What Peter Oborne doesn’t get

Maybe Oborne didn’t notice that the whole basis for the Chancellor’s economic strategy – stemming from work by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff – has been shown to be ruined by spreadsheet errors.

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‘‘Economics in the end trumps politics,” said Peter Oborne on Newsnight in his infamous 2011 “that idiot in Brussels” interview. At the time, Jeremy Paxman accused him of being gratuitously offensive – and it seems to be his modus operandi. The mouthy buffoon (MB) was similarly offensive again the other day in a delusional Telegraph column, “The left talks gibberish while David Cameron racks up successes”, in which he argued that after three years the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s daring reforms are “starting to pay dividends”. No mention, naturally, of the 50-odd U-turns such as the pasty tax, the joint strike fighter and minimum alcohol pricing.
 
The MB accused me of being a “cod-Keynesian”, which is rather surprising, given that I’ve never expressed any view whatsoever about the fishing industry.
 
Let’s plaice his comments in context. The MB apparently spoke with Tony Travers, who, he argued, is from the “respectable” part of the London School of Economics, even though he is not a member of the permanent faculty. I am wondering whether he thinks my distinguished friends Tim Besley, John Van Reenen, the Nobel laureate Christopher Pissarides, Nick Stern and John Hills are from the “respectable” bit. Or Richard Layard, or David Metcalf?
 
Let’s go through a couple of other bits of nonsense. First: “. . . the government’s audacious and thoughtful strategy for economic and social reform is holding up very well”. You could have fooled me. Unemployment is 2.5 million and still rising – the last six monthly observations were 7.8 per cent, 8.1 per cent, 8.0 per cent, 7.4 per cent, 8.0 per cent and 8.0 per cent, and the employment rate is falling. Youth unemployment is still around a million, long-term unemployment is rising and real wages continue to fall. “Thoughtful” the strategy is not. Indeed, it is hard to find a single economist who supports it.
 
Maybe Oborne didn’t notice that the whole basis for the Chancellor’s economic strategy – stemming from work by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff – has been shown to be ruined by spreadsheet errors. Recall that in 2010 the Chancellor argued in his Mais Lecture that: “The latest research suggests that once debt reaches more than about 90 per cent of GDP, the risks of a large negative impact on long-term growth become highly significant.” We now know it doesn’t.
 
The underlying picture for the public finances is one of stalled progress in deficit reduction. As the independent consultancy Capital Economics notes, “stripping out various temporary factors, the fiscal position remains fragile”.
 
Then there’s this from Oborne: “Economic growth, though weak, has not been entirely extinguished in a weak international environment. Anyone who predicted such an outcome three years ago would have been labelled mad.”
 
In his Budget statement of 22 June 2010 the Chancellor said as follows: “Growth in the UK economy for the coming five years is estimated to be: 1.2 per cent this year and 2.3 per cent next year; then 2.8 per cent in 2012 followed by 2.9 per cent in 2013.” We got 1.7 per cent, then 1.1 per cent and 0.2 per cent and perhaps 1 per cent for 2013. Great success – growth was a quarter of what was predicted by the coalition.
 
Oborne is right about one thing: economics in the end trumps politics. Given the worst lack of recovery in a century, the only sensible conclusion is that Cameron has established a track record of economic failure. No dividends.
 
David Blanchflower is the New Statesman’s economics editor 
George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.