The pessimists are winning.
Steve Van Riel makes this point today, noting how ingrained pessimism is in British public opinion.
He does this after reading Lord Ashcroft’s research into UKIP voters. Ashcroft shows the pessimism UKIP voters feel about Britain. Steve points out that “Labour voters.. are just as pessimistic: 86 per cent of Labour voters think things in Britain have got worse in the last ten years, 38 per cent think they will be personally worse off ten years hence.”
Such data is backed up by consistent poll trends. Hardly anyone thinks the economy is good, or will improve soon. Over two-thirds of people say they are worried about having enough money for basics, that they will suffer directly from cuts, lose their job or find it hard to get work. YouGov reports that the share of British people who think they’ll be better off in a year has been below 20% since April 2010. (Funny, that).
All these pessimistic facts were on my mind while watching PMQs, as Ed Miliband excoriated the Prime Minister over the need for Food Banks in modern Britain and a succession of Labour MPs spoke up for constituents suffering real, unambiguous pain, each making the point that this government is responsible for this misery. The FT’s Jim Pickard called it Labour’s attempt to paint Britain as a “grim, Victorian state dominated by food banks, the poor and even “the workhouse”.
Thinking more generally, it’s noticeable that there is great momentum around creating the image of Britain today as a dark, unpleasant, fearful, sort of place, a country worried about immigrants and welfare scroungers, a precarious nation, reliant on charity to survive, a country ruled by an élite, itself untrustworthy, disbelieved, out-of-touch, and very possibly criminally corrupt. Even our childhood’s light entertainment stars, it turns out, are paedophiles.
The energy in politics is with those who embrace this public pessimism, who seek to ally it to their philosophy. Whether it is a campaigner against ravages of government cuts or the anti-immigrant anti-welfare rhetoric of the poujadist right, what I want to call “the pessimistic style” in Britain politics has never been more in vogue.
Of course, I’m not saying that a campaigner on unfair cuts, or Tax avoidance, or Stopping phone hacking is motivated by the same political principles as one energised by preventing immigration, welfare scroungers or gay marriage, merely that there is often a tonal similarity to these very different campaigns – Someone is deliberately making life bad for you, they’re taking advantage. You’re being screwed. No-one is doing anything. It’s going to get worse. We have to stop them. It is a grumpy, dark style, fond of accusations of malicious intent, broken promises and the denunciation of opponents.
Frankly, reading the polls, It’s not hard to see why this style is succeeding. Nor is it just polling. As Duncan Weldon points out:
@steve_vr Interesting. Given that median real terms wage in 2017 is projected to be at approx 1999 levels, maybe pessimism is justified?
— Duncan Weldon (@DuncanWeldon) December 19, 2012
Duncan refers to the Resolution Foundation, whose research indicates that “on central projections,median earnings are now forecast to have barely grown by 2017, when they will still be no higher than at the turn of the millennium”
People are pessimistic, and that pessimism is justified, and our politicians respond to that.
So it goes.
And yet, and yet. I don’t like it.
This is partly because a pessimistic style can lead you away from grappling with the messiness and difficulties of reality – whether a leftist vocally attacking the cuts and relying on a magic money tree to appear at some point in 2015, or a Tory trying to ignore how big a deal Europe is for our economy, and the real consequences for British economic sovereignty that flow from a European decision to pool theirs. As I said yesterday, this seems a pretty unproductive type of politics.
The bigger reason though is that I don’t think things are that bad.
Yes, they’re bad. the next decade will be hard. Lots of unpleasant decisions will need to be made and they’ll make many of us unhappy, or worse off, or nervous. There will be pain.
But if we make the right decisions, we can make the pain as small as possible and make the long-term gain greater, and all these decisions will be in the service of something worthwhile: a fairer, more stable, more productive economy, with more diverse sources of wealth and a social system and public services ready to handle the demographic changes of the next few decades.
Further, the British economy has always recovered, in the end, always found a way through, to make lives a little better.
Such an achievement this time won’t be easy, and certainly can’t be done without controversy and pain, the precise nature of which will be decided by a complex mix of efficacy, polity and morality. Some of these choices will retard, some boost, our prospects for recovery. These choices matter.
But by grappling with the choices, and thus accepting that the electorate have a cause for their deep pessimism about today and equal reason to be pessimistic about the prospects of resolving these problems by slaying fantasy ogres and finding magic money trees, perhaps the correct political response to a public pessimism about both the economy and political promises is to reject its negativity, and instead sketch out a practical, sturdy, plodding optimism of possible solutions.