George Osborne’s economic policy is based on lies

The budget is the fiscal equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘LALALALA NOT LISTENING’.

On Wednesday the Chancellor announced his plan, hailed by many as a “steady as she goes budget”. I confess some confusion as to how this might be a good thing, when according to most indicators “she” is steadily going to hell. I am also bemused by the attention this man’s policy announcements have attracted. It seems to me that intense dissemination of how these policies might work in practice, is tantamount to a spirited and detailed conversation about the quality of the stitching on the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The assumption that this Government will implement anything it says, let alone implement it successfully, flies in the face of evidence. Infrastructure projects which will not be completed during this Parliament (and some which will not even have started), Enterprize Zones which are still being set up, two years after being announced, and have delivered 5 per cent of the jobs projected, a Business Bank which is only now setting out a schedule for its creation, a Funding for Lending scheme (a replacement for the grand Loan Guarantee Scheme, scrapped after four months) which has actually seen lending drop dramatically, a Back To Work programme which is actually worse at getting people into jobs than doing nothing, a Green Investment Bank whose only action so far has been to appoint an expensive private consultant, a Right to Buy home ownership scheme which has delivered 1.5 per cent of the sales envisaged, a Big Society Bank for a Big Society which Cameron launched four times, that shows no signs of getting going and, in fact, hopes to have appointed a Chair by 2014! I could go on.

Why should anybody be interested in any big announcements this government makes? They are just that: announcements. With the economy stagnating for three years now, they are the equivalent of what I do when I am supposed to go out, but having a “fat day”; I try on every single outfit, having already decided to stay in and sob quietly, while having a large pepperoni pizza.

The only thing of interest in a budget nowadays is the actual data of how the Chancellor has performed – not his promises of how much better he is about to. In that respect, the budget was fascinating. Many commentators have assessed thoroughly and forensically the failures of this Government on growth, stagnating wages, lending, future borrowing et al – the IFS’s review does so as well as any. I am more interested in the two items claimed by the government as successes; the two planks to which this drowning Chancellor is clinging: the borrowing rate and the employment figures.

On these, I offer two short sentences from the OBR’s budget report.

On the Chancellor’s attempt to show – “by hook or by crook” according to the IFS – that we borrowed less this year compared to last, para. 4.27 explains that “the Government has taken action to ensure that central government departments spend less in 2012-13” and this includes “a number of elements”. Here is one:  “payments that were due to be made late in the current financial year (for example payments to international institutions), but which are being delayed into 2013-14.”

Read that again. Take it in. In order to keep his head above water, the Chancellor has asked Government departments to delay payments which were due this financial year until after 1 April. These payments, of course, still have to be made. Just not right now. The direct fiscal equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “LALALALA NOT LISTENING”. And this man, with his Delboy approach to state finance, is the person entrusted with the long-term health of the country’s economy.

On the employment rate, many have expressed doubts about the claim repeated with almost drummerlike monotony that “one million new private sector jobs have been created”. We know, for instance, that there has been an astonishing surge of hundreds of thousands of people who show as “self-employed”. We know there have been strange transfers of public service jobs directly to the private sector, as support services are privatised in every department.

The OBR hints at these irregularities in their executive summary: “The labour market continues to surprise on the upside, despite the continued weakness of GDP growth.” As a former civil servant, I would be tempted to read that as “there is something really dodgy about these figures”. Then, at para. 3.108, which talks about “people employed in government supported training and employment programmes” comes the confirmation: “Of the total increase in employment in 2012, compared to 2011, around 14 per cent reflects increased participation in those programmes.”

People on unpaid internships, training schemes, apprenticeships and workfare schemes, are counted as employed. One hundred and forty thousand of them are part of the Government’s job creation success story.

I never understood Hollywood’s obsession with the Evil Genius as the film villain of choice. It has always been clear that, given a position of power, an Clueless Idiot has infinitely more potential to cause harm. What I find astonishing is that Conservative MPs, many of whom are honourable men and women and all of whom are obsessed with fiscal responsibility, have not yet grabbed this man by his expensively tailored lapels and thrown him in the Thames.

British Finance Minister George Osborne poses for pictures outside 11 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?