Britain’s Choice

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And so the General Election, for such a long time a fixed point in the distant future, looms up. This Thursday the different messages, commentaries and clips are reviewed a final time, reconciled and compartmentalised, signed off and acted on.

It has been a smart campaign, and a very good one, it seems to me. Quite ignoring the continuous coverage of meet and greets and Q and A’s (which I haven’t been able to do, admittedly), there has been rather more focus on policy than British Democracy is usually given credit for. The debates, a focal point, here to stay and in danger of taking over future election campaigns, have enhanced the misleading impression that the choice is between three leaders but they have also brought character into the campaign, have ferreted out disagreements that most people didn’t think were there and given new opportunities for narrative-spinning – the much promoted science of centrality and comprehensiveness of message.

There are three worthwhile points of discussion in any overview of this campaign, and appropriately enough in the spirit of the debates, they all revolve around the leadership of the three parties. The results of the election will change our perceptions from where they stand at this moment but I think it is very difficult to see beyond these three truths – that David Cameron has become the totem for a new, rejuvenated conservative movement, that Nick Clegg’s earnestness entranced the media, and that Gordon Brown is temperamentally unsuited to campaigning.

Nick Clegg has clearly been the leader who has done best out of this year’s political clashes. To be fair, he has earned his spurs over the past three years. The number of victories he has racked up in and out of Parliament – Gurkhas, the Speaker’s resignation and getting Brown in front of the Chilcott inquiry –  as well as his bold performances at Prime Minister’s Questions have given him a solid base from which his critique of the ‘Old Parties,’ however nonsensical, looks justified. His performance in the debates was certainly assured and his tax policies, though not as favourable to the lowest earners as he may think, will probably strike a chord, as will his railing against bureaucracy – quite ill-considered when in the past week he has been talking about how inadequate ‘efficiency savings’ are.

That said, the fetishising of opinion polls and the nationalisation of politics has given the impression that a Lib-Dem surge can deliver a windfall of a greatly enhanced Parliamentary position, completely sidelining the politics of the swing-o-meter and the local constituency. He also therefore has the most to lose, especially when “the sky is the limit.” It all sounds rather ominously like David Steel’s exhortation to prepare for government. The great weakness of the Liberal Democrats is that they are ‘the only national party’ as Nick Clegg has pointed out – they lack a local base and are liable to be squeezed out by the Conservatives when the mood is for lower taxes, and Labour when it is for higher public spending.

Now, when there is little enthusiasm for either, it is natural for Clegg to seek to maximise the anti-politics vote. But the fall-out from this election will determine the position of the Lib-Dems for a generation. If they get traction, such as a coalition or just influence from outside, they will be able to show what they stand for. Their four priorities for government are not a bad indicator, but the Lib-Dems have always been a strange coalition. There is a sense that they are mostly made up of people who left the Labour Party because it was too left-wing and now won’t rejoin it because it seems too right-wing. There is also a section that sees itself as closer to the small-state conservative tradition, and any coalition deal could make the party difficult to manage.

Gordon Brown has been the big loser from this campaign, it seems (or perhaps just the big loser, given the tendency for things to go from bad to worse). It is a rare thing to see a politician who is apparently so reviled. Thatcher’s sin was to tolerate such high unemployment, but it is not entirely clear what Brown’s is.

The damage, I suspect, has been to his credibility and it has come from three areas. The first has been the economy, previously Brown’s great strength. I believe Brown has squandered some of the goodwill – the acceptance that British policy was not the root cause – by rejecting the advice of the hawks in his cabinet. When Labour fought a brief civil war over the importance of cuts in the wake of George Osborne’s conference speech last year, Brown reverted to the politics of left versus right, ignoring the tendency of the British public to vote with the right in times of economic crisis. Secondly, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan has come at an unfortunate time, and a series of mishaps has lost Brown credibility when it comes to treating the army fairly.

Thirdly, the Brown whose poll boost in 2007 was the result of apparent command of government and distance from Blairite spin has given way to a Brown who is not in command even of his Cabinet. It is striking how openly Alistair Darling, previously thought of as an ally of the Prime Minister, talks about Brown’s weaknesses as a leader and moreover, how much he is his own Chancellor. Brown, it seems, is being treated as he treated Blair. And Brown’s character has mattered because his clumsy efforts to deal with the expenses scandal and his tactics in the TV debates have been rebuffed by the other two leaders, who clearly loathe him.

The strength of Labour’s manifesto is undermined by the weakness of their leader, and what is more tragic is that Brown as a thinker is more than capable. In his reaction to the economic collapse, and in a recent pamphlet for the Fabian Society, Why the Right is Wrong, is the germ of a sensible policy narrative. Based on Roosevelt’s New Deal, Brownism consists of investment in skills-based training, a subsidised shift towards future areas of growth and advanced infrastructure. Outside of the economic sphere, he is right to say that public services ought to reach those most in need of them and that they ought to encourage participation and responsibility. This is feeding into well-balanced policies such as personal budgets in health and the option for parents to hold the senior management of their children’s schools to account, without dividing the education budget and without leaving children in failing schools.

David Cameron divides people. Some say that the Conservatives should be further ahead in the polls – when they are effectively forecasting a decline in the standard of living and when the Labour Party, unlike Brown, is down but not yet out – and some simply laugh and call him a toff, or ‘same old Tories’. It is the ‘same old Tory’ platform, but that should not lead people to underestimate Cameron, certainly. The leader of the Conservatives has played a blinder in this campaign, from the Nixonian ‘great ignored’ he spoke of on the day the election was called, to this morning’s performance on the Andrew Marr show, where he batted away the suggestion that 80% of the painful consequences of his manifesto was still unannounced.

The apotheosis of the campaign so far was Thursday’s debate. Cameron knows conservative ideology inside and out and gave a masterful exposition of the central tenets – that the state is wasteful, that welfare is inherently demotivating and that the role of government should be restrained to protecting the poorest and weakest. Who can forget him telling Gordon Brown that someone on £20,000 a year was not rich!

And yet, there was no apology for the inheritance tax cut that is being planned and will almost certainly be carried out in the next Parliament while other services are cut. There is ‘the Big Society,’ which to me sounds like an excuse for the State doing nothing, rather than a productive role, an education policy that suggest that it would divide the weak from the strong, and an apparently destructive attitude to Europe.

This election sees Britain in a peculiar balancing-act. There is a large public deficit, but growth is forecast next year and with the banks already profitable, a windfall can be expected on the sale of their shares. Education, health and welfare are relatively well-served by high levels of funding, but need reforms to make them accountable to the people they serve. What appears to be happening is a kick against the size of the State – a classic reaction of a Gladstonian, property-owning democracy against requisitions and appropriations. At this moment in time that would not be a good idea. The market cannot solve all of the problems with the British economy, public services and the enfranchisement of the poor, the ignored, the dispossessed (as The Evening Standard called them this year). That’s why I still want to see a Labour government next Friday.

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