Honesty in politics

Can Britain's new Conservative government live up to the promise of its own manifesto?
Peter Smith | May 27 2015 | comment  



The Conservative Party has won the British General Election, and the result was something of a surprise.

Up until the close of voting at 10pm on 7 May, the received wisdom - after week upon week of polling throughout the long election campaign - was that no one party would have a commanding majority. The incumbent coalition was predicted to do badly, with the Conservatives losing a few seats to Labour and the Liberal Democrats collapsing in Scotland to the Scottish National Party, reinvigorated after the failure of last September’s independence vote.

The UK Independence Party, whose mixture of strong Euroscepticism and mild social conservatism attracted many disaffected Labour and Conservative voters alike, was predicted to split majorities across the country, adding a great deal of uncertainty and possibility picking up a few seats as a result.

A Labour-SNP coalition was the most likely future administration.

The pollsters got the big picture wrong, but many of the small details right.

Overall, many voters were ‘shy’ Conservatives, or those who were simply undecided until the last moment, and their combined effects swung the vote. A large part of the Conservative campaign was to play up the fears of a financially promiscuous Labour/SNP future. As the British satirical website, The Daily Mash, put it, “Following a close-fought election campaign, the electorate decided the prospect of having money was better than the prospect of not having it.”

The initial exit polls indicated that the Conservatives had improved their position markedly. In the rest of the country, they had picked up hundreds of thousands of votes over Labour in bellweather marginals, and ultimately, they won with 331 seats out of a possible 650. Given that Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats, David Cameron was left with a working majority of eight. Labour lost 24 to leave a core 232, and the Liberal Democrats collapsed from 56 to only eight. Ukip lost one of their two Tory defectors, and the Greens maintained their sole representative. By daybreak it was clear that all bar three of the 59 Scottish seats were going to go SNP, led by the doughty Nicola Sturgeon, with the three big parties retaining one apiece.

Plenty of well-known scalps were had: Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor and one of Labour’s most formidable MPs, lost his seat by a few hundred votes to his Conservative challenger, and amongst the rout of well-known Lib Dem and Labour MPs north of Hadrian’s Wall, Jim Murphy – Labour’s leader in Scotland - and Danny Alexander, Transport Minister under Tony Blair and International Development Secretary under Gordon Brown, both lost, the latter to a 20-year-old called Mhari Black, the youngest MP to be elected since 1880.

The election result threw up the usual head-scratching and breast-beating over Britain’s electoral structure. Ukip, the populist rag-tag group lead by a charismatic ex-public school boy and former stockbroker whose trade mark covet coat, pint of beer and cigarette made him a somewhat unlikely champion of the people, got over four million votes, which translated into only one MP (and his victory was largely a function of his own high standing, previously built up as a successful Conservative). But like the US system, where the American citizenry often juxtaposes a president from one party with a congress dominated by another, Ukip’s failures in the national election were compensated by their success in last year’s European Parliamentary elections. And the British people comprehensively rejected – by a ratio of 2:1 - proportional representation in 2011. We much prefer the decisive election result first-past-the-post usually entails.

So what now? What are the Conservatives going to do with this unexpected (at least in public) win?

When reading the runes, the first place to look is the Conservative Manifesto. Many think that the document was drafted with another coalition government in mind, and one that potentially spanned the rump of the Lib Dems and some of the unionist parties in Northern Ireland. As a result, the document contained many second-order policies, and few headline-grabbers.

Before the Election, I considered what the Manifesto had in terms of human dignity, for the marginalized, the family, the imprisoned, the elderly, and the migrant. There is a lot of good material in the Manifesto, and the document ends with a distillation of the outcomes the Conservatives sought:

Those who work hard and do the right thing must be rewarded. Everyone should be able to rise as high as their talents and effort will take them. We measure our success not just in how we show our strength abroad, but in how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable at home.

Of course, manifestos are merely documents without political leaders to implement them, and there are lots of reasons to be hopeful about the quality of Conservative MPs elected and re-elected.

But there’s a context to this which is very important, and that’s about the honesty of public discourse in British (and perhaps Western) politics.

In the run-up to the Election, in a tone of voice that some thought a little begging, David Cameron announced that people renting from housing associations would be given the right to buy their properties, and that working parents of three- and four-year-old children would be given 30 hours of free childcare a week.

Not quite the stuff of dreams, but the absence of headline-grabbing policies from all parties marked a truth, alluded to in the Manifesto but not named as such, whose implications remain stark: there simply isn’t the money for a big state.

The Conservatives promised to eliminate the deficit, the difference each year between what a government spends and what it brings in via taxation and therefore must cover through borrowing. Throughout the lifetime of the 2010 Parliament, the coalition repeatedly relaxed their financial targets, estimates and goals. The slashing of central and local government budgets was deep in places: the Armed Forces were hit from the end of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, for instance, and the Ministry of Justice had to lose a quarter of its budget, entailing a massive cut in legal aid that may, through an explosion in litigants-in-person who go before a judge without any legal representative, backfire badly.

During the Election campaign, the showmanship of modern politics reliably tempted all parties to play fast and loose with the truth over the national credit card. The Conservatives, for instance, published an election poster that showed a green field and a road with the slogan, “Let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy”. The killer was the claim that the deficit had halved: an ordinary reader might think this meant in terms of the money – cash – borrowed each year. In fact, the sleight of hand referred to the deficit as a percentage of GDP. Small fry, you might think, but not entirely truthful (and the background turned out not to be England’s green and pleasant land, but Germany). Ed Miliband tried a similar trick shortly before Election Day too.

The Conservatives could make that claim because the economy (as measured by GDP) has grown, and is growing. Hopefully the UK is out of the recession-cum-financial-crisis and into those sunny uplands. But in order to make good the Manifesto promise to eliminate the deficit and move into surplus each year by the end of the Parliament in 2020 (the fixed-term parliament having been brought in in 2010 to assuage the fears of the financial markets), there will need to be further and deeper cuts, and the economy must continue to grow.

As a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine notes, the lacklustre and simplistic debate on public finances ignored the fact that much of the recession was due to the public bail-out of private banks, whose systemic failures were linked not to recklessness in state spending but private meddling in horrendously complicated financial products. It ends:

We need to remember the lessons of the global financial crisis: a balanced budget will not save a government from the failures of a banking sector that is too big to bail out, and mere economic facts seldom defeat ideologies.

It’s this tricksiness that drove so many voters into protest parties like Ukip, the Greens and the SNP. The deception over the national deficit is symbolic of a false consciousness, an alienation of our true self, to adopt Marxist terminology. We keep thinking that retail politics involves selling more state support, assistance or help to the electorate. The belief is that we aren’t adult enough to recognise the dangers in overwhelming debt. This is to be expected of statist left-wing governments, but what happens when even the Right engage in the same politics? What happens when the truth is considered so unpalatable that the whole political class wants to distort it?

What’s more, the Conservatives need not hide behind it as they frame the legislative agenda in the Queen’s Speech later this month. The clue to any optimism lies in the Manifesto, which noted that:

Volunteering is now at a ten-year high, with over three million more adults giving their time last year than in the year to March 2010. Charitable donations are on the up, with one million more people giving to good causes than at the end of the last Parliament. There are now parents’ groups and charities running their own free schools. There are social enterprises helping people into jobs through the Work Programme.

When the hand of the state cannot provide, civil society responds. It fills in those gaps that the state leaves behind as it rolls back over the landscape. A growth in civic engagement should be at the heart of the next five years of Conservative government.

Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London.



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