Friday, 12 October 2018

Better decide which side you're on

One of many bands close to my heart from the punk/new wave era was the Tom Robinson Band. Yes, 2-4-6-8 Motorway of course, but I loved both of their two albums, though the second was a commercial failure leading to the demise of the band. Most of the lyrics were complete rot, of course: left wing nonsense and paranoia. In The Winter of '79  Robinson sang of a right wing clampdown, with national service reintroduced, social security stopped and the SAS coming "to take our names". When actually Margaret Thatcher's liberating government was only a few months away and in reality it was Labour overseeing the Winter of Discontent, with rubbish piled up in the steets and the dead unburied because of strikes.

Nevertheless, one of Tom's songs I'm still very attached to is Better Decide Which Side You're On, with its chorus:
You better decide which side you're on
This ship goes down before too long
If left is right then right is wrong
You better decide which side you're on.

At that time I was somewhat left of centre but over the next decade it became clear even to me, ever so reluctantly, that the right had the better solutions at the time (in Britain, Europe and USA) while the left was devoid of solutions or even coherent arguments and seemed capable only of demonstrations and protest.

However, the radical political left is now getting stronger in many countries. Not just here: Irwin Stelzer noted that the next Democratic US Presidential candidate will come from the survivor of the primary battle between the party's hard left and its "shrinking centrist bloc". Why, I wonder?

It's been said that people on the left believe a more ideal world can be created, a utopia where you can appeal to everyone's altruism and trust people to do the right things with everybody helping each other out. Why would anyone mind working hard and paying more taxes to pay for benefits and sevices to be generous for all? In this simplistic stereotype people on the right, in contrast, think such ideals are for the birds and you have to work with the grain of human behaviour, offering a carrot and stick, to make things work in practice. They think you have to encourage people and companies to work harder and longer with lower tax rates so they keep a higher proportion of what they earn but in practice contribute more in total taxes to fund benefits and services. This is the wealth creation model beloved of those who feel the important thing is the size of the cake, whereas those on the left often overlook that inconvenience in their preoccupation with its precise allocation.

Thus folk on the left saw Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms as harsh and cruel, while their political opponents saw potential to get more people off benefits and into work, thus helping them while saving spend on benefits and generating more revenue in taxes. The interesting thing to me is that, even after this turned out to be completely true, helping to create the record employment levels we now have, Smith's reforms are still thought of as the work of the devil by the left even if many of them are sensible enough not to advocate undoing them completely.

All of that is just my simplistic pastiche of left and right wing ideology. But there are behavioural differences at the moment. Just look how uncivil so many are on the left compared to the right (I'm talking mainstream parties here, not the BNP, whose forbears, the National Front, were Tom Robinson's preoccupation). For example, furious demonstrators screaming "Tory scum" at party conference delegates the other week (I'm assuming these are Labour supporters though they might, till recently have been in the Socialist Workers Party, which now has no need to exist). And totally unwilling to recognise the legitimacy of an opposing mainstream political opinion, as in the case of the teaching assistant who told the Labour party conference that, if children were brought up properly "we'll probably not have any Tories". If you doubt me on this please explain why Laura Kuenssberg found it necessary to have a bodyguard at last year's Labour conference. What a contrast with the civility with which Jacob Rees Mogg is prepared to debate his views with anyone, whatever their behaviour. I don't buy that this is just passion: it's an attempt to bully, intimidate and thwart democracy. Basically it's a Trotskyite tactic and is fundamentally anti-democratic. We have gone a long way from Evelyn Beatrice Hall's comment, often misattributed to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". With no platforming and safe spaces the miltant and snowflake left combine to close down debate while the right is prepared to argue it's case.

One might conclude those on the left place too much store on feelings and the right too much on thoughts, to the exclusion in both cases of the other approach.

Earlier in the year I discussed at length on a walk with a friend somewhat to my left (politically, not on the walk!) an admittedly artificial question I posed - if you see the chance to make things better for, say, 65% of the folk on benefits, by giving them a better chance of making work pay but at the same time making things even more difficult for a minority what should a politician do? The answer to this used to be easy: follow the greatest good for greatest number, while ensuring there is an ultimate safety net. Now it seems that any change that produces some "losers" is derided as heartless in the extreme and beyond the pale. How you feel about this artificial question probably depends where on the political spectrum you sit, but I would contend it provides some insight into the underlying question.

For the purpose of that question I am assuming that most people on left or right aren't idealogues, they genuinely believe their model is the better way to do things. Oddly that is a tenet that people on the right are much more prepared to concede than prople on the left. It seems to me the left resort too readily to the accusation that their opponents are driven by ideology when actually it is more often the other way round. Or is it just laziness? After all, it's so much easier just to contend that the right is heartless than to try to argue the case logically.

Nevertheless, I don't understand the the logic behind most left wing economic policies. As in I really don't get it. Take tax and spend. I understand Keynes, economic multipliers and the argument for "pump priming".  For example, if you get people out of work and off benefits by public infrastructure projects, the greater spending by those back in work creates a positive economic feedback. Good jobs sustain other jobs in both the private and public sectors. But don't kid yourself - on its own this would only increase public debt and wouldn't generate more tax than it cost. But it can create a climate that encourages business. If it incentivises the private sector to invest, creating more jobs and tax revenues, then you  can get a positive economic effect.

But those who argue more should be spent on benefits and services by purely increasing spending and debt are just spending OPM (other people's money). I know they think they would be spending the money of "the rich" or "the fat cats" or the "big corporations" by increasing taxes. But this isn't what happens in practice. I suspect even John McDonnell knows increasing income and corporation tax rates will not increase the tax take. He just thinks it should be done, maybe because it would be popular but more likely because he is an old fashioned class warrior. And he wants to break the system, so when the policies don't work he would claim it showed the need to be more radical.

No, the "other people" are the taxpayers of the future who will have to pay more in interest on the automatically higher levels of debt. Those "other people" are the you and I of tomorrow and, more importantly, our children and grandchildren. I strongly disagree with the argument that the old have stolen the youngsters' future by voting for Brexit - after all some of us didn't - but we are all prejudicing their future with too much debt.

So when Emily Thornberry responded to the dry Tory David Gauke on Question Time recently "don't you understand Keynes?", well yes we do but we also understand that overspending always leads to problems, either quickly (Ted Heath) or slowly (Blair and Brown) probably depending mainly on the strength of the economy they inherited.

I recall a wise professor (literally, of economics) I worked for in the 1980s saying that, for all the noise, there usually isn't that much difference between the parties, particularly on economic policies. The difference in total public sector spend proposed is often barely material and maybe not measurable in practice. And many of the ideas the parties pick up come from a pool of think tanks and, indeed, the civil service. I would argue there was a significant difference between the major parties in 1981 and that there would be at the next election, unless Mrs May tacks towards Jeremy Corbyn to try to claim the centre. Time will tell whether this strategy proves sensible or if she will just prove to be another of the useful idiots like Frank Field and Margaret Beckett, who made up the numbers to get Corbyn nominated as Labour leader so the left could have a candidate on the ballot paper even though they profoundly disagreed with him and who have helped put us on the verge of having a Marxist influenced government.

Usually I cleave to the view that neither the left or right has all the answers and there is great merit, in our first past the post system, in the tendency for governments to change after one or two parliaments. The incomers,  if they aren't idealogues, will retain the better things the previous administration did while bringing new ideas and fresh energy. But I feel we are in more dangerous times than that.

I noted recently that research has given the lie to the simplistic ideas of why electorates voted for Brexit and for Trump. So I am hopeful that the millenials won't all go for Corbyn. After all, a world in which the Len McCluskeys have power and influence beyond their actual role would probably feel entirely alien to that age group, if depressingly familiar to those of us who were at work in the 1970s.  I hope they can figure it out rather than learn it by experience.

I expect that last in first out irrespective of ability and the tyranny of the closed shop will come as a shock to the libertarian WhatsApp Instagram generation.

There's an old saw which goes "if you aren't on the left when you're young you haven't got a heart but if you aren't on the right by the time you're middle-aged you haven't got a brain". Tom Robinson famously sang Glad to be Gay but later married a woman and had children, though to be fair he says he still identifies as gay but happened to fall in love with a woman. I have no problem with that fence sitting but, it shows you are allowed to change your mind. Politically then, you better decide which side you're on else the ship will go down, youngsters, it's just a matter of how far and how fast.

P.S. what I didn't realise at the time was that the chorus of 2-4-6-8 Motorway was lifted from a Gay Lib chant, 2-4-6-8  gay is twice as good as straight, 3-5-7-9 Lesbians are mighty fine. In the long tradition of references in song lyrics that make those in the know smile and sail over everyone else's heads

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