Who has a new story for Britain’s economy?

George Osborne’s story on the economy helped him to power in 2010 but his policies should’ve borne more fruit by now. Is there anyone to challenge him?

Peace, bread and land.

Repeating those words over and over again on the streets of Russia managed to get the Bolsheviks immense popular support.

It was 1917 and the Russian people, much like the rest of Europe, craved two things and two things only: an end to the war and an end to poverty.

Peace, bread and land. Easy to remember and to the point. A four-word manifesto.

The Bolsheviks had the best story to sell to the public, ousted the tsar, and the rest is history. Russia would never be the same again.

I had to think about this story when I read the Daily Reckoning yesterday.

“In publishing – as in politics, advertising and much else in life – the winner is often the one with the best story.”

In Britain the past two general elections were about the economy and it was the Conservative Party that came up with a story that resonated with the British electorate.

As Ellie Mae O’Hagan writes in the IB Times:

“Anyone who has spent a significant period of time talking to the average voter has probably heard this argument recited back to them almost verbatim

“Labour had left a mess, our economy was in danger, we’d maxed out the nation’s credit card and we needed to live within our means.”

It’s not hard to see why this worked. The story offers a plausible explanation of past events, an assessment of the present and a clear plan for the future. And it was simple enough for people to remember.

Britain was recovering from a financial crisis and the thing Brits valued most was to build a strong economy. The Tory narrative appeared to offer exactly this.

Stories matter in politics. But they can only get you so far. At some point you’ll have to deal with reality.

Even the most ardent Trotskyists and Stalinists had to concede at some point that the Bolshevik revolution hadn’t sparked the socialist paradise they had envisioned.

For Britain the time to revisit the Tory tale on the economy is now. After six years as chancellor and with a new global economic crisis a distinct possibility Osborne is in need of a job review.

Is he the man to guide Britain through a new crisis? My answer would be a big fat no.

In his first term as chancellor Osborne was responsible for a huge drop in living standards. He’s consistently missed his targets for reducing the budget deficit and decreasing public debt as a share of GDP. Economic growth doesn’t pick up and there seems to be no plan to increase productivity.

Of course, Osborne’s economic policy never had a basis in economics. Economists have frequently disputed the effects of austerity. Earlier this month Martin Wolf reiterated in the FT that Osborne’s proposed cuts made no sense.

To top it all off, Osborne’s been severely criticised by both benches in the House of Commons, with government minister Iain Duncan Smith quitting over what he saw as unfair welfare cuts.

Clearly IDS’s departure was motivated by the EU debate, but when you give someone like Duncan Smith the chance to take the moral high ground it’s time to find a new job.

Part of Osborne’s incompetence no doubt stems from the fact that his mind isn’t completely with his current job. Half the time he’s Osborne the chancellor, the other half he’s Osborne the Tory leadership candidate.

Whatever the reason, Osborne shouldn’t get away with taking money from the most vulnerable to give the well off a tax break.

A think tank calculated the richest half of Britain will enjoy 85% of the benefits of the tax cuts. The only thing the chancellor has to offer the most deprived is the sound bite ‘everyone benefits from a strong British economy’.

It’s like flattening a slum to build a five star resort with a massive gate around it and telling locals whose homes you’ve just destroyed: ‘Cheer up. Now you get to admire that pretty building from behind the gates. Everybody wins!’

I suppose Osborne still believes in ‘trickle-down economics’ – the idea that if you add more wealth to the top some of it will eventually find its way down.

Like austerity, trickle down is no economic theory and there’s no evidence to support it. If anything, inequality is on the rise.

American comedian John Fugelsang found a fitting way to describe it:

“I’ve created a new cocktail called the Trickle-Down. The bartender takes your money, then gives a drink to the richest guy at the bar.”

Osborne’s story rings more hollow every day. Sadly, it’s the only story on the economy available at the moment.

The Liberal Democrats have faded into oblivion. Their new leader Tim Farron is so anonymous, the only way I can see the Lib Dems return to relevance is if they build an actual time machine.

Meanwhile the biggest opposition party, Labour, doesn’t speak with one voice and it’s hard to win people over when you’re inconsistent.

With left-wing shadow chancellor John McDonnell and New Labour shadow chancellor ‘in exile’ Rachel Reeves it effectively has two captains on the same ship.

The party will need to unite around one idea and find a way to sell that idea. If Labour wants to be seen as a real alternative to the Tories, it’ll have to challenge them on the economy.

Osborne’s story was highly effective in getting him to power in 2010 but his policies should’ve borne more fruit by now. The fact that he’s still repeating those same lines he used six years ago shows that he’s merely selling expired goods.

If British politics wasn’t in a shambles right now the chancellor would’ve taken more of a beating over his u-turns and errors of judgment. Sadly, all Osborne has to fear is his own party.

In a healthy democracy it’s the best argument that wins, not the only argument.

With the Tory chancellor running out of ideas, I’m eagerly waiting for someone else to find a new strategy for Britain’s economy.

And if they can wrap it up in a nice story, that’d be great.

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