19 March 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 March 2008

Events, dear boy, events... It's a cliché - but Harold Macmillan's famous line about what's most likely to blow a government off-course remains as apposite as when he is supposed to have uttered it.

And doesn't Gordon Brown know it this week. Amid an international financial crisis that sober experts say could be the worst for the world economy since the Wall Street crash of 1929, the opinion polls appear to have turned irrevocably against Labour. According to YouGov and ICM, Alistair Darling's attempt at reassurance in his first Budget last week has gone down with the punters like a bucket of dodgy oysters.

OK, it's not all over by any means. Precisely what the collapse of the US investment bank Bear Stearns signifies for Britain or indeed anywhere else is not yet clear - and there are always good reasons to resist the temptation to predict the imminent breakdown of the capitalist system. A dull Budget that enthuses no one is not necessarily an omen of electoral disaster. There are still two years before Brown has to go to the polls, and mid-term unpopularity is something governments should treat as the norm rather than the exception (contrary to Labour's experience since 1997). And the Tories are still a long way short of being a shoo-in.

But it doesn't look good at all. The panic in the stock markets might not last for long - indeed it might be over as I write - but the credit crunch is for real, and it's difficult to see how it won't at very least bring the British housing bubble to an end.

UK house prices have been ludicrously inflated for at least five years, and we Brits - or rather those of us who consider ourselves home-owners, though in fact we're not because we've borrowed to buy - have been binge-consuming on the back of more borrowing against our equity.

Now that is all grinding to a halt, it seems. If banks won't lend money to one another because they're worried about their competitors' US sub-prime exposure, they certainly won't lend to any but the least-risky Brit consumers. The scenario every Labour politician fears is that everyone who has lived the high life on equity-based credit tightens his or her belt, the bottom falls out of the housing market, repossessions rocket, businesses of all kinds go bust - and in six months we're into a recession deeper than that of the early 1990s.

Will it happen? I don't know any more than anyone else, but right now I'm not optimistic. And the thought that we might be facing recession makes me gloomier than I have ever been about Labour's chances at the next general election.

Governments do sometimes survive recessions: the Tories won in 1992, remember. It's not impossible to imagine public opinion rallying to dull, dependable Labour if times really were to get tough. Hunch tells me, however, that it wouldn't be like that. Voters would want to punish Labour for bringing the housing bonanza to an end - and the Tories would reap the benefit. Not a pleasant prospect, but has anyone got a more realistic one?

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I spent Tuesday evening at a meeting of the Suffolk branch of the National Union of Journalists. It was unusually full - in part, no doubt, because of the pulling power of the main speaker, Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary and fellow Tribune columnist, but also because of the subject of discussion: the announcement by Archant, the publisher of the Ipswich East Anglian Daily Times and Evening Star, that it was going to replace many of its sub-editors with non-journalist (and worse-paid) page-designers.

You might think this an arcane matter of obvious interest to those whose jobs are threatened but of little wider importance. But it's not. It's yet another example of aggressive newspaper management sacrificing quality journalism in pursuit of greater profits - part of the culture of "churnalism" attacked with such verve by the Guardian's Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. Getting rid of subs might save Archant several thousand pounds a year - but it would also inevitably mean stories being published full of grammatical, spelling and factual mistakes.

And that's not because the reporters and feature-writers on the Anglian and the Star are incompetent - just that they're human and fallible. I've been working as a sub at least part of the time for nearly 25 years now, and I have never come across a writer whose work has not been improved by subbing. Even the most elegant stylist will now and again misspell a proper name or attribute a quotation to the wrong person - and many of the best reporters do not write very well. It's true that technology has changed the sub's job out of all recognition since I started, but it hasn't rendered it obsolete - and never will.

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