It’s been described as the election that economics forgot. Outlandish proposals put forward by the country’s major parties on everything from tax evasion to inheritance tax seem, to be blunt, to be taking UK voters for fools. And well they might; after all, they can get away with it.
Just ask the Tories, who have successfully conned the country about economic growth for the past five years, without anyone seeming to notice.
The combination of a Prime Minister with a far better grasp of PR than macroeconomics, a woefully complicit media and a bewildered population that needs someone to blame has seen British people hoodwinked by made-up numbers since the Coalition took control.
“I find it extraordinary how the coalition government and their media supporters have managed to spin a failure as a success,” says Simon Wren-Lewis, a professor of economic policy at Oxford University.
“It makes a bit of a nonsense out of the idea that the media is effective at holding the government to account.”
As Wren-Lewis explains, while the country has managed to lift itself out of recession, it has done so at a far slower rate than it should, or could, have done. Usually in a recovery, there is a period of time in which GDP per capita rises at an above average rate – but this never happened. Instead, growth has trundled along at a below-average rate for the Coalition’s entire period in office.
To make matters worse, says Wren-Lewis, “living standards have not risen, which is almost unprecedented over a five year period.”
Much of this has been legitimised by false – and rarely interrogated – comparisons between economies and individual households.
While it makes sense for individuals to cut their spending and save their money when times are tough, on a macroeconomic level, this is exactly the behaviour that creates a recession. A healthy economy functions by having money flow freely around it; if something happens to limit the flow of capital, the economy slows down.
When the private sector encounters a credit crunch, governments generally have step in to keep the momentum going until it improves. If they cut spending at exactly the same time, disaster ensues.
To pursue a course of austerity in the face of a recession is madness – as the Tory-led Coalition soon discovered when the economy floundered under their initial plans. For precisely this reason, they quietly put the brakes on their much-trumpeted austerity measures in 2012 – and, as might be expected, the economy began to improve.
Meanwhile, most indicators suggest that life has got worse for the majority of UK citizens, with wages stagnating and extensive cuts to vital services helping to ensure that the UK was the only country in the G7 to actually see inequality increase this century.
As the financial blogger Benjamin Studebaker explains in a now-viral post, austerity not only doesn’t work, it actually “reduces growth so much that it undercuts government revenue and prevents governments from shrinking their deficits.”
The UK is, he says, “in a significantly worse fiscal position than it was in 5 years ago.”
In short: the economy has been stifled, living standards have declined – without any discernible upside for the general public.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the Conservatives are still refusing to learn from their mistakes. Cameron has said that, should the Conservatives win tomorrow’s election, they will resuscitate their doomed policy of austerity, despite the damage caused by their last attempt.
It’s a cynical move, designed to appeal to the irrational ideology of voters more comfortable with wreaking revenge on imagined freeloaders than abandoning a course that is proven to fail.
So what, a voter might reasonably ask, has the media been doing all this time? When the numbers tell such a clear story, surely the press can’t be too financially illiterate to dissect Coalition propaganda?
The most likely answer is this: honest economic reporting by the UK press undermines its unrelenting character assassination of Ed Miliband.
Since the hacking scandal broke in 2011, more attention has been paid to an unflattering photo of the Labour leader eating a sandwich than to his actual policies – even in sections of the press that are typically left-leaning.
While Miliband, certainly, lacks Cameron’s slick delivery (and occasionally makes satire-worthy blunders like carving pledges into a giant monolith), the media massacre has been wildly out of proportion to his actual gaffes.
It’s not hard to imagine why. Miliband is the only major politician to push for greater press accountability and, in doing so, has made himself plenty of enemies among the country’s media tycoons.
“The alliance between the Murdoch press and the Tory party, knocked temporarily off course during the phone-hacking scandal, is back in business,” wrote Peter Oborn in the Spectator earlier this year.
“Mr Murdoch has powerful allies in other newspaper groups who are desperate to avoid another brave commitment from Ed Miliband – his call for full implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on press regulation.”
The Murdoch empire is not the only media group to view Miliband’s stance with hostility.
Oborn, who resigned from the Telegraph in February with a letter publicly condemning the decline of ethical standards at the paper, described a “conspiracy of silence” in which “all the newspaper groups, bar the magnificent example of the Guardian, maintained a culture of omerta around phone hacking.”
It is simply not in the interests of UK media conglomerates to support a Labour government led by Miliband.
Given the unpopularity of the Lib Dems, and the minimal threat posed by fringe parties like UKIP and the Greens, the only realistic alternative is a Tory one – even if that means backing a policy that will drive the UK economy into the ground.
So pervasive have these misrepresentation become (a phenomenon that Wren-Lewis calls “mediamacro”) that even Labour is queasy about pushing hard for a more sensible approach in its election campaign , for fear that it will be blasted for irresponsible spending or being weak on the deficit.
The result, as Wren-Lewis wrote earlier this year, is a “highly paradoxical” situation, in which sensible opposition to austerity is shut down by a media circus that has its own “political agenda.”
Whatever your priorities when you head to the ballot box tomorrow, consider this: for the past five years, our lives have been shaped by a failed policy that has harmed a great number of people in the service of a loud and powerful few.
Whether this is able to shape the next five is up to you.