Ruth Lea is an economist and is a former Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
I am not a professional psephologist and I do not follow every twist and turn of the various fortunes of political parties. Neither do I specialise in the issues that can be regarded as “gender specific” – others are more qualified in these areas than I am. But when it comes to attracting more women’s votes (and indeed men’s) economic prosperity, the cost of living and the labour market are consistently high on the list of the electorate’s concerns.
Prosaic and hackneyed though it may seem, it really is the economy stupid.
As we all know, the economy is struggling and the public finances are simply dreadful. Under these circumstances what policies should the Conservatives promote that the Coalition Government is not already pursuing?
Firstly, there are no magic bullets and the return to robust growth is, to put it mildly, is not imminent. But a significantly more upbeat growth agenda of supply side policies, especially a tough deregulatory agenda, than is currently operative would surely help business and our economic prospects.
Of course supply side policies take time to bed down and stimulate activity but that is no reason not to implement them (as I have sometimes seen argued). And, of course, some of the Government’s policies, including the recent reduction in Corporation Tax, are wholly to be welcomed. And we are all aware of the compromises that coalition governments have to make.
But, speaking as someone who worked in the 1980s in the Department of Trade and Industry in the days of Lords Tebbit and Young, I would like the Conservatives rediscover the feeling of excitement about business, entrepreneurship and growth that was so prevalent then. We must not forget the Thatcher Government’s enterprise agenda of the 1980s, promoted by a thought-through and internally consistent positive narrative, turned this country’s fortunes round. A spirit of can-do optimism, aspiration and opportunity inspired us all then, irrespective of gender.
The Party needs to rework these messages and develop an unapologetic pro-enterprise agenda fit for the 21st century. Economic growth and wealth and job creation do not emerge from thin air. They are driven by business and enterprise.
Secondly, even though there seems a fair appreciation of our dire fiscal position, I fear many simply do not realise quite how bad the situation is. Discussions about the public finances can appear arcane and irrelevant. They are anything but. Arch-wrecker Gordon Brown’s destroyed the public finances for a generation. It will not be my generation that picks up the bits, but today’s youngish adults and their children.
Moreover, any return to a big-spending government, as implied by the Shadow Chancellor, would only make the situation worse. This is bad for today’s women and even worse for their children. The Party should build on its austerity narrative, not just to appease the financial markets, but also to emphasise the escalating burdens on Britain’s young. Public spending needs tough cuts, with foreign aid and the EU budget contributions obvious candidates for downsizing.
Thirdly, and I know that this has been frequently debated on ConservativeHome, the Government’s current energy policy is disastrous. Shale gas may be a welcome fillip, let us hope so, but the folly of pursuing the EU’s Renewables Target with costly and unreliable wind-power defeats logic. Worse, the strategy is a perfect example of a “reverse Robin Hood” policy, as the beleaguered consumer, irrespective of financial means but leaning towards the regressive, is obliged to pay substantial consumer subsidies, through jacked-up electricity prices, to enriched landowners.
Women are perhaps more aware than men of the ever-spiralling electricity costs and the hole that high electricity bills make in their budgets.
Any attempts to meet the renewables target should simply be stopped and wind-farms cancelled. Of course, the EU would object, the hysterically vocal and highly subsidised wind-lobby would kick out in all directions and climate change activists would prophecy sizzlingly-dangerous man-made global warming. They would have to be handled. Sadly “green energy” wind-power is entrenched in much of the Party’s thinking (not all thank goodness). But this crazy and futile policy should simply be dropped to help women’s – and indeed all people’s – pockets. Our addiction to “green energy” damages living standards and wrecks the countryside whilst doing precious little for global CO2 emissions, where we have a paltry 1½% of the global total.
Fourthly, there is the on-going issue of the EU, where matters are developing profoundly which will inevitably change this country’s relationship with the ever-integrating Eurozone. Much was made about the lack of progress at the December summit – but this is to misread the Eurozone’s direction of travel. And let us not forget that the Council agreed that the European Central Bank (ECB) should become the common supervisor for the EU17’s largest banks (at minimum), the first step in the construction of the European Banking Union. The ECB is set to become an extraordinarily powerful institution and no less an authority than the House of Lords worries that it will overshadow the relevant EU27 institutions (specifically the European Banking Authority, the overseer of the Single Market in financial services), risking leaving Britain increasingly marginalised.
Add this development to the well-rehearsed costs of membership – including budget contributions, regulatory overkill and the opportunity costs of being unable to negotiate bilateral trade deals with the fast-growing economies of the 21st global economy – and it will become even more obvious that Britain will have to forge a fundamentally new relationship with the EU. The Prime Minister should unequivocally offer the electorate their say in Britain’s future.
I am aware that few of my comments are geared specifically to women. But injecting a spirit of can-do optimism and freeing the country from the shackles of the EU could only help to put the economy back onto a sustainable growth trajectory. We’ve recovered from economic horrors before. Getting the economy right would surely be a big vote winner, including women’s votes.
House of Lords, “European Banking Union: key issues and challenges, report”, December 2012.