Police constables. Cab drivers. White van men. All have been at the centre of recent controversies surrounding the supposed attitude of the political establishment toward us lesser mortals. Latent condescension has burst out in the form of dismissive language or imagery used in the heat of the moment. Maybe this is because so many of our clucking politicos spend too much time cooped-up in Westminster (yes Ms Mordaunt, we can all resort to fowl based metaphor). Yet when it comes to the language of politics I’m less concerned about the occasional harsh word than the constant use of meaningless phrases that treat us all like idiots.
Top of the list in the next few days, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer due to deliver his Autumn Statement on Wednesday, will be ‘long-term economic plan’. Until fairly recently ‘Plan’ barely featured in British political rhetoric, the soviet era overtones derided by the right and avoided by centre-left social democrats. But Conservative politicians in particular have rehabilitated the word, applying it to almost everything, especially economic policy. Presumably focus groups have been found to like the idea that government has some stated purpose and direction. The trouble, however, is that a while a meaningful plan ought to be clearly articulated at the outset and pursued according to a timetable of deliverable measured objectives, ‘plans’ are nowadays rarely set out in this way.
For example, George Osborne refers to the governments/Conservative’s ‘long-run economic plan’ as though everybody knows what it is and how it is supposed to work. The inference is that a clear course was set in 2010, that evident progress has been made in pursing it, and that changing the plan would be harmful to the economy. The Chancellor has been very successful in establishing this idea in the public mind-set. Indeed, most political commentators rarely question the premise. But there is no long-term economic plan. Mr Osborne has, and is fully entitled to pursue, a series of policy objectives designed to advance his party’s ideological vision but in no sense are these being benchmarked against or delivered according to anything that deserves to be called a plan. As a result, and the ideal convenience for a politician, whatever appears to be going well in the economy is attributed to the plan, while whatever fails is either ignored or attributed to some unexpected event.
Ask for a detailed statement of the long-term economic plan from 2010 and you won’t get one – leastways nothing that would resemble a serious organisational business plan. The closest one gets is the fiscal deficit reduction plan. This was clearly set out in June 2010 with an expected timetable of progress but subsequently altered so as to extend the timetable, which now also looks unlikely to be achieved. Insofar as this is the core of the ‘long-term economic plan’ it thus represents a changing plan that is proving very long-term in being delivered.
The Chancellor can of course look to the economy more generally rather than simply to the public finances, with the return of strong economic growth in the past 18 months and rapidly falling unemployment presented as evidence of the success of his plan. However, while like any Chancellor in his position, Mr Osborne understandably seeks to take a political advantage from this there is little solid evidence that the welcome recovery and jobs outcome has anything to do with a plan implemented since 2010.
The rhetorical hype surrounding the Chancellor’s first Budget almost five years ago implied that getting to grip with the public finances would provide an almost immediate stimulus to economic growth of a kind more balanced toward exports and business investment than household consumption. If Mr Osborne’s 2010 plan envisioned two years of flat economic growth followed by a still mainly consumer-led recovery without improvement in net exports, he didn’t tell us at the time.
As for the jobs boom, this has been most welcome but again not obviously attributable to any long-term economic plan. The Chancellor has benefitted from the fruits of flexible labour market policies implemented by successive governments, Conservative and Labour, since the 1980s. These have turned the UK economy into a mass job creating machine that ensures low productivity workers are priced into work rather than remain long-term unemployed. But what Mr Osborne has failed to do is buttress this kind of flexibility with measures to give a quick boost to productivity and real wage growth. If the Chancellor claims his plan is responsible for the sharp fall in unemployment, which is questionable, he should also tell us if real wage stagnation was also part of the plan and when and why as a consequence of the plan it will start to improve.
The ‘long-term economic plan’ will echo beyond the Autumn Statement through to the Budget and General Election. Doubtless it will be joined by equally simplistic political rhetoric surrounding ‘the cost of living crisis’ and ‘getting tough on immigration.’ I appreciate that such has been the stuff of political discourse since people first started to climb the greasy pole and thus that things will probably never change. But it’s nonetheless important that we take time to shout out that the Emperor hath no clothes, lest the bad language of politics ultimately drown out the voices of reason.