Is it just me, or can I see a certain spring in the step of Britain’s national politicians? Ever since the party conference season last September they have been focusing on one thing above all: winning the General Election due in May 2015. The perplexing state of the country is now simply a source of ammunition to batter the other side. Actually solving the problems can be left until afterwards. What a relief!
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is having the better of it, if the relentlessly superficial media chatter is to be believed. This is quite a turnaround, since the same chatterers had him as toast as late as August. He has abandoned his party’s “too far, too fast” criticism of the government’s austerity policies, which helped rally the faithful (and rattle Lib Dem activists) but cut little ice with the country at large. The recovery of the country’s economic statistics has not invalidated their argument, but it has made it far too complex a proposition to argue, especially since their rhetoric had placed far too much reliance on these “flatlining” statistics in the first place. Instead they are focusing on living standards, and things, like fuel bills, which affect them.
From a campaigning perspective, this change of tack is astute on at least two counts. First, it appeals to direct personal experience, rather than the ephemeral world of economic statistics, to which the country’s GDP growth statistics belong. Second, it is such an intractable problem that the government is unlikely to be able to neutralise it. All that remains is to find some eye-catching policies to embarrass the government and keep the political debate on their ground. The centrepiece of this is the pledge to freeze energy prices for two years if Labour takes power, while they put in place a longer term fix to limit the damage inflicted by the greedy energy businesses they blame for the problem. A second push has been to enforce a “living wage” significantly higher than the legal minimum wage, through government procurement, and a tax break for employers who raise their wages.
In this line of attack Mr Miliband is the first of our national politicians to make political capital out of one of the most important developments in the British economy, along with many other developed economies, notably America’s. For the majority of people, wages are not keeping up with growth in the wider economy. In Britain this trend was clearly established, I read in this piece by Chris Giles in the FT, 2003/04; since 2010 (i.e. when the current government took over) wages have not even kept up with average prices. The benefits of growth are going to mainly to a privileged elite, while government interventions tend to be focused on the other end of the spectrum: the very poor. While the main economic issue is slow growth of pay, the main flashpoints are in taxes (especially for things like fuel) and energy costs.
There is, however, a snag. How on earth to actually fix it? This does not seem to bother Mr Miliband too much. His policy proposals are at best ineffectual, and at worst will actually make things worse. In the field of energy Britain is being overtaken by a crisis, as old nuclear and coal-fired power stations are shut down, and replaced by renewable energy sources that place wholly different strains on infrastructure. What the country badly needs is investment, in new capacity, and, especially, in distribution infrastructure (e.g. moves towards a “smart grid”). Just how Labour’s attack on the energy companies is going to solve this problem is, to say the least, unclear. And, if some of what I read is true, the pressure will break out into real problems in two or three years time. Labour’s living wage policies are no better thought through. Using government procurement to do heavy lifting in this area, along with many others, risks weighing it down with compliance costs – a process that tends to push out smaller businesses, as well as inviting scandal and fraud. The tax break looks totally unsustainable and an invitation to unscrupulous companies to manipulate the system.
The Conservatives are planning their counterattack. There is growing talk of 1992 (which this blog has long been banging on about), when a well-funded late campaign destroyed what had seemed to be an inevitable Labour victory. They will focus, probably, on frightening voters about the economy and taxes; their newspaper allies will concentrate on personal attacks on Mr Miliband to undermine his credibility as a prime minister. The Lib Dems are crafting a “centre ground” campaign, no doubt hoping to benefit from the damage the big parties will do to each other.
I have urged my readers not to underestimate the Conservatives. That advice still applies. But my current instinct is the Labour will weather the storm enough to form a minority government. That is when Mr Miliband’s problems will start. The country will face electricity shortages; clever schemes to enforce the living wage will unravel; living standards for the majority will stay under pressure; Labour activists and trade unionists will be on the government’s case to raise benefits and expenditure. The calamity that has struck Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems will visit Labour, for very similar reasons. I understand Labour’s strategy for winning in 2015; how on earth are they going to win in 2020?