Why Major's call for 5% interest rates is economic madness

A significant rise in rates by 2017 would leave more than a million households spending more than half of their income on debt repayment.

While it's John Major's comments on social mobility that have made headlines today (read my critique of them here), his remarks on interest rates are equally striking. After years of loose monetary policy, with the base rate held at a record low of 0.5% since March 2009, Major called for rates to return sooner rather than later to "normal levels, say three to five per cent" to create a society that treats "the saver as fairly as it treats the debtor".

It's advice as bad as one would expect from the man who presided over rates of 15% in the early 1990s. As research by the Resolution Foundation shows, even under an optimistic scenario of strong and sustained earnings growth, a rise in the base rate to 3.9% by 2017 would leave 1.08 million families in "debt peril", defined as spending more than half of their income on debt repayment. Under a negative scenario of weak and uneven earnings growth, the number at risk would rise to 1.25 million. A more modest rise in rates to 2.9% would leave between 880,000 (positive scenario) and 1.04 million (negative scenario) in debt peril.

No one believes in low rates as a point of principle (and Major is right to highlight how savers, most notably the elderly, have suffered) but after the longest sustained fall in living standards since 1870, the only sensible option remains to keep monetary policy loose. As Matthew Whittaker, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, has noted: "Even if interest rates stay in line with expectations, we are likely to see a rise in the number of families struggling with heavy levels of repayment over the coming years. But if the squeeze on household incomes continues, Britain could be left in a fragile position, with even moderate additional increases in interest rates leading to a major surge in families with dangerous debt levels – especially among worse-off households."

The coalition's decision to rely so heavily on cuts to public spending and benefits, rather than progressive tax rises, to reduce the deficit means that low-income families are even less well-placed to cope with a rise in rates. The OBR forecasts that average household debt will rise to £58,000 in 2010 to £77,309 by 2015, or from 160% of total income to 175%.

While fixated with reducing government borrowing, Cameron and Osborne appear intensely relaxed about ever-greater levels of household indebtedness. If Major wants someone to blame for the punishingly low rates endured by savers, he should turn his ire on the austerians in Downing Street.

John Major called for interest rates to return to "normal levels, say three to five per cent". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Brocialist’s Dilemma: joining the revolution inevitably leaves others behind

We have to remember that other people have priorities, which might clash with our hero-worshipping of politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

It was Tony Blair who got me used to compromising my values for the sake of party unity and electoral success. After I voted for him in 2005, I knew in my heart that I could talk myself into voting for anybody if it kept the Tories out. Sure he’d planned and waged a war of aggression with disastrous consequences for millions of people, but he hadn’t privatised the railways. I’m not an Iraqi, I’m a guy who travels by train.

Having taken the Blair masterclass in compromising ideals, watching Jeremy Corbyn getting dragged over the coals for his various missteps all feels rather trivial. I found myself wondering just what it was going to take for Corbyn, who I don't dislike and will vote for, to outrage me to the extent that I’d want him gone.

Hell, I voted for the man who brought in university fees. I voted for him, and I knew as I did it that –had I been born just a few years later – there’s no way I’d have been able to go to university. I don’t know what Corbyn might do that would be a compromise too far given those I’ve already had to make over the years.

Left wing politics will always come with compromises, but what is telling is who has to make the biggest ones. We all want a unified and functional opposition, maybe one day a shot at government, but can we expect Jewish party members to simply ignore the failure to handle antisemitism in the party, or women to ignore so much about recent Labour selections?

It seems, at times, that what matters in Corbyn’s Labour is the new found sense of ideological purpose, rather than the trickier practical business of ensuring everybody is fairly treated and properly represented.

This brings us to the titular Brocialist Dilemma, because this is something that many of the men in the party will face whether they realise it or not. “Brocialist” is a generally pejorative term that tends to be applied to pugnacious white men piling into left wing or radical politics with earnestly held good intentions but little empathy and experience – and even less awareness of their lack thereof.

The Brocialist Dilemma is one born of coming into politics by choice looking to Fight the Good Fight, rather than having the Good Fight thrust upon you.

The dilemma is that if you are engaging with politics because you are an idealist looking to solve problems, which problems do you solve first? And whose problems do you push to one side in order to solve those problems? Where do you make your compromises?

You have to figure out who you’re willing to go to bat for and who you’ll let fall behind. There is no guide book for this, no master list of all the things that need to be fixed in left wing politics before it can be wheeled out like a massive cake to bring about global utopia.

We are all raised on stories of heroes leaping to the aid of the downtrodden for altruistic reasons. Plenty of us want to be that hero, but the shock of finding out that our personal intervention is not the tipping point in the struggle that we hoped it might be can be disheartening.

Nobody expects to answer the call to action only to be told to take a seat while the beneficiary of your munificence tries to find you something that you are qualified to help with.

More importantly than the disheartening effect on the enthusiastic would-be hero is the potential damage that can be done to the body politic itself. When thousands of energetic crusaders rally to the cause – intent on saving the world – but decide that your particular issues within that are less important, that your insistence on pursuing the agenda you got into politics to pursue is damaging, then we can see all kinds of unpleasantness.

It is not a coincidence that when you get huge numbers of highly engaged new people piling into a political cause that they bring with them what can charitably be called complications. I choose that word carefully because I’m still optimistic enough to believe that – for all the bile and spite being hurled around the Labour party in recent months – everybody is still, on a fundamental level, trying to do right.

Jeremy Corbyn is a huge draw for brocialists in much the same way as Bernie Sanders was in the US. This isn’t a complaint; you do want a leader who can motivate people, who can draw people into politics. Corbyn comes across like the wise old shaman who turns up in stories to guide the hero on the start of his journey to greatness. He is Obi-Wan Kenobi to a generation of left wing men who can see the world is an unjust place but don’t know exactly what they need to do to change it other than joining The Rebellion.

If there is a solution to the Brocialist Dilemma, perhaps it lies with Corbyn. What lesson can we take from the man himself? Is it to never compromise, to stick to your principles against all the odds? Perhaps. But also, and I would say more importantly, it is patience. Corbyn has spent decades campaigning for the causes he believes in, standing on picket lines, going on demonstrations – not always popular, though often right in hindsight.

At no point in his long and storied history of activism did Corbyn read the first volume of Das Kapital on his phone before getting bored and calling somebody a Blairite on Twitter.

If people can find the patience to learn, and the patience to teach, then perhaps we might all make it through this period in Labour’s history in a spirit of mutual respect. Otherwise we’ll be spending the rest of our lives calling each other names.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture