Consumer Socialism? Ed might be onto something here

The Labour leader is right to make defending consumers a mission of the left. But that means tackling failed state services too.

People rarely lurch outside Westminster, unless they are drunk. By contrast, party leaders do it all the time, and quite sober, although in their case it has a specific meaning. (Lurch v. intrans - the movement of a politician in a direction simultaneously craved by his party and deemed by conventional wisdom to be where elections are lost.) Using that definition, Ed Miliband has lurched to the left because his party conference speech proposed big, heavy-handed interventions in the private sector. A vigorous debate followed about how lurchy the lurch really was given that governments intervene in all kinds of markets all the time. There is also an ancillary debate about whether these specific interventions, particularly the proposal to freeze fuel bills, will work.

Less attention has been paid to what I think is a central political ambition of the speech – the attempt to change the way people talk about Miliband’s leadership. His obvious deficiency in opinion polls is the perception that he is weak and will never comfortably fill Prime Ministerial shoes. Already he is being discussed differently: as a danger rather than a joke, which is a short-term win for Labour because a weakling is not a threat. If Miliband is now a menace, he must be less weak.

But there was more to the leadership argument in the speech than simply firing off deliberately controversial policies so that everyone runs around dizzily talking about how bold – or Bolshevik – and decisive Miliband can be. His point is that David Cameron is strong because he has mighty friends in the media, in big business, in finance. By contrast, the Labour leader wants to be strong on behalf of the defenceless. In a traditional left taxonomy of power that means the downtrodden masses, who have thus far in the parliament been effectively cordoned off from public sympathy as undeserving benefit claimants.

Now Miliband has identified a new and much larger group of people who feel put upon, ignored and oppressed – consumers. The Labour leader is definitely onto something if he can put himself on the side of the people who pay the bills, buy the rail tickets, wait on hold to speak to an advisor, while a mechanical voice reassures them that the company considers their call important when plainly it doesn’t. And he is onto something even stronger if he can trap the Tories into being the mechanical voice on the end of the line.

The reason it doesn’t make sense to compare Miliband’s moves to 1970s-style Socialism is that much of the infrastructure of our lives is run by the private sector and will be for the foreseeable future. The challenge for politics is how to meet the demands of citizens who feel the provision of those essential private services is inadequate. If electricity or broadband or transport or whatever are deemed too expensive and the market isn’t working to bring down prices, what is government going to do about it? The menu of options contains variations on control, regulation and liberalisation. You either stamp on the market, limit the market or create more market.

A little-noticed feature of Miliband’s energy agenda is that it uses bits of all three. The freeze is a temporary measure to be imposed while reforms are introduced to make the consumer electricity and gas market more competitive. Labour people aren’t exactly boasting about that because the party faithful prefer the bit about bashing corporate giants to the bit about efficient markets, new entrants and competition being the best way to serve customers in the long term – and the reform side is also the least developed part of the policy. There are some Labour front-benchers who are keen to get that latter part of the argument out there but loyalty to the tone of the leader’s speech is the key this week.

If some balance is restored – if it is made clear that Miliband is actually pursuing a new kind of consumer-focused, market-literate social democracy – he will have carved out a genuinely exciting space for Labour to talk about reforming the economy so it works for the majority. The problem is that consumers don’t just consume in the private sector. They also rely on the state and that too is a huge source of frustration, rip-off, neglect and computer-says-no demoralisation. If Miliband wants to be a crusader for the oppressed masses of consumer-citizens he also needs a story to tell about state reform. He knows this and indeed made the point to me in an interview earlier this year, saying that the “unresponsive state” was as much a matter for political grievance as failed markets. The question that naturally follows is how he will define himself in relation to failures of state power in the way he is currently defining himself as a scourge of failed markets.

Whether he likes it or not, part of that story will be told through the parable of his relationship with trade unions. Labour cannot reform the state without either getting the consent of or winning confrontation with the representatives of organised public sector workers. Miliband wants to present himself as the man who stands up to vested interests as opposed to Cameron - the man who is in the pocket of Big Money. To pull that off, he needs a satisfactory resolution to the confrontation he is already in with the “vested interests” on his own side.

Two years ago, when I asked senior Labour strategists whether this was a problem, they dismissed the analogy. The feeling then was that unions were not hugely unpopular and that if the Tories tried to paint some equivalence between Unite and the City, they would just look ridiculous. Over time that view changed and since the Falkirk row it has been clear that people very close to Miliband see his party reforms as a prominent emblem of his willingness to tackle obstacles to change – “ripping up the rules” - on his own side too. It comes back to that ambition to re-cast Ed as the man of deep, intellectual courage and strength in contrast to Cameron’s insubstantial swagger. The forthcoming battle with the unions has thus acquired even greater significance in the light of Miliband’s conference speech. It is the symbolic counterpoint to his assault on failed markets; it is the chapter in the story that is meant to demonstrate that he has not lurched left after all, nor triangulated right as the old New Labour playbook dictated he should, but instead represents something quite new.

As far as the detail of any settlement with the unions is concerned, there is sure to be a slightly messy compromise. Miliband cannot afford to bankrupt his party by provoking a great schism. Union leaders will not want to damage the Labour leader so much in the haggling that they end up sabotaging the party’s election prospects. What matters most in broader political terms is that Miliband comes out of it with something that can plausibly be held aloft as a victory. No less important, since the Tories will denounce any deal as a capitulation to union paymasters and proof of reversion to the 1970s, it matters that the union leaders look defeated, even if in practice they are not. 

Miliband’s political fortunes over the next few months depend substantially on whether he can embed in the public mind the idea that he is stronger than he looks. For that to work, he needs his enemies to look threatened. So far the Tories are playing along by sounding hysterical about the lights going out, as if insisting on lower bills is a threat to civilisation. The next test is whether the Labour leader’s adversaries on the left will be equally obliging.

Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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?