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

Getty Images.
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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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