British politics is still suffering from ‘long populism’

For those who prefer their political leaders to be serious and managerial, 2023 started well. The next election is likely to be contested between two figures neither of whom will disgrace the office of prime minister. Yet encouraging as this is after the populist interlude, other advances will take longer to work their way out the system.

There are two core traits in populist politics. The first involves using the language of elites to set the public against institutions that might curb a government’s power. The second is the cakeist refusal to admit that complex problems nearly always involve uncomfortable trade-offs. The first strain is easing under Rishi Sunak. On the second, however, the UK still suffers from what might be called ‘long populism’.

Symptoms of this can be seen in Brexit where both Labour and the Conservatives have a vested interest in denying or understating its adverse economic effects. For Tories, because it is their flagship policy and for Labour because highlighting problems draws attention to its limited solutions.

Long populism is more acute when it comes to fiscal policy, for British politics has lost the ability to cope with a lack of money. Superficially both Sunak and Keir Starmer speak of hard choices but the reality is more nuanced. Their calls for restraint are conversations with their own parties rather than voters. Sunak wants his side to wait for tax cuts while Starmer is preparing activists for the retreat from previous pledges.

Both sides are haunted by missteps. Labour is perennially fearful of its reputation for raising taxes. The Tories are haunted by the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne, the duration and severity of which powered both Brexit and the left populism of Jeremy Corbyn. Pledges to reverse its worst impacts were central to Boris Johnson’s 2019 election platform. But the huge costs of the pandemic and energy relief package crowded out other commitments and forced tax rises at a time when the economy has stalled. Inflation is eroding the effort to restore real terms spending on public services.

Tories are desperate to reduce taxes but fear anything that looks like a rerun of austerity. Sunak, in fairness, is an antidote to the cakeism of Liz Truss, who swerved this dilemma by borrowing to cut taxes. But he is delaying major spending cuts until after the next election while hoping to cut tax before it.

Nowhere is this struggle with trade offs more obvious than in healthcare. Neither side wishes to engage in the difficult truth that, even with much needed reforms, the health provision demanded by an ageing nation requires investment, not least in adult social care which relies on local authority spending that has been chronically underfunded. NHS budgets were protected and rose but the pandemic exposed the near decade of shrinking capacity and stagnant wages. Yet the one Truss tax cut Sunak retained was the scrapping of his new health and social care levy.

Money alone is not the solution but parties cannot pretend it is no issue at all. Leaders avoid frank conversations with the public on priorities within NHS spending and how we pay for the healthcare we demand, be it with other funding models, higher tax or supplementary charges. Labour’s impressive health spokesman Wes Streeting is ahead of ministers in pressing for reform, such as the funding of GP services. But Labour appears to hope it can run a “Broken Britain” campaign while using talk of reform to avoid difficult questions on spending.

Economic growth would square this circle but neither side offers a convincing long-term plan for it and this, plus Brexit, is discouraging private investment. Conservatives preach supply side measures but these are scaled back given lack of funds or, in the case of planning reforms to power housebuilding, internal opposition to another unwelcome trade-off. Likewise tight finances fuel a short-termism that puts off decisions while they are not a pressing priority.

So the UK’s choice is between two managerial leaders both essentially offering their own update to Johnson’s 2019 manifesto. One promises lower taxes without hurting public services and the other better services with only minor tax rises. Both sides want to own the issue but are reluctant to discuss the real choices, preferring to focus on “painless” savings, like slashing bureaucracy, or “victimless” tax measures such as levies on non-doms.

So in a time of fiscal squeeze both parties will default towards campaigns on values and low-cost policies. For the Conservatives this means issues like immigration. For Labour it will mean stressing its expansive (and already costed) green agenda, and cheaper flagship plans like enhanced workers’ rights and democratic renewal.

Talking to his shadow cabinet this week Starmer stressed that the party’s platform had to be sold as a 10-year mission. Only with the first term secure would Labour be free to make the arguments for the longer vision. This is the framework for politics in an era of tight resources. Political parties maintain the illusion of trade-off-free solutions, while seeking revenue by stealth, for example by freezing tax allowances. Unwilling to talk openly about choices, they lurch from one temporary fix to the next.

Both Sunak and Starmer see the perils of long populism and the need to face up to hard choices. But they also know its allure and will not feel safe being too open with voters until they are sure the UK is truly over the virus.

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