How do the Tories keep winning elections?

The conservatives won a 66 seat majority in 2019, but less than 30 % of the electorate voted for them. They received just 44% of the votes of the two thirds of us who bothered to vote.

This is not unusual. Since 1945, not a single Government in the UK has taken power with a majority of the votes cast, and none has had the votes of more than 40% of the electorate. Ironically the party that came closest was Labour in 1951, when they received the votes of 40 % of the electorate and 49% of those cast- despite which they lost the election to the Conservatives who had a 17 seat majority.

The percentage of the electorate who voted for the winners has been less than 30 % in every election this century. This has happened for two reasons.

Firstly, turnout has fallen from an average of 76% in the 1945-1999 period to just 65% in the current century. The lowest turnout was 2001 when less than 60% of people voted and Tony Blair won a 167 seat majority with the votes of just 24% of the electorate.

The second reason why Governments can win power with a lower share of the vote is that the two main parties no longer command the loyalty of nearly all of the population. Until 1970, the combined share of the vote taken by the conservative and Labour parties averaged over 90%. The rise of the SNP and other nationalist parties and later of UKIP have split the vote. The share of the two main parties fell to 65% in 2010 before recovering to 83% in 2019 as BREXIT and the coalition dimmed the appeal of UKIP and the Liberal Democrats. More fundamentally, the drastic decline in manufacturing jobs and in trade union membership has eroded the class basis of political parties in the UK. The main dividing lines in voting patterns in the UK are no longer social class but are instead age and education- with younger and better educated people more inclined to vote for Labour and other left and centre parties, though unfortunately they have lower turnout. The Tory bias in policy in favour of the elderly is no accident.

The situation would be bad enough if parties only had to gain the support of 30 % of the population, but in practice they need to influence even fewer voters. Over 500 of the 650 seats in parliament were won with majorities of more than 10%, and 68 seats had majorities of more than 45%. This means that the votes of many of us simply don’t matter- the incumbent party is very unlikely to be ousted. It also means that parties can achieve power by appealing to the interests and prejudices of a very narrow group of voters in a fairly small number of relatively marginal constituencies. The scope for unethical and even corrupt practices in order to sway the vote is obvious, and can be seen in the politically biased allocation of levelling up funds, and the dog- whistle policies of scapegoating refugees to name just two policy areas.

UK Economic Growth Performance since 1960

A 2015 post on this blog looked at economic performance under Labour and Tory Governments and concluded that there wasn’t much difference overall, but that Labour distributed the gains of economic growth more equitably and was a better custodian of public services. This post provides a partial update focusing on economic growth.

I compared UK economic growth with the average of all of the wealthy countries that are members of the OECD using data on the World Bank web site accessed on 11th March 2023. This reveals:-

I. The UK has been falling behind the average of OECD countries for most of the last 60 years. The average OECD country had a GDP that was nearly six times larger in 2021 than in 1960 whereas UK GDP had increased less than fourfold ( OECD average 588% of 1960 level, UK just 388%).

2. The UK economy did keep pace with the average of the OECD countries over the period from 1992-2010, the improvement having started under the Conservatives from about 1993 but being maintained under Labour from 1997-2010, with the financial crisis of 2008 resulting in only a modest dip in relative performance. The performance under Labour is all the more impressive because improvements in economic growth were successfully used to reduce poverty and improve public services.

3. The period of conservative Government since 2010 has seen a return to relative decline. The UK economy was only 10% larger in 2021 than in 2010, whereas the rich countries as a group had grown by 20% – twice as much.

4. As documented in other posts on this blog, the Tory Government has not only performed poorly on economic growth. It has also presided over a collapse in the quality and availability of public services, and a massive increase in poverty and inequality, while it’s BREXIT policies have significantly increased the difficulty and cost of investing in and trading with the UK, reducing our future growth potential.

Alternatives to Hunt/Sunak Strategy

This note roughly costs some policy alternatives to the Sunak/Hunt approach .  It supplements my previous post that examined the implications of the Chancellor’s autumn statement. That included some suggestions for an alternative strategy. This post tries to put some rough numbers on their potential impact, looking specifically at:-

  1. A closer relationship with the EU, broadly equivalent to re-joining the single market.
  2. A set of tax changes along the lines proposed by TaxJustice.UK.

Estimates of the impact of BREXIT on the UK economy vary widely though most economists acknowledge that it has been negative and significant. The OBR estimates that the UK economy by the end of the decade will be 4% smaller because of BREXIT. I have assumed that a decision to re-join the single market would boost GDP growth sufficiently to recover this, reaching a level of GDP in 2007-8 that is 4% above the level forecast by the OBR if the Sunak/Hunt proposals are implemented. The boost amounts to an average increase of 0.75% p.a. over the five-year period. The implicit assumption is that any costs of re-joining have been netted out from this figure. That is not unreasonable given the very high cost of additional administration to undertake roles that were not required when we were members.

With tax: GDP unchanged from the OBR forecast, the higher GDP growth from a decision to re-join the single market would on these assumptions raise Government revenue by amounts rising to £47 bn by the final year of the forecast (see Table).

TaxJustice.UK estimate that the UK could raise £37bn per annum from a range of tax measures primarily aimed at the better off, and particularly at wealth and at capital gains. These include introducing a wealth tax (raising £10 billion per year), taxing capital gains at the same rate as income tax (£14bn), applying national insurance to investment income (£8.6bn), reforming non-dom status (£3.2bn) and closing inheritance tax loopholes (£1.2bn). I have assumed that the additional taxes would be implemented in full by 2024-25, and revenue would then grow in line with nominal GDP. The TaxJustice.UK analysis usefully illustrates that increased revenue raising from those who could most easily bear the burden is feasible on broadly the scale proposed.

Revenue Impact of Re-Joining the Single Market and Implementing TaxJustice.UK Proposals

£ Billions, Cash

Financial Year ending2425262728
Re-join EU single market: Additional tax revenues from increased GDP growth4.7512.3622.9934.5746.96
Additional Revenue from Tax Justice proposals18.0037.0038.5540.4642.47
Total increase in Government revenues (£Bns)22.7549.3661.5475.0389.43
Equivalent to a % increase in Government spending of:1.9%4.2%5.1%6.1%7.0%

The additional revenues could be used to fund any combination of higher public spending, reduced taxes on the lower paid, or faster progress towards reducing the deficit and hence the cost of servicing it. The additional revenue builds up to be equivalent to 7% of the currently proposed level of public expenditure in 2027-28.

The analysis is very crude. It will doubtless be argued that the assumed growth boost is on the high side. On the other hand, the estimate does not take account of some other significant positive impacts. For example, higher growth will reduce pressure on the benefits system, releasing resources for other spending. The post also ignores the potential impact on the cost of Government borrowing. It could be plausibly argued that markets would be reassured by a commitment to policies that will raise economic growth and do away with the need for public expenditure cuts that are economically damaging and politically unrealistic. A 0.5% cut in borrowing costs would save an additional £14 bns per year but would still leave HMG borrowing costs above those of Germany and France.  

Though crude, the post illustrates that resources could be generated that would be sufficient to transform the miserable outlook currently facing those on middle and lower incomes. We could improve the safety net, shield them from increased taxation, and still have resources left to begin to address the need for higher public spending.

The Autumn Statement: clever politics but dreadful economics


This summary just states my main conclusions- the evidence to support each point follows below.

  1. The UK faces deeper economic problems than other developed countries.
  2. The blame rests squarely on major and predictable policy mistakes made by conservative Governments since 2010.
  3. Restoring market trust after the disastrous Truss premiership required the Chancellor to promise harsher measures than would otherwise have been required.
  4. He has tried to minimise the political cost by delaying painful measures until after 2024- gambling that the markets will be satisfied by promises that the next Government will have to deliver.
  5. The specific measures in the Autumn statement appear at first sight to be well targeted: increased spending on health and education, updating benefits and the minimum wage to protect the poor and vulnerable, while the identified tax measures focus on high income earners and substantial additional revenue from windfall taxes on profits. However, the impression is misleading.
  6. On the revenue side, the largest single contribution to growth in tax revenues over the next 5 years comes from the freezing of tax thresholds. These stealth taxes will require millions of low and middle income households who are already experiencing declining incomes to pay significantly more tax.
  7. The increases in public spending over the next two years are welcome but totally inadequate to deal with the cost pressures that have built up over 12 years of neglect.
  8. The biggest single risk is that cost and wage pressures will make the assumed public expenditure cuts that are envisaged to take place after the 2024 election impossible to achieve- perhaps less a risk than a near certainty.
  9. An alternative strategy is feasible. It would involve re- joining the single market ( the most obvious near-term way to increase economic growth), introducing a significant wealth tax and other measures to raise revenue from those best able to pay. This would finance a more realistic response to public expenditure cost pressures, help reduce the impact on living standards and still keep the debt burden to a manageable level, with the prospect of a falling debt:GDP level in the medium term.

UK Economy is in worse shape than other developed countries

Compared to other G7 countries, the UK suffered by far the steepest fall in output during the pandemic with GDP falling 11% in 2020. Some of this was recovered in 2021, but the Ukraine crisis has again found the UK the least able to cope:- we are in recession with output 0.4% down over the pst year, while the Eurozone has grown by 2.2% and the USA by 4.2% (House of Commons Library, International Comparisons, Key Economic Indicators, 11November 2022). The UK is the only G7 country that has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic output levels. The OBR forecast that living standards will fall by 7% in the current and following year, and will be no higher in 2024 than a decade earlier. Recovery after that remains painfully slow:living standards as measured by real disposable income per person are projected to remain below pre-pandemic levels until 2027-28 (OBR forecast).

The Conservatives are to Blame

The war in Ukraine can explain why the global economy has slowed, but not why UK performance relative to other developed countries has been so poor. This is not a new phenomenon. UK economic performance has stagnated since the 2008-9 financial crisis.

During the 1997-2007 period, UK productivity growth of 1.9 % per annum was second only to the USA within the G7. This was achieved while also investing more in health and education and reducing poverty. From 2009-2019, productivity growth fell to 0.9% p.a., below the G7 average with only Italy performing worse (Office of NationalStatistics, based on OECD data).. Our relative performance subsequently deteriorated further due to the grotesque waste and mismanagement during the pandemic. After growing faster than our competitors and closing the productivity gap during the Labour years, the conservatives have presided over a long period of relative decline.

Previous posts on this site have looked at the policy errors that contributed to our inadequate growth performance.

BREXIT has caused a significant increase in the cost and difficulty of trade, and is estimated to have permanently reduced GDP by 4% (OBR, October 2021).

The rot however started before BREXIT. Austerity and increased inequality have both damaged the economy and increased poverty, as set out in detail in the excellent report Stagnation Nation produced by the Resolution Foundation.. The poor state of our infrastructure and public services make us an unattractive location in which to invest. Because of the poor growth performance, austerity was not even able to restore the public finances, leaving us to face the pandemic with a small and debt burdened economy, collapsing public services and rising levels of poverty.

Is the pain really necessary?

Government debt approaching 100% of GDP is high though by no means unprecedented. The problem is the increase in interest rates. Higher interest rates account for two thirds of the £75bn deterioration in the projected FY 26-27 Government deficit if no further action is taken (OBR forecast). The other factors are the energy price shock and the inflation driven increase in welfare payments.

The Government needed to convince the markets that debt would not spiral out of control. They needed to be convinced that action would be taken to ensure that debt:GDP would peak within the next 5 years, and would then begin to come down.

The OBR forcast shows that, with no further action, Government would still be borrowing 3.7% of GDP in FY 27-28.. With real GDP growth of 2.2% and inflation on target at about 2%, the cash value of GDP would grow by more than 4%. This would be just sufficient to ensure that debt would begin to decline as a share of GDP, even if Government took no further action and was still borrowing 3.7% of GDP. The markets might well have reacted calmly to this scenario had it not been for the ludicrous policy turbulence of the last few months. A new Government with a reputation for honesty and competence might still be able to be convincing.

The Conservatives probably had to do more. The poor reputation our Government has for economic competence is reflected in the’moron premium’, the extra interest that HMG has to pay in order to borrow money. The increased cost of Government borrowing has come down slightly from the premium demanded when Liz Truss was in charge, but it remains significant, reflecting the perceived risk of lending to an unstable and unpredictable Government. The implicit interest rate on 10 year bonds issued by HMG is currently about 3.2%, having peaked at 4.5%. It is perhaps no surprise that stolid and dependable Germany only has to pay 2% on 10 year bonds, but France is able to borrow at 2.5%, still much more cheaply than the UK (rates checked 20 th November). This matters: according to the OBR, a1% increase in borrowing costs adds £25 bn to the annual deficit in FY27-28, equal to one third of the increased deficit that made the autumn statement necessary.

HMG are Delaying some of the pain

Measures in the Autumn statement actually increase public expenditure in the current and two subsequent years, with increases focused on health and education. Significant cuts in spending are envisaged from 2025-26, but these are not specified and will be for the next Government to decide and implement. They are planned to be very steep: holding current budgets to a 1% per annum increase, rather than the previously planned 3.4% while capital budgets are maintained in cash terms, implying a real terms cut in both.

On the revenue side, the big tax increases that are explicitly identified are targeted towards windfall taxes on energy companies, and higher taxes for high earners.

The most politically challenging of the explicitly identified measures is the change to the energy price guarantee in FY23-24, implying a £500 increase in average bills, but the £14 bn saving is offset by £12 bn of targeted support for the poor and vulnerable in cost of living payments to pensioners, the disabled and those on means tested benefits.

While disguising and shifting the blame for most of the pain

The autumn statement contains a detailed table setting out the impact of each of the policy measures in the statement. On the face of it, this appears to show very little impact on the tax that most people will pay. The decision to freeze the income tax and NI thresholds for two further years is shown as raising just £1.26 bn, and that in the final year. The reduction in the additional rate threshold is more significant in money terms, but is better targeted, hitting those on relatively high incomes. However, the table is entirely misleading.

The decision to freeze the tax thresholds was made when inflation was far lower. The acceleration in inflation has massively increased the yield of this stealth tax. Supplementary tables published with the OBR forecasts show that income tax is forcast to increase by £97 bn between FY21-22 and FY 28-9, accounting for 34% of the forcast increase in receipts over the period. Most of this is the result of higher incomes with unchanged thresholds dragging more people into paying tax and subjecting existing taxpayers to pay tax on a higher share of their incomes. In the period from FY20-21 to FY 28-9, the economy is expected to grow by about 12%, but income tax receipts will increase by over 20%, adjusted for inflation. These tax increases will fall on households who have experienced a prolonged period of falling incomes as wages have failed to keep pace with inflation.

The public expenditure increases to address pressure on education and health and social care are welcome, but fall far short of the amounts needed. Average pay awards of 5% across the public sector are not fully funded when budgets have been increasing by only 3%, and they involve a real terms cut when inflation is at 10%. The NHS confederation estimate that the NHS needs an additional £4bn just to make up for inflation in the current FY 22-23, before considering the cost of tackling the backlog of maintenance, the staff shortages, the waiting lists, and the social care underfunding. The £5-6 bn p.a. extra over the next two years will not address these problems. Similarly, school funding restores FY 20-21 per pupil funding, but it remains significantly below 2010 levels in real terms.

For local Government, the cap on rate increases has been raised to enable local authorities to finance higher expenditure. This may be astute politics, with brutal implications. Wealthier authorities with mostly conservative controlled councils will be able to raise more and improve services. Poorer local authorities will struggle to raise more revenue, and will face resentment for the state of public services, but the conservatives will hope to place the blame on the party that controls the council- which in most cases will not be themselves.


The biggest risk is that the envisaged public expenditure cuts from FY 24-25 will not happen. Indeed, that is a near certainty given the dilapidated state of our public sector after 12 years of austerity. The growth and inflation assumptions are also subject to wide margins of error. The OBR forecast is for average growth of about 2.5% per annum over the last three years to FY 27-28, in line with most other forecasts but more optimistic than the Bank of England.

Does it matter if events do not turn out as forecast? Probably not very much. The key point is that the statement commits HMG to targets to reduce the deficit below 3% of GDP and begin to reduce the debt: GDP ratio by FY 27-28. Forecasts are a polite fiction, setting out a plausible scenario for how this might be achieved. In present circumstances, I doubt that anyone is paying too much attention to them. The key point is for the Government to convince the markets that it will take necessary action to manage the public finances and meet the targets in the light of whatever circumstances it finds itself in.

What is the alternative?

An alternative strategy with less pain is feasible.

It would include a closer relationship with the EU, preferably including a commitment to rejoin the single market. When both major parties acknowledge the importance of restoring growth to the economy, it is bizarre that neither will support the one measure that would do most to achieve this quickly and at minimal cost.

Public expenditure plans will need to be increased in order to address the many legacies of past neglect. In a situation where dire poverty also afflicts so many households, the safety net which is currently one of the least generous in Europe needs to be enhanced.

Increased growth alone will not be sufficient to pay for this without spooking the markets. We will need increased taxation to come from somewhere. The obvious source if we are concerned to shield lower and middle income households is to implement a wealth tax. The wealthy largely escape tax by declaring low incomes, letting wealth accumulate, and financing their lifestyle by borrowing against their assets. Detailed proposals for raising large sums by taxing wealth have already been prepared setting out how a wealth tax might work (Wealth Tax Commission: A Wealth Tax for the UK, LSE 2020). There may also be scope for raising taxation of Bank profits that have been swollen by higher interest rates, and for saving money by cancelling some of the large scale mega projects and focusing instead on supporting local initiatives.

An increase in the tax GDP ratio in the UK would raise it to a level that would be high for the UK, but not out of line with successful European countries. The tax:GDP ratio is projected by the OBR to reach 37.1% in FY 27-28, which is high for us but compares with 45% in France and 39% in Germany according to OECD data for 2019. Loading more tax onto an economy in such a weak state would only be reasonable if it is targeted towards those best able to pay- hence the attraction of a wealth tax.

The positive attraction of this alternative is that faster growth and higher taxes paid by the wealthy should enable us to reduce debt and the interest burden sooner. The earlier we can implement higher taxes, the sooner we can begin to reduce the interest burden and create the scope for spending more on public services. We are currently in a doom loop, where slow growth and high interest payments swallow money that could be used to restore public services and reduce the high tax burden on struggling households. Reversing this can potentially create a virtuous circle with earlier action both reducing the debt and encouraging the markets to reduce the premium they charge on our borrowing.

Digging our way out of the mess we are in will not be easy. But for a credible Government, it need not be quite as difficult and painful as implementation of the Tory Autumn statement will prove to be.

BREXIT and our current economic problems

Before discussing future economic policies, it is important to recall when we last had a successful economy, and to understand how we arrived at our present chaotic mess. Data to support most of the points made can be found in Stagnation Nation, the excellent interim report published July 2022 by the Resolution Foundation.

The Labour Government that took power in 1997 is the only post war UK Government to achieve faster economic growth than the average of the developed economies. It achieved this while also sharing the benefits, with major reductions in poverty (especially child poverty) and big improvements in public services including access to education and the performance of the NHS.

The progress was interrupted by the financial crisis of 2007-8, but it was the years of unnecessary austerity that followed that did the most damage.

George Osborne argued that the deep cuts aimed at reducing the debt to GDP ratio were ‘repairing the roof while the sun shines.’ It turned out that nothing much was repaired during those years. Austerity in practice meant that problems were simply deferred, resulting in a mountain of costs for a future government:- neglected maintenance of schools and hospitals, failure to train enough doctors and nurses, local authorities starved of cash resulting in fewer and poorer quality services, collapse in the value of benefits resulting in increased poverty, and a mounting pressure for public sector wage increases after a decade of relative decline. The main effect of the policy was to slow economic growth- with the tragically ironic consequence that the pain and suffering that was inflicted did not even succeed in reducing the debt burden. Net public debt to GDP actually increased under the coalition government.

A key point is that the subsequent economic shocks of BREXIT, the pandemic, the Ukrainian war, and the calamitous policies of Liz Truss hit an already enfeebled economy suffering stagnant growth and rising poverty, with public services under visible distress.

In the current economic crisis, a partial reversal of the most damaging aspects of the extreme version of BREXIT is one of the few areas of economic policy where the UK can take back control ( I think I might have heard that phrase before somewhere).

We have little control over the war or it’s economic consequences. The period of economic lunacy under Truss was brief but resulted in an expensive loss of control over our economic policies. The measures that had to be brought in to try to restore market confidence are significantly harsher and more expensive than they need have been, reflected in higher borrowing costs than other major economies and a weak exchange rate. Replacing irresponsible tax cuts with Austerity 2 may calm the markets, but will do nothing to increase economic growth and will further exacerbate the already critical state of our public sector.

It is bizarre that both major political parties ignore the one economic strategy that offers the fairly certain prospect of boosting economic growth and improving the public finances, at minimal cost ( or possibly negative cost if we are able to save on the army of public employees doing jobs only necessary because of our divorce from the EU). I refer of course to improving our trading relationship with the EU. The strongest single conclusion from the literature on economic growth is that more open trade policies boost the growth rate.

It is beyond dispute that leaving the EU has made trade in both goods and services more expensive and more difficult, resulting in a precipitous 9% decline in trade openness from 2019 to 2021, far steeper than the 2% decline in France (Resolution Foundation, op cit). Cutting ourselves off from the EU has made trade more difficult in all markets, not just the EU, because we are no longer covered by the many EU trade deals with third countries.

The second strongest conclusion from the growth literature concerns the importance of investment in human capital through education, training and research. Here also we have severely damaged our prospects by cutting ourselves off from collaboration in research through the EU Horizon programme and making ourselves a more difficult and less attractive place to live, research, work and invest.

It might not be politically realistic to argue for re-joining the EU and overturning the referendum result. However, the case for far closer trading arrangements is overwhelming, and how far we can and should go deserves to be at the centre of our political discourse.

Kamikaze Economics

Truss is crashing the economy, taking us with her. Only the Government and their rich mates have parachutes: they can make money in a crisis . Maybe Truss knows the 2024 election is lost, and is ensuring that Labour inherits such a mess that they appear to fail, enabling the Tories to return to power in 2029. The only other plausible hypothesis is that Truss and her colleagues really are as thick and ignorant as they appear.


Liz Truss says she wants to overturn Treasury orthodoxy on economics- but where on earth did she find anyone who thinks her alternative prescription makes sense?

We have high inflation- higher than other countries similarly affected by energy prices. Living standards are falling further and faster than at any time in living memory.

We have a high level of Government borrowing, adding to a public debt that is already at historically high levels relative to GDP.

We have a large balance of payments deficit, and declining exchange rate.

Financing these deficits has been relatively cheap but that is changing, with higher interest rates and a declining exchange rate both raising the cost of Government borrowing.

After 12 years of austerity there is a massive backlog of public expenditure costs that will have to be addressed. Almost every area of public spending is in crisis, before even considering the intense pressure to begin to restore the value of public sector pay.

All this follows a prolonged period of slow growth and declining real wages since the conservatives took over in 2010.

Her solution to this perfect storm of economic problems is to cut taxes and cut public spending.

In normal times, there is no reason to believe that this would increase economic growth. In a situation where the Government already faces high inflation and large fiscal and balance of payments deficits, it will have the opposite effect. Irresponsible economic management will drive investment down even further.

There is a narrow path out of the problems. It requires higher taxes on the better off ( preferably on wealth which largely escapes tax), support targeting those on low incomes, and a rebuilding of public services including local Government. It requires serious policies to rebuild economic growth- including a closer economic relationship with Europe. It doesn’t require the Government to throw more fuel on the fire through unnecessary tax cuts for those who don’t need them.

It beggars belief that she was employed as an economist.

Boris and the Civil Service

This post provides some facts to illuminate the discussion that the Tories have initiated on the size and efficiency of the civil service. All of the data used is from official Government statistics.

The number of non-industrial civil servants (the main target of Tory rhetoric) has been on a declining trend throughout the post war period. The Labour Governments of 1997-2010 started and ended with about 480,000 full time equivalent civil servants.

Under the conservatives, the full time equivalent civil service was cut by 20% to 384,000 between 2010 and 20016. The population per full time civil servant increased from 131 in 2010 to over 170 in 2016. This implies a massive increase in workload, because the main driver of much of the work that the civil service does is the size of the population they must deal with.

The subsequent increase in civil service numbers to 465,000 in 2021 was the direct result of BREXIT (well over 50,000 civil servants recruited to negotiate and then carry out functions previously performed by Brussels) and the pandemic. The increase reflects civil servants being recruited to do jobs that would have been entirely unnecessary in the absence of BREXIT and the pandemic. Further strains will since have been added by the cost of living crisis.

The civil service represents only 10% of employment in general Government. Looking more broadly,  the 1997-2010 Labour Governments expanded both local and central Government employment, with two thirds of the extra staff being employed in health and education. This restored the pre-Thatcher ratio of one public employee per 11 people. The conservative led Governments from 2010 then cut numbers back to a ratio of 1 per 13 people, lower than under Thatcher.

The big story however is the catastrophic cuts in local Government employment since 2010. Employment in central Government was broadly stable at about 2.8 million during the coalition, before growing rapidly in response to BREXIT and the pandemic. Local Government employment in contrast has fallen from 2.9 million in 2010 to just 2 million in 2021 – a loss of close to one in three of the workforce.  Some of this may be the result of changed responsibilities (e.g. the growth in academy schools). Nevertheless, the catastrophic scale of the cuts is just one indicator of the extent to which the conservatives have severely damaged the capacity of local Government. Many of the services on which the population depends are most efficiently planned and delivered locally, as pandemic experience has illustrated.

 In Conclusion: if anyone in the UK Government is lazy and useless, it is not the civil service. The Prime Minister could not be bothered to find out the facts before throwing baseless allegations at the increasingly hard-working civil servants on whom his Government depends. The drive to reduce numbers further will be yet another self-inflicted wound. Civil servants of worth and integrity are already leaving in droves to avoid having to work for this Government of incompetent liars prone to blaming anyone but themselves for their failures. A drive to reduce numbers will assist even more of the experienced and competent ones to leave.

How does Labour get elected – and what does it do then?


Our Government in the United Kingdom has been taken over by reckless and incompetent right-wing fanatics who achieved power by telling lies, and who are implementing policies that are disastrous for the majority of the population. This note offers an explanation for how this came about in a democracy, some thoughts on how we might win our country back, and some suggestions on how we can make it more likely that future Governments will be truthful, honest, reasonably competent, and less dangerously extreme.

How did extremist liars take over our Government?

For most of the period that the House of Commons has existed, the vote has been limited to those with wealth or property. The fear of the rich and powerful has always been that universal suffrage would result in the poor majority of the population voting to redistribute wealth and income from the haves to the have nots. Representative Democracy based on universal adult suffrage is still a new form of Government, less than 100 years old in the UK.

The Labour landslide after the second world war did bring to power a Government committed to creating a more equal society. It achieved an enormous amount in terms of social welfare, but the economy was slow to revive. It was followed by a thirty-year period when Governments of both political parties favoured a mixed system. Both parties accepted the role of private capital in generating economic growth, and they also accepted the case for Government to provide an effective social safety net, and to use the tax and benefit system to support greater equality of opportunity. Labour favoured a bigger role for the state and a bigger share for the working class, while the conservatives were more sympathetic to the private sector and the owners of capital, but the difference was one of emphasis. Democracy worked well because there was little disagreement about fundamental objectives, the political debate concentrating instead on the means to achieve them and on which party was better able to manage the economy.

The shift to the right that began in 1979 and has accelerated since the conservatives returned to power in 2010 has seen a complete breakdown of the post-war consensus. Surprisingly, the Conservatives were able to gather support for a right-wing agenda that does not at first sight appear to be favourable to the interests of the majority of the population.

The initial victory of the conservatives in 1979 was in large part a reaction to the winter of discontent, when a series of strikes by public sector trade unions caused major disruption to people’s lives. Labour efforts to limit the power of the trade unions had been rejected by the party, and the Conservatives were elected because they were perceived as better able to address the issue. The severe monetarist policies that they implemented resulted in a deep recession, high unemployment, and the loss of much of the manufacturing sector – destroying the power of the trade unions as a by-product of the loss of jobs in manufacturing and mining where most of the trade unionists were employed. These policies ought to have resulted in defeat at the next election in 1983, but the conservatives were returned to power on the back of victory in the Falkland Islands and opposition to a labour party that had responded to the rightwards lurch of the conservatives by itself going to the radical left – the 1983 Labour manifesto was described by Gerald Kauffman, one of its own MPs, as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

The loss of manufacturing jobs not only weakened the trade unions, it also severed the close linkage between the working class and the labour party. Renewed growth was concentrated in the South, in service sectors that were not unionised, and where those who were employed did not necessarily see themselves as working class, and did not naturally identify with the Labour party. The aspirations of this rapidly expanding class were cleverly exploited with a series of measures to give them a direct financial stake in the conservative Government – notably the sale of the public housing stock and the sale of shares in privatised companies, both at attractive prices. The electorate was grateful for the bribes and voted Tory, ignoring the problems of housing shortages, rising inequality, and private sector monopolies being created for the next generation.

Labour learnt the lesson of 1983. In a mirror image of the Conservatives response of moving to the left after the 1945 Labour landslide, Labour eventually ended the period of Conservative dominance by moving to the right. It was able to return to power in 1997 and hold it until 2010. Although the economy performed well, and they achieved a lot in addressing poverty in the UK, the policies pursued by the Labour Government were in many respects further to the right of the spectrum than those pursued by Tory Governments prior to Thatcher.

Until 2016, the electoral system worked after a fashion. Governments of both parties respected constitutional conventions, they submitted to Parliamentary scrutiny, were generally honest and truthful. The major exception is the lies told by the Blair Government to justify the Iraq war, but the eventual exposure of the dishonesty of the case made to Parliament did irretrievable damage to the reputation of Mr Blair and the Government that he led.

The 2016 BREXIT vote and the three general elections that followed have witnesses a new and far more damaging lack of respect for truth, for constitutional convention, or even for basic honesty[1]. The conservatives have demonstrated that it is possible for a Government to fail on every one of the aspects of performance that we used to think determined election results, and yet still be returned to power.

Part of the explanation of how this has been possible is the deliberate circulation of lies and misleading information. The media have reported the statements of leading politicians on both sides of the argument, but have proved unable or unwilling to challenge statements that are often misleading, and sometimes blatantly untrue. It is worth unpacking a little why our media has been so reluctant to point out the lies.

Television remains the most used platform for news, and the most trusted of the major sources, with 77% of adults over 16 still using it for news and with the BBC still dominant, followed by ITV. It is followed by the internet, which is used by 65% of adults for news, and is the most used source by 16-24-year olds. Some 47% of adults use newspapers and newspaper web sites[2].

The fragmentation of news sources makes it easier to target biased, false or misleading content to specific target groups in ways that are difficult to challenge, because it is only seen by those who are more likely to believe it

The continuing consumption of TV news, and specifically BBC news, by more than half of the population may appear reassuring. However, the BBC, still the largest single provider of news, has been increasingly timid and unwilling to hold Government to account. In a world where news sources have fragmented, the BBC recognises that it is harder to sustain the argument for a compulsory licence fee, and appears to have one eye on not appearing to be biased against the paymasters. In an attempt to appear unbiased, the BBC have given minimal attention to analysis of BREXIT. They have reported the claims of BREXIT advocates and of remainers without facts or meaningful quantification, so that a casual consumer of their news coverage would be unaware of the overwhelming weight of expert analysis confirming that BREXIT will make us poorer and lead to massive disruption and loss of jobs. Only now, when it is too late to have any impact, has the BBC begun to analyse some of the consequences.

The nature of news coverage has also changed. The most read ‘newspapers’ carry less political analysis and more celebrity gossip. With one or two exceptions, they are right wing, reflecting the views of their wealthy owners. The 24- hour news coverage endlessly repeats a few headline items, but lacks detailed analysis. News picked up via the internet is targeted to the interests of the consumer, and mostly assumes a short attention span. Users are unlikely to encounter views they disagree with or subjects they are not interested in.

Engagement in politics has drastically reduced, raising the risk that our political parties will more easily fall into the hands of extremists and those who provide the funding. Conservative party membership has fallen from a peak of 2.8 million in the 1950s to less than 200,000[3]. The membership is older, more socially conservative, and more reactionary than those who vote for the party. A smaller and more centralised party is also more vulnerable to being influenced by the wealthy donors on whom it depends for finance.[4] The donors presumably expect some return in personal favours or policies favourable to themselves.

BREXIT is a surprising policy for the Conservatives, who were traditionally the party of business. The explanation may lie in the increased dependence on donations from wealthy individuals rather than major corporations. Wealthy individuals may be more concerned to protect their personal wealth from EU legislation to control tax havens or from threats to tax wealth directly. They are less concerned with protecting manufacturing enterprises, because they can always shift their money elsewhere. Our PM’s notorious comment ‘fuck business’ perhaps reflects the new reality that those with money can shift it at will, and need have no loyalty to specific companies, still less to specific plants established in a particular country. It is ironic, and perhaps highly cynical, that the wealthy backers of BREXIT have little real interest in UK sovereignty or the UK ‘taking back control of it’s borders.’ Their wealth is definitely under their control, it is held and managed globally and shifted across borders at will with no loyalty to any particular jurisdiction or particular company. It doesn’t damage their interests if cars are manufactured in Germany instead of the UK, but they do care that they can continue to shelter their wealth in tax havens.

The victory of the extreme BREXIT faction was also facilitated by the nature of our first past the post system of Government. In 2019, the Conservatives won an 80-seat majority in the house with just 45% of the votes cast, and just 30% of the electorate. For half of the electorate, voting makes little difference because only one party has a realistic chance of winning in their constituency. It is actually even worse than that, because the candidate is selected by the party, which ensures that there is little diversity. A conservative supporter who would like to vote for a moderate is likely to find that the candidate in his constituency is a right wing BREXIT supporting fanatic.

A well-resourced party can win a general election by focusing on the electors in a limited number of marginal seats. It can target its messages using social media in ways that make misinformation hard to challenge. It can target election promises on messages appealing to that group. If the campaign is supported by the wealthy and by the media barons, it can outspend its rivals, and ensure that the message is reinforced by a predominantly right-wing media more than willing to distort facts in order to support the conservatives while smearing the opposition.

To summarise, the two-party system worked well when Labour represented the working class, while the conservatives were the party of business. Both had an interest in economic growth and prosperity, seen as good for both wages and profits. The liberalisation of capital markets from the 1980s has broken this commonality of interest. The owners of capital are still the backers of the conservative party, but they are no longer closely linked to specific locations or businesses. They maximise their wealth by moving their money across borders and between companies, and no longer have interests in common with a workforce tied to a specific job or location. Despite this divergence of interests, the wealthy and radical right-wing extremists have been able to dominate our electoral system. This is possible because the population as a whole is not well informed or actively engaged, and is therefore vulnerable to a well-resourced campaign based on endless repetition of simple half-truths and deliberate misinformation.

How can Labour win back the Government?

Age is now the biggest dividing line in UK politics, with the old predominantly voting conservative or BREXIT party, while the young predominantly vote for left of centre parties[5]. Young people want a Government that is less socially conservative, and more committed to addressing the issues around climate change, poverty, inequality and inadequate social services. History should therefore be on the side of change, as the weight of the current generation of the very old in the electorate gradually declines. One problem is that a lower percentage of young people vote or have much knowledge or engagement with the political process. Less than half of 18-24-year olds voted in the 2019 general election, compared to nearly three quarters of over 65s[6].

A more general point is that many of the electorate have felt ignored and let down by the political system. They feel that all politicians are the same, only in it for themselves. Experience since 2010 has taught them that the Government does nothing to solve their problems. Few remember the very real progress in reducing poverty and inequality under labour in 1997-2010, even fewer know about the leading role that labour played in mitigating the global financial crisis, and instead blamed Labour and voted them out in 2010.

The negative attitudes of the electorate towards politicians in general and Labour in particular are not based on any sophisticated understanding or knowledge of the causes of their problems. Ignorance leaves the electorate very vulnerable to the arguments of populists. If you start with the assumption that your vote makes little difference anyway, it is very tempting to give populists with simple solutions a try: perhaps it really is all the fault of the EU, or the Chinese, or immigrants, or benefit scroungers, or whatever scapegoat the Government and the right-wing press are touting this week as the cause of all our troubles.

We have learned to our cost that a Government willing to blame foreigners and immigrants, willing to tell lies about its own policies and those of the opposition, and able to find a few juicy bribes for potential voters can get itself elected. Even more remarkably, it turns out that The Who were wrong and the electorate will get fooled again – change the leader, and pretend it is an entirely new Government.

When the Government goes to the extreme right, it is tempting for the opposition Labour party to settle in the stodgy middle ground. The new Labour leadership at the time of writing in January 2021 have finally captured a small lead over the Tories in recent polls of voting intentions, and are arguing that this is evidence that the middle ground is where they will gain a victory at the polls. I am not convinced that this is the case. The conservative Government has presided over a decade of severe austerity, has negotiated a thin BREXIT deal that is predicted to shrink the economy by 4%, and has presided over total chaos and confusion in its response to the Coronavirus. Add to this a succession of scandalous contracts going at high cost to Tory party chums who had no relevant experience and who charged exorbitant prices and still failed to deliver. With that record, Labour should be trouncing the conservatives with a lead in the high teens. The fact that they are not suggests that the electorate remain uninspired by a leadership that is perceived to offer little that is new. Indeed, with Labour votes concentrated in urban areas, and with Scotland lost to the nationalists, the current lead is too small to even make Labour the largest party.

I would suggest that four key elements are essential to a successful Labour election strategy: –

  1. Work with Allies: The parties of the centre and moderate left will need an electoral pact. The disastrous experience of coalition should not be repeated, but it is essential to minimise the number of seats won by conservative candidates. Other progressive parties should stand down in favour of the candidate with the best chance of defeating the conservative. To secure such a pact, Labour may need to be relatively generous in ceding to minor parties some seats that might be winnable. The bigger picture should be the focus.
  2. Communicate effectively: relentlessly focus on just three or four messages, but also have a strategy to deal with a hostile media. In 2019, the leadership was not active, agile and articulate enough in refuting the lies. It will be essential to re-establish a rebuttal unit, to instantly correct lies or mis-information and get the corrections out on every available platform. It would not be wise to get into bed with media magnates to the extent that Tony Blair did, but it would make sense to invest in improving relations with the media as far as that is possible without compromising on policy.
  3. Attack: The conservative record has been truly appalling. Lies, waste, corruption, incompetence, every target missed, promising everything, delivering nothing, apart from an extreme BREXIT that will severely damage the country for a generation or more. Labour have been too hesitant in defending their own record in Government and far too restrained in attacking the record of the conservatives.
  4. Organise: Build on the mass movement of younger supporters created under Jeremy Corbyn, making smart use of new media. The trick will be to focus on a policy agenda that is both inspiring to the members, and perceived as credible and attractive by the broader electorate.

Without getting into policy detail, I would suggest that the three or four key messages that Labour should focus on are:

  1. Genuinely take back control –a fair distribution of expenditure, managed by local Government with restored powers, and an end to the scandal of public services delivered through dodgy deals with private sector spiv companies.
  2. Invest in a green revival to achieve zero carbon.
  3. Things are better under Labour –the statistics show that the Labour record in managing the economy, providing public services, and reducing poverty has been consistently superior to the conservatives, and Labour needs to own that proud record rather than seeming embarrassed by it.
  4. The BREXITERS lied to you: Restore our trading relationships and end the chaos that a very thin BREXIT has caused.

In 2024, an incoming Government is certain to inherit a collapsed economy, with high unemployment, massive poverty and inequality, dilapidated and under-funded public services, inadequate infrastructure in dire need of rehabilitation, and a much depleted and impoverished private sector, shrunk by COVID and by BREXIT, with those businesses that have not relocated facing higher costs of doing business. It will face a very high public debt as a share of GDP, an on-going public sector deficit, a much smaller tax base, and a more difficult environment for funding the deficit, with higher interest rates and probably further deterioration in the HMG credit rating. It will face a hostile media, intensified pressure to break the union of the United Kingdom, and international relationships in urgent need of repair.

In order to win the election and not take the blame, the campaign needs to hammer home the cause of all of these problems. They are mainly the result of stupid policy decisions, and were avoidable. There is no need to be afraid of ‘project fear.’ Labour should own it. The remainers were right to be fearful of the consequences of BREXIT, and those who told us not to be fearful were lying.

It is unfortunate that Keir Starmer voted for the Tory BREXIT deal, and has said that Labour must accept it, and that it may not even mention the issue in future election materials. It seems like a major error to offer this unnecessary support just at the point when polls suggest that a majority of the electorate now think BREXIT was a mistake, a majority that is likely to increase when the full consequences hit home. If things go as badly as seems inevitable with this crisis prone and incompetent Government, the Conservatives will be very quick to share the blame, pointing out that both parties supported the deal. I accept that it is not realistic to argue for re-joining in the short term, but a far closer relationship, perhaps including membership of the single market, is something that should be discussed.

Labour should also be honest and transparent about the public finances. Labour is simply not believed when it makes expenditure promises while saying most people will not face higher taxes. Labour may as well make a virtue of promising to dig the country out of the mess left by the Tories. Arguments to make are: –

  1. We intend over time to raise taxes as a share of national income to levels similar to successful European countries like Germany.
  2. The burden will fall more heavily on those best able to pay it, particularly through wealth taxes, but we will not pretend that the necessary repair to public finances can be accomplished without some increased taxation of those on middle and higher incomes.
  3. Public expenditure will be repaired as quickly as our limited resources permit. Highest priority will be given to repairing the damage that has been done to local Government services, with increased revenue raising powers, linked to a comprehensive deal to redistribute public sector revenues in favour of poorer parts of the country, with less central control of how money is spent.
  4. A health service funded from general taxation and free at point of delivery will continue to be a cornerstone of Labour policy, and will be properly funded -with steady progress towards spending the same share of national income on it as those of our European neighbours with highly effective health systems.
  5. Education continues to be a high priority, but with less focus on private sector providers, and a reduced burden of testing and inspection. As and when resources permit, we will relieve students from the anxiety of student debts that raise little revenue, but that systematically discourage participation by the most disadvantaged students. The priority will be education for life – not the soulless production of employment fodder.

How do we stop it happening again?

This final section discusses how we can build our democracy to be more representative, honest, and accountable.

Build a more representative democracy

A two party, first past the post system can work where there is a high degree of consensus about fundamental values, and broad participation by the population, including party membership that reflects the make-up of society. None of these conditions are met in the UK. There are fundamental fissures on every major issue: – relations with Europe and the rest of the world, how to deal with climate change, the role of the state versus the free market, the extent of decentralisation of power, and even whether Scotland should leave the Union.

If a Labour Government gains power with an absolute majority it will be tempting to conclude that the system does not need to be reformed: – politicians tend to think that any system that elected them can’t have much wrong with it. However, electoral reform is essential if we are to protect the country from once again falling victim to a Government of extreme zealots. In 2016 it was BREXIT bigots intent on severing ties with Europe at any cost, but it would be equally unfortunate to find ourselves with a Government of Maoist revolutionaries, or intolerant religious bigots. The point is that parties with a small membership are vulnerable to being taken over by extremists. In a two-party system, this means that a Government can end up with a majority in Parliament, even though the majority of the electorate do not share its views.

The best protection against this happening again is to introduce a form of proportional representation. A specific version of PR was rejected in a referendum in 2011, partly because the specific option was complex and hard to understand, and the two major UK parties did not support it. Next time, it should be presented as a protection against extremism, it should be a priority in the manifesto, and the details should be worked out in Parliament and not subject to a yes/no referendum.

The aim would be to ensure that, as far as possible, every vote is of equal value. If 10% of the population vote for the green party, then that is the proportion of MPs that they should have in Parliament.

Three main objections are commonly raised to PR: –

  1. It may result in weak and unstable coalition Governments. A more positive way of expressing the same thought is that a coalition Government will need to seek policy positions that are genuinely acceptable to representatives who reflect the views of the majority of the voting population. This may mean that action on significant issues might take longer to be agreed, but it should be more sustainable and less likely to be abruptly reversed because future Governments will also need to reflect the majority view, making abrupt changes in direction less likely.
  2. Minority parties may exact a high price for their support, while extreme and dangerous views may find themselves reflected in Parliament. With a larger number of parties, the scope for any one party to acquire excess influence as a price for supporting a coalition is arguably less than under first past the post, where Theresa May was left with no option but to pay a hefty bribe to the DUP in order to sustain her Government. Representation of extreme views in the national parliament can be genuinely upsetting, but the constitution should be able to keep behaviour within the confines of legality and decency. Giving a legitimate outlet for views that most people find abhorrent might reduce the pressures for non-parliamentary violence, and provides an opportunity for them to be challenged.
  3. PR breaks the link between individual MPs and their geographically based constituency, something that many of them greatly value. The first point to make is that the need for MPs to take up the cases of individuals within their constituency reflects the weakness of local Government, which has been allowed to atrophy under successive Governments. Local issues facing individuals or households should be dealt with by local Government representatives, who will be able to do so if given more devolved power and resources. The second point is that, when it comes to national issues, there is little point writing to a local MP who represents the party you did not vote for. If your point is not in line with existing party policy, you will get a stock response and no action. Moreover, most MPs will only respond to letters from their constituents, which means that those of us not represented by an MP of our choosing have no effective route for raising our concerns. Any form of PR would reduce this problem. Much larger, multiple member constituencies elected on PR would retain links to a geographical area, while giving everyone within that area access to at least one member who broadly represents their views and priorities.

It is true that some countries that use PR have suffered from short lived Governments that have been unable to address their problems. It is equally true that others, notably in Northern Europe, have enjoyed stable and effective Government for decades. What is undeniable is that UK Government over the last decade has represented the worst of all worlds – unrepresentative, divisive, and hopelessly inept, making a series of disastrous decisions, and then executing them with startling inefficiency and a degree of cronyism that reflects appalling Governance and gives the appearance of corruption.

Rebuild Local Government

Many of the worst disasters that have beset us are caused by the long -term erosion of local Government under both parties, but especially under austerity since the conservatives returned to power in 2010. Over centralisation of functions that would be better performed locally has been at the heart of repeated disasters, with track and trace merely the most visible. The steepest cuts have fallen on local authorities, while their freedom of action has been eroded by a culture of micro management. Local Government is impeded by centralised setting of targets, severe restrictions on the ability of local Government to allocate funds based on local priorities, and the ability to plan services compromised by introducing private providers in education and health, leading to considerable waste and inefficiency. Dealing with inequality and alienation from politics requires a much stronger role for local Government, with central Government ensuring a fair distribution of revenue based on need, with extra support for those authorities least able to raise local revenue. This is critical to winning back the ‘red wall’ constituencies lost to the conservatives in 2019.

Strengthen engagement in politics

There is a strong case for education of both children and adults in the tools they need to make sense of politics and to identify lies, distortions and exaggeration. All citizens need at least a basic understanding of how central and local Government operates, and at least basic understanding of statistics.

Improving Governance

The most depressing aspect of our declining Governance has been the willingness of HMG to tell lies, including telling lies in Parliament. Until quite recently, a Member found to have deliberately lied would be expected to resign from office and usually from his seat, as Minister of War John Profumo did in the 1960s.

Standards have slipped so far that the Johnson Government lies continually, in all forums including Parliament, and faces no sanctions or comeback for doing so.

 It is difficult to over-emphasise how catastrophic it is for a society when the word of the Government cannot be trusted. It wrecks treaties and alliances, it makes fair elections impossible, it undermines law and order, and creates a cynical and despairing society in which nobody can be believed.

In a world where we can’t rely on our Right Honourable Members of Parliament to be either Right or Honourable, we need some statutory protection against deliberate lying in Parliament. How best to achieve this needs study, but a possible approach might involve establishment of an independent body responsible for checking the veracity of statements made in Parliament. It would need to have a budget set independently from the Government of the day, and access to professional staff with relevant skills.

To be relevant, the fact checkers would need to issue their findings on the truthfulness of statements within days, if not hours. This would involve no more than a quick and simple check of statements that can be definitively determined to be either true, false, or needing qualification to avoid misleading. The fact checkers themselves could be accountable to a select committee of Parliament, to whom they would make regular reports on their work.

The point of the exercise is not just to catch Government out in a lie, but to provide an incentive for changed behaviour. If possible, it would be great to have a statutory requirement that a Minister found to have deliberately lied to Parliament is required to resign, and is barred from holding public office.

Restore a strong, permanent, apolitical civil service

When I joined the civil service in the mid-1970s, special advisers were unknown. Before each election, the permanent civil servants in each Department would scan the party manifestos, and set out in briefing papers how the commitments in the manifesto could best be delivered. We would implement what our political masters decreed, but we would provide impartial analysis of the consequences of each policy option, and might point out better approaches to achieve the same ends. In my experience, Ministers did not interfere in decisions on civil service postings or promotions.

The model began to change under Thatcher. Special advisers were brought in, initially with a role limited to political advice, but the distinction was never clear cut, and they increasingly encroached on the permanent civil service role of fleshing out the practicalities of how political priorities could be realised in practice. More and more functions that had been undertaken by the civil service were either privatised or hived off to ‘next steps agencies’, semi-commercial bodies intended to operate under market disciplines. More and more roles were filled by people brought in from the private sector on contract, usually on far higher salaries. Many of them were brought in explicitly to implement a particular political vision of how an area of Government should operate, and they wanted to surround themselves with others who shared that vision, not with cautious civil servants who would tediously point out the pitfalls. The character of the civil service began to change. The ambitious recognised that true believers were more likely to be the high flyers. A period in the civil service was increasingly seen as a stepping stone to well paid work outside. The key to success within the civil service began to depend on being ‘one of us’ rather than a boring Sir Humphrey.

A more open civil service brought challenges to the independence and impartiality of civil servants. Those moving back and forth from private sector roles inevitably came with baggage. They had worked for firms with an interest in Government contracts, and would expect to return there when their contract ended. They had close relationships and investment interests that were potentially compromising. Attempts to avoid the appearance of bias were only partially successful, because those charged with implementing the rules would themselves wish to return to the private sector at some point, and were therefore inclined to be sympathetic.

If we charitably assume that the current chaos in Government is due to incompetence rather than graft, it suggests a need to return to a system where all salaried Government jobs require competitive recruitment. The main exception to this has been the proliferation of political appointments. There is a strong argument for requiring a competitive recruitment process for appointments to all posts that draw a tax-payer funded salary. If Ministers wish to appoint special advisers to fulfil political roles, they should be paid for from party funds, not by the taxpayer, and they should not have any role in the management of public funds. This is not only important for ensuring that posts are filled by competent officials with relevant experience, it will also be essential if equality of opportunity is to be extended to all groups within the population.

Ideally, it would be good to prohibit civil servants (or anyone who draws a public sector salary, including Ministers and SPADs) from working in any capacity related to an area of the economy where they had a decision-making role for a minimum period long enough to avoid the risk of corrupt influence, I would suggest 2 years. To be feasible, this might require better salaries to be paid – something that would be politically contentious.

Ensuring Probity

One of the most depressing aspects of current Governance in the UK has been the proliferation of high value contracts being let without competitive tendering to companies completely lacking in relevant experience. If this were happening in a developing country, nobody would be in any doubt that corrupt motives lay behind such bizarre decisions. The remedy is the same in both cases. We need procurement guidelines to be agreed and enforced by statute, with waivers from normal tendering processes only agreed in exceptional, defined circumstances, and able to be challenged in the courts. This needs careful design to avoid vexatious court cases being brought by every firm that loses a tender, but there does need to be some process to prevent the current chaos.

It is difficult to understand quite how public procurement became so dysfunctional. Procedures to ensure competition in procurement have long been in place. The Permanent Secretary in each Government Department has remedies he can take if asked to sign off on inappropriate expenditure, the most extreme being to write a formal letter to the PAC. Reports by the PAC can draw attention to wasteful or potentially illegal expenditure. For whatever reason, these remedies have not succeeded in restraining the behaviour of a Government that has a large majority and is indifferent to conventions or criticism. If convention no longer works, it may be necessary to make it much easier to prosecute Ministers for wasteful, negligent and corrupt expenditure of public funds. 

Ensuring Government is not for sale

An equally dangerous source of undue influence on policy is the dependence of both political parties on large donations from businesses, trade unions, and individual wealthy donors.  The large donations are clearly not provided out of public-spirited charity. They are given in the expectation that a future Government will return the favour by ensuring a policy environment that is favourable to the interests of the donor. This limits the appetite for taxing the wealthy, or insisting on green measures that inconvenience carbon-emitting businesses, or that threaten the jobs of union members.

There has long been a debate about replacing the current ad hoc funding of political parties with a system funded from taxation. This has not been pursued because it would be politically unpopular, and because of difficult issues surrounding how best to allocate any funds. These questions are not insurmountable – funding could be shared on the basis of the share of the vote, or individuals could be asked to nominate the party they would like to receive their contribution, perhaps when filling in their annual tax or benefit form. Irrespective of whether state funding of political parties is introduced, there is a very strong case for imposing a low annual maximum ceiling on the contribution that any individual, firm, trade union or other organisation can make to a political party. This needs to be set so low that no individual or organisation acquires significant leverage as a result of its contribution. Suitable safeguards will be needed to prevent donors disguising the size of their contribution by paying it via multiple agents acting on their behalf.

The implication is that party funding would drop, and would be more dependent on developing a broader membership base and more diverse funding. Both would arguably be good for our democracy.

Reform the Media

The ‘post truth’ society has been led by the media, dominated by rich oligarchs able to push out lies and distortions through multiple platforms without significant consequences. The related problem is that messages that are false or misleading can be sent exclusively to target groups that might be swayed by them, without being seen by those who would be able to correct or challenge what is being said.

BBC journalism, still the source from which 60% of the population obtain their news has sunk to abysmal levels. This may be partly due to a new vulnerability to political pressure. With the fragmentation of media, the BBC knows that it can’t rely on independent financing via the licence fee forever. Accused of bias against the Government, it has felt unable to subject Government plans to rigorous analysis. It has been reduced to reading press releases and conducting far too many vox pop interviews that provide neither information nor insight. Throughout the BREXIT debate, the BBC has been a fact free zone, quoting both sides of the debate as if they had equal worth, conducting no analysis of its own, and failing to ask the hard questions.

The future income of the BBC needs to be secured and insulated from Government control, perhaps with a long- term deal on the licence fee. The BBC charter may need some amendment. It should have an explicit remit to hold the Government of the day to account for the accuracy of their claims, and an explicit responsibility to give space to independent analysis and views. This ought not to need saying, but clearly does. If they would like to be reminded how to do current affairs, they should take a close look at how Al Jazeera English operates. They should also have an explicit remit to uphold the constitution and the institutions of democracy, and to draw attention to any threats to them.

Turning to other media, it is clear that media oligarchs have acquired an unhealthy dominance over news outlets. In addition to the direct consumption of their output, it is shared and re-tweeted multiple times on other platforms in ways that are hard to control. Even if most people are getting their news via their mobile phones, the ultimate source of a lot of what they are watching is from more conventional TV or newspaper on-line sources.

There is a strong case for imposing a lower limit on the audience share owned by any one provider on any communication channel. If they have more than the agreed maximum share, one approach could be to require the excess to be leased to other providers, perhaps overseen by an independent body.

There should be higher fines and more effective redress for knowingly broadcasting falsehoods.  Corrections should be required to be broadcast at the same time and with the same prominence as the original falsehood. If the BBC were to reform itself to be a credible news organisation, the fines could be paid to the BBC for the explicit purpose of generating the content to correct the original error, for broadcasting on the offending channel as well as on the BBC.


The UK is in a dangerous place. It has a reckless and extreme Government that does not represent either the wishes or the interests of the bulk of the population, and that is doing severe damage to our economy, our society, and our international reputation.

Changing the Government, and ensuring that Parliament does not again fall into the hands of rogues and scoundrels, requires progressive parties to work together to win the next election, and to then reform the electoral system with the introduction of a form of PR. The behaviour of the current Government confirms that MPs can no longer be relied on to be truthful and honest, while the news media are too fragmented and biased to hold them to account. We therefore need to bring in some statutory protections to discourage the circulation of deliberate falsehoods, both lying in Parliament, and the circulation of lies and misrepresentation through other media.

Genuinely levelling up the more disadvantaged areas of the country requires local Government to be re-built. Resources for local Government need to be significantly increased, with a formula to channel more funds to those areas least able to raise revenue locally, and with expenditure priorities set locally rather than by national targets. This provides a more meaningful form of ‘taking back control’ than the empty promises made concerning BREXIT.

Finally, we need to encourage the population to re-engage with politics, with a particular focus on education. Our citizens need reminding that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

[1] According to First Draft News, 88% of Tory advertisements during the 2019 campaign featured ‘questionable’ claims.

[2] Ofcom, News Consumption in the UK:2020

[3] Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Stephen |Crone, Funding political parties in Great Britain: A Pathway to Reform, Democratic Audit 2010.

[4] 48 people on the Sunday Times ‘rich list’ donated more than £200,000 in 2019 to political parties, 43 of them to the conservatives. The London Economic 23rd December 2020. Donations and legacies accounted for 60% of conservative party income in 2005-09, double the proportion of labour income Wilks-Heeg and Crone, op cit.

[5] You Gov analysis of 2019 election results

[6] IPSOS MORI polling research.