The quality of debate in Britain’s General Election campaign is predictably awful. Arguments are reduced to simple sound bites. And parties try to muddy the waters on their opponents’ key issues rather than engage with them properly. Many issues are hardly discussed at all. In a doubtless futile mission to raise the level of debate I will look at a number of issues from rather more objective perspective, and handle the arguments on an altogether deeper level. I am not, of course, an objective observer: I will generally make the case for voting for the Liberal Democrats.
Let’s start with the issue the Conservatives most want to talk about: the economy, and which party is best placed to manage it. Their argument runs something like this: Labour cannot be trusted with the economy because they presided over the economic crash in 2008 and haven’t admitted their culpability. The Conservatives have a “long-term plan” that is yielding results without getting the country into too much debt.
Labour are more reticent. They don’t accept that their party was responsible for the crash (or no more responsible than anybody else). They are severely critical of the coalition’s economic record, which, they say, swung to much to “austerity” (i.e. too many spending cuts, benefits savings and a rise in VAT), which choked off and delayed the recovery. They point out that Tory plans for the next few years imply vicious cuts to welfare. They also point to stagnant living standards for most people. Their plans for the next parliament involve significantly more public borrowing, supposedly supported by higher levels of investment.
Arguments over the records of both sides over the last two parliaments are interesting enough. I mostly support the narrative of the coalition partners – but Labour can call on the support of many independent economists with real heft. But past record only counts to the extent it tells us about the future – and in this case it doesn’t tell us much at all. Both sides are placing more faith in the robustness of the British, European and world economies than is prudent.
Many economists and politicians assume that there is a natural rate of growth of about 2% per annum, based on improvements to productivity, that the economy can be guided towards by governments with sensible macroeconomic policies. This seemed to be true before 2008, but it is surely questionable now. Demographic changes, with the proportion of working age people falling, are only the most obvious reason for scepticism; there are plenty of others, about which I have written often. That leaves us with two critical problems. How would the parties cope with the likely possibility of continued economic stagnation? How might they reduce the risks of such stagnation by making the best of any opportunities the country does have for growth?
In the first case prolonged stagnation points to renewed austerity. In order to keep the national debt under control expenditure will have to be cut, or tax increased, or both. The deficit between taxes and spending is still high, and deficits are much harder to sustain if growth is low, even if, as now, interest rates are also low. Japan has managed to get away with prolonged deficits in spite of stagnation, it is true, but that is because they have trade surpluses and accordingly are less dependent on foreign borrowing. What will happen if Britain fails to get to grips with government finances? That is hard to say. In the modern, globalised economy, inflation looks much less of a risk, unlike the last time this situation arose, in the 1970s. Instead stagnation may become more entrenched, and unemployment rise, until there is a financial crisis and our banks start failing again.
If there is renewed austerity the question arises as to how much of the strain is to be taken by tax rises and how much by public spending cuts. As a nation, we have higher expectations of our public services and benefits than most: the NHS, schools, social care and pensions in particular. I cannot see how such expectations can be met without raising taxes. And here there is a big snag.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have ruled out any increase to Income Tax, National Insurance or VAT. These are the main taxes that the general public pays, and account for some two thirds of all taxes. Tax rises without touching these three mean, generally, that somebody else is paying. The trouble is that the “somebody else” idea is wearing thin indeed. Tax breaks for the rich have been steadily pared back (most recently on pension contributions), making our tax laws more complex and draconian in the process. Company taxes are considered off the agenda because that threatens investment (this may not be right – but treating company taxes as a football is clearly bad for investment). The wealthy are already paying for a large part of the services which they never use. Apart from practicality, we are threatening the idea that everybody should pay something towards public services, in order to maintain solidarity and consent. No party is facing up to this issue.
Labour is particularly vulnerable. Their spending plans are more generous than the Conservatives’, as they hope to borrow more against infrastructure investment. Their plan to cut university tuition fees is particularly foolish. The SNP and the Greens are even worse. The Tories are more realistic, if you take their formal plans, laid out in this year’s Budget, with a pinch of salt. These envisage an unrealistically vicious attack on benefits in the first two or three years, followed by a relaxation. This is likely to be smoothed out in practice. But the party gives the impression that they would squeeze public services and working-age benefits rather than raise taxes. This probably is not what most people want.
So, if the parties would rather not contemplate stagnation, how would they create the growth in productivity that would head this fate off? How might this be done? The traditional formula is so-called “supply-side” reforms – deregulation for the most part. The trouble is that these tend to benefit the lucky few, both in terms of skills and income, and geographical location, largely London and the south east of England, where property prices are already through the roof. So the most promising idea is to promote growth in the regions of England, and also Wales (Scotland is the one region of the UK has seems to have bucked the gravitational pull of the South East). There is no sign that any party wants to relax planning controls that might allow this swing to the prosperous areas to occur more smoothly. There is a growing realisation that more balanced growth can only be done through the devolution of political power, and the release of funds for infrastructure investment between and within the regional centres. The Coalition has been feeling the way forward with its City Deals, with Greater Manchester being the flagship.
Once again, the main parties are disappointing. The Conservatives seems to place too much faith in deregulation – and their hostility to the EU and immigration represent roadblocks to future growth. Labour shows an alarming impracticality when it comes regulating and taxing businesses – and tackling such issues as low pay and insecure temporary contracts. While both parties are starting to talk the game on regional devolution, there is reason to doubt their commitment. Labour’s attack on the decentralisation of the NHS to Greater Manchester was particularly revealing. On both sides there is a lack of fresh thinking. The Greens, SNP and Ukip, in their different ways, are worse.
What of the Lib Dems? They are silent on raising tax rates – which undermines their commitment to funding the NHS, for example. They are closer to the fresh thinking needed for regional growth – with a real understanding of what devolution means. They also have interesting ideas on developing a more diverse banking system and promoting alternative business ownership structures. But these ideas aren’t fully formed. They are the best of a bunch that ranges from weak to hopeless.