You’ll know this – the Economist has backed David Cameron, though in a surprisingly reticent way: I can’t remember their New Labour endorsements being so coy as to leave a picture of an invisible man on the front cover.

For the first time I can recall, the Economist is forced to explain why they are NOT supporting the Lib Dems.  That is a huge, implicit positive. They correctly acknowledge Clegg’s fine liberalism on immigration and civil rights, as well as electoral reform, of course.

But on the negative side some of their reasons are telling, for those of us who see themselves as Classical Liberals more than Social Democrats.  You know my views on the tuition fees pledge, and I too am uneasy about rejecting nuclear power when the bigger threat is clearly climate change.  I have also been open with my concern about their sometimes hostility to business – allowing a social justice agenda to foreever trump the needs of wealth creation is better electioneering than policy.  I don’t think the right place to be is the Left of Labour on economics, no matter what outrages were thrown up in the financial crisis.  The Lib Dems need to get rid of the impression that this is where they are.

But if the Economist is a little harsh on Lib Dem policies, it is way too forgiving of Conservative ones.  Their basic premise is that the biggest problem is a ‘liberty destroying Leviathan’ that is now 50% of the economy.  The Economist is right to identify the Conservatives as the party most determined to reform the public sector, and reform is what it needs. But as I have argued all over this blog, this ratio is a misleading measure of how ‘government dominated’ we are.

They are also right to give cautious praise to David Cameron’s attempt to make the Conservatives more socially liberal and environmental, although they could have asked how far this has extended below the Notting Hill set.*

The Economist notes many Conservative failings – the Europhobic fringe, their exaggerations about broken Britain – and are too kind about their monumental failure to understand Keynesian economics at a rather crucial time.  This is not a minor caveat, and if it spells too much dogmatism in the near future, could turn into a monumental risk.

All in all, if you took the evidence from their column, the Economist should have endorsed a Hung Parliament.  Each party’s policy failings (in the eyes of the Economist) might have been improved by contact with the other.  But given Tory hysteria about that result, it would have looked like a vote for the Lib Dems.

I find the Economist’s survey of the years under New Labour interesting too.  There have been great achievements in social legislation, the changing constitution (remember all those peers?), peace in Northern Ireland.  The piece is interesting in how it reminds us that most revolutionary social changes are nothing to do with governments: Asian manufacturing, the budget airline, the internet, all these things are more significant to the long view of history.

They mention Labour’s sustained attempts to redistribute society into less inequality – a Brownian effort.  But what I found most telling is that those unambiguous achievements of New Labour in social and constitutional policy are not mentioned by Brown very often.  I can’t help thinking that his jealousy of his more charismatic predecessor has held him back from a fuller defence of Labour’s record, one that would make an even bigger nonsense of Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’ claim.

More predictably, though still with historical significance, the Guardian has backed the Liberal Democrats:

The Liberal Democrats were green before the other parties and remain so. Their commitment to education is bred in the bone. So is their comfort with a European project which, for all its flaws, remains central to this country’s destiny. They are willing to contemplate a British defence policy without Trident renewal. They were right about Iraq, the biggest foreign policy judgment call of the past half-century, when Labour and the Tories were both catastrophically and stupidly wrong. They have resisted the rush to the overmighty centralised state when others have not. At key moments, when tough issues of press freedom have been at stake, they have been the first to rally in support. Above all, they believe in and stand for full, not semi-skimmed, electoral reform.

You will notice that Labour is scarcely mentioned in this post.  That, alas, is where things have got to with them.  Who knows – they might well come second in both popular vote and number of seats.  But they appear irrelevant (almost as irrelevant, it seems, as George Osborne is to his own chief of staff)

UPDATE:  A third endorsement from Sunny is even more remarkable than the Guardian’s:

We have over 500,000 people in this country who are non-citizens; living in the shadows of society; living hand-to-mouth, on the breadline; open to exploitation because they have no legal status; earning less than minimum wage for shitty jobs because they can’t complain; and mostly no money even to leave the country. If the Labour Party can’t even have compassion for them, then it cannot claim to be a party of compassion and for the marginalised.

Superbly put: if it just the party of its own special interest that happens to be largely poor, it loses this mantle.

*The notorious ConHome poll of candidates is a curate’s egg in this regard: carbon counts for nothing, and reducing welfare bills quite high given we have a recession. But note too that Europe and marriage are not such obsessions as you might think.


15 thoughts on “Two contrasting endorsements

  1. I was at an Any Questions recording with Andrew Micklethwait in Oxford a couple of months ago. As might be expected, he provided an informed, intelligent, right-of-centre viewpoint. I can’t help but remember, though, that although he was less damning about the prospect of a hung parliament than Andrew Adonis and Anne Widdecombe, he was not exactly enthusiastic. He saw a hung parliament as being potentially a good thing for the country, but thought that the possibility of the necessary co-operation actually coming about was low. I can’t help thinking that this is why he preferred a pure Conservative endorsement over a Lib-Con ‘hung parliament’ scenario.

    1. Is that the Economist’s editor? Thought he had a different first name.

      Cooperation requires two mature and uncynical parties; it is in the LIb Dems’ massive interest to show that it can work – but for the Conservatives, nothing would suit more than for a minority parliament situation to fail in a way that could blame the junior partner. So maybe he is right, but not for reasons that might reflect well on Conservatives

    1. I heard him at the Carlton Club once – very good, in front of a beery and not particularly liberal audience.

      The Carlton club makes me genuinely sorry for Cameron. Noone can deny that DC has tried to do a lot of the right things for the Tories, and has been pretty good for them. But the port-swilling waistcoatbursters are always saying “not sure what I think of this chap Cameron”.

  2. Simple point, but you’ve taken this far too seriously. I used to work at the Economist, and they spend about 5 minutes on this sort of decison.

  3. “allowing a social justice agenda to foreever trump the needs of wealth creation”

    If wealth creation leads to injustice – it isn’t really the wealth it appears to be as there is a cost outstanding, usually one met through taxation or charity. Regulation as a means to redress injustice can be avoided or under-enforced.

    Which is why am disappointed that the LD manifesto was so weak on co-operative & mutual ownership in the private sector.

  4. I think you’ll find that Asian manufacturing and the internet have a lot to do with government.

    “But on the negative side some of their reasons are telling, for those of us who see themselves as Classical Liberals more than Social Democrats. You know my views on the tuition fees pledge, and I too am uneasy about rejecting nuclear power when the bigger threat is clearly climate change”

    Well I consider myself a social democrat, and while I disagree with you on tuition fees, I absolutely agree on nuclear power. To oppose new nuclear power plants is probably the Lib Dems’ worst policy. And I’m not sure there’s a lot between social democracy and the original classical liberals really.

    Finally, I’m not sure why you say “I don’t think the right place to be is the Left of Labour on economics”. Personally, if you’re a Keynesian it’s hard not to be to the left of Labour on economics.

    1. OF course, it is not obvious where Labour is on economics. Depends who is in control

      What I guess I mean for Asian manufacturing etc is that it is little to do with OUR government. As for the rest, too big a question to deal with on saturday morning …

  5. Apologies for posting all this but it’s worth a read:

    Labour doesn’t deserve it

    Apr 24th 1997 | From The Economist print edition

    ELECTION campaigns are fine pieces of political theatre, with stirring lines, dramatic entrances and exits, and plenty of well-choreographed sword-play. But at the end, in contrast to conventional theatre, there comes a moment of awkwardness, of embarrassment even. It is when the audience has to get involved. The ordinary voter can at least hide behind the secrecy of the ballot. Not so a newspaper like The Economist. As a journal of opinion, and British to boot, it would be strange not to have a view about the British choice; stranger still to keep it to ourselves. So which way do we think votes should be cast on May 1st?

    The peculiarity of elections is that they tend to be swung more by votes against than votes for. Often, that involves a fine democratic instinct to kick out one set of rascals and give another lot a chance. Occasionally, as in 1992 in Britain, the incumbents are re-elected less on their own merits than for fear of the alternative. In most eyes, Britain’s 1997 election looks like falling into the kick-them-out category. Despite a healthy economy, rising standards of living and a prevailing social calm, voters are telling opinion pollsters that they want to kick the Conservatives out after 18 years in office. The prevailing view is that the Tories are a shambles, that their leader is a ditherer, and that some backbench MPs have become corrupt. If the polls are to be believed—all, that is, bar one in the Guardian on April 23rd, (see article)—Tony Blair’s Labour Party is poised to win a landslide victory, with a share of the vote larger even than in its most dramatic success yet, in 1945.

    Such an outcome would, to The Economist, be truly peculiar. Not because the criticisms of the Tories are unwarranted; despite having many of the right ideas about policy, they have recently lost their way. Rather, it would be peculiar because of what it implies about Labour. A landslide would suggest a historic change, a watershed of some sort. Yet no such change or watershed is on offer for Britain. A huge parliamentary majority for Mr Blair would give him a huge amount of power in this country’s centralised system despite the fact that he has failed to disclose (or even give a clue about) his intentions in some of the most important areas of policy, and despite the fact that in his one declared area of radicalism—constitutional reform—his ideas are half-baked.

    That is why our vote would be, like that of a typically cussed elector, a vote against rather than a vote for. But it would be a vote against Labour, rather than against the Tories. For sure, Labour has improved greatly since 1992. But it has not improved enough. For all their weaknesses, the Conservatives remain a better bet.

    Such a view depends, of course, on one’s predilections about policy—the attitudes and proposals one would want from an ideal political party, against which can be measured the policies on offer from the un-ideal real ones. To understand our predilections, and our attitude, a little history may be helpful.

    Our policy template

    Except in the late 1840s when our founder, James Wilson, entered politics as an MP and then a minister in a Liberal government, The Economist has never had a party-political affiliation in Britain, or anywhere else. Ideas rather than parties are what guide our endorsements. Liberalism, expressed through freedom of choice, political equality, free trade and limits to the discretionary powers of the state, has always been our creed. For much of the 19th century, that led us to favour the Liberals, a choice followed more loosely until the 1940s. Having been oddly (and wimpishly) neutral in 1945-51, the paper then endorsed the Conservatives in 1955 and 1959 before, for the first and (so far) only time, endorsing Labour in 1964. Since then, the Tories have had our vote.

    Which policies would best express those principles in Britain today? A stable, non-inflationary macroeconomic policy would be top of our list, for the arena in which governments can do most short-term damage is in macroeconomics. An independent Bank of England would seem the least-bad way of achieving that, though membership of a well-designed European single currency, one that did not also have a political union attached to it, would be worth contemplating.

    Sufficient taxes should be levied to finance public spending over the course of the economic cycle, in such a way as to keep distortions to a minimum, to leave private behaviour as free as possible and to maintain incentives to work and to create wealth. Any scope for cuts in income tax should be concentrated on lowering taxes for the working poor; if resources permit, more public money should surely be spent on primary and secondary education, less on universities. In health, the “internal market” should be developed more aggressively to allocate resources, while an earmarked tax could be considered to provide them. In other areas of the welfare state, the emphasis should be on replacing public provision for the adequately-off with the private sort (eg, for pensions) in order to be able to concentrate public resources on the poor.

    And on Europe and the constitution? On the first, the right soundbite is constructive engagement, seeking to influence an entity which will, in turn, affect Britain, but always driving it in the direction of open markets and as limited a role as possible for governmental discretion. On the second, that state-limiting objective also applies: in Britain power is too centralised in the House of Commons and the cabinet.

    How, then, does Britain’s likeliest new government look when compared with this template? The first answer is that in the past Labour’s ideas looked clearly disastrous, and the achievement for which Mr Blair deserves full credit is that this is no longer so. Being no longer clearly disastrous is a good start. But that is all it is. The question now is what Mr Blair plans to do after this start. And it is the answer to that question that remains unsatisfactory.

    Why Labour is a disappointment

    In macroeconomics, Labour’s attitude and intent now appear sound; no more unsound, at least, than the Tories’. It is in microeconomics where Labour’s plans go astray: a minimum wage, which could destroy jobs; a windfall tax on privatised utilities, which is arbitrary; signature of the EU’s social chapter, which will increase employers’ obligations to trade unions. Against that, Labour has good ideas for getting the long-term unemployed back to work, though it probably under-estimates their cost; and it espouses better notions than the Tories in competition policy (giving it a stricter pro-competition goal). But this still leaves a broad doubt concerning Labour’s instincts about the role of government.

    Far more than at any time in its history, Labour now genuinely believes in markets and accepts the profit motive. Yet it retains a belief in regulation and in the desirability of government direction of private behaviour. Labour wants to tell parents how much homework their children should do; to ban handguns outright; to ban tobacco advertising; to crack down hard on crime even at the cost of civil liberties. Its basic instincts are illiberal. It is not alone in that—see article for the Tories’ shameful record on civil liberties—but it remains, on balance, the least liberal of the three main parties.

    That point also casts a shadow over Labour’s constitutional plans. Broadly, constitutional reform can be favoured for two groups of reasons: to limit the power of the state and enhance its legitimacy; or to strengthen a particular party’s position and curry favour with particular voters. Labour’s ideas veer between these two extremes. Its promises to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and to introduce a freedom-of-information act are admirable: judges would have more power to restrain politicians’ actions; and government would be made more open. But its ideas about the House of Lords are, at best, incomplete: abolishing the voting rights of hereditary peers would eliminate an anachronism, but would make the second chamber weaker, not stronger. Labour intends to appoint life peers to “more accurately reflect the votes cast at the previous general election”. If anything, this will make the Lords less likely to act as a check on an over-mighty Commons, and will increase the powers of Prime Minister Blair. Funny, that.

    It is on devolution of power to Scotland and Wales that party advantage hoves most strongly into view. There is a good case for transferring powers to regional government, as long as responsibility is transferred alongside, which generally means financial responsibility. Labour’s proposals for Scotland, however, would leave financial responsibility in Westminster, except perhaps for a right to vary taxation by a tiny amount. Wales would be given no such right at all. This is a recipe for conflict between the national and local parliaments, a conflict made worse by the fact that Scottish MPs are to retain the right to vote on English issues, while English MPs lose the right to vote on Scottish ones. Labour’s plans may evolve, they may improve. But for the moment they merely look calculated to protect the party’s seats in Scotland while fending off English nationalists: understandable in tactical terms, but scarcely admirable in terms of principles. As for electoral reform, there Labour has no policy at all: although he promises a referendum, Mr Blair is sceptical about change.

    Given that the constitution is the one big area in which Labour claims to have radical ideas, such flaws are disappointing. But an even bigger disappointment lies elsewhere. In its manifesto Labour says, boldly and admirably, that it “will be the party of welfare reform”. The need for such a party, and the opportunity for Labour to fit that bill, are clear. The Tories risk always being distrusted in their attempts to reform social security, the health service and pensions. Labour, however, can expect the benefit of the doubt, for it stands not for meanness or cost-cutting but for equity and for defending the poor. Yet nowhere in its manifesto are its reform plans revealed. There is barely a word about pensions, or about social security, despite past claims by Mr Blair that Labour must “think the unthinkable” about welfare. Perhaps it has, or will. But its proposals for health are not encouraging: it merely rejects market mechanisms, putting only pious promises in their place. And on pensions the little that has been said has suggested a continued allergy about private provision. And without that, progress is not possible.

    Why the Tories remain the better bet

    This may all reflect tactical caution. A Labour government may indeed prove more principled and liberal on state powers and the constitution than now appears likely, and bolder on welfare. If so, The Economist will be an enthusiastic supporter of such moves. Yet we cannot ignore an especially discouraging aspect of Mr Blair’s campaign: the moral fervour he has summoned up in order to disparage the Tory reforms of the past 18 years. Such a tone makes it hard to believe that he too will become a fervent, liberal reformer on May 2nd.

    The Tories have many drawbacks. They are obdurately opposed to constitutional reform, even though in theory they stand for restrictions on the power of the state. Their leader, John Major, though often right in his plans has been dismal in his delivery. But across the range of their policies, the Tories still match more of our template than Labour does; and Peter Lilley’s recent ideas about privatising pensions for all but the poor offer a bold and encouraging sign of what a re-elected Tory government might achieve, as well as disproving any notion that the party has run out of ideas.

    The principal risk lies in Europe. Too many Conservatives, including some of the leading candidates to succeed Mr Major, have turned a sensible scepticism about Brussels into a ranting xenophobia. Much of this smacks, however, of the desperation of a party convinced it will be defeated on May 1st and thus lining up in factions to fight the leadership vote that could follow soon afterwards. A party convincingly re-elected, or one defeated and under a new leader, might not reunite but its leaders would surely again accept the British need not to love Europe but to be part of it.

    There is a risk, for sure, that ranting would prevail over reason. But that risk needs to be compared with the risks of the alternative—of Labour’s desire to sign Europe’s social chapter; and more broadly of Labour policies that remain disappointing at best, illiberal at worst. On that balance, fine as it is, our preference stays with the Conservatives.

    1. Many thanks for posting that – very interesting (my subscription had run out)

      My view is that Major 1992-97 was far less disastrous than Thatcher 1987-90, which is when the Europhobia poll tax and boom ‘n bust really got going. It is a better administration than history remembers.

      In many ways the disadvantges of Labour as intuited by the Economist have become clearer only after a long period.

    2. It’s amazing how much of that could be applied the other way round today (apart from the “healthy economy”). Plus ça change, as they say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s