Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 23 March 2018

The Output Gap is no longer a sufficient statistic for inflationary pressure

One of the features of the latest OBR forecast is that they believe the economy is operating slightly above its sustainable level (a positive output gap), where the sustainable level is the level that would keep inflation constant. To see how startling that hypothesis is, here is the latest version of a chart I have probably posted more than any other since I started writing this blog.

It is UK GDP per head (source), which is a pretty good measure of average prosperity, and a trend line in red for 2.23% growth p.a. So from 1955 to 2007 prosperity grew at an average rate of almost two and a quarter percent each year. Since then it has increased at an annual rate of around 0.35%. And if the OBR are right, none of this is due to unutilised resources and lack of demand.

The shift in trend is just as clear if we look at output per worker. Some people try and rationalise this by saying that 2007 was a boom year, and so trend growth had really been falling long before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). But the evidence does not support more than a slight downward shift in the growth trend before the GFC: the OBR estimate an output gap of 0.7% in 2006/7 and 1.8% in 2007/8.

I find it extraordinary that most economists still talk about the output gap after the GFC in the same way that it was talked about before the crisis: as a limit to how far and fast the economy can expand. To do that is in my view quite wrong. It ignores what I call the innovations gap: the difference between actual output and the level of output that firms could achieve if they started using the best technology available to them. Because there is currently a large innovations gap, firms are likely to meet additional demand not be raising prices but by investing in these more efficient techniques.

Before the GFC, we could ignore the innovation gap because it was relatively small. But since the crisis that gap for the UK and many other countries must have increased, because it is simply not plausible to assume that since the GFC technical progress has come to a virtual halt. Innovations may not have been increasing at the pre-GFC rate, but they cannot have almost stopped, which is the implicit assumption in the OBR’s analysis. Hence we have in the UK, and I suspect in many other countries, a subsrantial innovations gap which will prevent any excess demand leading to significant inflationary pressure. Some supporting evidence for this comes from the growing productivity divergence between leading firms and the rest.

Why have most firms not been investing in the most productive equipment and techniques since the GFC? I think the simple answer is fixed costs and demand. Investment projects almost always involve a large fixed cost element (disruption, retraining), and with static demand those fixed costs may exceed any efficiency gain. But in a normal recovery from a recession, where demand is growing rapidly, firms are happy to incur that fixed cost because they need to expand capacity anyway to meet growing demand. In a weak recovery, on the other hand, many firms may not need to expand capacity, with any modest increases in demand going to leading firms, firms that do invest in the latest technology. Hence the divergence noted above.

Exactly the same argument applies to the NAIRU: the level of unemployment at which inflation is constant. The NAIRU is almost certainly lower than most central banks think for a variety of reasons, but when it is approached I expected to see a pick up in investment and innovation more than a pick up in wage inflation. Investment and productivity growth go together, as a nice chart in the OBR’s latest forecast report shows (page 43).

A large innovation gap in the UK is being enhanced by Brexit. The more uncertain future demand is the more firms are likely to postpone productivity enhancing investment. It may be politically useful to delay creating a new customs union/SM for goods with the EU to try and keep the Conservative party together (as regular readers will know, I think this is inevitable because of the Irish border), but the uncertainty that delay creates just holds back UK growth. Just one more way in which both Brexit and more generally a Conservative government is an economically destructive project.

The existence of a large innovations gap, both in the UK and elsewhere, means that we need two things. First, we need a monetary policy that is very relaxed about raising interest rates. Second we need, in the UK and pretty well everywhere, a large increase in public sector investment. The first needs independent central banks to be less inflation averse and to stop treating the sustainable level of output as something which is independent of what they do. The second requires governments to stop being obsessed about deficits and instead to start investing in the future of all the people they govern.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Beliefs about Brexit

I have nothing to say on yesterday’s agreement that cannot be found in what Chris Grey or Ian Dunt writes. The difference in tone between the two seems to me to depend on different assessments of how far down the road the Irish border issue can be kicked. What I want to do instead is ask why public opinion seems oblivious to the failures of all those claims before the negotiations that ‘we hold all the cards’ compared to the reality that the UK has largely agreed to the terms set out by the EU.

I think as good a place to start as any is this poll result from ORB.

The view of the overwhelming majority of economists, and all the analysis from serious academics, the OBR, IMF, OECD, and now even the government, is that leaving the EU will involve significant economic costs. Yet despite all this the poll above shows as many people think we will be better off leaving as think we will be worse off. This is the kind of polling that should stop everyone in their tracks, much like the polls before the US election that said more people trusted Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.

The result in this poll is all the more incredible because so far people are worse off as a result of Brexit. They are worse off because a depreciation immediately after the vote led to higher import prices that have not been matched by rising nominal wages. We have moved from the top to the bottom of the OECD growth league table. A belief that we will be better off has to involve Brexit in some way reversing what has already happened.

I can think of two classes of explanation for this apparent paradox. The first is that people are fully aware of what experts and the government thinks, but ignores this because they simply do not trust experts. Instead they fall back on simple ideas like there will be less immigrants after Brexit so they will be better off. Ideas that experts also say are wrong, but where experts are again ignored.

If that is the line you want to take, then it has a clear implication. The implication is never hold a referendum on anything. It is not normally a good idea to take decisions where you ignore all expertise.

There is however a second and much simpler explanation for the poll result shown above. I know about the view of the overwhelming majority of economists, the analysis from serious academics, the OBR, IMF, OECD and now even the government, and so do most people reading this blog or who read the Financial Times and a few other newspapers. But do people who pay far less attention to economics and politics know this? How would they know this?

They will know very little about it from reading the papers that campaigned so hard for Brexit in the first place. At best the information will be reported in a dismissive way with some reference to how economists always get things wrong. (Hence, by the way, a distrust of economists, because most of the media is either unable or unwilling to make the distinction between conditional and unconditional forecasts.) Against such reports will be a constant stream of comment and reporting extolling the imagined benefits of Brexit.

This propaganda could be countered by informed and informing reporting by broadcasters. Unfortunately, with the exception of Sky News, the standard of reporting by broadcasters on Brexit has been very poor. In particular the BBC treats Brexit like any other Westminster based issue, with an additional touch of nationalism. We hear a great deal from May, Fox, Johnson etc, with virtually no expert analysis of what the true state of negotiations are.

I’m not an expert on international trade, but because I read some of the now numerous people who write stuff on Brexit who are experts, or who have made themselves experts, I feel I am reasonably well informed. I have never seen the same level of expertise from the broadcast media. If I just listened to the BBC or read any newspapers bar two or three, I would know almost nothing about what was really going on in the negotiations.

Let me give a personal example. I missed the importance of the Irish border until September last year. I do not think I was unusual in this respect. I suspect I did so because I was influenced by the UK line that this issue was really a phase 2 problem, a line we heard over and over again on the MSM. What the MSM rarely did was ask what people in Irish Republic felt about the border, and hence why it got to be a first stage issue in the first place.

Once I realised its importance, I could see that the Irish border issue would have a fundamental influence on any final deal, and so could many other experts. But the BBC in particular seems unable to incorporate expert opinion, either directly or indirectly, into its coverage of the negotiations, in much the same way as they failed to do so before the referendum. As a result, most voters are left with bland and uninformative coverage. I see the same Brexiter MPs over and over again being interviewed by the broadcast media, but I cannot recall any occasion in which they have been reminded of the false claims they made before the vote.

The idea that the media can heavily influence popular opinion is not new. It has been widely acknowledged that people think crime is always rising, and overestimate the number of immigrants in the UK, the extent of benefit fraud and so on. These mistakes are almost always in the direction you would expect if people were far too influenced by newspaper headlines. We also now have published papers that demonstrate that the media influences rather than just reflects voters views. (See here for Fox News, and here for the UK press. Here is another study that also finds the Murdoch switch to Labour had large effects. Here is a study about how the media influenced attitudes to welfare after the 2011 riots.)

I also think this is not the first time in recent memory that the media has failed to accurately report what was going on and what experts thought. Before the 2015 election the media accepted the idea that getting the budget deficit down was the most important goal of macroeconomic policy, and that the economic fundamentals were strong. Few experts would agree with the former, and the latter was simply false. What I call mediamacro swung the election for the Conservatives.

The UK government wants a Brexit that will involve the UK not just ending free movement, but leaving the Single Market for goods and services and leaving any customs union with the EU. It is a form of Brexit not dictated by the referendum result but by the wishes of the Brexiters in the Conservative party. The only people who can stop this happening are other Conservative MPs, but many have said that these MPs will only be able to defy their government if public opinion swings against Brexit.

But that is not going to happen. So far the shift in the public’s view of Brexit has been small, and is largely down to previous don’t knows making up their mind. This is not surprising if as many people think they will be better off after Brexit as think the opposite. The most obvious explanation for this is that people remain unaware of the overwhelming expert opinion that they will continue to become worse off after Brexit. That in turn represents another victory for right wing press propaganda, and another critical failure from most of our broadcast media.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

A road to right wing authoritarian government

This post is inspired by another, by Jan-Werner Müller. I have talked about Müller's ideas on populism before. This particular post is a plea to focus less on the voters who elect populist politicians, and more on the politicians themselves. He writes
In 2010, Viktor Orbán did not campaign on a promise to draft a new constitution, weaken checks and balances, and radically reduce media pluralism. Instead, he presented himself as a competent mainstream Christian Democrat. In Poland, the Law and Justice (PiS) party went out of its way to stress its character as a reasonable conservative party which simply wanted to provide more benefits to families with children.

The idea that most voters should see beyond the mask to understand who politicians really are is ridiculous. As the 2016 US general election showed, the information content of the broadcast media can be increasingly small.

Does Trump provide a counterexample of this, because he was an 'outsider' who was elected? I would say no for two reasons. First, the Republican party had played a large part in creating the political environment that allowed his populism to win votes. Second, the Republican party seems quite content to behave in ways which complement Trump's authoritarianism. (By attacking the CBO, for example.)

The message is that if you want to investigate populist regimes (using populist in the Müller sense) you need to look at political elites rather than the electorate. I think he is right. But what makes an elite adopt an authoritarian path? I am sure there are many answers to that question, but what I will try to do below (in no doubt a very 'untutored' way) is to show one route in what had been a pluralistic democracy by which elites from the right can move in a populist, authoritarian direction. I'm an economist, so I use a simple model.

Here is a two dimensional variation on the familiar left-right diagram. The additional dimension is sometimes called 'identity' or 'culture'. Let us assume that voters are evenly distributed inside the circle. (Not necessarily a good assumption: see here.) In a two party system you might expect both parties, if their main concern was to be elected, to adopt positions that put them close to the centre. This is because the party a voter will vote for is governed by the party that is nearest to them.

But suppose that a party wants to take a less centrist position, either because its backers wish this or because its politicians believe is some ideology. To be concrete, suppose the party of the right wants to adopt a very right wing economic policy that involves, for example, distributing income from most people to the very rich. In a one-dimensional left-right space such a party would be doomed. But suppose their opponents, for whatever reason, were fairly liberal. If we assume that the left is fairly moderate on economic issues, then that places the two parties at the position given by P in the diagram above. That leaves them evenly matched. (To see why, see below.).

The party on the right will want to focus on their socially conservative platform, while the party on the left will stress their more 'moderate' economic platform. This looks like a stable situation, which contains no threat to a pluralistic democracy. What could change to upset it? Here is just one possible route.

If the right has more influence on the media than the left, they can campaign on a platform that differs from the platform they intend to implement. If you can pretend that you are a moderate party on economic issues rather than an extreme right party, and this pretense works, then your party wins. So in terms of voter perception, the party on the right moves along the upper arrow from position P to C. The left party might respond in kind by pretending they are less liberal than they are, but because they have less media influence they cannot move so far from their true position. If we look at the campaign positions of the two parties, marked by C, it is intuitively clear that the right wing party wins any election. (The dotted lines show a proof – see [1])

We see this in the US with tax cuts (pushing the idea that lower corporation taxes will mainly raise wages), in the UK with austerity (which was really a policy to shrink the state much further than most wanted, dressed up as some kind of moralistic injunction that governments should be like households) and especially Brexit, where advocates pretended there would be no economic cost to leaving the EU. The counterpart of hiding a right wing position is to emphasise conservative issues. This is most obvious with the culture war in the US, together with the politics of race. In the UK the key social issue was immigration, which the Conservatives started focusing on from the late 1990s. (The great thing about immigration as an issue for the right is that it can be (falsely) given an economic dimension.) Again Brexit is an exemplar, with not just immigration ('protect our borders') but nationalism ('take back control').

While this results in short term gains for the right, as a tactic it is unstable in the longer term because governments once in power implement their real economic policies. We will move back from C to P on the lower arrow. Voters observe tax cuts for the better off at their expense, they observe the impact of austerity and, in the UK, they observe the consequences of Brexit. It may take some time, but right wing leaders know they are vulnerable to reality winning out over spin, so they may wish to take actions to offset the democratic consequences of being found out.

There are lots of directions this authoritarian turn can take. Taking greater control of the media, either directly by shutting down critical media or buying off media owners in exchange for support, is one direction we see taken in Hungary. Gerrymandering is favoured by Republicans in the US. Portraying opposition leaders as traitors is favoured in the UK. Ramping up nationalism and the 'threat' from immigration almost everywhere.

Politics that is exclusively along the social conservative/liberal axis can degenerate into a kind of identity politics where you just vote for your tribe. As Müller writes
The problem starts when citizens view every issue purely as a matter of partisan identity, so that the credibility of climate science, for example, depends on whether one is a Republican or a Democrat. It gets worse when partisan identity becomes so strong that no arguments from or about the legitimacy of the other side ever get through.”

The path to authoritarianism I set out here is not meant to be the whole story, and is not meant to correspond with any particular country. What I hope it does illustrate is how an authoritarian government can emerge when a party adopts a very right wing economic policy, and pretends it has not. It happens without voters changing their views or preferences in any way. It is authoritarian populism that comes from the behaviour of right wing elites.

[1] To see which party wins (assuming my geometry is correct), draw a line between the two positions, and then draw a line at right angles that bisects it. Every voter on that line is indifferent (equidistant) between the two parties, and therefore every voter either side of the line votes for each party.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

No spring in the UK air

I was not going to write anything about the non-event of Hammond’s Spring statement, in part because I confess I am tired of writing about the Conservative party’s hopeless macroeconomic policy. It is like being forced to second mark all the fails from a first year economics exam. There is a danger that if you keep on writing things like ‘the government is not like a household’ and ‘pro-cyclical policy is a mistake’ your writing becomes illegible or you start writing everything in capital letters. I can sense Chris Dillow is also running out of patience, 

So this time I will ignore macroeconomics and write instead about political economy and distribution. The political economy of modern Conservatism is extreme laissez faire in the following sense. The belief is that if you let businessmen (they are usually men) get on with things, and take away red tape, regulations, and reduce taxes, all will be well. There is no need to help with public sector investment and R&D initiatives, or worry about rent extraction: the private sector can always do things better itself. The public sector does not support the private sector, but just gets in the way. An obvious consequence is that the Chancellor is reduced to a glorified bookkeeper, and political success comes with balancing the books and shrinking the state

The results of this approach have been disastrous. This laissez faire experiment took place in the most favourable of circumstances: a recovery from a very deep recession which if history is any guide should have seen rapid growth. The result has been the slowest recovery for as long as anyone can remember. This chart from the Resolution Foundation shows this clearly.

The economic approach of those on the right of politics has therefore failed, and failed big. 

Perhaps it has been unlucky. Perhaps for some as yet unexplained reason the financial crisis has doomed the subsequent recovery. Perhaps the tepid recovery is a consequence of the particular mistakes of austerity and Brexit rather than a reflection of the overall laissez faire approach. That debate has begun in progressive circles, but in the mainstream media and among Conservative politicians we still hear talk of ‘strong and stable’. It is as if everyone is living in a postmodern world where the economy can be whatever government politicians wish it to be.

I have talked in the past about how this fiction of a strong economy can be sustained despite being obviously false. I argued that this deceit won the Conservatives the 2015 election. But I think there is another factor I have not mentioned before, and that is how the burden of austerity has been spread.

This chart from the IFS tells us all we need to know. On the horizontal axis are income deciles, with the richer to the right. On the vertical axis is the loss (or small gain) as a result of fiscal measures. The grey line shows what happened under the Coalition government. Austerity hit the poor most, but the richest also lost income. Austerity under a Conservative government, either already under way or (mostly) planned, hits the poor most and actually slightly benefits the ‘almost rich’.

We can say quite clearly, and without caveats, that the poor have born the brunt of austerity in terms of income gains or losses. In that sense we have not, and nor will we be, all in this together. Jonathan Portes estimates these changes will increase child poverty by 1.5 million over the next 5 years. Since Margaret Thatcher, Conservative governments have been and continue to be regressive (transferring money from the poor to the rich) and have increased poverty.

This chart also tells us how we can have political commentators talking about the end of austerity. Political commentators are secure in the upper half of the income distribution. For them, austerity has indeed come to an end. But for those who are working class, poor or left behind austerity is very far from over. No wonder they say “that’s your GDP, not ours” when real wages have been steadily falling yet political commentators let government politicians get away with talking about a strong economy.

Austerity has hit and will continue to hit those who can least bear it, but it has had very little impact on your average Conservative party member, or your average political commentator working for the BBC. This government has not just continued where Mrs Thatcher left off in dividing this country by class, but it has also divided it by age and divided it once again over Brexit. We may have just had the spring statement, but the country is still in the winter of its discontent.   

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Budget deficits, fiscal councils and authoritarian regimes

Budget deficits are a constant temptation for politicians. If you want to cut some taxes it is politically easier to do this by borrowing than by raising other taxes or reducing spending. If the electorate were fully informed this should not be the case, but they are not fully informed. We have clear evidence that many (not all) politicians succumb to this temptation: economists call it the problem of deficit bias. Running deficits are attractive because in most cases they do no immediate harm. In the past I have likened them to drinking or eating too much: do it once and no great harm is done, but do it repeatedly and problems arise, if only because taxes have to increase to pay the interest on the mounting debt.

This point about no immediate harm is vital to understand. It means that if there is a good reason to run large deficits that increase government debt, like an economic downturn (automatic stabilisers), or fighting a deep recession (interest rate lower bound) or high return public investment projects or disasters (natural or man made), then you should do so. Like eating too much, you can always eat less later. Fear that you might not eat less later should never be a reason for not using fiscal policy to fight a recession, or undertake much needed investment. It would be like stopping Christmas because you might eat too much.

If that is all obvious to you then skip the next three paragraphs. Some MMT economists or their followers sometimes argue that deficits never matter. If monetary policy cannot control demand and inflation and fiscal policy has to do it instead, then this is correct. It is the fighting a deep recession point above. But in reality, outwith the interest rate lower bound, interest rates are used to control demand and inflation. MMT would like fiscal policy to control inflation always, in which case the deficit is whatever it needs to be to do that task, but for the moment monetary policy is used instead. That means that the need to control inflation is not a direct constraint that removes the deficit temptation for politicians.

That is why we had deficit bias in most countries before the global financial crisis, and it is why Trump is cutting taxes and raising the deficit now. To say mounting government debt as a result of deficit bias does not matter is not credible. Even if you think the higher taxes required to cover servicing higher debt has no disincentive effect, the political consequences of high taxes cannot be favourable. To say that governments could pay for tax cuts by creating money misses the point that the bond/money mix is delegated to central banks for inflation control.

I can completely understand where MMTers are coming from. We have just been through a period where politicians have pretended the deficit was all important, and this pretense has inflicted great harm. But that does not make the opposite point of view that the deficit never matters right. As so often happens, the political right have abused economics (pretending the government is like a household) for political ends, and some on the left have reacted not by pointing out what economics actually says, but by saying we need a new economics.

Fiscal councils are a vital part of combating deficit bias for many reasons.They are no longer the oddball idea that a few of us kept going on about just 15 years ago, but as this VoxEU ebook shows they are now a standard part of how fiscal policy is done in (almost?) every advanced economy. My chapter in this ebook argues that they are a necessary part of what I call the consensus assignment. In most places they work with fiscal rules rather than being a substitute for them. They are necessary because sometimes governments try a cheat fiscal rules (PFIs in the UK) and sometimes simple fiscal rules need to be broken for some of the reasons outlined earlier.

Fiscal councils are almost always advisory bodies. (Although the more politicians do the wrong thing with fiscal policy, the greater will be calls to change this.) They have no power to tell governments what to do, and their only influence comes from their ability to adequately scrutinise what the government is doing, which in turn depends on both the voice they have within the political system, their competence [1] and their independence. Establishing that, preserving that and sometimes enhancing that are a constant battle, precisely because these bodies take away the ability of politicians to pull the wool over the voters’ eyes.

Because an effective fiscal council acts as a watchdog over the decisions of finance ministers, they become vulnerable to political attack. We now have networks that can help defend them. Fiscal councils within the EU have established their own Network. In addition within the EU the new Fiscal Board has a dual role, of both being a kind of fiscal council for the European Commission, but also to act as a champion of independent, effective EU fiscal councils as Michal Horvath suggests here. It was therefore good to see this Board warn and the Network warn against moving the Danish fiscal council away from Copenhagen. The OECD also conducts valuable assessments of fiscal councils (see Spain here), although whether the OECD has the ability and agility to defend a fiscal council under attack outside the EU is less clear.

These defences are important, because it is so easy for governments to compromise fiscal councils, by denying them information and resources, or by appointing political heads. Governments that go even further and dismiss existing fiscal councils are even more worrying. The first time I became aware of what was happening in Hungary, as I relate here, was when they abolished a strong and very active fiscal council lead by George Kopits. Far worse has happened since in Hungary, but perhaps from this experience abolishing a fiscal council is a good early warning signal of authoritarian regimes. We have also seen unprecedented attacks on the CBO by Republicans in the United States. Ironically these attacks show us that fiscal councils in some cases have become, and in other cases can become, a vital part of a pluralist democracy.

[1] That competence includes understanding when high deficits are sensible and when government debt should rise. Any fiscal council which only ever advises deficits should be lower will lose any reputation for competence.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

The three mistakes of centrism

Paul Krugman quite rightly often complains about people he calls professional centrists, who always suggest there is a middle road between the ‘extreme’ views of Democrats or Republicans. He noted that such centrists always have to blame both sides, and would typically fail to note that although the Democrats have stayed pretty much in the centre of politics, the Republicans have been gradually moving further right.

Centrists of this type were quite rightly attacked during the height of austerity, because milder cuts were not the answer. In the UK the right answer was to have no cuts until the recovery was secure and interest rates were clear of their lower bound. The centrists at the time in the UK were the Labour party (too far, too fast) and that compromise policy not only missed the point but was also unpopular because it satisfied no one. It certainly didn’t satisfy Labour party members, which is why Labour are now led by Corbyn.

But doesn’t Corbyn’s victory mean that the UK today needs centrists, because we have not just got a Conservative government which has morphed into UKIP but also an opposition led by the hard left. Here is Philip Stephens attacking the Labour leadership peddling snake oil populism of the left variety. If you search my blog you will see that I normally think Stephens gets things right, but I think there are three major problems with this diagnosis of where we are.

The first mistake is a variety of the failure I talked about above, which is to fail to see how the political landscape has changed. Here is the first paragraph from Stephens' article.
“John McDonnell has a plan. The Labour party’s would-be chancellor prefers Marx to markets. So he intends to nationalise the energy, water and railway industries, impose big tax rises on businesses and wealthy individuals, shackle the banks, and pump up public spending and borrowing. The organising goal, he told the Financial Times in a revealing interview, is “an irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people”.”

If you think this is damning stuff, look at the detail. Nationalisation - just returning some industries to public ownership, much as they are in many European countries. Taxes on business - just reversing cuts to corporation tax made by George Osborne since 2011. Higher taxes on the wealthy will only begin to reverse inequality at the top that began growing in the 80s. Shackle the banks? - about time too. Pump up spending and borrowing - in reality just borrowing to invest, with current spending held by a fiscal rule which, outwith a liquidity trap recession, is not very different from the rule of the Coalition government of 2010. The killer line about an irreversible shift in power - from Harold Wilson’s 1974 manifesto (HT George Eaton).

So Stephens is wrong to say this is another 1983 suicide note. McDonnell might prefer Marx to markets, but Labour’s 2017 manifesto gives us a world that if it had been proposed to Harold Wilson he would have thrown it out as involving too much privatisation and too many tax cuts for the rich. Labour’s manifesto is just a modest reversal of some of the things that have happened since Thatcher introduced us to neoliberalism.

But why wasn’t the 2017 manifesto like 1983, given the current Labour leadership? The answer leads us to the second mistake many centrists make: to imagine that any leader from the hard left can impose their will on a soft left parliamentary party. Stephens mentions this, but it is far more central than he suggests. Labour will be extremely lucky to get an overall majority at the next election, and even if they do there are plenty of MPs that will happily vote against their government the moment that Corbyn and McDonnell overstep the centre left mark. Give them 20 years and it is possible to imagine that they might be able to create a PLP more in their image, but they do not have 20 years and those who follow will be from a different generation with different reference points.

There is a third mistake which is in some ways the most important. I cannot beat Anthony Barnett’s way of expressing it: if all you want to do is stop Brexit and Trump and go back to what you regard as normal, you miss that what was normal led to Brexit and Trump. It all goes back to austerity. Even if you like aspects of neoliberalism, as centrists surely do, what happened with austerity and the scapegoating of immigrants is what I describe as neoliberal overreach. It was overreach not just because it was wrong and immensely destructive, but it laid the grounds for Brexit.

None of that happened by accident. Austerity might, just possibly, have started as pure political opportunism, but the fact that it was sustained despite all the harm it was doing suggests a deep malaise on the political right. No one can doubt this following Brexit. A party that can produce Prime Ministers as incompetent as first Cameron and then May, and can pursue without any real revolt a hard Brexit policy, is seriously sick and needs a long period of intensive care. The kind of care that you can only get with many years in opposition.

But that is only half the story of why Brexit happened. The other half is obvious, yet so many centrists seem to wish to ignore it. Brexit was brought to us by a right wing press that has become a propaganda vehicle for a few wealthy press barons. Britain has become a worse country because of this right wing press, which when it is not demonizing the EU and Remainers it is doing the same to immigrants and those it calls scroungers. It should be no surprise that newspapers that can show so little regard for truth and humanity would give us something like Brexit, and they will go on giving unless something changes.

A government of centrists will only take us back to where we were before all this kicked off in 2010. We need to do better than go back to the normal that gave us austerity and Brexit. We need a radical government that can begin the process of reforming our economy so that it works for all working people, that can tackle extreme inequality at the top and reform the press so that it is not a mouthpiece for a wealthy few. A government led from the left are our only real hope of achieving that. Centrists will be an important voice during that government, but they must not stop us ensuring the likes of austerity and Brexit will not happen again.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Tangled up in red

There have been three constants in the Brexit negotiations so far. The first is that the UK side makes speeches, and the EU side drafts agreements. In a way this is logical, because of the second constant, which is that the clock is always ticking. The ticking clock means the EU has nearly all the power in these negotiations. That leads to the third constant, which is that whatever is finally agreed is pretty close to the original EU drafts. It is obvious if you think about it. The EU side has the power and they also have a clear purpose and unity in achieving it. The UK side is weak and divided with no clear purpose, so the best it can do is to give speeches so UK voters get the impression the UK is influencing what is going on.

The EU published yesterday a framework for an FTA between the UK and the EU. Given the logic above that means any agreed FTA will be pretty close to this framework. It has been designed by the EU to be compatible with Theresa May’s red lines. The EU is quite clear that it would be possible to have fewer barriers to trade than this FTA framework involves, but this would require changing the UK’s red lines. These red lines include that the UK will not be part of any customs union with the EU or the Single Market for goods.

Some have interpreted this framework as implying that the EU is prepared to compromise on the hard line it took on the Irish border last week. However the document starts by noting that “negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full”. That includes the first stage agreement involving the Irish border, which gave three possible options: an agreement between the UK and EU so strong that it meant no hard border was required, a technological solution, or Northern Ireland staying in the EU customs union. The second option is magical thinking. 

What the EU FTA framework shows is that the first option is not going to happen. The UK are not going to get an FTA much better than this, precisely because they are not as yet prepared to accept the obligations that go with a customs union or the Single Market. So Northern Ireland has to remain in a customs union with the EU to avoid a physical border, and there is no reason why the EU should compromise over this. 

That means that the EU's FTA document is for the remaining UK, and would involve a customs border between two parts of the UK. It seems incredible that the Conservative party could accept that, and the DUP will certainly not. As a result, the UK will carry on pretending that an alternative solution is possible, and saying that the EU should “get on with” looking at the first two options for the border. The EU has no intention of doing that, because the EU does not do magical thinking over Brexit.

This impasse could be broken by parliament if enough Conservative MPs had the nerve to vote for the UK to remain in the customs union, as Labour now wish. That would be absolutely the right thing to do, because the arguments that we should stay out of a customs union are absurd. We are likely to get much better trade deals with third countries as part of the EU than outside. It already looks like we will lose deals the EU has already made. And with Trump in the White House raising tariffs it is crazy. 

Ironically one reason Tory rebels may fail to rebel is that the delusion that there are other solutions to the Irish border problem will be broken sometime in the autumn anyway because of the second constant, the ticking clock. The clock in this case is that the EU will not agree to a transition period until the UK signs up to the legal version of the first stage agreement. So sign the UK will.

Whenever the UK government is finally forced to concede that it will have to agree to stay in a customs union with the EU the Brexiters should finally break with the government. That is the event that May has been so desperately trying to avoid, which is why she has got herself so tangled up with her red lines. If May understands what is going on, then she will spend the next few months trying to convince the Brexiters that signing the legal version of what she already agreed in December is not the commitment to the UK staying in a customs union that it in fact is. Declaring that it was something the UK could not sign was not a wise way to start that process. May is all tangled up in her red lines, and the country is all tangled up in blue. 

Postscript (09/03/18) Yesterday Donald Tusk said he was putting "Ireland first". The UK had to provide "specific and realistic" plans to avoid a hard border in Ireland before Brexit talks could make any progress.