I have been trying to think why I feel less committed to political debate at the moment, at the very time when it is more important than ever to find answers to our problems, and when we are suffering from a government that, despite the warm words of Cameron at the Conservative conference, is one of the most reactionary that we have suffered. I think it is because we have a very confused political discourse, and it is one that the election of Corbyn has done a little to clarify.
Here goes. I think there are four distinct socio-economic areas of debate, which are:
- Fiscal policy and austerity. Should we place as much emphasis on repairing the public finances as the current government – and its mates in the European Central Bank and IMF – is (apparently) doing ? Or should we take a more relaxed view of the deficit, feeling that the priority is to restore economic growth and protect welfare and health provision ? Perhaps we can call this the Krugman hypothesis.
- Managing our public services. It is extraordinary to consider how quickly we have moved from privatizing airlines (a project I thought was OK) to railways, electricity, water, and soon prisons and probation services. Air traffic control, for heaven’s sake. And it isn’t just about ownership. Even in what remains of the public sector, there is discussion as to whether there we should introduce more private sector management into the running of our hospitals (or whether there is just a simple need for increasing the spending of existing organisations), whether independence for schools in the form of academies and free schools is a good idea, whether too much is being paid to finance institutions for partnership capital funding.
- The problem of greed – the increase in inequality over the past thirty years, which has led us back to the levels of inequality last seen in the 1920s; the extraordinary rise in managerial salaries; the use of hedge funds to squeeze money out of existing transactions, not create more wealth; the almost criminal evasion of tax by large companies. I read A. B. Atkinson’s “Inequality” recently (it’s the sort of thing boors like me do on holiday, I’m afraid), and will try to post a summary on this blog soon. After the academic analysis, there’s a welcome emphasis on ‘so what do we do’ in the book, but I think it unlikely that the Professor’s policy recommendations will be actioned anytime soon.
- Change in the global economy – such as how the digital world of information is transforming out economies and companies. I’m off to listen to Paul Mason this afternoon, whose book on Post-Capitalism I’ve just started. He is on the side of the angels in topics (1) and (3) above, but feels (topic 4) that we are in the beginning of a transformation that will provide new answers to our discontents. The environment is, of course, a major issue that is out of the normal left/right spectrum – though the Green Party is pretty Corbynist, the Tory nominee for Mayor of London, Zak Goldsmith, has some pretty green views.
I think the above topics are getting hopelessly confused at the moment. They do inter-relate, of course. Taxing the rich properly (3) would help the deficit (1): I am one of many who suspects that the sob-story about reducing government spending to help our children’s future hides a desire to spend less helping the poor. Similarly, trade unions are keen to loosen the purse strings on (1) so their members can get a better deal on (2). But in principle a right winger could disagree with the nonsense about the deficit, and feel the economy and his colleague capitalists would benefit from a policy of reflation. Keynes, after all, was no socialist. Likewise, a left winger may want to take radical action on inequality (3) whilst balancing the budget books (1): few governments were more fiscally conservative than the Chinese Communist Party. My point is that, whatever your views, it would help to be clear about what we are arguing about.