No, Corbyn is not 'just a normal social democrat'

One of the most annoying features of the UK’s 2017 General Election campaign season is the increasingly large and loud chorus of left-wing commentators insisting that Jeremy Corbyn is not actually all that left-wing. Apparently, Corbyn and his policies merely represent ordinary social democratic principles and it is only because the UK’s Overton Window has been dragged deep into right-wing territory that anyone thinks otherwise.

This is such a lazy and unserious argument that it’s unfortunate that it needs addressing at all.  The perspectives and tradition Corbyn comes from have never determined the mainstream of centre-left thought and policy in the UK or elsewhere. Corbyn has always been on the left of the Labour Party even during the 1970s and 1980s, and did not merely become an iconoclastic rebel during the Blair-Brown years.

Throughout his pre-leadership parliamentary career Corbyn was a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, a hard-left group of MPs that split with the soft-left Tribune Group in 1982. It is important to note the context. Labour’s ‘right’ had already left and formed the centrist Social Democratic Party in response to the election of the left-wing Michael Foot as Labour’s leader. Corbyn and his associates actually rebelled against Foot’s leadership from the left, most notably when Tony Benn challenged Dennis Healey for the Deputy Leadership.

On a variety of issues Corbyn was well to the left of the leadership and has always held Bennite-socialist, not social democratic, views. In addition to campaigning to leave the EEC in 1975, Corbyn opposed the expulsion of the Trotskyite Militant Tendency from Labour and supported the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5. From 1982, he contributed to the Morning Star, which has consistently had an editorial in line with the programme of the Communist Party of Great Britain. As recently as 2015, Corbyn referred to the paper as “the most precious and only voice we have in the daily media”.

This radicalism is not merely a product of a shifting political spectrum and Labour’s move to the right. The SDP, not to mention the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, were to the left of New Labour. In fact, the SDP were the flag-bearers for a European style social-market economy, which, in spite of revisionism by elements of the contemporary left, was always seen as more liberal than the UK’s clumsy dirigiste Post-War Consensus. Furthermore, Corbyn’s main influences, Benn and the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, had long been critical of the Post-War Consensus and, indeed, much of Labour’s history in government and Parliament, for being insufficiently socialist.

Still, Labour’s recent manifesto is significantly less radical and ridiculous than Labour’s notorious 1983 effort. Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that this is a tactical rather than a principled development. Corbyn’s main allies unambiguously and unashamedly carry far-left baggage. Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, is of the opinion that Chairman Mao was, on balance, a force for good. Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s Director of Strategy and Communications, is a long-time Stalin apologist. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, enjoys flip-flopping on the extent to which he is a practising Marxist.  Corbyn himself regards Fidel Castro as a “champion of social justice”, for all his “flaws”.

The Manifesto itself, whilst it appears more populist than socialist, is more radical than its marketing. Whilst the headline tax increases are being touted as modest, the overall impact would be to raise the UK’s tax burden to its highest level since 1950, taking it above the OECD average. National Investment Banks have a long, sad history of failure. Rent control may be widespread but economists across the political spectrum near-unanimously regard it as harmful. Imposing a pay ratio on firms with government contracts and an ‘excessive wage levy’, the relics of Corbyn’s ugly flirtation with a ‘maximum wage’, are bizarre invitations for companies to do business elsewhere that are closer to communism than social democracy.

Of course, if you regard Venezuela as a solid economic model, then Corbynism should make sense. But if you’re more inclined towards a German social-market economy, or a Nordic social democracy, you’re actually much closer to the ‘far-right neo-liberalism’ of the likes of Emmanuel Macron. And you should probably vote Liberal Democrat (for all their flaws).

Are food banks a new technology or not?

There is a certain controversy over the rise of food banks and their usage in Britain today. Some say that it's a symptom of the austerity, the cuts (insert evil Tories to taste here). But as we've mentioned before there is an alternative explanation possible, which is that food banks are a new technology. That is, it's not that we have more food poverty that needs alleviating, but that we've found a new method of alleviating food poverty.

We find ourselves very definitely leaning toward that second explanation:

There are at least 2,000 food banks operating in the UK, giving out emergency food parcels on a weekly basis to people in hardship, according to research that shines fresh light on the rapid growth of charity food provision in austerity Britain.

The research complements established information on UK food bank use compiled by the Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank network, which collects extensive data from its members and recently reported that it gave out a record 1.2m food parcels to families and individuals in need in 2016-17, the ninth successive year in which demand had risen.

Emerging results from the mapping project undertaken by the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), confirm that the Trussell figures represent only a partial picture of the scale of organised food bank provision, and suggest that the level of food bank use is far greater than headline figures indicate.

That is, we don't think this is a reflection of demand rising, rather a result of ability to supply increasing. That Ifan report is here:

Ultimately we would like to see national monitoring of household food insecurity as part of an effort to stop the normalisation of emergency food aid provision within the UK.

That strikes us as a very odd goal indeed. We would, obviously, like people with no food to be provided with food. So why would we want to stop the normalisation of foodless people being provided with food?

Food banks have been around for a while in the US (and Portugal, to the certain knowledge of one of us) and have really only started expanding in the UK in the last 10 to 15 years. And we also know absolutely, from personal experience again, that the State has always been capricious and inefficient in providing benefits and subsidies to those who need them. Our reading of this is therefore that what we're seeing is the spread of a new supply technology.

There are indeed many more food banks serving many more people today. Something which we think is rather glorious, as those little platoons roll out the voluntary solution to the caprice and inefficiency of the State.

Why would we be against community alleviating poverty and want?

 

What went wrong with the Conservative manifesto?

It is clear that the Conservative manifesto has done serious damage to the Party’s electoral prospects. 

There is a sharp and deep inflection point in the Conservatives’ lead from the publication of the manifesto. Never before has a party leader changed a manifesto policy mid-campaign, as Mrs May was forced to do last week over social care, which made a mockery of her endless billing of herself as ‘strong and stable’ until then.

Obviously the social care policy was badly misjudged, politically, and alienated the Tory base of home-owning middle class old folk. Strangely this was the policy that was pre-released to the media on the morning of the manifesto launch. Did they think it would be popular? 

The ‘Theresa Miliband’ policies – the energy price caps, the meddling in corporate governance, the workers on boards and the requirements that firms publish gender pay ratios – were mostly watered-down, but are still very alienating to liberal Conservatives. The line “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.” isn’t just horrifying to most younger internet users, it contradicts DCMS’s long-held opposition to moves globally to make it easier for states to regulate the internet.

The manifesto was not costed, unlike Labour’s and the Lib Dems’, which led to the audience laughing in the Prime Minister’s face during Monday’s televised Q&A event when she said that Labour’s sums didn’t add up. It included a pledge to hold a free vote on legalising fox hunting, which 84% of people oppose.

Conservative PPCs blame the manifesto for turning the campaign on its head, and the Party's twenty-point lead has at least been cut in half. So what went wrong? 

I wonder if May’s lack of an ideological constituency of support might be an important reason that things went so badly so rapidly. The two complaints that people have about the manifesto are that it was done without consulting people who expect to be consulted, and that it doesn’t have any policies that actually appeal to voters. But why has this happened? 

Neither of these would normally be issues. Most party leaders have had a circle of supporters and ideological allies around them. Their role is to provide ideas and act as outriders and surrogates to test and defend policies before they have to be made ‘official’ in the manifesto or as government policy.

Under David Cameron, the Conservatives had a mixture of Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice to do this, and eager support from the media. Blair and Brown had groups like the IPPR and Demos; Miliband (I guess) had the likes of Compass. Thatcher had the IEA, the CPS and us; Major had a grab-bag of organisations like the Social Market Foundation and the ASI.

These groups, along with like-minded journalists, can safely raise ideas in the public debate and see the sort of traction they get with everyone else without contaminating the party leadership. The ideas that normal people hate get sloughed away. The ones you’re left with are both reasonably popular and liked by a decent enough core of supporters that they’ll go to bat for you in general.

But there isn’t a ‘Mayite’ think tank. Her policy guru Nick Timothy, his time running the New Schools Network aside, doesn’t have an ideological group behind him and cites Joseph Chamberlain, a 19th Century protectionist of all people, as his political inspiration. This kind of backing may have been very useful as she went without her cabinet, just as it was to Thatcher when she went against hers.

Since May has no ideological or intellectual base either of supporters or of thinkers, she’s come up with a bunch of policies that nobody is really willing to defend. And because nobody has thought much about them or properly tested them in the public debate before now, they've proved to be a lot less popular than they might have sounded when they were drafting the manifesto. May's team probably thought they could get away without much fan service to their base, and rely on her appeal to voters alone. That seems to have been a mistake.

In short: you need a base to test, think through and defend potential policies before you make them official. Every Prime Minister since Thatcher has had that; Mrs May does not. Maybe that explains why her first real policy test was such a failure – one that may haunt her for the rest of her career.

Capitalism just makes things so damn cheap, doesn't it?

You don't have to go far - say to the Labour Party Manifesto, or this time around the Tory one in fact - to find people complaining that capitalism is some form of a rip off. In their lust for profits the plutocrats grind the faces of the workers into the dust, short change the consumers.

And yet we also face the obvious truth of the world around us. Those people living in a place which has been roughly capitalist and roughly free market for any reasonable period of time are as rich as any group of human beings ever have been. They have more than those who came before. And thus it must be true that capitalism makes things cheaper, something not consistent with everyone being ripped off.

And a specific example

Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline by passenger numbers, has helped drive down short-haul ticket prices in Europe by increasing its capacity by 33% in the past two years.

Its cost base, widely acknowledged as the lowest of Europe’s major carriers thanks to low plane purchase, maintenance and staff costs, has allowed it to undercut rivals while still making a profit.

The Irish airline made a profit after tax of €1.3bn (£1.1bn) in the year to the end of March, even though it slashed ticket prices to fill almost 14m seats added during the period.

Chief executive Michael O’Leary said fares had fallen 13% but profitability had doubled over three years. He added: “Frankly I see no reason why that trend won’t continue.”

The capitalist plutocrats can and do cash in by reducing the prices to consumers, making them better off. Which is, of course, why the system works as a whole.

Why shouldn't this be enough extra money for the NHS?

Much is generally made about how the NHS has a different inflation rate from the rest of the economy. Polly has been telling us for years that it needs a 4% rise in the budget each year just to stand still. And it's not obvious that this has to be the case:

Although health has been exempt from the deep cuts that have affected most other Whitehall departments since 2010, the settlements have been nugatory by historical standards. Real spending has risen on average by 4% a year since the mid-1950s. In the 18 years of Conservative rule between 1979 and 1997, it increased by 3% a year. On current plans it will increase by 1.4% a year between 2010 and 2022.

Baumol's Cost Disease comes into play here. As real wages rise then services become more expensive relative to manufactures. And real wages have risen considerably since the 1950s and thus the NHS has become considerably more expensive relative to things that are manufactured. Note that the NHS does pay a little under 50% of its budget in wages.

We might not be all that happy about this but that's just the way this flavour of the universe works. But as Larry Elliott also tells us: 

The recovery from the deep slump of 2008-09 has been the weakest in living memory. There has been no productivity growth and wages are lower than 10 years ago. 

We've not had real wage growth for a decade. Thus the NHS should not be having a higher inflation rate as driven by the Cost Disease, correct?

That is, when real wages are growing strongly perhaps the NHS does have that higher budget growth rate, but when they're not it shouldn't.

Towards a theory about nationalisation

Wanting to nationalise everything is generally, and rightly, seen as a fairly left wing idea. One which seems to run smack into the problem that Britain is a rather conservative nation. At least, that's what we take from this survey result about what should be nationalised, what should remain in the private economic sphere:

The British public is overwhelmingly in favour of keeping a range of services in public hands, a poll has shown. 

A total of 87 per cent of people are in favour of the police being run by the public sector, 84 per cent for the NHS, 83 per cent for the armed forces and 81 per cent for schools, according to statistics released by YouGov.

We can construct entirely reasonable theories about why the police and military should be government run. They are natural state services being the application of state power itself for example. We've also tried private armies and didn't like it very much, we generally refer to that period as the Wars of the Roses.

However, when we look at the fuller list we rather change our minds about this:

In the survey, which looked at 13 industries, it was only telephone and internet providers, banks and airlines that a majority of people believed the private sector should control.

There's actually a close correlation between how long something hasn't been nationalised and whether it should be run by private industry. The things which have always been state run people think should remain so, the things which were sold off decades back should be private, and as the support for nationalised operation rises so does the date at which they were get closer.

That is, the result seems to be driven by something like status quo bias. Or as we can also say, just conservatism, you know, the idea that things are about right and shouldn't be changed very much.

The IFS is quite right here, stamp duty is largely paid by pensioners

The Institute for Fiscal Studies is quite right here, the people who really pay stamp duty on shares are the pensioners:

Labour’s plans to raise taxes on businesses and financial transactions will hit pension funds, reducing returns for savers and harming living standards into old age, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned.

Jeremy Corbyn hopes to raise £5.6bn per year with a levy on bond and derivatives purchases, extending the stamp duty charge that already affects share transactions.

He said it would target banks and help repay the damage wrought by the financial crisis.

It is not, of course, the banks who buy and sell shares, but our pensions that do. And a charge on a transaction inside a pension will be paid by that pension.

This is all known as "tax incidence" of course, the thought that all taxes are paid by hte wallet of some live human being getting lighter - on the simple basis that there's only us folks here to pay taxes - and we need to walk through the effect of a tax on the economy in order to work out whose.

However the IFS said that, ultimately, all taxes are paid for by individuals.

This is not new news either. The IFS has issued a couple of papers on the subject in the past. There is also the EU's own investigation into the incidence of a financial transactions tax. Which shows that, yes, the incidence is largely upon  investors - pensioners that is - plus lower wages for the workers across the economy.

Taking the fat cats this ain't. Which is why the Mirrlees Review so strenuously insists that we just should not be having transactions taxes at all, they're simply a bad form of taxation to begin with.

If you do want to try to tax the financial sector there are other and better ways. An extension of stamp duty is the wrong thing to do entirely, it's a tax which should be abolished in its entirety.

This is hardly an onerous goal being set, is it?

The usual suspects are shouting about how the education system is to be starved of that funding vital to all that is good and holy:

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that school funding would fall by nearly 3% by 2021 even with the additional £1bn a year, after adjusting for inflation and a rise in students enrolled.

“Taking account of forecast growth in pupil [numbers], this equates to a real-terms cut in spending per pupil of 2.8% between 2017–18 and 2021–22. Adding this to past cuts makes for a total real-terms cut to per-pupil spending of around 7% over the six years between 2015–16 and 2021–22,” the IFS said.

And we're afraid that we don't quite see it.

Firstly, it isn't true that the marginal costs of another pupil are the same as the average costs of a pupil. Education spending is far more lumpy than that. One more pupil into an extant school might cost the number of pencils they'll chew in a year but not much more than that.

Secondly, and much more importantly, this isn't actually a big ask. The education system is being asked to improve productivity by 1% a year or so. That's very much less than any private sector organisation tries to manage. And anyone at all who thinks that there isn't 1% a year to be ground out of the cost base of a British public service just sin't dealing with reality.

It's entirely true that the recently departed William Baumol had his Cost Disease, that it's more difficult to increase productivity in services than in manufacturing. But do note that he said more difficult, not impossible.

1% a year improvement in productivity, 1% a year reduction in costs? Pah!

The next iteration of the waste food problem

A general observation is that as modern fads and panics rotate through their second, third and fourth iterations then people start losing their minds. The original point becomes entirely forgotten and we end up with the meaningless, or even in gross error, incantation of the fashionable chant.

So it is with this about food waste, now we're onto how much bagged salad gets thrown away

People buying bagged salads with good intentions of eating healthily end up throwing 40per cent away.

The fragile leaves look appetising on the shelves but they have a very short shelf life and soon spoil and become soggy.

As a result, tonnes of lambs lettuce, baby spinach, wild rocket and ruby chard-duos end up in the bin.

New research suggests people throw away around 37,000 tonnes of salad every year, which is the equivalent of 178 million bags.


This is a useful example of failing Chesterton's Fence. Which is the idea that you cannot work out whether something should not exist until you have understood why it was first constructed. Noting a fence is one thing, but it is necessary to work out why the fence was constructed in the first place before it is possible to say it is no longer needed.

And so, why do we have bagged salad? Possibly because, even at these wastage rates, the loss is less than when all had to buy salad bits loose? We don't say that this is so, only that it's the relevant question to be asking.

As to the waste being worth a lot of money, no, of course it isn't. We're throwing it away so it is of no value to us. And yes, it really is true that we are the determinants of our own utility, the value of something to us is the value of something to us, not what either it should be nor what someone else thinks it should be.

But then others do manage to get to that ritual of incantation rather than doing the difficult bit of thinking:

The solution, then, it would seem, can in part come from us, the consumers. By taking personal responsibility and ensuring that we limit our consumption, we can probably dramatically reduce the colossal figure currently hanging over our bagged-salad heads.

It is indeed part of the worship of Gaia that we must reduce our consumption. Or at least acceptable ritual that we should claim to desire to do so, along with St Augustine's caveat of not quite yet perhaps. 

But there is that very proof that people aren't thinking. For of course the actual complaint here is that we're not consuming enough of this bagged salad, isn't it?

Ritual incantations rather than thinking just aren't the way to run the world.

We do love people holding directly contradictory ideas

This is something we humans do rather well, hold two or more directly contradictory ideas at the same time. One particular version of this is prevalent over on the environmental left these days. Which is that renewable energy is just so cheap these days that they're going to take over the entire power sector, while at the very same time any cut in investment funds to designing new methods of renewables would be to condemn the planet, and Flipper and ourselves, to drowning in ever hotter water.

As an example, over at Salon they are running these two stories side by side:

We’ve seen prices for new solar farms below 3 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) in other countries for over a year now, but before this week, not in the U.S. That changed on Monday when Tucson Electric Power (TEP), an Arizona utility company, announced that it had reached an agreement to buy solar power at the same game-changing price.

TEP says that this is a “historically low price” for a 100-megawatt system capable of powering 21,000 homes — and that the sub-3-cents price is “less than half as much as it agreed to pay under similar contracts in recent years.”

For context, the average U.S. residential price for electricity is nearly 13 centsper kwh, and the average commercial price is 10.5 cents.

And further:

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, criticized Trump for his proposed cuts in clean energy research. “His budget proposes a staggering seventy percent cut to renewables and energy efficiency initiatives,” Cantwell said in a Tuesday statement responding to the budget proposal. “This would devastate an emerging sector of our economy by killing thousands of clean-energy jobs all over the country — all in a misguided effort to hold onto the past at the expense of our future.”

But if solar is now one third the price of conventionally produced electricity then we don't need to be doing any more research, do we? We've done what we needed to do and we can stop now and go on to try and solve the next problem.

Alternatively, of course, there's something hooky with that 3 cents number and we do need to keep researching. But they can't both be accurate complaints. Either we've got cheap renewables and we don't need to research cheap renewables any more or they're not cheap and we must continue. But we simply cannot be where we've achieved our goal and we must still research how to achieve our goal.