According to the theory of the political business cycle, governments call elections at the point in the business cycle that gives them the greatest likelihood of winning. This is normally near the peak of the cycle, when the economic news is currently good but likely to get worse in the medium term. With fixed-term governments, this makes it harder for governments as, unless they are lucky, they have to use demand management policies to engineer a boom as an election approaches. It is much easier if they can choose when to call an election.
In the UK, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, the next election must be five years after the previous one. This means that the next election in the UK must be the first Thursday in May 2020. The only exception is if at least two-thirds of all MPs vote for a motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ or ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.’
The former motion was put in the House of Commons on 19 April and was carried by 522 votes to 13 – considerably more than two-thirds of the 650 seats in Parliament. The next election will therefore take place on the government’s chosen date of 8 June 2017.
Part of the reason for the government calling an election is to give it a stronger mandate for its Brexit negotiations. Part is to take advantage of its currently strong opinion poll ratings, which, if correct, will mean that it will gain a substantially larger majority. But part could be to take advantage of the current state of the business cycle.
Although the economy is currently growing quite strongly (1.9% in 2016) and although forecasts for economic growth this year are around 2%, buoyed partly by a strongly growing world economy, beyond that things look less good. Indeed, there are a number of headwinds facing the economy.
First there are the Brexit negotiations, which are likely to prove long and difficult and could damage confidence in the economy. There may be adverse effects on both inward and domestic investment and possible increased capital outflows. At the press conference to the Bank of England’s February 2017 Inflation Report, the governor stated that “investment is expected to be around a quarter lower in three years’ time than projected prior to the referendum, with material consequences for productivity, wages and incomes”.
Second, the fall in the sterling exchange rate is putting upward pressure on inflation. The Bank of England forecasts that CPI inflation will peak at around 2.8% in early 2018. With nominal real wages lagging behind prices, real wages are falling and will continue to do so. As well as from putting downward pressure on living standards, it will tend to reduce consumption and the rate of economic growth.
Consumer debt has been rising rapidly in recent months, with credit-card debt reaching an 11-year high in February. This has helped to support growth. However, with falling real incomes, a lack of confidence may encourage people to cut back on new borrowing and hence on spending. What is more, concerns about the unsustainability of some consumer debt has encouraged the FCA (the financial sector regulator) to review the whole consumer credit industry. In addition, many banks are tightening up on their criteria for granting credit.
Retail spending, although rising in February itself, fell in the three months to February – the largest fall for nearly seven years. Such falls are likely to continue.
So if the current boom in the economy will soon end, then, according to political business cycle theory, the government is right to have called a snap election.
Gloomy economic outlook is why Theresa May was forced to call a snap election The Conversation, Richard Murphy (18/4/17)
What does Theresa May’s general election U-turn mean for the economy? Independent, Ben Chu (18/4/17)
It’s not the economy, stupid – is it? BBC News Scotland, Douglas Fraser (18/4/17)
Biggest fall in UK retail sales in seven years BBC News (21/4/17)
Sharp drop in UK retail sales blamed on higher prices Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (21/4/17)
Shoppers cut back as inflation kicks in – and top Bank of England official says it will get worse The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (21/4/17)
Retail sales volumes fall at fastest quarterly rate in seven years Independent, Ben Chu (21/4/17)
Retail sales in Great Britain: Mar 2017 ONS (21/4/17)
- For what reasons might economic growth in the UK slow over the next two to three years?
- For what reasons might economic growth increase over the next two to three years?
- Why is forecasting UK economic growth particularly difficult at the present time?
- What does political business cycle theory predict about the behaviour of governments (a) with fixed terms between elections; (b) if they can choose when to call an election?
- How well timed is the government’s decision to call an election?
- If retail sales are falling, what other element(s) of aggregate demand may support economic growth in the coming months?
- How does UK productivity compare with that in other developed countries? Explain why.
- What possible trading arrangements with the EU could the UK have in a post-Brexit deal? Discuss their likelihood and their impact on economic growth?
Here’s an excellent article (the first link below) for giving an overview of macroeconomic thinking and policy since the start of the financial crisis in 2007. It looks at how a Keynesian consensus emerged in 2008–9, culminating in policies of fiscal and monetary stimulus being adopted in most major economies.
It also looks at how this consensus broke down from 2010 with the subsequent problem of rising public-sector deficits and debt, and was replaced by a new, although less widespread, consensus of fiscal restraint.
The article is not just about economic theory and policy, but also about the process and politics of how consensus and ‘dissensus’ emerge. It looks at the spread of ideas as a process of ‘contagion’ and how dissent may reflect the view of different defined groups, such as political parties or schools of economic thought.
Consensus, Dissensus and Economic Ideas: The Rise and Fall of Keynesianism During the Economic Crisis, Henry Farrell (George Washington University) and John Quiggin (University of Queensland) (9/3/12)
Keynesianism in the Great Recession Out of the Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell (9/3/12)
Economics in the Crisis (see also) The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman (5/3/12)
- What were the features of the Keynesian consensus in 2008–9?
- To what extent can the consensus of that period be described as the result of ‘contagion’?
- Why did consensus break down in 2010?
- How do economic experts play a political role in economic crises?
- To what extent does a lack of consensus benefit politicians?
- Why may the appearance of a consensus be more important in driving policy than actual consensus?
The link below is to a podcast by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. It considers a new book, Fault Lines by Raghu Rajan of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Rajan argues that the global economy is severely unbalanced:
There is a fair amount of consensus that the world economy is in need of rebalancing. Countries like Iceland, Greece, Spain, and the United States overspent prior to the crisis, financing the spending with government or private borrowing, while countries like Germany, Japan, and China supplied those countries goods even while financing their spending habits. Simply put, the consensus now requires U.S. households to save more and Chinese households to spend more in order to achieve the necessary rebalancing.
Martin Wolf identifies these imbalances and discusses various possible solutions. The problem is that what may seem sensible economically is not always feasible politically.
Three years and new fault lines threaten Financial Times podcasts, Martin Wolf (13/8/10)
Three years and new fault lines threaten (transcript of podcast) Financial Times podcasts, Martin Wolf (13/8/10)
- What are the fault lines that Martin Wolf identifies?
- Have they become more acute since the credit crunch and subsequent recession?
- What risks do these fault lines pose to the future health of the global economy?
- How do political relationships make integrating the world economy more difficult? What insights does game theory provide for understanding the tensions in these relationships?
- Is a policy of export-led growth a wise one for the UK to pursue?
- Explain why global demand may be structurally deficient.
Well no-one can say that Gordon Brown has had an easy ride: the war in Iraq, MPs’ expenses, flooding, strikes, unemployment, and of course a recession. Will the banking crisis and its knock-on effects prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Only time will tell.
The UK economy will be voting within the next few months and the elected party will play a crucial role in our economic recovery. Public debt reached £829.7 billion at the end of October (59.2% of GDP) and with falling tax revenue and rising government spending, it could get considerably higher. “State borrowing grew by £16.1 billion last month (August) – almost twice the entire budget for the 2012 Olympics.”
The outcome of the election will not only play a role in determining how the UK fares over the next few years in terms of our economic recovery, but it will also indicate the likely direction that policy will take towards areas such as education, healthcare, poverty, pensions, etc. The housing market is also likely to be significantly affected and not just by the election. With the end of the stamp duty holiday approaching, demand for housing may begin to fall in the new year, which could spell a fall in house prices.
No matter what happens, it will be interesting to see the direction of government policy over the next few years, given the spending cuts we are likely to experience.
Public debt hits £800 billion – the highest on record Times Online, Patrick Hosking (19/9/09)
Labour polls fuel talk of early election date Mirror News, James Lyons (14/12/09)
Pre-election politics dictate the Bank of England’s economic policy The Independent, Stephen King (14/12/09)
David Cameron and Labour ready for ‘snap election’ BBC News (13/12/09)
So who said what to whom? The truth about the cuts debate Independent, Steve Richards (15/12/09)
Is UK government debt really that high? BBC News, Richard Anderson (22/12/09)
For data on public-sector finances, see:
Public Sector National Statistics Office for National Statistics
For a lighthearted look at the relationship between elections and the economy (in the context of the Philippines), see:
Election and other economic boosters Manilla Bulletin Publishing Corporation, Fred Lobo (14/12/09)
- How are economics and politics related? Think about how the up-coming election is likely to affect government policy and why.
- What are the main economic policies proposed by the Labour government? How do these aim to help the UK economy recover?
- What are the main economic policies proposed by the Conservative government? Will these policies be any more effective than Labour’s?
- The Conservative party is ahead in the polls at the moment: why do you think this is? To what extent has Labour’s popularity been affected by the way the government has dealt with the banking crisis?