Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 10 May 2021

Some lessons in how to combat the Tory propaganda machine


The initial results of voting last Thursday are very easily explained. First, voters had a terrible year in 2020 and government help in getting the vaccine out means 2021 is looking much better, so naturally voters will reward the government. That means the Tories in England, Labour in Wales and the SNP in Scotland (modified by tactical voting against a second independence referendum). It’s like Brown’s poll bounce as he saved the banks, and therefore large parts of the economy, from the effects of the Global Financial Crisis.

Second, on top of that, Conservatives have recreated their Brexit success, because to many who voted Brexit, the vaccine rollout doesn’t just reflect well on the current UK government, it validates their choice to vote Leave and the party that got Brexit done. While many Brexit voters were beginning to doubt the wisdom of their choice in the second half of 2020, those doubts have disappeared. As a result to a first approximation in England the polls last Thursday were a repeat of the 2019 election, with the Conservative party becoming the Brexit party.

In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?

As the results further south came in, the picture was reversed. The Tories lost Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, lost the Cotswold's Chipping Norton to Labour, lost Tumbridge Wells and elsewhere, and Labour lost many contests in Bristol to the Greens. 

The odd thing about these elections was Starmer’s reaction to them. As he hasn’t given left wing social conservatives something left wing to vote for, how did he expect anything different from 2019 in red wall seats? Sacking Rayner is, to quote Stephen Bush, just “mystifyingly stupid, self-discrediting and self-destructive”. Johnson is a populist and to his target voters he promises whatever they want to hear. Starmer needs to start demonstrating that those promises are empty and he can do better, and not keep making the story about Labour’s internal wars. .

In terms of political deception, this idea that the UK’s vaccine rollout vindicates Brexit is the best kind of myth because it’s based on a half-truth. It is true that the UK’s vaccine rollout has been faster than the EU’s, and the EU had a joint vaccine procurement programme. That is easily enough for Boris Johnson, and it is enough for pretty well all Brexit voters. In terms of public perception it just doesn’t matter that what is stated as a truth is at best a conjecture (if the UK had stayed in the EU would it have joined the joint programme?). What makes this myth particularly powerful is that many Brexit voters want to believe they made the right choice, so they want to believe it is true.

Johnson is not the first Tory Prime Minister to create a powerful myth out of a half-truth. Perhaps the most successful in recent times was the Coalition government’s claim that austerity was necessary because of the previous Labour government’s profligacy. This was a myth that could be easily shown to be false by looking at just one chart, but that was too much for the media to do. They just recalled Labour being criticised over insufficient consolidation, which was a half-truth because any lack of consolidation was tiny compared to the impact of the GFC. Labour’s failure to challenge the myth ensured it became ‘common knowledge’, and it ended up forming the basis of Cameron’s 2015 election win.

That episode points to the first lesson in how to begin combatting the Tory propaganda machine: counter myths quickly and hard. Combating Tory spin and propaganda does not mean the odd fact check or statement by a minor minister - it means a senior opposition minister of better still the Labour leader doing the rounds of the broadcast media studios, because that is Labour’s only hope of communicating with most people. In addition only by doing this do you have any chance of preventing the political journalists from the broadcast media accepting the myth as truth, and this matters because the broadcast media is the only route to countering the Tory propaganda machine.

The Tory propaganda machine is formidable because it has most of the daily press on its side. The broadcast media tends to follow the press. It is one reason why people seem to have forgiven Johnson allowing the second wave to grow but credited him for the vaccine rollout. The only thing Labour has going for it is rules about balance that apply to the broadcast media. It will be hard for the broadcast media to ignore senior opposition ministers or their leader. It will also be hard for this media to accept as true something the opposition party fiercely contests.

This leads to a second lesson for Labour. Commission research on the airtime each party gets on each broadcast platform, and use it if (as I suspect) it shows Tory politicians appearing many times more often than Labour. (Comparable figures from the past are available.) Use that as a lever to get senior Labour politicians appearing on the broadcast media to counter important Tory misinformation.

The third lesson is to choose which myths Labour tries to counter wisely. As I have already noted, attacking the idea that Brexit allowed the UK’s superior vaccine rollout is hard to contest, partly because so many Brexit voters want to believe it but mainly because it might have been true. In contrast, the idea that the government’s policy of Freeports is only possible because of Brexit is easy to refute because some EU countries have freeports and parts of the UK used to have them while we were in the EU. Contest those lies that are important and easy to refute.

The advantage of this strategy is that it will begin to create the idea that Johnson is not trustworthy. Starmer’s approach to PMQs does not do that for most voters. Yes Johnson avoids his questions, but all most people see are the soundbites that may appear on TV. In that context Johnson’s avoidance of the question is not obvious but he gets to rattle off various uncontested and often false claims. When one of these claims is false Labour has to contest them, otherwise many voters who see the claim unchallenged on TV and in the papers will unsurprisingly assume it is true.

That is about correcting misinformation. But Labour also needs to counteract Tory spin. This government is very good at spin, partly because they are happy to depart from facts, and if you take this spin at face value you would believe it is championing a Green revolution (it is not), leveling up economic activity northwards (it is not) and spending large amounts of public money on public services (it is not). So the fourth lesson for Labour is to do far more to counteract this spin. If Labour is to have any chance of winning back any of the Brexit seats they lost in 2019 they have not just to make a strong economic offer before the election but also convince the voters that the government is not doing the same. The former means nothing without the latter.

For those rightly saying Labour needs to say what it stands for, challenging Tory spin will go a long way to fixing that, because a standard line of most journalists confronted with an opposition pointing out obvious government lies or spin is ‘what would you do then?’ Even if it isn’t asked Labour can say where their policy differs from the government. (What you do not do is this.)

Highlighting things that are not said is as important as attacking misinformation. For example Labour really should be making more noise about NHS privatisation. Rather than a general attack I would focus on one aspect almost exclusively: the takeover of 58 GP practices by Operose Health, a UK subsidiary of the US company Centene, and the likelihood that others will follow. This is a result of the 2012 reforms, and Labour can point out that a CEO of Operose has become a No10 advisor. Labour can hammer home that a GP services run for profit is not compatible with the ethos of the NHS. The NHS may remain free at the point of use, but GPs service run for profit do not guarantee quality of service, and almost certainly will reduce quality. [1]

Labour has had some success attacking sleaze and corruption, and there is enough material there to take us to the next election. This is important to do, not only because it will influence voters at some point, but also because corruption is so close to what this government is. I think trying to equate it to sleaze under Major (‘same old’) is a mistake, because the scale of it today is well beyond that. Instead two points need to be hammered home. First, how its scale is unprecedented. Second, why it matters to ordinary people, such as here.

I’m sure there are other areas like this where Labour just are not making enough noise. Above it all is the economy, but it will be hard to make much headway in the near future when the media will be banging on about record growth (which is just the consequence of the record recession caused by the pandemic). Over the next year Labour need to relentlessly point that out, by making comparisons to 2019. What it does after the recovery is over can wait for another post.

Why have I not talked about policies? Good policies are important, but there is no point having good policies if you are not getting them across. A populist government aims to dominate the media, which is why Labour must get better at being a counterpoint to the government's propaganda machine. A populist government will only be defeated when enough voters, with the help of the opposition, realise there is little substance behind the spin and lies.

Even if Labour did all this, I still think it has almost no chance of winning the next election without cooperation with the LibDems and Greens over which party stands in marginals. The reason is structural and simple. Labour do need to appeal to left wing social conservative voters, and that is bound to alienate many social liberals who feel Labour is failing to champion enough social liberal causes. (This is not helped by making those on the left in Labour feel unwelcome [2]). The Green party did well on Thursday, and will continue to pick up votes as a result of Labour’s strategy from those unwilling to vote tactically. Without cooperation with other opposition parties Labour’s strategy is highly likely to be self-defeating. This seems like a basic problem with Labour’s strategy that Labour have failed to address.[3]

[1] To any Tory apologist that talks about private sector efficiency gains, just compare the vaccine rollout under the NHS to the government’s test and trace infrastructure that had substantial private sector involvement, cost billions and kept failing its targets.

[2] Those on Labour’s right who think they have to replay the 1980s to win again should look at the US, which is a far more relevant parallel when fighting a populist.

[3] I know Labour’s constitution prevents this kind of cooperation, so change the constitution! I suspect the main hurdle to this is not Labour members but the Labour leadership.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

How most of the West got the pandemic so badly wrong?

It takes a lot to shock me nowadays, but the failure of most OECD countries over this pandemic I do find shocking. Not in the case of the UK under Johnson, the US under Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro or India under Modi, as the reasons for their failures are all too obvious. After all Johnson had the idea before the pandemic that the UK should be the one country to opt out of restricting the economy to save lives, and that this would give the UK some big global economic advantage. Only when the implied NHS chaos was explained to him did he change his mind. What I find shocking is the failure of mainland Europe almost without exception

A few countries did completely understand what they needed to do, which was to follow an elimination strategy. If you are still not convinced of the wisdom of this strategy, a recent article in the Lancet should help. It compares the small number of OECD countries (Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Iceland and Japan) that did undertake an elimination strategy (sometimes called zero-COVID) with most of the other OECD countries that did not. Here is the first chart from that study:

Quite simply the elimination strategy is infinitely better at avoiding COVID deaths. It is infinitely better at avoiding cases of long-COVID. It is also better for the economy as the chart below from that study shows (the red line represents the elimination countries):

Elimination countries saw a smaller fall in GDP, and a faster recovery at the end of 2020 and so far in 2021. The big lie perpetuated in the majority of OECD countries that failed to go for elimination is that there was a health/economy trade-off. As this table shows that is not true, and as I argued quite soon after the pandemic hit we knew it was not true. The reason it is not true is very simple: if you fail to lockdown hard and early to eliminate the virus, it will carry on growing exponentially either forcing a much longer and stricter lockdown later on and/or people will just stay at home anyway which will have a huge impact on the economy. This is shown clearly in the final chart from the Lancet article:

Were the countries that adopted elimination worse off in any way? As far as I can see in only one way: freedom of overseas travel. Elimination requires hotel quarantine or just travel bans to stop COVID cases coming in from abroad. Of course if more countries had adopted an elimination strategy, the less severe those travel restrictions would be because travel would often be possible between elimination countries.

Could the extent of international travel explain why most OECD countries rejected elimination? There is one major reason why this may be important. The bigger your tourism industry is, the bigger is your loss if you essentially end it. However it is difficult to argue that this provides a clear difference between the few countries that have adopted an elimination strategy and those who have not. France certainly has a large number of inward international travellers per head of population compared to most countries, but not compared to Iceland. Germany has a similar level of inward tourism per head as Australia and South Korea, and less than New Zealand. So while pressure from the tourist industry and the airline industry matters, it does not seem critical in preventing countries adopting an elimination strategy.

Having heard countless arguments about why the elimination countries can adopt elimination and other countries cannot, I’ve concluded that looking for any kind of demographic explanation is futile. It is, I believe, much more productive to look at the quality of expert advice received and the quality of governments involved. With just one exception, all the countries that have adopted anything like an elimination strategy (including outside the OECD like China and Vietnam) are in or are close to what we call the far East, and have had recent experience with severe pandemics. Australia and New Zealand have undoubtedly been influenced by that experience. In contrast the West has not, and is more used to pandemics involving much less fatal flu viruses.

The exception is Iceland, but it is a small island run by a pretty rational government with excellent testing facilities. New Zealand also had good advice and a rational government. COVID policy in Australia is state specific, and it was states run by Labour that led the way in pursuing an elimination strategy and closing their state borders.

However it is not the failure to adopt an elimination strategy that I find shocking. After all there was no clear consensus among epidemiologists in Europe in favour of elimination before the pandemic started, and there still isn’t even today despite the evidence above. What is true is that this evidence requires before the next pandemic that some consensus is reached among epidemiologists in the West about when (in terms of how infectious and deadly a virus is) eradication becomes a sensible strategy.

What I find shocking is the failure of governments to learn a much simpler and less controversial point, which is that when cases start increasing you lockdown hard and quickly. In other words the second and now third waves we are seeing in Europe is a terrible indictment of the quality of the politicians leading these countries. No one disputes that if countries had locked down earlier and with full severity during the first wave less people would have died and the lockdown would have lasted for less time. (Eradication is about going the extra mile after any lockdown has brought cases right down.)

Yet despite this obvious truth, European politicians have failed to implement this lesson. Failed not once, but twice. In the cases I know about they rejected advice from experts, and tried to get away with weaker restrictions that failed to stem the rise in cases. As I have previously speculated during the second wave, one way to explain it is that businesses hit by lockdowns have a loud voice heard by governments, while the elderly and medics have a much weaker voice. But that explanation is hardly an excuse, particularly as governments are simply responding to myopia or lack of understanding by those pushing against lockdown.

One answer to this political failure is to get better politicians, but that is hard to do. Another which should be much more achievable is to give a greater and much more public voice to experts, so that politicians find it much harder to deviate from their advice. But we also need, and this is a sentence I never expected to write, to give loss of life a greater weight in political calculations. The average COVID death leads to between 10 and 20 years of life lost (e.g. here), but those lost years seem to carry far too little weight among the politicians of the West. That is shocking.