Where are the Politics of Hope and the Country of the Future?
Sunday Mail, April 5th 2015
British politics are in a state of flux. Many of the assumptions which defined it no longer hold.
This can be seen in the Westminster political class obsession talking about process: coalitions, deals and post-election arrangements. The age of majority government is gone for now.
The two ‘big’ parties Labour and Tory are struggling with this world. That’s the logic behind the Labour slogan ‘vote SNP, get Cameron’ and the Tory message ‘vote UKIP, get Ed Miliband’.
This is a mixture of playing safety first, talking to converts and negative politics. It is a fragmented, fractured world and one on show in the TV debate of the seven leaders: Lib Dems, UKIP, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru, joining Labour and Tory.
This is a time of uncertainty and transition. A very unBritish, non-Westminster kind of politics – more ‘Borgen’ than ‘House of Cards’, more Nordic than Anglo-American.
Large parts of the political class are struggling with this and more. Look at the way the economic debate is conducted. Things are either a complete success and the UK according to the Tories ‘the fastest growing economy in the G7’ or in Labour’s eyes a world of falling living standards and insecurity. The truth can be found somewhere in-between.
Claim and counter-claim about the ‘debt’ and ‘deficit’ have dominated much of the last five years. Yet, these are remote, confusing abstracts to most voters and not helped by how politicians use them. David Cameron in the first TV debate confused the two terms, claiming the debt had been reduced when it has increased by half in the last five years.
Cameron and Osborne talk of ‘Britain paying its way in the world again’, but this is meaningless when the country’s balance of payments has a record deficit. There has been no export surge or rebalancing of the economy as promised.
Long-term economic challenges remain. The rise and rise of the City of London has crowded out real industry and investment. A Bank of England survey in 2010 showed that banks and finance were 500% of UK GDP – in other words five times the size of the UK economy.
This is directly related to the world of business people struggling to invest and support wealth creation. The UK’s research and development investment levels are one of the lowest in the world. Not just the rich world but anywhere. Unbelievably as a percentage of GDP investment there are only fourteen countries in the world with lower rates than the UK.
British politics struggles with these big issues. These are deeper than the faults or not of the coalition, New Labour or even what happened under Thatcher. But the evolution of Westminster politics in the last few decades hasn’t helped and has been to pretend these fundamentals don’t exist and can be wished away with rhetoric and spin.
Last week it was revealed Tory MP Stephen Philips had earned over £2 million pounds in outside earnings in the last five years. He said his constituents should be glad someone who could earn such amounts represented them.
There is a prevailing mood in the country that politics is something done to people by a political class and not created by people. It is top-down, controlled and manipulated by an elite with the voters seen as passive and disconnected. This is a cynical view of the world which perpetuates such a situation.
Westminster is increasingly a distant world to most voters which would as well be broadcasting from another planet. It talks its own language. It has its own codes. It is in effect a closed shop of insider practices – one increasingly talking to and obsessing about itself.
It isn’t surprising that the SNP, UKIP and Greens are enjoying surges in interest, members and support. They present views of the world, whether you agree with them or not, which connect with some voters and have a belief that things can change.
Yet it will come down on May 8th to either a Labour or Tory dominated government. This is despite the problems both parties face – retreating in ideas, ambition and who they appeal to in this election and beyond.
What is missing is a politics of hope, a bit of honesty and admitting to a few doubts and even mistakes. There is an absence after all the economic difficulties of the past few years of any sense from any senior politician of what all this has been for, and what Britain could look like in 15-20 years time. Sadly don’t expect an outbreak of such sentiments in the next few weeks.