Bez 4 prez? Photo: Christopher Furlong
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Happy Mondays star Bez on the revolution, standing in Salford, and why he didn't join the Greens

The distinctive dancer and 2005 Celebrity Big Brother winner has joined the battle to become MP for Salford & Eccles. Does he have what it takes to become an MP?

Bez is jetlagged. He’s just returned from creating music with an indigenous tribe in Panama, followed by a whistlestop tour of Mexico and a gig in the city. To help them "live the lifestyle they live", all of the money raised from the music made in South America will be donated to the tribe. “A well-deserved two week break from politics,” he laughs.

Bez answers the phone in his thick Salford accent: “How do mate?” he says. Mark Berry (Bez’s real name) shot to fame in the Eighties with his distinctive dance moves while on stage with the Happy Mondays. Then, of course, he went on to beat Blazin’ Squad rapper, Kenzie, to the crown in Celebrity Big Brother 2005  despite Kenzie being the favourite to win.

But now this maraca-shaking “proud Salfordian” has decided to use his celebrity status to face a different contest altogether: politics. And he – like Russell Brand – is calling for some version of a revolution. Bez decided to stand under the banner of his own creation: the Reality Party. And he’s running in the Salford & Eccles constituency where the incumbent Labour MP, Hazel Blears, is preparing to step down. An MP who’s “been caught with her fingers in the till,” adds Bez. (Blears was stung during the expenses scandal, though she did not break the law).

Bez proudly announced his campaign – and the revolution – on the morning the Labour politician Tony Benn died. “The radio was playing speeches from Benn all day,” he recalls. “It actually made the hairs on my neck stand up.” The late Benn is the only politician Bez has any time for. The rest, he says, “are all the same”. “The same monotone voice, the same language – there’s no passion coming from anyone anymore!”

Unfortunately, Bez’s initial revolution was shortlived after teething problems with the party in January: namely, forgetting to register with the Electoral Commission. The regulators claim they wrote to Bez on a number occasions warning him that the Reality Party sounded too much like the pre-existing Realists’ Party and could confuse the electorate. Bez failed to respond and the party was officially deregistered. 

On 12 Feburary, the indie band star renamed his party We Are The Reality Party, or WATRP – an acronym that I’m not sure how to pronounce. Anyway: Vive la revolution, take two!

We Are The Reality Party election poster

The subject he is most passionate about is fracking. Not long ago, Bez and his girlfriend, Firouzeh Razavi, protested against the government's fracking plans by staging a week-long "bed-in" at a London hotel. Some pointed to parallels between the famous John Lennon bed protest in 1969 against the Vietnam war.

So, why not join the Green Party? I ask him. “I could have joined the Greens but I didn’t want to be restricted by party politics. I wanted to have a free hand to say what I wanted and do what I wanted really. The thing is with the Green party in Salford: they haven’t got a chance. They’re a middle-class greeny party that does not appeal to the people that I’m trying to appeal too.”

His other qualms are focused firmly on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – “basically, that’s the American corporations and banks taking over fiscal sovereignty of this country” – the political disengagement he claims is so endemic in Salford and the “corporates”, who are “in the midst of a hostile takeover this country.”

What about Ukip? Bez goes off on one: "they are engineered by the Conservatives to bring this right wing agenda this fascist agenda! Where you blame the immigrants. It's what Hitler was doing before World War Two. And what's happening now before World War Three."

To put it lightly, Bez is an eccentric individual. And although some of his revolutionary concepts might need some fine-tuning, the attention he has paid to voter engagement in the constituency should be replicated across the country. “98 per cent of the people I asked on Salford precinct said they didn’t vote,” says Bez. “We’ve got to try and reengage all these people who are disenfranchised from politics because they don’t think they can make a difference.”

“Wake Up Salford” will be the name of his engagement campaign. Bez plans on setting up camp on estates in Salford and Eccles in some of the most deprived areas in the hope he can open up a dialogue​ with some of the city's residents about his anti-fracking revolution. “We’re going to take a solar powered generator with us, set up a gazebo-type affair and we’re going to have people playing music and talking,” he adds. 

Bez is well aware of the challenge that lies ahead: he's in competition with Labour's 40 per cent take of the seat in 2010. "But it’s not about the winning," he says. "It’s about how well you fight. And I’m willing to put up the best fight I can.”

I ask him what message he'd give to voters in his constituency: "You not voting, you staying at home is just endorsing the system that you are unhappy with. The poor are getting stuffed. We're going to have a situation like in Mexico  where I've just come back from  how the poor are living over there. And that's going to be happening on the streets here in Manchester. It's an unacceptable situation for a country that's supposed to be civilized and set up the Empire."

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn

 

 

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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?