Mervyn King gets his life peerage and a lollipop, the rest of us get more misery

The newly ennobled Mervyn King blames “a collective lack of imagination” for the financial crisis. We, all of us, failed to see the iceberg. The only problem is that most of us were in the engine room shovelling coal.

I have long been convinced that a life peerage is very much akin to a pacifier. If a significant figure is retiring from public life and has the potential to command media attention, give them a nice title on which to suck and stop kvetching, plus the ability to claim £300 a day for spending a couple of hours in the House of Lords. Giving them a formal public platform has the brilliantly counterintuitive effect of diminishing their future risk index by making them one of many within the Westminster bubble.

The success, or lack thereof, in their former post seems a secondary consideration. And so it is with Sir Mervyn King. This week George Osborne announced that the outgoing Governor of the Bank of England would be taking his place within our unelected pantheon of gown and wig after his retirement at the end of the month. Sporting metaphors blinked like newly born rabbits in the lights of the annual Bankers and Merchants dinner. “You had to play on a sticky wicket,” mused the Chancellor. It was “a game of two halves”, added King.

The only problem is that many would disagree with the post-match analysis – even to the basic level of whether team GB won or lost. We are still a long way off from recovering pre-crisis economic activity levels, unlike the US or Germany, for instance. Inflation has been consistently way above the BoE’s target for many months. Solutions like Funding for Lending appear to have had little impact – lending to SMEs has actually decreased under the scheme. Too little of the river of cash being pumped into the system via Quantitative Easing appears to have trickled through to the real economy – the allegation is that banks are using such schemes and cash to shore up their own balance sheets.

Mervyn King's involvement in the more political aspects of economic strategy has also, rightly, been contentious. Documents released in November 2010 showed an oddly keen involvement in the coalition’s personnel and policies. His blessing of the austerity programme, which has now been questioned even by the IMF, could be seen as almost co-authoring it.

There is also significant criticism of King’s running of the organisation in the “first half” – the one he would term the “nice half”. It is suggested, correctly in my view, that his obsessive focus on inflation targeting failed to take into account the downward pressure on prices created by cheap Chinese imports entering the UK market and so, in effect, allowed the economy “to run too hot during the boom years”. Coupled with very light touch banking regulation, this could be argued to have sown the seeds of the crisis which followed.

Arguably, however, the most distasteful and dishonourable part of his legacy is his attempt to absolve himself of all responsibility. His explanation last year on Radio 4 had a distinct whiff of “nothing to do with me, guv”.  This was a failure of “the system”, he claimed. Isn’t that the system which he oversaw from a key position? "With the benefit of hindsight, we should have shouted from the rooftops that a system had been built in which banks were too important to fail, that banks had grown too quickly and borrowed too much."

It was not hindsight that was lacking. It was plain old present sight. The growth of banks, the mergers, the risky ventures, the out-of-control borrowing – these were not things which happened in secret. They happened in plain sight and with state approval.

Mervyn King blames “a collective lack of imagination”. We, all of us, failed to see the iceberg. We are, apparently, collectively blameworthy. The only problem is that most of us were in the engine room shovelling coal. Mervyn King was one of the people on the bridge. More than that, since one of the BoE’s core purposes and strategic priorities is to “maintain stability and improve the resilience of the financial system”, he was specifically in charge of the looking-out-for-icebergs department.

In those circumstances, it is adding insult to injury for him to shout back from his peerage lifeboat to the rest of us, now drowning in a freezing sea of debt and austerity, “well, you didn’t see the iceberg either”. Why wouldn’t we want to keep this sort of expert, constructive and visionary input a part of our legislature for the rest of his natural life? Happy retirement, Sir Mervyn. We look forward to being blamed for future shipwrecks.

Sir Mervyn King gets a life peerage - the pacifier of public life. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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.