Leader: Don’t bet the bank on Mark Carney

Until the government marries monetary activism with fiscal activism, Britain will not have a recovery worthy of the name.

We live in the age of the cult of the central banker. As governments of both left and right have retreated from economic interventionism, it is Ben Bernanke in the United States, Mario Draghi in Europe and Haruhiko Kuroda in Japan who have led the fightback against recession. Few of the new masters of the universe are more feted than the Canadian Mark Carney, who takes office as governor of the Bank of England on 1 July. Since being named as Mervyn King’s successor six months ago, he has been continually hailed as a saviour for the British economy. When it was pointed out to George Osborne that the Office for Budget Responsibility had forecast that the measures included in his most recent Budget would have “no impact on the level of GDP”, he replied that the estimate did not take into account the changes that Mr Carney would make. The Chancellor is a self-described “fiscal conservative” and “monetary activist”. He is banking on Threadneedle Street to deliver the recovery that he has not.

The appointment of Mr Carney (who is profiled by Alex Brummer on page 20) was a shrewd one. As our economics editor, David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), has written, he was “the best person available” for the job. Untainted by any of the recent banking scandals, he performed admirably as governor of the Bank of Canada, cutting interest rates aggressively in March 2008, a year before the Bank of England and the European Central Bank did. Mr Osborne was right to prefer him to the City’s candidate of choice, the deputy governor Paul Tucker, who ignored early warnings of the manipulation of LIBOR by Barclays and responded sluggishly to the financial crisis.

But if Mr Carney, in the words of one of his defeated rivals, has been “launched on the nation as a messiah”, there are good reasons to believe he will be a false one. The base rate is already at a record low of 0.5 per cent, where it has been for more than four years, and the Bank has already performed £375bn of quantitative easing (QE), the equivalent of nearly a quarter of annual GDP. With growth still anaemic and inflation at just 2.4 per cent, there is a strong case for further loosening but Mr Carney will need to overcome the resistance of the MPC, which has voted against additional QE for 11 consecutive months. Unlike in Canada, where the governor has sole responsibility for policy, he will require the support of a majority of the other eight committee members, six of whom have consistently opposed new stimulus.

Where Mr Carney is more likely to prevail is in following the example of the US Federal Reserve and offering “forward guidance” on interest rates. This would entail a commitment to keep rates low until a certain economic threshold has been met (the Federal Reserve has adopted an unemployment target of 6.5 per cent). Although the markets already expect the base rate to remain at 0.5 per cent until 2016, this would have the beneficial effect of dampening expectations of a rise should growth exceed current forecasts. The principal reason to remain sceptical of Mr Carney’s potential is the inherent limits of monetary policy. When consumers are unwilling to borrow and banks unwilling to lend, it is the state that must act as a spender of last resort and stimulate growth through measures such as temporary tax cuts, housebuilding programmes and infrastructure spending. It is Mr Osborne’s reluctance to accept this truth that does much to explain the parlous performance of the British economy, which has grown just 1.1 per cent since 2010 and remains 2.6 percentage points below its pre-recession peak. The Chancellor is fond of citing the example of Mr Carney’s native Canada, which eliminated its deficit in just three years in the mid-1990s, but it was the concurrent boom in the US, not an “expansionary contraction”, that enabled it to do so.

As even the new governor has said, “Some people may be expecting central banks to do too much” – and none more so than Mr Osborne. Until the government marries monetary activism with fiscal activism, Britain will not have a recovery worthy of the name.

Incoming governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney arrives at the G7 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting in Aylesbury on 10 May, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.