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3 June 2017

The 2017 General Election

Tag(s): Politics & Economics
 In November 2014 we knew with certainty that the next General Election was to take place on 7th May, 2015. This was because Parliament had so decreed in the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011. Only a vote of no confidence or a two thirds majority in the House of Commons could change this and that was not going to happen. I therefore decided to write a monthly blog in the six months running up to the election on the six subjects I thought were the most important in voters’ minds: the NHS[i], immigration[ii], education[iii], Europe[iv], the economy[v] and the party leadership[vi]. I spent some considerable time researching these and produced about 12,000 words. I tried to conceal my own prejudices though no doubt failed in this. My overall conclusion on most issues was that you had to decide who was telling the fewest number of lies. On the question of leadership there were clear differences and it was probably crucial in the final result.  If you want to re-read these I have referenced them all at the end of this blog.

In November 2016 we knew with certainty that the next General Election was to take place in May 2020. This was because Parliament had so decreed in the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011. Only a vote of no confidence or a two thirds majority in the House of Commons could change this and that was not going to happen. We also knew this because the Prime Minister told us so on several occasions. Then in April 2017 the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Theresa May, changed her mind and announced that a General Election would take place on 8th June, 2017. I was surprised to say the least, not least because I wasn’t sure that she would obtain the two thirds majority to overrule the Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011. She got a huge majority, correctly judging that given a chance to go to the country the Opposition would have to accede or be accused of running scared.

The Prime Minister’s principal, indeed only, reason given for this change of mind was that she needed to have a clear majority behind her in her negotiations over Brexit. I am sure that her 20+ point advantage in the polls was also in her thinking but naturally she did not acknowledge this. Now with just a few days to go that 20+ point lead is down to single figures and I doubt if Mrs May would have called an election if that had been her lead back in distant April. Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics and that has been demonstrated week after week in this Election.

Mrs May has tried to focus the campaign on one central issue. We must all accept the decision of the British people to leave the European Union, including those like herself who voted to remain, as I think did all the party leaders, except, of course, UKIP's. Therefore it is vital that we have the right leadership in place to negotiate the best possible deal. Only a Conservative government led by Theresa May provides the strong and stable leadership required.

There are several problems with this strategy. The first is that it opens the leader up to the most forensic scrutiny as everything is centred on her. The second is that it positions the election as more Presidential than Representative. We live in a Representative democracy not a Presidential one and so we don’t actually vote for the leader, her name is not on the ballot paper. We vote for the local candidate we most want to represent our constituency. And the third is that a General Election is General. A Prime Minister cannot decide that there is only one issue that counts. All issues that are important to people come back on the table and get examined and debated again.

There is another problem with the timing. I always thought the Fixed Term Parliament Act was unwise and not well suited to our tradition and system of politics. It was brought in by a Coalition Government to bind the two parties to each other and make sure that one did not break ranks.  But in the 2015-20 Parliament the Conservatives were governing alone and so I can see that if they judge that it is time to seek a fresh mandate then that is fine. However, they need to be prepared and it is clear that they, and indeed the opposition, are not prepared. The manifestos have been rushed out and are ill thought through. All of them are deeply flawed in policy terms, have not been properly costed and in many cases are simply designed to cause trouble. The Green Party, to pick on one, has no chance of more than one or two MPs and so can offer a wish list that might sound attractive to inexperienced first time voters but would sink the economy in a few months.

But the major parties should be more serious than this. They should always be developing policy and if it is not final I see no reason why a manifesto could not list areas where green papers will be brought forward in the future. In the early part of the 20th century a major party manifesto might list eight major policy commitments. Now there are hundreds and most of them have not been thought through properly at all.

The media bear a huge responsibility in this. Their coverage is constant but constantly banal. Their questioning seems only designed to find fault, prove inconsistency or seek the impossible. If Mrs May is right that the most important issue is Brexit and she needs a mandate to negotiate the best deal then asking  her what that deal looks like will not get an answer because she will not negotiate in public or through the media.

The media clamour for so-called debates is even more dangerous. It flies in the face of what I said about our style of democracy, it is not Presidential but the media seek to make it so. The idea that the public can judge who is the best person to lead this country based on 20 minutes of being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman is absurd. The only people who should be picking our leaders are the members of the parties who work with them and know them well.

So briefly what has changed in just two years?

The NHS. The issues are broadly the same. The public want a service to be free at the point of use but are not willing to pay the taxes necessary. They are willing to ask the so-called rich to pay for everything but a) the rich already pay a huge share of tax[vii], and b) if asked to pay more will either leave the country or find ways to avoid it. Tax revenue goes up not down if tax rates are reduced. Conclusion, no party is offering a solution to meet increasing demand.

Immigration. In theory Brexit does mean a change in that once we leave the Single Market we would be free to restrict EU immigration (and the EU would be free to restrict UK emigration to the EU). However we have been in theory free to restrict non-EU immigration for a long time and that is also very high. The dilemma is that the more successful our economy is the greater net immigration will be. If you want to restrict immigration your best bet is to vote Labour as their policies will wreck the economy and the jobs won’t be there to attract overseas workers.

Education. Perhaps not so important this time round though it should always be important. A purist would not want to start from here because the best systems in the world like in Finland are universal systems. However, most of the best schools in this country are private. If you want to close them all down no doubt in a couple of hundred years you might get somewhere but for the next hundred years you would take this country back to the dark ages. It was private institutions and individuals, privately funded, that set the standard in this country. It took the state a long time to try to catch up. The Labour idea of charging VAT on private education will not only damage private education but also public education as many parents who are not wealthy but make sacrifices to give their children the best possible education  will be forced to pull them out and throw them on the state system which does not have the resources to cope now.

Europe. The central issue for Mrs May and indeed it is certainly one of the most important. If she only gets a small majority, say 20 seats instead of 12, her gamble will not have worked. Other parties like the LibDems and the Scottish Separatists are putting forward the most ridiculous arguments. The LibDems seem not to have accepted the democratic decision of the British people. At least Labour has done that. As for the Separatists if they ever get their wish they will be like Greece without the sunshine. Just imagine if they had been independent back in 2008 when their two major banks, Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland, needed to be bailed out by the taxpayer. The word bankrupt does not do justice to the position that Scotland would have been in.

Economy. It is important but most discussion seems to be about how we pay more and more for public services but not how we create the wealth to do that. Most politicians use the word ‘invest’ when they mean ‘spend’. The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell seems to think that issuing bonds is not debt! The Shadow Home Secretary seems to think she can hire 10,000 more policemen at a salary of £8,000 pa and without any money for recruitment, training or equipment.

Several parties want to increase income tax on the ‘rich’. John McDonnell seems to think that someone earning £80,000 is ‘rich’. He may be or he may have huge debts and other liabilities. Income does not equate to wealth.  What is not generally understood is that the marginal rate of tax shoots up at £100,000 pa because the personal allowance is withdrawn. So from £100,000 to £123,000 pa it becomes 60%. If we add national Insurance which is to all intents and purposes the same as income tax it can go as high as 69%. John McDonnell wants to add another 5% to that so it would be 74%, close to President Hollande’s 75% which drove thousands out of France, mainly to the UK!

Many people, surgeons for example, see £100,000 as the maximum they wish to earn.  People I know manage their affairs to get as close to £100,000 as possible but not go over and find that deductions for an honest day’s pay are so great as to put them almost at zero income when other costs are taken into account.

Leadership. Those who like TV debates should note that the three protagonists in 2010, Messrs. Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all gone. The three leaders from 2015, Messrs. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg have all gone. If the decision really is about who we want to have as our Prime Minister then it is impossible to see anyone but Theresa May in No 10. Her approval ratings are unusually high while Jeremy Corbyn’s are unusually low. Theresa May has held high office since 2010 and before that was for many years in senior roles in her party including an interesting spell as Chairman. Jeremy Corbyn has held no office at all before taking over the leadership of the party in 2015. He has faced many resignations from his front bench and most of the moderate, experienced Labour politicians like Alan Johnson, Andy Burnham or Tristram Hunt have left Parliament.

But the variables in this election are numerous. Just this week YouGov published a poll based on a sample of 50,000 which showed the Conservatives could win anything from 275 to 320 seats. It’s not clear how useful such a poll is when its conclusion is so imprecise. But I think it shows that even 50,000, which seems a huge sample compared with the normal 2,000, is not large enough to cover such granularity when the parties are more diverse, the regional differences are massive and many people we know from the last election change their mind on one piece of information they receive on Twitter. As always Winston Churchill had it right. He once said “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. 

[i] The Health of the National Health Service, 15th November,2014
[iii] Education, Education, Education 17th January, 2015
[iv] The Question of Europe  21st February, 2015
[v] It’s the Economy Stupid  21st March, 2015
[vi] Political Leadership, 25th April, 2017
[vii] 60% of income tax is paid by the top 10% of earners

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