The industry used to vote how it wanted, safe in the knowledge that it wouldn’t change a thing. Back in 2005 most of the industry thought that Labour had the best economic policies, yet felt free to vote Tory
So a government that has made more announcements than the public address system at King’s Cross has made one last one: it will go to the country on 6 May.
That must have been the most straightforward decision that the prime minister has made since accepting Tony Blair’s poisoned chalice three years ago. And the electorate’s decision ought to be fairly straightforward, too: parties that preside over the near collapse of the capitalist system don’t get invited back to have another go … John Major’s ejection from the ERM was peanuts by comparison. But unlike every other election since 1992, the outcome is not preordained, and many voters, particularly those in construction, have a difficult decision to make.
This industry has a special relationship with government. The public sector is by far its largest client, spending £38bn a year (including PFI), and it sets the rules by which the industry does business. But because a Labour victory was assured in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and because 2001 was the beginning of the biggest surge in public sector building since Victoria was on the throne, the industry could vote how it wanted, safe in the knowledge that it wouldn’t change a thing. Back in 2005, for example, most of the industry thought that Labour had the best economic policies, yet felt free to vote Tory (page 22).
This time, there’s no room for sentiment – not when the mismanagement of public spending could mean a double-dip recession, and a double-dip recession could mean the loss of the family home. Pretty much everyone in the industry, from the white van man who became the epitome of the eighties entrepreneur to middle-managers to the patriarchs of century-old family firms, must be assessing the parties on the basis of how their policies will affect the industry. The problem is that so little is known for sure about what those policies are, as our interviews with undecided voters highlight (page 20).
So what do we have to go on? Well, there’s Labour’s record in office. It originated the renewal of the physical infrastructure of public services, and that may eventually improve the life of everyone in Britain. But then, it also oversaw the selling of 120% mortgages to anyone able to hold a pen. To further confuse the picture, the party had a better recession than the Conservatives, which opposed the part-nationalisation of the banks, the masterstroke that stabilised the system.
Of course, the bill for all that is still in the post: the bank bailout and the public spending stimulus will push national debt to £1.4 trillion in 2014/15, and this dominates the policy landscape. Labour says it will protect education, increase spending on “front-line” health services (one sacred cow that remains sacred) and begin cutting in 2011 with a view to halving the deficit in four years. The Tories will also spend more on healthcare, but will begin cutting this year so as to pay off most of the deficit in five years. That might be a difference that makes all the difference, or it might not. As Robert Choat, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, put it, the government’s “greater-than-necessary vagueness allows the opposition to be vaguer than necessary, too”. Then there’s the rhetoric, which confuses the picture more: so while Alistair Darling threatens deeper cuts than Thatcher, David Cameron says: “We’re not talking about swingeing cuts. We're talking about making a start in reducing our deficit.” We can only hope that more information can be gleaned from manifestos, speeches, debates and gaffes once the campaigns get under way. And one final point: we should hope the Tories, if they are elected, resist the strange compulsion a new regime feels to rebrand the old one’s programmes. If there’s one thing we don’t need, it’s to waste a year while Building Schools for the Future becomes Creating the Future’s Schools.
t,000 job losses in 2009
Sarah Richardson, deputy editor