Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
Whoever wins the general election next year faces electoral pain, aka “Deficit: the hell continues”. George Osborne used his conference speech to tell everyone that “the cuts” will continue: he announced Treasury estimates which suggest a permanent reduction in public spending of £25 billion is required to bring back balance to the country’s books.
This, at the end of a parliament when every trade union and lobby group reacted to the initial Coalition* deficit reduction efforts as though the end of days were upon us. The Chancellor this week was an austerity parody of the great Ronald Reagan: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
(*Initial Coalition? Freudian slip? Next week.)
Showing the arithmetical sense that Mr Miliband lacks, Philip Collins, the Times writer on the intelligent Left, wrote this week: “Governing after 2015 is going to be so horrible that I wouldn’t wish it on my worst political opponents.” (Talking of Freudian slips, Mr Miliband’s avoidance of “deficit” in his conference speech is surely the endpoint of his demand that we take him seriously as a putative Prime Minister; more than that, it’s a sign that his subconscious knows this, too.)
So I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been, recently, to hear an old friend voice a day-dream: “Wouldn’t it be better,” he mused, “if Labour win next year? Especially on the back of their God-awful 35 per cent strategy.”
I didn’t have to ask him to explain: let Miliband do an Hollande, basically, by achieving power based on wishful thinking about rent control utopias. Then watch him gape like a goldfish as his administration hits reality (see Hollande for details), leading to an electoral unwinding and a landslide defeat in 2020. But by that time, his government would have had to enact the spending cuts which everyone (by then) will understand to be necessary, just in time for the re-election of a Tory government which for once…
…for once wouldn’t have to define its first two terms through the undoing of the economic damage inflicted by tax ‘n’ spend socialism. “The electorate think of us as the people who do the bad but necessary things” – my friend again; he’s quite correct – “Why not break that link and let Labour take the blame?”
It’s an attractive thought, in many ways (and merely by admitting this, I prove myself to be less kind than Mr Collins). Who wouldn’t be happy to watch Ed Miliband suffer politically, when it turned out that price controls and mansion taxes don’t turn Tower Hamlets into Hampstead? The first year that gas bills shot up would be worth an election loss alone.
Except it wouldn’t. A day-dream where Labour are forced, finally, to confront the predictable outcome of Brownist delusions about expenditure is alluring, but remains just that: a day-dream.
Consider a thought experiment where Conservatives sit out the next election, because (let’s agree with my friend) in the long run it’s in the interest of both party and country to force Labour to design and vote for significant spending cuts. It’s not an impossible thought experiment: there’s no physical law of the universe that would prevent it. It’s not the physicality of the experiment that’s implausible.
My prejudice (prejudice, because I can’t demonstrate it empirically) is that our politics begin with our psychologies; the personal really is the political. We’re familiar with the Left’s motivations, and I shan’t be rude about them here. We talk less about our own, I’d suggest, because they can seem quite…little. Not “selfish”, as the Left paint us, but “small.”
I think my friend’s day-dream, and my thought experiment, are psychologically impossible because…well, as Virginia Woolf wouldn’t have dreamt of saying: To the Train Station.
At Finsbury Park station, at 7am on the morning of Tuesday 30 September 2014, I put my debit card into the slot of the ticket machine, to purchase a return ticket to Stevenage.
The ticket-sized receipt of the previous customer’s transaction lay, un-gathered, within the ticket-issuing tray. As happens at least twice a week, as I stuck my paw under the flap to pull out my own ticket, this unwanted receipt fell to the ground at my feet.
These thoughts are in my mind instantly, on top of one another: What a stupid machine. And: I’m going to have to pick up someone else’s litter. And: Why do I bother, when so many other people don’t? And finally, the very small principle that guides my behaviour like a robotic exoskeleton jerking my hand to the pavement: Never leave someone else to tidy up a mess, particularly if that mess isn’t your fault, particularlyif you resent having to do it.
Perhaps this is just my own psychopathy, but something about those ‘particularlys’ leads me to wonder if this isn’t a fairly specifically Tory attitude. It’s certainly at the root of what many (the people who don’t wonder who’ll pick up their mess) call “peevishness”, because they misunderstand its expression (they hear the “tut” but don’t see what’s in my head) and it features in a wide array of (my) interactions…including that of voting. This misinterpreted “peevishness” is the sense of duty that you’d much rather ignore, but can’t, because you’re aware, were everyone – were just one more person – to avoid that duty, then things would be even worse than they are now. I hypothesise that it’s a stronger animating force in those individuals who go on to label themselves “Tories”, than it is for those who do not.
If this psychological diagnosis is right, then the more people hate to do something unpleasant, the more Conservatives would feel compelled to offer to do it for them. Even if – especially if – “people” are “35% of the electorate”.