May 6, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
The problem for me is that I know too much. It is not a matter of conceit, but a fact that as an economics and politics teacher I have, for instance, read every word of the manifestos, thought about the strengths and weaknesses of each policy, understood the ideological background and context of each of the main parties’ approaches to politics, and the possible economic consequences of their programmes. This means that I can see reasons to vote and not to vote for either party. I have explained in my previous blog why my choice is between Labour and Conservative, and I have explained that neither of the candidates give me any reason to vote for or against them. So here is my go at explaining the mind of this floating voter. Ultimately, it really is down to head versus heart, and I really may not be able to decide until I am alone in that polling booth, in which case I will have to go with my gut.
At the centre of all this are two things you should know about me personally.
Firstly, I am lucky enough to be in a position where neither party can actually make much of a difference to my life, and in particular my pocket. I am unlikely ever to be in the top rate of tax, and the mansion tax is far off. I do not own a business, although as a teacher I will happily argue with anyone that I create wealth. I do use the NHS, but rarely, and whilst my children are in state education right now, that may not be the case in the near future. I was lucky enough to be born to extremely clever and hardworking parents who put me into one of the best schools in the country and so I had all the opportunities a citizen can ask for and live comfortably. My point is that I will not be answering the question of who I will vote for in terms of what is best for me or my pocket, because both parties will have marginal impact. So my choice is about which type of country I want in the long term.
Secondly, when I talk about the long term I am thinking about my children. They mean more to me than anything else in life and at 7 and 5 years’ old they have their whole life ahead of them. My wife and I have been talking about this a lot recently, and both of us are concerned about leaving our children, and their children, a massive debt to pay off. The idea that, purely to gain the votes of the present generation of voters, the political parties should kick tough decisions into the long grass, so that our children will be saddled with the consequences, is, for me, a problem with our current democratic system. The Tories WILL get the deficit down to zero quickest, and WILL therefore start to pay off the debt quicker. BUT, I also think about the type of country my children will grow up to live in. Do I want it to be a peaceful, kind country where people cooperate and where we go out to work in jobs that provide us with dignity and a decent wage? Well, that is far less likely to happen under the Tories. I want my children to emerge into a country where people and their children aren’t left to rot in poverty just because someone made a wrong decision somewhere. I believe the Labour party’s values chime more vigorously with that.
So, in the poll booth, it comes down to this. On the one hand I believe that the Tories should be allowed to finish the job of clearing the deficit as they have proved they can do it, they have proved they can take unpopular decisions (note, unpopular doesn’t automatically mean wrong) and the economic fundamentals (sustainable growth, zero inflation, falling unemployment) give them a solid base to work from. My head therefore says Conservatives.
But on the other hand I believe that there are different ways to clear the deficit. At the moment, given that benefit fraud is in the low billions, and tax avoidance is in the tens of billions, we should be concentrating more on the latter than the former. I also believe it is all very well saying that you can cut the welfare bill by £12bn by having conditions in which the economy can create another 2 million jobs, but if those jobs are so low paid, and so lacking in security and dignity that no person except the desperate would take them, is that really how we want to reward people who are “doing the right thing”?
That said, I worry about the effect of the policies Labour have come up with to try to reshape how capitalism works. I believe the energy price freeze could freeze investment in increased capacity and renewables, I believe going too far on zero hour contracts could make it impossible for some companies with seasonal demand to run, I believe that capping profits for private sector providers of some NHS procedures could lengthen waiting lists, and I believe lowering tuition fees could lower the quality and quantity of university places. I say ‘could’ for a reason. It really IS only COULD, as there are plenty of other possible outcomes. On the other hand, if you want me to choose between the bedroom tax and the mansion tax as a way to get the deficit down whilst still funding public services, I am going for the latter. As a matter of values, not economics.
I am persuaded by the Conservative argument that they are more likely to secure our country’s financial future, but I am persuaded by Labour’s argument that they are more likely to secure our country’s social future. The question is, with the deficit as it is currently, do Labour have enough leeway with the finances to secure the country’s social future, or should we allow the Conservatives one more term to put us into that position then hand the reins to Labour?
While we’re at it, I am a bit fed up of Labour’s use and abuse of the term ‘working’ people. They use it to make the point that they will stop the country working for the benefit of the rich and make it work to the benefit of working people. Does that mean people who are rich aren’t working people? Isn’t it so that many people who are rich are so because they worked so hard? Yes, there are some who inherited their money. There are some who are overpaid for the social usefulness of what they do – but many people are rich because they worked themselves to the bone and made sacrifices at some point.
BUT, that is where I also have to say that I am fed up of the Conservatives’ over use of ‘wealth creator’. Yes, if you start a business, you can create jobs. If you expand a business’s output you can create wealth. But that ignores some fundamental changes that have been going on since the late 1970s. First of all, many of the jobs created have been outsourced and some of the tasks have been given to capital (technology and machinery), so they don’t create as many jobs as they might like to state. But even when jobs are created, they are not creating wealth, given how low paid and insecure they often are. In 1980 60% of GDP went to the workforce, now it is 40% of GDP, as those who own capital keep more of the proceeds. You would think that we could argue that this wealth is used to fund our public services, but when you have up to around £70bn of tax avoidance a year you can see that this idea of ‘wealth creation; isn’t working as well as is claimed. When pay is so low, workers have little motivation to work hard, and owners little motivation to train them, so productivity stays down (which is why our GDP per head has gone down despite so many jobs added). Ed Miliband’s argument is that this vicious circle needs to be broken, and the capitalists have the means to do so.
But here I go back to my fundamental issue with the values of the current Conservative party. Tim Montgomerie, who is working to address the problem that many people have with those values with the launch of the ‘Good Right’, a movement to create a more compassionate conservatism where the policies actually match the rhetoric, summed it up as the story of two safety nets:
“The solution for the Tories lies in a tale of two safety nets: they need to celebrate the one for the poor and dismantle the one for the rich. Too many Tories give the impression of resenting the safety net for those at the bottom. They believe that the solution to every problem is to help poor people get rich. While every effort should indeed be made to help able-bodied people stand on their own feet, most people will never be rich, and don’t particularly yearn to be. They want to be comfortable. They want a home of their own and to know that the state will be there for them if they lose their job or fall sick. They protest that after the state spent so much bailing out the rich and privileged when the global crash happened that there wasn’t much left over for them.”
I put a bit in bold because it is important. It is at the centre of the values problem in this election. If you remove the safety net then in theory it incentivises people to get themselves a job and get out of poverty. That is at the centre of Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare policies. I have seen with my own eyes during my time working at a North London state school the impact of extreme poverty on pupils. I have seen the kids come in having had little sleep and no breakfast, trying to chomp down on some custard creams and rubicon mango bought with the pound coin left on the counter. Don’t tell me they can make the most of education we provide them so they have ‘equal opportunity’. But I have also seen the effect of welfare dependency in the girl who explained her lack of care over the consequences of her truancy because her mother and her ‘live perfectly well on benefits’. Then again, you can ‘make work pay’ by cutting welfare, but the human impact, and it is humans we are talking about here, is that if the job you can get are dull, repetitive insecure and for low reward to the extent that you still are having to choose between heating and eating at night…well we need to have a reckoning in this country. We produce enough national income to make everyone comfortable, but we don’t use it to do so. Is that right? Is that moral?
Then we have to add to all this the EU. As someone who has needed to understand the economic and political implications of being in the EU well enough to teach it, I am convinced we need to stay within it. Labour won’t have a referendum, the Conservatives will. So you would think that I would not want to risk all that by having the referendum, so I should vote Labour. Yet the EU DOES provide a constitutional issue – which is that we have lost much of our sovereignty to an institution that uses law differently to the UK. In the UK you can do anything the law doesn’t expressly tell you that you can’t. In the EU you can’t do something unless the law expressly tells you that you can. In 1973 without a referendum and in 1975 with a referendum we gave away a large part of our sovereignty to an entity with different legal values. A liberal democracy like ours should probably renew and refresh the constitutional mandate for doing that from time to time, and the emergence of UKIP as a serious force, whether we like it or not, means it is probably time to do that.
So, as you can see, I’m confused. I guess I’ll just have to go with my gut in the poll booth, but the likelihood is that I will be voting for……