GE2015 minus 25: promises, promises… and stone lions.

Posted: 12 April 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , ,

George Osborne today announced that the Conservative Party, if they win the election, will increase the Inheritance Tax threshold to one million pounds. For many, I’m sure that the choice of Osborne to announce the policy will remind them of nothing so much as Dr Evil in Austin Powers and that scene, but for those of us with very long memories, incredibly long memories, astonishingly… no, wait it was only in 2007 that the same promise was made and and reiterated right up until the 2010 election. 

It was one of the flagship policies of the Conservatives going into the 2010 election, and was heavily promoted by David Cameron, George Osborne and the then chairman of the party Eric Pickles. So what happened? Well, depending upon your politicial outlook, persuasion and gullibility, any or all of the following:

  • The Conservatives didn’t win the election
  • The Conservatives went into coalition with the Lib Dems and had to give up some stuff, and it wasn’t that important
  • the Conservatives didn’t have the votes balls to push it through.
  • The Lib Dems insisted on it being dropped in the coalition agreement
  • It was a daft policy, given the mess the coalition government inherited

And so, once again, we’re back at the manifestos and how any or all of the ‘promises’ made to the electorate during the election campaign fall by the wayside in the genuine mess of coalition negotiations.

What strikes me about the promises that are being made this time though is the knowedge and experiences the main parties* have about such negotiations this time around. In Five Days In May, the superb book by Andrew Adonis about the immediate period following the 2010 election, it’s painfully obvious just how unprepared the Labour party were for even the idea of coalition. Senior people in the Labour Party thought – and as importantly, thought everybody else thought – that no matter whether they won or lost, the polls were spectacularly wrong and a majority government would emerge from the election.

* Yeah, I’m including the SNP as a main party, if for no other reasons that they are likely to have more MPs after the election than the Lib Dems and they have vast experience in parliametary deals from their time as a minority government in Scotland.)

As a result, they were spectacularly unprepared for coalition negotiations and – once again, depending upon who you believe – were either genuinely astonished at how professionally and eagerly the Conservatives and the Lib Dems entered into coalition, or stunned at how they were ‘played’ by the other two parties.

Well, this time no-one can be so naïve. Assuming the polls are roughly correct, and I believe they are, there won’t be a winner this time around either. The very best that the Labour Party or the Conservative Party can hope for are (a) to be the biggest party, and (b) that the second biggest party can’t do a deal with another party to make them able to command a confidence and supply majority. 

Thing is, if David Cameron et al, and Ed Miliband et al, do believe that, then they have to know that some of the things they’re ‘promising’ now won’t survive the election. Maybe it’s Labour’s policy of a mansion tax. Maybe it’s the Tories’ inheritance tax. But what’s certain is that they can make all sorts of promises now, attempting to get the votes, while knowing that they’ll never have to put them into practice.

Now, what does that remind you of? 

Well, it reminds me of the Lib Dems and their predecessors for most of my adult life. From the 1980s through to 2005, the Lib Dems could set out in their manifestos any number of daft, wrong or just plain stupid policies, in the certain knowledge they’d never have to afford them, never have to justify them, never have to implement them. I’m not saying that all of the Lib Dems’ policies suited such descriptions, of course not. But there were more than a few that did. Anyone remember the Lib Dems campaigning for the UK to join the Euro? Yeah.

So, have we reached a point where the same applies, and if so, are the parties rolling out their stone lions?

Yes, their stone lions.

You don’t know what stone lions are? Well, read on. The story goes that there was a very successful architect who always seems to get his buildings approved by his clients with the minimum of fuss, no matter how outlandish or strange, or against the client’s original wishes.

When he was a very old man, he passed the secret on to his successor:

No matter what the design called for, I always ensured that in the original plans, there were two stone lions in the foyer. Two large, stone lions. Not ugly, nor inherently bad, but… they had to be horribly out of place. I made sure the client knew that I considered them essential to the harmony created by the building, or told the client they were symbolic of… whatever the hell I wanted them to be symbols of. I always brought any argument on the building back to the lions. Whatever the arguments the lions were staying. And of course, soon enough, the only thing that mattered were the lions. So, I’d give way on that… and the rest of the plans were approved.

Three and a half weeks out from an election, it seems about the right time for the parties to be presenting their stone lions. Long enough to pretend that they’re either essential to ‘the long term ecocnomic plan’ or to solve ‘the cost of living crisis’, and to concentrate ire upon them. And a short enough period so that when they’re dropped, no one inside the upper echelons of the party really gives a damn.

Keep an eye out for stone lions, folks; I suspect we’ll be seeing more of them before the election is through. 

  1. Inheritance Tax does not affect 94% of the population. It’s just not relevant. Actually the more relevant issue in house values is whether retired people need to sell up to pay for their care.

    The politics is more toxic. It’s geographically toxic and brings back class politics. Now in Thatcher’s time inheritance tax would be an aspirational issue. The Conservatives would word the question in lottery winner style. It would be put to the 94% that when (not if) they owned their £325,000 home then Labour want the big nasty state to deprive them of passing their cash to their kids. Nothing to do with very rich this is aspirational – point the finger at the voter in the front room of his council house and say ‘it could be you’.

    This message worked for the sell-off of council houses, the privatisations and sale of shares and so on. The Conservatives made the masterly political judgement that they could enrich their core supporters by socially engineering the population to believe that they, the man/woman in the street, could be wealthy one day. Not unlike the Internet get rich quick scams or the adverts claiming you can earn thousands working from home doing website marketing.

    The difficulty now is that most people don’t believe it could be them. The financial crisis means that the policy George Osborne first announced in 2007 – which led to the Brown election wobble – is being made in a different world.

    The financial crisis actually changed one major things. Assets have ballooned in value whereas wages have been stagnant or gone down. The forces that pressured wages up, such as strong tade unions, have declined and zero hours contracts have risen. Moreover the largest asset bubble is in the London property market, the Stock Market etc. The economic growth is seen not as UK economic growth but as a narrow London centric growth.

    Inheritance Tax, in the the new context, is seen by many voters as a problem for those who haven’t worked to gain wealth but who have benefitted from specific financial assets at a time when the 94% have seen their living standards fall.

    The context is interesting and promoting a message;

    1. Conservatives say that taxing more for mansions over £2 million is Red Ed being a far leftie. Yet increasing inheritance tax thresholds is ok.

    2. Conservatives criticise Red Ed for interfering in free markets by wanting to freeze fuel prices but commit to freezing commuter rail fares for the South East. Only some free markets should be free.

    3. Conservatives hit out at Labour for getting rid of the 216 year old non-dom tax rules widely perceived as just the rich living in the UK without paying fair taxes.

    You can pick apart all of these things but the politics are very interesting. It looks to me that with the two major parties being equal and the Ashcroft polls showing Labour ahead in marginals the Conservatives are shoring up the base. The Milliband factor hasn’t panned out how they hoped because when people hear him the expectations are so low after years of Daily Mail attacks voters think Milliband isn’t scary.

    The long term economic plan is heading down towards an assumption by electors that the plan is to help the rich get richer and keep the cost of rail transport in the south east pegged down at the expense of the rest of the country. Within that paradigm if Labour keep asking “just who is benefitting from electing a Conservative government” then they just need 290 seats to be a comfortable minority government.

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