Do politicians actually make much difference?

You might have noticed that politicians have become more active recently, roaming the airwaves and news columns: like vampires stimulated by the sight of the rising moon, it only takes an election date to appear on a calendar for them to stir.

At Cheshire East Council, cheques are being handed out with gay abandon. MP Fiona Bruce is sending us a Press release almost every minute and UKIP’s Louise Bours has suddenly decided she wants to be on Congleton Town Council after all, despite not attending since Noah was a lad.

They’re all telling you that they know best and the other lot are rubbish. The cynical joke about politicians lying only when their lips move is a little harsh, but slightly truer prior to elections.

On social media, the lines are being drawn. This week we asked innocently if anyone was joining the Greens and watched as Facebookers went wild.

As unbiased observers, it’s interesting to see people’s beliefs, often ignoring facts even when presented to them.
Among the many things we’ve seen this week was a diatribe against Maggie Thatcher: you know, the woman who destroyed manufacturing, decimated the mines and snatched milk from the mouths of babies. Except, on the whole, she didn’t.

When she died, the BBC’s statistics programme More or Less looked at her record and it was less than people think.
A Warwick University economist was asked about the decline in mining and said: “Nothing to do with Mrs Thatcher.” He said it was a trend visible all over the Western world.

According to Wikipedia, in the two decades from 1950-1970 around 100 North East coalmines were closed. “A common misconception is that Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its suburbs was one of the areas affected most by the infamous mid-eighties strike. In reality, the vast majority of mines in that area were long since defunct by that time.”

You could spend hours researching this, but we found a Welsh coal mine forum that listed pit closures, starting with: “North Rhondda No2 1947, Blaenclydach 1947, Erskine 1947, Llanmarch 1947, Penrhys 1947, Charmborough 1947, Cynon 1947, Llanerch 1947, Rhiw Colbren No five 1947. . .” Pits closed before, during and after Thatch; whatever else she did wrong sending in the police against miners and personalising the battle, pit closures happened just as much under Labour.

Similarly the decline in manufacturing: she couldn’t really do much here either because, as another economist told More or Less, “These are powerful historical trends”.

Manufacturing has certainly changed: in 1952, it produced a third of the national output, employed 40% of the workforce and made up 25% of world manufacturing exports. Today, it’s about 11% of GDP, employs 8% and sells 2% of world exports.
But in value, we produce around two and a half times what we did in the late 40s. Instead of thousands of men standing at lathes making washers we now have a few bright young graduates writing computer games, or using CAD machines for sophisticated engineering.

Manufacturing has also decreased as a proportion of output as other things came along. Once it was the big game in town, now there are other business sectors, from computer game companies to call centres and nice restaurants, hotels and gyms in the service sector.

Manufacturing has not disappeared, as some would have you believe, it’s just that other areas of the economy have grown.
A 2009 report, using data from the Office for National Statistics, said that manufacturing output (at 2007 prices) has increased in 35 of the 50 years between 1958 and 2007. Output in 2007 was at record levels, double that in 1958.

Again, rooting around we found a motorbike forum that offered a better explanation for the change than it being Mrs T taking an axe to manufacturing: complacency and unwillingness to change.

Kawasaki apparently made “a total nut-and-bolt copy” of the BSA A7, a classic British motorbike, which was then 35-years old. While BSA carried on building the same bike, thinking it would all go on forever, Kawasaki developed a new engine that led to today’s superbikes.

Noted the forum: “We could have done that. We had the money and the brains, but we also had apathy. You can feel the Brummie drawl pronouncing ‘That’ll last a lifetime that’. No it wouldn’t, it probably wouldn’t make its first trip out of the showroom without something falling off.”

Other myths about Thatch were that she cut taxes (direct tax was cut but VAT was doubled); cut spending on the NHS (she maintained same rate of increase spending as her predecessors) and cut education: this is partly true but spending fell at a slower rate than the decline in pupil numbers so per capita spending increased.

As some bones for you Thatcher haters, she did increase inequality by a large degree — top earners saw their incomes rise by 60% while poorer people saw nothing. Before Thatcher there were 128m strike days in Britain a year, afterwards 6.5m, so you can take that as union bashing, too, if you want. She arguably caused the current housing crisis.

The point is: despite the strong feelings she arouses and the claims her supporters make, in some of the biggest areas, she had little effect. Manufacturing continued its slow decades-long change, mines continued to change, the NHS carried on being a political football and education funding stayed constant.

We suspect that in these days of globalisation, politicians potentially have even less effect, unless they do something really risky, like leading us into war or out of Europe (or enourage the police on big horses to charge striking miners).

Most of the time, though, they just carry on what was being done before and can’t do much about anything. But that hardly makes for a decent hustings speech.

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