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.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide