Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday, 20 April 2017

GE2017: Why economic facts will be ignored once again

In 2015, the Conservatives spun the line that Labour profligacy had messed up the economy, and they had no choice but to clear up the mess. In short, austerity was Labour’s fault. As Labour chose not to challenge this narrative, almost all the media and half the voters assumed it must be true. The reality was the complete opposite. The rising deficit was a consequence of the global financial crisis, not Labour profligacy. Doing something about it should and could have been delayed until the recovery was underway. By acting prematurely, Osborne delayed the recovery and lost the average UK household resources worth thousands of pounds. The story that we had to cut now because of the markets was completely false. 

Indeed, if you define the term economic recovery properly, as growth above previous trends, there has been no economic recovery from the Great Recession. I have shown this chart many times, and the story it tells is clear. In every post-war recession the economy recovered. The exception is this one, where we have seen no recovery while Conservatives were running the economy.



We can put the same point another way. The average growth in GDP per head during the Labour government period, which included the recession caused by the global financial crisis, is greater than average growth since 2010. The last decade has seen a unique period of falling real wages. Now this might not be the fault of the government in charge at the time, but it is that government that should have some explaining to do. But they never do have to explain, because mediamacro take it as given that the Conservatives are better at running the economy.

The 2015 General Election was the first recent occasion that the economic facts were ignored. The second was of course the EU referendum. Academic economists were united in thinking that Brexit would be bad for living standards: the only question was how much would incomes fall. The non-partisan media decided to portray that not as knowledge, but as just another view, to be always matched by someone saying the opposite.

A critical issue during the referendum was a belief that immigration had reduced the access of UK natives to public services. Economists know that is simply wrong for the economy as a whole, and if it happens locally it is because the government has pocketed the taxes immigrants pay. But the media did little to inform voters of why it is wrong, and I suspect this is why most of those voting Leave believed they would be no worse off in the long run outside the EU. This majority were not willing to lose income to reduce immigration for the simple reason that they believed, erroneously, that reducing immigration would make them better off.

Brexit may not have led to the immediate economic downturn that some expected, but the Brexit depreciation has brought to a halt the short period during of rising real wages. The economic pain that economists said would follow any vote to leave is starting to happen. Will that change the broadcast media’s view about how to present the economic consequences of Brexit? When Conservative politicians and their media backers choose to focus on GDP, will broadcast media journalists have the nous to ask what about real wages?

Unfortunately we know the answer to these questions. As far as economics is concerned GE2017 is likely to be nothing more than a combination of GE2015 and the EU referendum. The economy has not got any better than in 2015, and is about to get worse, but mediamacro will let Conservatives insist that the economy is strong. It is one year on from the referendum, but we still do not know what kind of Brexit we will have, a reason May gave for not holding another referendum in Scotland. The exchange rate has fallen and real wages have stopped rising, but we will still be told this is just Project Fear and the consensus among economists will get ignored once again. So, for the third time, we will have a vote where economics is critical but economic facts will be largely ignored.

We might be appalled at the authoritarian way May justified her decision to hold an election, which the Mail only slightly beefed up in their Leninist talk of crushing the saboteurs. But the depressing truth is that a majority of voters have bought this story. According to a snap poll by ICM for the Guardian, 54% of voters thought May was right to change her mind about an election because the situation has changed. They have been sold the narrative that Brexit is the will of the people, and now they must get behind May so she can get the best Brexit deal. As inflation rises and real wages fall the facts may be changing, but the narrative survives.

Narratives are a way people can try to understand things they know little about, and most people know little about economics or politics. Mediamacro is a set of narratives. Project fear is a narrative. The right and the ideologues are very good at selling narratives, and they have a media machine to invent them, road test them and spread them. The left and the realists have none of those things, and are hopeless at it anyway because they know reality is more complex than most narratives. That is why they have lost two elections, and look like losing a third big time.

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