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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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