Eurozone soap opera reveals a damaged relationship with markets

Democracies need to get some self-respect.

We’re all familiar with the story. Girl meets glamorous guy with flashy car and nice teeth who promises her the world. He screws around, and when she gets angry, he threatens to leave. But by now our girl is so dependent on the guy she’s desperate for him to stay. Sobbing, she throws herself at his feet and promises she’ll do better.

This soap opera can help us understand what’s playing out in the eurozone.

States fell in love with markets, and they let us down. Financial deals we depended on turned out to be phonies. When we talk about introducing extra regulation to prevent this happening again, financial institutions threaten to leave our borders and seek pleasure elsewhere.

Like the girl, democracies are now the ones offering to change. At the centre of the emerging eurozone plan is a call for fiscal integration, whereby states promise to abide by strict spending limits in return for bailout funds. But the underlying causes of under-regulation and overconcentration of market power remain unsolved. Our relationship with the City still suffers from an imbalance of power and we’re still at risk.

We need to be more honest about what triggered the current European crisis. Apart from Greece, the problem was not unsustainable levels of public spending. It was banks handing out risky loans and stockpiling bad debts. Spain is a classic example. The country ran a balanced budget until 2008, when it was forced to pile horrific property debts onto the public balance sheet to bail out irresponsible lenders. As this fantastic BBC graph shows  (see total debt graph), this is a common pattern for most countries.

I don’t want to abdicate responsibility. We all took on those loans from the banks when we shouldn’t. We all enjoyed that party in a bubble and lived a false dream when we should have kept a tighter eye on reality. Britain should have been in surplus from 2004-2008. The girl in our story should have been brave enough to see the writing on the wall. We should have taken action earlier.

But we are where we are. All we can do is change our behaviour now. It’s understandable that Merkel wants fiscal rules on states to make sure they don’t blow German money. But without addressing the banks too, you’re setting up a terrible incentive problem. Everyone knows if the girl gets back with the guy without punishing him for cheating, he’s going to do it again. In fact now he knows he can get away with it, he’s more likely to.

Sadly in the middle of the crisis, no country feels strong enough to limit financial services, whether it improves stability or not. In a desperate attempt to grow, governments are happy for banks to throw money at anything. Any bubble is better than stagnation. We don’t have the self-esteem or self-confidence to challenge our irresponsible partner and build a better relationship.

Although there is some talk of banking union, this is more about sharing bad debts than introducing stronger lending conditions. Although some like former F&C chairman Robert Jenkins says this may change, at the moment the assumption that “liquidity is free and will and will be freely available” continues to hold.

Britain is one of the greatest sufferers of self-delusion. Osborne is massively opposed to the transaction tax – the one small move Europe might be prepared to take to challenge the City – and he used his recent Mansion House speech to announce that the state will be underwriting risky loans. He’s pulled back on the already watered down proposals of the Vickers Commission, reducing the required amount of back up deposits to three per cent when columnists like Martin Wolf at the FT are calling for ten per cent.

You don’t have to be an agony aunt to figure out what comes next. Without a change in this poisonous relationship, we’re setting ourselves up for another fall. Our girl needs to rediscover her self-respect. Get it wrong, and it will hurt. But get it right, and democracies and markets have a chance to build a new, more honest and productive future together.

Democracies and markets could still find a more stable future together. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.