The GMB's attack on Progress is an attack on pluralism

I'm no fan of Progress but Labour needs to open up, not close in.

If you have been paying attention this week, you might have just noticed that the GMB union has "gone to the mattresses" with Progress. You could be forgiven for not knowing that Progress is a small but well-funded Blairite pressure group and that GMB stands for General, Municipal and Boilermaker. Anyway, the GMB wants Progress banned from Labour for being what it is: well-funded and Blairite. 

So the essay question is "who cares and why?"  Well me for one, and I’m the chair of a so-called rival group to Progress – Compass.  If Progress are banned then the path is that bit clearer for more left-wing organisations like Compass.  But Progress mustn’t be banned. They have as much right as anyone else to their views and their commitment and resources to express them.

Sure, it rankles that they get generous funding from David Sainsbury. But at least he puts his money where his mouth is. To be honest, I wish there were more rich people on the left willing to back new ideas and organisations.  There must be more than Sainsbury?

And I’m no fan of Progress. They act as if New Labour was in no way responsible for the mess we are in and have little or nothing to say about capitalism or the environment. Lenin said "the victory of ideas needs organising". But with Progress it's too much organising and too few ideas. Too much of their emphasis is on winning slates and selections so that mostly things can stay the same. But that’s up to them. The job is to come up with better ideas and better ways of doing things.

And that better way can’t be based on organisational fixes like this one. Means always shape ends. The search for a good society has to be open, democratic and pluralistic – because that is exactly what a good society looks like. If the left ban the right now, what happens when the right are back in power? And anyway, people in and around Labour are big enough and clever enough to work out for themselves whether they want to listen to Progress, the GMB, Compass, the New Statesman or not.  Let's get real – in a world of Facebook and tweets where we all have multiple identities and allegiances the idea that people can or will follow a single line is being consigned with every tap of the keyboard to the dustbin of history.

Labour needs to open up, not close in. It needs to be humble, working alongside others on the issues that matter - opposing the harshest cuts, helping the public sector to serve those whom it is there for, helping community activists, and eventually replacing the Tories to rebuild and transform Britain. In search of good ideas, experiences of success and the necessary alliances to take power and not just office, Labour needs to remain open to voices from its left and from its right, inside and outside the party. The New Labour years showed that failing to build alliances and being narrow and enclosed might win some good headlines, but did not build a deep and powerful long-term sustainable coalition in the nation. Progress were part of that top-down culture and should learn from its shortcomings. The GMB were in part victims of it – and should also learn from their experience. The future won't be fixed by a few, it will be negotiated by all of us. We need to build on diversity and embrace difference as a strength.

The final thing to remember as the dust settles on this local Labour difficulty is that it might not be a competition but the left is winning. Ed Miliband, slowly, maybe painfully slowly, is getting bolder and brighter.  Witness his speech on Saturday which said some none too dull things about a more equal society, breaking up the Murdoch empire and believing in an ethic that says there is more to life than the bottom line.  Meanwhile, Jon Cruddas a free and radical thinker is now in charge of Labour’s policy review. Now swallows and summers and all that but just maybe the tectonic plates of Labour are gradually shifting.

Which on this one makes the GMB a bit like Dick Dastardly in Wacky Races. Remember that Dick and his side-kick Muttley would race ahead of the pack and, just before the finish line, set up some fiendish trap to stop the other racers.  It would always back-fire and they would always come last. The GMB have a heap of stuff to offer about industrial democracy and how to improve the lives of working people. More than enough to worry about, without concerning themselves with a small group that has no real vision and is running out of ideas and reasons to exist other than to cling on to power within Labour. And no amount of funding from David Sainsbury will change that.

Peter Mandelson warned that efforts to ban the Progress pressure group would lead Labour up a "pretty blind alley". Photograph

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?