Polemic: The no brain election

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There was never any doubt about the election results.

Despite the months of vociferous arguments and heated exchanges the outcome was always a foregone conclusion. Before anyone says it is easy to be wise after the event the victor was not a political party. The real winner was an organisation that was ubiquitous in the election coverage but its role was seldom appreciated: the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

It was hard to avoid hearing it name-checked in the media but, for those unaware of exactly what it does, it is officially an independent microeconomic research institute. Essentially it is a group of experts, unaffiliated with any political party, who do detailed analysis on matters related to tax and public spending.

So during the election campaign it became the go-to body to pronounce on pledges by political parties. A journalist who wanted to assess how much a proposed measure would cost, or how it would affect different groups of people, would invariably quote the IFS. Generally commentators described it as a “respected” or even “highly respected” organisation. It took on the role of neutral arbiter, able to judge the viability of proposals by any party. In that respect it became more of a reference point in the election than the parties themselves.

Hardly anyone seemed to recognise that this development had a dark side. For one thing it meant that the IFS, an unelected organisation, had a position of some power. It meant that a panel of experts would have a large say over which parties and which policies should be considered viable.

This is not meant as an attack on the IFS itself. Its experts are no doubt hugely professional, and I have drawn on their authoritative reports myself in previous articles. 

The problem, rather, is what has propelled the rise of the IFS to such prominence. Essentially it indicates a hole in the heart – or perhaps that should be in the brain – of politics. It shows that what passes for political debate no longer represents a clash of principles. The spats between politicians are more akin to squabbles between rival accountants over how best to balance the books of a local corner shop.

Just think back to what election manifestos used to represent. Essentially they were broad statements of principle from each political party. Today they are treated more like a set of accounts or business plans. The inevitable refrain to a proposal from any politician is to ask whether the measure has been properly costed.

This lack of principles represents a serious problem for several reasons. First, it indicates the paucity of ideas in contemporary politics. All of the main parties seem conspicuously vision-lite. The vociferousness of the debate is inversely proportional to the differences between the parties. Politicians of different stripes may appear to detest each other but it does not follow that they disagree on matters of substance. 

The absence of fundamental debate means that democracy is inevitably degraded. Genuine democracy is premised on having a lively battle of ideas. It is about much more than just having elected parliaments.

Probably most directly relevant to Fund Strategy readers in their professional capacities Is the impact of this lack of principles on economic debate. Without competing visions of society any discussion can only be a narrow, technical affair. There is no force propelling politicians to take up the key questions. The most important challenges seldom get raised; let alone resolved.

Indeed the superficial character of the debate is so long-standing that it hardly gets noticed. The focus is overwhelmingly on secondary factors such as the budget deficit or government debt. It is seldom understood that, to the extent these matter, they are symptoms of underlying problems rather than key challenges in themselves. For example, public debt levels are high because successive governments have preferred to simply spend money rather than promote a much-needed economic restructuring.

When key questions are occasionally raised, such as Britain’s poor productivity levels, politicians are generally at a loss to know what to say about them. This is a long-standing problem that governments of all stripes have failed to address. There is relatively little debate about how the state can play a role in helping to create the conditions for durable investment in some sectors while unwinding others.

So the lack of proper political debate should not be dismissed as either or a shame or a sideshow. It has damaging consequences. It means fundamental questions seldom get raised let alone resolved.

The only winners in what was tragically a sham of an election were Britain’s technocratic elite. They found their reputation enhanced just as politicians were ever more discredited.

If there was one clear winner there was also an unambiguous loser: the general public. It was in effect disenfranchised by an election bereft of ideas. That puts us all in a weaker position to tackle the formidable challenges ahead.

Key Takeaway: What passes for political debate no longer represents a clash of principles. The spats between politicians are more akin to squabbles between rival accountants over how best to balance the books of a local corner shop.

 

     The IFS

  • Founded in 1969.
  • An independent economic research institute.
  • Based in London.
  • Research areas include, among others, consumer behaviour, living standards, pensions, public spending and wealth.
  • Paul Johnson is director of the IFS while Richard Blundell is research director.