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Which party should you vote for to make you happiest?

You’ve heard the economic arguments and seen the policy wrangling, but which party would actually increase your happiness?

Each party justifies its policies by appealing to principles like fairness, equality or security. These are hard to object to and harder to choose between. What if, instead, I just wanted to know which party would make me, as the average Briton, happier? Which policies will make people experience more pleasurable, fulfilling, satisfising lives?

In principle, this is a question there could be an objective, factual answer to. Social scientists have been collecting data for 60 years on what makes people happy. Simply, people are asked how they think and feel about their lives. While people do differ in what makes us happy, we differ less than we’d think. Just as no one wants to be in pain, nearly everyone enjoy spending time with their friends and doing fulfilling work. Using the data on happiness, can we establish which polices should make people happier on average. In theory, we could audit the manifestos’ impact on happiness just like the Office of Budget Responsibility does their spending promises.

In practice, it’s not so simple. Doing a precise calculation is immensely complicated. What we can do, and I’ve done here, is a quick and dirty analysis. On the basis of the happiness evidence, we can divide policies into three groups.

The first is those policies that don’t clearly matter to happiness. The top examples are policies to bring economic growth and anything to do with the deficit. Perhaps the most famous result in the happiness data – known as the Easterlin Paradox, named after the economist who noticed it – is that people in developed countries have been getting wealthier, but not any more satisfied with their lives, since World War Two.

While this may seem mysterious, it’s got a fairly obvious explanation. Our happiness is determined by how we feel about what we pay attention to. We adapt to unchanging circumstances and stop paying attention to them. On a daily basis, ordinary people might worry about their work, their family, their health and their commute. What they don’t do is wake up every day a feel grateful they aren’t in a North Korean labour camp. In the same way, rich people don’t focus on how rich they are. That’s why increasing average wealth won’t make the country happier. We can’t neglect economics altogether (as the Greeks or the Zimbabweans could tell us) but wealth doesn’t matter nearly as much we think it does.

Also in this category are foreign affairs, immigration and education. Today, how long did you think about Isis or foreign immigrants for? Was it longer or shorter than you spent thinking about what you should have for lunch? Exactly. Equally, while different education policies may make people smarter, it’s less clear how they’ll increase national happiness. The rule of thumb is that if a policy wouldn’t change something that you’ve done or thought about today, it doesn’t matter.

The second group is policies that do affect happiness, but spending money on them won’t increase it overall because that means you’re taking money from something else. Examples of this include things like spending more on physical health, transport or law and order. If the Tories create 5,000 more doctors, but won’t spend any more overall, and that money comes out the police force or rail infrastructure, the changes cancel each other out.

The third are policies that are really important happiness because they change how people experience their lives. Policies that increase support for mental health and social care, reduce unemployment and lift people out of poverty are those that matter most. To realise why, think of it this way: while breaking a leg might be painful initially, in the modern day it’s really just an inconvenience. However, being depressed, being unemployed or being in poverty are not things you adapt to and stop thinking about.

So, who should you vote for? It depends on your economic views. If you think money grows on trees, vote Green: their support for a guaranteed income, amongst other things, will increase happiness in the short term. If you don’t think money does, vote Lib Dem: their £3.5bn commitment to mental health is the policy with the biggest positive happiness impact. Just behind them are Labour, with the Tories and Ukip’s more right-wing welfare policies putting them in fourth and fifth.

Michael Plant is a philosopher, happiness consultant and co-founder of Hippo.Rocks.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.