Darling in the hall of horrors

Unflattering comparisons to certain predecessors have dogged the Chancellor's week. He is damaged, w

By no stretch of the imagination can Alistair Darling be regarded as a chancellor who has chalked up unalloyed triumphs. The fumbled nationalisation of Northern Rock, the perceived U-turns on capital gains and the taxation of non-doms and the sharp deterioration in the public finances have framed him, in the public mind, as inept.

Indeed, a YouGov poll found that 44 per cent of those surveyed believe that Darling, once regarded as new Labour's "safe pair of hands", should be fired. Only 27 per cent of those polled could bring themselves to support him staying at the Treasury. In the City, where opinion turns on a sixpence, the calls for his head have become shrill. New Labour's traditional enemies have detected weakness and have pounced upon it.

Following Gordon Brown at the Treasury was always going to be a difficult task, even for someone who gave the appearance of being as calm as Darling. But no one could have predicted the opprobrium that has been heaped upon him.

Once Brown, with all his bustling ambition, had gone to No 10, all those critics and commentators who feared to cross the former chancellor saw his successor as an easy target. This has led to some very unfortunate comparisons for the current incumbent at No 11. In recent weeks Darling has variously been described as the worst chancellor since the late Anthony Barber and Norman Lamont. Neither comparison bears much scru tiny. Barber and Lamont were Tories and both held office for several years before shortcomings became apparent.

Barber's "Competition and Credit Control" unleashed the first great inflation and the secondary banking collapse of 1974-75. In that crisis the Bank of England, still in charge of financial supervision, launched a secret rescue of the kind which might have saved Darling the embarrassment of Northern Rock. However, even Darling's most bitter opponents cannot blame him for a Barber-style credit explosion.

As for Lamont, he presided over a huge public sector debt and the UK's chaotic exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, when interest rates went up and down like a Yo-yo as the chancellor famously sang in the bath.

Many of Darling's problems stem from next door at No 10. When Brown became Prime Minister he removed some of the Treasury's most skilled operators. On the ministerial front the biggest loss was the economic secretary, Ed Balls, in effect the City minister, who spent much of his time responding to the complaints of the Square Mile. There was also an outflow of senior officials, including John Cunliffe, Tom Scholar (now back), Michael Ellam and the gung-ho special adviser Damian McBride.

Huge anger

Brown rushed next door so quickly that he failed to clear his desk. Among the issues he left behind were two long-standing, delicate tax questions surrounding the super-rich. Huge anger was building in the media and in the Commons over the exploitation of tax loopholes by the private equity princelings - tearing the heart out of Brit ish business - and non-domiciled freeloaders.

The Prime Minister must also take his share of the blame for the Northern Rock fiasco. In the aftermath of the nationalisation decision, Brown in particular sought to depict the implosion at the Newcastle bank as part of a much broader international event. At his regular Downing Street press conference there was much talk of obscure branches of finance - US monolines, for instance, which insure financial instruments such as bonds.

Brown was right to point out that the credit crunch which struck on 9 August was born in America's trailer-trash mortgage market. But it was changes made by Brown to Britain's system of regulation in 1997 that led to months of dith ering, uncertainty, charges of incompetence and eventually, when all other escape routes had been closed, nationalisation.

The "Tripartite" system of regulation was designed by Brown and Balls. The intention was to remove responsibility for banking supervision from the Bank of England, so that it could concentrate on its core function of controlling inflation. Bank supervision was moved lock, stock and barrel to the new super-regulator, the Financial Services Authority at Canary Wharf.

But there was a fundamental flaw in the system. The Bank of England, like all central banks, controlled the liquidity - the ability to provide cash to institutions in difficulty - but it was the ineffectual FSA that determined when they were in trouble. This disconnection meant that no one was directly in charge and when Northern Rock hit the buffers because it ran out of ready cash, no one was willing to organise the kind of rescue by the banking industry that is the norm in almost every other country. This even though there was at least one offer on the table, from Lloyds TSB, the high street bank.

A member of the Bank of England's ruling court told me that as important as the institutional paralysis were the people at the helm. Imagine if (Lord) Eddie George were still governor of the Bank of England, Howard Davies (now at the London School of Economics) were head of the FSA and Brown were still at the Treasury. For sure, the willpower and leadership required for a secret banking rescue, which would have prevented the humiliating run on the Rock, would have been present.

Instead, the Bank, the FSA and the Treasury all seemed intent in mid-September to avoid responsibility and blame for a debacle that would run on until February. Again Brown must take a share of the blame. It was he who insisted that every private-sector route be explored before nationalisation took place, on the grounds that public ownership was too old Labour, a throwback to the dark days of the Wilson government and British Leyland and British Steel in the 1970s. Yet the long delays in taking firm decisions gave the impression of a vacillating administration that found it impos sible to make the tough political choice until all other options had run out.

Darling is also the victim of fundamental Budget failings. Brown, despite his reputation as the "iron chancellor", had taken his eye off fiscal policy, and public borrowing was soaring. The time to cut the Budget deficit is when the economy is growing. Instead, Brown chose to go on a public spending splurge in a vain attempt to deal with the problems of the NHS and education.

His ability to spend freely was heavily dependent on buoyant tax income, much of it from the City. Unfortunately, when the credit crunch set in, tax income from banks and those who work for them plummeted and a chasm opened up in the Budget. At the very moment when the Treasury might have adopted the Keynesian solution of spending or tax-cutting its way out of recession - as the International Monetary Fund now recommends - Darling found his hands tied.

As a consequence, when he delivers his first Budget next month, Darling will have to explain away a budgetary black hole similar to that faced by Norman Lamont when he introduced Britain's biggest ever tax-raising Budget in 1993. Not a comparison that Darling will relish.

Yet it was the unresolved tax issues that have been the real undoing of Darling. The rushed pre-Budget report in October took the decisive steps to tax the super-rich. Capital gains tax was to be simplified and raised from 10 per cent to 18 per cent. And Labour, stealing and wearing Tory clothes, would impose a £30,000 charge on the non-doms.

It is what followed that so damaged Darling's reputation. The City, supported by the CBI, the Financial Times and the Telegraph, launched a vitriolic campaign against both proposals, claiming they would destroy London's leadership as a financial centre and send the private equity princelings and non-doms fleeing to Monaco and Switzerland. Proposals that enjoyed the support of millions of ordinary, hard-working, taxpaying Britons were being attacked by a small clique of vested interests.

Was it avoidable?

In both cases the pressure on the Chancellor became so strong that No 10 orchestrated retreats which left Darling looking weak and indecisive. In the case of non-doms, Darling was specifically undermined by one from Brown's government of all the talents, the excitable former CBI boss Digby Jones - the trade minister.

Could all of this have been avoided? A more robust chancellor could have taken on his critics, rather than allow them to dominate the agenda. The private equity bosses and non-doms have no political constituency in the UK, apart from the disgraced bankers of the City. Yet the reality is that the tax retreats were not humiliating U-turns, as portrayed in lurid headlines, but mid-course adjustments of the kind that happen with all complex tax changes.

The assassination of Darling by a peculiar combination of forces from next door at No 10, the CBI and sections of the media has not been pretty to watch. They sensed weakness and attacked relentlessly. His image will not have been helped by his muddled media appearances after the nationalisation of Northern Rock was announced. As jobs in Newcastle are axed by his chosen company doctor, Ron Sandler, Darling may well come to regret the phrase "business as usual". It is also likely that "temporary" ownership could mean anything up to a decade, given the history of previous bank nationalisations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Darling needs to find the inner reserves to take on his enemies in the Budget on 12 March. Most importantly, he must stake out an aggressive, US-style growth strategy for keeping recession at bay. Otherwise he will find his survival at the Treasury foreshortened and could join the hall of horrors of Britain's worst chancellors.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times