In a week when climate records have again been broken, fires rage across much of the world, and the UN Secretary General spoke of “children swept away by monsoon rains, families running from the flames (and) workers collapsing in scorching heat,” the UK government decided to grant hundreds of new licences to explore for oil and gas in the North Sea.
This article explores what possible rationale they could have for such a policy.
Our conclusion is that thinking of it as a policy in the traditional sense is the wrong way to look at what they are doing: it makes no sense as policy, but may well be effective as an electoral weapon. Mario Cuomo, when Governor of New York famously commented, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” What he meant was that while campaigning, politicians make all manner of grand promises, but when faced with the reality of office, their policies become far more measured. And generally, this is true. But this government is now governing in poetry. They have invented the pseudo-policy:
- Their track record is indefensible on all measures that the population cares about;
- A sane policy is perfectly possible, but would require a series of U-turns which showed that the last 13 years had been a disaster;
- They have instead started to create pseudo-policies: so-called “policies” which make sense only from the point of view of trying to win the next election.
Their track record is indefensible
The UK population is clear on what it cares about. The biggest issue, by a wide margin, is the cost-of-living crisis. The second issue is the crisis in the NHS. And the third issue is the climate emergency. Let’s start by looking at the cost-of-living crisis.
The Conservative Party has now been in power for 13 years; the Labour Party was in power for the previous 13 years; and 13 years is roughly half a generation. So it makes sense to look at what has been happening to the cost of living over 13-year periods.
To be precise, it makes sense to look at what has been happening to real (inflation- adjusted) wages over 13-year periods since this measures what people can actually afford to buy with those wages.
The chart below summarises the growth in average real wages in every 13-year Period since 1900. It would look even worse if we could show the data for median wages (what the typical wage-earner actually earns) as the average is flattered by a few very high earners, but the data are not available.
The chart shows us how poor is this government’s record in comparison with others in the past:
- In the post-war period and up until 2010, almost every 13-year period showed a growth in real wages of over 20%. This means that every generation was earning over 40% more than the generation which preceded it. Each year may not have seen enormous progress, but cumulative progress was dramatic.
- The last 13 years has been worse than any previous 13 years in the last 100 years. Not since the early 1920s has there been a comparably bad performance, and to find a worse performance, we would have to go back to the 1800s.
- For comparison, we can see that real wages in the 13 years under the last Labour government grew by 33%.
Similarly, the underfunding of the NHS has produced a crisis which means that its very survival is now in doubt – indeed the former Health Secretary Sajid Javid has repeatedly called for it to be replaced. Allowing the NHS to fail would create both a healthcare and an economic disaster in the UK.
And environmentally, the government is not on track to meet its net zero commitments and the recent announcements cited above show that they have no intention of meeting them. Its wider environmental record is no better – the problem of sewage in our rivers and coastal waters being a clear example.
A sane policy would show that the last 13 years had been a mistake
The government claims that the new licences are needed to create energy security and help tackle the cost-of-living crisis. This is nonsense:
- It takes years from grant of a new licence to explore to the first gallon of oil being pumped – the cost-of-living crisis is urgent: a ‘solution’ which takes many years is no solution at all;
- Any oil and gas which is finally produced will not be ring-fenced in some way to provide fuel security to the UK market: like all other oil and gas from the North Sea, it will be sold onto the world markets to obtain the highest price, and the UK will buy it back again at world prices;
- And, of course, if any additional oil and gas does eventually result, it will worsen the climate emergency.
The UK is not the worst in the world, but only 8 (out of around 200) countries have higher domestic energy prices than we do.
Other governments have provided their populations with energy security, but doing so requires policy choices which have been anathema to our government: much higher windfall taxes on oil & gas companies and much lower caps on prices. Much more emphasis on renewable energy generation. Much more help for households to reduce their energy requirements – eg through home insulation.
Much more interference, in other words, with the ‘magic of market forces’ – and a 180° U-turn on many policies of the last 13 years.
They have started to create pseudo-policies
So, how can the Conservative Party hope to campaign successfully?
Not on its record.
And not by reversing all the policies of the last 13 years.
But pseudo-policies can be very effective. A pseudo-policy is something which looks like a policy but unlike a real policy it is not designed to achieve its claimed objective. It is carefully crafted to provoke a reaction from its opponents which can be attacked, and in this way to divide and polarise the voting population against some vulnerable minority. And as it is formally considered a policy, it can be funded and communicated at public expense. It is a very cost-effective way (though completely unethical) of campaigning.
We wrote about how the anti-refugee policies of Suella Braverman, which she knows quite well to be against international law – international law drafted in many cases by British lawyers – are not designed to succeed in stemming the flow of refugees. They are designed to provoke outrage and support for refugees, allowing the government to claim that “only we stand with the British population against the flood of refugees who wish us harm.”
As that article made clear, Braverman’s performative cruelty can give the government powerful electoral weapons:
- It gives the government a way to divide the population;
- It gives them a way to provoke the opposition into adopting a vulnerable position; and so,
- It gives them a way to attack the opposition without facing obvious counter-attacks.
The granting of the licences is similar: as pointed out above, it will not help British households facing the cost-of-living crisis, but if it provokes an outcry – in particular, if opposition parties condemn it unskilfully – the government will claim “only we are on the side of hard-pressed British households against the eco-zealots trying to overturn our way of life.”
Those who oppose these tactics need to do so carefully to avoid falling into the trap, while robustly condemning the harm done by the pseudo-policy.
This is easier said than done.
It is easy for progressives to allow themselves to be positioned as supporting only the targeted minority. A natural response like “I stand with the refugees” or “Refugees welcome” plays into the hands of the Conservatives. It enables them to repeat their claim that, “only we stand with the British people against the invasion of people who wish to do us harm.”
And failing to respond is not a viable option for those who oppose the Conservatives’ policies. Not only is it morally unacceptable, it is electorally damaging: other progressives see them as being as bad as the Conservatives, while the many of the population sees them as not helping.
So how can those who oppose this government respond?
In military strategy, choosing the battleground on which to fight is key. The Conservatives wish to focus on Minority X, the refugees, the eco-zealots, the unemployed, etc; the opposition should focus resolutely on the government’s record.
Comments about the Illegal Immigration Bill should be sandwiched between re-framing paragraphs – both before and after – such as:
“After 13 years of failed Conservative policies, most of the 68 million people in this country are poorer than they were at the end of the last Labour government, we are experiencing the worst fall in living standards since records began, our economy is the weakest of the major economies, and our NHS is in crisis. The government is desperately trying to blame all these problems on 40,000 refugees – less than 10% of total immigration – who are crossing the channel precisely because the government closed all legal routes. The British people have had enough. Nobody is fooled by this. We demand a change.”
For the licences, a suitable form of words might be:
“After 13 years of failed Conservative policies, most of the 68 million people in this country are poorer than they were at the end of the last Labour government, we are experiencing the worst fall in living standards since records began, our economy is the weakest of the major economies, and our NHS is in crisis. The government is desperately trying to blame all these problems on climate protesters trying to save the planet from record levels of climate-related catastrophe.
Nobody believes this. The British people have had enough of being taken for fools.”
With that framing, opposition politicians can safely propose sane policies involving higher taxes on oil and gas companies and much lower caps on prices; increased investment in renewable energy generation and more help for households to reduce their energy requirements – eg through home insulation.
Without such framing, they will be attacked as being on the side of the “eco-zealots.”
If you are concerned about this government’s intentions and would like to help, take a look at the 99% Organisation and join us.