07 November 2019
The good and the bad.
By John Watson
Binoculars out. Watch the opinion polls as they run the first furlong. Will Corbyn make up the deficit? Will the electorate buy the new Withdrawal Agreement? Or will they rally around Jo Swinson’s banner of Remain? Elections are uncertain territory and the process seems fraught with danger, wherever you are on the political spectrum. The electorate may not get it. Alternatively they may get a hidden weakness all too well. Until we hear the results on the night of 12th December, we will all live on tenterhooks.
Yet it is not just the vicissitudes of the ballot box which pose a threat to the public; it is also the actual process of electioneering. Never are the politicians under such pressure to make attractive promises and that means that some of those promises will be ill judged.
Take the general move away from austerity, as an example. Osborne, and subsequently Hammond, believed that balancing the budget was important and took a number of very unpopular steps to bring forward the date on which it happened. Now the Conservative party tells us that austerity is over, not because of a fundamental reanalysis of the figures but because continuing it would be electorally suicidal. The other parties, who have opposed it for longer, probably did so for electoral reasons too.
Whichever way you look the figures are alarming. Assuming that they avoid tax rises, merely maintaining recently-announced increases in public expenditure would, according to the think tank Resolution Foundation, leave the Conservatives spending 41.3% of GDP by 2023/24. That compares with the 42% level seen in the 1970s before Mrs Thatcher rolled back the state. Mr Javid has indicated his anxiety to spend more in order to meet public expectations. Well, it had better be a sizeable Brexit boost.
Labour would no doubt increase taxes but then it would spend even more, with Resolution Foundation predicting expenditure of 43.3% of GDP by 2023/24. It has already unveiled its plan for confiscation of 10% of companies (disguised, of course, as giving workers participation) but you can only carry on like that for so long before business confidence starts to collapse, leading to a cycle of lower GDP, declining public services and loans from the IMF.
I am no Frank O’Nomics so I have no real view as to how far we can afford to increase spending but basing this decision on popular feeling is not an obvious route to an economically correct result. The danger is of course that rather than proper costings we end up with some sort of auction: “my bung to the NHS is bigger than yours”, “I will spend more on insulating homes than you” or “I will put more policemen on the street”, all without proper costing. That sort of race will make even the most misleading statements made in the referendum campaign look modest indeed.
There is nothing new in politicians seeing their hands forced by the strength of public sentiment so that they act against their own better instincts. Walpole said of the public’s attitude to the declaration of the War of Jenkin’s ear against Spain in 1739: “They now ring the bells, but they will soon wring their hands”, yet he went to war none the less. But the triumph of the sometimes foolish public over sometimes wiser politicians is a feature of democracy and perhaps the opposite would be worse. Anyway, unless our politicians have improved in quality we will see some fairly foolish promises from everyone involved over the next few weeks.
But if it poses risks, an election campaign also affords opportunities. This scrutiny is intense and that means bright lights being shone into dark corners. Labour’s difficulty with anti-Semitism is one of those and, on reflection, that particular corner is rather darker than I had hitherto supposed. Given that Corbyn has a fine record as a constituency MP, I had thought that his failure to tackle anti-Semitism was simply down to poor management and have said that many times in this column. Those who read the Shaw Sheet correspondence column, however, will have seen that last week I was taken up on the point by one of our readers and there is clearly another possibility: that the reason Labour will not challenge racism in their ranks is that they need the votes of the racists both to secure the left’s control over the party and to support the party’s position in left-wing constituencies. If that is right, they are in the most terrible blind. Should they hold their noses and tolerate the racists, or should they expel the racists and undermine what must be a life’s work? One can see why they are in difficulties, but the glare of an election campaign may help them to take the firm action which, in their heart of hearts, they surely must know to be right.
But away from party policies, an election campaign gives another opportunity. It is one of those rare occasions when members of the public knock on the door of people whose aspirations, circumstances and political loyalties are wholly different from their own. In my experience it is seldom resented and I remember as a young Conservative campaigner having the door opened to me by someone who I recognised as a prominent member of the local Labour party. I began to apologise for the intrusion but she stopped me at once. “No, don’t apologise,” she said “a canvasser should knock on every door in the street. That is what you are expected to do and no one will mind you doing it.”
It was good advice and honestly given and, having looked knocked on many doors over the years, I have always found it refreshing to be reminded just how nice and sensible the British public, of all political loyalties, actually are. So if one were to look for one unalloyed good which will spring from this election it might be the opportunity it gives to a large number of people to go and knock on each other’s doors.