This miracle is just an illusion


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.

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.