Cast from the new production of Rising Damp (2014). The guy being subsidised is the one in the middle by the way.

Subsidy Street

I’m going to propose something you don’t often hear from a socialist – I’m going to suggest we do away with a benefit. It looks like the government has its work cut out finding £12 billion of savings from the welfare budget so, in the spirit of post-election co-operation, here’s my contribution.

After pensions, housing benefit is the biggest element in the welfare bill, and is expected to top £27bn by 2018-19. Almost 40% – some £10 billion – of this is paid to private landlords.

Housing benefit isn’t really a benefit, it’s a subsidy. It enables landlords to charge rents that their tenants (i.e. customers) can’t afford to pay. If the government gave us money in order to buy a car we couldn’t otherwise afford, this would rightly be seen by everyone (probably including the EU’s lawyers) as a subsidy for the car manufacturer. To meet the social need to get about, we would expect the government to invest that money in better public transport.

What’s worse, it’s a subsidy that’s out of the government’s control. Landlords effectively decide how much subsidy they receive. They keep rents high knowing full well that the government will pay them on behalf of tenants (at least up to the ceiling set by the benefit cap). Rents aren’t set freely by the market; the market is “made” by the government. We don’t pay housing benefit because rents are high; rents are high because we pay housing benefit.

Of course, no good will come of withdrawing housing benefit overnight and on its own. It will simply lead to evictions and a collapse of the private rental sector. But that just shows how this is an economic sector dependent on state aid. Landlords are charging rents that are above what the market will bear because taxpayers are making up the difference.

If the government were to phase out housing benefit and invest all or some of the proceeds in social housing, tenants would gain security and (probably) better homes, while taxpayers would save money and acquire valuable assets which can be used to meet the housing needs of future generations. The social benefits of families being able to count on secure accommodation, rather than being shunted around from year to year on the profit-seeking whim of property speculators, are incalculable. (Of course, all this would be much easier to do in the short-term if we had a modern system of rent regulation, a policy unreasonably trashed during the election campaign by people who labour under the delusion – or pretend to – that we have a perfectly functioning housing market.)

The government knows this of course, but is happy to let the current situation continue because it doesn’t want a revival in social housing for ideological (and electoral) reasons. Right-wing governments always talk about getting rid of subsidies in theory, but are happy to pay them if the benefits are going to the right people – in this case landlords and property speculators, who are among the biggest supporters of the Conservative party. When the IPPR proposed something like this last year, it was endorsed by both London mayor Boris Johnson and Labour leaders. Nothing has been heard about it since.

Phasing out housing benefit, or even ending the practice of paying it straight to landlords, would cause rents to fall sharply, something which everyone knows has to happen sooner or later. Yes, some landlords will sell up, which would also reduce our stratospheric house prices. A lot of people wouldn’t like that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do.

Labour leadership candidates declared at 15 May 2015: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh.

Wake up or smell the coffin

The UK, with or without Scotland, now faces permanent Conservative government. Once the Tories have redrawn the constituency boundaries in their favour, it will be virtually impossible for Labour to win a majority in England and Wales on its own, and Scotland is no longer willing to ride to its rescue. Exit poll guru John Curtice says Labour needs at least a 12% lead south of the border to form a majority government – greater even than Tony Blair achieved in 1997 – and that’s without the boundary changes.

Nevertheless, retired Blairites like Peter Mandelson, David Miliband and Alan Milburn insist the party must return to the New Labour strategy of the 1990s. If only it were that simple. The three Ms ought to understand their own project better: New Labour relied on both a two-party system and the existence of a substantial number of “soft” Tories willing to consider voting Labour. That way, Labour could safely move to the right knowing that its “core” support among working class people had nowhere else to go.

To borrow Jim Callaghan’s phrase, I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.

First, there aren’t that many soft Tories. The Conservatives polled only 36% in 2015, compared to the 43% in 1992. There are your soft Tories, right there in that 7%. Secondly, move to the right and Labour’s core voters now have other choices. The SNP tsunami in Scotland, the UKIP surge in the north and east of England and the more modest progress of the Greens in the south, shows they’re increasingly willing to exercise them. Slim pickings on the right and leaking votes to the left – pursue the New Labour strategy and the fate of the next Labour leader will look more like Nick Clegg’s than Tony Blair’s.

How does Labour solve this conundrum of having to be both more left-wing and more right-wing at the same time?

I don’t know. Perhaps someone can work out a programme that will be both convincing to working class voters and credible to the Tory-leaning middle classes. Perhaps the Tories will tear themselves to pieces over Europe and people will flock back to Labour. Perhaps a spectacularly charismatic new Labour leader will generate such enthusiasm that all these dilemmas and past disappointments will be swept aside. Perhaps if all three of these things happen, Labour will be able to win next time. But I doubt it. And I bet you do too.

So let’s look at this another way. Labour can’t solve the conundrum, but maybe it doesn’t have to. The conundrum isn’t the problem. The problem is Labour.

The Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said something very important on the BBC last Friday. He said people have stopped seeing Labour as part of the British radical tradition and now see the party as “something narrow” and Labour politicians as “just in it for themselves”. He’s right. Since the election, Labour politicians have been talking about Britain as if it was a political party with a small country attached.

Stop it! I’m sick and tired of hearing about how “only Labour can” save the NHS, solve the housing crisis, end poverty and deliver a better life for working people. As we’ve seen, all too often Labour can’t. And if I’m sick and tired of hearing it, you can bet your last penny working people are fed up with hearing it too.

I love the Labour party (I’ve been a member for 30 years) and the labour movement (ditto), but they aren’t the the only progressive forces in the country. We face a daunting task in opposing the Tories’ ruthless programme, which seems to be nothing less than reimposing the plutocratic rule of the pre-democratic era. To stop them we will have to take on and beat the most powerful alliance of right-wing forces we’ve ever seen: global financial capitalism, a ferocious right-wing media controlled from abroad and a deeply-rooted Conservative party establishment, which extends into most areas of national life. Yes, the coalition of opposition we could range against them is formidable too. But only some of it is in the Labour party and the wider labour movement. Labour can’t do this on its own. And it shouldn’t try to.

Instead, we need some sort progressive alliance of all the anti-Tory forces in the country. We need to get a government elected that will introduce a fair voting system so we can – for the first time – elect a parliament that actually represents us. This is no time to be tribal, narrow-minded or cynically detached from electoral politics. The alliance needs to stretch from the Liberal Democrats through Labour, Plaid and the SNP, to the Greens. At a minimum, would it really be that hard to come to some arrangement that would allow Labour supporters to vote for Caroline Lucas with a clear conscience or save social democrats like Vince Cable from defeat by another Tory?

I know I might lose some of you here, but we also need to reach out to UKIP, or at least the millions of working people who voted for them. UKIP’s support for PR is self-interested, but that doesn’t make it any less justified. A single seat is an insult to the four million people who voted for them and the left shouldn’t be afraid of saying so.

But a progressive alliance or popular front is about more than a pact between political parties. It has to include anyone who rejects the Tory vision of a society based entirely on market relationships, where working people are just hamsters on a wheel in a global race that ever ends, where nothing humans make or do has any value except the profit someone (usually someone else) can extract from it. There are enough things we can agree on – an end to ideological austerity, investment in housing, universal human rights, fairer wages, better rights at work, fair votes, to name but a few – for us to put aside our differences for a few years.

And the same alliance should work together to make the Tories sweat for the next five years and beyond. Progressive politics in this country needs to be much more robust. Too often we’re content to fling statistics around to win the intellectual argument, and then to give in. A progressive alliance needs to link up all the groups around the country who will otherwise spend the next five or ten years campaigning in isolation. We need to win and be seen to be winning. People like winners. They vote for winners.

We can spend the next five years working our socks off in our different parties and campaigning silos, and the odds are we’ll be wasting our time. Or we can try to change our islands for good. The choice is ours, for once, not theirs.

None of this will happen, of course. No Labour leadership candidate will dare whisper his or her nagging fear that Labour can’t win on its own. The collective ego of the labour movement can’t take that kind of honesty. Probably the best we can hope for is a minority Labour government with a pact for voting reform cobbled together after the voting’s done. But if we’re going to do deals, wouldn’t it be better to do them well before the election so everyone knows where they stand? And wouldn’t it be so much better, so much more powerful, if Labour were to grow up at last and take the lead in such a progressive alliance itself?

Yellow peril, turnout wilt and Tory bulge – three more things we didn’t catch

Three other things are worth noting from the weekend’s number crunching. Firstly, the Tories did much better out of the Lib-Dem collapse than Labour. Partly this is because there were far fewer seats for Labour to gain from the Lib-Dems, but also because Labour voters were very unwilling to vote tactically to save a Lib-Dem MP (as some might have done up until 2010). So, ironically, the disdain felt by many Labour voters for the Lib-Dems actually hurt their own party.

Secondly, the dog that didn’t bark – turnout. Everyone was expecting a high turnout but it hardly budged from the 65% in 2010. When we see the detailed analysis, my guess is we’ll see that the much-vaunted surge in young people voting didn’t materialise. I’m not sure where the expectation of a high turnout came from. Perhaps we were taken in by high levels of election activity of social media. We should have realised that people talking about the election on Facebook and Twitter were probably always going to vote.

This election also saw a differential turnout effect – with turnout rising in areas where the Tories were defending a slim majority. We might have hoped this would help Labour; but actually it was Tories turning out en masse to save their Tory MP. Quite simply, the Tory campaign engaged their people much more than Labour engaged theirs. (This should be another warning against an unthinking Labour lurch to the right.)

Finally, there’s our old friend the Tory “bonus”. We need to face the fact that there is a long-term tendency for the polls to underestimate Tory support by about three percentage points. It doesn’t happen in all elections (not in 2010 for example) but it does happen in most – locals and Europeans included. I’ve no idea if this is “shy Tories”, “late swing” or whether it’s just, as former Home Secretary Douglas Hurd suggested on Friday afternoon, a sort of natural English tendency to plump for the “safer”, establishment option, which for middle-ground voters, seems to be the Tories. Even Hurd said this showed the English to be “odd”. Well maybe we are odd but we’re not going to change overnight, so during this parliament I will be adding three points to the Tory poll score and knocking a couple off Labour before drawing any conclusions.

farage-miliband.jpg

Clowns to the left, jokers to the right

The first step in making sense of this disaster for the left is to work out what happened. Understanding why the pollsters and everyone else misread the voters of English and Wales so badly will help us to work out what we’re going to do next.

First up, the polls didn’t get everything wrong. The scores for the SNP, UKIP, Lib-Dems, Greens and Plaid were more or less bang on. They correctly predicted the SNP landslide and Labour wipe-out in Scotland, even if no one quite believed it. But the polls got the Labour and Tory vote shares badly wrong, even if these were (just about) at the limit of the margins of error. And seat projections based on the polls totally failed to predict the extent of Liberal Democrat losses, especially to the Tories, or how the UKIP vote would hurt Labour so badly by stopping the party from picking up many key marginals from the Conservatives (and significantly reducing its overall vote share).

This last point is particularly important for Labour to get to grips with. It looks to me like we have vastly underestimated the loss of Labour and potential-Labour voters to UKIP over the last couple of years. These voters were probably telling pollsters they were undecided (which may have been true at the time they were asked, although the existence of “shy UKIP” voters seems plausible to me). I suspect many of these people were floating around between voting Labour (with little enthusiasm), UKIP, some other fringe party or not voting at all. Where UKIP seemed to be doing well, they went over to UKIP because Farage engaged them and Ed Miliband didn’t.

This would certainly explain UKIP’s unexpected surge to come within a whisker of nicking Heywood and Middleton from Labour in last year’s by-election. This, with hindsight, was much more of a straw in the wind than Rochester or Clacton. It might also explain the unexpectedly good showing on Thursday by UKIP in some Labour heartland seats, particularly in the north and east of England.

These voters – mostly working class, white and in insecure low-paid employment, have a disaffection from Labour stretching back into the Brown/Blair days. They have little stake in the system and so are easy prey for UKIP. They’re not worried by Farage’s clowning around or UKIP’s incoherent policies, because they think the political system’s broken anyway. They’re receptive to the idea that the EU and mass immigration are at least plausible explanations for their problems. Yes, some are probably racist, some are at least prejudiced. Most feel uneasy and insecure, and can’t see anyone else offering much by way of solutions. Reading James Meek’s excellent accounts of his forays into “Farageland” in Grimsby and Kent, could have told us much more than looking at the polls (warning: these essays are long but hard to put down).

My guess is we will find that a lot of these voters, alarmed by the SNP scare but unable to bring themselves to vote Tory, plumped for UKIP over the last couple of weeks. They were probably showing up in the polls as “undecided” or “weak Labour”. UKIP performed in line with the polls, so my guess is these “left-wing” Ukippers were offset by “right-wing” Ukippers (mostly ex-Tories) backing the Conservatives in order to avoid splitting the right-wing vote and letting in the Red-Tartan menace.

It’s important to remember that these ex-core Labour voters exist in every constituency, not just in Labour heartlands (yes, there are even some working class people in Surrey). There are certainly quite a lot of them in Tory-Labour marginals. In quite a few seats, they might have made the difference between Labour taking the seat from the Tories and falling a few hundred or a few thousand short (as happened all over the place). This would certainly explain why the UKIP vote was higher than expected in many key marginals but didn’t seem to hurt the Tories much. And for every one of these ex-Labour voters who voted UKIP, there are probably another two or three who felt the same but just stayed at home.

Labour really needs to get this before it plunges into the usual tug-of-war over whether it lost because it was “too right wing” or “too left wing”. For these voters, it was both. For what it’s worth, my view is that Labour lost because it was both not credible and not convincing. On the right, for middle ground voters, Labour’s economic programme wasn’t credible and the two Eds were not seen as credible alternatives to Cameron and Osborne. At the same time, on the left, it failed to convince working class voters who are seriously alienated from the political system (and from civic life generally) that it was going to do anything worthwhile for them.

Like Britpop nostalgists, Old Blairites like Peter Mandelson want to rehash all the old tunes from the 1990s, as if we still live in the comforting world of the old two party system (and they call themselves modernisers!) Putting all your energy into chasing after “soft” Tories doesn’t make much sense when there aren’t many of them (Cameron got 36% of the vote, John Major got 43% in 1992) and your core vote is slipping away faster than you can say Nick Robinson.

The idea that the millions of working class voters who voted for UKIP are really crying out for another Tony Blair is ridiculous. Yes, they may have voted for a nominally “right-wing” party, but their issues are ones left-wingers should have engraved on their hearts – jobs, housing, poverty, perpetual insecurity – as well as complex feelings about English identity and culture which are outside the conventional left-right framework. In the 1990s, these voters had no other choice than to vote Labour or stay at home. Now they do.

George Lakoff

Why are we still letting the right win?

Thinking about this election campaign and what might happen afterwards, I dug out this interview given by the American professor George Lakoff to the Guardian’s Zoe Williams back in February. It’s well worth a read if you want to know why the left has been generally losing the argument for the last 35 years.

Lakoff’s field is cognitive linguistics and his thing is “framing”. From what I can see this basically means the set of values we use to make sense of the world around us. They determine how we respond to events in our personal lives and well as things happening in the news. Frames “structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason… For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic,” says Lakoff. When we come across an idea that fits our frames, it strikes us as “common sense”. And in the long term political arguments are won by those who get most people to see their views as common sense.

Although he calls himself a “liberal” (US version), Lakoff is hyper-critical of both the American and European left. He reckons that by continually compromising with conservatives in spurious pursuit of the “middle ground” (which he says in value terms doesn’t exist — left and right are just two different ways of looking at the world), we are allowing politics to be shifted ever further to the right. Lefties are literally conniving with right-wingers in widening inequality, eroding human rights, trashing the planet and inflaming racial and national hatreds.

The left relies too heavily on reasoned argument and empirical evidence, when most people make political judgements on gut instincts about the world. Lakoff calls this emphasis on evidence, research and statistics (all produced within the framework set by global free market capitalism, of course) “Oxford philosophy”. Too often, the left ignores the emotional impact of political argument. Conservatives know this; they ruthlessly exploit emotion and present arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff. “Oxford philosophy is killing the world.”

We’ve seen this during the British election campaign. Early on, the Tories’ blizzard of statistics purporting to show an “economic miracle” left voters cold and a bit mystified. The Tories panicked and spent a week trying to be more Labour than Labour with promises to splurge cash on the NHS and freeze rail fares. That didn’t work either – because it wasn’t credible coming from them. Finally, they reverted to what they do best: a highly emotional appeal to English nationalism coupled with lurid scare stories about the red and tartan menace about take over Britain. Everyone agrees that achieved “cut through” with voters, even if the Tories’ credibility is so shot that it doesn’t seem to have shifted many actual votes. But it did at least stabilise a campaign which seemed to be in meltdown three weeks ago.

One of the features of this later phase of the Tory campaign is the way they have stopped responding to arguments based on statistics at all: they just ignore them and press on with their emotional case. Household incomes down since 2010? “Alex Salmond is going to pick your pocket”. Record use of food banks? “The Labour recession.” Unbelievable cuts on the way? “Benefit scroungers.” Debt higher than in 2010? “Labour chaos! Greece! Jockalypse!” It ain’t pretty, it ain’t fair, but there’s a coherent message for people to respond to (think about how a novel can be completely coherent even though it’s all made up): Labour caused the recession. Labour spent too much of your money. Labour will do it again, aided and abetted by the SNP, who also want to steal your money. They want to break up the country. They’ll sell us out to Europe, and so on. Yes, it’s bollocks, but it’s coherent bollocks.

Labour has mostly tried to unpick the Tory case bit by bit – the recession was global, the deficit wasn’t that high by international standards, our plans are fully costed and set out in our manifesto and carved on a slab of stone we’re going to stick in the Downing Street garden – rather than make a coherent emotional appeal itself.

François Mitterrand speaking at Caen during the 1981 presidential campaign.

François Mitterrand wasn’t particularly left-wing but succeeded in making an emotional connection with voters.

Labour could say boldly that a decent welfare state is the cornerstone of a civilised society, especially in an uncertain globalised economy; it could argue that the recession was the product of decades of craven accommodation to the financial markets, pointing out how those markets can, in François Mitterrand’s memorable words, “ruin the work of millions of men and women in a few hours”; it could argue that public spending and collective endeavour built the world’s best universities, developed the internet, and established the world’s most successful universal healthcare system and the world’s most respected broadcaster (not to mention defeated the Nazis). When Labour has made some headway in this campaign, it’s been by making these emotional appeals rather than fighting on the Conservatives’ home ground.

For Lakoff, Tony Blair’s “third way” was just a symptom of the left’s confusion. We’re supposed to be against inequality but we’ve pursued free market policies which widened inequalities. We’re supposed to be against racism and xenophobia, but we’ve competed with Tories over who can be nastier to immigrants. We’re supposed to be against rampant corporate greed, but we’ve encouraged financial and property speculation and and let some very wealthy businesses pass their tax obligations onto working people. This isn’t compromise or moderation, it’s just weakness and incoherence.

And too often the left opposes the right in purely instrumental terms. We oppose benefit cuts by arguing the toss over the extent of the abuses. Instead we should be defending the principle of a welfare state and the values behind it — equality, human dignity, maintaining stable families and communities (remember when it was, rightly, called “social security”?) When the right attacks unions, we point out how far unions have been reformed, how little threat they pose to the oligarchs who control the global economy, how the “red menace” has been exaggerated. Instead, we should be asking how else working people are to supposed to get a fair day’s pay for a long day’s work.

This doesn’t mean a lurch to the left in policy terms. It’s more about emphasising what you stand for rather than the compromises you will inevitably have to make. There is a moral and emotional case for moderate social democracy as well as for more exotic forms of leftism. Labour’s policies in this election are actually more distinct from the Tories than at any time since 1992, but you’d never know it because the argument has been mostly about responding to what the Tories say is important. Which leads Labour wide open to allegations from nationalists and Greens that it’s betrayed working class voters.

If you think back over the last five years, it’s still much easier to grasp what the Tories stand for than what Labour is all about. From their campaign, you’d never guess the Tories have been in coalition and have achieved almost none of the objectives they set out in 2010. They’ve stuck to talking about what they stand for and what they’re against. Labour, on the other hand, has spent most the campaign talking about what they won’t do. That silly stone apart, Miliband’s done it quite well, but Labour had ceded too much ground before the campaign begun. It can take years for political ideas to resonate with the public: people didn’t really “get” Thatcherism until about 1985.

Lakoff’s argument doesn’t so much explain why Labour doesn’t win elections as why it fails to lay the foundations for future victories and build up the kind of loyalty that can see you through rough times. And it may explain why the left has to keep fighting the same battles over and over again.

Tenement tales

Here’s a quick thought on Labour’s plans for rent controls.

Existing private landlords are presumably making a profit. If they’re not, they wouldn’t be in business or would already be in the process of withdrawing their properties from the market. So, if they’re making a profit at current rents and are still allowed to raise them by inflation, they’ll still be making a profit next year. In fact, in real terms, they’ll be making the same profit as this year. And the same the year after that. So why would they withdraw from the rental market? Would they prefer to make nothing at all than the same – presumably satisfactory – level of profit they’re making already?

The argument that rent controls will always reduce the supply of property is based on the fantasy that we have a perfectly functioning market for rental property where landlords are just about breaking even. If we did, then aggressive rent controls might force some landlords out of the business. But does anyone seriously think we live in that world?

Tory views on the rental market are about as realistic as monopoly board prices.

Tory views on the rental market are about as realistic as monopoly board prices.

In any case, Labour isn’t proposing to set rent levels, cut rents or even freeze them, just to limit rent rises to inflation for three years. In other words, to protect the profits landlords are making already. So the Tories are asking us to accept the deeply stupid argument that private landlords are making losses and just haven’t got round to adjusting their rents yet. They seem to think it’s landlords, not tenants, who are struggling to make ends meet.

What Labour’s controls will do is stop some landlords exploiting the housing shortage and people’s desperation to stay in their own homes by jacking up rents way above inflation, often with little or no notice. The balance of power in the rental market is very unequal, as anyone who’s tried renting in the last 30 years knows only too well. So who are the Conservatives really protecting here?

Two other points: first, most other Western countries use some form of rent control, including France, Germany and many parts of America. And housing for rent is generally much cheaper and more plentiful there than it is here. Second, rent controls are massively popular – a recent poll showed supporters outnumbering opponents by more than eight to one. If I were Ed, I’d stick with this one.

This miracle is just an illusion

Cameron-miracle-man.jpg

One of the striking features of this bizarre election campaign is the Tories’ puzzled rage at the stubborn refusal of voters to come down decisively in their favour. It’s an attitude that is perfectly captured in this piece from Spectator editor Fraser Nelson in today’s Telegraph.

Fraser’s been looking at the figures and concludes that there has been an “economic miracle”. And like many other Tories, he’s very frustrated that you – the voters – aren’t more grateful. Unemployment is falling, inflation and interest rates are at record lows, even average incomes are finally starting to rise. Cameron should be walking it, for fuck’s sake! But the election is deadlocked. Even the most optimistic Tory supporter has given up hope of winning a Commons majority. All they want to talk about it what might happen if they lose.

Fraser’s slightly complicated (it involves Sweden) diagnosis of the problem is, basically, that Cameron has failed to come up with a vision for the future to put alongside his economic “miracle” of the recent past. My diagnosis would be more straightforward: there is no economic miracle, at least as far as most voters are concerned.

“The economy is doing so well that even the Conservatives struggle to keep up with it,” Fraser says. I don’t see how anyone remotely in touch with ordinary working people could write a sentence like that. Ask most voters – real people on normal incomes who went to comprehensive schools – and the best you’ll probably get is a grudging shrug of the shoulders: “Maybe things are a bit better than they were.”

Fraser talks about job creation and falling unemployment as if all “jobs” are the same. But if you’ve lost a reasonably secure, full-time job with proper wages, and found something on the minimum wage with a zero-hours contract, you’re not going to thank David Cameron much. It still counts as a “job” in the government’s statistics, but it doesn’t count as a reason to vote Tory.

Fraser talks about “zero inflation”, but do you know anyone who thinks their cost of living hasn’t risen in the last five years? I can’t say if the Office for National Statistics are measuring the wrong things (but a “cost of living” index that excludes the biggest cost of living – housing – does seem odd) or whether people’s perceptions are just wrong. But I do know that, when it can cost £321 to go from London to Manchester by train, and a quarter of a million to buy a crappy one-bedroom flat, telling people they’re enjoying “zero inflation” could get you a punch in the mouth. It’s a good way to signal to voters that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Fraser says “salaries are now rising at their fastest rate for six years”. Well – big deal, after the last five years of falling or stagnant household incomes and blanket wage freezes in the public sector. Does he really expect people to be grateful for this slight uptick, caused more by falling inflation than rising wages? Like most right-wingers, Fraser likes to use “average” (i.e. arithmetic mean) figures for incomes, since it only takes a few people at the top to be doing nicely to create the illusion that we’re all better off. Median figures are much more telling. And this is the figure that’s killing the Tories: after inflation, median wages are still 10% down on 2008. This is the world most voters live in.

And Fraser talks about “billion-hours Britain” – calling on us to rejoice that the number of hours we work is about to pass the billion mark for the first time. It simply doesn’t occur to him that to many working people this just means working harder and longer for the same or lower wages.

Likewise, we hear a lot (although not from Fraser on this occasion) about “record low interest rates”. Yes, the Bank of England’s base rate has been 1% since 2009. But who, exactly, is paying 1%? Can you get 1% on a mortgage, a loan or a credit card? Not a chance. The rates paid by ordinary people are far higher, and have barely changed since the 2008 crash. Low mortgage rates aren’t much use anyway if the price of the house you want to buy has spiralled out of reach. It’s not interest rates that are low, just one particular interest rate. And only a few people benefit from it.

Which brings us to inequality. I don’t doubt Fraser’s sincerity on this: in the face of all the evidence from history, he really believes inequality can be tackled by conservative means. But he’s missing the point: inequality isn’t an “other” issue that voters can safely turn to now the economy’s booming again. “Inequality” isn’t separate from “the economy”, as he seems to think. Inequality is what’s happening to voters now. Inequality is why people look at the same statistics as Fraser and draw quite different conclusions: “That isn’t happening to me or anyone I know. But someone else must be doing all right.”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all this is going to win Labour the election. The Tories have probably done enough for middle-class voters to inch ahead as the largest party. But if they still think they’re going to get an overall majority, they’re deluding themselves. Obsessed by the “air war” – in which they bombard voters with the economic statistics they think are important – they haven’t noticed that they’re losing the ground war against the weight of people’s actual experiences. And voters know that people pedalling miracles are usually quacks.

Tories don’t get this because they have no idea what it’s like to be at the shitty end of the economic stick. Or that free-market globalisation is forcing more and more people towards that unpleasant end. They think the numbers look good and expect ordinary voters to be grateful. But people don’t trust government figures anymore; they prefer to go on their own experiences and those of people around them. Hence the Tories’ furious puzzlement when voters refuse to be told they’re better off and dutifully show their gratitude at the ballot box.

Beware the Orange Fruitcake alliance

Orange Fruitcake with Toffee Sauce, from Edible Garden.

David Cameron’s Tories have spent the whole week talking up and talking down the prospect of a post-election deal between the SNP and a minority Labour government. It’s certainly a possibility. According to the polls, it could be the only viable government after 7 May. Cameron is entitled to ask questions about post-election deals. But he should be prepared to answer them too.

As far as I’m aware, Cameron hasn’t ruled out doing a deal with anyone, although there’s probably no need to press him on whether Nicola or Gerry Adams will be getting a call. He’s certainly open to another coalition with the Lib-Dems, as is Nick Clegg. And he hasn’t ruled out the gruesome prospect of an “Orange Fruitcake” alliance with the hardline Protestant DUP from Northern Ireland and UKIP, with or without Clegg’s rump of 20 or so MPs. Or if he has, he must have been whispering.

Tories breezily say that won’t happen. That can only be because they’re still deluded enough to think they’re going to get a majority, or they don’t think they’ll get close enough for the Orangemen and the Fruitcakes to get them over the line.

Cameron should tell us what price he’s willing to pay for the support of people who believe the Pope is the Antichrist and all the problems in the NHS are caused by too many foreigners using it and working for it. Is he willing to lift restrictions on marching Orangemen and scrap the BBC licence fee, as the DUP wants, and give in to the party’s blatant demands for cash? Is he prepared to scrap HS2, foreign aid and wind farms, then campaign to leave the EU this year, as Nigel Farage demands? Cameron won’t answer these questions because he doesn’t think you’re entitled to ask them.

There are other questions too. Just what does Cameron think should happen if Labour and the SNP are the only viable majority (with or without Clegg’s rump)? That no government should be formed, leaving him as caretaker PM pending a second election? (I suppose there might just be time for the Tories to arrange Boris’s coronation). Or is he offering to support a minority Labour government? After all, if a Labour-SNP alliance is such a grave threat, isn’t it his patriotic duty to support a Miliband government if it’s the only alternative? Or do the interests of the Conservative party, as often seems to be the case, trump those of the country? Bet you he won’t answer any of those either.

It’s simply hypocritical to deny the SNP a say in government because it only represents Scottish interests, while being willing to negotiate with a party that only represents a sectarian interest within Northern Ireland.

And hypocrisy is just another form of arrogance. Hypocrisy says, “I’m special. I have rights that you don’t.” No, for Cameron the real difference is simply that the DUP would be supporting a Conservative government not a Labour one. In Cameron’s mind, the Conservative party seems to have special rights over who forms a government, even after it has lost an election. Combinations of other parties – Labour, SNP and Plaid – even with a parliamentary majority, are “illegitimate”, while the Conservatives, as the “natural” party of government, reserve the right to form an alliance with whomever they wish.

Arrogance and a limitless sense of entitlement has been one of the worst features of Cameron’s government. The really scary prospect after this election is an alliance between a party with that mentality and the bigots, xenophobes and sectarians of UKIP and the DUP. The Orange Fruitcake alliance is the biggest threat to Britain’s future.

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Election 2015 – a road to nowhere

Following the election campaign? Clear as mud, right?

Well, one thing that’s clear is that neither the Tories nor Labour have any confidence in the vision they’re selling. Even after last week’s slick manifesto launch, I’ve still no idea what sort of country David Cameron wants us to be living in ten years from now. I don’t think he does either. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband seems to be running a 50:50 campaign: 50% Blairite, 50% old Labour; 50% leftish populism, 50% neo-con. But it’s not a smooth blend. It’s got a funny taste. The best I can say is that is has about a 50% chance of success (narrowly defined as stopping another Tory-led government).

Both Labour and the Tories are terrified of making mistakes but frustrated by the deadlock in the polls. This is pushing both old parties into making seemingly daring, but ultimately fatuous, incursions into each other’s territories.

So the Tories, who condemned Labour’s energy price freeze as “Stalinist”, now promise to do exactly the same thing with rail fares. Labour, which has spent five years attacking austerity, now threatens us with its triple lock of fiscal rectitude, which sounds like a particularly nasty sex toy. Meanwhile, the Tories are spending money like it’s going out of fashion, with squillions extra suddenly magicked up for the NHS, housing subsidies, tax cuts and childcare. I don’t get it.

But I’m not meant to get it. The policies don’t makes sense, but the politicians don’t care. The two old parties are beyond ideological or political coherence and are just tossing out messages they think people want to hear. At the last minute, both seem to have woken up to the fact that a “core vote” strategy won’t work because neither of them have enough core voters. It might once have worked for Labour, due its current advantage in the electoral system and its slightly higher core vote, but that was before the meltdown in Scotland. That electoral advantage is now working in favour of the SNP, which is happily mopping up Labour’s core vote north of the border. But the SNP surge hurts Labour without helping the Tories get over the line.

Hence the increasingly desperate scrap for a handful of votes, focusing on neutralising the negatives for each party. All of which leaves us even more clueless about what the two old parties really stand for.

Neither really understands swing voters, and neither leadership really likes its own core voters. Cameron is said to privately despise the antediluvian pensioners and right-wing fruitcakes who dominate most Conservative associations. And Labour too often shows disdain for working class people and working class values. The Tories cling to their discredited free market ideology, but are ready to toss it aside when the going gets tough, shown as much by George Osborne’s retreat from austerity after 2012 as last week’s desperate unfunded spending promises. Labour, which has lost two ideologies (socialism and Blairism) but has yet to find a third, hides behind bland statements of values (which could just as well appear on Tory banners) and appeals to vacuous concepts like “everyday people”.

I’ve been a member of the Labour party for thirty years. I will vote Labour on 7 May because, in the end, this election – for all its complexity – comes down to a choice between a party of the rich, which behaves exactly like a party of the rich when it’s in power, and the other lot. I prefer the other lot. The Labour party has to rely on the votes of working people to win elections. The Tories have to court Ukippers and can’t help but look after their own. Labour will not try to destroy the NHS or the BBC. The Tories might do for both. Labour has to try to do something about ever widening inequality or risk destroying itself. The Tories are turning Britain into a billionaire’s playground. Labour might not reverse that, but it has no interest in encouraging it. For this election at least, that will have to be enough.

Perhaps this is a transitional election and a new political system will emerge with new alternatives on the left that are more convincing than the Greens or George Galloway’s clowns (but don’t hold your breath). The election after this one could be fought in a different country – I can’t see any way in which the situation in Scotland can be reversed. England itself might begin to break up into regional blocs and could become ungovernable. I’ve no idea, and neither has anyone else. The one crumb of comfort is that whatever cobbled-together outfit gets around the cabinet table next month, they’re unlikely to last five years. They’ll be lucky to last five months.

Staying out of trouble on social media

My Tipster column on avoiding pitfalls using social media is published in the latest Healthcare Manager. Click here to read or download the cutting.

It’s not essential to have separate “work” and “personal” social media accounts, but if you use personal accounts to talk about work, put a disclaimer in your profile. Your employer could still take action against you if you say something that causes the organisation “reputational damage”, breaches staff or patient confidentiality, or is racist, sexist or otherwise so generally offensive that it brings into question whether you should be in the job at all. Use common sense and, if in doubt, don’t post it.