Friday 9 February 2024

Who cares about an arbitrary number?


There is a long-standing, but rather odd if you stop to think about it, trend for organisations announcing new initiatives, buildings, or policies to concentrate on the cost rather than the substance. It’s as though the PR officers believe that the most important part of the news is how much is being spent, rather than what is being done. Here, here, and here are a few random examples. Anyone wanting to know what the story is really about will never find out from the headline alone. But in terms of the impact, it’s what is being done that is the real story – and the price attached to it is often a largely arbitrary first guess rather than a detailed costing.

That, it seems to me, was always the status of Labour’s £28 billion Green Investment Plan – just another headline lacking in real detail. Just about everyone can tell you how much they planned to spend – few can tell you what they were actually going to do with it. In that limited sense, ditching the headline sum is, or should be, a non-story. The question should be more about what they’re actually now not going to do which they were previously planning to do. And the answer to that question is far from clear in anything that they’ve managed to say so far – it’s all been about the number, which was pretty much plucked out of the air to begin with. Listening to their statements, one could be forgiven for believing that they are not changing their plans at all, just stopping all talk about the cost. But doing what they previously said would cost £28 billion, without spending £28 billion, and sticking to the silly fiscal rule which they themselves have invented is a mathematical impossibility. Whether it helps them politically is another question – switching the debate away from an essentially ridiculous numbers game to a more complex question which the media can’t even be bothered to engage with might help them electorally, but it tells us little about what we can expect from a new government.

The party was, in reality, pretty stupid to name a figure at all in the first place. It might have made a good headline at the time as an indicator of how serious they were about taking  action on climate change without having to do the hard yards to spell out the detailed policies, but that’s a very short term consideration. And it played into the hands of a Tory Party determined to hold Labour to a standard of fiscal responsibility to which they’ve never adhered themselves. To say nothing of a lazy media more interested in the yah boo politics of ‘he said, she said’ than in attempting to explain the seriousness of the situation and the required actions and consequences, let alone the complexities of public finances.

And that brings us to the real, and very sad, story here. It’s not some superficial froth about U-turns and flip-flops, it’s not about the detail of government expenditure and how it is financed, it’s not even about climate change and the urgent need for action. It’s about the one thing – the only thing – to which Labour is now resolutely committed. That is to play the game under Tory rules and abide by whatever constraints the outgoing Tories leave for them. At a time when people seem to be crying out for change, the only thing Labour are planning to change is the people implementing the policies.

No comments: