The director and socialist Ken Loach launched a campaign for a new left-wing part, Left Unity, last year. Photo: Flickr/Bryce Edwards
Show Hide image

A successful radical left party should be anti-Ukip and not just picking up on Labour's failings

Without a strong left presence, there is no one to counter the rightward march of British politics.

This article was written in response to a column by Helen Lewis asking "Why isn’t there a 'Ukip of the left'?" Read the Green party's response to the column here.
 

It is a common cliché that the task of the modern left is like that of Sisyphus rolling his boulder up a hill time after time only to watch it roll back down again. Repetitive, thankless and ultimately fruitless. I prefer to think of another similarly tortured ancient Greek character in relation to the left: Atlas. Struggling for a better world is not an easy task, but I’m glad there’s someone there to do it.

Without a strong left presence, there is no one to counter the rightward march of British politics, the consensus among mainstream parties of the need for austerity, the scapegoating of immigrants and benefits claimants in place of the bankers who really wrecked the global economy, the rush to privatisation of our vital public services despite the vast majority of people wanting a return to public ownership.

Helen Lewis is absolutely right in her article, ‘Many voters are to the left of Labour on the big issues. So why isn’t there a “Ukip of the left”’, to say that there is space in British politics beyond the edge of Labour. That party was founded at the end of November last year and is rapidly growing to occupy the space Labour long ago vacated: Left Unity.

Left Unity began with a question very similar to the one Lewis raises, asked by Ken Loach on Question Time in February last year: Why isn’t there a Ukip of the left?

“A lot of people in this country share a lot of thoughts,” Loach said. “They hate the breakup of the National Health Service. They hate the privatisations and the outsourcings and the labour agencies and the low wages. They hate the mass unemployment. And there isn’t a broad party that they can vote for…  Ukip has done it for the right. I disagree with almost everything that Ukip stands for, but we need a broad movement of the left.”

Loach, of course, is not arguing for some party with economically left-wing views bound up with euroscepticism and a tough line on immigration. That might be the easy option, the populist option, but that would be to sacrifice principles for a shot at power. We already have one Labour party.

Instead, where Left Unity can play an important role is by helping to provide a counterbalance to Ukip. Where Ukip’s threat to Tory votes has served to pull the government and in turn the entire centre of politics to the right, by challenging Labour where it fails to stand upon the principles on which it was founded, Left Unity can help pull the centre of politics back to the left. It was exactly this kind of public pressure from Left Unity and many other organisations that forced Ed Miliband to pledge to repeal the toxic bedroom tax after months of refusals.

But being a "Ukip of the left" - that is, a successful radical left party - means more than just picking Labour up on its failings. It also means being the anti-Ukip. Where Ukip scapegoats immigrants, Left Unity welcomes them. Where they sow division, Left Unity wants to rebuild solidarity. Where they line up behind a charismatic leader who has the ability to be funny on Have I Got News for You, Left Unity was built on grassroots democracy.

That so many people have turned to vote for the ultra-Thatcherites of Ukip in disillusionment with mainstream politics must serve as a wakeup call to the traditionally fractured left. Politics as usual, with its offering of identikit politicians and stale cloned policies, cannot beat Ukip. The left needs to offer a radical alternative and a united one.

It's undoubtedly true that the politicians have lost touch. We have a government of millionaires who can never speak for the millions. Ukip has been successful in exploiting this disillusionment, but it is the left that holds the answers. All the main political parties support austerity, all have been complicit in the gradual selling off of the NHS, all have increased student tuition fees in office.

Left Unity stands in opposition to these policies. And it stands for policies the other parties - including Ukip - won't touch, such as bringing the railways and energy companies back into public ownership to throw out the profiteers, in turn bringing down prices and offering a better service.

None of this should be hard to achieve, yet it’s a daily struggle against a right-of-centre political mainstream being dragged ever further right by Ukip. But it is pessimistic to only see a boulder rolling down a hill. The left can and has achieved many victories – imagine where we’d be without any kind of opposition. It must continue, like Atlas, to hold firm. Because the alternative would be so much worse for so many people.

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist 

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

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?