- The most positive appraisal of this election campaign I can muster is that it has been completely pointless. For every gimmick, giveaway and gaffe; every pledge, platitude and plea: nothing has changed. Labour and the Conservatives, the two parties that could conceivably form an overall majority in the House of Commons, remain as deadlocked in the polls as they were in January. The quality of public debate on the issues underpinning the campaign has been appalling. Policy detail has been generally subsumed into depressing narratives characterised by toxic misrepresentation, savage personal attacks and nihilistic scaremongering. Instead, the campaign has run along depressingly predictable lines: economic competence versus chaos (more on this below); savage cuts versus slightly less savage cuts; NHS ‘privatisation’ versus renewed investment; and so on. As the polls suggest, neither of the main parties has set out a compelling vision for Britain’s future. Nowhere near enough voters are convinced that their lives would be better, safer and more prosperous under a Labour or Conservative majority. The result is a profound stalemate. Both parties would rather take their chances in a coalition or minority government than expand their natural constituencies by offering genuinely radical and innovative solutions to the problems we face as a country. How did we get here? Below, I’m going to look at four topics that have generated the most drivel during the campaign – (1) the economy; (2) jobs; (3) the rise of the SNP; and (4) immigration and the role of UKIP.
The Economy – “Conservative competence vs Labour chaos”
- The centerpiece of the Conservatives’ campaign has been that they have rescued Britain from Labour’s mismanagement of the public finances; adherence to their ‘long-term economic plan’ (which prioritises pensioners over students – go figure) is the only way for the country to avoid a Greece-style disaster. The briefest examination of the facts reveals that this claim is ludicrous. In 2010, the Conservative-led coalition inherited a large budget deficit of about 10.5% of GDP. This was almost entirely a result of the global financial crisis beginning in 2008, which caused tax revenues to fall sharply and government spending (e.g. on unemployment benefit) to rise sharply. The Conservatives wilfully misrepresented the effects of this crisis as evidence of an eye-watering Labour overspend. There is little evidence for this. Before 2008, Labour ran a budget deficit of about 2.7% of GDP, in line with most other developed economies and certainly not an egregious figure. After the crisis caused the deficit to widen, the Conservatives claimed in 2010 that unless a programme of deep spending cuts began immediately, investors would take fright and stop buying UK government debt. In turn, this would mean the government wouldn’t be able to fund itself and would eventually default on its existing debt repayments: an economic apocalypse. This quickly became the accepted narrative as to the UK’s financial position and provided justification for the Conservatives’ philosophical desire to begin state-shrinking austerity. Unfortunately, their reasoning was nonsensical.
- In framing its argument for austerity, the Conservatives made repeated and unhelpful analogies between the UK’s financial position and that of private household. If an individual’s spending exceeds his income (i.e. he is in a deficit) he must cut spending, and he need not worry about the effect of his decision on the wider economy. A country’s finances work in a fundamentally different way. Cutting spending reduces the amount of demand in the economy, affecting growth. A government can continue to borrow in a deficit, provided lenders remain confident they will get their money back (i.e. interest rates remain low, which they were in 2010). Their confidence is partly based on the knowledge that the government can print more money to meet its debt obligations. An individual cannot do this. Therefore, the comparison is bogus. Economists generally propose that governments only make cuts when the economy is growing fast enough to absorb them. However, the Conservatives were intent on reducing the size of the state through its austerity programme in 2010 and made insane cuts when the economy was at its weakest, hollowing out demand and stifling growth. GDP per head grew at an average rate of less than 1% in the three years from 2010 to 2013. In the previous 13 years, incorporating the financial crisis, growth averaged over 1.5% per head. So growth in GDP per head was more than 50% higher under Labour than under the Conservatives. The Conservatives eventually took notice of this and effectively halted austerity in 2013, and the economy began to grow properly again. Regardless of what they say about deficit reduction, in this light it is frankly insulting that the Conservatives portray themselves as the party of economic competence. Depressingly, the Conservatives propose cutting again if elected, which will have predictably catastrophic results.
Jobs – “We’ve created a thousand jobs a day since 2010”
- Another linchpin of the Conservatives’ campaign has been the oft-repeated statistic of having created a thousand jobs a day since coming to power which, it is true, is more than the rest of Europe put together. Labour have generally embarrassed themselves in trying to pick holes in this figure, suggesting variously that the new jobs reflect a dramatic increase in zero-hours contracts (wrong); an increase in the proportion of low-skilled jobs (wrong); and an increase in the proportion of minimum-wage level jobs overall (wrong). So why do people feel worse off even though unemployment has fallen dramatically since 2010? The answer lies in productivity, a measure of how efficient workers are. Productive workers are more in-demand, pushing their wages to increase above inflation and therefore improving living standards. But in the UK, the average worker is now around 20 per cent less productive than an equivalent worker elsewhere in the G7, a trend which has dramatically worsened since 2010. What UK workers achieve Monday-Friday, other G7 workers have finished by Thursday evening. Domestic wages cannot grow in this situation. The only reason wages are now growing slightly above inflation in the UK is because inflation is zero. More people are in work but the government’s inability to tackle the productivity problem (by, say, investing in infrastructure, technology and training and supporting regional growth) means that those in work tend to feel worse off in real terms. By taking credit for growing employment whilst productivity has sharply declined, the Conservatives are effectively taking credit for declining living standards. This is madness. Furthermore, it is equally concerning that the economy is growing whilst productivity is falling, suggesting that the recovery is being driven by consumer spending rather than improved output, and is therefore unsustainable. Why Labour hasn’t run with these arguments is mystifying, depressing and infuriating.
The Union – “SNP support of a minority Labour government would be dangerous”
- This feature of the campaign has hurt my brain the most. Point One: Around half of Scottish voters will vote for the SNP tomorrow, for a number of reasons. Many will vote SNP out of a desire to bring about Scottish independence; many others will do so because they support the SNP’s radical left-wing, anti-austerity vision for how the UK should be governed. Whatever the reason, Scottish voters have been explicitly told by the Conservatives and Lib Dems that should they elect SNP MPs to the House of Commons, these MPs must have no influence, however slight, on the new government. The argument runs that because the SNP advocates secession from the Union, it is dangerous to permit its MPs to influence the business of government. This is an absurdly anti-democratic, disenfranchising position to take. Point Two: The Conservatives claim that a minority Labour government would be forced to abandon its manifesto pledges regarding fiscal consolidation, scrap Trident, and make various other disproportionate giveaways to Scottish voters in return for the SNP supporting its legislative programme. BUT this will only be the case if the Conservatives allow it to happen by voting down a minority Labour government’s bills relating to the public finances and the renewal of Trident etc. In other words, the SNP will only have a deciding influence on crucial government bills if the Conservatives allow them to, i.e. by sabotaging these bills out of spite and against the national interest. Complete and utter nonsense, and a desperate Tory attempt to discredit a Labour minority government. Don’t believe it.
Immigration and the role of UKIP
- One of the few pleasures of the campaign has come from watching the projected UKIP vote shrivel. The party is founded on distortions and naked falsehoods used to tap into latent prejudices and fears among the electorate. Immigration is good for the UK. Study after study has found no significant negative impact on employment/ unemployment from immigration. Migrants tend to be relatively young and replace retiring native workers in the workforce every year. Further, migrants (especially those from the European Union) are much less likely to claim benefits than natives, and overall make a significant net contribution to the public finances. Rather than being a drain on the welfare state, they help to sustain it. No major party is prepared to make this case, with the possible exception of the Lib Dems. This is UKIP’s greatest success since 2010: it has taken understandable concerns about unemployment, stagnant wages, and pressures on public services and, in the absence of an easily identifiable cause, blamed immigration for exacerbating these problems even though the facts say otherwise. I find it infuriating that Labour has shrunk from the challenge of making a positive case for immigration. It has allowed the right-wing press and residual UKIP sympathy among parts of the electorate to control the narrative that immigration is bad for the UK. One consolation is that as voters have seen more of the despicable Nigel Farage and UKIP more generally, the party’s projected share of the vote has declined. It will probably not make a major breakthrough beyond picking up a couple of seats. For this we should all be thankful. However, the debate around immigration will not progress until Labour or the Conservatives are brave enough to campaign in its favour, and commit to replacing irrational fear among the public generally with a clearer understanding of the overwhelmingly positive contribution migrants make to our lives.
- You may think from the above that I am a staunch Labour supporter and will be voting for them unquestioningly. Far from it. Labour’s campaign has been embarrassing in a lot of areas, most recently the ridiculous pledge stone it unveiled at the weekend. With some exceptions, it has kowtowed to the narrative that it overspent before the last election. It has bought into the Osborne-onomic thesis that says we should prioritise closing the deficit over achieving economic growth. Its candidates repeatedly claim that the Conservatives are privatising the NHS (they aren’t: they are outsourcing parts of its service, which you can argue is a bad thing but it isn’t privatisation). I find many of its prospective front-benchers, such as Ed Balls and Harriet Harman, pretty unsavoury. The most positive endorsement I can make is that they are the best of a bad bunch, discounting the Greens (mad), UKIP (mad and horrible), the Lib Dems (no credibility). I’ve found following the campaign closely to be a thoroughly depressing experience. All participants have compulsively bound themselves into a system where facts and evidence have been secondary to wilful distortion and the appeasement of vested interests. Reasons not to vote for an opponent have displaced positive reasons to vote for a particular policy agenda or economic vision. Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, the voice of the nation’s youth Russell Brand, 40, got involved. And at that point I just gave up. Happy voting.