Monday, 11 January 2016

Could Labour and Conservative unravel simultaneously?

I must admit I'm feeling confused about UK politics right now. We have a slow-motion unravelling of the Labour Party going on, as the old guard defend their right to insult their leadership - rather a peculiar idea, though for a Lib Dem of course it is absolutely de rigueur. Yet at the same time, on the other side of the Westminster divide, a similar process seems to be under way, even if it isn't quite so bitter.

The decision by David Cameron to allow his ministers to speak against government policy during the Euro-referendum is really remarkably like what is happening in the Labour Party. For the time being, the break up of the Conservative Party seems more controlled, but I suspect that - given that Ins and Outs are pretty equally matched - these divisions will become increasingly bitter.

So what conclusion should we draw from this extraordinary parallel?

First, I reckon that the reasons for the bitterness is also remarkably similar. The Labour rebels believe their new leadership is destroying the party. The Tory mainstream believes the same about their rebels: if they were to succeed in wrenching the nation out of the European Union, they believe it would undermine the economy.  Those are life-and-death struggles, or the political equivalent.

Second, the unravelling of one side may make it safe for the other side to unravel at the same time.  It might be possible that both government and opposition parties may in fact divide simultaneously.

Third, this might provide an opportunity for the Lib Dems, but only on two conditions. They have to demonstrate their own revived electorability - perhaps in Rochdale (strange to have a Sunday without new revelations about Rochdale's MP). Also they need to set out a genuine alternative, and believable, plan for national prosperity.

This is something that Tim Farron has been moving towards. The trouble is that nobody is listening right now. That may not be entirely a disadvantage - the time has come, not to hibernate, but to think and involve as broad a number of people in thinking as possible.

In fact, this is what I would do.  Form a major inquiry, chaired by a prominent international economist, to set out the future radical direction for a global economy that works: one that provides for a civilised life for everyone that doesn't require increasingly frenetic and global speculation.

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Gordon said...

"Form a major inquiry, chaired by a prominent international economist, to set out the future radical direction for a global economy that works ...

But economics is not physics where the great majority of theory is pretty well agreed albeit with some argument around the fringes. In contrast the are various schools of economics which have radically different views. You might as well ask for "a prominent international theologian" to set out the best way to worship God. Protestant? Catholic? Muslim? And in each religion/denomination which variety?

To compound that difficulty most economists are remarkably ivory tower - hence the famous joke about a shipwrecked economist faced with the problem of opening a can without a tin opener suggesting, "First, assume a tin opener".

One of the most remarkable things about the last few years is how little of use the great and good of the economics world have contributed. Suggestions for why this is so include that (a) most academic ones would have to trash their own publication record (now revealed as badly wrong) and (b) that most are not paid for the accuracy of their predictions (abysmal) so much as acting as intellectual enforcers of TINA just happens (!!!) to work to the advantage of the 0.01% and bankers - the principle employers of economists.

We do indeed need to work out that "future radical direction" but it's not rocket science; it's been done repeatedly so there is experience to draw on. We know what Britain did in the industrial revolution and we know what successful economies from the US to Germany to Korea to China have done since. And in every case it was radically different from what Britain and the US are doing now and also included important elements that don't fall within the scope of 'economics' at all.

A big part of it is how power and resources are distributed within society so it's an intensely political project and should be seen as such.

Unfortunately the Lib Dems, who ought to be the party most attuned to the possibilities, have neither the habits nor the mechanisms to address a problem like this. When they sort themselves out on this they might just have something to contribute to the nation. If they don't the people will find a different solution, possibly a snake oil one.

David Boyle said...

Gordon, I agree with everything you say, but I think that's why we need to have some kind of open inquiry - along the lines of Lloyd George's Yellow Book of 1928, with the aim of capturing the zeitgeist and leading the shift. It rather depends, as you imply, in choosing the economist extremely carefully. But just because economics has failed to rise to the occasion in recent years, that doesn't mean we need to dispense with economists altogether.

georgek said...

My big worry is the choice of economist.

Whenever I read economics being discussed in public, it seems to be from one of several schools, and each dismiss the other schools as utterly wrong. Leftwing and rightwing, they are often as bad as each other.

The only economists I trust are the ones who admit they don't know. And they're the ones who the media ignore, so no one has ever heard of them.

How would we choose the economist/economists, without a tribal denouncing of the choice by one side or the other?

Gordon said...

David, "some kind of open enquiry ... ".

Now that I DO agree with; my difficulty is imagining that any prominent economist could really achieve on the necessary scale which would have to compare with what Keynes contributed in the great depression.

Also, if conducted under the auspices of any part of government, such an enquiry would certainly be subverted. If done by the Lib Dems it would be a top-down affair involving the usual suspects (I know the Lib Dems take great pride in having an open and consultative policy-making process but the evidence doesn't support that.)

So, an OPEN enquiry would in my view have to be one that was, well, open - that is one where anyone could contribute, where ideas would be subjected to critical examination but with a clear strategic direction. Hence it would kick off a topic by saying, in effect, "X is a problem. What do we need to know about it and its background? How does it fit into the big picture? What are the politics of it? How do we solve the 'X' problem? How do we present it politically? and so on.

In other words, it needs to be a series of directed conversations, run from outside hidebound formal structures that would amount to a 'wikipolicy' initiative drawing on the expertise of anyone interested, very, very, very few of whom are involved in policy-making at all at present. The liberal end of politics is employing a vanishingly small fraction of its support base (well under 1% of Lib Dem members for instance by my back-of-envelope calculation and therefore a negligible percentage overall). To harness such a tiny percentage of potential support is just not good enough and, as we have seen, doesn't work.

It would be extremely tough to get going but if it could be made to work I am confident that all sorts of people would come out of the woodwork, many with invaluable subject expertise on particular topics, some retired and free to speak their minds.