If the Stronger Towns Fund is an attempt at pork-barrel politics, it's barely a packet of Frazzles

It is not, strictly speaking, a bribe, in the sense that there is nothing stopping Labour MPs from accepting the cash and not voting through her deal

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Monday 04 March 2019 17:03
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Communities secretary James Brokenshire denies Stronger Town Fund is a bribe for MPs to back Brexit deal

There is an old economic experiment called the ultimatum game, a tweaked version of which has been made vaguely famous by the “Share or Shaft” round of Robert Kilroy-Silk quiz show Shafted.

Person A and Person B have a pot of money to share between them. Person A decides how it should be split – 50/50, 60/40, 99/1, however they like – but Person B then gets to decide whether to accept their share or, if they feel hard done by, can instead choose that both of them get nothing.

A rational actor, so the argument goes, would always accept their share, however derisory. Something is always better than nothing. But in experiments, this is rarely how the game plays out. Person B’ers, offered less what they than they perceive to be their fair share, have an overwhelming tendency to tell person A to stick it.

We must assume that the intricacies of the ultimatum game are unknown to Theresa May and whoever came up with the genius idea of the Stronger Towns Fund. Because no sooner had the prime minister announced miniscule amounts of new funding for economically maligned areas that just so happen to be represented by Labour MPs who she might need to vote for her Brexit deal, than they have lined up, one after the other, to tell her they would not be “bribed”.

It is not, strictly speaking, a bribe, in the sense that there is nothing stopping Labour MPs from accepting the cash and not voting through her deal.

Indeed, quite the opposite – there is very little they can do to prevent their areas getting the money, should they so wish. But so derisory are the sums involved, there has evidently been absolutely nothing to prevent them risking the ire of their constituents by pointing this out. It would be generous even to describe it as pork-barrel politics. It is scarcely a packet of Frazzles.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called it a “desperate bribe". Anna Soubry, no longer of the Tory parish, said “voters will not be fooled” by it, which they won’t. Labour MPs from Leave supporting areas, Lisa Nandy and Ruth Smeeth, have called it a “failure” and “extraordinarily pathetic” respectively. Gareth Snell, who represents Stoke Central, Britain’s most pro-Brexit constituency, said: “There is no price on my vote.”

In practically every area due to receive a slice of the £1.6bn funds, the slice is significantly smaller than the amounts that have been cut from local council budgets. The entire £1.6bn is also half of the £3.2bn spent under the coalition's Regional Growth Fund, scrapped after the Conservatives won their majority in 2015.

To take just one example, the cash offered to the Humberside region amounts to significantly less than £5 a year per person. The £1.6bn total, spread over seven years, is a twentieth of the amount estimated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that would be needed to even begin rebalancing the impact of austerity in a single year.

The cash is also, and here’s one of the most ridiculous parts, around seven times less than these areas were due to receive under the EU’s “cohesion” funding for the EU’s poorest areas, some £11.5bn.

It is, in its own way, a bold new interpretation on the ultimatum game that only Theresa May could come up with. Offer Person B a derisory sum they are free to insult but cannot actually turn down, and in return, they are compelled to do absolutely nothing for you.

Still, at least in the great bonfire of national wealth that is Brexit, at least there is a small chance that this vanishingly small amount of money might do a vanishingly small amount of good.

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