One of the common, and justifiable, refrains heard in recent weeks has taken the form of a lament for the poverty of the offerings of all political parties in the general election campaign. What excitement there has been has come from the intelligence of the opinion polls that suggested - wrongly, as it turned out - that the election would be a close run thing.
On offer from all the major parties was further austerity. This varied in its format. The Conservatives promised to achieve a surplus on the budget by the end of the parliament, and to achieve this more or less exclusively by way of spending cuts. Labour promised a substantial reduction in the deficit - not quite the same retrenchment as the Conservatives - and promised also to achieve it through a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes. There is some distinction between the parties here - not least in the underlying philosophy. The Conservatives want to reduce the size of the state, while Labour do not. That difference in philosophy gave the electorate something on which to base their decisions. But in practice, the differences between the parties are probably not all that great in these respects. The rollercoaster budget proposed by the Conservatives is unlikely to be as dramatic as it appears (and indeed, heaven forbid that it should) simply because it is unlikely to be even remotely achievable.
There were other distinctions between the main parties. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, had a good campaign, and performed most strongly when stating his convictions. It is hard to doubt that his heart is in the right place. Many of the policies that his party offered were well-intentioned. Cutting university tuition fees, capping energy prices, and a form of rent control are examples. Yet all of these policies could well, had they been implemented, have had unintended adverse consequences. Since the poorest students do not repay their loans in full, cutting fees would benefit most the richest. Since energy companies could raise their prices before the threat of a price cap was implemented, the cap could have the opposite effect to that intended. And, even in the refined format proposed, rent controls can have an adverse effect on the supply of housing. In short, there was a naiveté about many of Labour's proposals that seemed to sit curiously alongside Miliband's undoubted intelligence.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, offered a referendum on membership of the European Union. The economic impact of a Brexit has been evaluated thoroughly in a recent study. This finds that, while the balance of costs and benefits depend on the form that withdrawal might take, the most likely scenario is that the UK would lose out by leaving the EU. But, the evidence being mixed, different people have different opinions, and a referendum could go either way. A government of any complexion is one thing; a government taking the UK out of Europe is another entirely. It is therefore to be hoped that the electorate will get the answer right when it comes to the referendum.
The Conservatives campaigned also on two other major things: a rather curious line against the SNP (implying that representation in government by that party would in some sense have been undemocratic), and Labour's record of economic management while in office. Both of these appear to have had some political traction. The first is just bizarre. The second has been widely discussed (see, for example, blogs by Simon Wren-Lewis and Paul Krugman). I reported my own concerns about Gordon Brown's tweaking of his 'golden rule' as long ago as 2005, but in reality any fiscal irresponsibility at that time was small beer. The economic crisis originated in the US financial sector, and we were particularly exposed because of the size of that sector in the UK. The government of the day responded more or less appropriately. Desperate times and all that. With understandable political interests, the Conservatives and others created a myth around this that Labour - not least during the election campaign - have been utterly inept at debunking. Either the myth needs to be addressed in a way that the public can understand, or Labour needs a fresh team so that it can start to rebuild a reputation for economic management. As a result of the election, the latter course will be forced upon them.
And so back to the pollsters. How did they get it all so remarkably wrong? With the Greens and UKIP attracting many votes and with the Liberal Democrats in decline, the electoral dynamics were inevitably hard to predict. It is striking that John Curtice's exit poll came so close. It seems likely that there are features of his methodology that would make good learning points for the other pollsters.
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