Friday, 19 May 2017

Setting double standards

Some of the proposals announced in the Tory manifesto yesterday seemed, at first sight, to be an attack on one of their most loyal groups of voters, pensioners.  Anecdotal evidence is necessarily unreliable as to the attitudes of the many, but after seeing a few pensioners interviewed following the launch, I suspect that attacking their benefits is not much of a gamble after all.  There are plenty of them prepared to blame immigrants, overseas aid, unemployed people – anyone except those actually taking the decisions.  Getting different groups to blame each other looks like a successful political strategy, sadly.
But it’s the response to the economic aspects of the manifesto that struck me.  I posted a few days ago that the expectation that any political party could realistically produce a sound costed manifesto for the next five years was plain silly, because there are too many unknowns and variables.  What parties can do, however, is look at one or other side of the balance sheet.  They can, for instance, set out their approach to taxation and borrowing, and state that they will manage expenditure in order to meet their targets.  Alternatively, they can set out a programme of policies and state that they will manage taxation and borrowing in order to deliver that programme.  It’s a bit like an economic version of the uncertainty principle – you can do one or the other but doing both is impossible.
In 2010 and 2015 the Tories effectively took the first approach.  They set out their over-riding aim of eliminating the deficit within 5 years, promised not to increase any of the main taxes, and simply stated that they would cut spending in order to achieve that.  Detail on what would be cut was sparse, to say the least, but they got away with it because they framed the whole debate in terms of the absolute necessity of that objective.  As it subsequently turned out, on the basis of the bar which they set for themselves they failed miserably.  Not only did they not eliminate the deficit, they borrowed ever more. 
In this election, they have thrown that approach out of the window.  Yes, they still have some vague commitment to eliminate the deficit by 2025, but in essence, their approach this time round is to set out their programme and state that they will adjust taxation and borrowing as necessary to deliver that programme, without spelling out any detail.  The chances of them achieving that deficit target look slim to me, but it doesn’t matter because it’s more than one election away, and it was always the wrong target anyway.  The ‘deficit elimination’ mantra served its political purpose of framing the agenda and putting the other parties on the spot; it was never that important in economic terms.
The point is, however, that the Tories have been allowed, for three elections in a row, to set out the detail of only one side of the equation, whilst the other parties have been forced onto the defensive in trying to explain exactly what they would do about both sides.  How has this happened?  Why are we in a situation where the bar has been set so much higher for everyone else?  Double standards have been applied with the active support and complicity of the press and media, including the publicly-funded BBC.  The real victory of the Tories, not just in one or two elections, is that they have been able to turn ‘impartial’ news media into their own propaganda arm; barely challenging what they say and do even in comparison with their own self-imposed target whilst tearing pieces out of anyone failing to meet a higher – and essentially unattainable – standard.

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