Wonky women

The political agenda is increasingly being set by women from leading research organisations. Poorly

"A brilliant woman is a plague," lamented Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "A plague to her husband, her children, her friends, her valet, everyone." Rous seau would not be happy if he cast his eye over the think tanks of the centre left today, as they are experiencing an epidemic of femininity.

So complete is the feminisation of progressive think-tank leadership that when Jennifer Moses, former head of the Liberal Democrat-leaning think tank CentreForum, was scooped into the new Downing Street talent pool last month, interest was sparked in her nationality (American), her party allegiance (non-Labour) and her Goldman Sachs-generated wealth (gigantic) - but not her gender. Meanwhile, Demos is run by Catherine Fieschi; the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is co-directed by Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim on a job-share basis; and the Social Market Foundation is run by Ann Rossiter. At least on the non-Tory side, all the top wonks are women.

This feminisation is, in part, a simple reflection of the general rise of women in public life. "Part of it is purely statistical," says Fieschi. "There are simply more women in public positions." But Fieschi, and others, think there may be more to it than that. These organisations are important ideas factories for progressive politics, but are also independent organisations at some distance from the dysfunctional, tribal, macho culture of Westminster and Downing Street. As such, they provide perfect platforms for women who want to make an impact on politics without having to play the boys' games.

"The kinds of demands that being a special adviser makes on your life are ones that women in particular might reject," suggests Oppenheim. "A think-tank role gives you more control over your time." Journalism and research organi sations also provide perches for high-profile women such as Polly Toynbee at the Guardian and Julia Unwin, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

"It is a cause for celebration to see women in these jobs," says Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women's rights. "But if you look at Downing Street or even the cabinet, where the number of women has actually fallen, you see that governmental power remains mostly male."

Access to key government jobs still appears to require a Y chromosome. Moses will be one of the very few women in Gordon Brown's No 10, alongside Oona King, the former MP with the tough task of making the government more female-friendly.

The rise of the wonky women can also be seen as part of the evolution of the think tanks themselves. The principal progressive think tanks have been through three stages, suggests Fieschi. The first stage was a "blue-sky" period, when idealistic directors were encouraged to think boldly about a progressive future. James Cornford, the first director of IPPR, was an academic by background and a marvellous iconoclast. He cared little for what ministers, or shadow ministers, thought. But this was at a point when Labour had been out of power for three terms, and was keen to demonstrate that it was fizzing with ideas about how to make the nation better.

The second stage came in parallel with Lab our's terms in office. With the party securely in power, the priority for centre-left think tanks was to provide realistic, grounded, sensible policy advice. This technocratic era was unsurprisingly marked by a revolving-door relationship between the think tanks and the government. Geoff Mulgan, the founding head of Demos, went on to run the prime minister's Strategy Unit and then the No 10 Policy Unit; Phil Collins, a former director of the Social Market Foundation, became chief speechwriter to Tony Blair.

IPPR acted as a training college for Labour politicians and advisers. Patricia Hewitt, a former deputy director, became an MP and then cabinet minister. So did David Mili band. And James Purnell. Miliband was formerly Blair's head of policy, and that job was subsequently filled by Matthew Taylor, who had previously run IPPR. It is now held by Dan Corry, IPPR's former head of economics. Indeed, to list the number of IPPR staff who have worked for a Labour government, or vice versa, would take the rest of this article. (And yes, to declare an interest, me too.) Chris Powell, when chairman of trustees of the IPPR, boasted that IPPR actually had two departments: the research and development section in Southampton Street (the think tank's HQ) and the "applied department" in government itself.

Now, however, the progressive think tanks are entering a third stage, one resembling the first in its emphasis on free thinking. Now that Labour's hold on power is tenuous the rules have changed again. The value of ideas has risen, both for a government in desperate need of intellectual reju venation and for an opposition anxious to prove itself fresh, modern and ready to govern.

This requires a different style of leadership, and especially a greater openness to work across party lines. It is likely that this would be happening under male leadership, although perhaps to a lesser extent. "Let's be honest - it is partly a reflection of the political situation," admits Fieschi. "Having said that, I do think that women may be slightly better at handling ambiguity, acting as critical friends, and perhaps working with different partners in a different way."

Oppenheim agrees, though she is wary of being too deterministic about the gender element. "I think there is a likelihood that women are more consensual in their approach, and less bound to a particular political party." The job-share arrangement at IPPR (unprecedented in UK think tanks) is itself a powerful symbol. "Lisa and I are often asked how we can possibly share leadership," she says. "It is a different way of leading, and for us it is a very powerful one."

One of the other factors reducing the level of tribalism in the think tanks is the career stages and ambitions of the new breed of women leaders. According to Fieschi: "The women who run these think tanks have no ambition to end up in the government's Strategy Unit. They have either already been in government, or have no interest in being in government."

It is certainly true that Rossiter, Oppenheim and Harker have all been government advisers, but they can now be considered as in the post-hack, rather than pre-hack, stages of their careers. Consequently, these female leaders have more latitude. They tremble less when a Labour minister rings to complain about a critical report.

As a result, the Conservatives, energetically triangulating to prove their changed condition, are mustard-keen to work with the centre-left think tanks. IPPR submitted substantial evidence to the Conservative "quality of life" task force, is working with the Liberal Democrats on immigration and is trying to build a cross-party consensus on climate change. Demos, while anchored in progressive politics, is also less prescriptive about where it is to be found: "I am quite happy to work with Steve Hilton [David Cameron's key strategist]," says Fieschi.

IPPR had a major presence at the Conservative party conference for the first time last year. Demos is taking a more dramatic step away from party politics and eschewing the drunken party conference scene altogether. Instead, there will be Demos events at the Hay and other literary and cultural festivals around the country. For Fieschi, shaping radical ideas and building a consensus for progressive change is now a more subtle and complex game that reaches far beyond political party.

In 1997, the era of the Blair Babes, it seemed as if politics itself might be on the cusp of a new, more feminine era. It hasn't quite worked out like that; women are in short supply in senior government roles. But they have scaled the commanding heights of the progressive intellectual powerhouses. Rather than being a "plague", these brilliant women may be the medicine that progressive politics urgently needs.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt