Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 21 January 2019

No deal syndrome: why do people keep buying snake oil when it doesn’t work?

Using a very broad brush, the Leave vote represented the votes of two groups: social conservatives who felt threatened by immigration, and the group often referred to as the left behind. Both groups were sold snake-oil by the Brexiters. There would be more money for the NHS, we would avoid a flood of immigrants coming from ‘about to join’ Turkey, we would get the easiest deal in history with the EU (because we held all the cards), and we would get lots of advantageous trade deals that the EU were not able to make on our behalf. To mention just a few of the lies that were told to sell their snake oil.

Their lies were gradually exposed over the two years following the referendum vote. There would be less money for the NHS, and even with the money it has they cannot hire enough nurses or doctors because EU citizens no longer want those jobs. Turkey didn’t join, and the EU will not give us all the benefits we had as members. Mr. Fox has not even managed to replicate third party trade deals we have enjoyed as a result of being in the EU, for the simple reason that the EU have a lot to offer and great experience at doing trade deals and we have neither.

To say ‘but both sides lied’ misses the point. We knew what Remain was, while the Leavers sold a prospectus that was false in almost every detail. As a result, the Brexiters stopped talking about the easiest deal in history and started talking about No Deal. In fact they knew before 2016 that there was no plan they were happy with before the vote. But because they hate the EU (either because they want a neoliberal paradise or they are nostalgic Little Englanders who want to rule the waves again) they have just moved from one set of lies to another.

The only difference between the lies they told in 2016 and the lies they tell now is the scale of disaster they are pretending will not happen. Leaving in a controlled and partial way would hurt business but they would get time to adjust. Leaving suddenly and completely has business in an absolute panic, and consumers as well as workers would soon feel the impact. The snake-oil sellers are unmoved: just more ‘Project Fear’ they say. In addition our political influence in the world, already severely dented, would crash to zero under No Deal. No worries, say the snake oil sellers, we stood alone once before, as they endlessly churn out utterly misplaced WWII analogies. (This is only possible because none of them actually lived through WWII, but instead just remember santised histories and films.) As David Heniq says, that this is happening is political failure on a grand scale.

In US popular culture, snake oil sellers peddled their wares in Wild West medicine shows. In the UK they do so in much of the press, and relentlessly in the broadcast media. Even when BBC journalists know their claims are all garbage, most are too frightened to challenge them because they fear being picked out as another example of Remain bias by the right wing print media. Brexiters have all the time in the world to appear in the media because they do not need to analyse policies. They just pick up the latest sound bite and off they go.

No Deal is like someone who hates modernity but cannot work out why, and so retreats to living as a hermit in a cave. It will not last long. No country on earth wants no trade deals, which is why recent history is all about new trade deals being done rather than undone. Just as Lexiters talk of deals with Bolivia and other countries that have ‘true socialist’ governments, the Brexiters end state is for the UK to become an unincorporated territory of the US. Ask the people of Puerto Rico what that feels like.

Why do so many of the public still believe these lies, when it is obvious that these snake oil sellers lied, or to be too charitable got it so wrong, in 2016? Being fooled once is understandable, but twice in such quick succession? Well not all those who vote Leave are fooled. In particular, a few of the left behind group have switched to Remain, and others in that group can see that No Deal would hit them hard.

But a remarkable number of 2016 Leavers still back the snake oil sellers. One reason goes back to the media. The Brexiters pretend that Remain told as many lies as they did in 2016, and that 2016 Project Fear has been proved to be such, and unfortunately too many in the broadcast media believe this. In reality, most forecasters got the decline of GDP and real wages as a result of the referendum over the last 2+ years roughly right. As often happens, the media’s narrative and reality are very different, because the media does not talk to experts.

However a misleading media narrative is not the only cause of popular belief in the virtues of No Deal. We have, I fear, a UK example of Trump support syndrome. Many of Trump’s supporters accept that he lies all the time but still support him. They believe that Trump supports their identity and values. Social conservatives feel threatened by multiculturalism, by social liberalism, by feminism (no dealers tend to be men), by the green movement. They also tend to be nostalgic for an old order. What better figure to represent all that than Rees-Mogg. Of course the old order they remember involved an industrialised economy with strong unions and a strong welfare state, while a No Deal UK run by the Brexiters would be a completely service economy with few unions and little welfare state. This is an irony of No Deal: its supporters are nostalgic for a pre-neoliberal past while its leaders want to give them even more of neoliberal modernity. 

These Brexiter leaders are like the Republicans in the US they so admire: politicians armed with an ideology who know little about the policies they peddle and the reality these policies would change. What they do specialise in is selling policies. The rest of the Conservative party may be too attached to business to swallow No Deal, but they were happy to enact austerity and the widespread use of sanctions for benefits. There may be some obvious liars who lie about lying, but more generally there is a party that continues to pretend that stopping money to the poor has nothing to do with an explosion in food bank use. The One Nation Tories of old are almost gone, and have little future in a party whose members, as Tim Bale explains, are obsessed with Brexit and mostly want No Deal.

There will always be people who buy snake oil, particularly if it is linked by its sellers to medicines of old. If real snake oil sellers still existed today they would be banned from touting their wares. The mechanism we used to have to keep these people out of politics was a critical media, but most of that media today seems either to be advertising the benefits of the snake oil, or incapable of challenging the snake oil sellers’ claims. The consequence of letting these charlatans run loose with no checks on the lies they tell is a country stockpiling food and medicine, and preparing to put troops on the streets, for no other reason but that too many people bought snake oil.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Parliament’s Brexit game

Someone may have done this elsewhere and probably with more accuracy, but I hadn’t seen it so I thought I’d work through the numbers myself. Suppose parliament breaks down into five main factions, with a very approximate indication of their size.

Brexiters - No Deal         100
May loyalists - No FoM   200
People’s Vote                 150
Corbyn loyalists               30
Soft Brexit                      150

You can see how Tuesday’s vote worked out. May’s block alone voted for her deal, while all the other blocks voted against. Note also that the soft Brexit block have no quarrel with the Withdrawal Agreement as such. It is the political declaration about what the UK tries to do after Brexit that they want to change.

The unusual feature of this game is of course that if no other block can get a majority by the end of March, the Brexiters win because the UK leaves without a deal. So the race is now on to get a majority. As we have already seen, May’s deal which effectively ends Freedom of Movement cannot get a majority, because the Brexiters who she courted for two years have turned against her (as they always would).

If May really did try and get a deal for a softer Brexit she would probably get enough, although many Labour soft Brexiters might be reluctant to sign up to anything that came from her. In addition the DUP could end their support for her government, and she might lose a few from her block. A more subtle move is to release her block to vote for something organised by Labour and Tory MPs. That is probably the best chance for a winning coalition, but May has until now proved too stubborn and too partisan to try it. Alternatively she could agree to a second referendum between her deal and Remain, which the People’s Vote block would vote for even if the proposal came from her, but she might still lose the DUP’s support. Sam Lowe and John Springfield have a discussion of May’s options here.

Another possibility, raised in my last post, is that the soft Brexit group and the People’s Vote group unite by offering a Remain vs Soft Brexit referendum. This would have a chance, particularly if Corbyn supported it. It seems clear that the second referendum block cannot win on their own (despite my best efforts to suggest that is the right way forward) while the soft Brexit possibility is still around.

That will be one reason why Corbyn will not declare quickly for a second referendum. So if May remains stubborn and if soft Brexit and People’s Vote fail to combine, we get into a war of attrition. To see which blocks are most durable, we need to think about what happens on the week starting 25th March. [1]

At that point, if no majority is formed over that week, we get No Deal. That tells you that the Brexiter block is the most durable (something May seems unable to understand). In that week May will undoubtedly try to push her deal through as the ‘not a No Deal’ option, but equally MPs will counter with a revoke A50 amendment. The latter possibility tells you that the People’s Vote group and May are more durable blocks than those advocating soft Brexit, because they have something to hope for in a last minute panic. That in turn means that the Soft Brexit block need to get a winning coalition sooner rather than later.

All this assumes that No Deal remains on the table. The only way it could get taken off is for parliament, or May and parliament [2], to commit to revoking Article 50 at a date close to leaving. If that happens we get a new game, because most of the Brexiter block would revert to May's corner, but equally other blocks would become more stubborn. But if this analysis is correct, it suggests she has a better chance of getting a majority for a slightly softer version of her deal if she took No Deal off the table. 

This is almost certainly wrong and incomplete, and I’m more than happy for people to tell me why. 

[1] It would probably be before that date, because whoever wins and stops no deal will need an extension of A50, and the EU may need some time to agree to that. But the EU will probably not grant an extension unless the UK has made up its mind, if only because they believe the threat of No Deal is needed to get the UK to make up its mind.

[2] Thanks to @SpinningHugo for reminding me that May cannot revoke A50 alone. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Is Norway+ the way forward?

A number of MPs seem to think so. Their argument goes as follows. Although the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) is not about trade (beyond the backstop), and trade is dealt with in the Political Declaration that is not legally binding, a vote for Theresa May’s deal will be taken by her as endorsing her wish for a hard Brexit. In that case parliament should instruct the government to pursue a much softer Brexit now, because it is better to do that now than later (especially if later never happens).

Indeed it is plausible to argue that the current impasse in parliament would not have happened if May had gone for a soft Brexit (something close to BINO: staying in the Customs Union (CU) and Single Market (SM)) from the start. That, it could be argued, was the appropriate thing to do when the vote was so close. Another way of putting the same point is that there may not have been a majority for Leave at all if it had been clear that this involved leaving the CU or SM.

The narrow vote for the Welsh Assembly in 1997 is an interesting example in this context. It was even more narrow (it was won by 50.3%). As a result, according to this thread from Richard Wyn Jones, the winners went out of their way to involve some of the losers in the discussions about how the Welsh Assembly would work. [1] So if May had thought about uniting the country after the 2016 referendum she would have proposed some form of soft Brexit. Instead she tried to unify her party rather than her country, and the rest is history.

Although trying to unite the country would have been the right thing for any good Prime Minister to do (as May will probably find out today), I think the implication that subsequently a soft Brexit would have passed a vote in parliament is less clear. We return again to the critical point that a soft Brexit is not a compromise between a hard Brexit and Remain. Something like BINO is, for Leave voters, worse than Remain, because it gives away sovereignty compared to Remain with nothing gained in return.

Soft Brexit is Brexit in name only, and assuming Article 50 would still have been triggered there would have been two years during which Brexiters would have kept telling us that a soft Brexit is pay and obey with no say. And for once they would have been largely right. For a country as large as the UK, having an external body choose your regulations and trade deals when you have no say in that external body is a big deal. It is the opposite of taking back control. I do not think soft Brexit could have survived public scrutiny over two years.

This has important implications for attempts in parliament to modify the Political Declaration to commit to a soft Brexit before passing the WA. I can see the attraction for many MPs: it would be the same attraction it would have had to a statesmanlike PM after the 2016 vote. But there is a distinct danger that the public will end up hating it. Remainers obviously, but also most Leavers who will feel that they have been cheated by parliament.

If you are one of the MP’s going for this option and think I am wrong, there is an obvious way forward that could get us out of our current impasse. (I first heard this idea from @SimeOnStylites.) Combine your forces with those going for a second referendum in the following way. Propose a referendum between some form of soft Brexit (softer than May’s deal) and Remain. That proposal could command a majority in the house, and would still give people the option of throwing out the idea if they preferred staying in the EU. [2]

[1] This all came to light in a rather amusing way. May included this vote as part of her speech yesterday on why parliament should support her deal. She ‘forgot’ that despite the referendum result the Conservative party - including herself - voted against the Assembly being adopted after the vote! This illustrates why all the talk of the democratic need to respect the 2016 referendum by May and the Brexiters is just an excuse to enact a policy they want. Full story here.

[2] Of course Brexiters will complain, but they will complain just as much if the soft Brexit option is passed in parliament anyway.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Should we worry about temporarily raising government debt? - Blanchard’s AEA Address

This post not about the main part of this address, although as its my area and interesting I may write about it later. Instead I’m going to talk in a non-technical way about its premise, because that alone has implications that may be well known among economists but not elsewhere. The following is based on his presentation.

Should governments worry about temporarily paying for things by borrowing? One standard answer is yes, because although nothing obliges government to pay off this extra debt (it can be rolled over), it has to pay interest on that debt which requires higher taxes. If the government didn’t raise taxes to pay the interest on the debt, but instead just borrowed more to pay the interest, you would enter what is sometimes called a debt interest spiral, where debt goes up and up and eventually explodes.

But does a slow explosion in debt matter if the economy is also growing? A government (like a firm of individual) should look at debt as a ratio to its ability to pay, and the easiest way to do that is to look at the debt to GDP ratio. A company would not worry about increasing debt if its profits were rising even faster. For a given stock of debt, its growth rate is given by the rate of interest on the debt. So GDP rises faster than debt if its nominal growth rate (real growth plus inflation) is greater than the rate of interest on that debt. In shorthand, g > r.

Typically economists like me tend to assume that this is not true, and instead r > g. But the starting point for Blanchard’s lecture is that currently, and on average in the past, g > r. There has been only one decade since the 1950s when this hasn’t been true, and that is the 1980s when governments were pushing up interest rates to bring inflation down. Most of the time g > r. So the fact that g > r today may be the rule and not an exception.

Why do economists typically assume r > g when the opposite has generally been true? One answer is called financial repression, which is a label given to attempts by governments in the past to keep interest rates ‘artificially low’ in conjunction with various credit controls. The idea was that in a financially liberalised world where interest rates are used by central banks to target inflation there will be no financial repression, and real interest rates will be higher. So it made sense, the argument went, to assume r > g from now on even though g > r in the past. However what economists call secular stagnation suggests that the average interest rate required to keep inflation constant has actually been steadily falling, so Blanchard’s findings become relevant again. There is plenty of scope here for more research and debate.

So if normally g > r, does this mean we do not need to worry about debt? Not quite. What it means is that one of the standard objections to raising debt, which is that taxes will have to rise to pay the interest, no longer holds if g > r. If g > r the government can borrow to pay the interest, and yet the debt to GDP ratio will still gradually decline, because the economy is growing faster than debt. The objection to raising debt that taxes will have to rise in the future to pay for it disappears. Indeed the whole ‘burden on future generations’ objection to raising debt falls away, because the debt to GDP ratio declines by itself: there is no future burden.

An important proviso, however, is that we are talking about one-off increases in debt. Such one off increases would include, for example, increases in debt to build new public infrastructure or increases in debt caused by fiscal expansions to fight a recession. g>r does not mean we do not need to worry about persistent primary deficits (by which I mean spending permanently higher than taxes). A persistent primary deficit will add to the growth in debt, so the debt to GDP ratio will rise despite g > r.

This is just the starting point for Blanchard’s lecture, and if you are an economist I recommend watching it as it is very easy to follow. In policy terms I think it is the last nail in the coffin of what Paul Krugman calls the deficit scolds. Those who argued for austerity because of the burden on future generation, although on weak ground even if r > g, find their argument collapses if g > r. [1]

[1] Blanchard shows this remains true even if there are periodic shocks where r > g, as long as on average g > r.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The 2016 referendum was a badly designed rigged vote corruptly and unfairly won. Why is there so much deference to it?

We are probably about to take the huge step of leaving the EU that a majority of the population no longer want. We will do so because certain political forces have elevated a rigged, corrupt and unfair vote into something all powerful, that demands to be obeyed. If you doubt this think of all those who claim a second referendum would be undemocratic: a statement which is a contradiction in terms unless 2016 has some unique, special status. The purpose of this post is to argue it does not deserve this status.

The UK is a representative democracy that very occasionally holds referendums. Although referendums have been reserved for constitutional issues, it is not the case that constitutional issues are always decided by referendums. Instead they often tend to be used by governments to put to rest major internal debates over constitutional issues. Cameron promised to hold a referendum on EU membership in order to (temporally as it turned out) silence internal debates within the Conservative party.

I discussed why the referendum was badly designed here. Leave were not required to settle on a particular alternative to being in the EU: EEA membership (Norway), being in the Customs Union or not, being in the Single Market or not etc. For that reason Boris Johnson can claim that leaving without a deal is closest to what Leavers voted for even though No Deal was never proposed by the Leave campaign. This lack of specifics also made it easier for the Leave campaign to spin fantasies like ‘the easiest deal in history’.

The result of the referendum would have its impact on two main groups above all others: UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK. The only people in that group allowed to vote were UK citizens living in the EU and registered in a UK constituency less than 15 years ago. However Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK were allowed to vote. In the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence EU residents were allowed to vote. How do you describe excluding UK residents who would be most affected by a referendum as anything other than rigging that referendum.

Vote Leave broke election law in at least two ways, yet neither of the main political parties seem to care (one for obvious reasons, the other less so). We still do not know whether the Leave campaign was funded by Russian money or not. To dismiss this by saying the extra spending probably didn’t influence the result misses the point. If all that happens after one side breaks spending rules in an election is a fine then we are on the road to US style elections where money plays a very big role. That in turn leads to a plutocracy of the kind I describe here and which Jimmy Carter has recently talked about. The penalty for overspending has to be very large, and the obvious penalty is to cast doubt on the validity of the vote. Rather than speculate on whether law breaking influenced the result, we should just say the vote was corruptly won.

But there was a much deeper unfairness with 2016 than Leave campaign spending, and that is the behaviour of much of the media. Most of the right wing press effectively groomed their readers long before the referendum with constant stories, often simply false, of an interfering Brussels bureaucracy: so much so that the EU set up a website to correct untruths. During the campaign most of the right wing press (80% by daily readership) were effectively part of the Leave campaign, providing what is best described as propaganda. The influence of the press was particularly important because, unlike a General Election, most people before the campaign were uninformed about the EU. This propaganda might have been counteracted with information provided by broadcasters, but the BBC in particular decided to balance truth with lies. Elections where information is replaced by propaganda are not fair. 

For all these reasons 2016 was not a free and fair referendum. But the same political forces that had championed Leave in the campaign went about deifying the (narrow) victory. Brexit quickly became the ‘will of the people’, as if the 48% who voted to Remain - and especially EU residents whose future was put in doubt - had either ceased to exist, or have become traitors. This alliance between Brexiters and the right wing press is the main reason why support for Leave has stood up despite everything that has happened since: who wants to be a traitor? An indication of how successful this continuing campaign has been is that if you ask people about how the economy has been since the vote, they will probably mention first the pre-vote Treasury short term forecast that predicted a recession, rather than actual events like the fall in real wages caused by the Brexit depreciation.

Once it became clear that the Leave campaign’s claim that the EU would allow us to retain the benefits of being in the EU after we left was pure fantasy, it was natural for the Brexiters and most of their press allies to migrate to advocating No Deal. It is the only outcome that might give the UK some more sovereignty (or perhaps US regulations), albeit at a terrible economic and political cost. Project Fear easily transfers to what might happen with No Deal.

In a rational world, and dare I say in any real democracy, the possibility of No Deal would be eliminated with ease by MPs, who would simply mandate the executive to Revoke Article 50 on March 27th if no other way forward had been agreed. That this has not been done, and all sensible MPs dare propose (and narrowly win) is something weaker, is indicative to the hold that the 2016 referendum still has on MP’s attitudes.

When this is all history will people struggle with how a narrow victory in a rigged, corrupt and unfair referendum could lead MPs to vote for a Brexit that a far greater majority of people no longer want? Not really. It is pretty obvious how people with lots of money to spend combined with extreme neoliberals and little englanders to subvert the political process in the UK. Just add to this a tendency of too many on the centre-right to appease the far right, from Cameron who allowed a rigged referendum that was badly designed to May who constantly set policy to please the Brexiters in her party, and you get the subversion of democracy that is Brexit

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Lexit misdirection

Just as Brexiters have heavily influenced the way the mainstream media understand Brexit, so Lexiters have heavily influenced the way those in the Labour party understand Labour’s policy towards Brexit. In both cases we have an argument based on ideology dressed up with spin designed to persuade others.

The main focus of this post is the argument that Labour has to support Brexit because otherwise it will lose lots of seats in any General Election. But I want to start with state aid. This idea that the EU’s state aid rules would hinder Labour policy has a structural similarity with the famous £350 million a week claim of the Brexiters. The debate then focuses on how much of the idea is true, just as the Brexit debate was about how much we paid to the EU. But in both cases we are being led to ask the wrong question.

In the Brexit campaign the debate should have been about whether the public finances would deteriorate as a result of Brexit, rather than by how much they would improve. In the case of Lexit the debate should be whether the state aid that a Labour wants to do that the EU would prevent would benefit the economy by enough to more than offset the loss due to lower trade and general chaos if we leave with no deal. Why no deal? Because being part of the EU Customs Union is sure to be accompanied by restrictions on the use of state aid. So, just as with Brexit, the Lexiters goals can only be accomplished by forsaking any kind of close economic relationship with the EU.

There is far less analysis of this more appropriate question, probably because any reasonable analysis would conclude that the costs of tearing up all our trade agreements with the EU far exceeds any benefit from a bit of extra state aid. Some Lexiters respond to this by trying to discredit the science of gravity equations: occasionally in a manner that is simply laughable.

Lexiters, and also many others, were on more solid ground when they argued immediately after the referendum that Labour had to support Brexit to win another General Election. Triangulation was suddenly fashionable on the left, and it worked perfectly in 2017. Because Labour were officially supporting Brexit, May was unable to make the debate all about Brexit. But because Labour talked about a Brexit that did no economic harm, they also captured the Remain vote.

The key fact from the referendum was that the Remain vote was concentrated in large cities rather than small cities and towns, so something like 60% of Labour constituencies voted Leave. But public opinion has changed since the 2016 referendum. That change may not be large, but it is enough to shift many previously Leave constituencies to Remain. Some analysis suggests Remain constituencies are now in a slight majority, and in addition that a majority of marginal seats also support Remain.

There is a second factor that weakens support for Leave. We are now talking about specific and realistic ways of leaving, rather than the fantasy of your choosing promoted by the Leave campaign in 2016. It is not at all clear that Leavers who want No Deal should prefer May’s deal to Remain and vice versa. Reality has taken the passion out of many Leavers. In contrast, a long campaign against the odds has helped increase the passion among many Remainers, and it is now Remainers rather than Leavers who are more determined to vote in any second referendum.

You can see this in a poll undertaken by YouGov [1]. It asked the following questions, with the total Conservative and Labour percentage vote in each case (don't knows included in total but not shown).

If there were a general election held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?
How would you vote if there was another general election before the UK leaves the EU and the Conservative Party support going ahead with Brexit, but the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are opposed to Brexit?
How would you vote if there was another general election before the UK leaves the EU and the Conservative and Labour Parties both support going ahead with Brexit, and the Liberal Democrats are opposed to Brexit?

Labour opposing Brexit does shift some votes from Labour to Conservative, but this is partially offset by some Remainers switching to Labour, meaning that the Conservative lead does increase from 2 to 6 if Labour declares against Brexit. However if Labour declares for Brexit, Labour’s vote collapses, giving a Conservative lead of 12.

These numbers should not be taken as a realistic projection of what would happen, because voters are primed to think about Brexit alone rather than other issues. (They are also primed to think about switching from Labour to the LibDems, rather than Greens for example.) But what this poll does indicate is that the number of Remainers Labour would lose by enabling Brexit is much greater than the number of Conservative voters they would attract, and the number of Leavers they would lose if they declared against Brexit.

The poll also shows (contrary to some claims by Remainers) that Labour’s current (as of mid-December) strategy of ambivalence is the optimal one in terms of maximising their vote. As in 2017, being formally for Brexit but also being either the best chance of stopping Brexit or of getting a softer Brexit, is a vote winning strategy, exactly as triangulation theory suggests it should be. But if Labour are forced to choose, as they may well be this month [2], this poll shows that the Lexiter argument that to maximise their vote the party has to choose supporting rather than opposing Brexit is not supported by the evidence we have.

[1] Should we discount this poll because it was paid for by a Remain organisation? This is what Brexiters often do to discredit evidence. The poll would only be suspect if it was carried out by a non-reputable company, or if the question asked was a leading one. This is why I have included the exact question in this post. On when who funds research matters see here

[2] Some Remainers also claim that Corbyn has already failed to stop Brexit. I can see no good evidence for this claim. However if the leadership recommended or even allowed abstaining on a crucial vote that allowed Brexit to happen, then Brexit would quite rightly be seen by Remainers as enabled by Labour, because by abstaining Labour were critical in allowing Brexit to go ahead. This is confirmed in a follow-up poll to the one discussed above released today. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

What does the ‘Stupid Woman’ saga tell us about the media

It was the middle of December 2018, with 100 days to go before the UK was due to leave the EU. Parliament was supposed to have had a ‘meaningful vote’ on the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) negotiated by the EU and Theresa May. If parliament failed to approve the WA and nothing else happened, the UK would exit with No Deal (ND) and economic and social chaos would follow. It was therefore vital that this vote took place to move things forward, but after days of debate the government ‘pulled’ the vote, which simply meant it didn’t happen. May now says it will happen in the second half of January.

There was no good reason to delay the vote. It was done because the government was certain it would lose. Much better, the executive decided, to play for time and hope that in January the prospect of ND would scare a few more MPs into voting for the WA. Few politicians have risked the future of their country in such a major way just to try and win a vote, but that was not all. The government also approved billions in spending to prepare for ND. Billions that might not have needed spending if the government had allowed a vote, and MPs had subsequently agreed some way through this impasse.

The leader of the opposition was understandably furious about this delay. Corbyn accused Theresa May of "running down the clock" on alternatives to her Brexit deal by seeking assurances from the EU that she knew she would not get. He attacked May for a criminal waste of money simply designed to "make her own bad deal look like the lesser of two evils". The government and Theresa May were on the ropes.

But then Conservative MPs suddenly found something they could unite about. One of them had thought they had seen Corbyn mouth the words ‘stupid woman’ after one of Theresa May’s replies. Conservative MPs implored the Speaker to do something about this ‘gross insult’ (see picture above). Corbyn was forced to return to the house, and claimed he had said ‘stupid people’.

If this sounds trivial to you relative to the state the country finds itself in as a result of the Prime Minister’s actions, you would of course be correct. But as far as most of the UK media were concerned, what Corbyn had actually said became the lead story of the day. Just try typing ‘stupid woman’ into Google. They employed lip readers to speculate on what he had said, or rather what he had said under his breath. Was Corbyn lying about what he had mouthed or not? It made great TV and great copy. Everyone could watch the video and make their mind up (although of course once you have a phrase in your head it is easy to see what you want to see).

I could not help being reminded of the US presidential elections and Clinton’s emails. The US broadcast media hardly talked about policy, or character, but mostly talked about Hillary Clinton using her personal email to do business while Secretary of State. As an issue it was trivial compared to the obvious flaws in Trump as a person, but it allowed Trump to repeat endlessly his phrase ‘crooked woman’. Perhaps if he had said ‘stupid woman’ things might have been different!

The eagerness of Conservative MPs to focus on what Corbyn didn’t say, which is clear in this wonderful photograph, reflects that they desperately wanted to change the subject away from what May had done. The UK broadcast media, with perhaps a single exception [1], took the bait. I think this tells us three interesting things about the values of political journalists in the broadcast media.

The first, and in some ways least interesting, is that this media is bias against Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular. Least interesting because it is something academic studies have already shown pretty clearly. The second is that the media appear to have no sense of what is actually important. What Corbyn mouthed in parliament is totally trivial. May spending billions just because she was going to lose a vote is right at the top of things that are important.

How can the media focus on the trivial when there is something really important to talk about instead? This I think is the third point about what all this tells us about the values of political journalists in the broadcast media, and it in some way goes to explain the other two. UK political journalism is obsessed by parliament. So when lots of Conservative MPs get excited about something, it has to be the main story, even though it is obvious that the media is being played.

This third explains the first two to some extent [2]. The media is anti-Corbyn because most MPs are anti-Corbyn: many Labour MPs would rather have a different leader. The media’s sense of what is important is governed by what parliament thinks is important. So, for example, because neither of the main parties seem to care about scandals involving the Vote Leave campaign (too much spending, where the money came from), the BBC largely ignores it. Worse still, because key MPs are implicated in this scandal, the BBC in particular appears to take their side, as this piece by Peter Jukes sets out clearly. In many ways, therefore, the BBC in particular has become Parliament's Broadcasting Corporation.

[1] Channel 4 led with the real crisis, and discussed the incident about half way through their hour long 7pm bulletin.

[2] I emphasise the some. The research I linked to above suggested little bias in who appeared in the media at the end of the Labour government, but a clear Conservative bias subsequently. In other words the anti-Labour bias at the BBC is not just because the Conservatives have more MPs.