It is Wednesday in Australia and my usual blog-light day to give me more time to write other things. Although, today (in Europe as I type) I had a long flight from Athens to Paris where I am speaking to the French Senate Commission at a reception this evening. I also had to leave Athens early, so when I reached Paris and found my hotel, I took off to the Jardin du Luxembourg for a 10kms run (laps of the grounds). My trip to Athens was very successful and I will be in a position to talk about that in the weeks to come once some work has been finalised and the plan developed. But today, I want to briefly comment on a story from the Guardian’s Larry Elliot (February 14, 2020) – PM’s Treasury power grab doomed to fail, warn former insiders – which reported that some Labour Party ‘insiders’ (aka gutless morons who won’t publicly take responsibility for spreading rumours) had determined that the current government ministers would not be able to win a power struggle against the powerful H.M. Treasury, who would withhold crucial information from the government to maintain their hegemony. What? The inference was that “the Treasury’s independence” – that is, in other, more accurate words, the right of unelected and unaccountable technocrats to impose their right-wing, neoliberal austerity ideology on the democratically-elected government – was a Labour ideal that should be preserved and that those awful Tories were trying to assert democratic control of its public service institutions.
If it quacks then it is a duck! If it uses neoliberal frames, narratives, language and concepts then it is neoliberal. Framing a lie just privileges the lie – and we get nowhere. The Progressive Economic Forum purports to bring “together a Council of eminent economists and academics to develop a new macroeconomic programme for the UK”. Their goals have some overlap with what I consider to be reasonable – reducing economic insecurity and inequality, climate action, etc. Some of their policies approaches are anathema (for example, UBI). Many of their council have been close advisors to the Labour Party at various times, including most recently. And they promote a macroeconomics that is not only incorrect but dangerously coincident with the mainstream thinking that has been part of the problem they claim eager to solve. And the failure of the Labour Party to win the December election against a Tory government that had inflicted awful austerity on the people is testament to the fact that their progressive narrative is in need of a radical change. The latest example of how this ‘progressive narrative’ really just reinforces the neoliberal frames they rail against is an Op Ed from a senior PEF council member (January 24, 2020) – – which was a promotional piece for his latest book. I do not recommend anyone purchasing the book.
I have long disagreed with Guy Standing about the solutions to unemployment. 20 years ago we crossed paths on panels and in the literature where he would argue that UBI was the way forward and I would argue that it was a neoliberal plot and that, instead, we needed to push for job creation. My view has always been that to surrender to the neoliberals on their claim that governments cannot generate sufficient jobs to satisfy the desires for work of the unemployed was a slippery slope. Standing continues to publish his fiction. In his latest Social Europe article (January 15, 2020) – Building a progressive alliance in Britain – he seeks to integrate UBI proposals with a recovery plan for British Labour. My view is that would not help Labour recover from the shots they fired into their own feet in the period before the December election by listening to the likes of Standing and those who advocated the Fiscal Credibility Rule and the reneging on the Brexit commitment. Standing’s aversion to job creation is in contradistinction with a recommendation from the Wetenschappelijke Raad Voor Het Regeringsbeleid (WRR or in English, The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy) to the Dutch government to deal with the challenges of achieving “good work”, in part, by introducing a ‘basic job’ which in my parlance means by introducing a Job Guarantee. They are motivated by a deep vein of social science and medical research that extols the virtues of work beyond its obvious income generation qualities. Pushing a UBI in the light of that research is just a pitiful bailout.
When I was a relatively junior academic, one of the things I was interested in was how labour market prejudice is influenced by the state of the economic cycle. This was a period when Australia was undergoing a deep recession (early 1990s) and it was clear that hostility to immigrants had risen during this period. I was interested to see whether this was related. The interest goes back to my postgraduate days when I was studying labour economics and we considered labour market discrimination in some detail. Then, it was clear from the literature, that employers who used racial profiling to screen job candidates would lose out if the labour market was strong, but could indulge their negative views about different racial groups without loss in times of recession. But we didn’t do much work on supply-side attitudes – that is, what do other workers think? In more recent times, I have done detailed research projects with mental health professionals studying the best way to provide job opportunities for young people with episodic illnesses. The research revealed that one of the problems in placing these workers in conventional workplaces is the prejudice that other workers displayed towards them. We worked on ways to attenuate that resistance. So I have had a long record of studying and being interested in these matters. In this blog post, I consider whether prejudice is counter-cyclical. In the UK, for example, the British Social Attitudes survey found that in 2014, around a third of British people were racially prejudiced and this ratio spiked during the GFC. Clearly, there are many factors contributing to this rather distasteful result, but if austerity is exacerbating the underlying factors, then we have another reason to oppose it. This research also bears on the Brexit debate.
How things are changing. After the British election in December, the policy terrain in the UK has shifted such that the Tories are now being lectured to about the dangers of a stimulus package, while British Labour seems to be promoting leadership candidates that mostly were part of the problem that led to their failure. In the latter context, we are seeing King or, should I say Queen makers, who I would have thought were unelectable trying to influence the leadership choice. And former Labour advisors tweeting and what have you about what Labour should be doing when it was their advice that got the Party into the mess it is currently in. Meanwhile, the Tories have an almost open field to finish the first stage of the Brexit process off, and, secure the ongoing support of the voters that abandoned Labour in the election. The Tories will have restored sovereignty to Britain and freed themselves from the restrictive, neoliberal environment of the European Union. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no truck for the Tories. And all along, I considered that Brexit would deliver great outcomes for Britain in the hands of the Labour party as long as they simultaneously abandoned their neoliberal obsession with fiscal rectitude, as expressed by their ridiculous Fiscal Credibility Rule. Labour will now have to rue their ill-conceived abandonment of the Leave voters in favour of the cosmo Remainers. For now, the Tories have open slather – the worst of the outcomes possible. However, the only attenuating factor is that Boris Johnson is a smart operator and will be keen to ensure that the voters in the Midlands and the North remain Tory on an ongoing basis. That means he will have to do abandon the Tory austerity bias and invest billions into the regions that have been torn apart by his parties obsession with fiscal surpluses. That might, for a while, provide some good news for Britain.
Just a few snippets for Wednesday. The post British General Election wash-up continues and the urban Remainers who support Labour are now coming out of their holes to speak forth on why it all went wrong. There is lots of regret but little real reflection and responsibility is being exhibited. And, it is now a fair proposition to argue, that given it was this group that so distorted Labour Party policy and drove the ‘optics’, that they they should now just shut up and do some serious review of their own positions and why they lacked understanding and foresight. Some are proclaiming it was the toxity of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) for the Left that was somehow involved. One cannot get more desperate than that. But mostly it was their disdain for those less educated and less privileged that sealed the deal. You cannot continually label people fools and racists and claim they were so ill-informed that within a few days of the Referendum result that they were clearly experiencing ‘Bregret’ and expect them to play ball with the cosmopolitan dream. Especially when that dream had created such havoc in areas where the majority of Labour MP represented and had voted Leave. We found out how much Bregret there was last Thursday.
In the last few days, since the British General Election last Thursday, I have seen the rising denial of so-called progressives trying to come up with all sorts of excuses for Labour’s devastating defeat. I have seen various aggregations of the votes presented on Twitter and elsewhere attempting to claim that, in fact, the vote was a vote for Remain rather than Brexit. The line being spun is that the Tories do not have a mandate to implement Brexit, that the strong majority of British voters want to remain in the European Union and that, and that Labour’s defeat was about other things. Other things certainly impacted – such as the UK Guardian’s relentless and ridiculous campaign against Jeremy Corbyn which gave air to the anti-semitism ruse. And, the continued passive insurgency within the Parliamentary Labour Party from the Blairites who could not move beyond the past. And, the neoliberal framing that John McDonnell insisted on using to disseminate his economic plan, as a result of being advised poorly by a bunch of economists who couldn’t even get their studid Fiscal Credibility Rule right (given they had to change it at the last minute when it was obvious to all that it would fail). And John McDonnell himself, who told the British people in the months leading up to the election that he would support Remain. And the Deputy leader, who should have been expelled long ago from the Party. And those who conspired to ditch Chris Williamson for the most spurious reasons and thus cost Labour the seat of Derby North. And on it goes. But the result that transpired has been staring the Labour party in the face since the June 2016 Referendum and the Party chose to ignore the warnings. And the so-called progressive apparatchiks, economists and others, who were advising the Labour Party, not only told the Party leaders to ignore the warnings but actively set about vilifying those on the Left, including yours truly, every chance they could. The egg is … as they say!
It is Wednesday and I am travelling a lot today. So just a collection of short snippets today that I have collected over the last week or so. First, the British election is tomorrow and the Tories have been successful in confining the focus to Brexit. My view on the EU and Britain’s decision to exit is well known. Labour should have been leading that process given the majority of their elected MPS come from Leave majority seats. Instead, they gave out a mixed message, with many senior Labour politicians claiming they would vote remain in another referendum. This is despite both major parties guaranteeing to the people in June 2016 that they would implement the vote to leave. The information we have at present is that that position on Brexit is probably going to cost them office. Which means the Tories survive when they should not but finish the Brexit process which they should. Then Labour will have to reinvent itself to take advantage of the renewed sovereignty that Brexit will bring. To do that it has to expunge its ranks of the neoliberals. One other matters, Leonard Cohen’s last album was released recently. We hear a song from it.
Last week, the British Labour Party released its election – Manifesto 2019 – which they describe as “the most radical, hopeful, people-focused, fully-costed plan in modern times”. There is a lot to like about that Manifesto from a progressive perspective. However, in my mind, there were two unresolved tensions that I think damage the Party’s credibility. The first, is its, yes, continued embrace of neoliberal macroeconomic frames, epitomised by its so-called Fiscal Credibility Rule that has already had to be changed because so-called independent analysts agreed with my assessment that the manifesto and the ‘Rule’ were inconsistent. The second, is the Party’s position on Brexit, which I believe continues to hamper its chances of election and also brings into focus the inconsistencies in the Party’s stance and behaviour over the last 2 years. Elections are not won by counting votes up. Rather, they are won by winning seats, which means that votes are counted in specific constituencies (electorates). I have maintained the view that the Labour Party’s meandering position on Brexit, to satisfy the Europhile urban members, would damage them, given that the majority of their members of parliament were elected by Leave majority constituencies. Seats not votes win elections. It doesn’t matter if the majority of Labour voters are Remainers, if their are spatial disproportionalities in the vote spread. The latest YouGov MRP estimates of voter intention for the upcoming election indicate that my assessment may, in fact, turn out to be accurate.
Over the years it’s been clear to me that we live in a fictional world when it comes to economic matters. The mainstream has created this world that bears little relationship to reality and which serves the interests of a few at the expense of the majority. But the way in which this fiction is inculcated in the framing and language of our public debates leads the majority to think that the conduct of economic policy is somehow in their best interests, even if, at times, governments claim we have to swallow a bitter pill in order to get well again. The bitter pill always punishes the lower to middle-income groups, rarely the top-end-of-town. The fiction is so deeply ingrained that even progressive political campaigns are framed within it. I have railed against that all my career because I cannot align a belief that democratic choice requires accurate information with the reality that we make these choices in a fog of fiction. I have always considered the role of the progressive forces in politics, as a matter of priority, should be to be the agents of education, so that these democratic choices reflect our realities. I have never supported so-called ‘progressive’ parties that choose, for ‘political’ purposes, to lie to the electorates by adopting neoliberal framing and language as a way of minimising any difficulties that might arise, initially, from the dissonance that accompanies exposure to the truth, after years of believing in lies. It seems that the British Labour Party continues to promote a false narrative to support and otherwise stellar plan for national renewal. But, as history tells us, a plan built on false financial foundations, falters when circumstances change and the false foundations become the issue rather than the plan.