Personality and policy: vote carefully!

It’s been a while since i’ve blogged, but here we are a couple of weeks away from arguably the most important general election for a generation. Most of you had probably guessed it, but the way I tend to vote comes down to two major things: personalities and policies. I’m not voting for someone to lead just the NHS, though it’s important. I’m voting for a party to lead the whole country. I have some fairly clear views about both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn and their policies in the two-horse race on June 8th – and have already made my decision.

If you haven’t voted yet, you might want to read on. I think it’s important.

Personalities first

This may surprise a few of you, but Jeremy Corbyn is not the messiah or a very naughty boy. Personally, I think of Bernie Sanders, but without the charisma or charm. I also find it a curious thing that Labour have turned their last couple of leaders into hipster icons. First was the bacon roll-munching #milifandom Ed Miliband, and now the thermal-vested Jeremy Corbyn re-imagined as the sagacious and ineffably cool Alec Guinness version of Obi-Wan Kenobi (for clarity’s sake, Obi-Wan isn’t real and JC does not have magic powers). It’s slightly bizarre, but Labour have used it as an unlikely source of popularity which has very little to do with the policies either supported.

Corbyn has spent most of a career sitting on the back benches of the Labour party disagreeing with all Labour’s major policies when in government before being thrust into its leadership contest and surprising everyone with running away with it. Prior to this, aside from a couple of years in journalism and doing some voluntary service in Jamaica (lucky lad), he worked with trade unions and as a local councillor.

Since being appointed (dear) leader, he has spent the last year or so fighting a running battle with his own MPs, the majority of whom are at odds with his way of doing things, losing a no-confidence vote overwhelmingly, missing open goals at PMQs, and not really setting out coherently what his party’s policies were given that somebody would say something, only to be contradicted a few hours later. Ideal leadership material, right?

Theresa May on the other hand is the longest-serving home secretary since the 1800s which – whatever you think of her record & policies – begets long experience of front line government. Prior to that, her shadow ministerial career began in 1999, and she had a career as a financial consultant and advisor.

On the flip side, she’s not actually everyone’s mother, and two well-publicised U-turns on National Insurance, and care cost caps have shaken the ‘stable’ perception of her a bit. Call me strange, but I’d sooner have someone who can basically accept they were wrong and do something about it, however they choose to present it. In both cases May acted decisively despite the inevitable hollering from press & opposition: “She changed her mind! Ner-ner, ner-ner!” Unfortunately Corbyn and Labour have done this so frequently that it’s no longer news.

So: big question time. Who would I rather have in the hot seat after June 8th?

May. Unquestionably.

She has shown a capacity to take hard (and unpopular) decisions and to be able to unite her party in support of them: critical if any party is to govern effectively.

Jeremy Corbyn, to date, has not been able to demonstrate that he can control his Labour MPs when they disagree with him. He doesn’t strike me as a leader as he’s never been one. In government, it’s not just something you learn on the hoof, as Donald Trump is finding out.

You can argue that his MPs have been disloyal: they’re not in government, they’ve been trying to oust him. None of this fills me with any confidence that much of this will change if they were elected: I don’t want to trust the future of the country to the off-chance that it might somehow all click if they were in power.

And the other side of the thinking: policy.

There are three very big reasons why I don’t think Corbyn should be in the hot seat: economy, security and Brexit.

It’s all about the money!

Why? Because it is. It makes things happen, or provides funding for them to do so, and unashamedly takes up the most space here.

On the economy, Corbyn’s big overriding idea is a classical Keynesian one, and more socialist than any previous Labour leaders since the 70s have tried.

Put simply, if the government spend more, it’ll boost the economy by hiking demand. The money we parcel out will have to be spent by people and will get shelled out locally and nationally, boosting local and national business. Austerity doesn’t work, so the way of balancing the books is to tax people more to pay for this. Sensible, right?

No, not completely. There are a number of assumptions at play in terms of how much additional spending will boost the economy. If it were the case that every pound spent brought back more than it’s worth in tax revenue, governments would be tripping over themselves to give money away. But that’s not always the case, hence it’s a balance. Money is more effective when spent in certain areas than others. Labour’s (and most governments’) record of spending in an effective and focussed way is pretty poor.

There’s also an additional assumption about how much revenue higher taxes would generate. It’s a popular policy among lower earners to raise taxes on higher earners or corporations (because those guys have lots of money and we don’t have to pay them). However the rebuttal to this is that there’s a law of diminishing returns.

By their very nature, corporations and wealthier individuals are much more able to move themselves or their wealth around to avoid taxes, and have a tendency to do so. Again, the example can be used from France a handful of years ago where Hollande introduced the ‘super tax’, and whilst it raised limited cash in the short term, scores of high net worth individuals simply moved away. London is awash with French bankers, for example, paying taxes to the UK rather than France.

Supply-side economists would argue that lower taxes and less regulation foster the conditions & increase the incentives to businesses and people to grow and generate more wealth, though this in itself also has inherent problems – which is why we don’t have a tax rate of 0%, and no regulation whatsoever.

So, the conventional wisdom is that there’s probably a balance to have in all of these things, which is influenced by a number of other factors. Eg. Taxes, government spending and regulation are all supply-side measures which can be cut, but oddly enough (for Conservatives), the Tories aren’t actively promising any of these in their manifesto. Spending can be increased, but will often have most impact when targeted efficiently towards projects which create the infrastructure for trade to flourish. Taxes can be increased too, but there isn’t a linear increase in the amount of tax takings, because we’re dealing with humans here.

So why do I not trust Jeremy Corbyn? Because I think that the manifesto he has laid out is unrealistic here.

Proposed tax will be the highest of any peacetime government, and government spending the highest since the 1980s. These policies didn’t work well in the 70s (it’s why we joined the EU trade bloc!) and I don’t believe they will work now. The IFS have savaged the plans, to be fair, equally criticising the Conservative plans, indicating that neither they or Labour have really addressed some of the critical issues at the heart of the country.

So why do I trust the Conservatives more in this instance? There are big holes in their manifesto as to how their plans will be funded, plugged with some flexible gap fillers. There is at least an acknowledgement that deficit and debt need to be brought under control through a combination of spending cuts and potential tax rises (which the door has been left open to). At a personal level, this makes sense. We can’t continue to spend beyond our means, and whatever the complaints occurring, there are further efficiencies which can be realised in the public sector still. A lack of financial pressure will not give any incentive to find them though.

I trust them because I fundamentally see more of an appropriate balance of spending and taxation reflected in the most left-wing Conservative manifesto I’ve seen for a while. Ironically, Keynes also supported capitalism as an economic system. I wonder what Jeremy would have made of that.

Security

Much easier here. Do I trust Labour and Jeremy Corbyn with the country’s security arrangements? Short answer – no.

Within the party itself there are evident tensions and disagreements over the party’s approach to Trident renewal, and whether they’d fire a nuclear missile or not. For me, this is a fundamental concern: whatever the party’s disagreements, the leadership has to be able to set out with complete clarity and agreement how it ‘does’ defence, and enforce that messaging through the ranks so the nation’s security services have a very clear steer on what is expected of them.

Jeremy Corbyn’s views on whether he’d be able to fire a nuclear missile or not if required are clear as mud and he has repeatedly avoided answering those sorts of questions and mooted sending nuclear subs out without missiles. Emily Thornberry and Nia Griffiths, his shadow foreign and defence secretaries, disagree with each other publicly.

Theresa May, on the other hand – when questioned in Parliament on whether she’d be able to authorise a nuclear launch – was brusque and to the point: “yes.” Her party has toed the line.

This is the kind of certainty the leaders of this country’s security services would require. With a revanchist Russia and a mad North Korean state, it’s the sort of certainty that is needed to dissuade foreign leaders from seeing how far they can push.

Brexit means Brexit

Last but not least, Brexit – this is going to dominate the next few years and determine how this country will prosper (or not) beyond that. The Labour party set out 6 tests which it insists any ‘deal’ would have to meet in order for them to support it in Parliament:

  1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
  2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?
  3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
  4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
  5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
  6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

Number 2 is the main problem. Writing in the Business Insider, Adam Bienkov points out that there is no way any government can pass all of these tests as there is no deal available which will deliver the “exact same benefits” as being inside of the Single Market and the Customs Union. The EU themselves have ruled it out already.

Having ‘unfettered access’ is one of the main reasons for being part of the EU in the first place, and if the UK could have it without the obligations of being part of the Single Market, it would defeat one of the main reasons for the continued existence of the EU.

Any Labour government negotiating on this basis would either drive itself to a bad deal scenario (after all, there’s no incentive for the EU to offer a good deal as Labour has explicitly ruled out walking away with no deal in place), or straight back into the arms of the EU. The former has alarming economic implications; the latter democratic ones, with the potential for civil unrest if Labour is perceived to be taking the country back into the EU by the back door.

So, do I trust them to negotiate Brexit based on their currently stated policy? No. Whether you were a remainer or leaver, this should be a concern as it would extend the period of uncertainty which isn’t good for anyone.

Wrapping up

There are several other subjects that should figure into anyone’s decision here: not least things like education, policing and the NHS… What is the future shape of the NHS going to look like? That is a big enough topic to demand a full blog to itself. And on this subject I think that both Labour and the Conservatives have ignored the elephant in the room in their manifestos. I’m not voting for someone to lead just the NHS, though it’s important. I’m voting for a party to lead the whole country. One reason I don’t buy the whole #voteNHS thing.

Overall, do Labour look like a united party who are confident expressing their policies and philosophy, and a thoroughly-prepared government-in-waiting?

No.

Their leadership is divided over key political points, doesn’t have a clue how to run a country, and their manifesto reads like a 126 page wish-list: always easy to promise, but harder to implement when push comes to shove. Read it. Read the other ones too.

Jeremy Corbyn does not look, smell or feel like a leader to me, nor Diane Abbott or Emily Thornberry. John McDonnell does, but most of the party do not share his political views and neither do I.

Some of the most capable Labour politicians have already jumped ship: David Miliband to the US, Andy Burnham to be mayor of Manchester, Tristram Hunt to the Victoria & Albert museum, Alan Johnson retiring… their pool of available talent required to lead the 5th largest economy in the world grows ever shallower.

I’m not confident they’d be up to the job, and I don’t think you should be either. Vote carefully!

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