Socialising Risk

The principles which underpin Britain’s Welfare State are collectivist.  Society as a whole shoulders the burden of health costs so that no-one suffers by being unable to afford necessary treatment.  There is no reason why social care should be treated differently.  Everybody is at risk of needing social care, especially towards the end of their lives, and this can last for several years in some cases.

The Conservative Party manifesto for the 2017 general election contains proposals for covering the costs of social care which are individualist: the opposite of collectivist. Someone who needs a lot of care might pay most of the cost under these proposals – but those who die quickly wouldn’t have to pay tax to cover other people’s costs.

Ministers quite rightly point out that the total cost of social care is rising rapidly and it has to be funded somehow. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s government, the party has followed individualist policies – so paying for one’s own care seems more attractive than asking everyone else to pay towards it.

The problem this time, though, is that wealthy people (who tend to support the party) stand to lose the most. They applaud low taxes, but they don’t like the risk that they are exposed to.  The outcry has already resulted in a government U-turn and Theresa May has, in a trice, lost her reputation for strong stable leadership.

If the party were true to Thatcherite principles, it would have held fast despite all the criticism.  Wealthy people could buy insurance to reduce the risk of being unable to pass their wealth to their children.  Even if such insurance policies are not yet available, financial services companies will quickly spot an opportunity to develop them.

Such a proposal would be very similar to the American Republican preferences on health costs: keep taxes low and let people choose whether to insure themselves against the risks.

British voters are presented with a clear choice between the principles of the welfare state or the individualist mantra of everyone being responsible for their own financial situation.

Britain’s Presidential Election

Britain’s general election, scheduled for 8 June 2017, is being conducted on presidential lines.  Theresa May is offering “strong stable leadership” and the Conservative Party’s publicity material is emphasising her personality rather than policy issues.  There are problems with this approach:

  1. She is exploiting a deep human instinct, in turbulent times, to look for a strong leader. She is offering authoritarian populism in the style of Donald Trump.  She presents herself as a strong negotiator, being confrontational, anti-immigrant, and making promises which will be hard to fulfil.
  2. Her desire to sweep aside opposition, and to dispense with the checks and balances of parliamentary scrutiny, is fundamentally undemocratic.
  3. Strong leaders tend to become hubristic, not taking advice and failing to harness the strengths of a cabinet team.
  4. The opposition in Britain is currently weak and divided. It does not have the appearance of being ‘a government in waiting’.  This makes it unelectable in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.  The opposition might win some seats by co-operation in a ‘progressive alliance’, but there is a real danger that it will not be possible to hold the government to account and that this could result in harm to large parts of the population.

The signs are, from her early interactions with the EU, that she is being confrontational in Brexit negotiations.  This is precisely the wrong strategy.  Britain and the EU need to work together to solve the problems presented by the Brexit decision.  Co-operation would lead to a better outcome for all parties.

Resisting Authoritarian Populism

Donald Trump was elected on a wave of anti-establishment resentment, in what has been called ‘authoritarian populism’.  This phenomenon is also growing in Europe, so it is important to understand its origin and nature, its prevalence, how it might gain power and how it might be effectively opposed.

Stuart Hall used the term ‘authoritarian populism’ (AP) in the book The Politics of Thatcherism in 1983, but as Bob Jessop pointed out in a 1984 critique, there are separate phenomena within it.  AP is a useful term when applied to a desire for a strong leader with a forceful independent foreign policy and impatience with liberal social attitudes.  Hall swept up Thatcher’s neoliberalism in his use of the term, but more recent writers have not done so.   “Populist authoritarianism can best be explained as a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change”, according to Pippa Norris in an article published on 11 March 2016, and she highlighted a popular desire for “a strong leader unchecked by elections and Congress”.  Her article cited the rise of liberal attitudes – to matters of gender, cultural diversity and global governance – as having caused sections of the population to become anxious and resentful.

An anti-immigrant stance is a feature of AP.  In this respect it overlaps with the term ‘alt-right’ that Sasha Abramsky used in an article published on 29 October 2016, entitled Make America hate again,  when explaining Trump’s success and drawing attention to the attendant risk of fascism.   The terms ‘far right’ and ‘radical right’ are also used by different writers to highlight similar political phenomena.

A recent YouGov survey of the prevalence of AP in Europe was entitled Trump, Brexit, Front National, AfD: branches of the same tree.  It depicted AP as “a core set of attitudes: cynicism over human rights, anti-immigration, an anti-EU position in Britain, and favouring a strong emphasis on defence as part of wider foreign policy.”  It found that “in eight of the twelve countries, almost half of voters – if not more – hold authoritarian populist views”.  In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National – an AP party – already enjoys considerable support.  The survey’s finding, that 63% of French voters have AP attitudes, would suggest a potential for her to win the French presidency.  She is anti-EU and there is growing anti-EU sentiment in several other member countries, resulting from people’s concerns about the economy and high levels of immigration, so there is a significant threat to the EU’s existence.

Britain’s next General Election is currently expected to be in 2020 (if there were an earlier election, focused on the issue of Brexit, it is predicted that the Conservatives would win – but that would merely postpone political change).  At present the 48% of British voters who have AP attitudes are mostly in the Conservative Party and UKIP, but there are some in all the political parties.  UKIP is a political party which has entirely AP policies; its new leader, Paul Nuttall, has said that he wants to “replace the Labour Party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people”.   This could be a serious threat to Labour, which is already looking vulnerable.  UKIP came second in 125 constituencies in the last General Election; in the next election it might easily win many of those seats.  In any case, AP voters are likely to vote for UKIP or the Conservative Party.

People with progressive attitudes tend to oppose authoritarian populism.  They are represented by several political parties in England at present: Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green.  With a first-past-the-post political system in Britain, a divided opposition would win very few seats, but the Liberal Democrat win in the Richmond Park by-election gives an indicator of how this problem can be overcome (even though it was a very unusual situation).  The relevant lesson for other constituencies is that there was a pact: the Green Party stood aside so that the Liberal Democrats were able to overturn a substantial Conservative majority, campaigning on an anti-AP and pro-Europe platform (the Labour Party had very little support in this wealthy part of London).

A pact between the progressive parties in England, whereby only one of them fields a candidate in each constituency, might give them a chance in a General Election.  It is very difficult to launch a new political party in a first-past-the-post system (as UKIP discovered, having won only one seat despite having received 12.6% of the votes cast in the last election) so a pact has a better chance.   There would be problems in agreeing which party would be best placed to win a particular constituency, but if they all committed themselves to trying to introduce proportional representation they would be helping to ensure the future survival of them all (and UKIP might also support a move to proportional representation).

Why Britain should remain in the EU

We live in a connected world.  Britain will always be affected by what happens in Europe.  More than 40% of our trade goes to the EU.  We are geographically close, so we are affected by the same environmental issues, and Europe’s political and economic stability matter to us.

It makes sense for us to collaborate constructively with our neighbours: remaining in the EU, helping its rules to evolve, and strengthening it by being members.  Our EU membership was the result of a democratically-approved UK decision to co-operate with the EU on matters of common interest; it gives us influence on trading rules and other matters that would affect us even if there were a ‘Brexit’.  The British people have a democratic voice equal to that of the other members and our elected politicians share in EU decision-making.

Britain has tariff-free trading with EU members and it benefits from the EU’s bilateral trade deals with some other countries; otherwise it trades globally under (less advantageous) WTO tariff rules.  Other economies in the world are growing more rapidly, but the EU remains an important market.  Strong customer relationships have developed over 43 years of membership.  Most economists believe that leaving the EU would damage the UK economy.  New negotiations would be needed with the EU and all its trading partners.  The economy of the EU, our biggest customer, would suffer from a smaller market and the loss of British influence if we were no longer a member.

European citizens are granted rights of free movement between member countries, as part of the single market; over half of Britain’s immigrants now come from Europe.  Existing EU law prevents such migrants from burdening their host’s social security system, and Britain’s EU reform deal clarifies how that would work in practice, but immigration is problematic.  It has increased the UK population, giving some people cause for concern, but it has brought overall economic benefits.

Politicians should focus on fixing any pressures on housing and public services instead of leaving the EU and closing our borders.  Immigration should not be subject to arbitrary national targets.  It should be managed regionally, according to the availability of work and accommodation.  For example, the BBC reported that Sports Direct was allowed to expand in the Derbyshire town of Shirebrook without upgrading housing and public services; then there were problems when a flood of immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe. The company should have been denied planning permission, or the town’s infrastructure should have been upgraded. The problem in this case was not EU immigration but local political failure – as reported by Chad.

There are many in the EU who want it to develop into a superstate, but the UK can remain separate from that.  We have the best of both worlds.  We co-operate with the other members on free trade, collaborative policing and joint regulation of the environment, but we avoid the loss of political and financial independence that comes with membership of the Eurozone’s single currency.

EU members are committed to standards of human rights that stretch beyond the EU and are enforced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  This legal framework protects all Europeans from government malpractice; it helped the Hillsborough families to expose a police cover-up and obtain justice, for example, and it has upheld press freedom, prevented torture etc.  The UK and other governments established these rights to prevent the fascist oppression of minorities, such as that which led up to the Second World War. A recent resurgence of far-right politics in Europe indicates that vigilance must continue.

As a collective voice, the EU can wield considerable soft power; it has more diplomatic legitimacy than its separate countries with their colonial pasts.  In international affairs, Britain’s most useful role is to support the EU’s collective influence to promote stability.  Britain would not contribute to a European army, though, to avoid undermining NATO; as EU members, we would veto it, as the government has stated.

A vote to leave the EU would increase the power of a small group within Britain’s political establishment: the leaders of the Brexit campaign, who are misleading the public.  A vote to leave is to choose to bury our heads in the sand, in the vain hope that we can isolate ourselves from Europe; it would lead to political, cultural and economic shrinkage.  A vote to remain is to choose to co-operate with our neighbours to build a better future for the whole continent.

Lies, statistics and self-interest

Some politicians routinely use lies, misleading statistics and exaggeration to make arguments that suit their cause.  The campaign leading up to the 2016 British referendum, on whether or not to leave the EU (a so-called ‘Brexit’), is providing many examples; as AOL reported, “Both sides in the Brexit battle are playing fast and loose with the truth”.

Lies were told.  The Vote Leave campaign’s battle bus was emblazoned with the eye-catching claim that “We send the EU £350 million a week”; its statement for the 2016 EU Referendum Voting Guide (published by the Electoral Commission) made the same claim four times in fewer than 400 words.   That claim is an exaggeration, amounting to a lie – as explained by FullFact.org, which revealed that “the UK actually pays just under £250 million a week” (less than 1% of its GDP).  And the EU gives some of that money back in grants, so the net cash cost of the EU was £163 million a week in 2015.

Among the many smaller lies and misleading statements, Boris Johnson, for example, said that it was “absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us how powerful our vacuum cleaners have got to be, what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing”.  Jon Henley, in The Guardian, fact-checked Johnson’s statements.  The claim about bananas was a lie; the EU does not control their shape; it has standardised the classification of shapes on product labels, so that retailers know what they are buying from the producers.  There is a plan to limit the power of vacuum cleaners, but Johnson failed to explain that “the UK government actively supported the measures and, like every member state, could have blocked them if it wanted to”; his implication that the EU was imposing such measures on the UK was misleading (but wasn’t strictly a lie); he just wanted to arouse indignation in his audience (and he didn’t bother to explain that the reason for the measure was the likely benefit to the environment).

Statistics almost always contain assumptions and interpretations, and they can be selectively quoted.  A UCL study, The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, was quoted by the pro-EU Guardian, Independent and Financial Times to say that EU migrants contribute £20bn to Britain – but the anti-EU Telegraph and Mail used a different part of the study, in a way that its authors described as “misleading”, to report that migrants as a whole had cost the economy £118bn.  The organisation Migration Watch UK challenged some of the UCL study’s assumptions to produce its own report, which was used by the Sun newspaper to claim in its headline on 16 May 2016 that “EU Migration costs Britain £3m every day, shock report warns”.

The future is unforeseeable, so forecasts are always conjectures.  Nonetheless, the pro-EU Britain Stronger in Europe campaign saw fit to publish a leaflet saying, among other claims, that the UK economy “would be hit to the tune of £4,300 a year for each UK household” (quoting one of the figures from an official Treasury Report).  It described its claims as “the facts from independent experts”, but in no sense of the word can such projections be described as facts.

Exaggeration has also featured strongly in the campaign.  Boris Johnson (repeating a similar claim made earlier by Dominic Cummings) grossly exaggerated when he said that “The European Union is pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate”.   The EU carries out almost none of the functions associated with a State; its job is only to maintain collective rules on trade, joint policing and the environment; its total spending, covering all member States, is less than one sixth of what the UK government spends.  Nor is it a dictatorship: it is under the collective democratic control of the EU’s members; British Ministers, Prime Ministers and elected MEPs have agreed to its rules and to the UK’s membership contribution; and Britain has a right of veto on some decisions.

The many conflicting details, proffered as ‘facts’ by both sides, are misleading and confusing.  It is more honest and more understandable to present a high-level vision when making an argument; supporting statements from influential individuals and organisations should be presented as opinions, not facts.  The public can then make up its own mind, based upon which vision it prefers and which supporting statements it trusts.  The lies told by the Leave campaign undermine the trustworthiness of those who are leading it.  Its slogan, “Vote Leave, take back control”, is a cause for concern – given that its leaders want that “control” to be given to those who are deliberately misleading the public.

EU Accountability

Michael Gove emotively argued that the EU lacks democratic accountability and that Britain should therefore leave it: a ‘Brexit’.  This argument would only be valid if the EU were in some way governing Britain, but the reality is that Britain and other members have only agreed to allocate some aspects of governance to the EU.  For example, the EU has no jurisdiction over most aspects of tax, government spending or going to war.  It affects only those aspects of British governance which have an impact on other European countries.  Some ambitious and over-confident politicians, though, find it irksome to yield to any external regulation.  They would prefer to negotiate multiple bilateral agreements, despite the time and cost of doing this with every country in the world.

If an agreement is negotiated between several countries, the accountability for it is shared.  No single country’s electorate can dismiss the appointed administrators, or reverse collective decisions, but all the countries involved have oversight of the decision-making process.  The EU provides a collective framework for regulating trade within a large and diverse geographical area, with some implications for human rights and the environment.  Multiple regulations are required, springing largely from the desire for a single market.

The Great Depression in the 1930s was largely caused by protectionism: countries put up trade barriers against each other and thereby restricted economic growth for all of them.  That experience illustrated the benefit of collectively removing the barriers to trade, requiring trading partners to agree standards and regulation.  Europe’s diverse cultures and tendencies towards conflict present a very difficult arena in which to take collective decisions but the benefits of free trade are well-known.  Britain, with its history of being a trading nation, eventually joined the Common Market to reap those benefits and its economy improved dramatically as a result.

Free trade can, if unregulated, adversely affect workers.  It is possible to have a race to the bottom: for companies to try to cut costs by exploiting people.  Workers want to be protected but commercial companies chafe against the resulting regulations.  It doesn’t help the workers if a company is driven out of business, but it can be too easy for companies to exploit people’s need for work and their reluctance to move far away from their family and friends.  Those politicians whose parties receive large company donations have a conflict of interest in such matters.

The free movement of labour within the single market is an essential safety valve for both employers and workers.  Successful companies need more workers, who may not be available locally.  Some workers want to be able to move if they have inadequate employment prospects where they live.  Given that technical change is happening increasingly rapidly, and that globalisation is resulting in some industries becoming uncompetitive, employment prospects are constantly shifting; the free movement of labour within the EU is therefore essential and there is no reason why its members would agree to Britain having an exemption.

Freedom of movement requires agreements on some aspects of human rights across Europe: people would be effectively prevented from moving if they had inadequate socio-economic rights in the destination country.  The overall scope of European Human Rights is, however, much wider and is not directly linked to EU membership.  Russia, for example, has signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights and submits to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights; those rights were agreed after the Second World War, as a safety mechanism against fascism, to prevent governments from oppressing minorities.

The environment also needs some collective regulation within Europe to make the single market work properly.  Without regulation, companies could start a race to the bottom on environmental standards in order to compete with each other.  A company might save money by dumping effluent into a nearby stream, for example; that would adversely affect the people living nearby, or in adjoining countries, whilst the company concerned would undercut the costs of more tightly-regulated competitors.

Some politicians and some companies want to have the benefits of free trade with Europe without submitting themselves to the associated collective regulation.  This is unrealistic.  Certainly, trade would continue if Britain leaves the EU – but not on such favourable terms.  If, like Norway, Britain agreed to the regulations without participating in defining them, it would then pay a slightly reduced subscription.  The various trading options have been published.

Michael Gove’s characterisation of the EU, as democratically unaccountable, is misleading; its accountability is not solely to the British electorate because it is dealing with matters which have to be collectively decided.  It only deals with matters that affect more than one country.  Britain has as much control over the EU as any other member, and could play a leading role if it chose to be a good team player rather than behaving like a spoilt child.

Populism

Widespread public discontent is seen as an opportunity by populist politicians; they can amplify people’s concerns and promise change as a means of gaining support (and the power that goes with it in democracies).  Dissatisfied people can be tempted to follow anyone who offers change, but the tragedy of hopeful voters is that they can be led in directions that seriously damage their future prospects.  There is a real risk of this happening in both Britain and America this year.

In Britain, the EU referendum has allowed some politicians to capitalise on public concerns about immigration and low wages.  Those who advocate Britain leaving the EU, a ‘Brexit’, are offering a utopian vision of a proudly independent Britain somehow doing better than it does now.  The government, though, has described the four possible ways for Britain to trade with the EU if it were no longer a member, showing how each is inferior to current arrangements.  Iain Duncan Smith has airily dismissed this as a “dodgy dossier”; he asserted that Britain would develop new trade relationships that would transcend all existing ones.  He didn’t say how this could be done.

The British people need to be reminded how well they have done since they joined the EU.  Rather than running away, Britain should try to work more closely with its European neighbours for their mutual advantage.

In America, where there is public concern about jobs, Mexican immigration and Islamic terrorism, Donald Trump has become very popular; he advocates economic protectionism, which is the disastrous policy that led to the Great Depression in the 1930s; he has said that he would build a wall to keep out Mexicans, which sends a nasty message to anyone of Hispanic descent; and he is mobilising public opinion against all Muslims (not just ISIS), so he risks stirring up communal violence with America’s Muslim population.  Hopefully he would be soundly beaten when it comes to the presidential election, but that would not be the end of America’s problem.  If large swathes of the population are disaffected, other politicians may try to emulate his populist tactics and a hostile Congress could prevent the next President from doing anything constructive.

Populist politicians may truly believe that merely by seizing power they can benefit the people.  A Brexit, though, would do irreversible damage to Britain’s prospects and the American people would not be well served by another four years of political stalemate.

Continued Political Cynicism

The British government is continuing to pursue economic policies which benefit the old and wealthy whilst inflicting severe cuts on young working families, yet it is trumpeting a narrative which tries to persuade working people that it is on their side.  This is flagrantly dishonest.  The following chart shows how a young working couple might experience a drop in net income in the next few years:

Embedded image permalinkThis fall in income is the result of what was described in the Economist as

“a budget whose slick politics hid economics that were often wrong and sometimes dangerous. The flagship substitution of tax credits for wage floors is a bad mistake; cutting benefits to the very poor while reducing inheritance tax for the wealthy is indefensible.”

George Osborne’s speech at the Conservative Party conference on 5 October 2015 has confirmed his intention to continue with these policies, pursuing a path which has reflected a political cynicism that has been evident ever since he took the job of Chancellor in May 2010.

When he first took office, he skilfully persuaded the British people that the previous Labour government had been responsible for the financial crisis in 2008 – but its real cause was reckless behaviour by banks and financial institutions, especially in America, leading to a credit crisis when the housing bubble finally burst.  He then persuaded everyone that austerity was a necessary medicine to correct the fiscal deficit, which was less than 1% at the time of the crash.  His policy of cutting government spending worsened the depression caused by the credit crisis, as unemployment increased and the welfare budget predictably ballooned.  He succeeded in increasing the fiscal deficit at the same time as trumpeting policies which he said would reduce it.  His measures were criticised by prominent economists, and the economic recovery in Britain was much slower than in America, but the British public believed (wrongly) that cuts were necessary – and that belief enabled his party to emerge triumphant in the 2015 General Election.

If the public were better educated, people would be able to see his cynicism for what it is: a focus on winning elections rather than benefiting the population as a whole.  He has ensured that the cuts fall on young working people whilst protecting wealthy pensioners.  And pensions are the largest item in the welfare budget.

It is perhaps hopelessly idealistic to expect wealthy pensioners to vote against a government which so blatantly protects their interests at the expense of the next generation, yet if those with a social conscience were to join with the numerous victims of his economic policies they might yet demonstrate that a bad government can be replaced in a democracy.

The UK Electoral System

Last night’s debate between Scottish political leaders revived interest in the question of which electoral system would best serve the interests of the British people; this will doubtless be discussed again after the General Election.

The case for retaining the first-past-the-post electoral system was clearly articulated by the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, who pointed out that all the MPs elected in Scotland should be representing Scotland’s interests irrespective of what party they belong to – even if some of them belonged to the Monster Raving Loony Party.  Although that point was intended to reassure listeners that nothing is wrong with the present electoral system, it ignores one of its major problems: if one party has an overall majority, as the Conservatives had in the Thatcher years for example, Scotland only has influence if there are sufficient Scottish MPs in the winning party to persuade the UK government to take Scotland’s needs into account.  Those Scottish MPs would also have to be brave enough to disagree with their party leader if necessary, even though dissent might limit their career prospects.  A dominant party in a UK government, whether Labour or Conservative, can safely ignore Scottish interests.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, made another telling point: people are forced to vote tactically in a first-past-the-post system if they support one of the smaller parties; they recognise that simply to vote for their preferred party would result in a wasted vote so they vote for whichever of the other parties they least dislike.  Their interests would not be represented through the electoral system.

Unsurprisingly, UKIP’s Nigel Farage agrees.  Although he was not part of last night’s debate on Scotland, he made the point when interviewed by Andrew Marr yesterday.  Suppressing UKIP by retaining a first-past-the-post system is less satisfactory than allowing it to be proportionally represented; it is better to prevail by finding the winning argument than by suppressing proper representation.  Several Conservative MPs might join UKIP if they felt that there was a realistic chance of them being elected.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon argued for proportional representation, even though she acknowledged that it might give her fewer seats according to the current opinion polls.  She described her own experience of how a government can work if it has no overall majority: it has to adapt its policies on an issue-by-issue basis to reach a satisfactory compromise.  She pointed out, for example, that if necessary she would vote against cuts in disability benefits even if that meant delaying the agreement of a UK national budget.  This gave the impression, as was doubtless intended, that Scottish voters who vote for the SNP would enable it to influence a future Labour government – not necessarily in a formal coalition which, we are told, would not be offered anyway.  Many Scots now feel able to vote for the SNP without the risk of leaving the UK.

Negotiation on individual issues would enable disparate voices to be heard.  It is in the Scottish interest not to have one party with a strong overall majority to form a UK government, and a similar logic applies to other regional parties.  Proportional representation, and the resulting need for negotiation between parties, would reduce the risk of having a UK government which doesn’t listen to disparate views and it would eliminate the need for tactical voting.  There would be much less need for the Scots to leave the UK if it had such a system.

There are three risks with proportional representation: that it might be difficult to reach any agreement on important issues, that individual MPs would be less accountable to their constituents, and that small parties might end up with disproportionate influence (as has been the case in Israel, for example).  These problems can be largely solved by tailoring the design of the system, for example with the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system favoured by the Electoral Reform Society (although “ballot papers can get rather big and confusing”).  In contrast, the current first-past-the-post system can make a single party too powerful, allows it to make bad decisions on the whim of a strong leader, and enables it to ignore large areas of the country.

Suitably-designed devolution might meet Scotland’s needs, but many other people are effectively silenced by living in a constituency which is dominated by one party; recent low turn-outs at General Elections may be more due to frustration and disenfranchisement than apathy.  The striking increase in support for small political parties reveals a healthy interest in British politics.  It is time to readdress the question of what would be the best electoral system for the UK, as well as finding a robust form of devolution.

Political Cynicism

The New Statesman this week noted that the major political parties are in a “conspiracy of silence”: failing to describe the impact of their proposed policies.  Cynical politicians know that many people will vote without clearly understanding what is on offer.  They also know that voters have short memories and that pre-election promises can be broken without apparent damage to their parties.  Democracy, though, suffers as people become disillusioned with politics and many, if they vote at all, use their votes to protest – for example by voting for UKIP.

George Osborne’s Autumn Statement offered to cut taxes, whilst nevertheless promising to close the deficit.  That is dishonest unless he explains where the corresponding cuts in expenditure would fall.  Neither has Ed Balls clearly described what alternative he could offer.  Detailed election manifestoes need to be available very soon, so that the Office for Budget Responsibility can cost them before May 2015.

Politicians are clearly nervous about going into an election campaign with promises of more austerity, but there are alternatives to further cuts:

Several economists, including the IMF’s chief economist and Oxford’s Simon Wren-Lewis, have pointed out that austerity programs increase deficits and reduce economic growth.

Others have pointed out the benefits of ‘middle-out economics’: the economy would grow faster, and the deficit would shrink more quickly, if people on lower incomes were to earn more.  Tax receipts would be higher, benefit payments would be lower and the aggregate demand in the economy would be higher.

And wealthy pensioners could afford to pay more, as pointed out by The Economist: “Britain’s fiscal problems are partly the result of over-generous spending on the old. They should pay off some of the debts instead of passing them all on to the young.”

The creation of the OBR was potentially of great benefit to British democracy.  Politicians have a duty to voters to paint a clear picture of the future they are offering before the election, and that includes allowing the OBR to project the economic impact of each election manifesto.  It would be very cynical to go into next May’s election without being honest with the public.