The Tories’ media echo chamber, part 85

Defending your economic plans means you have to try to discredit your opponents.

Last week, the Guardian's well-informed and well-connected economics editor, Larry Elliott, revealed leaked Treasury data suggesting George Osborne's emergency Budget would cost up to 1.3 million jobs, across the public and private sectors.

In a column earlier this week, Elliott added a new twist to his scoop:

The Treasury, to put it mildly, was not best pleased by this story and vowed to "trash" it when it broke in the Guardian last Tuesday, on the eve of David Cameron's appearance at Prime Minister's Questions.

Trashing stories that you don't like or agree with? So much for the so-called new politics, offered up by Messrs Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Cable.

But the echo chamber got the message. The former Tory PPC Iain Dale, a man renowned for his grasp of macroeconomics, claimed on his blog, on the night the story broke, that Elliott "can't count" and called him a "joke" and a "prat". The Wall Street Journal's Iain Martin emerged from his "sickbed" to endorse the Treasury's fanciful figures on private-sector job creation.

The libertarian blogger Paul Staines joined the fray, also citing convenient figures from the "independent" Office for Budget Responsibility. And Peter Hoskin, on the Spec's Coffee House blog, remarked that "this story may not be as awful as it first appears". In a sense, he was right -- as the FT points out today, it's much worse.

The Tories' programme of draconian spending cuts is in disarray and the credibility of the OBR's growth and employment forecasts has been questioned. Meanwhile, business confidence is collapsing. And international institutions such as the IMF and the OECD, having initially welcomed the coalition's plans for fiscal retrenchment, now seem to be having their doubts. The IMF this week called the government's spending cuts into question, warning that "most advanced economies do not need to tighten before 2011, because tightening sooner could undermine the fledgling recovery". And the OECD expressed concerns over the prospects for UK job creation and how "the new Budget ends funding for two crisis measures -- the future jobs fund and the six-month offer".

So, what better way to distract attention from all these fears of another downturn, and a double-dip recession, than to shoot the messenger? "Trash" Larry Elliott and his scoop. And target outspoken economists like the New Statesman's David "Danny" Blanchflower, one of this country's leading labour-market economists and professor of economics at Dartmouth College.

Danny has written, for example, that he is "now convinced that as a result of this reckless Budget the UK will suffer a double-dip recession or worse". In this week's issue of the magazine, he writes:

Cameron's claim of future falls in unemployment is simply not credible. I will be watching the labour-market data and will report back regularly. Sadly for the British people, Cameron is going to have to eat his words.

Danny is one of a handful of economists who can plausibly claim to have seen the recession coming (unlike former colleagues of his on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, who included, of course, Mervyn King -- the man now venerated by George Osborne and Nick Clegg). He has been invoked by panellists on BBC1's Question Time for the past two weeks running. He is a high-profile and credible academic. Does the Conservative-led coalition or its media echo chamber choose to engage with his points, arguments or data?

Nope. The Treasury minister Justine Greening dismissed Danny on BBC2's Newsnight as a "Daily Mirror columnist" and her fellow panellist, the businessman Sir Martin Sorrell, described him as a "left-winger" (as if that label, in and of itself, discredits him -- although on the Cameron-admiring, Daily Mail-fearing Beeb, perhaps it does!). The former Tory chancellor Norman Lamont (he of "unemployment is a price worth paying" infamy) used a column in the Telegraph to condemn him as the "Labour-supporting former member" of the MPC. And Martin Vander Weyer, in this week's Spectator, belittles him as a "motormouth economist" and the "left-leaning former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member".

How often do you hear economists referred to as "right-leaning" or "right-wing" or "Conservative-supporting"? It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a deliberate tactic by the Tories and their echo chamber in the media and online. What we are witnessing are conscious and co-ordinated attempts to discredit and marginalise voices such as Elliott's and Blanchflower's -- credible and authoritative voices which, however, are out of sync with the coalition's consensus on cuts.

But I take comfort in that classic quote by Gandhi:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

UPDATE: On a related note, Mr John Bloomfield from Twickenham in Middlesex has a letter published in the magazine this week, in which he writes:

Alas, it seems David Blanchflower is becoming further at odds with the consensus with every tirade against public spending cuts.

Yes, John, but the last time Danny was outside the consensus (or the groupthink) on the MPC, in 2008, it turned out that he was right and the consensus (against rate cuts) was wrong.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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