Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Politicians are (not) all the same

Chris Giles wrote about a month ago that “Britain will not have much of a choice at the 2015 election. However much they talk about clear differences, the parties have rarely been closer on economics”. He will probably hate me for saying this, but I was reminded of his article when I watched this interview between Jeremy Paxman and Russell Brand. The common theme, which Chris Dillow also picks up, is that the current political system offers no real choice.

This theme, common on the left, has a long pedigree. I remember being told to stop being exercised by hanging chads in 2000 because a Gore presidency would be very much like a Bush presidency. This idea is clearly ludicrous if we look at US politics today. But does it apply to the UK? I’m afraid I’m going to be very unforgiving. It either represents naivety or indulgence.

Chris Giles has grounds for his view, in that on issues like austerity Labour are trying hard not to appear very different from the current coalition. On the other hand, if you are struggling to ‘pay the bedroom tax’, Labour’s commitment to abolish it could make a big difference to your life. He may also be right that the actual content of Ed Miliband’s conference proposals on energy and housing are modest, and hardly the return to full bloodied socialism that some on the right hysterically proclaim. The governments ‘Help to Buy’ scheme is much more likely to involve a prolonged period of government intervention in a market. But I think if you were to conclude from this that a Labour government after 2015 would have a similar economic policy to a Conservative government, you would be being very naive.

Consider two big dividing lines between left and right on economic policy: the size of the state and the distribution of income. On the first, there are strong arguments that the current government’s austerity programme is not so much about the perils of high debt but a deliberate attempt to roll back the size of the state. Is it really likely that Labour would continue that policy if it was elected? It is much more likely that we would see a repeat of what happened under the last Labour government: an initial period of sticking to inherited plans to demonstrate prudence, and then a programme of real growth in areas like health and education. On the second, as I outlined here, the current government’s policies will lead to a significant increase in poverty over the next decade. When it was last in power, Labour tried very hard to achieve the opposite (although I agree it was much more concerned about poverty than inequality). Is it really likely that Labour will behave quite differently, and much more like the Conservatives, if they regain power?

Now you could argue that the financial situation of the government will remain so dire after 2015 that any government will be forced to keep cutting spending and welfare. Maybe. However I think it is more likely that the economic recovery will turn out to be much stronger than currently forecast, and that the OBR will revise up their estimate of potential output as this happens. This will create 'fiscal space'. If this occurs under the Conservatives, I would put my money on significant tax cuts, while under Labour we will see many of today’s cuts in spending and welfare reversed.

Another way of making the same point is that it is naive to believe politicians when they set out their political programmes. In a two party system within the framework of a simple left/right scheme, it may be optimal as an opposition to position yourself just to the side of your opponent, as long as this does not alienate your core vote. Once you regain power you can revert to type. (Remember Cameron’s compassionate conservatism before the last election.) The problem with that dynamic is that it may lead to the appearance that ‘all politicians are the same’ as we move towards an election, which may discourage some ‘rationally naive’ potential voters (those who are not too interested in politics) from voting. (It may also generate such a negative view of politicians that it leads otherwise sane people into rather silly positions.)

It is clear that Russell Brand is not disinterested in politics, so he should not be so naive. He seems pretty passionate about issues like equality and climate change, so it seems blindingly obvious to me who he should vote for. So why does he appear to encourage others not to vote? The argument of the true revolutionary is that anything that makes the current system more palatable just delays the revolutions eventual triumph. But that need not be what is going on here. Instead it could be a reluctance to be associated, however mildly, with a political party that is far from your political ideal (even though it is not quite as far from your ideal as the others). The number of times I have heard someone say: ‘Even though I hate party B, I couldn’t possibly vote for A because of their position on X’. But as I have argued above, the gap between parties A and B (and C) can make a significant difference when one gains power. So to refuse to vote for A because it makes you feel somehow complicit in the aspects of A’s platform you do not like seems to me just personal indulgence.

This is not to dispute that many like Brand or Dillow feel that we require much more radical change than is offered by mainstream politics. They should continue to use the media to promote that view when they can. But for people like them, working out which political party is the least bad is fairly costless. Using this knowledge to vote, and making this knowledge public, does not compromise their more radical views, and it could help make a significant difference to many peoples’ lives. 


  1. But politicians from the three parties are pretty much the same ... careerist hacks, privately educated, privately educating. The politics however are not quite the same, I agree. It is too easy to conflate disgust at mealy-mouthed hacks with dismay at the self-serving policies that are churned out.

  2. Aren't you presuming here that voting for a party makes a meaningful difference to the likelihood of that party forming the government, and thus kind of ignoring the "Paradox of Voting" (a misnomer, it's really "The Actual Very Low Expected Value Of Voting"). If Brand could be doing something else to advance his political views (thinking up a new joke, say) in the time he would have spent walking to the polling office, he should almost certainly do that instead of voting.

    I wrote about this in the context of US elections a couple of years ago:

  3. As the partial target of your comments, I wouldn't claim there's no real difference between the parties; I have voted for the lesser of two evils before. My problem is that doing so has two costs:
    1. It can be interpreted as a mandate for policies one doesn't endorse; a vote for Labour's fiscal policy can't be distinguished from (eg) a vote for its social authoritarianism.
    2. The cliche's true - voting does encourage them. In particular, it can be seen as signalling assent to a political system which excludes very many policy alternatives such as a basic income, open borders, worker ownership, drug liberalization....

    1. Chris, don't you have the first cost anyway? - not voting for the lesser evil increases the apparent support for the grater evil

  4. The narcissism of small differences is also a delusion.

    This blog has cast a healthy and critical spotlight on policy blunders which have had dramatic welfare consequences for tens of millions of people. The political elite have brought a shared groupthink to economic policy that is both illiterate and hideously retrograde. A socialist French President has alleviated or mitigated the robotic Frankfurt consensus in the eurozone how exactly?

    The governing principle of the professional political party managers is to hug their opponents close and to leave the electorate to make the best they can of their ever narrowing political choices. If neither main contender (in a two horse race) will depart from political consensus then the gap between the political elite and the public (whose choices are increasingly locked out by this consensus) will continue grow.

    Furthermore Krugman has been making the opposite complaint of the media that you have recently made. The republicans have slipped the leash of rational conservatism and lurched into a protracted bout of irrational radicalism. But rather than document this fact the US mainstream press are still trying to split the difference between the tea party and Obama - as though nothing untoward has happened. It is not impossible that the Democrats will move further to the right in order to narrow the policy distance between them and the Rep's.

    For his part Chris Dillow points to a managerialist ideology which is killing politics and policy.

    These are substantive criticisms of a political process which is demonstrably failing to deliver. The politics of the margins (a nicer bedroom tax) is not enough to compensate for the comprehensive decadence engendered by the politics of the centre.

  5. If politicians are all the same then there is no need for political reporters, at least until that time changes, and so we shall expect all those who argue for this position to resign immediately.

  6. Interesting point, and one I have much sympathy with.

    However, the example of UKIP pushing Cameron into the EU referendum shows that by staking out more extreme positions, a minority of voters can influence the position of one of the two parties.

    I don't think that it would be good for the country, but if Russell Brand could convince enough left wing voters to not vote Labour unless it was sufficiently left wing, he would create a strong incentive for the Labour leadership to move left.

    It's probably true that this would reduce the chance that Labour would win the general election. But it may still be optimal for Brand if he is sufficiently risk-loving!

  7. "He seems pretty passionate about issues like equality and climate change, so it seems blindingly obvious to me who he should vote for" - and it seems pretty blindingly obvious to me that that party is the Green Party. If you're not otherwise going to vote at all, you can hardly claim it's a wasted vote - and indeed I think RB, not to mention SW-L, would be pretty sympathetic to most of the Greens' positions. Would be helpful if you'd come out and say it, though, Simon - as you say, people in influence going public on their support could ultimately help make a big difference.

    Same goes for anonymous commenter at 3:36 - the Greens can become the UKIP of the left, in a sense, in that if enough voters gravitate Green-wards, they may well start to pull the Labour party that way too.

  8. "....and then a programme of real growth in areas like health and education."

    But that's the catch, isn't it? Labour are very good at talking "about" health and education - education, education, education, remember? - but they are not so good at managing outcomes.

    Anyone who takes your distinction literally, will really be distinguishing between the parties based on rhetoric, and not expected results.

    And that's the real claim. The claim from people like Brand isn't that that the Parties sound alike, but that if you vote for one or the other, the outcome won't be that much different.

    And by the way, I am not saying this to criticise either party, but to point to their helplessness. In the UK, Education and Health are the last two surviving massive "Stalinist" organizations.

    The only way to improve either of them would be a restructuring so radical that neither Party has the stomach for it. So they settle for what's really ineffective displacement activity. They can't improve the miserable standard of teaching in State Schools, so they give sub-par teachers pay increases and call them "Professionals", as if that helps.

    And where the NHS is concerned, all they can do is day to day management of crises and scandals, hoping that the newspapers will eventually get tired of stories about patients being abused and starved.

    The political Parties are helpless because beginning in 1945, Government got itself into managing enterprises that aren't amenable to Civil Service management. It did so with the best of intentions, because it saw the main problem as lack of access to good education and health care for people on limited incomes.

    And in 1945, with very rudimentary health care and quite basic educational needs, perhaps that was the correct choice. Today, however, we have learned that Government should not be in the business of mining Coal or making cars, but neither party is going to seriously consider whether Government should be running schools and hospitals.

    They'll allow the occasional maverick back-bencher to think aloud on the issue, but there will be no movement because it's too risky. On two core issues that affect every citizen, you can vote for whom you like, but you will have no choice of outcomes.

  9. "He seems pretty passionate about issues like equality and climate change, so it seems blindingly obvious to me who he should vote for. "

    Ooh, ooh! I know! He should vote for the Party that encourages social mobility, private enterprise, free markets, charter schools, teacher performance evaluation, competition in the Healthcare Market, the formation of small start-ups and other businesses, reduced regulation and red tape.

    How did I do?

  10. Traditional parties are very, very similar. In that respect Mr Brand (hope I write it correctly, the one that want s to look like JC at least) is completely right. You can see it countries like Italy and Holland where nearly all traditional parties group together in order to get a sort of working government. Expect the basic trend (not election rhetoric) in the UK being very very similar.

    Party caused by the simpleton marketing trend in traditional politics which was just before populism. Move to the centre summarised. You are most likely to be in power when you are positioned there. And usually there are 2 opposing forces left and right that both do it which basically leads to a 50/50 split of the electorate.

    However today's wannabee saviour misses a few points.
    -The UK looks to be behind a lot of other countries.
    -These other countries show at the moment as by far the major trend populism as it is often called. The UK clearly moves into the same direction only lagging behind most of the rest.
    -The 'solution' for the present dysfunctionality in politics and the lack of choice is short and medium term therefor called populism. Personally not a fan, but what do you expect from populations where half has the IQ of a peanut.

    The UK is only behind with getting the parties in place. UKip looks to be able to settle itself, but basically you would expect also something on the left. A split in the left is much more logical than one on the right, especially if you not have any substantial hamster- and treehugger party like the UK. One between (entitlement receiving) passengers and people that actually work. With the cake getting smaller and the number of pasengers rising not hard to see that the labouring part of Labour will get nervous abot there own way of life. Might as well be something different depends more on a charismatic populist leader than on anything else. It is about organising the people that are fed up with the the traditionals more than anything else.
    Anyway the short and medium term battle will be in parliament only with a lot of other players.

    The populists first have to fail before a next chapter can be written which could take a few decades. Furthermore how that alternative will look is impossible to predict. A 2013 JC lookalike or a guy in a brown uniform with a cute moustache or something in between. Nobody knows. The present generation basically already had a 40 year run and we are still counting.
    So if 2013s coming of Christ wants to see things changed in his lifetime he better starts a political party. Likely half of (the left) half of the UK electorate is open for that if he plays his cards right. And this is the time. Mr Ed is the best thing that could happen to any charismatic lefty populist, well Brown might have even be better. You only have to beat a totally crap candidate. Donot see Nazareth 2.0 doing it btw.
    Most people have still way too much to lose to do extreme things.

    What he does now is make TV.

    1. Right, Rik, except for one thing, which is that this is pretty much how today's Labour Party came to be. At th beginning of the last Century, British politics was split between the Conservative and Liberal parties, and then Labour emerged and wiped the Liberals out in pretty short order ("The Strange Death of Liberal England", George Dangerfield).

      So what's not to like about doing it all over again? Answer, if all you have is catchy populism, you will get votes, but you will create a Party of good intentions and no delivery.

      That's what happened to the Labour Party. It was a Party of fiery rhetoric and famous orators - Kier Hardy, anyone? - but it never got a grip on making the country run.

      Its populist aspirations translated into populist actions, such as nationalizing industries, very popular with voters until no-one could ignore that they had turned into inefficient subsidized monsters, at which point they turned on their creator and got Maggie elected three times. Any time Maggie got into trouble, she just had to bring up the Miners or British Steel, and with a bound she was free.

      Labour's democratic and anti-elitist instincts were also admirable, but they led the party into the trap of imagining that they could legislate prosperity by Parliamentary vote, by raising taxes, and by hostility to Capital. The results were less than stellar.

      And Ed is back to that, imagining that he can "freeze" retail power charges. Gray Davis did that in California in the Nineties and the end result was rolling power cuts that crippled Silicon Valley in 1999 and 2000. Ed could make things "fairer", and kill the economy in doing so.

      If you found a political party, your original aspirations and rhetoric will always imprison you simply because the members they attract will demand action along the same lines.

    2. The idea of traditional parties being the same is clearly untrue. You point to the fact that opposing parties in countries such as Italy and Holland can form grand coalitions. So what? The mainstream parties in Austria, for example, have been in grand coalition for the most part since 1945 -- but they can hardly be said to be similar. Such governments are held together by a lowest common denominator; namely, a mutual appreciation of stability. But they are rarely able to accomplish much in the way of reform. Look at how unstable Enrico Letta's coalition is. Not only that, but weren't Labour and the Conservatives in coalition twice before 1945, when ideological differences were much starker?

      I think it's true that through processes such as globalisation, there are functional pressures which push countries in a certain direction, almost inevitably. The mainstream parties tend to show awareness of this, and adapt to that reality. But that doesn't mean they are the same. As Simon Wren-Lewis has correctly pointed out, it's the aggregate of seemingly small policies that make the difference to the average voter. Labour and the Tories are certainly different when it comes down to the fine detail. They are moving via different paths in the same overall direction.

  11. Simon, would you expand on your view that " I think it is more likely that the economic recovery will turn out to be much stronger than currently forecast" many thanks

  12. I have just read Ross McKibbin's blog post on the London Review of Books ('Abbott’s Victory', 9 September 2013) on the victory of the right-wing Liberal Party in Australia. It seems germane for our 2015 election and the press:

    "Nonetheless, Labor lost an election in circumstances in which notionally it should have won. One of the most surprising things to an outsider is the Australian conviction that they are in economic difficulty. The reverse is true. It is one of the richest countries in the world, has sailed through the great crisis, and a perfectly competent government has introduced important social reforms. Levels of government debt are low. That is not, however, the way many Australians see it and all that is ‘wrong’ is blamed on the Labor Party. Australia’s is a parochial political culture which has little sense of what the rest of the world has to put up with. It is dogged by a press (70 per cent of press circulation is owned by Rupert Murdoch) which has spent the last three years telling its readers how frightful everything is, and Labor was faced by an opposition determined to deny the government’s legitimacy regardless of cost. At this election, only one paper, the Melbourne Age, supported Labor and that might account for Victoria’s being the only state where Labor won a majority of seats. The Sydney Morning Herald gave a hundred reasons not to vote for Abbott but then said you should, because Abbott could be ‘trusted’.In many respects the Liberal Party lied its way into office. But the lies were believed, and the electorate will have to live with the consequences, which will not be long in coming."

  13. in today's paper.
    October 30, 2013
    Perils in Philosophy for Austerity in the U.S. by Eduardo Porter

    "Here’s how Simon Wren-Lewis, a professor of economics at Oxford University put it: arguing that the tiny amount of economic growth Britain has recently achieved after a years-long downturn proved austerity to be the right policy is tantamount to saying that global warming skeptics had “won the climate change argument because of recent heavy snow.”

  14. Professor Lewis: why do you believe that the recovery will be stronger than currently forecast? Also, is there not a high risk that the recovery could easily be derailed by developments in the global economy?

  15. I think the "naivety or indulgence" line here is pretty accurate, although I'd argue that indulgence probably accounts for the vast majority of cases.

    Deriding politicians as all being "the same" has always been a tactic for those on the extremes of public opinion. UKIP have clearly tried to portray themselves as non-politicians, Beppe Grillo did precisely the same thing, ANO 2011 have recently been quite successful with this strategy in the Czech Republic, and so on. When it's not so successful it can still become something of a comforting mantra that holds a movement together - a bit like the rubbish unsigned band that spends all their time bashing mainstream pop music rather than looking inwardly at their own failings.

    There's another side to it as well, though, which is that it's the classic cop out for those with genuine apathy. We like to discuss this issue as if apathy is the end result of parties jostling for the centre, but it works both ways. It's socially undesirable to be seen as ignorant, so bleating on about politicians "all being the same" offers an easy excuse for your own lack of engagement. "It's not my fault for knowing very little about politics, it's the politicians' fault for being so uninteresting in the first place" - I remember saying something very similar in High School after forgetting to do my history homework.

    In both cases the accusation has little to do with what politicians are actually like, it's simply adopted because of what it says about the individual expressing the sentiment. Now of course there's a legitimate side to it - if we want to argue, as Chantal Mouffe does, for instance, that the lack of choice (or "passion" in her words) harms democracy on some fundamental level then fair enough. I think in most cases it's far more simple than that, though.

  16. Thank goodness someone as ill-informed and prone to jump to conclusions as Russell Brand does NOT vote!

  17. After Cameron's speech last night, we now know clearly that the Conservatives offer a clear, well-defined and easily distinguishable policy mandate of eternal, unremitting...Austerity!


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