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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.