Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 28 May 2021

Cummings, a puzzle about delayed lockdowns and more parallels between Johnson and Trump


Much (unfortunately for Hancock not all) of the material Cummings talked about in his morning testimony we already knew. Like the plans for Herd Immunity (all over by September) and how various people in and outside government realised those plans were time inconsistent (were bound to be changed as hospitals were overwhelmed). As I wrote at the end of April last year, our “Prime Minister and some in his cabinet, even in the face of predictions of hundreds of thousands of deaths, was too content to do nothing, take it on the chin, and too fearful of curtailing economic freedoms to interrogate the advice they were given.” Johnson didn’t invent Herd Immunity, but he was happy to go along with it until some of his advisors persuaded him otherwise, and even then he delayed for around 10 days before imposing a lockdown.

Given what Cummings said and what we already knew, can the government really persist with lying about the initial strategy? Can the BBC really two-side this if they do? At some point the BBC should start pointing viewers to the truth. Another thing reporters must stop doing is talking about a health/economy trade off. It was good to see Cummings setting out yesterday what I and others have been saying for over a year: there is no trade-off. If you delay lockdown because of the economy, you will have a longer lockdown later with greater economic damage, and people will start locking down themselves anyway.

What was new from Cummings, and by far the most concerning part of his testimony, is that by the summer Johnson had thought he had made a mistake. According to Cummings he felt that he had been bounced into imposing a lockdown. Johnson thought he should have been like the guy from Jaws who wanted to keep the beach open, much as he had in February. Which helps explain why policy shifted in the summer to restarting the economy, with little thought for the pandemic. It was why Johnson rejected the advice from his scientists to lockdown in September. (BBC again - please stop quoting without qualification the PM saying he always followed the science. It’s such an obvious lie.)

In my last post I talked about how you had to see this government as first and foremost populists (in the Jan-Werner Müller sense), in the same ilk as Trump, Orban and others. Yet as a result of Cummings testimony I realise I had in my discussion of the government’s failures in the second half of 2020 not done that enough myself. I just couldn’t understand why Johnson kept delaying lockdowns, at the cost of many tens of thousands of lives. It was a puzzle to me, which if I had fully examined Johnson as a populist I would have understood.

One of the persistent features of Trump’s period as president was his obsession with Fox News. He preferred to get his information from Fox News than internal government briefings. In time Fox News started to understand this, and some of its journalists started directly addressing him in their shows. Why did Trump do this? Because all populists are narcissists who want to be admired by their people. Most of the time, Fox News obliged.

Narcissists don’t want to be loved, they want to be admired. Trump watched Fox obsessively to check he was still being admired. That he was a winner and not a loser. What has this got to do with Johnson and the pandemic. For me it solves the puzzle as to why Johnson didn’t follow the science in the second half of 2020.

I have in the past dismissed the influence that the anti-lockdown right wing press had on the government, as well as the anti-lockdown Tory faction of MPs for that matter. I assumed that once the government had understood the reality of how pandemics worked and the lack of any health/economy trade-off, they wouldn’t be influenced by anti-lockdown nonsense. That was true for Cummings as much as it was for the government’s scientific advice.

I had also compared, like many others, Johnson and Trump and pointed out the many similarities. They were both populists after all, interested in power for its own sake rather than as a vehicle to achieve certain policies they believed in. Nick Clegg has described Johnson as like ‘Trump with a thesaurus’. But I didn’t carry this comparison through.

If we believe Cummings, Johnson too is obsessed by the media read by ‘his people’, and in particular his own paper The Telegraph. He looks to them to check he is being admired. So when this and other right wing papers started publishing anti-lockdown nonsense, it got to him. As the Prime Minister who had locked down the economy he was no longer admired by these newspapers. This overrode any ability to understand the reasons why lockdown was necessary (and quick and hard lockdowns particularly), so he became over the summer a lockdown skeptic.

Do I believe Cummings. On this I do, because it makes perfect sense and explains why he allowed so many unnecessary deaths by ‘going for growth’ in the summer, refusing to lockdown in September, and not locking down in December. This, rather than anything that happened in March, is why Johnson wants to put off an inquiry (and will not publish the internal inquiry that has already taken place). As Cummings said, lots of people died who didn’t need to die, and Johnson is the person who let that happen by ignoring his scientific advice.

I think too many people in their commentary on Cummings feel they have to blame the messenger. On issues like the role of Sunak I would take what he says with a large pinch of salt. I don’t think Cummings is looking for any favours from Sunak but Cummings admires people who are bright and get things done. The Treasury is full of such people and Sunak probably is too. So I would discount that. But Cummings’ discussion of the pandemic itself fits the facts. So when Cummings says that Johnson regretted locking down in March I can believe him, because it helps solve a puzzle about behaviour that I have seen no other satisfactory explanation for.

Johnson became a lockdown skeptic, and many tens of thousands of people died as a result, because he was obsessed with how he appeared in the anti-lockdown press and among his anti-lockdown MPs. Like Trump, he wanted to be admired by the media of his people, and like Trump that desire was sufficient to override all the good advice he received within government. When Cummings said Johnson cannot be trusted to run this country, he is merely confirming a view some of us have had for some time. What we couldn’t predict is that this wouldn’t just cost many livelihoods, it would also cost tens of thousands of lives.

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Johnson leads a populist government which should not be normalised


Did Trump move Republican policy to the left? Before you think too hard about that, I want to suggest it misses the point. Trump was a populist. Populism is a much abused word, but I want to use it in the way set out by Jan-Werner Müller. For him populism is a form of anti-pluralism, a government that does not accept any constraints on its power beyond the electorate (at least as long as they win elections).

I want to look at two recent discussions of the Johnson government in this light. The first is by John Rentoul, who describes this as the most left wing Conservative government since Ted Heath and possibly forever. It describes a common idea (on the left and right) that this government cannot be right wing because it has ‘opened the fiscal floodgates’. The second is by Will Davies, who puts part of the success of this government down to ‘discretion rather than rules’, and in taming the Treasury. I want to suggest that both would follow naturally from the populist nature of this government, but so far the Treasury and Chancellor have not been tamed as much as these accounts suggest.

The populism, or anti-pluralism, of this government is as clear as it could be in its latest Queen’s Speech, which sets out what the government intends to do over the next session of parliament. It contains a bill that will restrict the ability of the courts to hold the government to account. No longer will the courts be able to stop the government closing down parliament. It contains a bill to make photo-ID compulsory in elections, which is a form of gerrymandering. The voting system in Mayoral and PCCs elections will be changed to FPTP, because it favours the Conservatives. It also contains a bill that will allow the police (and therefore the Home Secretary) to ban any demonstration they do not like.

This government just does not do accountability. No minister has resigned since the cabinet was formed just after the general election, despite many scandals that would have led to resignation in the past. The institutions of government that guard against ministerial wrongdoing, like the ministerial code, are now effectively meaningless as Johnson can and has overridden them. Parliament, that was once the ultimate source of power, is no longer, as the government increasingly ignores its existence. Johnson treats any opposition as an annoyance, constantly questioning why it is opposing rather than supporting his policies.

Like all populists of the Trump, Orban type, Johnson aims through media dominance and habitual lying to create an alternative reality where the government are heroes rather than villains. There was never ever any plan by the government to achieve herd immunity, we were told (and continue to be told) in all seriousness after the government ditched its plan for herd immunity. Of course all governments spin, but gross lying like this is rare in normal governments, but it becomes the habitual first resort of populists.

Most government’s arrive with an extensive policy agenda, and spend the first few years of their administration putting that agenda into law. This government had one policy, Brexit. Brexit as implemented by this government is a classic populist (in the Müller sense) policy. Not only was the policy promoted as the will of the people, where ‘the people’ excluded the 48% who voted against it, but it was enacted in a very populist (but unpopular) way, where any potential restraints on the government’s power from the EU (restraints we would normally call intergovernmental cooperation) were eliminated as being anti-Brexit.

There is only one constraint that this government does not intend to eliminate, and that is having to be elected whenever it chooses to hold an election or after 5 years. As a result, much of what it does is designed to make that more likely. Brexit was won by getting the votes of socially conservative voters, which is why the government is obsessed by being as nasty as it can be to asylum seekers and other immigrants, and why it talks so much about an anti-WOKE agenda. (Whether ‘the people’ are as obsessed by either is an interesting question.) Because it now has many more seats in the North it has a ‘leveling up’ agenda. If you look at many of the elements of that agenda we have seen so far, it amounts to channeling money to Tory parliamentary constituencies rather than areas of deprivation.

What the government will do, at any opportunity, is to help its friends and financial backers. It saw the COVID pandemic as a means of turning a crisis into opportunity, by farming out large elements of test and trace to the private sector and PPE procurement to its friends. It will override planning laws, and therefore the objections of its often traditional Tory voters, to allow its friends in the building industry to build more houses and make more profit.

If you're tempted to think that all this is not so very different from what all governments do, let me finally note another characteristic of populists: their governments are all about those at its head, who are generally narcissistic individuals who really don’t care about anyone except themselves. Johnson fits that bill, appointing a cabinet that was not the best of all talents but just those that would follow his lead. Crucially populists produce governments that don’t care about other people very much, except when they vote for them. Only a populist could dream of dealing with COVID with a policy of herd immunity, which means the government does nothing while hundreds of thousands die, just so that they could have a stronger economy than other countries subsequently. [1]

Does the furlough scheme, and the massive spend on test and trace, indicate that all fiscal restraint has gone? Of course not. The furlough scheme is just a natural counterpart to government imposed lockdown. That is why European governments adopted similar schemes. It has avoided substantial unemployment, and the last thing this government wants is large numbers of people who vote for it to experience Universal Credit (and see their savings disappear). As for test and trace, the government saw that as a good opportunity to sustain certain companies in the private sector.

As to fiscal rules and the power of the Treasury, the Treasury and Chancellor Rushi Sunak still have a kind of fiscal rule, which is that government debt should be falling in the medium term. This is why large areas of public spending face further tightening [2] and taxes are planned to rise. The fiscal stimulus during the recovery amounts to a single measure to bring investment forward, and looks feeble compared to what Biden is doing in the US. This is because Sunak still believes in fiscal restraint, and he has sold that to Johnson as being an essential part of the Conservative brand.

The term I would use for the government’s fiscal response to the pandemic and its subsequent recovery spending is not that it is left wing for a Conservative government, but that it is ironically rather European. The UK’s approach to recovery, like that adopted in the Eurozone, remains obsessed with stabilising the level of government debt. To argue in either case that their response to the pandemic shows that the fiscal floodgates are now permanently open would simply be wrong.

In looking at how left wing a government is, I think it is at least as important to look at what the government is or isn’t trying to do about inequality as it is to look at fiscal policy. Child poverty has risen over recent years under a Conservative government and is expected to rise further under this government. The pandemic has hit poorer households badly, whereas most other households have increased their savings, further increasing poverty and inequality. This government shows no signs of doing anything about any of this, and prefers to just lie about it when challenged. As poverty gets almost no attention in the media, this is likely to continue.

Of course populists prefer discretion rather than rules, as long as it is their discretion. [3] So why does Johnson, who has little time for fiscal rules, allow Sunak and the Treasury to plan as if one was still there? Here we need to talk about another possible constraint on populists, and that is their party. If Johnson goes too far in the eyes of enough Tory MPs he could be deposed. While a vocal number of Tory MPs (vocal in part because they had the support of the Tory press) were complaining about lockdowns last year, another large part were worried that Johnson was just not up to the job of managing a pandemic. His position in 2020 was insecure, which is partly why he was happy for Sunak to plan to raise taxes in areas that most voters would never experience directly. Whether Johnson remains happy now that his position is stronger will depend on whether he believes fiscal restraint is essential in winning elections. .

Once you see Johnson as a populist, it becomes obvious that he will hate any constraints on his power, whether they come from rules or directly from the Treasury. He will spend money on his friends (whether donors to the party or donors to himself), and will spend money in any way that secures his position with the voters, as long perhaps as he can claim to be fiscally responsible. The danger of describing such spending as left wing, or as reducing the power of the Treasury, is that it normalises a populist government: a populist government that will be defined by history for its authoritarianism, lack of accountability, habitual lying, inhumanity, corruption and anti-pluralism.

[1] The herd immunity policy only ended when it became clear it would lead to NHS chaos, which would look very bad and would threaten the government’s popularity. Ever since in Johnson’s mind overwhelming the NHS, rather than deaths or illness per se, has been the constraint on doing nothing. It is why he intends to ignore the Indian variant because he is hoping a large spike in cases will not lead to an overwhelmed NHS. It is nevertheless a foolish policy in its own terms, because a large rise in cases will severely limit the recovery.

[2] I can find only one area of public spending that will see an improvement in the funding they need over the next few years: education. NHS spending grows rapidly but that needs to happen to maintain the same level of service, and some of that increase may be eaten up by recovery from the pandemic. If any of the other areas of public spending are to improve over the next few years, either the cuts to other areas will be greater or the government’s spending plans will have to be revised.

[3] The Davies article is more interesting than this sentence might suggest. He is absolutely right that the most fiscally responsible government under Blair/Brown is believed otherwise only because of subsequent unchallenged (by Labour) Tory spin. However I think the ‘second government’ that operated under Brown, where the Treasury had more control over the details of departmental spending than it ever had before, was unique to the Granita accord. Neither Osborne or Hammond had the same degree of interest in what other departments did, although legacies of the brown era might have remained. (A major criticism of Osborne is that his cuts were largely arbitrary, with little interest in their economic consequences.) Fiscal rules, on the other hand, always make sense if they are good rules. Problems arise when they are not, and are used as cover to implement other objectives.

Monday 17 May 2021

Is the spread of the Indian variant in the UK an inevitable result of living with COVID?


Acting fast

The Indian variant (B.1.671.2) of COVID-19 is now fairly well entrenched in parts of the UK and is increasing rapidly. Cases in the North West are rising, sharply among the young. For detailed analysis of what we know about this variant and how quickly it is spreading (once we exclude carriers who came from India) it is best to follow Christina Pagel (@chrischirp) e.g. here. She and other experts think that it is of sufficient concern that we should have stopped today's relaxation of the lockdown.

If there is one thing we should have learnt in dealing with COVID (and some of those dealing with pandemics already knew, like Mike Ryan here) is to act fast. If you wait until you know you are right you will lose, because the virus would have already won. Moving fast is an example of the precautionary principle: you plan for the worst outcome even if you are not sure you need to act at all.

At the moment we have rather poor information on how effective our vaccines will be in stopping this new variant. But if we wait for clear evidence on that question, it will be too late because by then the variant will have spread too much, such that only a lockdown can stop the spread. This is because the Indian variant is more infectious than the other variants of concern.

Living with COVID

Some of those who read this post about how well the elimination strategy had done compared to the approach in most of the West before vaccines rollout asked how does it apply to a world that is vaccinated? In a post in February I talked about two paths to dealing with COVID once vaccines have been rolled out: elimination and living with COVID. While elimination is clearly superior when we have no vaccine, the issue is more balanced after everyone is vaccinated.

I didn’t get the arguments quite right in the February post, so let me give an amended version. The big negative of the elimination strategy is that it makes it much harder for international travel from or to other countries that follow a living with COVID strategy. That is not a problem if enough other countries follow an elimination strategy, but no Western countries seem likely to do that now that vaccines are here. Turning to the living with COVID strategy that we in the UK are now following, the big negative is the country becomes susceptible to COVID variants.

A question I didn’t address in February, but should have, is whether a compromise between the two strategies would be both possible and desirable. The compromise abandons quarantine for all travellers, but is much stricter in when it does impose quarantine. It does not wait for weeks until it is sure a new variant is a serious concern before putting visitors in hotel quarantine (in the UK the red list). If the UK had followed this compromise solution involving a precautionary approach to variants, the Indian variant would be much less of a threat than it is now. The extent of UK incidence of the Indian variant isn't a consequence of living with COVID, its a consequence of ignoring the precautionary principle in pandemics.

Not controlling our borders

The Indian variant was first identified in October. Cases in India started rising rapidly in March, and the Indian authorities expressed concern about the variant on 24th March. Yet it wasn’t until 23rd April that India was put on the red list.

This delay was particularly odd given that both Pakistan and Bangladesh were put on the red list on 9th April, despite having less COVID cases per head on that date. The criteria for being put on the red list is long and vague, so it seems highly likely that there were political elements to the delay in putting India on that list. Is it really a coincidence that India was put on the red list within hours after Johnson cancelled his trip? The reason the Prime Minister gave for the delay in putting India on the red list is that the Indian variant had not yet been identified as a variant of concern. However there is plenty of the South African variant in India as well as Bangladesh, and Pakistan has not identified that variant. 

It is also unclear why there were days between that announcement (April 19th) and the implementation of that decision (April 23rd). The quarantine system needs to have inbuilt spare capacity to handle passengers who started travelling before the country was put on the red list. At the very least the travellers between those two dates could have been tested at the airport, before they used public transport. We know that the red list decision without implementation led to a surge in travel from India.

Why do you need to stop these variants coming into the country sooner than later? Because when numbers are small, the test, trace and isolate (TTI) infrastructure will have more time to deal with them. That assumes, of course, that you have a TTI system that is efficient. That means a system based around those that are trained to do this job (in contrast to this government’s system based on private sector firms with no local knowledge), and incentives to isolate properly (unlike the current UK system).

There are three choices for a country where everyone is vaccinated. If a country does not choose elimination for understandable reasons, then they can quarantine visitors in hotels when they are sure that is necessary (as the UK is doing) or they can quarantine visitors in hotels when that might be necessary. The first is making sure you are right before imposing restrictions, and the second is acting fast. If you do the first you will at some point get it wrong and the virus will beat you.

The UK government is waiting to see

At his press conference last Friday the Prime Minister declined to stop the relaxation of lockdown due today. [1] It was absolutely clear at that conference that this was a government waiting to make sure it was doing the right thing, rather than a government taking precautionary action. [2] Indeed the Prime Minister talked about only acting if it looked like the NHS was going to be overwhelmed. Such a high bar for action together with a government that waits until it is sure it needs to act is a recipe for disaster during a pandemic, as it was throughout 2020.

SAGE in their latest analysis says “If this variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to B.1.1.7, sensitivity analyses in the modelling of the roadmap in England (SAGE 88) indicate that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone (with no other local, regional, or national changes to measures) would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks).” It describes that extra transmissibility as a “realistic possibility”. I would be very surprised if SAGE would have done nothing but wait and see if they had been in charge. Once again the UK is not following the science.

Perhaps the Indian variant will turn out to be quite weak against vaccination, and as more people are vaccinated it will die out. I really hope that happens. But the Indian variant will not be the last overseas variant to enter the UK. In putting countries on the red list, if we continue to wait until we are sure they should go on that list we will be open to these variants spreading in the UK. If this variant doesn’t get us, another might.

In addition, a further danger of ‘living with COVID’ is that you produce your own variant which is capable of bypassing the vaccines defences. COVID cases in the UK are still high: according to the testing they have settled down to just over 2,000 a day, although the ONS survey suggests a modest decline. For that reason, it is not clear whether R is above or below 1. It would be much wiser to not relax the lockdown further and try and bring that number down, because the lower the number of cases the lower the chance of producing a home grown variant.

In short, if a country chooses to ‘live with COVID’ because it has vaccinated most people, it has to adopt a precautionary approach. This means putting countries on the red list if there is a small chance of a new dangerous variant, ensuring you have a TTI system that works, getting case numbers as low as you can and keeping them there. Only by doing that can you avoid constant scares about new overseas or home grown variants. If you wait until you know you are right to act you will lose.

The unfortunate truth is that we have a government incapable of applying a precautionary approach. If you have any doubt about this, please read “Failures of State” by two Sunday Times journalists. Johnson has caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths by failing to act on scientific advice not once, not twice but three times. It is unfortunately true that most of the UK deaths in this pandemic could have been avoided. [3]

After my last post on what Labour needs to do, I got some comments along the lines that Johnson’s lying is priced in, and exposing his and his government’s lies will achieve little. This government’s inactions have directly killed tens of thousands of its citizens. The biggest lie of all is that the government did everything they could and followed the science in this pandemic. I refuse to believe that if voters understood the truth of what this government actually did during this pandemic, and is continuing to do, it would still look set to win the next election. This government’s popularity relies on suppressing the truth.

[1] I thought he might continue to relax the lockdown in most places but have a stricter regime in areas where the Indian variant is concentrated. The lessons from the emergence of the British variant last year show that this doesn’t work. First, many people just don’t know what rules apply to them. Second, people move around whatever the rules say. It is like getting in the fire brigade to fight a fire in one building and covering the neighbouring buildings with petrol. But he didn’t even do that. Instead he just suggested people acted cautiously in travelling to the Bolton area. He is advising caution for individuals but ignoring caution in government.

[2] The same applies to removing masks in schools.

[3] Johnson continues to lie to the public, talking about it’s ‘very tough’ quarantine regime for travellers not from red list countries. Calling a scheme where a virus is easily transmitted to other members of a household very tough is a sick joke. Why does he think the Indian variant has so easily spread to UK residents if his quarantine regime is very tough?!

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.