Who will win this cyber election?

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Who will win this cyber election?
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By this time next week the UK will know its fate. There are three political polarities in play here: Leave-Remain, capitalism-socialism and conservationism-Thunbergery. The level of discourse around all three has been pitiful, writes Victor Hill.

Tree Envy

I discussed some four months ago in these pages how the climate change debate has been dominated by our need to cut carbon emissions, yet little attention has been given to the other side of the equation: carbon capture. And the most efficient and natural carbon capture machines are called trees.

Therefore, I was delighted that all the political parties contesting seats in the UK general election have been trying to outbid one another with promises to plant more trees. Labour is promising to plant two billion new trees by 2040. That works out at 250,000 trees planted per day or 100 million per year. Meanwhile, the Tories have pledged to plant a more modest 30 million trees a year while the Lib Dems and the SNP are promising 60 million trees a year. Not to be outdone, the Greens have put out a target of 60 million trees a year or 700 million by 2030.

Now, enthused as I am by the prospect of a national campaign of tree-planting, I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering how in practise this would work. What kind of trees are to be planted – deciduous or conifers, fast-growing obnoxious leylandii or very slow-growing but noble holm oaks? What kind of land would be allocated to forestation? Where is the land available to accommodate all these new trees? How will the purchase of that land be funded? Where will all the seeds or saplings come from? Who exactly will do the planting? Will the army of new planters undertake their labours pro bono or will they be in receipt of tree-grants?

And who will count the new trees planted – the Tree-Planter General? And, since I wish to participate in this exciting new enterprise, does the pear tree that I transplanted last week from a pot into the Norfolk silt soil of my herb garden count? Or is that double counting? And do rhododendrons count as trees? Such questions matter to me.

Perhaps there lurks beneath the surface of Labour’s proposal a cunning plan to nationalise all the plant nurseries and garden centres on which a tree-crazed population will descend. (The People’s Wyevale?) Or, as BBC R4’s Today Programme often asks: how will we fill the ranks of tree-planters without more wholesale immigration? (English people being congenitally disinclined to plant trees.)

Trees can be planted, the BBC tells me[i], at a density of anything between 1,000 and 2,500 per hectare. Thus planting 100 million trees a year would require about 60,000 hectares of land per year – or a staggering 1.2 million hectares over 20 years. That is an area half the size of Wales. Last year in the UK we achieved 13,400 hectares of new woodland, of which 11,200 hectares was in much less densely populated Scotland where the devolved government has its own tree-planting thing going on.

Is Labour – or the Tories, come to that – suggesting that we should take valuable agricultural land out of production at a time when we need to decrease our dependency on foreign imports given both Brexit and climate change? Maybe it would be better to pay farmers to put back the hedgerows that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) paid them to rip out in the 1970s and ’80s…

By the way, an average tree soaks up about one tonne of carbon dioxide over a period of 40 years. So, even sixty million new trees would remove less than one half of one per cent of our current carbon emissions each year. Desirable – but not enough. Meanwhile, the Drax power station in Cambridgeshire burns imported wood that cannot be supplied in sufficient quantity by British forests…

It is a similar story with targets for reaching net zero carbon missions. The Tories have promised 2050 and passed that target into law. The Lib Dems say 2045; Labour says 2035 and the Greens say 2030. The glue-sniffers of Extinction Rebellion demand that it be 2025.

I could go on. But my real point is that the tree envy exhibited by all main parties exemplifies all that is wrong with this UK general election. The quality of the discourse, the level of debate, the cogency of argument is dire, feeble and blunt. And the mainstream media (in which we once took pride) has done little to elucidate the prevailing opacity.

Labour: economic La-La Land

Labour’s manifesto is full of what the long lamented Mr Cameron used to call “green c**p”. Every British home is to be retro-insulated and double-glazed at a cost of around £250 billion – assuming the estimated 450,000 contractors exist and then turn up. Even if this were to be achieved it would reduce the UK’s CO2 emissions by about 3 percent[ii] while the UK itself accounts for less than one percent of global carbon emissions.

Labour wants more wind turbines. (I wonder if anyone has told Ms Long-Bailey that the construction of each wind turbine entails carbon emissions equal to the burning of 150 tonnes of coal). But much more than wind-power, Labour wants full-on class-war.

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While Labour luminaries chant the mantra of never compromising workers’ rights, it is the EU which has driven the rise of zero-hours contracts because councils are obliged under EU rules to outsource all contracts EU-wide. None of the historic advances in labour relations – Equal Pay, Safety at Work, Sex Discrimination, Holiday Pay – came from the EU. They were all UK initiatives. In fact, secondary picketing, which Mr McDonnel wants to restore, is restricted under EU law. The idea, parroted by Labour activists, that Brexit entails a loss of workers’ rights is fake. And Labour’s supposed championing of workers’ rights is matched by its loathing of the self-employed – many of whom regard themselves as working class.

Mr Corbyn knows full well that he would not be allowed to privatise a swath of utilities because he would fall foul of EU state aid, competition and market rules. The Royal Mail (LON:RMG), the railway operators, the water and energy utilities – they are all on Labour’s shopping list, not to mention the BT (LON:BT.A) division Openreach. Mr McDonnell has even indicated that Labour will not pay market value. And then Labour wants to confiscate a 10 percent stake in all firms with more than 250 staff – another £300 billion of Labour’s ineffable spending splurge. Some lawyers are already preparing for not just compensation but exemplary damages too.

When it comes to Brexit, Labour is like a late-night Glasgow drunk: a few songful steps sideways and then a curse-afflicted lurch in the other direction. Mr Corbyn, we have learnt in recent weeks, is neutral on the most pressing question of our time.

Finally, it seems that Labour would undo the anti-terrorist legislation of the previous 20 years. The London Bridge outrage (29 November) prompted many of us to question whether it is wise to let convicted Jihadists out of jail on license. But according to The Guardian, posing this question constitutes “an agenda of hate”.

The Liberal Democrats: Bonfire of the non-entities

The Liberal Democrats under Ms Swinson seem to be neither Liberal (they favour more regulation) nor Democratic (they itch to quash the referendum result). Ms Swinson has struggled to make an impact. The Lib Dems poll ratings have been trending downwards for the last three weeks. I would be amazed if Messrs Umunna or Gyimah are elected in the Lib Dem cause. Ms Berger might have a better chance in Finchley – but her chances are well below 50 percent. My best guess is that the Lib Dems will scrape back with 12-15 seats.

The SNP: Tartan pride

The SNP want Scotland to separate from the UK but it is entirely silent on the financial consequences of that separation. Scotland’s fiscal deficit is seven times that of the UK as a whole, but the SNP does not tell us how an independent Scotland would address this.

The SNP are emphatically opposed to Brexit but is silent about the hard border between England and Scotland that would arise if the UK leaves the UK and then a separationist Scotland were to join the EU. It is very difficult to understand, even for many Scots, why a small but relatively prosperous country would wish to bust up with her sister nation (with whom she enjoys a shared identity recognised across the globe) who treats her with respect and affection – only to share the status of Estonia or Cyprus.

The Greens: brain drain

The Greens think that they can save the world by meddling in people’s affairs. Increasingly, through their strange alliances with protesting youth cults, they think that the scourge of climate change, air pollution and loss of biodiversity (undeniably accelerated by our perverse addiction to plastic packaging) can all be reversed by moral posturing and celebrity endorsement.

Fortunately for the rest of us, technology unleashed by free markets is taking us in the right direction. I’ll give you just one example here. A quiet revolution has been underway which is reducing electricity consumption globally with zero outlay by governments. I am talking about LED lightbulbs. Thanks to this innovation it now takes one tenth of the electricity to light up a typical home as it did just a decade ago. This is a wonderful example of how the market triumphs without – indeed despite – government. I have no doubt that it will be a similar story with electric cars in the next decade – and there is nothing in the Green Party’s manifesto that will advance that.

Most of us now think that governments should force polluters to bear the cost of clearing up their own mess (including plastic waste). Unfortunately, this simple idea is being eclipsed in the increasingly apocalyptic summitry around climate change (this week in Madrid). When the climate experts tell us it is finally too late – the tipping points have tipped and runaway global warming is irreversible – they can all go home to die as there will be nothing further we can do.

Unfortunately, environmentalism in the very recent past has been hijacked by a kind of ultra-left global death cult which equates the struggle to protect the natural environment with the struggle against capitalism/ slavery/ patriarchy/ racism – and all the other horrible things for which senior white males are undoubtedly responsible. That is why Green movements everywhere are dominated by beaky-nosed single young women with strange accents.

The Tories: an exercise in risk-aversion

The Tories now believe that the British government ought to spend more – “austerity”, Mr Johnson told the Spectator last week, was a historic mistake – and that taxes should not be cut excessively. Mr Hammond’s plans to cut corporation tax to below its current 19 percent level have been unceremoniously ditched, though income tax, national insurance and VAT will remain frozen in the next parliament. (Another example of where a government binds its own hands – always erroneous, in my view.)

The Tories have no plans to simplify one of the most complicated tax codes in the western world. While Brexit was once hailed by Messrs Johnson, Gove and others as an incredible opportunity, new pastures outside the EU do not really feature at all in the steady-she-goes Tory manifesto. There is an assumption that there will be an equitable trade deal with Europe post-Brexit but zero detail as to how it will be achieved.

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Their main task this time round, so it seems, was to not be Mrs May and to offer hostages to fortune which their opponents could use against them. Thus the momentous issue of how to provide social care has been kicked into touch. They have not offered any pro-business reforms whatsoever. There is little on offer for Britain’s five-million-strong army of self-employed which somehow survives without benefits or subsidies – one of the few things that mark the UK economy out from our continental peers.

The Tories should not have signed up to the Leftie idea of a “climate emergency”. We most certainly do have a problem which will dominate policy for the rest of the century but by shrieking with the rest that the end of the world is nigh the Tories have lost the initiative – even though they are instinctively conservationists. One fundamental rule of politics is that once you adopt someone else’s language you are bound by what they say. There are now moves to call the “climate emergency” the “global meltdown”. The Tories should resist that.

Despite Mr Trump’s imprecations, the Tories, just to keep up with the Corbynistas and the French, will introduce a digital tax on Facebook, Google and the rest. Even though that will harm Britain’s aspiration to become a tech hub for the 21st century. Tech investment has been flooding into the UK of late despite Brexit. Not to mention the harm that would do to a putative UK-US trade deal (which I now doubt will happen).

Under Johnson II state spending in the UK will stabilise to around 41 percent of GDP – about the same as our near-neighbour the Netherlands. I suspect a Johnson II government will facilitate a de facto soft Brexit with a high degree of regulatory alignment built-in, all in exchange for a Canada-style free trade deal. This would come with a pledge not to undercut the EU in the workplace (which would have been politically impossible, anyway). Just in case Labour and the SNP aren’t keeping up – there ain’t gonna be no Singapore-on-Thames. The NHS is not for sale: it will remain safe in our hands – and totally second-rate by first-world standards. That is evidently what the great British public want.

As the great Matthew Lynn observed in the Telegraph this week[iii], we have a hard-Left party (Labour); we have a soft-Left party (the Lib Dems); we have the eco-Left Greens and the Tartan-Left SNP. And now we have a centre-Left party called the Conservatives. True, there is the flaky-Right Brexit Party, but what are right-of-centre voters supposed to do? Probably, like this writer, pinch their noses hard and vote Conservative.

The silent hustings

The most important election of our lifetime (so we are told) has been oddly uneventful. One can drive across large parts of this nation and not see a political poster of any kind. Very few of us have received those time-tested leaflets through the door, let alone met a human canvasser. That is no doubt partially due to the winter election largely fought (literally) in the dark.

All the so-called TV leaders’ debates, in my view, have been non-events: terrestrial television is in terminal decline. This election campaign has been fought online at the margins. Item One: Momentum’s digital service to advise students whether to vote at home or on campus. Item Two: online campaign tools such as NationBuilder. The latter is a tool which helps political parties to build databases and to send politically targeted messages with optimal results. Supposedly, Emanuel Macron used it to launch his En Marche party. (Rory Stewart, please note.)

Foreign policy has hardly figured at all in the campaign. No one is talking about the rise of China, repression in Hong Kong, how to engage Russia, Iran’s nuclear ambitions or even the future of NATO. Brexit Britain has retreated into a self-referring bubble of inconsequence. The hustings are deserted: social media has made us stupider.

Labour will do better than the polls predict because the army of low-income “don’t-knows” will finally go for the freebies on offer, and the shy, anti-Corbynite Old Labour working class will fall in line come the day.

I’m biased. I’d loudly cheer a Tory majority next week; but in my bones I fear another hung parliament – with all the bitterness and aggravation that would ensue.

[i] See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/50591261

[ii] I recommend the excellent article by Ross Clark in last week’s Spectator Life, available at: https://life.spectator.co.uk/articles/labours-warm-homes-for-all-scheme-is-a-load-of-hot-air/

[iii] See: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/12/03/wanted-pro-business-pro-market-pro-consumer-political-party/

Comments (7)

  • Mark says:

    by the time I discovered my local hustings they were over and the local Tory apparently didn’t bother turning up.

  • J R Garner says:

    A brilliant assessment of the current political campaigns (if they merit such a title). I couldn’t agree more!

  • TonyA says:

    I agree with Victor Hill: this has been a weirdly boring election, in which the Conservatives appear to have decided to tread very lightly except on the constant refrain ‘get Brexit done’. Think what Thatcher would have done with Old Labour’s economic and fiscal plans: she would have absolutely torn into them. The current lot have a go but they are not passionate enough and they don’t nearly make enough of the current jobs market, high employment levels and (finally) growing wages . Why are the Tories making so little of their successes?

    I think they have (probably) correctly assessed that Brexit trumps everything. Large numbers of people are so sick of Brexit, they will vote for anyone with a clear message, even when they disagree with it. So I think the Tories are going to do better than Victor believes in the old Labour heartlands: many normally steady Labour voters are going to vote for Boris because they can’t stand Corbyn and find Boris the least worst option. However if the Tories do win big, they should ignore talk of s ‘historic realignment’ – this will be a ‘vote Tory once’ election for these old-school voters.

    I’m surprised Victor Hill didn’t mention housing once: it’s a huge issue.

  • Victor Janulaitis says:

    Not for the first time it has been my pleasure to read a contribution by Victor Hill. Here is someone who can clearly express an opinion and who, at the same time is, prepared to dig deep to ensure that his research confirms it. This article should be read by all electors intending to cast a vote next week, if only to verify whether they are sufficiently well informed about some of the facts on the major issues at stake. Sadly I also have to agree about the level of the political discourse in the election to date. We are getting 8ever so close to aping the standards of a typical American political campaign. Reassuring, it is not!

  • Martin Prechner says:

    What a great summing up of the sad state of our national politics. Victor’s wit is rapier sharp as usual. Bonfire of the non-entities………..wonderful!

  • Ben Cater says:

    On the subject of trees, I agree with your confusion. And I have emailed the Woodland Trust, to whom I donate and asked about this, and also about the fears of disease and misplaced environmental values (forced grown with fertiliser) from saplings imported from other countries. Just look at the massive tree epidemics that have felled our Ash, Elm and many other kinds of trees – a result of foreign imported diseases. Anyway, it seems that the solution is to leave land fallow and let nature do its thing. Scrub land is as good at absorbing CO2 as trees and requires no planting, transport, fertiliser and so on. Once the scrub has taken hold, then it forms a perfect platform for native small shrubs – hawthorn, buddleia etc and over time, trees will turn up on their own. Sorted at zero cost, no emissions, no fertiliser required and genuine native species that are guaranteed to thrive..

  • Victor Hill says:

    Ben Cater – fascinating stuff. Why is tree/plant science so little understood? In Norfolk and Suffolk near where I live most of the time these days various agencies are turning felled woodland back into heath-land – with remarkable results, not least for bird life. I hope to write about this again going forward. Please do send me anything you think I ought to know and obviously don’t. Victor.Hill@masterinvestor.co.uk. Many thanks for your comment and kind regards, Victor

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