Monday 20 April 2015

The three biggest distortions of the general election

Spare a thought for a moment for the hapless policy wonk. I don’t really speak as a represetative of the guild, so to speak – I am far too opinionated. But I have enough policy wonk in my genes to know what they are going through, and two weeks from a general election is an absolute nadir.

The general election campaign has reached its height. Those interested in policy have waited for this moment for five long years when, at last, the issues would be aired and hammered out effectively, and decisions would be reached, contradictions revealed and we could all move on.

But of course, when it comes to the point, nothing remotely like this happens. The issues are simplified to the point of stupidity, the real problems are obscured, the parties slag each other off on the basis of mindless distortions and the world appears to go backwards.

It is a caricature of democracy. The very opposite of what our forefathers fought for, and it happens every time. Perhaps this time more than last, time because the stakes are so high.

The depths of the obscurity always take me by surprise at elections, but – like the pain of childbirth – something about the wonk genes means we are bred to forget it. This time, I reckon its worse then ever but I know I said that to myself last time.

So just as a very small and, I’m aware, a rather ineffective gesture, here are the three most outrageous distortions and evasions of the real issues that are supposed to be elucidated. Read them and weep.

Distortion #1. It isn’t about privatisation, it’s about contract culture.
Privatisation, certainly in the NHS, seems to me to be pretty much on the turn. Contracts arc being abandoned early by many of the biggest contractors, and for the same reason: there really isn’t the opportunity for profit there any more. But the culture of contracts carries on spreading. It narrows down the deliverables, pushes costs elsewhere in the system and renders services less effective – because they have shifted the emphasis from doing a good job onto achieving target numbers, which is in practice something very different.

The problem isn’t really about who is running the NHS, which matters not nearly as much. It has everything to do with the style under which they are run. Because the real problem is the extension of fatuous call centre-style management into public services, which gives the illusion of saving money but actually sprays costs elsewhere.

The real issue isn’t who runs the service, it is how it is run. It really matters that it is run so that everyone counts, and not with the alienating and ultimately expensive techniques of mass production, which only seems to meet people’s needs. Why are these issues not being articulated?

Distortion #2. It isn’t the housing supply, it’s the money supply.
Listening to the housing debate, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is the shortage of homes that has driven up the costs – it is, in a small way. But what is really happening is that house price inflation over 30 years been driven primarily by the oversupply of property finance – first by changing the goalposts about how you could borrow, manipulated during the Blair years, then via bankers bonuses and now via foreign investors.

We might conceivably be able to meet our own needs by building more homes, but we can’t possibly satisfy the demands of the property investors in the Far East without prices rising.

See more in my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis.

Meanwhile, I have just listened to a Conservative housing speaker talking about ‘affordable’ housing in London, apparently unaware that this still requires a salary of well over £50,000 for a small flat. Has the BBC punctured that particular lie?

Distortion #3. It isn’t the privatisation of the big banks, it is the absence of small banks.
If ever the was a monumental failure to grasp the real issue for the economy, it was David Cameron’s announcement about the sale of shares in state-owned Lloyds. It will be sold and then carry on just as before, but with the extra constraints to make it safer – but also less effective – that were enacted by the coalition. 

Yet we still won’t have what nearly every other country in Europe has: an effective tier of small banks which are committed to their community, have local knowledge and can lend effectively to small business.

Some of the manifestos acknowledge this (certainly the Lib Dems do), but where is the debate that links this to the need for a more entrepreneurial economy? Where is the challenge to Labour and Conservative for the effective dislike of small business, which underpins everything else? Where is the debate about how to achieve this new tier – given that SME lending is still falling in the UK?


So there you have it. Three boulderised issues, stupidised by the lack of genuine election debate, an empty debate that is underpinned by the collusion of the BBC and their obsession with political process (except a handful of mavericks who are invited on to talk about issues that are missed out).

You will note also that these are mainly about the failures of big institutions and the urgent need for smaller, more responsive ones. That is the key change we need – but do you hear it debated?

The institutions don’t get debated partly because mainstream parties become cheerleaders for existing institutions. Perhaps that is where we need to look when the dust has settled a bit.

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