The fractious centre

I am watching the formation of The Independent Group with great interest. Lord knows British politics needs to rediscover the centre, and fundamentally change our awful two party system. I’m not sure we can get the change we need from existing politicians re-organising themselves, but I will welcome any disruptive effort.

The Independent Group Logo

I was hugely impressed by Heidi Allen’s speech this afternoon as the ‘Conservative Three’ held their inaugural press conference. She expressed real remorse at enabling the Conservative government’s relentless cutting of public services, in particular the atrocious mismanagement of the Department for Work and Pensions and its chronic under funding. She has just the optimism, dynamism and commitment to evidence-based policy making a new centrist force requires.

I’ve similarly got a great deal of time for Sarah Wollaston (and anyone who knows her constituency, Totnes, will know she’ll probably increase her majority there by being an independent) and Anna Soubry. But Anna’s response to a journalist question did remind me, there’s a reason the centre is so often an unoccupied no-man’s-land between the left and right, and that’s because there’s no such ideology as ‘centrism’, but centrists are instead defined by their willingness to compromise and empathise.

This is why centrism is my instinctive home, because unlike the left and the right, the authoritarians and the liberals, the socialists and the fascists, centrism is about actually doing politics. It is about achieving compromise, making decisions and getting things done. Ideologically led ‘politicians’ would rather maintain their own moral purity than actually do their job. They would rather dream of the joys of a hundred white doves in the trees than hold one in the hand. Birds in trees don’t help schools asking for donations for stationary money. They don’t help the tens of thousands who have died while waiting for the DWP to rule them ‘sufficiently disabled’.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are both striking examples of this, and it is they who are largely responsible for this split, not Brexit. May, whose ideology is the defence of the Conservative party, has never voted against the whip (that I’m aware of) and always, always towed the party line in interviews and policy briefings (she and others managed to convince Cameron to give them a free vote on gay marriage so she could maintain her homophobic and Party ideological purity there). Her Brexit deal is pitched exactly to try and keep her party together, and even less than 40 days from leaving without a deal she still won’t reach out to other political parties to compromise to get any deal passed.

Corbyn, on the other hand is an ideological Socialist, all the way down to supporting an obviously endemically corrupt  Venezuelan state. Throughout the new Labour governments he voted again and again against the party whip because policies that I now look back on with fondness and sorrow weren’t radically socialist enough for him (I genuinely well up when I think back that we once had Sure Start, a pioneering initiative, properly funded, into early years intervention, and now we have some of the highest levels of child poverty in Europe).

Having just said all that, I’m now going to address the question to Anna Soubry. It was, “welfare changes and austerity, do you regret a lot of that, or is that what you define as economic competence?“, and her answer was an unequivocal “no, we did the right thing, in the coalition government in particular”

Austerity was never the right policy

This opinion alone marks her out in my mind as an extreme right-winger, since only someone ideologically invested in reducing public spending for its own sake could possibly support the economic policies of the coalition government. Not only is austerity a policy that no serious economist supports, it was shown at the time in the Treasury’s own forecasts that the only meaningful contributor to reducing the deficit was going to be growth, and so it was. Austerity policies were like a gerbil nibbling away at a Big Mac.

The justification underpinning austerity – that government spending was too high, unsustainable and must be reduced – was fundamentally incorrect. The previous Labour and Conservative governments ran modest budget deficits, as any responsible government would (there is no possible way that the government is better off not owing money than paying 0.5-1.5% to borrow and invest in public services, just obviously no way). However, they encountered a very serious recession, resulting in a sharp reduction in GDP, and so tax revenue, at a time when public spending had to increase, both on social security but most notably £133bn cash spent bailing out banks, and a further £900bn underwriting loans and assets. That £133bn represented a sudden increase of 20% on top of all ordinary government expenditure, which was just under £600bn in 2008, so borrowing had to more than double to cover it.

One of George Osborne’s first acts as Chancellor was to create the Office for Budget Responsibility, purportedly an ‘independent’ statistical organisation to ensure prudent government spending. In reality a highly politicised instrument used by the Conservatives to discredit anyone else’s economic policy, while appearing impartial. In all of their forecasts they have predicted massive rises in the cost of government borrowing, and overstated the effect of austerity in repaying debt. These transparently idiotic forecasts have been used continually to justify policies to reduce the national debt by any means, but see the charts below for the truth. They predicted the red and yellow lines, the green is what actually happened:

Office for Budget Responsibility borrowing forecasts vs reality - completely out of whack
Source: Office for Budget Responsibility “The outlook for debt interest spending

The US and Chinese governments took the burden of temporary sharp rises in public debt in their stride as prudent counter-cyclical economic policy, and saw their economies accelerate out of the recession with gusto. The resultant growth paid for the borrowing. The British economy, in contrast, floundered as, at the private sector’s moment of lowest confidence and weakest demand in 2010, the Conservative led coalition cut public sector demand and confidence by instituting a wage freeze and slashing spending. They kicked the dog while it was down, and so it stayed down.

Meanwhile, as a direct result of that reduced government spending, homelessness has almost tripled, child poverty, once falling, has ballooned, A&E waiting times are so bad the government has to keep changing how it measures them and the United Nations reported that “great misery has been inflicted unnecessarily“. We are not a poor country. We are an abundantly wealthy country. How could anyone possibly say that enacting policies that created child poverty and killed the most vulnerable in our society was “the right thing to do at the time”? Worsening outcomes for the most vulnerable among us can never be the right policyNever!

I know this is felt to the core by every Labour MP I’ve ever met, and so, although I’m excited at this disruption and the opportunity it brings, I do wonder whether the Conservative Three; who have always been egregiously left-wing for most of their Conservative colleagues, and the Labour eight; some of whom are so unconscionably right-wing in the eyes of their local party members that they were likely in line for reselection before the next election, might not make such easy bedfellows.

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