Well, that was disappointing. I was looking forward to at least a couple of days of constitutional wrangling, ideally featuring miniscule parties most people have never heard of as kingmakers, like the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or Plaid Cymru. Alas, the Conservatives romped home to a twelve seat majority, a scenario I had basically discounted before the election. The Liberal Democrats were wiped out by even more than I thought they would be. Labour performed worse in England than I imagined they would.
There were some things I got right, though: the Greens and Ukip, despite their large national visibility, were rendered electorally irrelevant by the first-past-the-post system. Predictably, their supporters are calling for a move to proportional representation, or some other equally moronic system, rather than taking my simple advice about how to solve the problem. Amusingly, their zeal for this is tempered by the knowledge that the other’s party would have done rather better than they did, as if one picks an electoral system to make one election retrospectively give the “right answer”.
The Scottish National Party did better than I had imagined, but only slightly. Sinn Féin lost one of their seats, which meant that I was even wrong about what constituted a majority, though not as wrong as all the TV coverage, which insisted on counting non-voting members in calculating it.
So in full: the Conservatives won 331 seats, Labour 232, the SNP 56, the Democratic Unionist Party 8, the Lib Dems 8, Sinn Féin 4, Plaid Cymru 3, the SDLP 3, Ulster Unionists 2, Green Party 1, and Ukip 1. The BBC gave the irrelevant popular vote split as: Conservatives 36.9%, Labour 30.4%, Ukip 12.6%, Lib Dems 7.9%, SNP 4.7%, Greens 3.8%, with no details on the others. The turnout was about two-thirds of the electorate – higher than last time, but hardly stellar by historical standards. Here are some maps.
Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth by the majority of the turnout that didn’t vote Tory, and probably some of those who didn’t bother to vote at all. Apparently entire “sociopolitical groups” are depressed by the result, despite that traditionally being a condition only individuals suffer from. Some of them go further – I’ve seen calls to “make the country ungovernable” by some people, which I think means throwing some sort of tantrum.
“Anti-austerity” types use rather desperate reasoning to conclude that actually the results back their views, basically by assuming that anyone who didn’t vote Tory or Ukip (49.5% of those who did vote) agree with them. The reality is at least 92.5% of the people who bothered to vote, did so for a party that backed the coalition’s 3% real terms cut in spending over the last five years. Which could well be in part because the main opposition, Labour and the SNP, did, despite appearances to the contrary; but you can’t just assume away that position when looking at the data.
Goodbye, Mr Ed
The Labour Party leader Ed Miliband graciously resigned, promptly, and with a minimum of fuss, and more than a little bit of good humour. I always liked him; I always felt he probably wasn’t the knee-jerk headline chasing moron that his policies – and their announcements – made him look like. The Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg followed him. I think he will be judged by posterity to have been a pretty good Deputy Prime Minister – but a catastrophic leader for his party. Ukip’s Nigel Farage resigned too, after losing his fight for a seat in South Thanet on the Kent coast, though I will be very surprised if he doesn’t retake the leadership at the contest in September. I won’t eat my hat, though.
The Tories will now govern unencumbered by their vanquished former coalition beaux. What can we expect? A bill to rationalise Parliamentary seats into more equal populations, which will help smooth out some of the problems with UK democracy, though not all of them. Tax cuts, most significantly for minimum wage workers, whom the Tories have pledged to take out of income tax permanently.
They have also promised, or threatened, if you like, £12 billion in nominal welfare cuts, from its current £110bn budget – though where we don’t know. Means testing more things will undoubtedly figure, and is basically a good thing in principle, unless you like giving money to rich people to procreate, for instance. It’s supposed to be a safety net, after all, not a spare hammock. But there will certainly be some pain for some of the poorest citizens. This is potentially very, very bad, in my view.
There may be far-reaching reforms of the unsustainable NHS, or our gradually slipping schools, and possibly a restructuring of the UK on federal lines. Those could potentially be good or bad, depending on their form. Most of all there is the prospect of a break with the EU. That’s kind of a big deal.
Kind of a big deal
So where now for the opposition? There is the predictable crowd saying that Labour lost because it was “austerity-lite”, and clearly they need to be further to the left to win. “Look at the SNP!” they say. “A clear anti-austerity line [sic], and a huge electoral success! How do you explain that? Obviously, had a party been making the same left-wing arguments on a national scale, they would have swept to victory!” This argument does not stand up to scrutiny. (And not only because right- and left-wing are partisan labels, not philosophical ones).
Scotland is different, and the driving force behind the SNP surge was nationalism, albeit with “austerity” [sic] a close second, despite the Institute for Fiscal Studies finding their manifesto to be roughly the same as “austerity-lite” Labour, fiscally speaking. It is not transferrable to the rest of the country. The Tories’ net loss to Labour was just four seats; coincidentally, the same total number of seats they lost to them in southern England outside London.
The bulk of Tory gains came at the expense of their erstwhile coalition partners. But actually the big story is that they gained at all – incumbent parties leading unpopular governments which are thought to have massively cut spending aren’t supposed to. They held 285 seats, just three fewer than Labour and the SNP managed to get between them in total. This is hardly proof of a “progressive majority”.
The only Labour leader to have won any general elections since 1974 thinks the answer is to return to the centre ground. There is good, solid, unarguable mathematics behind this. But the promising analysis for me is from Miliband’s shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna.
Umunna shows a) a clear grasp of the rules of UK elections, and why Labour’s rather pessimistic, exclusionary “35% strategy” was not playing to win by them, b) a willingness to count the opinions of those who didn’t vote for them, and ask why they didn’t, and most importantly c) a flexibility of thinking that prioritises solving social problems over ideologically pure proposals that claim to.
Step one for the British left should be getting behind this guy, in my view. He’s charismatic, charming and pragmatic. He’s smart, seems to understand business or at least not be actively hostile to it, and doesn’t repel people with anger, hate and envy. He’s been described as the “British Obama”, and I think this has resonance entirely apart from his race – in his positive, hopeful outlook and uniting attitude. Apart from anything, having a black leader would be insulation against a shift to the traditional anti-immigration racism of the far-left. He’s a really good candidate.
Here’s a little more advice for my lefty brethren, if they want to secure my vote and those of people like me next time round:
1. Chill the fuck out
Not everything is a giant capitalist conspiracy; not everything Conservatives do is evil. Before the exit polls came in to shatter their hopes, some lefty friends of mine were passing round a darkly-worded article warning of the coming “coup” by the dastardly Tories, who were evilly going to try to form a minority government in the event of a hung Parliament. Like, say, Harold Wilson did. This sinister plot was of such Dr Evil-ish genius it could only be foiled by a majority of the Commons passing a no-confidence vote against the prospective government, which any of them could bring to the floor.
When you’re pre-emptively getting spitting mad and indignant about normal procedure in advance of anything actually happening about it there’s really something wrong with you, and it’s very difficult to speak rationally with someone like that. Not least because it makes one wonder whether they would be quite so damning of a Labour-led minority government “coup”.
The world is complex. Policy outcomes are uncertain. You do not have the monopoly on good intentions. It is possible to agree on morals and disagree on policy. Anger and hate are extraordinarily unproductive emotions. Step away from the tin-foil hat.
Calm. The fuck. Down.
2. Take on arguments on their own terms
Some on the Left seem to care more about the messenger than the message. One version of this is not giving credit to people you don’t like when they do good things. I know for a fact loads of them are pissed off that the coalition legalised gay marriage, because that puts them in the irritating position of agreeing with them. So: “Cameron may have legalised gay marriage, but obviously he’s only doing that as a sop to the Gay Business lobby and his friends in Big Registry Office,” or something.
Another is in dismissing an argument you can’t refute because of who makes it. “You are false data,” they say, perhaps forgetting that the validity of a concept is independent of where it originates.
The frequency with which I argue with someone only to be attacked for who (they think) I am is depressing. One old friend of mine, who has known me at least 15 years, responded to my straightforward reasoning that his proposal to replace the state-subsidised loan system for higher education with student grants funded by taxes on “corporations” was anti-progressive and anti-savers, by posting vapid memes about alleged Tory corruption on my facebook page.
Somehow, I guess he must have decided that I had suddenly become a Tory, that I therefore thought corruption was awesome, and hence my logic was not worth engaging with, however seductively irrefutable it seemed. In a similar conversation recently I was told my argument was “ideology dressed up as pragmatism”. Fine, I guess – is it wrong?
3. Open up your tiny little minds about how best to organise things
The fact is the biggest problem on the Left is a naive faith that government is just awesome, that any policy claiming to solve x will solve x, and therefore if you oppose that policy you don’t want to solve x, possibly because you don’t care about the people affected by it, probably because you are an evil blood sucking capitalist that I probably should simply not listen to, and lalalalalala I can’t hear you.
This is infantile. How a policy is presented to the electorate is a marketing strategy thought up by those wishing to implement it. It is not, generally speaking, a detailed and thorough analysis of what will actually happen, with specific confidence intervals. The Left are often unbelievably cynical about what they hear about private institutions’ aims and actions, to the point of utter hysteria – why then can they not have at least some scepticism when it comes to the state?
The state is a particular institution, with a particular logical structure; pointing out that this may perform worse when trying to solve a given problem than any other particular institution with a different logical structure should not be heresy. Unless you really are a hardcore communist, the market institution is sometimes a better option. It’s not always clear when one is definitely better than the other, and to find out you have to consider their characteristics.
For instance, when attempting to solve a problem, it is good to have a feedback process for gauging the performance of any attempt, so you can fix it if it isn’t meeting its expectations. In a sufficiently competitive market we just stop buying a product if we’re not happy with it, and buy one of the many alternatives – this is possible because the implementation decision is dispersed among many agents, and it is a powerful correction mechanism. For governments we have periodic elections, at which point we choose one bundle of choices for everybody across many diverse issues; this is a far more opaque and inflexible way of evaluating the success or failure of any attempt to do anything. It has other intrinsic flaws, too, as can markets (see below).
How one decides whether to use one or the other is by weighing up the costs and benefits of the two options somehow. Amazingly, some on the Left seem to literally believe state action is costless. One lefty recently said to me: “No one is in favour of cuts”, in a totally generic sense.
Well, people who believe society is paying more for a particular state action than the value it is getting out of it might be. And some reasonably feel that – at least as far as the non-welfare cuts go – the coalition cuts have not reduced the quality of the corresponding services in defence, local government, the civil service, fire and police departments. In which case, as long as you think that government is there for the citizens and not its employees, the cuts were good. At any rate it’s at least worth thinking about costs and alternatives, not just the usually more obvious benefits.
I once made the mistake of publicly asking a lefty friend, who was terribly upset about the “Tory NHS privatisation” his fevered imagination had cooked up: if, hypothetically, a private healthcare system resulted in better outcomes for patients, would he still be against it?
Basically, I was asking: which is more important, solving the problem, or the ownership structure of the means by which we attempt to do so? I got threats of physical violence from his goons, some of whom said I was “trying to trick him”. Just for asking the question!
4. Stop hating success and (re-)embrace markets
Amazingly, the great novelist George Orwell remained a kind of leftist until the sad end of his days, despite his deep insight that the Left’s methods for attempting to solve social problems would not only fail but lead to tyranny, if followed to their logical conclusion. He actually once reviewed Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and in typical fashion gave a great summary of the principal thesis about socialism, before saying something incredibly stupid about Hayek’s support for decentralised competitive markets.
“The trouble with competitions,” said Orwell, “is that somebody wins them.” If the problem with competition is the existence of winners, the answer is very simple: destroy everything of any value to anybody. Then there are no winners – we’re all losers. Problem solved. With the help of a better German speaker than myself, I’ve coined a phrase for this: Reichtumshaẞ – wealth hate.
Presumably what Orwell meant to say was that the problem was that somebody loses. He probably had in mind a foot race, a soccer match, or divvying up a pizza – a zero-sum game, where the existence of winners’ winnings implies equal and opposite losses to losers. But wealth is not a pizza – the amount available is not independent of how it is divided up; my wealth does not necessarily create your poverty. This is hard for people to understand, because our brains evolved in hunter gatherer societies where wealth was not stored, and so its sum total did not grow.
There is still an entrenched belief in leftish circles that somehow when a person or a firm profits, it is a “rip-off”, that it must be some kind of fraud. This is usually rather selectively applied – I know plenty of leftists with savings, plenty who own shares or businesses, and no leftists who when selling the computer their ability has bought them accept offers according to the need of the bidder. But it’s there at least for “other people’s” profits.
When two people enter into a trade in a free market, both profit. Or they don’t do it. That’s undeniable, and the great drive behind prosperity. Growth, after all, is merely the change in value of everything we have access to due to its changing hands from one person to another who values it more than something else, and vice versa – ie it’s the sum of profits. You can’t be pro-growth and anti-profit.
Some complain that the spread of impersonal trade is bad, that it removes the human contact in previous ways of organising. Once again, this is actually a good thing. Impersonal trade is buying and selling things without caring who is on the other end of the deal. The opposite of that is preferring some over others – xenophobia, insularism, tribalism, racism.
It’s true that markets need a private property convention to function, for which a state can be very helpful in practice. They can under- or over-provide goods that are non-rival, non-excludable, or both. Monopolies and oligopolies can have materially different outcomes to competitive markets. Bilateral trades can result in costs to third parties not involved in negotiating the deal – that’s called an externality and the study of what they are and what to do about them is wonderfully varied and challenging. I happen to work in one particular area of this study – the externalities that come from financial systems.
These are very interesting but overwhelmingly exceptional problems, not the rule. If you think otherwise, your life must be hell – every time you buy a Mars bar, you must berate yourself for all the terrible pain you’ve caused. Or, you could imagine all the huge numbers of people who, while mainly caring about themselves and their immediate family, somehow cooperated to get you this tasty bag of calories. Seriously – markets are, quite literally, amazing.
“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself,” said the great economist Milton Friedman. Authoritarian and tyrannical governments have understood this from time immemorial – it’s why they nationalised mints to control the coinage, and why Elizabeth I created monopolies for her favourites and outlawed Lee’s stocking frame.
Quite naturally, then, it was the forces of conservatism that historically opposed free market policies, and the Tories have a long record in doing so, against Levellers, Whigs and Liberals. Weirdly, it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who brought economic liberalism in from the cold somewhat in the UK in the 1980s. This confused the Left so much that, in keeping with point two above, it rebranded it “neoliberalism” so they could sneer at it safely. The rebranding has been so successful from both sides that almost all people now bizarrely see free market policies as a conservative idea! It doesn’t have to be this way.
Thanks for playing
So that’s my advice. Take it, and you might get my vote next time.
I was there for the taking for Labour in this election: I’m a politically engaged, educated, middle income, negative-net-worth, pro-immigration immigrant’s son, from a left-wing family in a left-wing town, virtually all of whose friends are left-wing, who works with mainly left-wing people in left-wing academia.
I am socially (ultra-)liberal, sceptical of interventionist foreign policy, instinctively repelled by arguments based on “tradition”, and I’m anti-monarchy. I have no love for Tories – to me they’ll always be the party that kicked out Robert Peel for repealing the Corn laws, despite their relatively recent rebranding as a free market party under Thatcher – though I don’t hate them just for their opinions, either. I have a mental illness, so am a regular user of healthcare with a personal stake in how it is structured – but I don’t need that personal stake, because I care deeply about how best to structure society so as to improve everybody’s lives, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.
However, I do not think it is obvious how to do so because people are varied and society is complex, and I need to be convinced in any particular case that state action is going to help rather than hurt. Especially as, unlike free trade, it will definitely hurt somebody, as all state action is coercive, or it’s pointless. The greatest increases in living standards in history have been achieved largely despite state meddling, not because of it.
All the left had to do to get my vote this time was convince me that it cared more about solving social problems than the particular form of proposed solutions, and that it was interested in improving the lives of people who have lost out in free interaction, rather than punishing those who had done well.