The Conservative Party has complained to the BBC that the audience at the leaders’ debate (the one where only one leader was missing) was unreasonable, biased and left wing. Maybe that’s true. Though it’s hard to blame the BBC since the audience was selected for them by a polling company with specific instructions to put together a balanced audience.
There may be other explanations for the obvious fact that the audience was not very supportive of Amber Rudd – at one point bursting into laughter when she suggested that the Tories should be judged on their record.
First, the fact that Theresa May was the only leader not to show up could not have endeared the Tories to the audience.
But maybe there are deeper underlying factors that are driving people away from the Conservatives – as the polls seem to suggest. After seven years of austerity, voters may have had enough of it. The mantra of “living within our means” no longer resonates. It is maybe now seen as a thin veneer for an ideological obsession with cutting public services. Now, to be fair, the Conservative manifesto has tried to occupy the centre ground. But Tory language remains focused on reducing public spending. Not for the Tories the idea of a money tree that can be harvested.
For the last few decades, policy in most countries has been driven by the imperative of debt and deficit reduction. For a while this was believable. It was associated in people’s minds with responsible government. For Mrs Merkel in Germany there was never any alternative that could be considered – either for Germany or for any other EU country. No matter what the level of social problems caused (see Greece), cutting government expenditure was the only way forward.
What if voters in the UK – and maybe elsewhere – are tiring of this approach? What then? It would imply that we need a new economic model for new times. If there is a limit to how long voters will tolerate seemingly endless austerity, we have to find an alternative.
Labour’s approach is to return to the previous “tax and spend” model. In a 21st century world, will that work? It will be almost impossible to try for countries hemmed in by the euro. But for Britain, it is possible. We cannot be sure of the consequences. So maybe it’s time we explored whether there are any other models that could be developed for the current UK situation – insufficient economic growth and low productivity, low tax revenues, a persistent deficit, fairly high levels of public debt, sky high levels of private debt, a monetary policy that has run out of road, and ever-shrinking public services.
Traditional economic thinking has no credible solutions to this combination of factors. If the narrative of ‘living within our means’ starts to get rejected by voters, we will need to break out of the shackles of traditional thinking and dare to think afresh. Where that will take us nobody knows. But the need for fresh, radical thinking is becoming undeniable.