Issue 226: 2019 12 05: The Public

06 December 2019

The Public

Thick as pigshit?

By John Watson

In Roman times the trick to winning elections was the provision of bread and circuses.  In the 18th century the best course was to treat your supporters to beer and sandwiches at a local hostelry.  Now you have to make a long list of promises ignoring whether they are realistic or not.

What a shambles.  According to that economic fact-checker-in-chief, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Conservatives continue to “pretend that tax rises will never be needed to secure decent public services” and have followed through with a pledge not to increase income tax, national insurance or VAT, even though such an increase may be necessary to fuel their plans.  Labour, of course, are in the same boat with their suggestion that the changes they wish to make will only result in tax rises for the top 5%.  “Clearly not the case,” says the IFS supremo Paul Johnson.

So with lies to the right of us and lies to the left of us, if Tennyson will excuse me, how on earth do we make a decision?  How can we form a vision of what will happen when the inconsistencies actually emerge?  Will the new government cut back on the goodies it has offered (as Mr Johnson has already done on his previous proposal to reduce the corporation tax rate from 19% to 17%) or will they steam merrily over the cliff, borrowing like bandits, until we have to take loans from the IMF merely to keep the lights on?  We don’t know, do we, whatever their political colour?  And what is more, neither do they.

The trouble is that it is all so uncertain.  All party leaders operate on the optimistic assumption that one way or another they will solve Brexit and that, once a decision is made to either stay in the EU or to leave on the basis of the excellent deal which they will secure, growth will return, allowing them to increase their borrowings.  Well, it is charming enough but to accept it as a sensibly reliable foundation for government, the public would have to be so stupid that describing them as “thick as pigshit” would be a slur on slurry.  And the public are nothing of the sort.  Why then these absurd auctions of meaningless promises?

“I will commit to zero carbon by 2045 whereas you will only commit to zero carbon by 2050”.  That is of course from the Lib Dems and the SNP, with the Greens down to 2030.  The Tories have promised 2050 while Labour  originally looked to 2030 before the unions talked them into just saying that a path would be set towards zero emissions by that date.  What do all these dates mean?  Very little.  The actual date will depend upon the advance of technology, the ingenuity of politicians and academics, the level of public support for carbon reduction and the extent to which successive governments can reduce emissions without jeopardising their majorities.  All of these are unpredictable and a more honest approach would be to say that the environment would be the centre of their policies and that they will go as fast as they possibly can and are putting top people in charge of it.  A pledge from the Conservatives to give the environment portfolio to Michael Gove would be worth more than any amount of muttering about 2050. Labour could do the same by announcing that they will give the portfolio to Kier Starmer.

Why, then, don’t they just do this and also discuss the mechanisms through which Climate Change Ministers, the Climate Change Committee and any People’s Forum would keep the government honest?  Then we voters could look at those involved and how they are to cooperate and make a sensible judgement.  That would be far more sensible than relying on numbers drawn out of the air.  Extinction Rebellion’s keenness that a climate emergency should be declared has a point.  The central issue is one of commitment, and gesture politics can be used to reinforce that.

But in the minds of our political strategists that will not do.  They know that the public do not trust the parties and fear that they will feed that distrust if commitments don’t have numbers behind them.  Better have figures, even if plucked from the air, then leave it at statements of intent.

And thus a destructive cycle has been created.  The politicians believe that the public distrust them and, in an attempt to sound convincing, become more and more specific in their promises.  Circumstances intervene and the highly specific promises are derailed.  Oh dear, the only way to get some trust back is to be more specific yet.

When he was asked what was the most difficult thing about the job of PM, Harold Macmillan famously replied “events, dear boy, events” and he was making an important point.  Targets etc may be all very well as a sign of intention but the art of governing is that of dealing in the real world.  Sometimes events make policy objectives harder to achieve; sometimes they make them easier.  The game is to cope with the first and to take advantage of the second, and the capacity to do this does not depend upon targets plucked out of the air but rather on the management skill and political drive of individuals.

It is with this in mind that we should look at the Panglossian objectives in all the parties’ manifestos. Read any of them literally and reflect on what a wonderful world it would be if it all went exactly to plan.  But it won’t, will it?  The real question is who has the management skills and drive to steer the ship of state through the problems which do and will beset us.  Is it the Conservatives?  Is it Labour?  Is it the Liberal Democrats?  Judge the men and women and their overall policy objectives.  Don’t take the targets seriously.



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