Election notebook #16: Police numbers; non-debates; nuclear deterrence; Liberal Socialists?

by Stephen Tall on June 6, 2017

Another week, another attack, this time in London. There’s a gruesome cowardice to these outrages: crude tactics, easy targets. How can you defend citizens, always, everywhere, against these ‘losers’ ((C) President Trump, on that single occasion he judged the tone right) with infamous murders on their minds and little care for their own survival? The wearying, worrying reality is you can’t.

As a result politicians have fixated on the easy bit, armed police numbers. The Conservatives point out that numbers are on the up, having been on the down on, erm, Theresa May’s watch as home secretary. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, who not so long ago was saying cuts to the police were the one bit of austerity he agreed with, is now calling for increases. Go figure.

In any case, raw numbers aren’t always a good measure of capacity or effectiveness. The bigger question remains how we tackle extremism in our society, whether Islamist or neo-Nazi, and the evident attraction it has for disaffected young men in particular. Just don’t expect any sensible answers to that this side of 8th June.

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That’s not the only non-debate this election, though. Obviously, there’s Brexit which has gone MIA this campaign. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have shown any inclination to debate what they think a good Brexit deal looks like and how they’re going to achieve it. Future historians will, I suspect, be mystified such a huge event in this country’s future can be treated as a “haven’t we dealt with that already” footnote.

But there are other issues, too. Such as, y’know, the economy. I’m old enough to remember when that was pretty central to an election campaign. We would have debates about growth, the appropriate level of taxation, the deficit. Properly costed manifestos would be released. Politicians would take pride in press releases exposing ‘black holes’ in the finances of their opponents. There would be an ‘Ask the Chancellors’ debate. This year, nothing.

The same goes for other crucial areas of public policy: home affairs, health, education, transport. Back in the day, the parties would have allocated a press conference to each area. The BBC would have staged debates between cabinet ministers and their opposition shadows. Yet now the party leaders are rarely been off our screens, it seems, with their colleagues sidelined, along with any detailed probing of the issues.

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I didn’t watch the BBC Question Time debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. The only clip I’ve seen was the Labour leader’s tetchy answers on the British nuclear deterrent (“I’d rather have it and not use it than not at all,” said one audience member. “Do you want to comment on that?” asked David Dimbleby. “No,” he monosyllabled.)

Cue a day’s sub-sixth form debate on Twitter as folk adopted (deliberately?) polarised positions. Anyone who believes in deterrence was assumed to love the idea of millions dying in nuclear apocalypse. Anyone who opposes deterrence was assumed to be a naive hippy who’d invite Iran and North Korea to join their progressive alliance.

For what it’s worth, I line up with the pro-deterrence lot, as I happen to think it’s the most effective way of avoiding nuclear conflagration. But it is ridiculously expensive and I have a fair degree of sympathy with those who’d prefer to divert at least some of the nuclear defence budget into greater spending on conventional forces and counter-intelligence. Both positions are arguable. Just not, it seems, on Twitter.

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I had my criticisms of the Lib Dems during the Coalition government. But one of the most important contributions my party made was always to demand before any budget was approved that they Treasury produce tables showing the redistributive effects of the Chancellor’s proposals. They did so to check that the burden of austerity was being spread. Once free of the Lib Dem shackles in 2015, George Osborne immediately ended the practice, not least because it would have shown his first Conservative-only budget was going to hit the working poor harder than ever before.

IFS-manifesto-personal-finace-general-election-2017
It’s striking then to see the impact of the three main parties’ proposals as assessed by the IFS. What it shows is unmistakable. There is very little difference between Conservative and Labour plans for tax and welfare spend. The poorest will be hit pretty much equally hard by either. The Lib Dem manifesto make the best attempt to share the burden and protect the poorest.

Much of the money Labour does propose to raise (by jacking up corporation tax and higher-rate taxes) will be splurged on tuition fees which disproportionately benefit those who go on to be better paid than the average. Put simply, it’s a massive middle-class subsidy at a time when most benefits as well as tax credits are being cut.

As The Independent’s John Rentoul commented:

“For all that Corbyn’s supporters have built their worship on despising Tony Blair for failing to challenge Tory inequality, they are now selling a programme that promises to take from the poor and to give to the upper-middle income brackets. Under Blair and Gordon Brown, government policy became more redistributive, offsetting the greater inequality of the labour market. The Tories want to dismantle Gordon Brown’s tax credits, which have made work pay for millions and lifted them out of benefit dependency, and Corbyn and McDonnell propose to do next to nothing about it. All good socialists should vote Lib Dem on Thursday.”

And he’s got a point. (All good liberals should, too.)