For idealists who believe that democracy is about informed debate, this election has to be brutally disillusioning. Martin Wolf
The final leaders’ debate prior to the General Election told us only one important thing, that the evasive approach to the UK’s economic problems which has typified political debate over the past few years will continue right up to the election itself. The failure of the political parties to have a serious public discussion about the state of the economy will have serious repercussions for years to come.
Some commentators have interpreted the parties’ unwillingness to have an open discussion about the economy as down to a fear of making themselves unpopular in the polls. This may be true as far as quantifying public spending cuts is concerned. However, I am afraid that there is a far more serious issue than this behind their reticence. The reality is that none of them have any real idea how to solve the UK’s economic problems, in particular how to get the economy back onto a serious growth track. The media has also largely failed to put the politicians on the spot about this, focusing instead on criticising politicians for not revealing how far and how fast public spending will be cut, as if that were the only problem we face.
The question of how to get the economy growing again has been barely mentioned during the course of the election campaign. There are some populist, but essentially tinkering, supply side proposals to get the sick back to work. Noises have been made about getting the banks to lend to business, without any detail of how this could be done. But none of the parties has any serious plan for how to help create a dynamic UK economy.
There is nothing mysterious about economic growth. Capital has to be put together with labour to produce goods or services that can be sold at a profit. In the UK, as in much of the developed world, this basic process is being strangled by insufficient innovation, an unwillingness to take risk and a dearth of investment in research and development. (For a full exposition of the problems we face take a look at the Big Potatoes manifesto which explores these issues in detail). All of these factors remain unchallenged by a political culture which one foreign writer recently accurately described as banal. There is a collective failure of imagination here which needs to be overthrown if we are to keep our economy moving.
One example of this problem , round about the same time that the UK government finally got round to announcing plans for a second high speed rail line between London and Birmingham, which was met by the usual howls of outrage from nimbys in the Cotswolds and pessimists who argued that we cannot afford it, the Chinese announced an aspiration to build a high speed rail line between Beijing and London-potentially the biggest infrastructure project in human history.
For readers of this blog, none of the above should come as any surprise. As we have chronicled here since the financial crisis begun, public debate on the economy has been either evasive, pessimistic or delusional. Now, in the few days before the election and looking at the pitiful attempts of the main parties to grapple with the impact of the recession, the question is, why vote, does it make any difference and if so who for? I shall return to this early next week.