Cooperation must be at the heart of Labour's renewal

Councils are already implementing a model that could revolutionise public services nationally.

The next Labour government will face a double whammy of rising expectations, with less money for public services and welfare provision. If we want to protect people who rely most on public services, we will need to do differently with less. If we try and do more with less, we will fall flat on our faces. Different with less can work if we give more decision-making power to the people and communities who use those public services, because they have a direct interest in making sure services are as effective as possible. Whatever the amount of funding on offer, empowering people and their communities creates better outcomes. Labour councils around the country are already putting this idea into practice, and it offers a model that can be extended right across public services nationally.

Many council or housing association tenants are dissatisfied with the standard of housing management they live with. Repairs are done late and to a poor standard. Housing officers can be dismissive and slow to respond to requests for help. Anti-social neighbours are left unchallenged. These things happen because the tenants themselves have no direct control over the people providing the services. But this changes when tenants elect local boards that appoint the housing managers, or in cooperative housing schemes where everyone living on an estate has a share in owning it. Estates like Blenheim Gardens in Brixton which is run by an elected resident management organisation, or Coin Street Housing Cooperative on London’s South Bank, show that when tenants are in control, services improve faster.

As we grow older we rely more on social care and home help. For someone who’s lived their life independently it can be a frightening experience to suddenly be told who will come into your home and when, what you will eat, when you will be bathed, and even when you will go to the toilet. With care staff under intolerable pressure normal human interaction is reduced to a perfunctory minimum and the older person’s own preferences are barely considered. This is no way to treat someone towards the end of a lifetime of hard work and self-reliance. This situation can be turned round by setting a budget for the older person and letting them choose, with professional advice, the help and services they would prefer. Take this a step further and let people combine their budgets in ‘micro-mutuals’ of service users and you put real purchasing power in their hands, forcing providers to offer services that better meet their clients’ needs with higher standards of care and support tailored to each individual.

Some inner-city housing estates suffer high levels of violent youth crime. There are estates in parts of London where the majority of young people are involved in gangs that carry knives and guns and involve themselves in drug dealing, robbery and assaults. But there are also examples of initiatives that successfully steer young people away from harm. On the Myatts Field Estate in Brixton the community took action itself, using their own understanding of the problems in their own neighbourhood and making use of their own ability to reach out to the young people getting involved in gangs. They set up a range of activities including informal mentoring, sports, dance, cookery, even trips to other parts of London to open their young people’s eyes to the positive alternatives available to them. Over three years they got 80 young people out of gangs and steered their lives back on track – a rate of success dramatically more successful than the council’s own youth interventions despite having only a tiny fraction of the resources. This demonstrates the power of community leadership, so in Lambeth we are setting up a youth services trust owned by local people that will support each estate to identify and bring in the services and activities that will make a difference to their young people. This isn’t about turning amateurs into professionals, it’s about putting the professionals under the control of the people who live with the problem. There are safeguards to make sure no one section of the community can exclude any other, but instead of fighting the system to get the change they need the community can use their energy to fight the problem.

Public services become more effective when the people who use them are in charge. By shifting power to service users we create a partnership of equals that leads to genuine cooperation between providers and the people they serve. The result is better services and more resilient communities. Over twenty Labour councils are working together as part of the Cooperative Councils Network to pilot new approaches like these across all our services. By empowering people we can give them back the power to change their lives. We cannot continue locking vulnerable people into dependency by taking away their ability to influence the things that are done to them. We live in a highly diverse society, and we cannot meet such a complex pattern of need if we seek to control everything from the centre. But this agenda is not just about changing Britain, it’s also about winning back support for Labour. People want public services that meet their needs better, and they want more control over the decisions that affect their lives. Change is never easy, but if we refuse to change we will get stuck in a cycle of salami-slicing services that will leave people in despair. We recognise there is no bottomless pit of money – times are hard, and if we pretend otherwise people won’t vote for us. So we need to show we can do things better for less by putting the resources of the state under the control of the people who rely on it.

Lambeth was a by-word for what went wrong with Labour in the 1980s. Today Lambeth, alongside other Labour councils, is building a new agenda based on empowerment and cooperation that can help shape Labour’s renewal in the 2010s.

 

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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?