OK, here we go. Some election thoughts.
I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I don’t think anybody else does either. The polls seem fairly consistent, but they don’t answer some important questions. One issue that polls can’t address is differential turnout. The Lib Dem vote seems likely to contain a large number of people who are first time voters or who want to vote Lib Dem because their response to the Labour and Conservatives is “I wish they could both lose.” These are the people who may well not turn out on Thursday. I think that the polls may well be leading people to exaggerate the Lib Dem vote that really counts: not what people tell the pollsters, but what they do in the polling booth on Thursday. It may well be that the conclusion that we should draw from this is that the Conservatives are more likely to be able to form an administration by themselves than is generally supposed, but it’s also possible that, now as in 1992, the response of large numbers of the electorate in a “don’t know” situation will be to return to the ruling party at the last minute. The honest conclusion is “we don’t know.”
Again, the standard procedure for turning vote-share predictions into results is one which is highly likely to be flawed. The “uniform national swing” system is rough and ready anyway. But in particular I suspect that it is really a tool designed to analyse swings between Labour and Conservative, and unlikely to help in the event of an election where the Liberals are polling about the same as the Labour party. The swingometer is the classic device of BBC election coverage, and the classic illustration of the “uniform national swing” assumption: all that counts is the pendulum swing between two big parties. Perhaps equally important is the likelihood that quite a lot of voting will be done in very local and idiosyncratic ways. If the expenses crisis is as important as many seem to think, some contests are going to end up as referendums on the conduct of an individual MP and won’t be predictable from the vote-share. This could end up being important in the event that everything comes down to differences of ten or so seats, but it won’t be predictable from the polls.
Trust and credit
We’re always told that elections are decided on economics. And since there has just been a huge economic crisis, it’s reasonable to suppose that this will be important this time. There’s a lot of consensus about: whoever is elected, the next government will have to use a combination of tax rises and spending cuts in order to pay for the costs of the fiscal stimulus of the last year or so, which (so far) seems to have been fairly effective in reducing the length of the downturn and reducing the extent to which negative or low growth has resulted in unemployment. The real question, therefore, is “where will the axe fall?”
Unfortunately, no party has answered this question. Whatever we vote, we have to do so by choosing to take the party in question on trust as far as tax’n’spend is concerned, because every party’s policies depend on huge spending cuts which are unspecified. Instead all three are producing a small selection of policies, which we are (presumably) supposed to use in order to infer how they will eventually behave when they have to make the real decisions. Some of these policies are important in their own right, but their importance is also symbolic. There is one partial exception.
There is one great reason to vote for the Liberal Democrats, if one could believe that it would happen. They are the party which wants to cancel the Trident replacement. Trident is our “independent nuclear deterrent”: a phrase in which the word “nuclear” is the only one which isn’t a lie. It isn’t independent: the Americans could switch it off tomorrow. And it doesn’t deter anybody from anything. British defence (in the real sense of the word defence: it means something different from “everything to do with the armed forces”) is about these things, in no particular order:
maintaining some conventional forces, just in case, in the way in which every country does;
protecting and continuing the post-war western European peace which came about thanks to a combination of the American domination of Western Europe and the determination of European countries (especially France and Germany) never again to get even close to the situations which led to the big European wars;
foreign policy, and the sneaky elements of the state aimed at trying to protect us from terrorism and the dangers of little-but-nasty states and non-state actors (MI5 and MI6 and GCHQ and policing and other ways of trying to avoid suitcase bombs and the like);
NATO (i.e., the broader American umbrella).
Trident has nothing to do with any of these. Its value is purely symbolic. It means “we are a big dick country, we claim to be bigger than everybody else (except America, China and Russia but on a par with France), we don’t want to admit that since the end of empire we are just another western European country.” Anybody who thinks that Trident has anything to do with defence should be able to say this with a straight face:
“What really worries me about modern Europe is that Germany and Italy and Spain and Denmark are undefended because they don’t have an Independent Nuclear Deterrent. The governments of these countries are being irresponsible and putting their own people at risk by refusing to get one and pay for one.”
It would be equally effective and have the same symbolic value if we simply built a large National Phallus and set it up in Whitehall, with a copy in every town square in the UK. Each one could be plated with gold and studded with diamonds and it would still be considerably cheaper.
I hope it isn’t necessary to say this, but having Trident is also wrong. There is no moral case whatsoever for keeping it. Anybody who thinks the world would be a better place if India and Pakistan and Israel were without nuclear weapons must concede that we also ought not to have them.
As such, the fact that cancelling Trident would save a vast quantity of money and make deficit reduction much, much easier is just one reason why it should be done. The Liberals, perhaps for electoral reasons (trying to blunt the attacks of the Daily Mail), are talking about it in a way intended to suggest that they would consider some other, cheaper kind of nuclear deterrent. The arguments all point to having nothing at all, but even if we kept one rusty symbolic National Bomb in a cupboard in Porton Down it would be a huge advance on the present situation.
If a coalition which needed the votes of the Liberals would cancel the Trident replacement, this would be for me one of the few potential “game changers”. A friend and colleague suggested to me that this would happen anyway: the army will want it, because they want the money for the real military; Labour will want it because they are all lefties at heart; the Conservatives will want it because they are serious about saving money. I would like to believe this, but in the end I don’t. I can’t see a bunch of Conservative backbenchers walking into the lobby to cancel Trident. Is it possible under a LibLab pact? I would love to believe that too…
Conservative tax’n’spend is much less dramatic and exciting, and conforms to the general rule I set out above: it is symbolic and intended to mark ideology rather than constituting a real indication of how to deal with the public finances.
The “Big Society” seems to be a concept almost entirely devoid of meaning. It’s fairly closely analogous to Blair’s flirting with communitarianism as an attempt to fill the ideological void of the “third way” and will have as much real effect. No actual policy seems to be associated with this idea at the moment: it seems to be an attempt at political positioning on the way in which to present cuts which must necessarily come later. These will be presented like this: “we will reduce social protection, but while doing so we will express the pious hope that it would be a nice thing if some people did more volunteering, and Oxfam start handing out food parcels to the people whose benefits we have cut.”
Then there is inheritance tax. This is breathtaking, and I imagine that the conservatives now wish they hadn’t proposed it at a time when they hadn’t yet realised how big the hole was in the public finances. It’s ridiculous in terms of expediency (never mind morality) to propose a tax cut on inheritance which applies only to estates worth more than £600 000 at the same time as preaching the need for fiscal prudence. The Tories are presenting themselves as the party that thinks it’s more important to increase the inheritance of a small group of rich families than to look after small businesses or public services or the public finances: it should be a spectacular own goal. Why hasn’t it been used by Labour to greater effect? Probably in part because Brown made Alistair Darling announce a policy whose effect was more or less the same (raising the threshold, but not by so much) at the time of the election-that-never-was. As a result Cameron has had some successes in presenting this as a policy to help middle-income families rather than what it is: a tax break almost all of which will go on benefiting the very rich. A classic Gordon Brown victory of tactics over both conviction and strategy (and it wasn’t even good tactics).