Listening to the Today programme on Radio 4, they found time for a long piece on Emojis, and continuing fact-free speculation about what might be happening to the child abuse enquiry, but nothing at all on Yemen the day after the debate in the Commons. The only explanation I can think of for the continuing neglect is that BBC news values have been corrupted by a desire not to upset the Saudis, the Americans, and our arms industry.
How Labour Can Return to Power
There is a possible route back to power for Labour, based on three strong policy platforms:-
i. Remain in the EU
Be the party for the 48% who wish to remain in the EU, and for the many more who are coming to that view as the lies of the leave campaign and the shambles of the negotiation become increasingly obvious.
ii. Reduce Inequality
But also be the party for those who have been left behind by globalisation, many of whom voted Brexit because they had so little to lose. Labour was always the party of redistribution, taxing those who can afford it in order to help those who need support. We need to focus on the hardships faced by so many and tackle head on the inevitable Daily Mail critique that Labour wants to tax ‘hard working families’ to provide handouts to the workshy. The approach cant be just about taxation and benefits, it also concerns investment in infrastructure to support a more balanced distribution of economic growth, less biased towards the South East. But we also need to say explicitly that economic growth is not the only goal, we have to concern ourselves with how the benefits are shared.
iii. Invest in public services – including a commitment to adequately fund health and social care.
We spend far less on health than other richer countries including our European neighbours. Comparison with others suggests we already have the most cost effective health system in the world. Meeting rising demand effectively is only possible with more money, something we should be willing to pay for.
There are several good answers to the question ‘how do we pay for all this?’:-
Relax Austerity: As argued in a previous blog (’public expenditure cuts:not needed, but very damaging’, https://mickfoster.wordpress.com/) , there is no pressing case for further austerity, and a higher share of public expenditure in GDP is prudent in current circumstances where debt service remains low by historic standards, and is likely to remain so. Without making the further cuts proposed by the Tories, the debt will fall as a share of GDP simply through economic growth at historic rates, and there is also scope for higher taxes, ending our participation in a race to the bottom.
Better In than Out: If we do not leave the EU, we will save ourselves considerable costs of adjustment and will benefit from rather higher economic growth. This theoretical result from modelling is already being confirmed by the plunge in the value of the pound at the prospect of a hard Brexit.
Stop Tory Vanity Projects: We could liberate some funds for worthwhile public expenditure by changing our priorities – scrap the dubious Hinkley and HS2 projects, and (ideally) the entirely pointless expenditure on Trident.
Can this bring Labour back together?
With the exception of the possibly contentious issue of Trident (though I have never understood why such lunacy has support in the party), I would imagine that a platform based on these three pillars could be attractive to most Labour MPs. There will need to be debate based on research to help forge evidence-based compromises on how far to push issues such as redistribution and a more expansionary fiscal policy. The prospect of a reasonable shot at forming a Government should focus minds.
What is the alternative?
I doubt if there is one in the short term. I suspect that there will be an opportunity for a no-confidence vote that might prompt a new general election at some stage in the run up to triggering Article 50. The only hope for Labour to be a relevant political actor in that process –or indeed in 2020 – is if it has something distinct and clear to say on the case for remaining in Europe. That is the only issue where there is a real possibility of attracting enough new voters to evict the Conservatives. When the Tory Government seem set on inflicting enormous and irreversible damage to our economy, our society, and our Union, there is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be the party of the sane alternative, attracting voters who would not perhaps normally vote Labour. We must seize that opportunity.
It seems that every BBC interviewee now has to answer the question 'how does that make you feel?', usually followed up by prompting them to seek redress or apology from someone. These interviews never elicit any useful information, but encourage us to wallow in others' joy or excitement or (all too often) their grief or distress. The intereviewer prompts people to respond with the expected cliches. Only very occasionally does the BBC broadcast the obvious response -'how the hell do you think I feel?', or 'why are you asking me, I am a victim but that doesn't make me an expert.' I am not sure when the BBC became so sloppy and so tabloid. It is especially annoying when the focus on emotions squeezes out interviews and analysis that might shed light on broader issues. I want the BBC to inform, educate, and entertain. Asking someone in grief how they feel does none of these things, it is simply lazy journalism. Our shared humanity makes such questions at best unnecessary, and at worst insensitive and intrusive. Please share if you agree and we might try to put a bit of pressure on the Beeb; I would also be interested in any comments if you disagree.
The Essex County Council election is important to YOU if you:
Have elderly relatives in need of support to maintain their dignity and independence
Have children in State schools
Use the roads and highways that cross our county, and that the ECC is responsible for maintaining
Are concerned about the services available to support vulnerable children and adults
Use and enjoy the library services and the opportunities for further and adult education
All of these services are under threat.
-The Tory Government is cutting the amount of money it provides to ECC by a third – some £50mn.
– But a bigger population and the cost of paying the National Living Wage mean it will cost the council an extra £40mn just to deliver the same services.
– Together, this means ECC needs an extra £90mn in 2016-17 just to stand still. It has increased Council Tax by 4% – the maximum it can increase it without calling a referendum – but this will bring in only an extra £22mn.
– The council plans to fill the remaining gap in 2016-17 by drawing down reserves to dangerously low levels (just 23 days of expenditure), and by continuing to cut overall expenditure despite the severe pressures from rising demand and increasing costs.
– On it’s own website, the Tory run Council admits it does not know how the increasing shortfall can be met after 2017-18.
This is happening across the country –indeed, relatively wealthy and fast-growing Essex is better off than most councils.
The Tory Government is not putting public finances on a sound footing – it is transferring the problems to local authorities and to health Service Trusts, and building up problems that are becoming increasingly apparent and will be expensive to solve.
What difference would a Labour Council make?
We will need a Labour Government to solve the underfunding of the services on which those of us who are not Eton educated millionaires depend.
But There are four key reasons to vote Labour in the ECC elections:-
To send a message to the Government that you are not happy to see money wasted on tax cuts for the rich while our roads are full of potholes and basic services on which we and our loved ones depend are in risk of collapse.
To elect a council that you can trust to prioritise the things that ordinary people want and value.
To fight back at local level against extreme Tory policies that undermine your public services, and for which they have no mandate – including the forced academisation of primary schools, and the creeping privatisation of almost every public service.
Vote against Private affluence for the few – but Public Squalor endured by all of us.
Economic Growth under Labour and under the Tories
Looking at the long term economic growth rate under both Tory and Labour Governments since 1950, there is no significant difference between them – it averages 2.6% p.a. during periods of Tory rule, 2.5% per annum under Labour.
Both parties performed poorly until the 1980s
Comparing the performance of the UK to France, the USA, and the average of high-income OECD countries, the UK economy performed poorly compared to our competitors under both Tory and Labour Governments until the end of the 1970s.
The conservatives under Thatcher initially presided over a deep recession that caused mass unemployment and extreme misery, but later years did see the UK outperform our competitors on economic growth. Over the 1979-97 period of Tory Government as a whole, however, the GDP increase of 52% under the conservatives was higher than France’s 44% but lagged a long way behind the 63% average of the OECD countries let alone the 70% increase in the USA.
The only post-war Government to achieve faster economic growth than the average of all rich countries is the labour Government of 1997-2010. Under labour the economy grew by nearly 30%, whereas the high income countries as a group achieved growth of about 28%. From 1997-2008, Labour consistently achieved high GDP growth with low inflation. During the period, the cumulative increase in national output per head in the UK was greater in percentage terms than in either the US or France. The major and important difference from the Conservatives is that labour achieved this good performance while also distributing the benefits more equitably, achieving major reductions in poverty, especially child poverty.
The period of growth came to an end with the global financial crisis. During the global recession from 2008, the cumulative decline in national GDP in the UK was about 4.7% compared to an OECD average of about 3.5%, and about 3% in the US and France. The UK was hit harder because of the far greater relative importance of banking and finance in the UK economy. The recession was not caused by labour economic mismanagement.
What is less well recognised in the UK (though acknowledged in other countries) is that the UK performed a really significant role in brokering the necessary international action to save the world financial system from collapse. It is ironic that labour ended up with a reputation for economic incompetence when most international observers would give the UK much of the credit for preventing the global recession being a whole lot worse.
Under the Tory led coalition since 2010, recovery in the UK was slow, and (unlike the US) the UK had still not recovered the pre-slump peak level of output per head by 2014. The IMF and other commentators have argued that unnecessarily severe austerity policies have damaged economic growth since 2010.France performed even more poorly during the recovery because of the problems of the Euro zone – the decision to keep us out of the Eurozone was another example of sound Labour economic judgement.
Growth is only one aspect of economic management. Another indicator of the skill in economic management is the control of inflation, with both parties accepting that a target of about 2% per annum is appropriate. Although direct responsibility is given to the Bank of England (a significant reform introduced by Labour), Government can make their task much more difficult if it fails to retain good control of its own spending.
Recent economic history suggests that Labour has performed better than the Conservatives.
Both Labour and Tory Governments struggled to control inflation in the 1970s in the face of multiple oil shocks abroad and industrial relations problems at home. Despite the severity of the recession that it induced through over-tight monetary policy in the early 1980s, the Thatcher Government still struggled with inflation rates above 5% as late as 1991.
Under Labour from 1997, the UK consistently enjoyed a benign combination of moderate inflation and economic growth. Only the global financial crisis brought this to an end. As argued elsewhere, this was not caused by labour, nor was the labour Government especially profligate in its spending decisions. It was appropriate to allow some expansion in the budget deficit to avoid a still deeper recession. The debt never approached unmanageable levels. The debt has been far higher than the current level of about 80% of GDP for much of our history, it is easily financed with current low global interest rates, and will come down in relative terms as economic growth is restored- even without the planned deep cuts in public spending.
Did Labour ‘Tax and Spend’ Excessively?
Another frequent allegation is that Labour Governments tax and spend excessively. Judge for yourself:-
I. The labour Government of 1997-2010 generally spent less than the 38% of GDP level reached in the final years of the previous Conservative administration. There was a brief (and rapidly reversed) expenditure blip to 38.8% in 2005, but the eve of the global economic crisis saw the Government spending the same share of GDP as their predecessors. Tax revenue was a little higher, which could be argued to reflect a prudent policy of avoiding excessive deficit spending in good times.
2. During the global crisis, which required extra expenditure to avoid a deep recession, expenditure peaked in 2009 at 43.6% of GDP. This is higher than the average of the rich OECD countries, but is lower than France (47%) and comparable to Denmark (43%) Italy (42%) and the Netherlands (42%). Those who have suggested that Labour economic policies would lead to disaster might want to contemplate these figures – and the fact that high spending Denmark and the Netherlands score 3rd and 6th in the global rankings of the World Happiness Report.
The conclusion to draw from this analysis is that there is little difference between the two parties in terms of the quality of economic management. If anything, Labour has performed better since 1997, enjoying greater consistency with less ‘boom and bust.’
The big difference between the two parties is in how the fruits of economic growth have been distributed. That will be the subject of a future briefing note.
 Calculated by the author from Office of National Statistics GDP data.
 Based on World Bank World Development Indicators. Re-unification makes a comparison with Germany difficult.
 World Bank, world development indicators, analysis by the author
 For quotes and analysis see William Keegan, Saving the World”? Gordon Brown Reconsidered , October 2012, ISBN 978-1-907720-56-7
I am attaching a short piece on the cuts which I did partly to support the Labour Party campaign in Chelmsford – though the views and accuracy are my responsibility alone.
Public Spending Cuts: Not Needed, but Very Damaging
Osborne claims that the cuts are necessary for the future health of the economy.
This is not true. They are a choice made by an extreme Government intent on reducing the role of the State in providing essential services and a safety net for those who fall on hard times.
No Need for Austerity
- Public debt at about 80% of GDP is not high by historical standards (it was over 200% when the NHS was established, and over 100% for much of our history). If nothing more is done to reduce the deficit, the effects of economic growth and inflation mean that it will fall anyway as a share of a growing economy.
- Because interest rates are so low (and likely to remain so), the 2.5% of GDP annual cost of servicing the debt is trivial. The Thatcher and Major Governments spent more on debt interest in every year they were in power – but nobody then argued that public spending cuts were needed on the scale currently planned.
This is why most economists argue that there is no need for further cuts – and they support the case for maintaining spending. At 43% of GDP, public spending is comparable to the average level in the 1970s. It is slightly above the long term average of 40%, but that is to be expected in a period of sluggish growth when Government needs to maintain spending to boost the economy.
Low Tax and Low Spend means Private Affluence for some –Public Squalor for All
Osborne claims he is ‘repairing the roof while the sun shines.’ In fact, the sun is not shining on most of us, and this Government is not repairing anything much at all – as the state of our pot-holed roads and the strains on our health and education services will attest. Private affluence for the few is resting on public squalor for us all.
Our World Class NHS is Under Threat
We have public services to be proud of – but they are under threat. As recently as 2014, the Commonwealth Fund rated the UK health care system as the best in the world – based on the quality of care, efficiency, and low cost to patients. We achieve this by spending less than other countries -just 8.5% of our national income on health –compared to 11% in major European countries like France and Germany, and a staggering 16% in the US, which is consistently rated as having the worst health care system in the world.
These good results though are threatened by rising costs and an ageing population. If we want to keep our good services, we will need to spend a little more – but the extent of the increased spending required will be less if we maintain our efficient Government funded service free at the point of delivery. Outsourcing of services threatens this – bringing in private providers from the inefficient and expensive US system, and undermining the fundamental features of an NHS which is rightly valued in this country.
The Cuts in Mid Essex
We can see the results of inadequate public funding in our own home town. One important example is the Mid Essex NHS Trust – which runs Broomfield Hospital. The trust has one of the lowest levels of spending per head of population in the country. In 2012-13, it was £24 mn short of the level that Department of Health guidance says is the minimum necessary to provide a uniform level of service. This is over 4% of total expenditure – and the strains have probably increased since.
Given the grossly inadequate funding available, it is not surprising that Broomfield has been rated as requiring improvement in the latest Care Quality Commission report, with urgent and emergency services described as ‘inadequate’. Management and staff will get the blame – but the real culprit is a Government trying to maintain a world class health system on the cheap.
The very deep cuts now being enacted by this Government threaten fundamental aspects of our way of life as a caring society that wants and can afford a good standard of public services and amenities. Meanwhile this Government continues to fund Cameron’s vanity projects – preposterously expensive nuclear power from Hinckley Point, new high speed rail links based on questionable economic analysis while the roads are full of potholes, and a nuclear weapons system the purpose of which has yet to be explained other than a desire for Cameron to look more important at conferences.
We need to fight the cuts – before the deterioration to our fundamental public sector institutions becomes too extensive to be easily repaired by the next Labour Government.
Quite a good turn-out, Lindsey German claimed Whitehall was filled from end to end, not sure that was quite so but probably more than the last one. The most noticeable feature was the anger at Labour MPs trying to use the war to undermine Corbyn despite his overwhelming mandate from the party – my favourite banner reads ‘If your vote of conscience is a vote for war, then a claim to conscience you have no more.’ (Though I was also rather charmed by the slogan of the delegation from the English Collective of Prostitutes with a banner reading ‘Whores Against Wars’).
A succession of speakers ridiculed the arguments in favour of bombing in withering terms, pointing out the incoherence of Cameron’s case, poring scorn on the claim that there are 70,000 moderate fighters, and pointing out that there are multiple wars going on in Syria and we do not seem to be clear which one we are supporting. The role of Turkey (importing oil from ISIL sources) and Saudi Arabia (still providing some finance, and the source of the ideology through the export of extreme versions of wahabi Islam) came in for particular censure. The most effective speaker was Tariq Ali, though he didn’t do Corbyn any favours by saying he is the most left wing leader Labour has ever had – I dread to think what the press will do with that.
Syria As usual, the bellicose BBC gives time to a retired US general to make the case for us joining the bombing of Syria, but at least some of the holes in the argument were exposed. He admitted that bombing alone can’t do anything but needed to be accompanied by building up Syrian ground forces. The BBC did not challenge the general with the evidence that US efforts to build up secular resistance to ISIS have been a total failure. Very few of those trained by the US are still active, and the weapons have mostly ended up being used by the bits of the resistance that the US doesn’t support – i.e. those Shia rebels associated with Iran or with Hezbollah, or forces supporting Assad. Today also had a report from a BBC reporter in the field with forces that the US does support with airstrikes. It became clear that this force is dominated by Kurdish fighters: though nominally in alliance with some Christian and Islamic fighters the reporter said that the Kurds were not passing on any of the weapons they were being supplied with to non-Kurds, and relations between the groups were getting more difficult as they move out of areas with Kurdish population (only 10% of the population of Syria). So we are being invited to essentially support a Kurdish force with aspirations for Kurdish independence which have implications for the stability of Turkey and the whole region, and which has no prospect of success beyond the small part of the country where Kurds are the majority. Not a strong argument for us to participate.
Trident Today discussed Corbyn’s complaint that chief of defence staff had strayed into politics when he implied that Corbyn’s stated unwillingness to press the nuclear button would worry him if the Labour leader were in power. The BBC did briefly interview Kate Hudson of CND and included an extract of what Jeremy actually said, but as usual they of course gave most time to the views of a retired old military buffer – this time Admiral West, a former head of the defence staff. The surreal nature of any discussion of nuclear deterrence never ceases to amaze me.If others would press the button, who would they be trying to deter? Clearly not terrorists or ISIS, unless you are willing to countenance slaughtering far more innocents than combatants, in a way that would be counter-productive because the threat is ideologically based rather than territorial. Russia? There are some regional issues but no threat to our territorial integrity. There might be some niggles over violation of airspace but the existence of nuclear weapons just makes these solvable problems a lot more dangerous. There is no existential threat to the UK from Russia, they need the West and know they are too weak to challenge US hegemony, though it is politically useful for Putin to indulge himself in posturing. China? Too far away to threaten our territory or existence, they are an economic competitor and a useful counterweight to the US, but hardly a threat to us. Rogue states with a bomb or two? It is difficult to think of any reason why any of them would choose to attack us with nuclear weapons rather than their neighbours. The real reason for having Trident is as an enormous and ludicrous cod piece, trying to convince the rest of the world that our willy is larger than it actually is and thereby justifying our presence as a permanent member of the security council. Of course, the Trident cod piece isn’t really independent anyway, since it is impossible to think of circumstances where we would use it independently of the US, which makes our macho posturing even more absurd, the skinny little kid hiding behind the playground bully.
The Deficit The main news quoted Osborne’s exaggerated claims about the need for a surplus to deal with the deficit. As usual, BBC themselves gave no context – no stats on the size of the deficit or the debt relative to historic levels. Fortunately they did include a later interview with Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, who pointed out that a public debt of 80% of GDP isn’t large by historical standards, and will probably fall as a percentage of GDP anyway if economic growth returns to historic levels. (Broadly speaking, a deficit of the current level of about 4% of GDP will add 4% to the national debt each year, but the nominal GDP should grow faster than this because long-term economic growth rate is over 2% per year and the inflation target is about 2%, so debt as a share of GDP should fall over time even without a surplus. This is not just theory but is what happened throughout most of the post war period, without us running a surplus). The point that was not made was that the chance of us returning to a faster rate of economic growth is being damaged by the cuts themselves. Johnson is himself something of a fiscal conservative, and the absence of any comment from the Labour opposition indicates the very narrow and rather right-wing fulcrum around which BBC seeks balance.
I watched a bit of Al Jazeera afterwards – great coverage of the Burma elections with lots of context and stats that were missing from BBC coverage, followed by a discussion of the pro-Israel lobby in the US with pro and anti commentators given time to make their points and the audience left to reach it’s own conclusions. This is an issue BBC seems to be too scared to even take on. What a contrast, and not to the BBC’s advantage.
A letter from David Elstein in the most recent London Review of Books quotes official Offcom data showing that the average adult UK citizen gets over 60% of their news from the BBC. This is a consequence of BBC dominance of TV and radio news, their strong (and free access) presence on line, and the steep decline of print news media. As Epstein points out, if any commercial organisation commanded a 60% share of news consumption, there would be a national outcry and calls for it to be broken up.
If the BBC was a genuinely impartial reporter of the news (assuming such a thing to be even possible) then perhaps this would not matter, but it is clear that the BBC has a very narrowly defined idea of the political spectrum within which it tries to be impartial – roughly extending from the current right-wing conservative Government to the Blairite right of the labour party. They seem complacently unaware of their own bias, happily referring to Jeremy Corbyn as ‘extreme’ and ‘left-wing’, but never applying the description ‘right wing’ or ‘extreme’ to the policies of the current Government -despite their stated determination to cut public spending to 35% of GDP, a level not seen since the birth of the welfare state. This abandonment of the postwar political consensus by the current Conservative Government is in my view far more extreme than anything proposed by the current labour leadership, which has espoused domestic policies that were mainstream before Mrs Thatcher ended the tradition of ‘one nation’ Toryism.
The shoddy and complacent nature of BBC journalism is illustrated by another article in the LRB. Patrick Cockburn gives a detailed account of the state of the war in Syria. He makes a number of key points:-
I. The only effective opposition to ISIS in Syria is from the Assad Government, Shia militias and their Iranian allies, and the Kurds. The only one of these groups with which the US feels able to work is the Kurds, but they are only 10% of the population and only effective in a small part of the country – and US support for the nationalist ambitions of the Kurds is not without risk given the implications for the stability of Turkey.
ii. There is no such thing as a moderate Sunni opposition, and efforts to create one have been wholly ineffective.
iii.With no ground forces to support outside the areas where the Kurds have been engaged, the US bombing campaign has been entirely ineffective as a response to ISIS – though it has caused enormous destruction and killed a lot of people. Some fifty analysts working for US central command protested about official distortions of what was happening on the battlefield, aimed at trying to present a more positive picture.
Cockburn comments that ‘Britain is wrestling with the prospect of joining the US-led air campaign, without noticing that it has already failed in it’s purpose.’ He says that some even in Washington are beginning to think that the Russian approach may have some merit, because the Syrian army remains the most effective force opposing ISIS.
Anyone relying entirely on the BBC for news and analysis of the Syrian conflict would have little notion of these complexities. BBC reporting that I have seen has been obsessed with the politics of whether or not the UK Government has the political will to join the US in bombing Syria, with little or no discussion of what such bombing would achieve. They have not taken on the mission to explain the messy regional politics of Sunni and Shia rivalry. They have been highly critical of Russian involvement and support for Assad, but have not been prepared to give any real attention to asking what alternatives might stand a chance of working.
This is one example of a BBC coverage of foreign affairs that is as narrow as their coverage of domestic politics, with news priorities and perspectives reflecting a US-centric view of the World. There are times when I almost wonder if the CIA have infiltrated the BBC as a more trusted and therefore more effective alternative to Voice of America. I suspect though that the explanation is just laziness and complacency. The BBC seems to have more journalists and more contacts in the US than elsewhere, which is why the list of usual suspects called on for ‘expert’ opinions seems to be dominated by American voices.
I have searched in vain for any balanced account of events in the Ukraine, in the Middle East, or in the South China sea. The perspective of those opposed to the US in these disputes is almost entirely lacking. It is dangerous that our dominant source of news shows little interest in understanding and explaining the perspectives of countries in dispute with the US, preferring instead the knee-jerk assumption that our US allies must be in the right. There is an alternative narrative that perceives the US as no less the aggressor than those with whom it is in dispute, and that perspective needs to be understood if we are not to stumble into further conflicts.
Perhaps the BBC was always this bad – though my memories suggest otherwise – but, even if it was, it matters a lot more now that they have become so dominant. I am not sure how to adjust it without risking a US style corporate dominance of news media, but it ought not to be beyond us to find a way to combine public interest broadcasting with deeper analysis, and a greater diversity of voices and views, than are reflected by the current monolithic BBC
Thanks for visiting my site. I am an economist with more years of experience than I care to admit to, most of it in overseas development, though I have also worked as Chief Economist in the UK Home Office, and had a brief stint in the Cabinet Office. The site contains:-
i. My research and consultancy work on economic development – most of this is available on researchgate.net, but not everyone has access to that.
ii. Discussion of policy issues that interest me, trying to push back against the avalanche of lies and distortions that seem increasingly to taint our politics and our media coverage.
iii. Some of my fiction writing while I figure out how best to get it either published or self-published. Short stories under the heading ‘Lives in Development’ can be seen here https://mickfoster.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/lives-in-development.pdf
iv. I will also have a theme for the various bands and music events I am involved in, with a few links to where our music can be heard.