Election pledges: The few would disagree edition

While I was sat in the auditorium at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference listening to Danny Alexander’s speech on the economy – which, by the way, was not too shabby an example of the genre – Twitter reported the unveiling of the Labour party’s five election pledges.

Here they are:

Well. It’s hard to know where to start with that offering.

There is unlikely to be a political party in the land that wouldn’t feel comfortable agreeing with this list, although they would most probably differ in precisely what they have in mind when making each statement. Presumably that is the point. The list is designed to appeal to as broad a range of voters as possible. But it is pitched at such a level of generality that there is a risk of it appearing – or, indeed, being – vacuous.

These pledges are also, unlike the Liberal Democrats’ unfortunate tuition fee pledge, quite well insulated from evidence. Not only will it be difficult to assess whether the pledges have been honoured, but you could argue that some of them do not necessarily require any action on the part of the Labour party in order to claim that they have been. For example, if you were inclined to do so you could claim that the UK has “a strong economic foundation” now so the main task of the Labour party is not to mess it up. Similarly, there are currently “controls on immigration”. So that box can be ticked already. On the other hand, some of these outcomes are arguably not within the gift of a single national government, so the Labour party is setting itself an impossible task.

Of course the pledges as set out above are not the end of the story.  The Labour party provides a little more detail on what they have in mind.

In relation to the economy the aim is to “balance the books and cut the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS. None of our manifesto commitments require additional borrowing”. I’m not sure quite what to make of that statement. At first sight it seems to be internally contradictory. It’s not clear which books are being balanced. But the most straightforward reading would be that if you’re balancing the books and not taking on additional borrowing then you are removing the deficit – not cutting it every year. We know that “securing the future of the NHS” is going to require a substantial amount of additional money so either major cuts are planned elsewhere or taxes are going to rise.

More importantly, any sensible interpretation of “building a strong economic foundation” would encompass far more than the government’s fiscal position. And it hasn’t got an awful lot to do with adequately funding the NHS, however desirable that might be. What about spatial and sectoral imbalances? The financialisation of the economy? The role of the shadow banking system in raising systemic risk? The chronic short termism of much investor behaviour? The dangerous build up of private debt? The huge current account deficit the UK is running? What if, as many economists would argue, a sensible approach to building a strong economic foundation would require prudent additional borrowing for infrastructure investment? We know why the Labour party has put in place this self-denying rule. But in the process it is making it harder to deliver on its own pledge.

We could go through a similar process of inquiry in relation to each of the pledges. But I don’t propose to.

It is worth pausing on the final pledge though. “A country where the next generation can do better than the last” is a worthy – if rather motherhood and apple pie – aspiration. For the Labour party this means reducing higher education tuition fees to £6,000, guaranteeing an apprenticeship for every school leaver with the basic grades, and ensuring smaller class sizes for 5, 6, and 7 year olds. So the key to the next generation doing better is education, education, education. There is something to that. But, while Labour are clearly convinced that it makes sense electorally, there are big question marks over whether the move to £6,000 fees will make a substantial difference to access to higher education. And if the loss of income to Universities isn’t compensated with the reintroduction of some form of block grant then the net result of the policy could be to undermine the whole sector. The apprenticeship and class size point are both rather vaguer (What sort of apprenticeships need to be available? How much smaller should classes be? We’re given no clear idea of what sort or magnitude of change is needed to ensure “the next generation can do better than the last”).

If would appear that the objective is framed largely with an eye to labour supply. What about labour demand? And is it right to narrowly focus upon the labour market when our objective is to ensure “the next generation can do better than the last”? The biggest source of intergenerational inequity at the moment is the housing market. Younger people are progressively being shut out of access to owner occupation. We might have thought that aiming to meet this objective would have had something to do with improving affordability and allowing housing aspirations to be fulfilled. But apparently not.

The Labour party has set out the headline messages for its campaign. It all feels a bit underwhelming. I’m reasonably confident that the same will be said about the platforms set out by the other parties. We live in an era of small politics. Parties focus on one or two areas that their focus groups tell them are areas of strength. The grand challenges go unaddressed. But it would be nice, if they are going to focus on one or two areas of strength, to ensure that what they have to say is reasonably convincing rather than blandly vague.

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