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What David Cameron can learn from the Charge of the Light Brigade

Why would anyone stubbornly stick to the same course – when it’s obviously the wrong one?

I wrote a series of columns last week suggesting that austerity around the world isn't working. This generated an outburst from people who didn't seem to share my view, to say the least. Many resorted to name-calling. One claimed that "Keynesians caused the problem, so it's time to let the adults take over". Another said: "You couldn't be more wrong on every point, using a bunch of half-truths that you spun into lies."

One writer advised me to change my name: "You really sound like a nerdy kind of social butterfly." And there was more: "Why is it that you liberals can't be honest when you discuss anything. Even economics turns you folks into the lying little weasels you strive to become."

It seems that youth unemployment is also my fault: "If you are an educator, it is no wonder our kids are screwed up." And I was advised, not very helpfully, that my "policies can only affect the height from which we fall and they can only make it higher". Another was more succinct: "Proof by assertion. Let me guess, you are a freshman at Dartmouth." I certainly appear to have grabbed their attention.

The prizewinner was this short but sweet email: "Uh, that's the best you got? You're a sub-mongoloid idiot masquerading as a cret-in. A communist cretin." I assume that a sub-mongoloid idiot is a pretty bad thing to be, and that a communist cretin is worse than your run-of-the-mill capitalist cretin. What I'm not sure about is if that's worse than being a lying little weasel.

Weather or not

Talking of weasels, some people have responded to the claim that austerity isn't working by saying that it's down to the bad weather. Both David Cameron and George Osborne tried this in their speeches at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "This week, we had disappointing growth estimates back home," Cameron said. "Yes, they were partly driven by the terrible weather which shut down airports, factories and schools - but let's be frank. They also brought home something we have said for months: given the traumas of recent years, the recovery was always going to be choppy."

Osborne echoed the claim that the ride ahead will not be smooth: "As Mervyn King and I have both said, the recovery is likely to be 'choppy'." You bet it is.

That set me thinking further about the weather. I left New York late last month just ahead of another snowstorm, and arrived in Fort Myers, Florida, in a tropical storm that threw the plane all over the place as we came in to land. It was beyond choppy. But we avoided the worst of the thunder and lightning because the pilot took evasive action. Plan A failed, so he sensibly turned to plan B and flew around the worst of the storm.

A general in a battle frequently has to change his plans as circumstances change. Presumably Lord Cardigan had only a plan A at the Charge of the Light Brigade. In his poem of that name, Alfred Tennyson explained why Cardigan needed a plan B: "Some one had blunder'd". The latest economic data in the UK suggests that the coalition has blundered badly.

In his speech at Davos, Cameron confirmed the "same old Tories" claim made by Jacob Rees-Mogg MP at Prime Minister's Questions - that "there is no alternative". Osborne's speech also made that clear. Apparently, he will include measures to deal with growth in the Budget in March, but they will be too little too late. The damage has already been done and new policies will take time to have any effect.

Given that the Tories had 13 years to prepare for office, and the Liberal Democrats had their whole lifetime, you might expect them to have had a plan for growth ready in May 2010. All they had was a plan to kill growth and jobs.

I read the speeches that Cameron and Osborne gave at Davos carefully, and was struck by how little either of them had to offer. It was spin over substance.

Cameron: "In many ways, we in Europe have been our own worst enemy . . . To get there isn't easy . . . It's going to be tough but we must see it through . . . there are no short cuts to a better future . . . The possibility of progress is there - we've just got to seize it . . . The world doesn't owe us a living."

Osborne: "The challenge may be formidable but the future will favour the bold . . . And if we are bold enough, the prize will be worth the effort . . . Right now the right long-term choices for the economy are the difficult choices . . . Adjustment will not be without struggle . . . Our competitiveness has suffered a lost decade" (whatever that means).

And these people are running our economy?

Stimulating times

Recent developments in the US make it clear that there is a realistic alternative to destroying growth and confidence. The American economy is now picking up steam nicely. The Obama administration is continuing to add stimulus, and the extension of the tax cuts introduced under George W Bush, along with new payroll tax incentives, has given the economy a welcome boost. In the fourth quarter of 2010, GDP grew by an annual rate of 3.2 per cent in the US, compared to an annual rate of -2 per cent (four quarters of -0.5 per cent) in the UK (see graph below). The expansion was driven in large part by a jump in consumer spending of 4.4 per cent in the fourth quarter, following a 2.4 per cent rise in the previous quarter. Rising US exports and falling imports also added to the growth. Quite a contrast to Britain.

blanchflower graph

Interestingly, the US has suffered from bad weather this winter, as has much of Europe, but no other country seems to have been so unprepared or hard-hit as the UK. Bristol Water has warned of a drought this year, which may give Osborne and Cameron another excuse for why their policies aren't working. But I bet that if we have a warm summer they won't be saying that the good weather has boosted output temporarily and so things are really much worse than they seem.

Britain needs more than excuses.

David Blanchflower is NS economics editor and a professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the University of Stirling

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

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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