of a Canada type Free Trade Deal with the EU, because the EU will not agree to anything like that without the backstop, but the Conservative and Unionist party cannot agree to a backstop that ends the UK single market.

Those that split over Chequers (the quitters) have one hope left, which is we crash out with No Deal. Those that did not, like Gove and Javid (the schemers), hope that one of their number can at some stage grab the party leadership and then change any agreement to their liking. But neither strategy is likely to work because of that ‘monstrous backstop’ and parliament’s ability to stop No Deal.

One way No Deal could happen is that May fails to compromise enough to get a Withdrawal Agreement (WA). If nothing else then happens, we get a catastrophic No Deal. But if she cannot make a deal with the EU she has to report to parliament on 21st January (ht Steve Lawrence). Parliament can then vote down this ‘neutral’ motion, and perhaps amend it if the speaker allows. But I suspect this is a bit academic, because what parliament is likely to request is what May herself would want, which is an extension of Article 50 (A50).

The EU does not want No Deal anymore than May does. So they are likely to agree to that request, but probably at some political price. The whole point of A50 is that all the power lies with the EU. What that price will be I do not know, but in any iteration between the EU and parliament I cannot see a No Deal outcome unless either party seriously miscalculates. This is not a sequence of events that looks good for May, which is one of the reasons why May is likely to conclude a deal.

In that eventually (there is a WA) the quitters will hope that they can defeat the deal in parliament. How many of the quitters will stay firm in that resolve is unclear, because the outcome of the deal being defeated is unlikely to be No Deal. Quitters apart, MPs want No Deal even less than they want whatever WA May puts to them. In the political chaos that results something like a referendum or a general election may emerge as a way forward (and the EU will extend A50 to allow time for this). Brexiters do not want a referendum, because for all their talk of the will of the people they only want that will if it agrees with their own wishes.

Given all this, the schemers may seem to be on firmer ground. Let the WA pass, and then change anything that is agreed subsequently once one of their number becomes Prime Minister. Note in passing that the Brexiters and May have a common interest in what I have called a perpetual Brexit: the Brexiters because it keeps the issue in members minds when they come to vote for May’s replacement, and for May because for that very reason the majority of Conservative MPs who are not Brexiters will want her to stay.

The problem for the schemers is that after the WA they face exactly the same problem Brexiters face now but more so. The Irish backstop will now be enshrined in a treaty. Any attempt to reduce the degree of alignment of regulations between the UK and EU, for example, would end the UK’s single market. Enough Conservative MPs will object to that and so prevent it happening.

The big flaw in the Brexiters’ plans to free ourselves of pesky EU regulations on employment, the environment etc is the Good Friday Agreement, the laudable wish of the Irish government to keep the spirit of that agreement intact, and the admirable wish of the EU to stand by one of its members. If that had not been the case, they might have got away with a FTA with the EU, but instead they are stuck with the ‘monstrous’ backstop. In the end the Brexiters have failed because they are just not very good at what they see as details. The critical detail in this case is the large island to the west of Great Britain.

The Brexiters may have failed in their primary aim, but they have caused considerable damage nevertheless. Estimates of the GDP loss so far are around 2%, and real wages have fallen by a lot more than that because of the depreciation. Unless MPs can, directly or indirectly, stop Brexit, we will end up at best with less sovereignty than we had as members of the EU. The damage to the UK's reputation, both as a safe place to export from and more generally as a pragmatic tolerant nation, will take a very long time to repair, and that time will not start until the Brexiters themselves lose their political influence.



Monday, 17 September 2018

How to predict a crisis


I was sorting through some old papers over the weekend (don’t ask) and I found an article I wrote for the Financial Times on 19th October 1990, which is also the month we entered the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The article, based on work I had done earlier with colleagues at the National Institute (final published version here), argues that we were entering at the wrong exchange rate. The final paragraph starts with
“The danger is that the government will attempt to defend the present exchange rate bands at all costs. As a result it may produce, or fail to prevent, a recession on the same scale as 1980-81.”

According the current data vintage, GDP was already falling at that point, yet interest rates were not reduced by enough to prevent a recession because of concerns about pressure on sterling. GDP continued to fall almost continuously until we were forced out of the ERM (Black Wednesday). Leaving the ERM allowed interest rates to be lower and produced a 10% depreciation in sterling, which helped ensure a strong recovery.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in making this prediction, but we were in a minority and we did produce the best analysis. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was of course a much bigger event, and far fewer saw it coming, so quite rightly 10 years later those economists who predicted something like it are getting media attention. They were very different events, so can we draw any parallels between them, or more generally is there anything that links disasters of this kind?

One common factor is using the markets as an excuse to avoid economic analysis. One of the two main excuses to ignore our ERM analysis was to look at the exchange rate at the time as say ‘the market must know what it is doing’.Of course before the crisis too many people who saw the data thought the banks must know what they are doing as they pumped up leverage.

Perhaps another is never let new ideas crowd out the knowledge embodied in older ideas. The other excuse that particularly academics used to disregard our analysis about the ERM entry rate was that the models we were using were a little old fashioned. (I talk more about that here.) Bankers fooled themselves that they had new methods of evaluating risk that meant they could ignore systemic risks. If we think of the other two major UK macroeconomic crises, the same applies. The Treasury predicted the recession of 1980 pretty well, but the analysis was trashed as the work of old fashioned Keynesians by Lawson et al from the Thatcher government. Austerity of course also ignored basic Keynesian truths.

One obvious final question is whether we learn from crises of this kind. Ten years after we left the ERM the Treasury asked me to do their entry rate analysis for possibly joining the Euro, so that at least implies some learning, but maybe being a different government helped. Perhaps Black Wednesday created a general distrust of fixed exchange rate regimes in the UK that helped Gordon Brown argue against joining the Euro.

Have we learnt the lessons of the GFC? Some changes to the banking system have been made, but I think the general consensus is its is not enough, and there still seems to exist a large implicit public subsidy for the major banks. If for no other reason that is why you should take note of what those who predicted the GFC say. In terms of how you recover from a financial crisis we certainly had learnt some of the lessons of the 1930s, but not all. As I argue in my last post, we have hardly begun the process of creating a macroeconomic policy regime that can deal with a future recession, let alone a crisis.




Friday, 14 September 2018

Another lesson of the GFC unlearnt: the Consensus Assignment is dead


Martin Sandbu recently responded to critics of an earlier piece of his arguing that central bankers could and should have done more to tackle the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. I stress aftermath here, because I have no doubt that central banks (including the Bank of England) were culpable in both ignoring warning signs before the crisis, and in the UK and Eurozone not reacting quickly enough to the consequent recession. (It is extraordinary that on the MPC only Danny Blanchflower understood what was going on, and I would argue that part of the reason for this was the primacy of the inflation target.)

It is also obvious that the ECB were wrong to raise rates in 2011 and not to introduce QE much earlier. That the UK almost raised rates in 2011 is not reassuring, and suggests they did take their foot off the peddle over that period. I would also argue that the ECB were very wrong to wait until September 2012 to introduce OMT.

In the UK and US I do not buy the argument that no further stimulus was needed.

UK unemployment rose from around 5% to around 8% in 2008/9, and stayed at that level until it began coming down in 2013. US unemployment was also above 8% until 2013. Both economies needed more stimulus in 2009, and in its absence in 2010 and so on. To think otherwise means you are placing too high a weight on temporary changes in inflation and too low a weight on the costs of the recession. 

Where I think I might disagree with Martin is that this stimulus could have reliably come from monetary policy. A good policy instrument is one that has a reliable impact on demand, and the only reliable monetary policy instrument that fulfills that criteria is short interest rates. Central banks could have done more QE, or they could have reduced rates below the Effective Lower Bound (ELB), but they wouldn’t have known how much to do. They might have got there in the end, but extra years of unemployment and probably a permanent hit to output through hysteresis were an avoidable cost.

The biggest mistake central banks made was not to recognise this and be honest with the public. They should have said, clearly and repeatedly, that once rates hit the ELB monetary policy was no longer the most reliable instrument to stabilise the economy, and fiscal policy should be used. This does not break any implicit concordat about not commenting on fiscal policy (which most central banks break anyway), because the statement is about a delegated authority being honest with the public about whether it can reliably do its job..

The fact that central banks in the UK and Eurozone didn’t do that may reflect dishonesty or it may reflect negligent ignorance. The fact that options like QE existed may have allowed central banks to convince themselves that they could still do the job assigned to them, and it discouraged them from being honest with the public. I say negligent ignorance, because instrument reliability is pretty basic stuff.

Martin writes
“Besides, there was broadly shared understanding among macroeconomists and central bankers of the best division of labour. Fiscal and budgetary policy should be set to achieve microeconomic and distributive goals, and the desired share of the state in the economy; while monetary policy should take care of stabilising aggregate demand.”

This is what I call the Consensus Assignment, and as the name implies it was certainly the consensus among mainstream macroeconomists before the 1990s. But the experience of Japan’s lost decade where they also had interest rates stuck at the ELB began a process of rethinking. By the time the GFC came around many macroeconomists had realised that there was an Achilles Heel in the Consensus Assignment. Fiscal stabilisation was still required when interest rates hit their ELB. That is why we had fiscal stimulus in 2009.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. The policy consensus in 2009 was that fiscal stimulus was required, because monetary policy was not enough. This consensus didn’t evaporate in 2010. What overrode it was mainly politics - what I call deficit deceit. There was also a bit of panic in some quarters caused by the Eurozone crisis. However a majority of academic macroeconomists continued to believe that further fiscal stimulus was required, and that majority got steadily larger as time went on.

Which means that the Consensus Assignment that Martin talks about is dead, or at least dead until monetary policy makers can agree some form of fiscal delegation (e.g. helicopter money) with governments. As this paper from the Boston Fed points out, downturns where interest rates hit their ELB are likely to become the new normal, but policymakers have not adjusted to this. (The exception is Labour’s fiscal credibility rule.) Quite simply, most policymakers have not learnt a major lesson of the Global Financial Crisis.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Are the EU wrong to make things easy for May?


Most experts who follow the Brexit negotiations think the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) will sketch in pretty loose terms what the final relationship between the UK and EU will be, although some EU politicians have indicated a reluctance to do this..A vague WA has been called a ‘Blind Brexit’ (ht Chris Grey). While a blind Brexit might help in May’s efforts to achieve an agreement and (maybe) to get parliamentary approval for it, it remains a very undemocratic way forward [1]. Here is why.

Suppose there are only two types of Brexit possible: a No “not the end of the world” Deal or BINO (staying in the single market and customs union). All the polls suggest No Deal is not the will of the people, and its support is in any case dependent on a false view of its economic consequences. Equally it is difficult to understand why anyone would support BINO compared to EU membership, as the only major difference is that we no longer get a say on how the rules we have to obey are changed.

A result of keeping the WA vague about the final relationship is that this binary choice is not apparent to many voters. In particular the UK government is still peddling various halfway houses that the EU is very unlikely to agree to, but we will not know for sure that they will be rejected until after the WA. If we did know it before the WA the number of people who had changed their mind would be greater than it is now, which in turn might embolden parliament to call the whole thing off.

Thus we will leave under false pretenses, of exactly the kind that led to the narrow vote to Leave in the first place. When it does become clear that there are only these two choices, it will be too late to change our mind without new costs. Re-entry into the EU might require becoming part of the Eurozone for example. So we will could end up with BINO plus face saving details forever, and pretty well everyone (including No Deal advocates) will agree we are worse off than we were before.

A similar problem happens if parliament does not approve the WA and we end up with a second referendum. The logic of a second referendum is clear. In the first in 2016 the promises made about what leaving would mean were various and many were untrue. Now we know what leaving does involve it makes sense to ask the people once again. Except in any referendum held after the WA fails to be approved, we will not know what the final deal will be, and that will give May the chance to spin her deal in any way that gets votes. Rather than a referendum on a final deal, it will in fact be a second referendum with unicorns only slightly less outlandish than in the first referendum.

This is what I mean by a very undemocratic procedure. The fault lies first with David Cameron, who should never have agreed to a referendum where the type of Brexit was unspecified. It then lies with May, who initially prefered Brexit fantasy to reality and despite Chequers still panders to the Brexiters. Above all it is the fault of the Brexiters, who by going back on an agreement made in December wasted precious time so they had more chance of getting No Deal.

The EU cannot really be blamed for going along with a vague WA. They are quite happy with BINO, and it avoids a No Deal accident. For that reason they may feel it makes sense to help May. The alternative of insisting on a detailed WA on future trade is high stakes: it could end Brexit, but could lead to No Deal. It is not surprising that most EU politicians would take the less risky option.

It remains the case, nevertheless, that by allowing May to have a vague WA on trade they are assisting in the deception of UK voters and MPs, who will be leaving the EU without knowing what is going to take its place. I hope that is something the EU recognises if we do leave in March 2019 and subsequently want to return. I suspect, however, that this is a vain hope.

[1] It is also costly in economic terms, because it prolongs uncertainty about what future trade relationships will be. Some of the issues I describe here may also divide those who voted Remain over whether the WA should be passed in parliament or not. 

Friday, 7 September 2018

Jeremy Corbyn and Balance


I’ve just completed my book to be published in November by Bristol University Press called ‘The Lies We Were Told’. It is the story of UK austerity, the Eurozone crisis, how mediamacro swung the 2015 election, the Corbyn phenomenon, Brexit and more besides. These things are described as they happened in selected blog posts with new introductions, postscripts etc. (It can be ordered at a 20% discount here, rising to 35% if you join the publisher’s mailing list.)

During the process of selecting the blogs I needed to tell these stories, I came across one I had forgotten completely. It was called “Do we get the leaders our media deserves?”, and it asked why many of the successful (in terms of popularity) leaders of today are of the likes of Johnson, Farage and Berlusconi, while leaders with far more integrity and honesty like Ed Miliband appear unpopular. The post was written at the end of 2014, and a postscript for the book notes that Trump versus Clinton was in part a devastating example of this trend.

It is tempting to respond by saying this is just what voters want: politicians that make them feel good. There may be an element of that, but what has nothing to do with voters is how the Johnson type politicians get a easy ride from the media. When he deliberately stokes islamophobia, the criticism is disarmed with a cup of tea for waiting reporters. I have yet to see an interview with Farage where he is questioned about his support for far right parties in Europe and his Russian links. This interview with Johnson by Eddie Mair stands out in talking about past sins because it is so unusual. Most of the time the media seems content to reflect his easy charm.

While people like Farage or Johnson are normally treated with kid gloves, others get a much harder ride. The left tried it with Cameron and Osborne: posh Eton and Bullingdon club boys who were clearly out of touch with ordinary voters. Sometimes these attacks work, and sometimes they do not. No doubt the reasons why are complex, but it seems to me that two things matter a lot. The first is whether or not the person being attacked has the personality to deflect such criticism, and the second reflects the extent that attacks become part of the non-partisan media’s agenda.

Here is a time series of how Corbyn’s leader ratings have been getting steadily worse over the last year, and by far more than those of his party. This could be for many reasons. It could reflect disillusionment by Remain inclined Labour voters as events have shown Labour’s pro-Brexit position is not just opportunistic triangulation. It could reflect a lack of initiatives coming from the leadership (although it does not help that when he does make speeches they are blatantly misinterpreted). It could be that Labour’s problems with antisemitism are constantly in the news: although these stories do not have high impact among voters, for those that do notice they are seen as a negative for Corbyn.

I have argued before that the Labour surge before the 2017 election and the subsequent decline are part of the same phenomenon: the ability of the media rather than the politician to control the agenda outside of election periods. The MSM is clearly much more hostile to Corbyn than any other major political figure today, and the row over antisemitism shows that clearly.

Because this debate has become so partisan, I have to say the following. First, I am no Corbynite (read my posts during the Corbyn vs Smith campaign). I also think antisemitism within the Labour party is a real problem, and that large parts of the membership seem to be in denial about this. Not adopting all the IHRA examples (but with accompanying text to clarify meaning drafted in consultation with Jewish groups where possible) was a big political mistake. It created concerns in the Jewish community that the media was right to reflect. The idea that the non-partisan media’s reporting of this is just a smear campaign is nonsense.

All those things can be true, but it can also be true that the broadcast media has given the issue excessive prominence. How do I know this? The obvious comparison is with Islamophobia in the Conservative party. This has been given much less coverage, but I would argue that problem is at least as bad. As far as I know, Labour has never run a clearly antisemitic campaign for a major political post, but the Tory party have run an Islamophobic  campaign in which the Tory leader played a major part. Some say the difference is because Corbyn himself has been described as antisemitic, but the betting odds for next Prime Minister for Johnson and Corbyn are similar. To say that broadcasters cannot help reporting what is going on is very naive about how the media selects what is newsworthy and what is not.  

Many would argue this bias is because Corbyn has few friends in the media, and that may be a part of it [1], but I prefer more structural explanations. For the broadcast media balance seems to involve MPs in Westminster rather than their own viewers. Labour MPs are prepared to criticise the leadership in public while Tory MPs are not, and this means one story gets much more airtime than the other. [2] We can see this clearly with Brexit: because the two main parties went with the 52%, the point of view of the 48% (now more) who oppose Brexit was largely ignored by the media. Exactly the same can now be said about the Muslim community.

A good test of all this is to reverse roles. Suppose Jeremy Corbyn had written an article in which he had made fun of how orthodox Jews dress, and all the party had asked him to do is apologise but he had refused. Suppose the Labour party had no code at all covering antisemitism. Would the broadcast media have been happy to show pictures of him offering vegetables from his allotment to reporters and then forgotten about the whole thing? I’m sure natural charm has something to do with why some political leaders are treated differently than others, but I think that is only a small part of the story.


[1] It may explain, for example, the lack critical reporting. Most of the time it is presumed that Labour did not adopt all the IHRA examples because of antisemitism. Until recently the Israel/Palestine conflict was hardly mentioned, and neither was the fact that a select committee had suggested the IHRA examples were unsatisfactory on their own. Ludicrous statements about existential threats or rivers of blood go unchallenged. In some quarters it is deemed insensitive to question motives (Stephen Pollard, Jewish Chronicle editor, has said: “The left, in any recognisable form, is now the enemy”). In contrast a Conservative minister is happy to dismiss claims of Islamophobia by attacking a group that made the claim as unrepresentative, and no one in the media notes the Conservative Muslim Forum has made similar complaints.

[2] Whatever else this is, it is not good for democracy. Because Conservative MPs keep quiet about Islamophobia in their party, the issue only appears occasionally in the media. As a result, nothing is done about the problem. In contrast Labour are trying to do something about antisemitism, and their reward is constant attack.