April 2015        

Election promises, and business as usual

Tommy McKearney

As Britain’s political parties began their general election campaigns with a series of televised debates, two interesting messages emerged from one of the widely watched, albeit less than inspiring, media events.
     ITV’s seven-person debate demonstrated that, for the first time since the 1920s, British politics are no longer bipolar. Secondly, it is now very evident that not only is Northern Ireland not “as British as Finchley” but that it is not considered integral to Britain’s political discourse at all.
     Conservative Party neo-liberalism is wreaking havoc on the North’s economy, and those living there know it. People already experiencing hardship are to be further disadvantaged, as public-sector employment is to be cut back and central government funding reduced in favour of subsidies for corporations.¹
     Thousands took to the streets in March to protest against the damage about to be inflicted by the Stormont House Agreement imposed by the London government; and still their representatives could not find a place in the important debate watched by millions of voters.
     The governing Conservative Party entered the television debate insisting that the economy is not only in recovery mode but is actually enjoying robust good health. The prime minister, David Cameron, told his British viewers that unemployment is falling and that growth has been revised upwards, and he also claimed that living standards are rising along with improved consumer confidence.
     Outside the broadcasting studios Cameron’s spin-doctors were reminding the public that British business is firmly behind the Conservative Party. So wonderful has been the Tory management of the economy, in the opinion of more than a hundred of Britain’s most senior business figures, that they wrote to the Daily Telegraph complimenting the Posh Boys on their handling of the country and warning God-fearing people about the dangers of a Labour Party victory in May.
     There was undoubtedly a large measure of pre-election grandstanding in all of this. Political parties rarely provide a balanced or accurate account of their performance in office or the broken undertakings made beforehand. As the former Irish Labour Party minister Pat Rabbitte once said, when asked about his own party’s unfulfilled promises, “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”
     It was nevertheless important that differing views were heard on ITV, if only to ensure that the governing party’s assertions did not go entirely unchallenged. However flawed the television debate was, important issues were discussed and argued about and options of a sort placed before the public.
     As in the Republic, austerity and the fall-out from it is of great concern to those governed from London. Assessing whether the economy is performing as well as the Conservatives claim is important, especially to working people. Carefully selected statistics may appear to show a healthy state of affairs in Britain, but all is not well, and not everybody is as pleased with the situation as the above-mentioned letter-writers to the Daily Telegraph.
     Productivity, one of the crucial indicators in any economy, is dismally low in Britain. The Office for National Statistics has said that this measure decreased by 0.2 per cent in the third quarter of the last financial year, leaving little change over the previous year in output per hour worked and a slightly lower figure than in 2007. In other words, Cameron and Osborne have presided over an economy with the weakest productivity record of any British government since the Second World War.
     The general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, said recently that Britain is fast becoming a low-wage, low-productivity economy. Endorsing this view, oddly enough, was the right-wing Economist, which published a similar warning in an article last month that stated: “Britain’s workers are a bargain, because their pay is so pitiful. Of the 15 initial members of the EU, only Greece and Portugal now have lower hourly wages.”²
     Efficiency in a modern economy is the result not simply of sweat or diligence but of investment in training and up-to-date machinery. With labour so cheap, employers (such as those who use the Daily Telegraph to laud David Cameron) simply don’t see any reason to reinvest a greater portion of their profits in technology or in enhancing skills.
     A consequence of this is that, while Tory fiscal policy allows business to enjoy a comfortable income, total output is not increasing rapidly enough to meet the needs of the wider population and simultaneously reward the wealthy. The result of this neo-liberal austerity programme is that inadequate resources are being made available to maintain public services and guarantee the social wage.
     The ramifications of austerity, its impact and the Tory-led coalition’s dealing with the issue were central, therefore, to the television debate. Predictably, Cameron stuck to his position that all is well and getting better, Ed Miliband for the Labour Party proposed a package that the Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, described as a choice between “austerity and austerity light,” and Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party suggested a Keynesian alternative.
     Interestingly, the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Green Party (all women, incidentally) offered the Labour Party the option of support in return for softening the austerity programme.
     Socialists might well have their doubts about the efficacy of any of these proffered remedies, but at least all political parties with representatives elected to the House of Commons got an opportunity to contribute to an important debate—all parties, that is, with the exception of those from Northern Ireland. Because, in spite of having more members of Parliament than four of the seven parties represented on the panel, in spite of demanding an opportunity to walk the British stage, and in spite of offering to support either the Labour or Conservative Party in the event of a hung parliament, the DUP found itself, like Cinderella, with no invitation to the ball.
     Britain’s three largest parties and its television stations have offered various convoluted excuses for making an exception of the North’s MPs, but the hard reality is that they are not seen as intrinsically part of the political dialogue in Britain.
     Significantly, no voice was raised among the seven participating party leaders to say that they would not take part in this event should it proceed without the Irish. With this happening only six months after the three big English parties made such an enormous effort to prevent Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Northern Ireland is in effect being “parked in a siding” as far as Britain’s political elite is concerned.
     In such a scenario, Northern Ireland’s politicians might do well to consider their options while they still have the opportunity.

1. Global Tax Reclaim, “Northern Ireland CIT Bill passes UK Parliament.”
2. “Bargain basement: If Britain cannot get more from its legion of cheap workers, the recovery will stall,” Economist, 14 March 2015.

Home page  >  Publications  >  Socialist Voice  >  April 2015  >  Election promises, and business as usual
Baile  >  Foilseacháin  >  Socialist Voice  >  Aibreán 2015  >  Election promises, and business as usual