Last week Danny Finkelstein said the following about this here blog.
— Daniel Finkelstein (@Dannythefink) August 10, 2014
This is a much appreciated compliment, and most kind of him. Inevitably, receiving such kind words coincided with a period in which I had almost nothing useful to say about British politics.
International politics, certainly. Gaza? Most definitely. Israel, naturally. ISIS, Syria, Iran and Iraq? I am only constrained by my awareness of ignorance. The domestic repercussions of tragic events elsewhere? These are issues of import.
Yet British politics? The very stuff I am supposed to know about, to care about, to be excited and thrilled by?
It palls. It bores. It seems irrelevant and childish and somewhat pathetic. Nine Months to go before a historic election and I was… lethargic.
Nor can I blame the politicians for this. They are doing their part.
They want me to know how significant a choice this election will be, how much difference it will make.
Both Labour and Tory summer campaigns are predicated on the significance of ‘the choice’ the electorate face next year. The Tories say a Labour government would destroy jobs by raising taxes, and wave a death tax at me over Labour paying for Social care, while wasting billions on welfare payments. In response, Labour promise tough action on Energy companies and limiting Rail fares, while as if in rebuttal to the Tory campaigns on health and jobs Liz Kendall makes considered speeches about the challenges facing the NHS and Social care and Chuka Umunna edits an entire well researched book about new Industrial policy and broadening growth.
Some of this is merely aggressive tackling, the political equivalent of a knowing, but not violent, foul on your opponents. The Tories are not going to ‘privatise the NHS’. Labour won’t introduce a death tax, or destroy job growth, while similarities are quietly downplayed1. Mostly though, these are real issues. The differences between the parties mean something important.
Unfortunately, they also feel incomplete. For all the significance of these issues, Their prominence in our political debate suggests that our politics finds it hard to offer a coherent, popular response to the three much larger problems the next government will be faced with, and so is attempting to turn significant, second order issues into far bigger divisions2.
The huge challenges are muted because they cause problems for both sides.
First, there’s the deficit. The Tories find it hard to talk about beyond the level of sloganeering. They proclaim “We’ve Cut the deficit” but neglect to add “Just nowhere near as far, or as fast as we thought we would” because that would involve admitting the persistence of the deficit means their projections for post-election budgets require laughably optimistic reductions in Welfare spending. They would like us to think this is a simple matter of cracking down on scroungers, but this money is in fact largely paid to precisely the sort of aspirational families they seek to represent. Labour on the other hand, is sharply aware that reducing such benefits would hurt hard-working families, but has little political will to promise to put up taxes or reduce departmental spending to make up the difference.
So both say little about the future. The forward projections are so ugly however, it is almost inevitable therefore that after the next election there will be some sort of fudge of these choices, with a tax increase, some welfare and departmental spending reductions, and a gentler glide path of deficit reduction.
The significant difference between the Parties will be about the precise make up of the fudge. This will be real, significant and make a difference to hundreds of thousands of families and jobs.
Unfortunately, we can only guess at how these decisions would be made, because the first party to admit it would have to make these particular tough choices would be absolutely slaughtered for so doing. So, we have to try and guess where the taxes would rise, and where the spending would fall and when we’d meet our deficit targets.3
Directly related to this vagueness is the believability of our positive promises. Since the constraints on the next government will be so tight, it is hard to imagine that in any particular area there will be a large surplus to be devoted to desirable ends. Whether that’s a tax cut for the low paid, or a huge increase in innovation and research spending, or funding to smooth the integration of Health and Social care, every promise elicits the sceptical reaction ‘So how will you pay for it’? In response, there is a tendency to identify waste to eliminate, or fat to be trimmed by localising, or future rewards to resolve current commitments.
Well, maybe. But it’s easier to say there’s wastage to save or promise returns to come than it is to find one or be certain of the other.
This means that even when politicians do make big, bold, promises, they seem rather presumptuous. A long-term economic plan? Higher wages? Lower Taxes? An NHS with neither rationing nor markets? A booming export led economy with top quality science and innovation? Houses being built as if it was the Thirties (or the fifties and sixties, if you prefer council flats to private houses). There’ll all desirable, but not easy to do with no new money.
Finally, then, there’s our foreign incoherence. Whether Europe or the Middle East, our basic position seems always to be that we know how we would like the world to be, and to be clear that we are very much against it not being that way now, but to have no particular plan for moving from position A to position B.
The government may want a reformed Europe, and the opposition may be very keen on a diplomatic solution to Syria, but neither seems to willing to embrace a plan that might deliver either.
On Europe, to get reforms, we’d probably have to give something back, and that is off the table for much of the Conservative party. In the Middle East, making a deal with Iran and Syria on the one hand, or the Saudi’s and Egyptians on the other is unattractive in its brutal Realpolitik, because the consequences would be murderous, likely akin to Saddam’s post 1991 repression of Kurdish and Shi’a rebellions. Yet the obvious alternative, of taking action ourselves to support those who do request our alliance, whether the FSA or Kurdish, involves a risky commitment most in politics no longer wish to make for the sake of a problematic, imperfect shift in the Middle East.
So instead, we ineffectually call for peaceful resolutions, hoping that aid drops and handwringing will solve a problem they show no sign of stopping.
Three big issues then: The persistent deficit, the consequences of this for our services and spending, and the gap between our desires for the world and our ability to achieve the same.
Three issues on which opposition and government feel united in their desire to leave off the political battleground, to focus instead on rail caps and death taxes, personalities and slogans. Perhaps they’re right to do so. After all, there’s not much political benefit to being the person saying that the next government will be a grind, not a Cockaigne.
However, while we take this approach, our politics will feel small and tentative and reactive, as it has throughout this summer.
- all parties find it easy, for example, to praise Transport infrastructure in general, and damnably hard to justify it in particular [↩]
- There is one other huge issue, too, of course, Scottish independence, but other than occasional doe eyed entreaty to stay, and thinking up bizarre stunts like piles of stones and hand holding, there’s little the English political parties can do about this. Which I suppose underlines the smallness of our political debate, though I can’t imagine going on and on about it would have been much good to anyone [↩]
- For example, we might assume that Labour would invest in capital budgets, not current spending, because this is implied by the no larger current deficit pledge. However, if the suspicion lurks that we do this by calling as much as we can as capital spending, then we really just take ourselves back to the same place. It’s a workaround, not an answer [↩]