There is no alternative (alas)

01.04.05 Publication:

Our British election endorsement

There is no alternative (alas)

For want of a better option, we favour another Labour victory on May 5th

For want of a better option, we favour another Labour victory on May 5th

IF BRITAIN´S general election were simply a referendum on Tony Blair and the Labour government he has led since 1997, then there would be a real possibility that the voters would give him, and Labour, a slap in the face. That would also be The Economist´s instinct, though no doubt for different reasons. But it isn´t a referendum: it is a choice, one about which of the three big national parties offers the most credible and suitable government for Britain´s next four or five years. On that, our answer is the same as the one suggested by the opinion polls: the winner should again be Labour, led by Mr Blair.

Most elections are won or lost on the economy, wealth and jobs. In that case Labour should be further ahead even than it is. Britain has enjoyed 13 years of uninterrupted, pretty steady economic growth, eight of them under this Labour government. Much of the credit due to Labour is for carrying on with the pro-market inheritance from Margaret Thatcher, but Gordon Brown, Labour´s chancellor, also deserves praise for having given independent control over monetary policy to the Bank of England in 1997 and for keeping both public spending and taxes under control in his early years in office. For that reason, voters may feel calm about the likelihood that Mr Brown will succeed Mr Blair as prime minister at some stage during the next four years. He is unlikely to change his economic ideas just because he moves his office to 10 Downing Street.

Yet if voters feel calm about the economic prospects, they shouldn´t. For the Blair-Brown team—which is what it mostly is, despite their rivalry—has been storing up trouble for the future. Thanks to a surge in public spending that began just before the last election in 2001 and to disappointing tax revenues, the public finances have swung from a surplus of 1.6% of GDP in 2000-01 to a deficit of 2.9% in 2004-05. That has happened even though the slowdown in economic growth has been moderate. With spending on health scheduled to continue to grow rapidly until 2008, something is going to have to give. Either other spending will have to be cut by more than is now planned, or taxes will have to rise, quite sharply.

Just a technical matter, you might say: Britain has a strong, flexible economy these days and does need more money spent on its still-too-tatty public services. But that is too sanguine. A weak housing market already bodes ill for consumer spending; one way or another, the stimulus from public borrowing is going to have to be eased; and with oil at $50 a barrel, global economic growth is slowing too. Moreover, Labour has been making things worse by adding to the regulatory burden on business and by making the deficit in corporate pension schemes bigger than it would otherwise have been.

So although the economic record points to a resounding endorsement for Labour, the prospects do not. Whether Mr Brown would be more left-wing as prime minister than he has been as chancellor is beside the point: he has stored up these problems even as Mr Blair´s chancellor. The trouble, though, is that the alternatives look no better. The Liberal Democrats want to raise the top income-tax rate from 40% to 50%, and to spend more on public services. The Tories promise to cut taxes, but by so little that the difference between their plan and Labour´s disappears in the margin of statistical error. They think that the health service, not the economy, is their main electoral challenge, and so have promised to carry on with Labour´s spending levels and its gently market-based health-service reforms. That judgment may well be right, and the reforms do need to be carried through if they are to work. But it offers no reason to switch to the Conservatives.

The basic background to this election is that Mr Blair has continued to hog the centre-right ground in British politics, as he has done ever since becoming Labour´s leader in 1994. Michael Howard, the Conservative Party´s leader since 2003, has sought to share some of that ground, at least on the NHS. But he has blurred his party´s own identity by failing to offer a tax-cutting alternative and by his appallingly hypocritical opposition to Mr Blair´s brave effort to ease universities´ financial problems by allowing them to charge fees to British students—a reform that could have been taken from a Thatcherite textbook. Hence Mr Howard´s resort to traditional Tory populism on immigration in order to make his party look distinctive. To The Economist´s taste, this is a terrible move: we favour fluid migration, both on grounds of liberty and for practical economic reasons. The Tories instead favour illiberal limits and a labour-allocation system that smacks of central planning.

The Liberal Democrats are more to our liberal taste: they also support immigration and rightly opposed Mr Blair´s draconian anti-terrorist measures, especially house arrest. They ought also to have opposed his ban on fox-hunting, but most Lib Dem MPs didn´t. They were, however, opposed to two things that commend Mr Blair strongly to this newspaper: his top-up fees for universities; and, of course, the Iraq war. On Iraq, Mr Blair discredited his own case by deceiving the public over how little he knew about Saddam Hussein´s weapons programme. But we still think that to invade was the right thing given the uncertainty and given Saddam´s record, and that progress in Iraq and the wider Middle East will show Mr Blair to have been not only courageous but also right.

That offers a clear reason to continue to back him. So, more tentatively, does the health-service reform he finally got under way in his second term. The authoritarian streak he has shown over civil liberties and the country´s looming economic difficulties point the other way, especially with the even more meddling Mr Brown his likely successor. If the Conservatives, or indeed the Liberal Democrats, were offering an alternative government likely to combine superior fiscal management, fewer burdens on business, liberal policies on immigration and civil liberties, and a foreign policy geared toward further progress in the Middle East and a constructively critical approach to the European Union, The Economist would switch its endorsement.

But such an alternative does not exist. Tony Blair, for all his flaws, remains the best centre-right option there is.