Britain’s Political Classes are living in a Fantasyland
Sunday Mail, April 19th 2015
What is this election about? To Westminster politicians it seems centred on the claims and counter-claims of monies: public spending, the deficit and debt.
Take Labour, Tories and Lib Dems. The Tories are openly committed to £30 billion of cuts in the next Parliament. The SNP and many left-wingers say the same of Labour who flatly deny this.
There is ambiguity on whether Labour are pro or anti-cuts. Jim Murphy has said that Labour would not need to make ‘further cuts to achieve our spending plans’, but Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna have contradicted this.
Then there are the spending commitments. The Tories in particular have offered ‘the good life’ with £8 billion extra for the NHS, up to £4.5 million on housing association right to buy, and a significant extension to childcare: all uncosted.
David Cameron has tried to minimise the perception of future pain by stating that future cuts will only amount to ‘one in every hundred pounds of what the government spends for the next two years.’ This translates into 15% cuts from non-protected departmental areas such as social care, local government and defence over the entire Parliament. And no one has any idea where the proposed £12 billion of future Tory welfare cuts will come from.
In Scotland a large part of the debate has centred on the SNP policy of full fiscal autonomy by which domestic taxation and spending would be devolved leaving defence and foreign affairs with Westminster.
This would according to Labour, Tory and Lib Dem politicians, drawing on Institute for Fiscal Studies figures cost Scotland up to £7.6 billion a year – which would have to be made up by public spending cuts, tax increases, or a mixture of the two.
This is a stealth debate – a proxy for things which none of the main parties want to address. For the SNP fiscal autonomy is an aspiration and goal, and a means post-indyref of acknowledging that they lost, understood this, and adapted to the new terrain.
For the three pro-union parties it is a mixture of providing desperate ammunition to hit the Nationalists, combined with a pretence that they are part of a serious project to reform the imbalances of the UK. This allows them in Scotland to use it against the SNP surge, while in England and Wales, there is a very different message, particularly from the Tories, which uses the threat of the SNP to undermine Labour.
All of the Scottish parties have further thinking to do but the onus for working on more detail and finances on fiscal autonomy has to fall on the SNP. The party have set out a broad intent post-referendum of the direction of travel, but seem to have been caught unawares that there is a need to flesh out the figures, transitional arrangements and difficult choices involved. The current position cannot be sustained in the long run.
Why have UK and Scottish politics become dominated by threadbare claims of spending and cutting? One influence is the overhang of the deficit (£90 billion) and debt (£1.5 trillion) and the constraints that puts on public spending.
Another is the shadow of the 1992 election – when an unpopular Tory Government won re-election against a Labour Party which many had misgivings about. Central to this was the Tories lambasting John Smith’s Shadow Budget as ‘Labour’s Double Whammy’.
It is even more profound than that. There is an endemic lack of trust between the public and political class – the promises they make, the status of their manifesto pledges, and who they listen to when they are in power.
This can be seen in the ritual dance whereby Labour and Tory politicians don’t talk about what leading a minority government would mean. Instead, they continue the deception of pretending that the certainties of majority government are within reach, while lambasting their opponents and the possible influence of either the SNP on Labour and UKIP on the Tories.
The traditional ‘big’ parties of Labour and Tory refuse to adapt from the age of two party politics to one of greater pluralism. Thus, the influence of First Past the Post and majority power means that none of the parties engage, as happens elsewhere, in any reflection on pre-election deals and what they would do and who they would do it with in the event of a hung Parliament. Neither Labour or Tory have given any indication about what their ‘red lines’ would be to open coalition or co-operation negotiations.
The language of political debate, its horizons and aspirations have become diminished. It has produced a politics of pretence and fantasy, reduced to pseudo-accountancy, spread sheets and promissory notes. This increases the already wide democratic deficit in Britain, whereby politicians attempt to offer certainty and stability, when voters know this future is illusionary, and one of uncertainty and instability. In this, the voters have much to teach the political classes.