What sort of prime minister would Miliband make?

For a leader who clearly favours consensus over conflict, Miliband will need to get used to saying 'no' to groups and lobbies who have previously enjoyed an easy ride with Labour.

Part of the reaction to Ed Miliband’s speech earlier this week, signalling seismic changes in Labour’s relations with affiliated trade unions, was the boldness of his move. Not to be rude, but we’re not used to that from Ed. Cautious and incremental steps are what we usually get. It begs the question: what sort of prime minister would he make?

Last Friday, an unnamed former Labour minister told the Guardian that Miliband needed to move decisively in reframing the relationship with the trade unions, following the Falkirk selection debacle. "We need to have a commission that looks at the union link. All the general secretaries need to sign up to it. We need to get to a place where you simply have one category of Labour party members. There should no longer be a formal union affiliation.

"Of course, if unions want to donate to the party they can. Ed is not there yet. But he will be. He acts in a deliberative way. But when he makes a decision he moves very rapidly."

And so it came to pass. Miliband showed he was willing to square-up to Unite and announce changes revolutionising trade union involvement in the party that many observers thought were beyond him. Tony Blair’s glowing tribute was both genuine and generous. So does this week signal the emergence of Miliband 2.0?

Not really. His move was a superb piece of reactive political boldness (it’s hard to think he had such major reform in mind two weeks ago). Opportunistic, rather than instinctive, but decisive, too, when his mind is made up; and being able to react to big events is, after all, the stuff of the premiership.

In an interview last month, Lord Stewart Wood, shadow minister without portfolio and invariably described as Miliband’s consiglieri, offered this assessment of his boss: "In terms of style, Ed is collegiate. He looks for views early, before he makes up his mind. Gordon [Brown] wanted us to respond to his ideas [after] he had already taken them a long way down the line." He added: "Unlike a lot of other politicians, he invites people to give him constructive criticism. He has a desire to improve [and] he solicits views from people across the party."

As a senior adviser to Gordon Brown, and later energy secretary, Miliband was a mainstay throughout 13 years of Labour government and saw first hand the damage done to the government by the Blair/Brown wars. If his "collegiate" style is a reaction to that, then Wood is certainly right about his willingness to learn and improve.

But the government machine he would inherit in 2015 is markedly different to the one he left behind as a cabinet minister in 2010. The social democratic model of the New Labour years is now defunct. It is not enough to throw money at projects and move on to the next thing. Spending cuts and those infernal 'hard choices' will be the order of the day for the foreseeable future.

Prime Minister Miliband will need to speak the "language of priorities" and know a thoroughbred idea from a civil servant’s hobby-horse in order to make his small state socialism work. For a leader who clearly favours consensus over conflict, Miliband will need to get used to saying 'no' to groups and lobbies who have previously enjoyed an easy ride with Labour. Here he can learn from his predecessors.

Blair was good at building an effective team around him, yet there are still too few Milibandites willing to put their shoulder to the wheel for their man. While Gordon Brown ruled by pulling a thousand strings and making the Whitehall machine do his bidding, Miliband often gives the impression of making things up as he goes along. Yet despite this, he is far better prepared for the realities of power than Blair and Brown were in 1997 and his shadow cabinet is one of the most experienced since the Second World War.

Temperamentally, though, Miliband seems closer to President Obama than any of his immediate British predecessors. He is prepared to address vested interests but does so cautiously in closely-scoped terms, witness his criticisms of banks and energy companies, and sometimes seems unsure how far to push things.

Perhaps he should triangulate between Tony Blair’s informal sofa government and Margaret Thatcher’s manic swinging handbag? Where Miliband’s bridge-building style will work well, though, is if there’s another hung parliament in 2015; exercising soft power to build alliances and seek common ground in a way neither Blair nor Brown were well-suited to. For those who balked at the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband a week ago, how he would govern in 2015 has suddenly become a very real preoccupation.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?