The Mild-Mannered 'Nerd' Who Might Decide the UK Election

Paul Johnson
Paul Johnson has been director of the IFS since 2011. IFS

It's the economy, stupid, runs the famous slogan, but in the UK, where the feelgood factor from a slow recovery is yet to hit home, and trust in politicians is at an all time low, things aren't quite that straightforward, and the parties' spending plans are coming under greater scrutiny than ever.

A poll carried out by the Institute for Government in September last year found that nearly two thirds of people in the UK think that political parties do not keep their election promises and fewer than one in five believe that the parties are good at explaining how their policies will be implemented or paid for.

But if the public can't trust the political parties, who can they go to for reliable information on whether spending plans for the next five years add up and what they mean for the country? Step forward Paul Johnson, the director of the UK-based thinktank the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) comes in. A mild-mannered economist and self-described 'nerd', Johnson may be the man who decides the closest UK election in living memory.

From claims that Conservative spending cuts would change the state "beyond recognition", to predicting Labour spending leading to an extra £170 billion in debt by 2030, the IFS has certainly been making headlines over the last two months with media and politicians alike quick to seize on the Institute's pronouncements for their own gain as the election campaign heats up.

"I do have to say I feel very responsible," says Johnson. "It's hard to get used to being a director whereby people report the things I say not because of what I say, but simply because I am the director of the IFS. That's hard to get used to - you have to be very careful about what you're saying and how it will be used."

It may be a difficult position to be in, but it's also a very powerful one. Voters consistently rank the economy as one of the top issues that affect how they will use their vote (although the NHS has recently overtaken in light of the crises in A&E). What's more this time, the decision between the parties really means something. Johnson himself wrote that: "The stated fiscal positions of Labour and Conservatives are really very different. More different than at any election since at least 1992, and arguably since 1983." How those positions are portrayed to the public will have a big impact.

In a neat demonstration of the IFS's clout, a Conservative dossier on Labour spending plans - presented by no fewer than five senior Tory ministers - was largely rubbished after failing to gain the IFS seal of approval. Responding to the document, shadow chancellor Ed Balls also namechecked the Institute, saying: "As the IFS said, Labour has the most cautious approach of all the parties and has promised no net giveaways." The initials have become a byword for economic credibility.

The IFS was founded in 1969 "with the principal aim of better informing public debate on economics", according to their website. Since then they have published reports on a huge variety of fiscal issues including falling wages, tax rises, and the fiscal context of Scotland's fight for independence. Staffed by what Johnson calls "bright, enthusiastic graduates who are very serious about the very serious work that we do", their aim to "open up debate about public policy to a wider audience and influence policy decision making" seems like a vital public service at a time when the Westminster elite can seem far removed from the average voter's life.

It's not simply that people don't trust politicians, it's that often they cannot understand what they are even proposing. The analysis and close study that IFS provides, says Johnson, acts as an antidote to this problem: their aim is to provide clear explanations about the parties' economic plans and what they will mean for everyday people in Britain.

George Osborne
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne watches as Prime Minister David Cameron talks to business leaders at a conference. Peter Byrne/Pool/REUTERS

"We provide genuinely high quality, unbiased research and deliver important commentary on big public policy issues," the mild-mannered and affable Johnson says, before hesitating. "I'm sounding quite pompous now aren't I? We don't have an official role, we are just a small research charity, but we have developed a reputation over a long period of time and that means we are taken seriously."

Johnson, who worked at the IFS from 1988 to 1998 before taking civil service roles in the Department for Education and Treasury, does not shy away from the impact the IFS's analysis could have on the election results: "I do hope we have a big effect on the coming election in terms of informing people about what their choices really are, what the facts are about things that will affect them like taxes and living standard and public finances," he says.

It's not hard to imagine that he is now regarded with fear, and probably a good dose of begrudging respect, by finance ministers and election planners seeking to paint their own solutions as leading to a world of prosperity, success and constant sunshine. We speak in the same week that George Osborne has urged the UK to "celebrate" the low inflation rate and Johnson immediately dismisses the attempt to claim this as a political victory for the Conservatives: "The Tories are not responsible for [the low inflation rate], it's to do with oil prices falling - it's nothing to go with the government."

But it's not point-scoring that Johnson is interested in, but the lack of objectivity in modern political discourse. "Politicians, political parties and the media are all so powerful and there is an awful lot of academic research that isn't powerful," he says. "There just isn't a lot of respected, objective input into key public debates which holds politicians of all parties to account, and it's incredibly important we do this. It really adds to the way that democracy works."

So what would Johnson do if, by the result of some bizarre coalition agreement negotiation, he became chancellor after 5th May? "Probably resign," he laughs. "No, I think I'd want to be first chancellor to have serious public debate about what the tax system should look like. Governments don't want to talk about the tax system because it's politically difficult to admit you want to change."

"I understand why they don't want to have that conversation but we are now in a mad situation where council taxes are based on the value of properties 25 years ago, it's just not a rational system. But the longer you have things one way, the harder it is to change them."

Johnson also touts the tax system as one way the government could protect themselves from a financial future crisis, like the one we had in 2008: "Either of them could increase taxes but they absolutely won't do that." So if that is out of the question, what other lessons should the government learn from the most recent financial crisis? "I think the main lesson is to never believe your own rhetoric. Right up to March 2008 there were all these plans being made on the basis that there wouldn't be another recession for five years. I think the important thing is to be much, much more humble about our ability to predict these things and be cautious about them."

Considering the impact and influence the IFS has it's striking that one of Johnson's main aims is simply survival. The IFS is a charity and must rely on securing grants and funding in order to continue its work. Johnson says although they'd welcome them, they don't receive much in the way of donations: "As we are not pushing any party line we don't attract political type donors. And we are not out helping children, or poor people or whatever directly. And we are not curing cancer. So while I think we perform a valuable public service we've never attracted donors."

As well as simply keeping the doors of the IFS open, he is also dedicated to maintaining the Institute's reputation, emphasising that they are an "incredibly cautious and conservative operation" - indeed he refuses to be drawn on anything the Institute are not experts on. Future plans focus on broadening the areas they concentrate on to encompass analysis of school funding "and maybe a bit of health" (as well as, rather endearingly, making sure the IFS "remains a place where people love to work").

So perhaps in elections to come - and it's far from certain May's will be the last in 2015 - we can look forward to the IFS shining a light on a wider range of politicians claims, and just maybe forcing them into being more honest in the first place.

"I think that politicians should be aware of the things they say," Johnson concludes, "and that they should know that if they say things that are less than the full truth, there is someone out there that will pull them up on it."

Gentlemen, you have been warned.