All-or-nothing simplicities are going to blight this election

If only political leaders could say immigration versus economic dynamism is a difficult balance to strike, or that NHS reform is nearly intractable

John Rentoul
Tuesday 31 March 2015 22:17
David Cameron and Ed Miliband officially launched their election campaigns yesterday after Parliament was dissolved
David Cameron and Ed Miliband officially launched their election campaigns yesterday after Parliament was dissolved

There are many things that political leaders cannot say. David Cameron cannot say that immigration and job creation are two sides of the same thing. He wants to agree with people who want less immigration (reminder to readers of this newspaper: that’s most people in this country), while taking credit for a jobs miracle that has both been driven by and that has sucked in foreign workers.

Ed Miliband cannot say that the NHS, which most voters think is the envy of the world, has a serious structural problem because it is a public-sector monopoly with poor incentives to put the patient first. “I love the NHS” is Labour’s unofficial campaign slogan, which does not allow much subtlety.

The result is that Cameron and Miliband both sound inauthentic, or foolish, or both. The Prime Minister was reduced, in his exchange with Jeremy Paxman last week, to simply admitting that “I have not met my commitment” to reduce net immigration to 100,000 a year. He deserved full marks for candour, but nul points for how he intends to achieve a different result if re-elected.

In private, he complains that of all the ministers in his government only he and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, really cared about the subject, and claims it will all be different if he wins a second term. This is bizarre. He knew perfectly well – because even Labour couldn’t restrain themselves from helpfully pointing it out to him – that his promise to cut immigration could not be kept while there was free movement of EU workers and the British economy was doing reasonably well.

As it turned out, the British economy has started to do better than reasonably well, while most of the eurozone has stagnated. That success means the UK has created more jobs for British workers as well as for foreigners. In fact, it turns out that “British jobs for British workers” depend on British jobs for EU workers too. What is more, it has turned out that the Coalition failed to cut immigration from outside the EU as well. It was not prevented by EU membership or treaty obligations from turning away people from India, Pakistan, South Africa and America, but it didn’t do it, mostly because it would have been a bad idea.

Miliband is almost as inauthentic on the subject, however, as this week’s row over Labour’s campaign mug proved. The party’s merchandising operation, after scoring a hit with a T-shirt proclaiming “Hell yes: I’m voting Labour”, scored a miss with a set of five mugs, each with a Labour pledge-card promise on it. No 4 said simply, “Controls on immigration”, which, as inspiring slogans go, lacks more than just a verb.

Labour’s Diane Abbott took exception to it, presumably not because she is opposed to controls on immigration, but because she thought that putting those words on a mug made it look as if Labour is against immigration. As Ukip yesterday launched its three-escalator poster, you can see why Labour people might shy away from anything that contains any implication of Farage-ism.

Although that brings us back to the problem I mentioned at the beginning, which is that most voters want less immigration, while most politicians with a chance of being in power know that it is not just hard to do but that it can only be done at great cost to the other things that people want, namely a world-beating open economy.

There are the same kinds of trade-offs on most subjects. On the health service, Miliband announced a new policy last week, with some sense of occasion, at an election campaign launch at the top of the Orbit, that twisted red metal tower above the Olympic Park.

Private contractors supplying NHS services would not be allowed to make more than 5 per cent profit, he said. That pledge lasted all of three days, when Miliband was forced to clarify, at the launch of Labour’s business manifesto on Monday, that the 5 per cent profit limit would not apply to drugs companies who sell drugs to the NHS and whose profits are already regulated. We still await clarification of whether what is left of Labour’s policy would apply to GPs, chemists, opticians and dentists, all of whom are private contractors who supply NHS services.

That is what happens when you pander to public sentimentality about the NHS, and try to appease superficial hostility towards anything to do with “market forces” interfering with the saintly motives of those who work for it. It might be that people are not daft and that if political leaders explained how they had a plan that would use the profit motive to achieve better outcomes for everyone then we could make some progress.

The trouble is that the Conservatives blew their chance with the Lansley reforms, which reorganised and renamed but didn’t change incentives, while Labour, rather than do the serious policy work, has gone down Andy Burnham’s easy route of accusing the Tories of privatisation, a conveniently meaningless word.

If only political leaders could say immigration versus economic dynamism is a difficult balance to strike, but they lean towards controlling immigration or towards a dynamic economy. Or that NHS reform is nearly intractable, but that they lean towards relying on the altruism of its staff or towards sharpening incentives by having money follow the patient.

But it is too late now. The election is under way and everything has to be reduced to all-or-nothing simplicities on one side of the question or the other. I suppose that is what democracy does, and what it should do: it should simplify the choice so that the voter can make a meaningful decision.

But you do wonder if we could have a bit of leadership that told us the world is complicated and that any answer that sounds simple and plausible is likely to be wrong.

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