In times of struggle, the British buy cars

It's not a rational response to economic hardship, but it is a British one.

The UK car industry has in the past been associated with British Leyland’s unreliability, emptying factory floors and rusting scrap yards. It is now the most unlikely, but welcome, source of continuous good news in the post-2008 economy.

As the recession trudges on it’s become an accepted wisdom that consumers will not spend on luxuries, they will avoid large expense and they are not confident enough to invest in long term products. It seems a stretch to imagine that in a recession the car industry would remain buoyant; surely, it’s pure fantasy to say that it would do well?

There were early signs that the car industry held hope for consumers, GDP-watchers and policy makers alike. When the Labour government launched a car scrappage scheme in March 2009 car sales increased beyond expectations. Up to 400,000 cars, each around 27 per cent more efficient than its scrapped counterpart, were sold as a result of the scheme. The policy will go down in records as one of the most successful of the stimulus policies following the 2008 crash.

When that stimulus was taken away wouldn’t the car industry, which was already in decline before the crash, lose business? Maybe in the short term, but in the long term the good news has continued. Foreign companies have chosen to invest in production at plants in Sunderland, Ellesmere Port and Halewood. The first quarter of 2012 became the first time since 1976 that motor exports exceeded motor imports. With models like the Land Rover Freelander, the Vauxhall Astra and the Nissan Qashqai now built in the UK, the car manufacturing industry is now among the most viable and important in the UK.

British people aren’t buying cars in the middle of a recession, are they? Yes. They really are. In the year from July 2011 to July 2012, new car sales increased by 10.5 per cent even as we slipped back into recession. With their much welcomed GDP boosting powers this increase does not look like it is stopping.

On 1st September, when the new “62” registration plate is released, over 165,000 new cars will make their way from forecourts to the UK’s roads. This week Vertu Motors, a top ten UK motor retailer, released research which estimates that these sales will be worth in the region of £500m to the treasury in VAT alone, and an additional £20m in road tax.

Boosts in sales are not only good for the UK’s GDP, but for the budget too. New models are more carbon efficient than ever before, passing on benefits to consumers and relative improvements for the environment too.

In trying times, when all that we are given are negative stories and confidence is low, we can find a surprising and much needed boost for UK consumers and manufacturers in high cost luxury goods.

In times of struggle, the British buy cars. Go figure.

Cars pile up in a scrapyard as they're replaced with newer models. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Robb reads PPE at Oxford University where she is deputy editor of ISIS magazine.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.