Why UKIP's right wing economics won't appeal to the city

They're far too simple.

“The government has NO money!!!” – so erupted a speaker at a lunch at the House of Commons, and he brought down his fist so hard on the table the water glasses bounced into the air. As they landed, even I received the message that this was someone with a sense of conviction.

To be fair this wasn’t the first time I had come across Professor Tim Congdon: he was one of the first people to warn of the impending problems in the UK economy in a 1987 Channel 4 opinion piece just at the time when everyone else was congratulating themselves that the Thatcher government had achieved the holy grail of a deunionised, free market economy based upon borrowed money. People had been persuaded that everybody could be materially equal as long as you were up to your neck in debt but Congdon was intent on pricking that particular bubble. Much to everyone’s annoyance, he was right.

Fast forward some time from the tub-thumping House of Commons moment and Congdon is standing for the leadership of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) against Nigel Farage. He loses, but in the process has imbedded himself deeply into the early intellectual base of the party, mainly because he is usually right on economics. His main area of interest is how money dictates inflation. Or, more to the point, how the growth of borrowed money dictates inflation: the more borrowed money there is, the more inflation there is. It seems a self-evident truth but some are apt to violate it from time to time. The departure from this mantra led Congdon to become disappointed with Margaret Thatcher in the latter years of her premiership. Unforgivably, inflation had hardly changed, at some 10 per cent, at the end as at the beginning of her premiership, because according to Congdon she ignored the law of controlling broad money supply  – it was a betrayal of his principles.

Congdon is famously unforgiving to people who contradict him on economic matters, especially when he believes himself to be uncontrovertibly right. But it isn’t out of a sense of hand-wringing fear that one wonders why he is so absent in UKIP’s public statements on economic policy even though he is officially UKIP’s economics spokesman. Perhaps even more interesting, why there are no economic policies on UKIP’s website? There is a long exposition on their position on tax, written by Godfrey Bloom MEP, but that is all. Bloom laces his text with classical references from Adam Smith through David Ricardo, Arthur Laffer and the Regan/Thatcher nexus. You get the feeling Aristotle is missing merely because there wasn’t enough room.

There are some economic principles within Bloom’s thesis: an acknowledgement of the UK’s chronic debt position, recognition of the rising UK interest bill and the desire to reduce taxes to increase the tax take. There is also the claim of being able to reduce government expenditure by £90bn a year without touching front-line services, including defence. There is advocacy of low and flat taxes and the idea that people are better than governments at spending their own money. If you shut your eyes and had it read out loud you would be forgiven for confusing it with a Conservative Party political broadcast (particularly if you left out the stuff about Europe but even that is beginning to harmonise).

What UKIP appeal to is what they would call common sense economics. They are “sound money” advocates: they see the economy like a PLC or a household. They certainly don’t advocate policies that would put them in the camp of those who would use that last hiding place of failed economic policy – currency devaluation – as a tool for economic management. The economist David Blanchflower would be shaking his head in disbelief at this omission, as though – in a famous similie -- they were going onto a golf course with only a driver and a putter in their bag.

On the surface you could be forgiven for assuming that if the UKIP economic thesis, such as it is, could be brought together into something with specific implementation points, there would be many in the clubs up and down Pall Mall and the wine bars of the City of London nodding in agreement with the principles evinced. But this forgets that proper capitalists don’t necessarily want sound money policies: they may welcome low taxes but in capitalist societies all profits are financed through a lavish debt cycle which is the antimatter of sound money and, by extension, of Tim Congdon. Rapacious and calculating capitalists beset by cold ambition for profit would rather see a party in power which lets society at large flash the cash than one that saved up for an indulgence sometime in the future. So to say that the City, or business generally, would automatically welcome UKIP on the basis of ostensibly right-wing policies is too simplistic.

The right isn’t synonymous with capitalists and capitalism isn’t synonymous with financial temperance. In fact, arguably, the opposite is true and may be what is needed in the future. UKIP have a problem.

Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.