Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Did New Labour spend too much?

By Michael Burke

It is not sufficient for big business to have secured an election victory and an overall Parliamentary majority for the Tory Party. It is also necessary to intervene in the Labour Party to ensure that its leadership also conforms to big business interests too. This has currently taken the form of candidates in the leadership contest being asked to declare that Labour ‘spent too much’ in the run-up into the Great Recession. Answering Yes to this question is effectively a loyalty oath to big business interests, a renunciation even of the social democratic vestige of economic policy under New Labour.

The question is economically illiterate. It is taken as axiomatic that if there was a deficit that spending must have been too high. But all deficits are composed of two items; spending and income. In the case of government that income arises mainly in the form of taxes. It does not follow from the existence of a deficit that the culprit must be spending.

The reality is that measured as a proportion of GDP New Labour spent less on average than Margaret Thatcher. This is shown in Fig. 1 below. On average New Labour’s spending amounted to 41.5% of GDP. By comparison, under Thatcher government spending was 44.2%. In relation to the deficit, the taxation levels were also very different. Under New Labour taxation revenues were on average 37.5% of GDP. Under Thatcher taxation revenues amounted to 42.0% of GDP.

Fig.1 Government spending and revenues as a proportion of GDP

The argument that Labour spent too much has no factual basis whatsoever. The loyalty test of renouncing the ‘overspend’ is based on a complete fiction. In fact, because it was in thrall to neoliberal economics, it is clear that New Labour taxed too little.

Under New Labour the main rate of corporation tax on profits was cut from 34% to 28%. ‘Taper relief’ on capital gains was introduced which cut the tax rate on capital gains (CGT) from 40% to 24%. This system was later scrapped and the rate cut to 18% by Alistair Darling. Owners of assets therefore paid a far lower tax rate than the tax on workers’ income. A system was also introduced where, almost uniquely in advanced economies, companies could set off both past losses against corporation tax, and carry back losses to reduced their tax bill too.

None of this led to an increase in productive investment, which was the supposed reason for these huge giveaways to capital. Instead there was a very substantial increase in speculative investment, which did contribute to the crash. On the contrary, investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation, GFCF) continued its long-term decline, as shown in Fig.2 below.

Fig. 2 Investment decline as a proportion of GDP

The effect of boosting speculative investment is indicated by the growth of housing as a component of the pre-crash British economic expansion. Fig. 3 below shows the level of GFCF and the level of productive investment, that is GFCF omitting housing. This clearly shows that the decline in productive investment was uninterrupted throughout the period of New Labour as well as before and since under the Tories. In this entire period economic policy was neoliberal dominance which meant there was an explicit aim of reducing taxes on business in order to increase investment. The policy was a complete failure.

Fig. 3 Investment and productive (non-housing) investment

The trend towards lower productive investment by the private sector and increased speculative activity was also fostered by the government’s cuts to the level of public sector investment. The data and OBR projections are shown in Fig.4 below. As government is the biggest single purchaser of goods and services in the economy, cutting government investment encourages the private sector to cut its own investment.

It is one of the central myths of neoliberal economics that government investment ‘crowds out’ private sector investment. The opposite was the case; a cut in government investment accompanied declining productive investment by the private sector. By contrast, rhe temporary rise in public sector investment in 2008 and 2009 helped to lift the economy out of recession and was rapidly ended by the last Coalition government.

Fig.4 Public sector investment
Source: OBR

New Labour did not spend too much. It taxed and spent too little, less than Thatcher. Worse, the cuts in taxes for the business sector and the owners of assets did not lead to increased investment. Investment fell and was itself exacerbated by the decline in public sector investment.

Defence of these simple facts has been made an acid test. They are actually the vestiges of social democratic economic policy at the level of the Labour leadership. If it is accepted that Labour ‘spent too much’, big business interests will have rewritten history in its own interests and fundamentally undermined the character of the Labour Party.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Despite Cameron-Crosby’s tactical triumph Tory support will continue to decline

By John Ross

The 2015 General Election was a stunning Tory tactical success.They won a majority of Parliamentary seats with the second lowest share of the popular vote for any party achieving this in British history – only Tony Blair’s vote in 2005 was smaller. Cameron is the Tory Prime Minister, with a majority in Parliament, with the lowest share of the popular vote in history.The unpopularity of coalition policies was shown in a dramatic 15% fall in the share of the vote for its parties - from 59% to 44% – but the Tories ensured Liberal Democrats suffered 100% of the loss. Lynton Crosby earned every penny of his fees from Cameron.

But despite the tactical triumph did the Tories shift the social forces and underlying trends in British politics? And if they didn’t what will be the consequences?

To analyse this the starting point has to be not opinion polls but real elections – which determine political shifts. Figure 1 chart shows the modern Conservative party’s share of the vote at every election since its first in 1847 after the split of the old Tory Party over the Corn Laws. The story the chart tells is clear. Short term swings are superimposed on an underlying trend of rising Tory support for almost a century until 1931 and then decline for over 80 years.

Figure 1
15 05 09 Tories

This curve is not a statistical oddity but clear social processes produced it. The modern Conservatives originated in the South East of England, outside London, in the mid-nineteenth century. Over nearly a century they rose to become Britain’s dominant party by adding, in chronological order, mass support in North West England, London, the West Midlands and Scotland. Tory decline was the progressive loss first of Scotland, then North West England, then the West Midlands and London. Now the Tories are back in their original rural and South East bastion.

It is certainly possible to misjudge short term swings – the present author mistakenly believed two years ago that Labour would be ahead of the Tories due to the unpopularity of the coalition’s austerity policies. But a still more basic question for the future of British politics is have the Tories reversed their decline? The answer is no.

To see why focus on the post-1931 vote – its downward shifting trend is clear as shown in Figure 2 which shows the descending part of the chart above. This thesis of ‘Tory decline,’ when I first produced the chart of this trend in 1983 at the height of Thatcher’s grip on politics, in my book Thatcher and Friends, was met with disbelief. But it met the test of seven out of the eight next general elections. It is certainly annoying for the author, and much more importantly tragic for the country, that in 2015 it didn’t. But as the chart shows the Tory 36.9% in 2015 doesn’t break the overall descending trendline.

Figure 2
15 05 10 Tory 1931-2015

The underlying social forces that had produced the overall decline continued to operate even in 2015. Tory support in Scotland fell further to 14.7% - in 1945-55 Conservatives had more support in Scotland than England. In the North of England there was a swing to Labour. In the South’s urban bastion, London, Labour won 45 seats to the Tories 27. In contrast, in the South outside London, the Tories won seats from Labour.

The Tories collapsed further back into their South of England and rural heartland. Despite the dramatic 15.2% collapse of Liberal Democratic votes the Tories could only pick up a tiny 0.8% in a winning year – although it is unusual for them to increase at all between election victories.

For future trends Scotland decided the election in a dual sense. First it saw a crushing rush of votes to an SNP to Labour’s left. That was then used to in a scare campaign aimed at persuading English voters into not supporting Labour – for Tory media demonic Scots occupied the place previously occupied by Jews, West Indians, Romanians etc.

It is totally improbable Labour will ever regain Scottish dominance – any Blairite shift by Labour in England will further distance it from a Scotland which found even Ed Miliband too right wing. Scotland in 2015 is the equivalent of two previous tectonic shifts in British politics - 1868 when Irish Home Rule supporters entered parliament and 1900 when Labour did.

If the ‘Tory decline’ thesis is correct the consequences of this are clear. Despite the tactical success Tory support will shift downwards. The last time the Tories ‘cheated’ social forces by astute tactics, in 1992, tensions broke out despite the victory. The political fault lines of Tory decline this time are clear.

Whether to break promises to Scotland on further devolution, whether to adopt the divisive principle of only English MPs voting on English issues?

On the EU Cameron always intended to call for a referendum ‘Yes’ regardless of whether Merkel makes concessions. But not only UKIP but part of the Tories will campaign for exit.

The economic recovery is based on foreign borrowing and much of the worst hardship on social services to come.

If the ‘Tory decline’ analysis is correct Cameron/Crosby’s tactical success will therefore not halt the deepening fall of the party’s support.

Given that in 2015 the Tories engineered a tiny 0.8% increase in their support it is legitimate to demand the ‘Tory decline’ thesis be examined. I believe the facts show this election was a great Tory tactical success but it cannot halt the fundamental trend undermining Tory support. Naturally if the future trends show the opposite, that the Tory increase was not a blip in a descending trend but the beginning of a real upward shift , then ‘Tory decline’ would have to be abandoned.

It probably wasn’t Keynes who said ‘When the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do?’ But whoever did was correct. So far seven general elections out of eight confirmed the analysis of ‘Tory decline.’ The facts of the next five years will be the test again. The social facts show the Tory decline will continue – shaping the most fundamental trends in British politics.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Can the Lib-Dems save Tory Britain?

By John Ross
By now many pollsters admit they misread the election campaign. As Freddie Sayers, You Gov’s Editor in Chief, put it: ‘Back in February, it was still considered a near-certainty by the media pundits that the Conservatives would end up significantly ahead. Ed Miliband was unconvincing, the economic numbers coming in were all positive, and now the SNP were wiping out Labour in Scotland: the Conservatives themselves felt a certain inevitability about their return to power after May 7th.’
The election campaign has not turned out like that – the Tories have not gained support. But an attempt has been to explain this by short term factors such as Lynton Crosby’s distasteful election tactics or backlash against the Tory media’s attempted character assassination of Ed Miliband. As Peter Kellner summarised this analysis: ‘Tories pay the price of an inept campaign’.
This view is wrong. History, including election campaigns, is ‘natural selection of accidents’. Far more powerful forces than Lynton Crosby, or David Cameron’s inability to accurately name his supposed favourite football term, explain the failure of Tory support to rise.
To show the deep social processes explaining absence of the anticipated Tory surge the graph below shows the Tories percentage of the vote at every general election since the party’s highest ever score –  55.0% in 1931. The graph is breath-taking in the steadiness of its decline.
Already after World War II the peak Tory vote was 49.6% in 1955 - lower than inter-war levels. It fell to 41.9% by 1992 - the last time the Tories won a majority in the House of Commons. By 2010, when they had declined to being the largest party, but without an overall majority of seats, Tory support was  36.1%. Typically each Tory victory was won with a lower percentage of the vote than the one before, each Tory defeat saw the party’s support fall further than the one previously.

This process is produced by clear social trends. The modern Conservatives originated in the South East of England, outside London, in the mid-nineteenth century following the old Tory Party’s split over repeal of the corn laws. Over nearly a century the Conservatives rose to become Britain’s dominant party by adding, in chronological order, mass support in North West England, London, the West Midlands and Scotland – the current Tory rump in Scotland, with one seat, is in a nation where from 1945-55 Tories actually had more support than England! The Tory decline was the progressive loss of first Scotland, then North West England, then the West Midlands and London.  Now the Tories are back in their original South East bastion. 
This trend, based on real elections not polls, was analysed in 1983 in my book Thatcher and Friends and has continued to operate since. It is such powerful forces, operating over more than 80 years, which underlay the failure of Tory support to rise in the election campaign.
Relentless historical Tory decline, of course, does not mean there are no short term shifts. There is a swing factor of slightly under 5% between a Tory victory and a defeat - explained by events nearer the time of an election. But this is superimposed on an underlying erosion of the Tory vote of slightly over 0.2% a year.
Taking these trends, if the Tories were the leading party on 7 May, they would get a bit under 35% of the vote, and if they were the losing party they would get slightly over 30%. The problem is that with a maximum theoretical 35% vote the Tories could not win an overall majority of seats. Failure to analyse longer term social processes caused failure to foresee accurately the course of the election.
Faced with these trends Labour’s policy has shown strategic errors to a higher degree than anticipated. Labour should have understood Tory support could not rise. The key for Labour was therefore to ensure the unity of its moderate left support. Instead relentless minimisation of Labour’s difference with the Tories during the Scottish referendum campaign, the positioning of Labour to the right of the SNP, must count as one of the worst strategic blunders in recent British politics. Without this Ed Miliband could be practicing his victory remarks outside 10 Downing Street. Labour’s ‘steer right’ policy also opened a space for the Greens in England. It is for these reasons that it not impossible the Tories may get a bit over 34% as the largest party, not slightly over 30% as the losing one.
But this does not alter the fundamental trend of Tory decline. Basic social forces, not contingent mistakes, have blocked a rise in Tory support in the election campaign. It is because the Conservatives are incapable of halting their own decline that the paradox is… only the Liberal Democrats can now save Tory Britain!

Friday, 24 April 2015

Greek myths retold

By Michael Burke

The world economy is not strong and the President of the United States is sufficiently concerned about new shocks to it that he recently met the Greek Finance Minister to urge ‘flexibility on all sides’ in the negotiations between the Syriza-led government and its creditors. US concern is fully justified.

In any attempt to reach agreement it is important both to have an objective assessment of the situation and to understand the perspective of those on the opposite side of the table. In Mythology that blocks progress in Greece Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator for the Financial Times argues that negotiations to date are dominated by myths. He demolishes some of these key myths in turn: that a Greek exit would make the Eurozone stronger, that it would make Greece stronger, that Greece caused the crisis driven by private sector lending, that there has been no effort by Greeks to repay these debts, that Greece has the capacity to repay them, and that defaulting on the debts necessarily entails leaving the Eurozone.

Together, these provide a useful corrective to the propaganda emanating from the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers and ECB Board members. Some if this is slanderous, in repeating myths about ‘lazy Greeks’ (who have among the longest working hours in Europe). Much of it is delusional, based on the notion that Greece can be forced to pay up, or forced out of the Euro without any negative consequences for the meandering European or the world economy.

Austerity ideology

The genuine belief in a false idea, or a demonstrably false system of ideas constitutes an ideology in the strict meaning of that word. Inconvenient facts are relegated in importance or distorted, and secondary or inconsequential matters are magnified. Logical contortions become the norm.

All these are prevalent in the dominant ideology in economics, which is supplemented by another key weapon, the helpful forecast. In Britain for example, supporters of austerity argued it would not hurt growth and the deficit would fall. Now there is finally a recovery of sorts, they argue austerity worked, ignoring all the preceding five years and the unsustainable nature of the current recovery (and the limited progress in reducing the deficit).

For Greece the much more severe austerity and its consequences means that supporters are still obliged to rely on the helpful forecast to support their case. The Martin Wolf piece includes a chart of IMF data on Greek government debt as a percentage of GDP, which is reproduced in Fig.1 below.
The IMF includes not only data recorded in previous years but its own projections for future years. From a government debt level of 176% of GDP in 2014, the IMF forecasts a fall to 174% this year and 171% in 2016 and much sharper declines in future years. The IMF has also forecast an imminent decline in Greek government debt ever since austerity was first imposed in 2010, which has not materialised.

Fig. 1 Greek Government Debt, % GDP & IMF Projections

However, the most recent data released by the Greek statistical service Elstat shows that Greek government debt rose once more (pdf) at the end of 2014 to stand at €317bn. The total debt was €9bn higher in 2014 than 2013, whereas the IMF forecast is effectively flat. Worse, as the Greek economy is still contracting the debt as a proportion of GDP will be rising sharply, not falling as officially projected.

In the course of 10 years the Greek government debt level has effectively doubled as a proportion of GDP close to 180%. Most of this took place while austerity was being implemented. The unavoidable verdict is that the debt burden is unstainable and that austerity will only increase it.

To date the Syriza-led government has met all its obligations to creditors but this clearly cannot go on for very long. It is possible that it may prefer to default on the ECB, which can in the end simply print the money (as with its Quantiative Easing programme, but from which it currently excludes Greece). 

Defaulting on the IMF is perhaps more politically difficult, as its Board would have to convene a meeting of all shareholders. €3.46bn is due to the ECB on July 20.

But a default is necessary and inevitable. The authors of the Maastricht Treaty thought that anything more than debt level equal to 60% of GDP was dangerous. Then this would provide an appropriate target for Greek debt reduction.

Investment flows

In the Martin Wolf piece he also suggests that debt reduction should occur “after the completion of reforms”. This is mistaken. ‘Reform’ in the context of the negotiations is a synonym for deregulation, privatisation, attacks on workers’ rights and living standards. This has already been tried and failed. It is a myth that too many Greek regulations, or too much state ownership, or workers fighting for better pay and pensions is the cause of the crisis. All those were in place in 2003 and 2004 when real GDP in Greece grew by 6.6% and 5% respectively.

One myth that hardly needs to be dealt with any longer is that the crisis was caused by imbalances within the Eurozone current accounts (the balance of trade plus overseas interest payments). For a period this became a key explanation of the crisis (pdf) in the official ideology. It has been largely abandoned as all the crisis countries have swung into surpluses. Greece now has a current account surplus because imports have slumped and so remains in crisis.

A common feature of the crisis countries is that they were beset by huge inflows of private sector capital seeking returns, primarily through speculation in property and housing. It was when these private sector inflows dried up and reversed that the crisis became apparent. Until austerity was imposed in 2010 the fall in Greek GDP due the recession was almost exactly the same as in Germany or in Britain, a fall of approximately 4.75% in all cases.

The austerity policy and the ratings’ agencies induced panic had the effect of driving capital flows back from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘core’ countries. Ferocious austerity in Greece and the other crisis countries meant that private sector banks withdrew capital and repatriated it to the key banking centres of Europe: Britain, German, the Netherlands and France.

These private sector speculative flows were destabilising in both directions. They caused both the boom and the bust in Greece and elsewhere. A solution based on reviving these flows, with the inducement of ‘reform’ can only end in renewed destabilisation and crisis. The desperation of these private sector investors is demonstrated by the fact that, for most industrialised countries currently (excepting Greece) borrowing rates are close to zero as unutilised capital seeks a return.

Structural adjustment

The Greek economy needs structural adjustment. For the ideologues of austerity this is a synonym for wage cuts. But Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis is right, cutting wages even further will have no effect on improving Greek competitiveness in key industries, “we are not going to be competitive with Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, simply because we don’t make cars.”

The structural adjustment needed is to increase the productive capacity of the Greek economy. This requires productive investment on a large scale. Prior to the crisis the EU did provide some transfers of funds for investment, as well as current transfers in the form of the Common Agriculture Policy and other funds (which is why the anti-austerity parties and most voters in the crisis countries are not anti-EU). However, these were on an insufficiently large scale and were in any event overwhelmed by the private sector inflows which were primarily directed towards construction and housing.

Worse, the EU has cut its funding for investment as the crisis has deepened. This has exacerbated the private sector withdrawal of capital and is an important factor in prolonging the crisis. Fig.2 below shows the levels of investment from the EU and the different forms of investment from the private sector, both total investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) and productive investment, which excludes housing.

Fig.2 Investment in Greece & Selected Components, % GDP

All types of investment have fallen as a proportion of GDP during the crisis. But it was the EU’s declining contribution which led the way. In addition, the real cuts in investment are flattered in this comparison as GDP itself was falling. In 2006 productive investment from the EU to Greece amounted to €4.7bn. In the depth of the crisis in 2012 it had been cut to €1.6bn.

This is a punitive measure and is entirely contradictory to the objective needs of the Greek economy. All properly functioning single currency areas require significant fiscal transfers in order to be sustainable. This follows from the fact that all regions or countries in a monetary union are subject to very similar monetary conditions (official interest rates, exchange rates, and so on) yet have very different levels of productivity. Those levels of productivity will diverge to a crisis point unless there are sufficient fiscal transfers to compensate. If the fiscal transfers are sufficiently large and well-directed, they can even compress or reverse the divergence in productivity. Currently, the policy of the Troika is to lay siege to the government in Athens in an attempt to starve it into submission.

As a result, the Greek economy is at that crisis point. It requires very large fiscal transfers otherwise it will diverge out of the Eurozone. This is in addition to the requirement for a very substantial debt write-off already noted. Even then, very strong government and supranational measures would be required to direct the inevitable revival of private sector investment that would inevitably follow a large increase in (supranational) public sector investment. The public sector must begin to direct large-scale investment.

Martin Wolf is quite right to attempt to disabuse the ideologues of austerity of their Greek myths. There is no prospect of an end to the crisis without very substantial debt reduction. It is also reckless bravado to claim that only Greece would be hit by a forced exit from the Euro. But even debt reduction is insufficient to end the crisis, and further ‘reforms’ would only deepen it. Very large fiscal transfers to pay for a structural upgrade of the Greek economy are necessary.

The biggest beneficiaries of the EU are the big firms and banks in the leading EU economies. They need to start paying for this benefit or they will lose it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Tories' ‘Right to Buy’ housing plan will deepen the housing crisis

By Michael Burke

The Tory manifesto election pledge to make housing associations sell their homes at a discount and force local authorities to sell off some of their best stock has been widely condemned by the associations themselves and by housing experts. The government has set aside £1 billion to fund the discount available to the new ‘right-to-buy’ owners and will demand that the housing associations build replacement homes, which do not have to meet affordability criteria. The net new money available for homebuilding is therefore just £1 billion.

Using average construction cost estimates from the National Association of Home Builders of £150,000 per home, this equates to just 6,600 homes. Very few or none may be affordable.

The idea of bribing a tiny number of housing association tenants (and some of the few remaining local authority ones) with public money to become owner-occupiers is part of the policy of privilege to bolster the Tory election campaign. But since the majority of these homes tend rapidly to become part of the private rented sector it will also exacerbate the growing inequality and unaffordability of housing.

It does nothing to address the housing shortage in Britain, which is both chronic and in many parts of the country acute. Fig.1 below shows the level of both new ‘social rent’ housing and total affordable homes from 1991 to 2014. It is necessary to include at least these two categories in order to indicate some general trends as the government has changed the definitions of many categories of housing with the effect of obscuring to wider picture.

Fig.1 Social Rent and Total Affordable new homes

To give an indication of how grossly inadequate this is, the number of (loosely-defined) new affordable homes of all types was just under 43,000 last year and compares to 1.368 million households on local authority housing waiting lists in England alone.

The recent peak level for annual new affordable homes was just over 60,000 and was inherited by this government from the previous Labour government. The official projection of new household formation over the next 25 years is an average 210,000 per year (pdf). While not all of these households will want or need social or affordable housing, the majority will. Therefore the current pace of home building is completely inadequate to meet the additional projected demand. It will do nothing to address the backlog on waiting lists and the housing crisis will deepen.

There are many addition costs to the housing crisis simply beyond the extremes of unaffordability. These include the miseries of overcrowded and substandard housing, the increasing transfers of household incomes to landlords and the distortions to wider society, including the workforce. The much-discussed ‘productivity puzzle’ (pdf) is much less baffling when it is noted that under this government the rise in real estate jobs has far outstripped the rise in construction jobs, as shown in Fig. 2 below.

Fig. 2 Change construction and real estate jobs under the current government

Solutions to the housing crisis

Labour has adopted a policy of aiming for 200,000 new homes per year by the end of the next parliament. This would come close to meeting the projected rate of new household formation. This would also have the effect of moderating the rise in house prices. But it would be unlikely to reverse it, especially as the housing shortfall as indicated by local authority waiting lists would have increase to beyond 1.75 million for Britain as a whole in the meantime.

One of the many myths surrounding government policy is that the state is not intervening in the economy. The reality is the opposite. There are innumerable ways in which this government and its predecessors intervene in ‘the markets’, with costs running into the hundreds of billions of pounds. The bank bailout was only the most spectacular example.

In the housing sector this government has intervened repeatedly in order to boost prices without ever boosting the construction of new affordable homes, which has decreased. Perhaps the most notorious of these schemes is the £40 billion ‘Help to Buy’ policy which uses public funds to boost private property prices which were already excessive.

A radical step that the next Labour government could take is to use this same £40 billion guarantee and offer it to local authorities to build new homes. The first 20% of (unlikely) local authorities’ losses on construction of affordable homes could be guaranteed using these funds. At the same time, government could borrow to increase the funds available for construction.

The arithmetic of borrowing to invest in new public affordable housing is simple and compelling. A 5% rental income on a £150,000 home amounts to £625 per month. A 3% yield requires just £375 per month. Yet the government can now borrow at well below even 3%. It would make money on its housing investment, which could be used for investment in other areas, all of which would see the deficit fall as a consequence. Housing affordability (and quality) would improve and job-creation switch from estate agency towards building.

The big losers from a radical policy would be private landlords who no longer benefit from the upward spiral of house prices and the large ‘house builders’, the companies who do not build homes but sit on undeveloped land banks and count the paper profits of the increasing land and home values.