Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday, 15 November 2015

What if Labour’s pessimists are right

Want a blow by blow account of what happened at the first meeting of Labour’s Economic
Advisory Council? Before getting on to that, I thought it might be the right time to answer one comment that I have heard a lot since I accepted the invitation. Not the ‘it will damage your reputation’ line which I have talked about before, but this rather more practical one: as the new Labour leadership are almost bound to fail at the polls (see Hopi Sen for example), why waste your time?

There are two responses which I think are perfectly OK in themselves. First, election forecasting five years out is not a precise science. I do not underestimate the obstacles that the current leadership will have to overcome, but if defeat was certain would newspapers like the Sun be wasting front pages with character assassination? If general election defeat were certain under Corbyn they should be quietly hoping that the current leadership survives to fight it.

Second, with so much wrong with current government policy, it is important that the opposition has effective arguments. As we saw with cuts to tax credits, government policy can be changed. The better the arguments of the opposition, the more that might happen.

But neither of these are the best response to the ‘why bother’ question. Suppose the pessimists are right. What will happen next? There is a danger of lazy thinking here. The thinking goes that (1) the current Labour leadership will adopt a far left programme, (2) they will fail to deliver in the polls, and (3) the centrists will return in triumph and start afresh with policy. If we accept that (2) is right for the sake of argument, both (1) and (3) are way off.

Corbyn and McDonnell have to compromise with the parliamentary party. Compared to this, confrontation will only reduce what they see as progressive opportunities. Far better to play a longer game, where they seek to gradually shift policy to the left from the top but through consensus. If you think their primary objective involves cementing their position in the party by not compromising on policy, starting an open war with the rest of the parliamentary party and wholesale deselection of MPs then you still have not got over losing the election. (Of course this may not be true of all their supporters, and one of the tasks they have to deal with is in handling that.)

As a result, the platform they end up adopting will be one that nearly all Labour MPs can sign up to. Just as important, it will be one that most of those who voted for Corbyn can sign up to. The big divide will not be on the merits of the policies but on whether those policies and the leadership can win a general election. So suppose the pessimists are right and they fail at the polls, and Corbyn steps down. Who is more likely to win the subsequent election for leader of the party? Someone who accepts the majority of those policies, but appears to have more charisma and less history? Or someone who has opposed both the leadership and their policies over the previous few years, and wants to shift policy dramatically to the right?

I think the answer is pretty obvious. As Hopi Sen notes, public opposition to the current Labour leadership from within will not be forgiven by party members, so it is political suicide. The media will do their level best to hype any hint of division, but for the most part they will find it hard work. That was why the leadership election result was so dramatic a moment. It showed that you cannot lead the Labour party on a platform which is Conservative-lite when the Conservative programme is well to the right.

Which means, in turn, that a good deal of the policy positions and ideas that the current leadership develops over the next few months and years will survive, even if they personally do not. So for this reason as well, helping to contribute to that platform is not a waste of time, even if the poll pessimists are right.

As for that blow by blow account of the first meeting, you didn't really think you were going to get one did you?. But in case you feel really let down, here is a picture instead.




22 comments:

  1. I don't think you can see the Sun's journalistic content as primarily strategy driven. They just love having fun at the expense of the left. (Great post by the way!)

    ReplyDelete
  2. "if defeat was certain would newspapers like the Sun be wasting front pages with character assassination?"

    You see this argument deployed a lot, but I am very surprised to see you make the mistake of adopting it.

    The answer to the question is: yes of course they would. This silly argument was deployed a lot in relation to Miliband ("If the Tories weren't worried why do they spend so much time mocking him.") Are memories so short?

    The Sun is a commercial enterprise in the business of selling newspapers. That the Labour party has been taken over by individuals from the far left fringe of politics is a story. They are in the business of making the most out of that story.Staying quiet for five years, as you suggest, is not in their interests. The Tory strategy is to make sure that Labour is indelibly linked in the public mind with Corbyn and McDonnell so that even if they are replaced, the party is permanently damaged electorally.

    "The thinking goes that (1) the current Labour leadership will adopt a far left programme, (2) they will fail to deliver in the polls, and (3) the centrists will return in triumph and start afresh with policy"

    That is to make a basic mistake about the programme of Corbyn and McDonnell.

    The actual thinking goes.

    (1) it doesn't matter what programme Corbyn and McDonnell adopt, they will lose.

    (2) Their agenda is to transform the Labour party, not win an election. To do that what the policy is here and now is not important in any way. That is why McDonnell was initially proposing to endorse the Fiscal Charter silliness: he knows that the current policy positions make no difference to his agenda.

    (3) People who are not apologists for the IRA, Hamas etc will never again regain the leadership of the Labour party, and the country will never again have a social democratic party in the European tradition that is electable.

    Which is why

    "Which means, in turn, that a good deal of the policy positions and ideas that the current leadership develops over the next few months and years will survive, even if they personally do not."

    Is so tragically mistaken. You can change policy positions in an instant. What you cannot instantly change is who constitutes the PLP. Get like minded people in position, make sure the rules of the party favour you. and then you can start adopting the positions you prefer.

    Corbyn and McDonnell are many things, but they are not fools. They know as well as everyone else that they won't win the general election. But that is to misunderstand what they are trying to do.

    Amusing to see who is physically at that meeting, and who observably is not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I see you have still not got over losing that election.

      Delete
    2. Which one?

      The UK social democratic left suffered two terrible defeats this year, not one.

      Delete
    3. Surely there is political capital to be made of the Murdoch supporting the Tories in England and Wales and the Scottish nationalists in Scotland?

      Sometimes thinking you've backed the winning horse is not that simple: and that is one huge demagogic push-me-pull-you Rupert's chosen to ride.

      Delete
    4. "The UK social democratic left suffered two terrible defeats this year, not one."
      And what the hell is that supposed to mean?

      Delete
  3. Excellent article. Two points:

    Firstly, I think you undersell your mission. The largest reason is that the British people deserve it. They may have returned a Conservative government but they expect an Opposition which not only critiques and challenges economic policy but develops realistic, deliverable alternatives. The scenario in 2020, whatever it will be, will be different to 2015. Osborne's line that austerity is working so well let's have some more will not wash a third time. He may offer tax cuts targeted to that section of voters who conventionally decides elections. Labour needs a response. And here's an opportunity for economists often derided for trying to drive using only the rear-view mirror to formulate answers ahead of the curve to nascent changes such as the way automation substitutes capital for labour and is the UK's industrial future to be a subsidiary of China? In 2015, Labour's economic policy, worthy in parts, was uninspiring. Everything was dwarfed by claims to be sound on the deficit (it was on the front of the manifesto and carved into that effing stone). It seemed like trying to desperately make up for Miliband's 2014 conference omission, and I think, with negative returns as voters heard more and more reassurances, they became less and less reassured. Next time needs a firm-footing for sure but much more inspiration.

    Secondly on the press, they are in their death throes. As online takes away their revenues, the press, and not just the tabloids any more, are having to add more and more sensationalism to try and maintain interest in them. Corbyn and Labour are the main targets but you are right it is not exclusively dogmatic. The next few months will be hard as they burn more ammunition and stoop lower. Don't think last week's Remembrance Day bowing stories will be the nadir by any means. But with rapidly diminishing marginal returns here, I wouldn't like to call how long they can go on for.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Good stuff, than you for your efforts Prof, lots of us appreciate it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "... it is important that the opposition has effective arguments."

    This. The main problem with the proposed "return to centrism" is that they have no policies that are meaningfully different from the Tories.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oh look, another hippy with a retarded hippy blog. Lets go destroy this moron.

    > but if defeat was certain would newspapers like the Sun be wasting front pages with character assassination?

    Please. This would require the Sun's main goal to get the Tories into power. This would require a mass conspiracy, presumably involving the freemasonIlluminantiCiaLizardPeople. The fact is the main goal of any newspaper is to sell papers. Which is why the daily mail, someone who hardly that far politically from the Tories, rand the Ashcroft biography stuff. JC sucking balls and leading a party split is news. JC constantly fucking being anti-british is news. JC constantly fucking up at every moment is news. The sun wants to sell papers, so they tell the news, no matter how trashy it is.

    >Corbyn and McDonnell have to compromise with the parliamentary party.

    Yea you'd have thought so right? At this moment we're not seeing any indications of this. Sure he's proclaiming a discussion or "new politics", when his position seems to be "We can discuss this as along as we agree with my position". He's used the whip several fucking times in his short span as leader, filled the cabinet with people who agree with his extreme views where possible. FFS the leader of the party is part of momentum. If an extreme sub group being led by THE FUCKING LEADER OF THE PARTY doesn't worry you, then you're either retarded or gullible. Either way I have a bridge to sell you.

    As much as I'd like to be proven wrong, JC shows no insistence of backing down and becoming more moderate, and you're gonna need evidence to the contrary.

    >That was why the leadership election result was so dramatic a moment. It showed that you cannot lead the Labour party on a platform which is Conservative-lite when the Conservative programme is well to the right.

    Oh look, another moron using the words "conservative-lite". All I need is "red tory" and "neo-liberal" and I get to fill out my bingo card! For starters, calling new Labour "Conservative lite" shows an entire lack of political knowledge and understanding. Secondly all the leadership election showed was the entire lack of good leaders in Labour willing to stand up. Jeremy was basically going up against candidates as interesting as three wet sponges, which means he basically won by default.

    >Which means, in turn, that a good deal of the policy positions and ideas that the current leadership develops over the next few months and years will survive, even if they personally do not.

    Yea that's what I'm worried about. I would rather terrorist sympathizers aren't the ones setting the policy of the left for the next 10 years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "This would require the Sun's main goal to get the Tories into power. This would require a mass conspiracy,"
      Big leap of logic there ;)

      Delete
  7. "Far better to play a longer game, where they seek to gradually shift policy to the left from the top but through consensus"
    I don't agree.
    Appeasement doesn't work. What Labour need to do is reframe the debate in real terms not financial ones. Plus it needs to move to a position between the Blairites and McDonnell. And if Corbyn/McDonnell want to move to the left a lot at least don't waste the opportunity to reframe the debate.
    Call for tax cuts for example.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Haha, "Anonymous" showing there all the charm and good grace one has come to associate with certain elements on the right of the Labour party, and which proved to be so persuasive during the leadership campaign.

    As for "conservative-lite", well maybe a bit harsh but I don't remember the other candidates seriously challenging the Tory austerity narrative, at least before Corbyn's popularity changed the terms of the leadership debate.

    ReplyDelete
  9. The centre has a trump card: Dan Jarvis. He has the aura of a winner. I think Labour members will flock to him if he picks his moment carefully.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "First, election forecasting five years out is not a precise science."

    We also discovered during the last general election that election forecasting a couple of days out is also not a precise science, since most polls were predicting that a Labour/LibDem/SNP/Others coalition government would be formed, and not a Conservative one.

    We know from the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem that voting systems such as ours drive tactical voting, and this is exactly what happened in the last general election. The polls were telling us that the SNP would get into government, and this scared enough people who wanted to preserve the union into tactically voting Conservative even thought they weren't the first preference of many (the Conservative Party's election analysts even claimed that they made direct use of this effect in key voting areas).

    This example shows how important it is be dubious of polls and of the general 'opinion' that everyone takes for granted (in this case that the current Labour Party cannot win the next general election), as it can be seen as part of a collective (and pseudo-unconscious) desire on the part of the electorate to ensure that our political and financial systems keep being cruel to the poor, and are sub-optimal to the middle class majority.

    I've written to Jeremy Corbyn recommending that the Labour Party make a big push to try to obtain a 100% turnout (voting or spoiling) at the next general election, and do all they can in the meantime to find out why so many (around 34%) decided not to vote or spoil, and encourage them to do so next time (and also to do so without the usual self-defeating guilt-trips that such surveying typically pushes onto non-voters).

    I think that if more people voted or spoiled, then more would vote for Labour and they would win by a landslide. Obviously I could be completely wrong in this, but it would be interesting to find out the true opinion of the country all the same.

    The insideous repetition of the big Other's belief that Corbyn can't win in 2015 is part of the country's unconscious strategy to keep the turn-out low and the status quo the same. We have to not only keep reminding the big Other of the inaccuracy of polls and of general opinions, but also of the tactical value that such things have to those who benefit from the country being so badly managed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I think that if more people voted or spoiled, then more would vote for Labour and they would win by a landslide. Obviously I could be completely wrong in this, but it would be interesting to find out the true opinion of the country all the same."

      Maybe. There is some evidence that in the US, for example, higher turnout favours the Democrats, as those on the margin of voting or not voting are more likely to vote Democrat if they do turn up. But in Australia (the closest country to the UK with compulsory voting) right-wing governments are not uncommon. And in the UK, the highest turnout in recent memory came in 1992, when the Conservatives won (and their majority in Parliament was quite small compared to their lead in the popular vote).

      Delete
  11. The saddest part of the Labour election was the absolute void of Cooper and co. They had no arguments and supported the budget and narrative. Neo Liberal but nicer rhetoric on the poor. This has been followed by the "We're Screwed" response to Corbyn's win. I asked a few inc Hopi Sen why they would not engage and they said he would not listen. I pointed out his centre right economics of austerity minus a bit as a sign of Overton engagement but they ranted on with bogus complaints about #PQE and inflation hurting the poor - oh the irony - and no matter how much you point out QE is unlikely to be terribly inflationary they do not want to know.

    I detested the left for years comparing them to a self satisfied general stuck in their safe seat Sinecures thinking they knew best. Hopefully you and the non money printing fanatics on the advisory panel can make a difference one knows we need it in politics. At present only Osborne appears to have a goal and narrative as obscene as it it.

    As to the New Lab fans well after Foundation Hospitals and 10s 1000s unnecessary death, the war torture and rendition of their War on Terror, detaining asylum children, attempts to bring back internment, mass surveillance, PFraudI, HS2 etc etc you still have this conceit of goodness?

    I say to Corbyn fans who think he is somehow excused for supporting only the party even if not in parliament always you're not excused. He did not see any of that as a reason to leave the party? The suicide note this time was the 300+ MPs who backed Brown for leader a man who most must have known was incapable of leadership and with his droogs turned on his former deputy Darling as Chancellor.

    Now Labour's main role has become a bulwark on opposition. Blocking the wind from the sails of any alternatives. Thus I hope you and your committee can change Labour but fear sooner or later the conceit of their own goodness blocks all reform and opposition be it on right or left.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "bogus complaints about #PQE and inflation hurting the poor "
      What they need to do is stop telling blatant lies (money multiplier) in economics teaching. Simon can help with that.
      As to 'inflation hurting the poor' think about it. We have some real resources in this country. They can be distributed in several ways. Do the poor get a greater share of resources? That's the question to answer.
      Even if banking worked in the way they say and "printing money" led to banks getting reserves to "lend out." So? Just restrict bank lending?

      Delete
    2. "Hopefully you and the non money printing fanatics on the advisory panel can make a difference one knows we need it in politics."
      What "money printing fanatics", pray tell? Bankers? They create money every time they create a loan and a corresponding deposit.
      There is a certain amount of money that is literally printed but it is not related to the spending. MMTers understand that spending is limited by the real resources of the economy and having a too high *flow* of money and too many projects at the same time (demand side) and insufficient competition or creating substitutes (supply side) can generate inflation.
      "PFraudI"
      I assume you mean PFI. So now we have an inconsistent position. It is no worse than "borrowing" and issuing Gilts. Why pay a term premium, or higher interest rate when you don't need to? How come what applies for PFI is "fraud" but not for issuing Gilts unnecessarily.
      All government spending works by crediting bank accounts (creating money) and taxes by debiting bank accounts (destroying money.) Spending is limited by real resources. Time to tell the public the truth.

      Delete
    3. "Hopefully you and the non money printing fanatics on the advisory panel can make a difference one knows we need it in politics"

      Plus of course rule by the 'Lord Turner' class via the central bank.

      Corbyn voting plebs - know your place.

      Delete
  12. Simon,

    In terms of "Wasting your time", until the Labour party figures out how to package and sell the reforms that it wants then it will struggle to win an election. Your rants about the media are disingenuous, the media aren’t as powerful as most people on the left believe.
    “Excuses change nothing, but make everyone feel better.”

    Mason Cooley

    You should take the fight on, straight ahead. Ed Miliband was a useless leader, a very knowledgeable man when it comes to economics but useless as a leader. 3.3 Million people voted UKIP and 1.1 Million voted Green. Those people voting Green (and a lot voting UKIP) should be voting Labour but felt the need to vote otherwise.
    The brutal truth is that the left in this country is divided and until the left unites behind a creditable leader, then the country will keep voting for the Tories (I hate the Tories).

    ReplyDelete
  13. As usual, Mainly Labour, and how to win the next election. At that level, one begins to think Osborne may be right, after all.

    ReplyDelete

Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time.