In a couple of recent articles journalist and historian Andy Becket has pointed out that not only do the Tories have a greater proportion of the media prepared to tell their stories, they also tell them better. The catchy summary of the current story is "Build back better." Before that was "Get Brexit done." Not too long ago (was it Mrs May's premiership?) we had a "Long-term economic plan."
Not only are their stories made memorable by a three-word summary, the are also not averse to bending the truth more than a little in their telling. When our children embellish their tales too far away from reality we tell them to "stop telling stories." I suggest we should think of the Conservatives not just as the Tories but as the (s)Tories.
Here are some recent examples.
A few days ago on the Radio 4 "Today" programme Rishi Sunak claimed that our economy was benefiting the workers no end because, among other things, the (s)Tories had introduced the living wage. Well, "Yes," but then "No."
The National Minimum Wage was actually introduced as one of the first acts of the New Labour government in 1998. All the (s)Tories have done is renamed it the Living Wage. Currently it is £8.91 per hour for an adult aged 23+. The actual Living Wage, as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, is £9.50 per hour.
I picked up a similar sleight of hand on BBC Radio 4's "More or Less " programme yesterday morning. The (s)Tories claim that 88% of our population is now vaccinated and this is world beating, among the highest in the world. But our 88% is actually of the adult population whereas most international comparisons take the entire population as a base. So although we may have got off to a "world beating " start we have so far vaccinated only 66% of the entire population. Many other countries have now overtaken us.
The (s)Tories also boast that we are "the fastest growing economy in the G7." So we are, but largely becasue we fell furthest off the cliff at the beginning of the pandemic, and so have more leeway to make up.
A theme that has pervaded the (s)Tories' conference is that the "supply chain" shortages which currently plague the economy are all the fault of businessmen for failing to prepare. As the Chair of our Local Liberal Democrat Party puts it, "They have failed to prepare for difficulties they were told were not going to happen." As Sir Keir Starmer pointed out in his own conference speech (see previous post,) "attributing blame to someone else" is one of Prime Minister Johnson's routine approaches.
There is something bizarre about the (s)Tories, who have spent the whole of my lifetime (and probably longer) battling to keep wages down, U-turning to demand that business pay higher wages along with investing more in order to move to a high wage, high skilled, high productivity economy.
Well, they have not only been in charge for the past 11 years, but indeed for the majority of the time since 1945. So why haven't we got there yet?
Economists have been calling for higher investment and better training for the whole of that period, yet entrepreneurs have been reluctant to train workers lest a rival organisation poaches then, and investors have preferred, and the government has done little to discourage them, to invest in "paper" (to make a "kill," usually short term, on the Stock Exchange) rather than long term in the real, or physical economy.
The government is right to say that we need to progress to higher skills and be at the "cutting edge" of the products that the world wants tomorrow rather than what it wanted yesterday. But that is in the long run when, as Keynes famously pointed out, "we are all dead."
In the short run we haven't enough HGV drivers, fruit and vegetable pickers, pig butchers, poultry killers, doctors, nursers and care workers, to name but some. Prices are rising, and real incomes are falling, especially for those dependent on the £20 temporary boost to Universal Credit and those NHS and Local Government workers subject to a below inflation wage freeze.
In the coming winter lots of people will be cold, some will be hungry, some will die unnecessarily. The government has a duty to protect us. For this we need serious politicians, not just showmen and stories.