To what extent should Labour accommodate itself to public opinion, and to what extent should it try to change it? This fundamental question is posed, perhaps inadvertently, by Jess Phillips in an interview with the Times.
She says that people didn’t trust Labour to deliver the many promises in its manifesto:
People in working class communities know that you can’t always have everything. They know that this week you’ll put the money away for your holiday, next week you’ll put the money away for Christmas.
Now, I’m willing to accept that this is a fair description of many people’s attitudes to Labour’s borrowing plans. But it is, of course, a wholly wrong assessment of the economics.
For one thing, government borrowing is not like household borrowing. When the government borrows, it raises other people’s incomes and so increases its own tax revenues. And for another, governments can borrow on much better terms than working class households. Whereas they face interest rates of hundreds of percent, and have insecure incomes and so cannot be confident of being able to repay, government tax receipts are more stable and it can borrow for the long-term at a real rate of minus two per cent. This means that for every £100 it borrows, it must repay only £67 in today’s money over the next 20 years. Bond markets are paying the state to borrow. And if people are paying you well to do something, you should do it.
Voters can be forgiven for not knowing this, just as I hope I can be forgiven for not knowing the first things about dentistry or plumbing: civilization depends upon the division of labour. This is especially true because they have been ill-served by the media. One of the BBC’s many failings has been its near-total absence of any reporting of one of the most remarkable developments of recent years – that government borrowing costs have repeatedly hit record lows and stayed low.
All this leaves Labour with a dilemma. Should it base its manifesto upon reality, which is that increased borrowing makes sense? Or should it instead defer to public opinion and adopt a milder manifesto which appears “credible”?
There is something to be said for the latter. You cannot change many people’s minds by snatched conversations on doorsteps during election campaigns. The job takes years, and requires resources (such as a benevolent mass media) which we do not possess. And in many cases, it’s a good idea to under-promise and over-deliver. Effective political parties should campaign in lies but govern in truth.
On the other hand, though, there are dangers here. One of Labour’s few advantages over the Tories is its mass membership. A centrist (and wrong) manifesto risks demotivating these supporters. And there’s the big risk that party leaders get high on their supply: if they prate about moderation and credibility long enough, they might come to believe such nonsense.
I’m not sure there is a correct answer to this dilemma. I would, however, hope that the next Labour leader at least appreciates that there is a difference between what’s true and what wins votes. I would also hope that he or she does not wrestle with it publicly.