Would you want to be in No 10 for the next parliament? Photo: Getty
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What’s in store for the 2015 victor: winner’s curse or a steady recovery?

Even in these fragile political times, May 2015 may not be as unattractive an election to win as it first appears.

One of the laziest lines in politics is that there are good elections to lose: five years in opposition are rarely rewarding. But it’s certainly true that there are less attractive elections to win and for many 2015 falls into this category. As others have said: beware of the winner’s curse.  

This pessimism is increasingly hard-set. To even raise the prospect of there being any upside in the next parliament is to risk ridicule. This week at the Liberal Democrat conference I was chastised for having the audacity to host an event called sharing the pain and the gain of the next parliament. “Don’t you know it’s only going to be pain?”

You can see the point. Regardless of who wins the election, we are likely to see fragile political leadership, quite possibly in the form of a minority government or an unhappy coalition, being buffeted by strong economic and fiscal headwinds while grappling with the pressures of resurgent English and Scottish nationalism.

Above all, the gloom is rooted in the economic outlook for Britain’s households. Three grey clouds hang over the next parliament, the darkest of which concerns the public finances. Whether it is George Osborne’s £25bn or the £37bn of tightening that organisations like the Resolution Foundation and the IFS have pointed to (and that’s not including the £9bn cuts already pencilled in for 2015/16, nor the £7bn of tax-cuts promised by the Conservatives last week), there is an awful lot of misery still to dish out. All the more so when we are told the NHS needs £30bn of extra resources by 2021 to sustain itself. There is no version of the next Parliament that doesn’t involve severe fiscal pain.  

The second challenge, a family relative of the first, is wage stagnation. Six years of falling pay remains the central economic fact of our times and there is no shared sense of when it will end. Actually, there is: it’s always next year. Most economists are still dazed by what’s happened in part because they didn’t think seriously about the deteriorating wage slow-down that occurred in the years before the crash and thus didn’t reflect on what it might imply for what arose afterwards. Falling pay is not just hurting families, it’s hobbling the exchequer too (due to what the OBR has termed ‘reverse fiscal drag’). A wage–poor recovery will mean a revenue-poor one too.

Add to this the third challenge – the inevitably of higher interest rates bearing down on debt-laden households – and the grounds for anxiety grow. Even if typical mortgage rates only go up by 1.5 per cent by 2018 – which many would say is optimistic - it would add £1500 to the annual costs of a £150,000 mortgage. If interest rates spiked for whatever reason then things could get truly nasty.

So far, so scary – and that’s before we even contemplate what a deflationary spiral in the Eurozone, or a hard-landing for the Chinese economy, might mean.  Yet to imply that any of this is pre-ordained is to over-claim. We shouldn’t get stuck in a doomy-gloomy way of thinking. A counter case for cautious optimism, or at the very least pessimism-lite, should also be entertained.    

The performance of our jobs-market has massively surpassed expectation. Assuming this continues, at some point wage growth will resume at least for a while (a few prescient voices have long maintained this would occur when unemployment falls to 4-5 per cent). Just because the economic establishment was wrong about the point at which wages would grow it doesn’t mean it’s never going to happen. And there are now, very belatedly, signs that a solid recovery is underway in business investment which should eventually feed through into productivity.   

Wage growth will eventually help improve the fiscal outlook; but before then the Treasury may well get a boost when, later this autumn, the OBR’s forecasts of potential output are updated. Even a fairly modest upgrading, to nudge it into line with those of the IMF, could dent the size of future austerity. And let’s not forget that fiscal timetables tend to be malleable. Regardless of anything that gets pledged pre-election, don’t be surprised if greater pragmatism emerges afterwards. A bit of extra time creates quite a bit of wriggle room.

As for interest rates and the so-called debt time-bomb, judging how long interest rates can remain on the floor is always going to be a high-wire act but to date the Bank has shown itself willing to face down calls for a precipitous rise. And to a significant degree the wage challenge and the monetary one offset each other: until wages grow interest rates are unlikely to shift much. 

All of which means it’s possible to sketch out a picture of the next Parliament that is less gruesome than we might think. Steady, job-rich GDP growth. The eventual resumption of pay rises as unemployment continues to fall. A very slow and gradual path of interest rate increases following rises in living standards, assisted by stable inflation and a housing market tamed by tougher regulation rather than the need for higher mortgage rates. And a timetable for chipping away at the deficit that extends over the parliament.

Sure, that’s a very rosy scenario. Any number of things could derail it. It would require plenty of good policy judgement, not to mention luck, for it to arise. Even then it would be a bruising and enervating parliament that would severely test the most robust of governments. But steady growth is a salve to most problems, and to be in power is always to have real choices. Don’t rule out the possibility that the 2015 election winner might not necessarily be as cursed as the current zeitgeist would have us believe.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of Resolution Foundation

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

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.