David Young
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The motherhood trap

It seems like a great time to be a woman in politics - but the fact that childless women are vilified as selfish, while so few mothers make it to the top, reveals an uncomfortable truth about how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

Look around the top of politics and it seems like a wonderful time to be a woman. Two of the four candidates for the Labour leadership are female – Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – as are three of the five in the race for deputy: Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint and Angela Eagle. One of the three likely contenders for the next Tory leadership is a woman, Theresa May. The next leader of Scottish Labour is likely to be Kezia Dugdale, and she will find herself debating two other female leaders, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and the Tories’ Ruth Davidson. Half of the shadow cabinet is female, and there are seven women in the cabinet. The most powerful politician in the European Union and perhaps the world is Angela Merkel.

But these eye-catching facts conceal an uncomfortable truth: remarkably high proportions of the most successful women in politics are childless. (All the named politicians above are, except Cooper and Flint.)

For much of the last parliament, the only mother in the cabinet was Maria Miller, and New Statesman research shows that while the 14 men in the shadow cabinet have 31 children between them, the 13 women have only 16. Seven of the women are childless, against three of the men.

This disparity is evident throughout parliament, according to wider research carried out by the academics Sarah Childs and Rosie Campbell in 2013. They found that 45 per cent of female MPs were childless, compared to 28 per cent of men. “On average men MPs have 1.9 children compared to 1.2 for women MPs,” they wrote. “There is also a sex difference in the age of MPs’ children: the average age of MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament is 12 years old for men and 16 years old for women . . . All of this would suggest that mothers – and not just women – are significantly descriptively under-represented in British politics.”

Why does that matter? It matters not only because a parliamentary democracy should strive to reflect the populace it serves, but because the barriers stopping the ascent of MPs who are mothers reflect the structural discrimination throughout society.

The “motherhood trap” exposes one of capitalism’s most uncomfortable secrets – the way it relies on so much unpaid labour, often from women, to sustain itself. This labour comes at the expense of career opportunities, and their lifetime earning power: the pay gap between men and women in their twenties is all but eradicated, but a “maternity gap” still exists, and women’s wages never recover from the time devoted to childbearing.

Despite this, and despite the huge energy generated by the feminist movement in the past decade, questions of care have not gained as much attention as they did during the “Second Wave” in the 1970s. In 2014, the New Republic’s Judith Shulevitz suggested that the F-word itself should be replaced with “caregiverism”, to stress that challenging the exploitation of unpaid labour was critical to achieving equality. Without a structural analysis of the problem, Shulevitz argued, it was too easy to see these debates as “personal dilemmas – opting out, opting in – rather than as Hobson’s choices imposed on us”. She added: “Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labour movement.”

That brings us back to parliament. Over the past month, I have spoken to more than a dozen women and men, many of them involved in politics at the highest levels. There was universal agreement across the ideological spectrum that it is difficult to balance caring responsibilities with a political career. At the same time, selectors, voters and the media often expect a politician to have a family as a way of signalling that they are “normal”. So women face an impossible situation. If they have children, people disparage them as not dedicated enough to the job. If they don’t, people disparage them for having nothing else in their lives but the job.

Indeed, a 2014 study found that when it came to workers having children, there was a “fatherhood bonus” but a “motherhood penalty”. As the author of the study, the sociology professor Michelle Budig of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the New York Times: “Employers read fathers as more stable and committed to their work; they have a family to provide for, so they’re less likely to be flaky. That is the opposite of how parenthood by women is interpreted by employers. The conventional story is they work less and they’re more distractible when on the job.”

Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs think the same is true of MPs. “It’s a no-win for women,” Campbell told me. “For men, having a wife and children is a political resource, whereas for women, not having children was the thing that gave them the time to do politics.”

The downside to this added time, however, is being open to accusations of selfishness, and the suggestion that the women have made a calculated career decision that somehow alienates them from “ordinary people”. (Roughly 20 per cent of women in the UK aged 45 do not have any children, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from one in nine of their mothers’ generation: not having children is far from rare.)

On 6 July in a column for the Huffington Post, the former Labour minister Helen Goodman wrote that she supported Yvette Cooper for leader because, “As a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life. We need a leader who knows what challenges ordinary people face day to day, and who is committed to helping them.” The implicit contrast here was with Liz Kendall, who is both childless and single, her last relationship having ended just before the general election.

But as Isabel Hardman wrote in a blog for the Spectator, “Being a parent does not automatically mean you will understand even other parents. You will still need empathy in order to put yourself in the shoes of a single mother living on benefits if you are married and running a house on two salaries.” In other words, Cooper and Kendall have more in common with each other, uterine usage aside, than either does with a constituent struggling on the minimum wage.

Yet speaking “as a mother” is presumed to be a short cut to authenticity and normality. When Maria Miller wanted to bring in controls on web access to hardcore pornography in 2013, she told the press: “As a mother, I am determined to protect my children from the depravity of internet porn.”

Male politicians, by contrast, get the best of both worlds. They have a family that can be marshalled as photogenic props or used as fodder for personal anecdotes in speeches, and their home life grounds them and makes them appear “normal”. (The coverage of the Cooper/Kendall spat largely failed to mention that Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn have children. And most commentators presumed Miller’s comments to be a coded gibe at Theresa May, Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening but not Eric Pickles or William Hague.)

So, what can be done to make life easier for both sets of women – those caught in the motherhood trap, and their childless sisters, portrayed as selfish and single-minded? Just as importantly, what can be done to bridge the gap so that a woman’s family status is no longer seen to define her quite so acutely? Let’s look at each in turn.

 

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In May 1997 a record 101 female Labour MPs entered the Commons. It was parliament’s own version of the Big Bang, driving up the percentage of women in the House from less than 10 to more than 15 per cent. There was strength in numbers, allowing policy areas that had been marginalised – or dismissed as merely “women’s issues” – to be heard. The macho, public school-cum-gentleman’s club culture of Westminster also took a knock. But there was a problem. “Lots of us who were newly elected in 1997 came in assuming it was fine – we were ­going to sort out the hours of the House of Commons,” the former Labour minister Patricia Hewitt told me. “And we assumed that all female MPs would have the same view on this.”

They didn’t. Politicians who lived within commuting distance of London, or whose family home was in the capital, wanted parliament to operate to normal working hours so that they could get home in the evenings to see their children during the week. But Hewitt and her colleagues discovered that MPs in farther-flung seats were away from their family during the week anyway, and so didn’t mind the long sitting hours. They wanted a late start on Monday and an early finish on Thursday to maximise the time they could spend with their family.

They also discovered that many male MPs liked the late sittings and the “collegiality” of the Commons. Hewitt recalls: “Many of them would make the argument: ‘No, no, no, it’s absolutely vital that we’re voting in the evening, we’re having dinner together. That’s when back benches can talk to ministers.’ And there was a lot of truth in that; it was just you also pay a high price for it. So that was quite a rude awakening.”

The current standard sitting hours run from 2.30pm to 10pm on Monday, 7pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 5pm on a Thursday. At these times, MPs are expected to stay near Westminster in case they need to vote. This part of the job, coupled with the need for most MPs to maintain two homes, is the great barrier for those with caring responsibilities.

Many believe that discussions over sitting hours operate as a veiled rebuke to women who don’t seem to want to be part of the (male) clique. “It’s interesting that very often the criticism of women is that they’re not ‘clubbable’,” says Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP for Islington South. “Theresa May ‘doesn’t have a following’; Yvette Cooper is ‘too reserved’.” Another MP, who is also a mother, echoed this: “If we had an early finish, my priority would be to get back and spend time with my family. Even before I had a child – it’s just a question of personal choice – sometimes I’d just rather read for a couple of hours.”

Labour’s women’s minister, Gloria De Piero, says she does not believe it is possible to “tinker” with the hours any more to make them more family-friendly. But she added, “You’d have to say: ‘If you invented it now, is this what it would look like?’”

However, other aspects of Commons life are improving. There is now a crèche on Parliament Street, used by MPs, civil servants and staff, which takes children from three months upwards. It was created by Speaker John Bercow in 2010 amid a campaign of low-level resistance, because its establishment led to the closure of Bellamy’s, one of the many bars in the Commons.

Bercow has taken reform seriously as Speaker, and he told me by email: “A good number of the old, outdated assumptions about women’s ability to be effective Members of Parliament and hold high office have been consigned, rightly, to the dustbin. However, as with other highly mobile careers, it is a fact that an MP’s job, often splitting time between his or her constituency and Westminster, places a particular strain on family life.” Besides the crèche, he says, “the decision to introduce earlier sitting hours in the last parliament was undertaken partly as a result of colleagues arguing that a modern Commons should take a more family-friendly approach”.

The current sitting hours are, however, in danger, as they were introduced for a ­limited period and some MPs will want them back to their old length. “I don’t think reverting to those hours would send a good signal about modern working practices,” one female MP tells me.

Still, at least you can now take a baby through the division lobby, making it easier for those with small children to attend crucial votes. This milestone was first reached by the Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames in 2014 when his wife, Jo Swinson, was the party’s equalities minister. She told me that her family provided a perfect test case for people’s differing responses to mothers and fathers juggling work and childcare.

“Duncan and I had the same job as MPs, and I had ministerial responsibilities, but people still responded differently in terms of expectations of what childcare responsibilities we would have. People just took it for granted that with a small child, there would be times when I, as a woman, couldn’t do something. But they didn’t respond in that automatic way to Duncan at all.”

Swinson argued that childcare affects working fathers in a way that doesn’t get addressed “because they’re not physically going through that change”. She added: “I think fatherhood is much more invisible in politics. The media is part of it – the woman will be introduced with what age they are, ‘mother of X’; or, indeed, if they don’t have children, then it will be remarked upon in a way that it isn’t with men, generally.”

She also highlighted the difficulty of ­taking maternity leave as an MP: her office covered her constituency caseload while her Lib Dem colleague Jenny Willott took on the equalities brief in addition to her own. Swinson believes that Britain should move towards the Scandinavian model, under which a portion of paid parental leave is available only if taken by the father (or same-sex partner). “Because of maternity leave, and the cultural expectation that it’s mums that take the lion’s share of that time,” she said, “it ends up being the women who are taking more of the responsibility once they return to work.” Why is that? “Because they’ve developed the expertise. Parenting is about practice – you don’t innately know how to calm a crying baby.”

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One of the hazards of my job is being invited to summits on “powerful women”, which usually leave me feeling extremely unpowerful, and frankly a bit of a failure at being a woman. Recently at one such occasion, held in the ballroom of a London hotel, the star guest was the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. She talked frankly about what has become known as the “misogyny speech” – when she took her main opponent Tony Abbott to task in parliament for 15 searing minutes, opening with the declaration: “I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man; I will not.”

The denunciation, in October 2012, had been a long time coming. Even judging by the everyday tone in the notoriously brutal arena of Australian politics – its bluntness often makes Prime Minister’s Questions look like a Quaker meeting – the rhetoric used to describe Gillard was exceptionally vicious. “Ditch the witch”, read one set of election placards. After her speech, the sexist abuse did not abate: in 2013 a Liberal Party fundraising dinner promised “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box”. (Abbott said the menu was “tacky and scatological” but he did not suspend the candidate involved.)

Through this river of low-grade sexism ran one very strong current: repeated criticism of Gillard for being childless. In 2007, the conservative senator Bill Heffernan called her “deliberately barren”. Another Liberal politician, George Brandis, now attorney general, once criticised her in parliament, asserting that she was a “one-dimensional” person who had “chosen not to be a parent”. Her own party has not spared her: the former Labor leader Mark Latham opined in 2011, “Anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them.” Her fierce rival Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister, is alleged to have described her pejoratively, also in 2011, as a “childless, atheist ex-communist”. In February the following year, the Sydney Morning Herald fretted in its leader column that voters had “largely closed their minds to Gillard. Her media persona does not fit the expectations of some voters: a single woman, childless, whose life is dedicated to her career.”

As often seems to be the case, it was implied that given Gillard’s childlessness, she could not have an opinion on family policy – as if defence ministers always have a military background, or all agriculture ministers can reliably tell one end of a haddock from the other before taking on the brief.

A fortnight after the misogyny speech, Tony Abbott made a pointed remark about Gillard’s government restricting the “baby bonus” for new parents on the assumption that a second child could reuse many items purchased for the first. “Often one child is still in the cot when the second one comes along. One child is still in the pram when the second one comes along,” said the father-of-three. “I think if the government was a bit more experienced in this area they wouldn’t come out with glib lines like that.”

The Conservative children’s minister Tim Loughton took a similar line when criticising his Lib Dem coalition colleague Sarah Teather at the Tory party conference in 2013, claiming that she “didn’t believe in family. She certainly didn’t produce one of her own.” This made the Education Department a “family-free zone”, which he found “disappointing”. (Loughton has three children, although it would be indelicate of me to note that his contribution to “producing” them involved less physical hardship than endured by his wife.)

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Julia Gillard’s experience is that the criticism of her was so explicit and came from such senior political figures. In less plain-spoken cultures, the fear of childless women is usually better camouflaged, disguised as concerns over “life experience” and whether a woman has a “well-rounded personality”. But not always: in June last year, a 35-year-old Tokyo City assembly member called Ayaka Shiomura was heckled during a debate on support for working mothers with cries of “Go and get married” and “Can’t you give birth?”. In 2005, when Angela Merkel first seemed to have a chance of leading Germany’s ruling coalition, the wife of her main rival, Gerhard Schröder, commented acidly that she “does not embody with her biography the experiences of most women”, going on to mention childbirth and school admissions. That Doris Schröder-Köpf’s own husband has no biological children – the couple have adopted two children, and she brought a daughter to the relationship – did not seem to trouble her.

The childless British politicians to whom I spoke confirmed that their status was often used against them by their opponents, by other women as much as men. One pointed me to the leaflet issued by Stella Creasy’s Tory rival for the Walthamstow seat in this year’s general election, Molly Samuel-Leport. Under the headline “The Contenders Head to Head”, it listed Samuel-Leport’s virtues: “Cleaner Mother Shop Assistant Wife Athlete Teacher Champion Understands YOU”. When it came to Creasy, the list was shorter: “Career Politician Understands Ed Miliband”. The implication was clear – Creasy’s childlessness showed that she was not an “ordinary” person, as did her a PhD in social psychology and her background in think tanks.

Similar criticisms were levelled against Theresa May by a Downing Street insider in the Daily Mirror in August 2014 just as she became the front-runner to succeed David Cameron. May has always been reluctant to talk about not having children; the most she has ever said is that it “just didn’t happen” for her and her husband, Philip.

The source said that May’s lack of a family would make her look abnormal and unappealing to the electorate. “Being interested in politics is not normal. It’s not something most people do,” the source told the paper. “There are lots of ways you can look like you are obsessed with politics and not having children is one of them.” (Let’s draw a veil over what her rival Boris Johnson’s ­fertility track record makes it look like he is obsessed with . . .)

Do male politicians feel such criticisms as strongly? Ben Bradshaw, who is also in the race for the Labour deputy leadership, told me he had never been aware of his childlessness being used as a political attack line.

“It’s never been raised with me – that idea that because you don’t have children you don’t understand people’s lives,” the 54-year-old MP said. “We all have families even if we don’t have children. Me and the man I’ve been with for 20 years have an extended family. We have scores of nephews and nieces.”

Nicola Sturgeon has said that she believes there is a double standard. Asked on ITV’s Tonight during the general election campaign about whether she had chosen not to have children, she said: “Alex Salmond doesn’t have children. He might tell you differently, but I’m not aware of reading an interview or seeing an interview with Alex Salmond asking that question.”

Gloria De Piero, who is married but does not have children, says this reflects her experience. “It is mentioned in a lot of interviews with me in a way that it just simply isn’t with my male colleagues who are similar ages,” the 42-year-old told me. “It’s an issue for women who are not mothers in a way that it’s not an issue for men who are not fathers.”

 

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The motherhood trap affects us all, and although some of these issues are specific to MPs, many are not, particularly the scourge of “presenteeism” – rewarding attendance, whether productive work is being done or not – and the valorisation of “unencumbered” workers, who are available to their employers at any time of day or night.

Yet the politicians I interviewed were keen to stress that there are still grounds for optimism. “I don’t want to be too miserable about this,” said De Piero, laughing. “I always worry that people say, ‘It’s so bloody awful in parliament,’ and women go, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do that job.’”

Several parliamentarians also had ideas for how working practices could be improved. Emily Thornberry questioned why there was a need for the House to return to sit before the autumn party conferences, even though at this time, little useful work is done on legislation. Instead, she advocates a longer summer recess, during which MPs can have time off with their family, followed by a “constituency month” to catch up on casework. “They talk about ‘MPs have packed their buckets and spades and are off and we won’t see them’. We don’t stand up for ourselves and say: ‘I get 1,000 letters and emails a week.’ I have a lot of work to do in my constituency.”

The president of the Liberal Democrats, Sal Brinton, thinks it is time to talk seriously about job shares for MPs. “[It] frightens parliamentarians, but we think it’s something that would bear looking at. It used to frighten big companies, the idea that you could have a senior manager job-sharing, but it does work. You just have to think out the difficult issues – how do you vote? – but everything else would work.”

Jo Swinson also believes that the lack of maternity cover could be resolved with electoral reform. “It’s difficult with first-past-the-post, but in countries with list systems, people can do cover for certain amounts of time.”

Perhaps as a first step it would be easier to let ministers job-share. Patricia Hewitt says she suggested this in 2001, when Tony Blair appointed her to the cabinet, in a push to get the junior minister she wanted.“The one I had my eye on was doing a fabulous job in a different department. It was very funny, because Tony said, ‘Er, what’s that?’ Jonathan Powell [Blair’s chief of staff] was standing there saying, ‘Two people sharing one job.’ Tony said: ‘Are we allowed to do that?’ and Jonathan said: ‘Well, I don’t know. I’d have to check.’”

Unfortunately, the minister involved got another job and the point was never settled. Hewitt acknowledges that the sharers would have to be compatible – “the nightmare would be . . . a woman with some children and an ambitious man” – but she points out that job-sharing is now common in the public sector and charities.

The final, and most contentious, point is money. During my conversations, the name “Caroline Spelman” frequently crept into the discussion: an example of someone whose childcare arrangements attracted criticism and unwelcome press attention.

In 2009 the former Conservative chair had to repay £9,600 in expenses after Commons authorities ruled that she had been paying her nanny from public funds by employing her as a secretary. Three years later, Spelman lost an attempt to stop the Daily Star Sunday reporting that her 17-year-old son, who played rugby for England under-16s, had taken banned substances after suffering a sports injury. “It’s hard to know you’re putting your children in the public eye like that,” one woman told me. “There’s something about a mother’s hormones.”

Although very few MPs are willing to go on the record, many believe that the reforms to expenses – necessitated by wide-scale fraud and the overclaiming endemic in parliament before 2009 – have made it much harder for those who are not already wealthy to juggle the demands of work with family. The current system makes it far easier for the rich and unencumbered. “You hear that MPs should be treated as ordinary people,” one told me. “That’s nonsense. It’s a unique set of challenges. Ninety per cent of us work in two places. There’s an extraordinary rate of failed marriages.”

The wife of another MPs talks about “eating crisps and crying at home” in the early days of her partner’s career because he was so rarely around to help with the children. Several mentioned that it was a huge advantage to have a seat in London, which allows the MP to get home every night.

By way of a solution, the Conservative backbencher Charles Walker has proposed that MPs’ expenses be abolished and a fixed annual stipend introduced. Their claims for tax-deductible items would then be regulated by HM Revenue & Customs, just like for any other self-employed worker. “You can change the hours but it’s not going to help someone get home to Cumberland,” he added. “And there’s a ridiculous belief that MPs only work when the House is sitting.”

On the other side of the fence, most agree that the big battle for childless MPs is perception – often in the media, rather than among voters. Ben Bradshaw says he believes his constituents “don’t give a hoot” about whether or not he has children. Some worry whether selection panels – which are not allowed to ask directly about candidates’ children – kibosh women for fear that voters won’t like them, or that they won’t have time to do the job properly. “I was asked in 1998 by a woman councillor when I went for selection how my children were going to cope, and could my husband cook the dinner when I was out canvassing?” says Sal Brinton. “Where do people get these ideas from? That’s the bigger problem: perception, rather than the reality.”

Childless women, on the other hand, face greater problems later on in their career when going for leadership roles, as they are deemed to lack the “complete package” that voters want. Several of the women I interviewed said they thought that starting a parliamentary career in your twenties or early thirties made having a family harder. “I think what happens is that women find it difficult to establish themselves in those careers. And to get promoted. So they put off marriage and children and whatever, and often end up running out of time,” says the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball. Another source told me that single women who entered parliament often found it hard to meet a partner prepared to join “the Denis club” – a reference to the sacrifices Denis Thatcher made to support his wife’s ambitions.

In the end, what both mothers and non-mothers need is broader social change. First, there must be an end to a culture that sees childlessness in women as selfish, and their lives as inevitably emotionally stunted and unfulfilling. We need to reset our relationship with work – to resist the pressure of presenteeism and expectations of unpaid overtime, and to fight for better labour rights, as well as employment protection for those with caring responsibilities. As Ben Bradshaw, who looked after his mother in his teens when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, puts it: “The more insecure people are in work, the more difficult it is for them to make choices around caring.”

Our parliamentarians’ job insecurity is rather different from that of someone on a zero-hours contract, but both would benefit from a reappraisal of what it is reasonable for employers to ask of their employees. Until then, men enjoy a double advantage, whether they have children or not. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

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The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt