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28 November 2019

Evening Call: The End of Austerity?

By Jonn Elledge

Remember how, in 2010, every department had to agree to swingeing budget cuts? Remember how those cuts predictably ended up falling disproportionately on capital investment, because that’s the part that’s easier to cut, so that now it feels like the country is falling apart? Remember the way shortly after all this that the country tumbled back into the recession that it had only recently climbed out of?

Remember the way we were told all this was necessary, that we were all in this together even the people who very obviously weren’t? That the government was very sad about it, even the ones who were obviously gleeful? That if we didn’t do this then the entire country would turn into Greece? (A note for younger readers: in 2010, turning into Greece was seen as a demotion.)

Well: forget all that, because it’s 2019, austerity is over, and the spending taps are on. A report out today from the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysing the three big national parties’ manifestos does an excellent job of making the point that prudence doesn’t live here any more.

Labour’s £80bn spending bonanza, the IFS warns, is too big to be paid for by the revenues likely to be generated by its proposed tax increases on high earners and corporations. As a result it’s highly likely that funding its proposed investment and public sector pay rises would require tax increases for everyone else too. Woo.

But before the Tories get too excited, the Institute warns that their spending plans aren’t credible either. The party’s “ill-advised” pledge not to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT is something it will regret, IFS head honcho Paul Johnson said, before noting that the party had failed to come up with any kind of plan for social care either.

Meanwhile, even though the Lib Dem manifesto will involve lower levels of borrowing than the other two, it’s still the sort of thing that would in the past have been seen as “radical”. Which must be the first time anyone has ever used that word about something involving Jo Swinson.

Three observations about all this. One is that, whatever financial holes there are in Labour’s manifesto, this particular deck is very clearly stacked against the red team. The Tories have so successfully embedded the idea that they are the party of thrift and responsibility that their spending plans never seem to get half the analysis of the Labour ones, even when they’re, for example, planning to drive the economy off a cliff to appease the European Research Group.

You can see this structural bias at work in the quotes the BBC has selected to illustrate its story on the IFS report. Jeremy Corbyn defends his party’s manifesto against the IFS criticism. Meanwhile chancellor Sajid Javid spends his two paragraphs attacking Labour, without even acknowledging the IFS’s critique of his own party.

Secondly, at a point when we don’t know when Brexit will happen, what our trading relationship with the EU will look like afterwards, or what impact this will have on the economy, all this analysis feels just a tiny bit theoretical. 

Thirdly, as with 2017’s £1bn bung to appease the DUP, I can’t help but wonder: if the Tories have known where the magic money tree is all along, then why on earth have they let the country get into its current state? And why, if the polls are to be believed, are we about to reward them for it?

Good day for…

Independents. East Devon is an area that’s been Conservative longer for several decades longer than the UK has had universal suffrage. Yet it looks set to finally get a real choice at this election, after independent local campaigner Claire Wright – who has never been a member of any party – looks increasingly like she might be the area’s next MP.

Anoosh spoke to Wright about how independents took the local council last May and how, over the last three elections, she’s build her own personal vote up to the point where she could plausibly win. It’s a great read.

Bad day for…

Anybody over 30 who is baffled by the modern world (which is, let’s be honest, all of us), as today is the day we learned that videos of hot men telling the viewer he’s their boyfriend are racking up billions of views on TikTok. This is a thing that is really happening, apparently a lot.

I am old and frightened of dying and don’t understand anything any more, but luckily the New Statesman’s digital culture and young person correspondent Sarah Manavis is on hand to explain it to me. You can read her latest here.

Quote of the day

“They will do anything, supported by the likes of Goldman Sachs writing the cheques like they did in 2016, to ensure Remain win.”

Former Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings in a blogpost yesterday, with a helpful reminder that the right is also more than capable of indulging in conspiracy theories about global finance.

Everybody’s talking about…

YouGov’s MRP model, a seat-by-seat prediction about what the election result would be if it were held today, which predicted a Tory majority of 68, Labour’s worst result in generations, and a frankly hilarious Lib Dem performance of winning precisely one more MP on a massively increased vote share.

It’s worth remembering that this is a nowcast, and there are two weeks left; that it will in any case affect campaign behaviour, and thus the result; and that a lot of the predicted results are so close anyway that they could quite easily go another way. Nonetheless: yikes. If you haven’t read Stephen’s fascinating piece from late last night on what all this means yet, you should do that right now.

Everyone should be talking about…

The Universities & Colleges Union (UCU) strike, which began on Monday and runs for another week. The proximate cause is pension changes; but pay, casualisation, and workload are all in the mix too, and the internet this week abounds with stories about quite how badly some who earn their living in higher education are getting stiffed. One example, courtesy of former University Challenge star and occasional NS contributor Hannah Rose Woods: “I prepared, taught and marked an entire 8 week module for £216”. 

Last night the pro-capitalism comment site CapX noted that the number of days lost to strike action had fallen by over 99 per cent over the last 40 years. Given recent lack of wage growth and increasingly poor conditions faced by many workers, I’m not altogether sure this is a good thing.


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