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Why I will be voting for Newt Gingrich

The Republican primaries are heading David Blanchflower’s way. And as an independent voter, he write

In a major victory for President Obama, the economic year ended with Tea Party freshman Republicans in the House of Representatives being outmanoeuvred, forced to reverse their opposition to a much-needed boost for the economy. Senate Republicans and Democrats had approved a two-month renewal of payroll tax cuts for every worker and an extension of unemployment benefits for millions by an 89-10 vote and had returned home for Christmas, which left the House with no alternative but to support the measure. These are the same Tea Party economic Neanderthals who refused to raise the debt ceiling and caused the US to lose its AAA credit rating last August.

That the economy over the past three months has generated nearly half a million jobs - and the unemployment rate has fallen fast from 9.1 per cent to 8.6 per cent - is a problem for the Republicans in an election year. Increasingly, it looks as if the party is doing everything it can to prevent the economy recovering from recession. Republican policymakers are being obstructionist and the public, it would seem, is on to them.

Ghost stories

Opposing everything that the administration wants - no matter if you've advocated it in the past, even when it's good for jobs - isn't an obvious vote-winner. Registered voters in a mid-November CNN survey, asked which candidate they were more likely to support, gave Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, a lead of 4 percentage points over Barack Obama: 51 per cent to 47 per cent. The same survey mid-December found an 11-point switch, giving Obama the edge by 52 per cent to 45 per cent.

The Republican presidential primary is heading my way on 10 January, so I have been thinking about which contender I should vote for. New Hampshire is the first primary of the season, following the first, if unrepresentative, caucus in Iowa, with its large evangelical Christian constituency. Romney won Iowa, just, with Newt Gingrich in fourth place. However, the latest national Gallup poll of registered Republicans puts Romney on 24 per cent and Gingrich on 23 per cent. So the national race is far closer than the Iowa result suggests.

I am registered as an independent in New Hampshire, but according to state rules I am able to vote in whichever primary I choose as long as I change my affiliation as I enter the voting booth. So I will vote in the Republican primary and change my affiliation back to independent as I leave. As Obama is running unopposed this year, the same rule applies to registered Democratic supporters, who have the opportunity to influence the outcome of the Republican vote. All this makes the result particularly unpredictable.

I cannot bring myself to vote for Ron Paul, the libertarian crank who wants to abolish income tax and the Federal Reserve, return America to the gold standard and, ludicrously, cut $1trn of spending in a single year. His credibility took a further hit in the run-up to the primaries when words from his past came back to haunt him. It was revealed that, in addition to the now notorious newsletters filled with racial bigotry and support for violent militia groups and published under his name in the 1990s, Paul had criticised Aids patients, minority rights and victims of sexual harassment in a book published in 1987.

Of the other candidates, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum do not have credible economic plans and Jon Huntsman will not be in the race long. It may surprise you to learn that I am planning to vote for the ex-Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, even though he has grave weaknesses. In 1997 Gingrich became the first House Speaker to be reprimanded by colleagues for ethical misconduct. The bipartisan vote of 395-28, to reprimand him for bringing discredit on the House by failing to ensure that his use of tax-exempt groups was legal, was historic in itself, but worse still he was fined $300,000 for misleading the House ethics committee and causing it to extend a costly investigation. This is also the man who was having an affair with a House staffer while he was trying to have President Bill Clinton impeached over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Nor does Gingrich have a plausible economic plan. He is for an optional, highly regressive flat tax of 15 per cent and wants to strengthen the dollar, which would hurt US exports. He has also promised, according to his website, a "return to the Reagan-era monetary policies that stopped runaway inflation", although inflation is close to zero. He wants to reduce the power of the Fed and balance the budget "by growing the economy, controlling spending, implementing money-saving reforms, and replacing destructive policies and regulatory agencies with new approaches". He fails to explain how he would do this as, to my knowledge, there are no sound "new approaches" available.

Flip and flop

Notwithstanding all of this, Gingrich remains my man. Why? Because he has no chance of becoming president. But the longer he remains in the primary race, the more money Mitt Romney will have to spend on destroying his opponents' credibility and the less money Romney will have to attack Obama. Welcome to tactical voting American-style.

For the record, I don't believe a word Romney says. He is well known as a "flip-flopper", for good reason. He supported fiscal stimulus to rescue Detroit car firms but then opposed it; on abortion rights, he was pro-choice but then turned pro-life; he argued that climate change was man-made but reversed his position; and he introduced the health measures known as Romneycare for everyone in Massachusetts when he was governor, but now says that he opposes Obamacare, a strikingly similar policy. Moreover, he lacks a credible plan to put America back to work. Slashing public spending and neutering the Fed, which is the position of all these candidates, would surely push the US economy back into recession.

It is the lack of anything vaguely cogent to say about the economy that will prove the Republicans' undoing and gift the presidency back to Obama come November. But just to make sure, I'm going to vote for Newt on 10 January.

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

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

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

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