Imagine if Labour had won the 2015 general election. What would the country look like now?
We’d probably have had less austerity and therefore higher incomes and perhaps higher interest rates. House prices might be a bit lower, but still unaffordable for many young people. The rich would probably be taxed a bit more and whilst there would have been no “hostile environment” policy there would be migration controls.
Much of this, though, is uncertain. What there would certainly be, though, is lots of moaning. The left would still be complaining about inequality, slow wage growth and under-funded public services, and the right about high taxes and the nanny state. And of course, there’d be complaints about the low-levels scandals and incompetences that are an inevitable part of even tolerably decent governments. Gordon Brown was massively criticized (often rightly) whilst he was Prime Minister even though in retrospect he looks like a political giant compared to who followed him.
And there’s one thing there wouldn’t be – relief. Nobody would be saying today: “For all his faults, at least Miliband hasn’t given us a chaotic Brexit; the lower incomes that result from a weaker pound; and harsh austerity.” Nor would anybody be saying: “I’m alive today because Labour didn’t extend Tory cuts.” And nor would those centrists who today are bemoaning Brexit be celebrating Miliband saving us from it: they'd be complaining about something else instead.
The point about counterfactuals is that nobody sees them. This trivially obvious fact has (at least) two implications.
One is that we don’t praise governments sufficiently for avoiding really bad outcomes. Leftists, for example, don’t give New Labour enough credit for simply not being a Tory government. We should judge governments not just by what they do, but also by what they don’t. One of the great achievements of a Miliband government would have been the non-policy of not having a Brexit referendum: that, remember, was an attempt to exorcise the Tories’ neuroses; it was not a priority for Labour. (Similarly, one of the great successes of the Wilson government of 1964-70 was that it kept us out of the Vietnam war).
The other is that governments are insufficiently criticized for policies that impoverish us relative to a plausible counterfactual. Simon estimates that fiscal austerity has cost £10,000 per household, compared to what we’d otherwise have. But nobody feels this as a deprivation in the way they would a £10,000 bill they could see. Equally, even if Remainers are right and Brexit does make us worse off than we’d otherwise be, few people will experience this as a direct loss. There’ll be no Jim Bowen in 2030 inviting us to look at a more prosperous economy and telling us “here’s what you could have won.”
Perhaps, though, there’s something else here. Our counterfactual mediocre-ish Miliband government would be copping lots of flak even though it would be vastly preferable to what we have. This tells us that we cannot judge the quality (or not) of a government by the amount of criticism it attracts, not least because so many hyper-ventilate about the smallest mis-step. Pundits are noise, not signal.