Changing the conversation in 2012

Might a party leader attend to the growing dissonance between Westminster rhetoric and the daily rea

Low growth, high unemployment, deeper cuts, falling wages, and a further reduction in the living standards of working families. Just in case you were under any doubt, 2012 is going to feel like one long Groundhog Day, a darker version of its grim predecessor.

There will, of course, be many new twists and turns. But the raw material of the economy-driven news cycle is likely to have a certain haunting familiarity, even if it is far harder to predict the political ramifications and Westminster winners and losers.

Yet the very persistence and severity of the economic situation may start to force previously unmentionable issues and arguments onto the agenda. More of the same might -- just possibly -- prompt something different: that is, a slightly more honest conversation between politicians and the public.

Leading figures in all parties have long been told not to talk about certain issues, or to frame them in particular ways, in order to avoiding having to confront what is judged to be entrenched popular opinion. In relation to housing policy the iron law is to talk exclusively about home ownership, never implying that this will remain out of reach for millions of families. In relation to the long-term future of the jobs market, the received wisdom is to always talk about advanced manufacturing and low-carbon industries as a major source of new high-skilled employment, as well as beacons of a new economic modernity that lies just around the corner. In relation to generational politics, particularly how the pain arising from spending cuts is distributed across different age groups, the rule that must not be broken is never offend the grey vote -- their benefits must be protected above all else.

To a far greater degree than any of the party leaders would like to admit, these are the shared assumptions of today's politics (there are many others). They bind all parties close together at the same time as they move them further apart from growing ranks of the public. In a vibrant political culture, each of these (and other) nostrums would, at the very least, be subject to challenge; some already sound like political edicts from a bygone era.

The reason they persist, of course, is the continuing power given to opinion polls or, more accurately, what politicians often imagine public sentiment to be.

Take housing policy. It is perfectly sensible for someone on a low income to tell a pollster (as 86 per cent of the public do) that they want to own their own home, at the same time as they may be incredulous that no leading politician in Britain speaks on behalf of the swelling ranks who raise families in rented accommodation with little or no security. (The proportion of low to middle income households under 35 privately renting has almost trebled since 1988, so that now 41 per cent are privately renting).

Equally, large swathes of the public will of course say that it would be a good thing if there were more highly-skilled jobs that involved "making something" (even if all the key studies point to continued long-term decline in manufacturing employment) at the same time as they observe that in the town where they live it is low-skilled service sector work that dominates. They may think it would be good for the economy if there was job growth in new industries; but they might also yearn for someone to look like they have a plan for improving the prospects of those in insecure low-paid work.

Or take the question of how the burden of deficit reduction is shared across the generations. The current cross-party consensus (recently ruffled by Nick Clegg) is not much more sophisticated than "older people vote, and there are a growing number of them, so we should therefore be willing to do whatever we can to avoid upsetting them even if it means defending entitlements for more affluent pensioners at the same time as younger people and working families face swinging cuts". Again, it is perfectly possible for at least some middle-class pensioners to state in a focus group that they wouldn't be much pleased with the removal of their winter-fuel allowance, at the same time as they might be profoundly concerned about the diminishing prospects for their children and grand-children. They might, however grumpily, countenance some change in their own position if it helped soften the blow to those younger than them.

All this prompts the question of whether another dismal economic year might see some of these settled assumptions challenged. Might one of the party leaders decide the growing dissonance between Westminster rhetoric and the daily reality of large parts of the electorate is so large that that it is now in their interests to take a risk? Westminster sages from all sides are likely to snort with derision at this: as if political leaders would be seen making a fuss about rented accommodation, or highlighting the inevitability and importance of new retail jobs.

Inertia and conservatism may win out as they often do in contemporary politics. Perhaps, as some pollsters think, our economic position will have to get far worse, for far longer, before politicians decide to take risks with the electorate. But I'm not so sure. As 2012 drags on and people's sense of anger about their prospects intensifies, and with it their frustration with politicians who endlessly empathise about "the squeeze" but have very little practical to say about what to do about it -- indeed, as leading politicians themselves become ever more disillusioned with the inadequacy of their own words -- then the established rules of the game will come under pressure as never before. Is Clegg really going to go carry on feigning support for deeper cuts to working families at the same time as the most affluent pensioners are unscathed? Will yet more wheezes for first-time buyers continue to be presented by all parties as the real answer to the housing problems of families who have as little a prospect of getting to the top of the social housing list as they do raising a deposit to purchase a home?

Here's hoping that amidst the impending gloom of 2012 there are some growing flickers of political candour.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Theresa May wants a Global Britain? Then stay in the single market

The entrepreneur Lord Bilimoria argues the Prime Minister risks both the prosperity and reputation of the UK. 

Since coming to the UK as a student in the early 1980s, I have witnessed the shattering of its glass ceiling and the birth of one of the world’s most enterprising nations. Much of this progress is now under threat due to the great uncertainty Brexit is causing.

It has been six months since the referendum, and we are still presented with no clear strategy except a blind leap of faith out of the single market. By continuing to pursue a closed and inward-looking Brexit, Theresa May risks both the prosperity and reputation of this country. 

Last week I joined with thirty other entrepreneurs and business leaders in urging the Prime Minister to keep Britain within the EU single market. In the coming months Mrs May will face having to make a trade-off between immigration control and loss of single market access. The decision she makes will determine whether we retain much of our economic strength. 

That is why I was disappointed to see May’s most recent comments simply reinforcing the message that the government is pursuing a "hard" Brexit. Over the weekend her big interview sent the pound plunging – yet again. 

It is clear the government is solely focused on delivering stricter immigration regulation, regardless of whether it leaves Britain stranded outside the single market. To fall into the trap of calling the PM "Theresa Maybe" masks the decisive nature of her emerging strategy – which is to head for the hardest of exits.

We know that neither Council President Donald Tusk nor chief negotiator Michel Barnier will accept access to the single market without freedom of movement being part of the deal. This is incompatible with the vision set out by the government.

Yet, movement and access to the single market are vital to the future interests of British business. The PM must do more to reassure those set to be affected. We are currently part of a 500m-strong single market; this is good for British business. Although I believe the whole of Europe needs to reform the current free movement of people, not least for security reasons, we nevertheless must continue to have the ability to move freely within the EU for tourism, business and work.

It is becoming unequivocally clear that the PM is willing to pay any economic price to achieve stricter immigration controls for political gain. Driven by the fear that the far-right will use immigration in future election battlegrounds, the issue of immigration is undermining our ability to negotiate an exit from the EU that is in the best interest of businesses and the nation as a whole. 

The government’s infuriating failure to prioritise continued movement of people means we are set to lose a hugely competitive edge, reducing access to talented employees, and undermining the UK’s rich history of an open, diverse, and welcoming nation.  

To achieve the government’s absurd immigration control, we will have to leave the European single market. In doing so 44 per cent of our exports, the current percentage that go to Europe, will be jeopardised, as they will no longer have free access to their original markets. 

In tandem with an exit from the world’s largest single market, British business will also lose access to one of the strongest international talent pools. This has the potential to be even more devastating than the forfeiture of markets and trade.

Access to skilled workers is critical to future success. As a nation we have the lowest level of unemployment in living memory with less than 5 per cent currently out of work, and that’s in spite of 3.6m people from the EU working in Britain.

Britain will continue to need the expertise that free movement currently provides, regardless of whether Brexit happens or not. You cannot simply replace the skilled doctors, nurses or teachers living and working here overnight. 

The focus on immigration has also strayed into more dangerous territory with the government persisting in including international students as immigrants when calculating net migration figures, whilst having a target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. The PM’s insistence on this policy not only stifles encouragement of talent flows, but also sends an incredibly negative message to the international community. It is a policy that I have continually called on the PM to change and I will continue to do so.

Our competitor countries, the United States, Canada, and Australia, do not categorise international students as immigrants and, in fact, they also provide generous incentives to stay in their countries to work after graduating. In comparison, we removed our popular two year post-study work visa in 2012.

Brexit poses an increasingly dangerous reality that we are destined to be viewed as an inward-looking, insular and intolerant nation. That is not the Britain I know and love. That is not the Britain that has attracted enterprising individuals. The UK needs to establish itself once more as an outward-facing nation that welcomes international talent and entrepreneurship. This starts with retaining membership of the single market.  

Lord Karan Bilimoria is a leading British businessman and the founder of Cobra Beer.