• We Failed the Brexit Test

    It might have been thought that the decision made by the British people in the recent referendum that they wished to leave the EU would have drawn a line under that issue, and that we would now be addressing the many new challenges and opportunities that are now before us.  But, such is the arrogance of those who were sure they knew best that it now appears that the referendum was not so much an exercise in democracy and for determining the will of the British people as a means of testing whether their fellow citizens were really up to it.

    There was, in other words, only one right answer, and the failure to produce it means that the test must either be treated as a nullity or it must be taken again (and possibly again and again) until the right answer is reached.

    This determination to treat the referendum as an examination that has been failed has led one of the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party to choose as one of the main planks in his platform a commitment to provide a second opportunity to achieve a pass mark.  And, in the expectation that such an opportunity will arise, a huge effort is being made to ensure that the delinquents who got it wrong and voted to leave must be re-educated and shown the error of their ways.

    So, we are subjected to endless stories designed to show how mistaken the decision to leave really was.  Even the most improbable link between the Brexit decision and some real or supposed misfortune is triumphantly reportedly; headlines along the lines of “Brexit Means My Ingrowing Toenails Will Get Worse” are now commonplace in the pages of such as The Guardian.

    There are, in addition to those whose superior brainpower and knowledge of the world enabled them to reach the right answer, others who are outraged by what they see as an irresponsible offence against civilised values.  For them, the Brexit decision was a denial of their European identity and a bar to their ability to enjoy European food, music, art and travel – as if those pleasures were dependent on a particular trading arrangement, and were not part of our European involvement and identity since time immemorial.

    Then there are those who profess to have been morally offended by what they see as the false prospectus which produced the Brexit decision.  Yet, in the chorus of condemnation that has greeted Brexit “lies”, there is little reference to what was surely the biggest lie of the campaign – the warning by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, no less, that Brexit would mean a £30 billion hole in the government’s finances and would necessitate an emergency budget.

    Many of those apparently angered by the democratic decision reached in the Brexit vote seem to believe that their particular sensibilities entitle them to ignore rational argument and the practical realities that membership of the EU has meant for so many of their fellow-citizens.  Indeed, the offence supposedly committed against those sensibilities should be treated, it seems, as just that – an offence for which they and we must be punished.  The greater the alleged penalties to be suffered for Brexit, in other words, the more satisfied the referendum losers are that justice has been done.

    They are even able to welcome the presence of an appropriately stern prosecuting counsel – not to say hanging judge – in the person of Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission.  This unelected official presumes to threaten retribution for the British people’s daring to reclaim some degree of self-government.  It is a measure of how little understanding there is of such issues in some quarters that Juncker’s autocratic (and probably illegal) ban on discussions taking place between British and EU officials is not recognised as a striking example of the democratic deficit which continues to handicap European integration and to alienate British opinion.

    There is, of course, a post-Brexit reality that demands all of our attention.  It is already clear that the dire predictions of calamity have not been realised – and even the most persistent of the supposed downsides, the weakness of sterling, has meant for those with the wit to see it, a boost to British competitiveness of which the inflow of tourists is just one immediate manifestation.

    Instead of looking back to an EU membership which constrained us in a straitjacket of austerity and the priority given to corporate interests and that precluded us from taking up economic opportunities on our own account, we should now be striking out for a new and dynamic approach to economic and trading policy.  The qualities that served us so well as a self-governing democracy over such a long period can now be brought to bear – as soon as we are no longer distracted by the prospect of going backwards rather than forwards.

    Bryan Gould

    13 September 2016

     

     

  • Putting Labour Together Again

    The challenge manufactured by the Parliamentary Labour Party to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership seems destined to prove an exercise in futility and impotence.  Nothing more clearly demonstrates, in both its motivation and impracticality, the gulf that has been allowed – and in some cases encouraged – to develop between Labour MPs and the party in the country.

    But when it reaches its inevitable conclusion, what then?  When the warring parties return to their encampments to lick their respective wounds, does the Labour party limp on, broken-backed and riven by division and ill-feeling, until a general election puts the whole enterprise out of its misery?  And what, in the meantime, about all those who have looked to the Labour Party to protect their interests and to bring about change in a system that has so thoroughly betrayed them?

    One thing is certain.  There is no future in returning to the status quo ante.  One or other, or preferably both, of the combatants has to undergo an “agonising re-appraisal” in the interests of learning lessons and learning to work together.

    On the face of it, that duty does not lie immediately on the victor.  Corbyn and his supporters may feel that, having seen off a challenge that was born of a misplaced incredulity that the PLP could be defied by the party’s membership, any rapprochement is the responsibility of those who so thoroughly misread the situation.

    But that would be a mistake.  Those who claim and are entrusted with the leadership of the party must shoulder the responsibilities of leadership, among the principal of which is the mounting of a unified and effective effort to win the next election.

    The newly confirmed leader, however, is entitled to expect a significant shift in the attitude of his parliamentary colleagues.  The dead end that has been reached is the outcome of a policy of confrontation can no longer be sustained.  The Corbyn leadership is there for the foreseeable future.  The task now, surely, is no longer to undermine it – hitherto the preferred strategy of many – but to strengthen it and to use those strengths to win an election.

    The first duty of those who mounted the challenge is to understand what has happened.  Jeremy Corbyn became, and will have been endorsed as, leader because he dared to break free from a stultifying orthodoxy which had imprisoned Labour, without their even knowing it, in an intellectual framework that precluded any real departure from neo-liberal politics and neo-classical economics.  His central assertion, which can be regarded as not only important in its own right but as a surrogate for a much wider rejection of orthodoxy, is that we do not need to accept austerity as a suppose answer to our economic problems.

    There is no reason why those who criticise him so bitterly should not have shown similar courage.  It is their timidity, and – in many cases – their keenness to assure voters that they would be just as tough as the Tories, that has left them so far out of touch with Labour voters and with a leader they do not support.  Talk of splits, breakaways and court cases (whose limitations and impropriety in such matters has already been demonstrated) is simply to compound the deeply damaging mistakes they have already made.

    There is some evidence that the penny is beginning to drop.  Even the chosen candidate of the parliamentary rebels has shown that he understands the appeal and the relevance of what Corbyn has been saying.  Owen Smith has embraced alternatives to austerity and policies for growth, full employment and a more competitive productive sector – and while there might be some raised eyebrows at the genuineness of this somewhat belated conversion, the road to Damascus is the right road to take.  If Smith can take that stance, why can’t his supporters?

    If Corbyn’s critics can be brought to understand his appeal to party members but nevertheless lament what they see as his personal deficiencies, then the remedy is surely to help him make good those deficiencies by offering him the support that he needs.  The right response from the PLP to the likely result of the leadership election, in other words, is not one of sullen resentment and the withholding of support, but of using the party’s total and combined talents to offer a real alternative to a perpetual Tory government.

    A Corbyn leadership supported by the strongest possible Shadow Cabinet would be a very different proposition from one undermined by those ready to brief continuously against him.  His supposed unelectability looms large in the minds of his critics rather than in any hard evidence; the recent emergence of a substantial Tory poll lead is no more than the classic response to the emergence of a new Prime Minister, helped along by constant reports of Labour dissension.

    A parliamentary party ready to unite behind its leader (and what other constructive response is there?) would in turn invite and deserve a considered response from Corbyn.  He has had time to understand the difference between the freedom enjoyed by the long-time defender of often minority causes and the responsibility accepted by the builder of a team ready to form a government.  He will now have the chance to show that he is ready to complete that transition.

    Bryan Gould

    31 July 2016

     

  • How Did It Come to This?

    It is easy to conclude, as we watch Labour’s internecine warfare, that we are witnessing the party’s death throes.  There seems to be no escape route, no compromise solution, that will achieve a resolution of the bitter dispute between the parliamentary party and a leader who was voted into office by the membership but is regarded as anathema by his parliamentary colleagues and accordingly refuses to vacate the leadership.  Such is the depth of that schism, and of the ill-feeling it has engendered, that a parting of the ways seems the only possible outcome.

    The question usually debated is as to who is responsible for the party’s current plight.  But if a split is to be avoided, either after or in the absence of a coup by the parliamentary party, a more fundamental question has to be asked and answered – how did it come to this?   How did such a division emerge between those who are supposed to be working for the same objective – the election of a Labour government?  Or, to put it more tendentiously, how did Labour MPs become so divorced from the wishes and ambitions of those they claim to represent?  Both, or perhaps better to say all, parties to the dispute need to think about the answer to these questions about the roots of the dispute.

    The answers from all quarters will of course be coloured by the failure to win the last two general elections and what are seen as the dismal prospects of winning the next, whenever it might arrive.  But we need to go back further – right back to 1979 and further – if we are to understand what has really happened.

    The first point to register is that an enquiry that takes us all the way back to the advent of Mrs Thatcher and to the origins of what we can now confidently describe as the 40 year-long neo-liberal revolution will mean little to anyone under the age of about 50.  Only someone born before about 1970 can understand the extent of the change that was ushered in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and that had been prefigured in the writings of Hayek and Nozick and Milton Friedman.

    That change meant a huge transformation in the politics of most western countries.  It meant that government was no longer seen as the bringer of hope and succour, as the guarantor of a shared understanding of what membership of society implied by way of decent standards of living, and health, housing and education.

    “There is no such thing as society,” Mrs Thatcher famously declared.  We were instead to repose our confidence in the “free” market.  That market was infallible and was not to be second-guessed.  Government intervention in its workings could only be counter-productive.   For most of our current politicians, the society in which they have grown up implicitly accepted these propositions.

    Even on the left, these nostrums proved seductive, especially when society as a whole seemed supportive of them and when accepting them seemed to offer the only way to electoral success.  New Labour was a clear manifestation of this acceptance; the role of the left was thought to require only a more competent and compassionate human face to be worn by what were – if not eternal – at least verities for our time.

    That is the world in which most members of the PLP have grown up and fashioned their politics.  By definition, they seem themselves as the vanguard, the thinkers and the professionals in the party.  They are convinced that they know better, and their experience of the electoral and parliamentary battle convinces them that this is so.

    What they do not seem to know, however, is the extent to which their views have been conditioned by the neo-liberal revolution, unannounced, that has taken place around them for the past 40 years.  It has, after all, created the world they know.  They are unaware, not only of this, but of the fact that for many Labour voters, the harsh realities of the “free” market have not produced an appreciation of its supposed virtues but a sense that no one understands or cares about the losses they have suffered as a result of its ministrations.

    They are also unaware that, just as the way to neo-liberalism was cleared by an intellectual revolution which became visible only when the politicians got into the act, so there is a new revolution under way – a reaction against the increasingly evident deficiencies of a society that has undervalued its democracy and allowed it to be subverted by those who have used the “free” market to deliver an unfair and widening imbalance in power and influence.  Their task now, surely, is not to bemoan that counter-revolution but to give it practical help and political effect.

    So, what does this analysis mean for Labour’s current troubles?  It means that the blame cannot be placed on someone who, without necessarily being ideally cast for the role, has found himself as the chosen spokesman for those who have been neglected – even by their self-proclaimed champions – for far too long and who now recognise the possibility that the longstanding neo-liberal orthodoxy, that has harmed them so much, can be brought to an end.  The PLP must ask itself how it has missed the opportunity and responsibility to help that process along.

    Bryan Gould

    16 July 2016.

     

     

     

  • Immeasurably Better?

    It was only to be expected that David Cameron, in his farewell speech on the doorstep of Number Ten Downing Street, should have permitted himself a little hyperbole about his achievements as Prime Minister.  Even so, his assertion that he had left the economy “immeasurably stronger” than when he had taken over, was taking a few liberties with the facts.

    He supported his assertion by pointing to the reduction in the government’s deficit and to increases in the number of those in work and in the number of businesses.  But the reduction in the government deficit was achieved only at considerable austerity-driven cost and following the longest recession of modern times and has not prevented the government’s total debt from continuing to rise.  And the increases in the numbers of employed and of businesses were a function of an increased population rather than of any uplift in productivity.

    It was what he did not mention that had greater significance.  He did not mention the deficit that really matters – the country’s failure to pay its way that dates back all the way to 1982 and has been largely driven by the deficit in our trade in manufactures with the EU.  It is that deficit that has forced us to borrow from overseas and to sell off hundreds of billions of pounds’ worth of assets so that we can balance our payments.

    Nor did he mention the huge decline in our manufacturing industry, so that it now accounts for only 10% of our GDP, the lowest proportion of any advanced industrial economy.  And he failed to mention the fact that our net investment in new manufacturing capacity is approximately nil, placing us at or near the bottom in international terms and providing a dismal signal as to our capacity to improve our future performance.

    It might be hoped that one promising sign for the future is the departure of George Osborne from the Treasury.  Osborne was the archetypal instance of the Chancellor whose political convictions far outweighed his limited knowledge of how the economy works.  The driving motivation behind his tenure was the ideological goal of reducing the size of government so that the “free” market could take over yet more of our economy and our society, seek out more profit-making opportunities, and operate with a minimum of interference from government.

    But any hope that we might expect an improvement in that respect will, sadly, have been dashed by Theresa May’s appointment of Philip Hammond as her Chancellor – not that she had a wide range from which to make a choice.  Hammond’s appointment typifies one of the central weaknesses in our system of government.

    Hammond seems to be, on his record, a competent but dull operator – just, some might say, what is needed at the Treasury; he was, after all, a competent but dull Foreign Secretary – the classic “safe pair of hands”.  But a careful scrutiny of his career, both before and after entering Parliament, reveals no more than a nodding acquaintance with economic policy.  Like so many of his predecessors, therefore, he is entirely at the mercy of the advice he receives from his civil servants at the Treasury.  Like George Osborne before him, his principal qualification for allegedly running our economy is political prejudice rather than economic expertise.

    It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that he will ever feel able to do more than indicate in the most general terms the political objectives he hopes to achieve.  Beyond that, he will do as he is told.  There will be no attempt to escape the constraints of orthodox policy, with all of its emphasis on restraining the role of government, or to keep pace with the new thinking about economic policy that is now becoming evident in the post-GFC world.  The possibility that a new Chancellor might actually, in his or her own right, have something new or interesting or potentially valuable to say about the direction of policy will once again run quickly into the sand.

    None of this is Philip Hammond’s fault.  It is the outcome of a system that simply does not recognise that politicians should be expected, as they take up the office of Chancellor, to bring to bear some semblance of personal knowledge and competence to help them in discharging their responsibilities and in setting the direction of policy.

    The prospect is therefore that, when Theresa May and her Chancellor face the electorate, whenever that may be, the report card will read much as David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s has done.  There will be much emphasis on supposed financial prudence and on only partly successful attempts to reduce government deficits and debt; but this will all be against a backdrop, from which the gaze will be steadily averted, of a further and remorseless comparative decline in the productivity and output of our economy, and in the health and integrity of our society.

    Bryan Gould

    14 July 2016

  • A Frenzy of Foot-stamping Fantasy

    So far, we have had a petition for a second referendum and a campaign for a retrospective change of the rules so as to require a larger majority.  We have had the promise of a legal challenge to the validity of the process and of the decision and of any other aspect of the referendum that can be dreamt up, and the threat of a prosecution for criminal conspiracy of those who advised a vote to leave.  We have had proposals that Scotland and Northern Ireland and the new city-state of London should go it alone and re-join the EU on their own.  We have had offers of German citizenship to disappointed Remainers.  We have even had suggestions that the vote should be withdrawn from that older generation whose historic contribution to the development of Europe, as well as much else, is now apparently regarded as worthless.

    We have had a response, in other words, that is best characterised as a frenzy of furious, foot-stamping fantasy from those who seem to have no understanding of arithmetic or regard for the majority of their fellow-citizens  – so much for a mature democracy.

    So little did the minority understand the issues at stake that they could not grasp that the vote was not about whether or not they could continue to share in and contribute to the glories of European civilisation but was rather as to what price had to be paid in terms of jobs, houses, schools and hospital beds by millions of their less fortunate compatriots for the strictly economic arrangement that was all that was on offer.

    So, where to from here?  The cheer-leaders for the foot-stamping – as they did throughout the referendum campaign – will continue to cry doom and destruction.  There will be nothing – from the state of one’s in-growing toenails to the result of the 4.30 on Saturday – that is not attributable to Brexit.

    But there are already signs of a more sensible agenda emerging over the next year or so. Stock markets have already bounced back quickly.  The fall in the pound, if we are lucky, may take longer to reverse; unfashionable as it is to say so, a lower pound could provide just the kick-start the economy needs.

    The government has already stated its preference for an orderly disengagement, to run alongside some serious thinking on both sides as to the kind of arrangement that would best suit each of them.  It was always ridiculous to imagine, as the Remain campaign kept demanding, that either negotiating party would reveal its hand in advance.  There is no reason why a sensible negotiation should not – like  most negotiations – give both sides most of what they want, and that will be just as true of the EU, once they have got over their initial shock and pique, as of the UK.  For the UK, the recovery of the powers of self-government offers every hope of a better economic performance and a better integrated society.

    Surprisingly, the Tory party, whose travails provided the trigger for the referendum, is providing an object lesson in calmness and stability.  The pursuit of power is, after all, a remarkably unifying force.  Those who cried, and still cry, havoc could do worse than look to the Tories, and their leadership election, as an example of that mature democracy whose supposed demise they are so keen to lament.  If only we could say the same about Labour!

    But even Labour is true to form, Brexit or not.  Those gunning for Jeremy Corbyn were doing so before the referendum and will continue to so after it.  The post-Brexit attempt to dislodge him is purely opportunistic; his supposed deficiencies as an anti-Brexit campaigner have been pressed into service but any other weapon would do.

    If Labour has any lesson to learn from the referendum campaign, it is that the party is gravely damaged by the schism that has now unmistakably widened between working people in the North and the Midlands on the one hand and the middle–class, self-proclaimed intelligentsia of London and Roseland on the other.  It does not help to heal that division when one side expresses, and continues still to express, fury and disdain at the failure of the other to do what their supposed betters told them to do in the referendum.

    In terms of what might have been, it is tantalising to ponder what might have been the outcome if Corbyn had not misguidedly and unsuccessfully attempted to placate his critics but had instead, while leaving it to each individual voter to decide, stood by his own convictions and placed himself at the head of what turned out to be the winning side.  How much stronger would his and Labour’s position have been, how much greater would have been Tory disarray, and how much better-balanced would have been the debate – and how much larger would have been the vote to leave!

    Bryan Gould

    6 July 2016