What a depressing conference season this has been. We’ve had the triumphant gurning idiocy of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, a somnolently downbeat Labour gathering and a Conservative party that has decided that their route to victory is to disengage the clutch of reality and to coast thereby to a land of milk and tax cuts.
Perhaps the Lib Dems will redeem it all, but we are talking about Nick Clegg.
Allowing the Lib Dems to curdle, alone and unlamented, for the moment, what we’ve seen so far is a triumph for a politics of fantasy.
UKIP, naturally enough, led this charge. For them, all Britain’s problems can be solved if you leave the EU, stop foreigners arriving, cut taxes, increase revenues, and generally treat governing Britain as performance art.
Perhaps it lies within the realm of possibility that a Britain that left the EU would suffer no economic dislocation, that a programme of massive tax cuts and deficit reduction is compatible, that all that prevents a return to economic greatness is those notoriously lazy and inefficient Poles, but if it is in the realm of possibility, it is loitering around near the bins, muttering to itself about having found a door to a magical nether-world if only the dark sprites hadn’t intervened, damn them.
Naturally the Conservatives, presented with this outlandish challenge, have decided not to confront it, but to co-opt it.
David Cameron all but said today ‘That Mr Farage, he wants what you want. I want that too, but my magical tax cut jelly beans are far more believable than his unreliable foreign legumes. Swallow those, and you won’t end up rolling in fivers as you will with me, but instead find yourself in a Boschian nightmare presided over by those bizarrely malformed creatures, the Miliband and the Balls.”
Mind you, perhaps, the Prime Minister’s magical jelly beans do have some mind altering powers.
Listen to his own account of himself, and David Cameron is a straightforward, long termist politician making a sustained argument for low taxes, personal responsibility and deficit reduction in a free market bounded by rules.
It is only when you rub your eyes and stare closely at his magic eye painting of a speech that it resolves into its true image: a series of unfunded tax cuts, promised several years down the line, after a period of literally incredible spending restraint, which would have, apparently, no negative impact at all on the prosperous, socially just, all in it together society the Prime Minister claims as his personal vision.
What’s more, in the Cameron picture of reality, the deficit is well under control, rather than stubbornly persistent, his future tax cuts have no implication for future public services and instead of almost no new homes being built, we are in fact of the cusp of a glorious expansion of home building in entirely uncontroversial locations.
You might choose to believe all this, but only in the same way you might choose to believe that a golden unicorn’s horn is about to snap off and repay your mortgage.
As for Labour, the leadership, and most notably Ed Balls, have embraced reality. However, it is a reality that is so unpleasant we prefer not to talk about it too much, for fear of upsetting our own sensitive dreamers. Labour would reduce the deficit, in the same vague way the government hope to do, but a little slower and with a little more taxation of the unpopular (I await the Cowell Windfall Tax with eagerness and joy).
However, this is deemed insufficiently dreamlike by the cheerleaders of the left, and so unpleasant medicine is rhetorically replaced by more pleasing flights of… optimistic social progress. The fabric of the economy will be restructured. New Homes will be built in vast quantities. Health and Social Care will be integrated, with little structural difficulty or tension. Neoliberalist hegemony will be overturned.
Except not quite. Because the actual promises are far more limited in scope: A tax rise on Tobacco and houses to pay for a limited number of extra NHS staff. An increase in private home building to a more or less non-recession level. We’ll get repeal of one, actually pretty small, cutback on social housing. In the background of all this will be the grinding pressures of deficit reduction, putting pressure on every single spending department for almost the entirety of the next parliament.
Against that, Labour’s insistence on selling a pretty modest set of positive reforms in an unfriendly climate as a vast social revolution seems almost sweet in its naivete.
So UKIP have sold us baffling incoherence and called it plain-spoken honesty. The Conservatives have decided to offer the electorate just as implausible a pitch for the future but claim a greater credibility in the delivery of bottled moonshine, and while Labour has a plan, and a pretty tough, robust one, it barely dares to mention it to the electors, for fear of rending themselves by speaking so.
So pick which fantasy you find most pleasant, I guess. Britain free, reborn and proud, tax cuts for all, and social justice triumphant. They all have their pleasant points, as dreams go.
You may as well pick one, because the only thing you’ve not been sold this conference season is the reality of the next parliament.