More heresies on the election arithmetic and the manifestos
First, a reminder of the numbers of seats won compared with 2015:
Conservatives: 318 (-13)
Labour: 262 (+30)
SNP: 35 (-21)
LibDems: 12 (+4)
DUP: 10 (+2)
Others: 13 (-2)
These figures prompt two thoughts:
(1) Labour is now 56 seats behind the Tories and 58 seats short of a minimal one-seat overall majority – almost twice the net number of additional seats won by Labour at this month’s election (30). At the 2015 election, Labour under Ed Miliband actually gained 22 seats, but lost all but one of its MPs in Scotland and ended up with a net loss of 26 seats. This month Labour scored a net gain of 30 seats. Can Labour win rather more than twice as many additional seats next time, holding on to all those it won in June this year, in order to form a majority government on a sustainable basis?
(2) Jeremy Corbyn increased Labour’s share of the national vote to more than at any election since 2001 – 40 per cent, a 10 percentage points increase from a low base. (Contrary to some claims for Labour’s success in winning 40% of the national vote, Labour has won a higher share than 40% at ten elections since, and including, 1945.) But Theresa May increased the Tories’ share of the vote by 5.5 percentage points, from a higher base, to just over 42 per cent, more than at any election since 1979 when the Tories won easily with 43.9 per cent of the vote. Forty-two percent of the vote has generally been enough to win an election, even under First Past the Post. This year both parties benefited enormously from the desertions to both of them of the nearly 4 million who voted for UKIP in 2015, from the desertion of a large number of SNP voters, mainly to the Tories, and from the much higher turnout than usual of voters aged under 45, many of them committed Remainers, mainly going to Labour. Labour easily won the battle on the social media, which no doubt helped to get the under 45s out for it. It’s hard to see where any comparable windfalls for either party are going to come from at the next election.
Labour did very well in this election campaign, greatly helped by Jeremy Corbyn’s experienced campaigning skills, and far better than expected by almost anyone. But Theresa May did even better, by any standards, winning 56 more seats than Labour, only three short of an overall majority — but far worse than anyone expected. Labour supporters should not allow themselves to get carried away. Doing better than expected is not enough to win elections: and admiration for Mr Corbyn’s campaigning prowess is not necessarily the same thing as confidence in his capacity for leading and managing his party and the country as prime minister, especially when the UK faces such huge and complex problems.
About the Manifestos: There’s a good, progressive case for some of the things most widely condemned in Mrs May’s often brave but reckless manifesto. The propositions that (i) the rich should have to pay for their social care until their total wealth comes down to a figure that would still represent a generous bequest to their children, that (ii) the calculation of their wealth should include the market value of their houses, but that (iii) their houses should not have to be sold during their lifetimes, has a lot to commend itself to those of us who believe in a much more equal society. It would reduce the size of the estates of the rich to whom it would apply, and also reduce the subsidy otherwise paid by ordinary taxpayers to the ultra-rich in order to protect their estates for their children – a regressive transfer of resources from have-nots to haves. The most cogent objection to it is that it would apply arbitrarily only to those relatively wealthy people who need residential or home care in their declining years: hence the deadly nickname of “dementia tax”. It would penalise those with dementia (or other such prolonged disability) but not those struck down by heart attacks, strokes, road accidents or even cancer. But that was not the objection to the proposal voiced quite stridently by the Labour opposition during the campaign. It’s not often that Labour champions a section of the rich against an attempt, however ham-fisted, to level some of the gross inequalities handed down from generation to generation.
Much the same applies to Mrs May’s attempted refusal to continue the triple lock on pensions. This guarantees that if average earnings and inflation increase by less than 2.5%, pensions will still be increased by 2.5%: i.e. by the highest percentage increase of the three. This represents a transfer of income from working people to pensioners, regardless of need or equity. If it stems from a considered judgement that pensions have fallen too far behind earnings (as may well be the case), there are much better ways to correct the imbalance than the blunt arbitrary instrument of the triple lock. It reflects political cowardice on the part of the parties that support it: because a high proportion of pensioners tend to vote, it’s deemed prudent to offer bribes to them, or at any rate it stems from a fear of their electoral revenge if the bribe is withdrawn. The same thing applies to such benefits as the winter fuel allowance, free television licences and to some extent free bus passes. If our political leaders (including Labour’s) lack the courage simply to abolish these unearned and mostly unnecessary benefits, the least they should do is to tax their value as income, saving any need to introduce separate means testing. The basic founding principle of universal benefits is certainly well worth rescuing from oblivion, but it’s questionable whether a subsidy to all old people to reduce their expenditure on winter heating, or free travel, should have the same status as free health care, free school education, unemployment benefit, or other collective insurance against misfortune that shares the risks across the whole community.
A Labour party that plans substantially to increase taxes on the rich to fund an enormously ambitious programme of expenditure should be wary of attacking proposals, even if they are put forward by a Tory prime minister, that are designed to expand the options for increasing taxes on the rich or to remove obstacles to ending expenditures which have little or no economic or social justification. Labour, if it seriously hopes eventually to climb the mountain into government (and what else is it for?), needs to be careful about what it wishes for – and about what it automatically denounces.
(I write as an old age pensioner living in a house whose market value, through no effort or merit on my part, has risen to unconscionable levels – I hope.)
On the other side of the ledger, there is a little-noticed and little-discussed downside to Labour’s highly popular, vote-winning pledge to abolish payment of university tuition fees by students (not ‘abolition of tuition fees’: someone has to pay them). The unspoken promise is that central government – i.e. the taxpayer, who typically has limited opportunity to go to university and who earns less than those who have done so — will pay the fees, not only a highly regressive arrangement but also one that will restore financial and thus political government control over nominally independent universities and colleges. Their independence was supposedly protected in the bad old days of free university education by independent intermediary bodies such as the University Grants Committee. We don’t know how Labour would propose to square this circle. If a future Labour government assumes direct financial control of our universities, one trembles to imagine how a successor Tory government might seek to exploit it.
The moral? There can be half-hidden catches in even the most obviously popular policies, and some merit in those that are most easily and automatically condemned.
Note: This is the full text of an abbreviated version which has been published on LabourList at http://labourlist.org/2017/06/labour-won-tory-seats-with-a-stirring-campaign-but-danger-lurks-in-the-detail-of-both-parties-spending-plans/ on 20 June 2017.