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Playing the wait-and-see long game

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One of the perks of being a writer these days is that from time to time you get to sit next to politicians at BBC-hosted dinner parties and on publicity-seeking panels of writers feeding the face-time craving of readers. Just before the 1997 election there was Paul (now Baron) Boateng on my left (at the table, not politically) responding to my ill-mannered complaint about the destruction of the point of the Labour Party by the invention of New Labour and its Tory policies on poverty. Don’t worry, he said conspiratorially, you’ll see. We have to get into power. Then we’ll legislate to improve the condition of the poor. We’re still the old Labour Party, but we have to get elected. New Labour is the only way to do it. Wait and see, we’re playing the long game.

But once you’re in power, you’ll have another election to fight.

Just wait and see, he said. I waited and I saw.

Then the other day at Foyles, in front of a blameless audience who only wanted to hear about the writing of personal memoir, I behaved badly again, by having an ill-tempered moan about the disgraceful social record of New Labour at former minister Chris Mullin (diaries out in a bookshop near you). It’s just as well, he was saying, that Kinnock lost the 1992 election because otherwise Labour would have been in government during Black Wednesday and Labour would have been as damaged as the Tory party was. The landslide victory of 1997 would have been the Conservatives’. Perhaps, I interrupted, but at least we might not have had New Labour. Mullin immediately insisted that New Labour had done great things for the poor during its time in power.

But the gap between rich and poor has never been wider, surely?

That’s nonsense, he said, a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed the gap to have narrowed as never before during New Labour’s governance.

I was surprised, but unequipped. A little googling when I got home found this in the Telegraph from 2009 on income figures for the year 2007-8, before the recession, released by the Department of Work and Pensions, which showed that the number of children in poverty had grown by 100,000:

According to economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the figures mean that the Gini Coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is now at its highest level since they began compiling figures in 1961. Alastair Muriel, an IFS economist said: “Since the election, average incomes across the population have grown slowly, whilst they have fallen for the poorest.”

And on the BBC in January 2010:

The gap between rich and poor in the UK is wider now than 40 years ago, a government-commissioned report says.

Another good reason to have an iPad beside one at all times.

Finally Mullin shut me up, so we could get on with talking about memoirs and bookselling, by saying that the most important thing a political party has to do is to get elected. Shut me up because a) it’s true and b) it’s the reason there is no chance of a decent politics. Consider, for example, the entire New Labour project under Tony Blair, and the falling off of ‘yes we can’ under the presidency of Barack Obama, or, come to think of it, the career of Baron Boateng (I waited and waited to see, Baron). It’s a conundrum. Can’t do the business in opposition, can’t get elected without pleasing the crowd. On Sunday, Nick Clegg told the LibDem Conference to wait and see, that he is playing the long game. So in Foyles I shut up instead of throwing a tantrum, though I think a tantrum was more in order than polite and pointless chatter about keeping diaries or writing memoir for publication. The implication was, of course, that I was speaking idealistic waffle while Mullin, Boateng and Clegg are working in the real world. That is quite true, I am utterly discouraged and quite unable to see how the world can become a better place, while a sense of realismus in politics ensures an inevitable slippage between what is said (assuming anyone could care less) and what can be done. The real world is implacable. I think I have to accept that now. Politics, therefore, is simply a career: why on earth would anyone who minded about the world go into it?

Comments on “Playing the wait-and-see long game”

  1. mark ramsden says:

    Wisest words about politics ever.

  2. Geoff Roberts says:

    You might have been ill-mannered by 1997 standards, but it would probably be judged to be a polite response today. I think you have hit a few nails on their heads. Politics is all about getting hold of power and then finding out about the checks and balances, as they used to be called, circumnavigating the issues of telling the truth, while not revealing that somebody will have to pay for our next bright idea. I think it was Konrad Adenauer who explained that there are three ways to tell the audience something that will hit their pocket: you can say that you will do everything possible to prevent taxes from going up; you can say that no decision has been made; or you can say that if parliament does not agree the Russians will march in and take over. All of which translate into ‘we are increasing taxes, whether you like it or not.’ Nobody tells the truth in politics unless there is some spin-off in terms of votes or popularity, and then only if there is no alternative. It’s a lucrative business these days – mps are very well paid and there are dozens of perks. When I hear that Blair has made 20 million Pounds (can’t find my Pound sign) since resigning that says it all.

  3. bilejones says:

    “Politics, therefore, is simply a career:”

    And this was news?

    The central purpose of government is the looting of the governed.

  4. Joe Morison says:

    Don’t be too discouraged (and don’t be too despondent!), your analysis of politics is spot on but it doesn’t mean the world can’t become a better place. For it has always been thus: 500 years ago we had absolute monarchy, public torture and execution, and no concept of human rights; it’s been a long slow progression to our relatively enlightened state (in just our lifetimes -well, yours and mine- we’ve moved from homosexuality being a crime for which people were imprisoned to out members of the cabinet), and that progression has happened while we’ve been led by rulers every bit as self-serving and hypocritical as those we have today (i’m sure that on the whole they want to do good and see themselves as doing good, it’s just that power is such a very delicious imbibition that the lie that they are holding onto it for the greater good becomes too seductive to resist).
    Change for the better happens when the people want it. Idealistic wafflers like Dickens and Diski stir our consciences and open our eyes and we demand of our politicians that they do something. And how they love it! For then they can climb the greasy pole of power, drink deep of that delicious and libidinous brew, while actually doing something good.
    I’m not sanguine about where we’re heading, but i’m not put off by politicians being politicians as long as the idealistic wafflers keep faith and keep waffling.

  5. Jenny Diski is usually much wiser. On this occasion she appears simply to have stumbled upon ordinary, quotidian bourgeois politics! Window-dressing, whilst the real work goes on in the background – making sure the kleptocracy hangs onto what it has purloined. And now is spending it again – see the FT’s website http://www.howtospendit.com

    Pessimism and despair about “modern” politics is usually little more than intellectual laziness, faint-heartedness or even cowardice (surely not in this case though). It is far too easy to lament that all is lost, nothing can be done, the masses have been fooled, etc etc. Much harder to think through the basics of an alternative campaigning platform for the left. However, and fortunately, this is well in hand.

    • pinhut says:

      “Much harder to think through the basics of an alternative campaigning platform for the left. However, and fortunately, this is well in hand.”

      Would you care to point to where this valuable work is taking place?

      • Here’s just a couple of examples of what seems to me to be practical, campaigning efforts – crucially aimed at, amongst other things, changing the political landscape and putting socialism back on the agenda. http://WWW.cnwp.org.uk and http://www.tusc.org.uk

        • pinhut says:

          Oh dear. Socialism is the answer because its necessary companion, capitalism, has failed. Right. That’s logic of the kind that says, “Because these chips taste bad, we must now all eat egg.” As if no other options exist.

          But what is truly bizarre is the commitment to using the same electoral system that has produced three parties with the same ideology (and I would suggest that is because the state governs the political parties, not the reverse) to overturn the injustices visited upon the British people by the controllers of the selfsame electoral system. “We’re going to use the broken axe of our democractic system to chop down the rotten tree of big business/government…” Good luck with that.

  6. Jenny Diski says:

    “Much harder to think through the basics of an alternative campaigning platform for the left. However, and fortunately, this is well in hand.”

    Oh, I hope so. But how similar this sounds to ‘wait and see’ from Messrs Boateng and Mullin.

  7. Oliver Rivers says:

    On the basis of a quick fumble with Google, Jenny Diski concludes that: “Politics…is simply a career: why on earth would anyone who minded about the world go into it?”

    That’s quite a bold conclusion to reach on the basis of one snippet from the Telegraph and another from the BBC. Had she bothered to read the report from the IFS, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2010, of which the Telegraph–surprise!–gives a limited and simplistic account, she might have come to a slightly different conclusion.

    Chapter 3 of the IFS report compares the change in income inequality during Labour’s and the Conservatives’ terms in office (1997-2010, 1979-1997), and, as a concomitant, how real incomes changed for different quintile groups during those periods.

    Here are some salient facts (pp. 23 et seq. from the report): from 1979-1997, the poorest decile saw their real incomes grow by 0.8% per year. The richest decile, meanwhile, saw theirs rise at a rate of 2.5%. That is, the poor got less poor (in absolute terms) quite slowly, while the rich got richer quite quickly.

    From 1997-2010, the poorest saw their real incomes increase at a rate of 1.6% per year (double the rate of growth under the Conservatives), while the richest deciles saw their real incomes increase at a rate of 1.8%, appreciably slower than under the previous administration, and hardly faster than the rate at which the poor were now seeing their lot improve.

    After 18 years of the Tories, the poorest decile were 15% richer, while the richest decile were 55% richer. After 13 years of Labour, the poorest decile were 22% richer, while the richest decile were 26% richer. That sounds like progress to me.

    Diski mentions the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality: a Gini coefficient of 1 means a single individual receives all of a nation’s income; a Gini coefficient of 0 means all individuals have the same income.

    If the richest decile are getting richer at a faster rate than the poorest decile, even if the difference in the rate of change is very small, then simply as a matter of arithmetic the Gini coefficient will rise. Since the richest decile’s real incomes grew fractionally faster than the poorest’s during Labour’s three administrations, then it is inevitable that the Gini coefficient measured over that time will have increased, the fact onto which the Telegraph latched.

    But you can’t treat that number in isolation, particularly if one recognises, as Diski somewhat petulantly does, just how hard the business of government is. It takes time to reverse trends; it’s difficult to do so; the facts of the matter aren’t clear; there are unintended consequences, false starts; and the economy isn’t entirely (to put in mildly) under the government’s control.

    Making allowances for all that, reducing the rate at which a bad thing (income inequality) gets worse ought to be recognised as an achievement in itself.

    So we should be interested not just in the particular value which the Gini coefficient takes in a given year; we ought also to look at its rate of change.

    Consistent with growth pattern of real incomes between 1979 and 2010, there is a very clear pattern in the way the Gini coefficient changed over that time. It increased very rapidly under Mrs T., and much less quickly and Major and Blair/Brown. Again: progress. Income inequality has continued to get worse, but the rate at which it does so is much less than in the 80s.

    So there’s something for Labour to take pride in. I’m not pretending the picture is entirely rosy. In particular, the poorest saw their real incomes fall during Labour’s third term, a consequence of the recession.

    But here surely is the rub: the poorest, already suffering from the downturn, are now going to be hit again by the coalition’s spending cuts. I’d hope, given the above analysis, that no-one’s going to be stupid enough to say that there will be no difference between how the poorest get treated as a result of the boy Gideon’s spending review, and how they would have been treated by Chancellor Darling (or Balls).

    But just at the moment when the people at the bottom of the heap need all the help they can get, Diski, after a quick flick at her iPad and apparently no thought whatsoever, is proposing to withdraw from political engagement in a tremulous fit of pique. Were all educated, articulate people to flounce off like her, then the Right would win the argument before it’s even begun. And that would be shame, given that even a cursory analysis of the numbers shows that the argument is worth having, and winning.

    • pinhut says:

      “Consistent with growth pattern of real incomes between 1979 and 2010, there is a very clear pattern in the way the Gini coefficient changed over that time. It increased very rapidly under Mrs T., and much less quickly and Major and Blair/Brown. Again: progress. Income inequality has continued to get worse, but the rate at which it does so is much less than in the 80s.”

      Are you a professional politician? The “it’s progress because it’s not getting bad as fast as before” trope again. How can it possibly be progress when it is continuining to move, albeit more slowly, in precisely the wrong direction. You could use the same argument for somebody who is walking in the wrong direction. “We are actually nearer to location Y than we would be if we were walking as fast as the Tories did…” Right, but you will never actually reach location Y, will you? And you will call that ‘progress’.

      No, improvement would be to actually see income disparity diminishing. Shame on you for your sophistry.

      • Oliver Rivers says:

        I’m not sure how much attention you were paying during literacy and numeracy hour at your school, but perhaps I could invite you to read a little further up in my post: under Labour, real incomes of the poorest grew at twice the rate that they did under the Tories. You do understand that that’s a good thing, right? You do appreciate that it renders fatuous the claim that there is no practical difference between Tories and Labour?

        • pinhut says:

          “You do appreciate that it renders fatuous the claim that there is no practical difference between Tories and Labour?”

          By your own admission, things continue to become more unfair, only slightly more slowly under Labour and, for yourself, that constitutes ‘progress’. You don’t take issue with that, right? That is what you wrote. Instead, you point out a real-terms increase and want me to accept it as “good”. It’s better, but I would not describe it as good.

          I will return you to the main point. If income inequality had diminished under Labour, that would constitute a practical difference. Not being as destructive as the Tories is not sufficient.

        • Joe Morison says:

          In The Spirit Level Wilkinson and Pickett show that it’s not absolute poverty that causes grief in the West, it’s relative poverty. All that Oliver has shown, if their (to me) overwhelmingly convincing argument is right, is that things got worse for the poor under New Labour at a slower rate than under the Tories. That doesn’t sound like much of a good thing to me.

  8. Oliver Rivers says:

    You seem to subscribe to some kind of fiat lux version of political efficacy; all politicians have to do is snap their fingers or click their heels, and the world is transformed. If things don’t fall out exactly as you want, the only explanation must be the venality, or sloth, or vanity, or wickedness (fill in favourite sin here) of the politicians.

    It ain’t so. Government is hard. Most of the time you’re not actually sure what the consequences of your actions are going to be, and most of the time you’re not in full control of the situation. No government today has anything like full control of its economy, for example.

    Given that, the difference between a government under which the incomes of the poorest grow at 0.8% a year, and one where the incomes of the poorest grow at 1.6% a year, twice as fast, is huge. Not trivial; not marginal; huge. A huge achievement, given what it’s like governing under conditions of foggy uncertainty, and, even more importantly, a huge achievement for the poorest. For every £1 increase in income of the poorest under the Conservatives, the income of the poorest under Labour grew by £2.

    I really don’t see how an adult looking at the facts could maintain either that nothing’s been accomplished, or that there’s no difference between the two parties.

    • pinhut says:

      “You seem to subscribe to some kind of fiat lux version of political efficacy; all politicians have to do is snap their fingers or click their heels, and the world is transformed. If things don’t fall out exactly as you want, the only explanation must be the venality, or sloth, or vanity, or wickedness (fill in favourite sin here) of the politicians.”

      Straw man.

      “I really don’t see how an adult looking at the facts…”

      Do you really want to keep insulting somebody who has links to your OkCupid page and jogging route?

      The fact remains, you describe travelling in the wrong direction less slowly as progress towards reducing income inequality. I say, income inequality diminishing is what represents progress towards that goal, not moving away from it less quickly. It is a rather basic point, I am surprised you are yet to grasp it successfully.

      • pinhut says:

        Actually, Rivers may have been replying to Diski here, but so. My point holds. The accusation of possessing unrealistic expectations of politicians is easy to throw out, but it ignores the ideological dimension of what an Oliver Rivers describes as realistic: tiny changes in the failed policies of two entrenched political parties. It really is the same tactic used to say that the war in Afghanistan is being won when there are slightly less deaths than during the previous months a year ago, or civilians are being killed less slowly. It is highly disingenuous and serves to continue to limit people’s concept of just what a ‘realistic’ aim might consist of. It is basically a trope peculiar to defenders and dupes of the status quo.

      • Oliver Rivers says:

        I certainly didn’t say that reducing the rate at which income inequality is increasing is the same as reducing income inequality. I quite specifically said that reducing the rate at which a bad thing gets worse ought to be regarded as an achievement in its own right, particularly given how hard it is to effect such change.

        “Do you really want to keep insulting somebody who has links to your OkCupid page and jogging route?”

        Everyone’s a Googler! Do you really want to make clumsily-veiled threats on a public website?

        • pinhut says:

          It’s not a threat, it’s a statement. You don’t seem able to proceed more than a sentence without mischaracterising others, that’s when you’re not continually engaging in personal insult. Clearly you’ve got Mr Jones fighting your corner, as he normally steps in for repeated incivility, perhaps he likes your OkCupid picture, perhaps you jog together.

          You did not simply say it should be regarded as an achievement, you specifically described it as ‘progress’. It is not. That is the point you won’t concede. Moving away from a particular goal less slowly than the other lot would is not progress. Just as not being as bad is not the same as being good.

          It appears that being civil, reasonable and intellectually honest should also be filed under those things hugely resistant to change.

          • Thomas Jones says:

            I think I am going to step in now. You’ve both made your positions plain; repeating them with fresh insults isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

            • Joe Morison says:

              Amen to the above. Oliver writes that “reducing the rate at which a bad thing gets worse ought to be regarded as an achievement in its own right”, which is in some minimal sense obviously true. But it’s only something to be applauded if it’s the first stage of actually making the bad thing better. I saw nothing in New Labour that made me think that true, nothing to suggest that what they wanted was a more equal country. They sucked up to the super-rich, gave the bankers everything they asked for, and conspicuously glorified the ultra wealth they were ‘intensely relaxed’ about.
              It’s true, as Oliver says, that it’s hard for governments to do things; but it is quite easy for them to redistribute wealth. I’m not suggesting ‘squeezing the rich till the pips squeak’ but New Labour could have done something to make this a fairer country but they just didn’t want to, and i think that’s shameful.

              Finally, chaps, do remember that we’re all more or less on the same side. I don’t think we’d be reading the LRB if we weren’t.

  9. streetsj says:

    It is interesting how the moment an argument gets disconnected from the facts it becomes so unenlightening.
    The IFS data (which, incidentally, looks suspect in table 3.2 as the mean rise in incomes during New Labour appears to be higher than for every quintile) shows that under Thatcher each quintile grew its real income faster the richer it was. Under Major this process almost reverses with the poorest at +1.7% and the richest at +0.7%. So it seems to show that it is possible to reverse the process of who grows fastest quite quickly. Well, of course it is. You change the tax system. I suspect but cannot prove that the Thatcher effect is the reduction of the top rate of tax from 83% to 40%.
    The IFS data also shows that in the first New Labour term income grew roughly equally; in the second the lowest grew fastest and in the third it reversed with the poorest growing slowest – in fact the poorest quintile under Blair/Brown went backwards. (Major’s government included the 1991-92 recession.)
    And the dog that didn’t bark? The minimum wage would appear to have had no impact at all.

  10. Geoff Roberts says:

    Interesting! If I understand Mr. Rivers correctly, and I’m sure he wil correct me if I’m wrong, he thinks that the percentile with the lowest incomes is now better off than it was. That sounds to me as if the lowest income brackets are even worse off than they were, say thirty years ago. Income alone is not an accurate measure of poverty (or affluence). The other side of the coin is purchasing power, and the lowest on the oncome scale always lose out through inflation, tax increases and the like. Shouldn’t the debate be about how to level out incomes and rewarding according to value to society?

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