Sunlit Uplands of Freedom

At a recent political debate I attended, someone who had campaigned in the Newport West by –election stated that Labour had won the election due to people being fed up with austerity.  At first this sounded wrong.  What austerity?  Despite the media and politicians saying otherwise we have been deficit spending since the start of the century, it’s hard to see how people can be fed up with something that hasn’t happened.

On reflection I realised of course he was right, or in a way both right and wrong.  He had been in Newport, spoke with the locals, and of course despite their Brexit, and leadership troubles Labour had indeed won.  We still hadn’t had any austerity, but people believed and felt we had.  Labour and an increasingly socialist Conservative Party had captured the language to lead people to believe government was cutting back spending.  The feelings were real, the economic blight was real enough, but the cause was misplaced.

A few weeks earlier on his LBC show Iain Dale had made me realise a problem we classical liberals face.  He had said that a problem Labour faced was they were not making the positive case, rather always a negative one.  I believe that is also a problem for the right.  The misdiagnosis of austerity, linked with the lack of a positive case for freedom being put.  The people of Newport West were suffering, they were suffering from not having a decent pay rise in a dozen years.  They were suffering from a lack of new enterprises to replace the heavy industry they had lost.  They were suffering from increasingly unaffordable housing now on average £187k compared to an average salary of £22k.  They were also suffering from public services under increased strain, due to poor planning, bad spending decisions, and trying to be all things to all people.

The problems the people of Newport faced were not due to lack of government but due to too much of it.  If a positive case could be made for how less government would improve their lives, what might it be?

Simply saying we have austerity, makes people think of terrific strain on our public services.  There have been cutbacks, but many areas like schools and hospitals have continued to receive increased funds.  Indeed the NHS is on course to receive even more than the extra £350 million a week made famous from the Vote Leave campaign.  As a school governor I see in the last couple of years as public sector pay has increased, schools struggled, until funding caught up.  In the years since the recession, spending and standards have continued to increase.  School still have had money, they especially have had cash to target at their most disadvantaged pupils.

A positive case for some actual austerity

A positive case can be made for some actual austerity.  Continued government borrowing sucks money out of the productive economy.  People and organisations with money, will simply lend it to government rather than an investment to start a small business.  A positive case might be that cutting back on government bright ideas for change, would allow front line staff to get on with their jobs.  These cost reductions in consultants and ‘change agents’ will in turn reduce the borrowing requirement and lead to more investment being available to the private sector.  Anything government does is forced on the payee and often the user of the service, anything the private sector does is your choice to pay for and use, or not.

“not issuing work permits to anyone who wants one, would see a constrained labour force”

Government enthusiasm for immigration, has seen a major increase in the working population.  As the number of jobs have grown wages haven’t increased.  In fact as concerns over Brexit have reduced immigration levels, wages have started to rise.  Real pay rises come from increased productivity.  A positive case for government doing nothing.  Government just by simply not issuing work permits to anyone who wants one, would see a constrained labour force.  Pay rates would increase, labour costs would rise, so firms will invest in productivity, skill and automation, rather than importing more cheap staff.  Go to North America and serving staff in bars and restaurants are skilled and decently paid.  That is because the owners can’t fill the roles with cheap imported staff.  That is an economy we used to have here and could have once again.

Regulations discourage business growth

Many of the new skilled jobs will be created by new business opening new markets, and creating new ways of working.  Why when the industrial heartland of Britain collapsed did many new companies not start up to employ the skilled workers now available?  Government just makes it too damn hard.  Regulations on everything from the colour of chopping boards to the power of vacuum cleaners stifle innovation.  Regulations like the requirement to publish the gender pay gap when a company has more than 250 employees discourage business growth.  Let’s follow the example of countries like New Zealand, which has been judged 1st in the rankings to do business, due to its ‘regulatory architecture, procedural ease, and absence of bureaucratic red tape’.  Alongside Singapore (ranked 2) and Denmark (3) these are hardly countries in a race to the bottom on safety and standards.  New enterprises lead to new opportunities, competition for the skills of people and the chance for people to choose new careers.

“build enough homes for everyone, not just the selective groups, government deem worthy”

Housing regulations in the country have led to a perfect storm of high prices, too few properties, and an increase in expensive dormitory flats with ghost towns around them.  Where are the homes for new families?  Where are the new communities?  A massive deregulation of the housing market is needed.  Let people build reasonably sized properties on land they own.  Make them contain the services like car parking the homes need and contribute for general public servers.  In exchange remove the burden of so called ‘affordable homes’ that has led to poor doors being installed in so many new developments.  Housing will become affordable when we can respond to population changes, and free the market to build enough homes for everyone, not just the selective groups that the government deem worthy of so called ‘affordable’ properties.

“We are spending money on things people don’t want and not on what they do want”

Public services matter to people.  We have rising crime, fewer police and an overseas aid budget greater than our police budget.  The National Education Union says that the Government has cut £2.8bn from England’s schools.  Whilst I might question the validity of these so called ‘cuts’. Almost 3 years after voting to leave the EU we are still contributing £9 billion a year net. We could simply reclaim and reassign.  The Government says HS2 will cost £55.7 billion to build, whilst only £25.5 billion is being spent on all major road over 5 years.  We are spending money on things people don’t want and not on what they do want.  A clear positive case could be made to stop spending on things we don’t want, return half the money to the taxpayer, and spend half on projects popular with the people.  Government can’t be all things to all people home and abroad, it should simply do less and do it better.

Those of us who are classical liberals, libertarians, free marketers, or whatever name you choose, need to put a case to voters who are to the economical left of us, that less government will improve their lives.  Less government spending will free up money for investment, less regulation will mean more affordable housing, more job opportunities, more career choices and together with controlled immigration, higher wages.  Finally, the public services people care about will be freed from constant interference, receive increased funding, all whilst more money is put back into wage earners pockets.

Michael Swadling Croydon Constitutionalists