Assessing the UK political climate

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
11 Oct 2009

Back in 1983, Labour’s election manifesto called for substantial public ownership in the banking sector and a tax on capital flows. It went down as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ among many commentators.

In 2009, a Labour government now owns a big stake in some of Britain’s banks (though it declines to use them to exact substantial leverage) and Lord Adair Turner, head of the Financial Services Authority, has suggested that a Tobin-style levy on capital transfers might be needed to restrain the unproductive avarice of some parts of the City of London.

It’s a topsy-turvy world. But if the upending of fiscal orthodoxies wasn’t enough, Gordon Brown seems to have been attempting for some time to scribe an even longer farewell note on his long, tortuous path to the next election, through a growing list of political miscalculations.

Even the damp non-news arena that was August '09 proved territory of terror, thanks to something most of the world (not least US commentators) had never really heard of before: the Scottish government.

When Scots justice secretary Kenny MacAskill decided to allow a terminally ill prisoner, Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, to die at home rather than in jail, all hell broke loose.

Compassion does not go down well when the political barometer is set to vengeance, and calling the bluff of ‘Christian America’ proved a vain hope.

At first, Downing Street aides thought it better to keep relatively quiet, because the noise coming out of Washington over Libya would quickly die down. Wrong. Then the PM decided to “respect the decision of the Scottish parliament” while denying any complicity, thus avoiding the odour of direct responsibility. Wrong again. This was seen as cowardice and indecision.

Whichever way he turns, the hapless Mr Brown seems to cause confusion, ire and mockery. This is due at least as much to the herd mentality of the Westminster-focused media as it is to the PM’s own attempts to nuance issues on which (like it or not) sweeping judgments are becoming the order of the day.

The press has decided that Brown is a loser, and anything he does – good, bad, or indifferent – is now being interpreted through that lens. It’s an unenviable position to be in and it leaves the government with two main hopes. The first is for a miracle of some kind, a major rupture in the political fabric. The second is that people might finally recognise the cracks, flaws and thorns in David Cameron’s telegenic niceness.

But even rogue Tories denouncing the NHS as a “sixty year mistake” and Conservative councils boasting about running services “like a budget airline” (as Barnet recently did) isn’t producing a swing back to Labour. The recent Tory conference projected a positive image and avoided letting too much of the old “nasty” image baggage out of the closet.

Nonetheless, as Euromonitor and the Daily Mirror reported, former senior Bank of England policy-maker David Blanchflower has savaged anti-stimulus Conservative economic policies - and the full weight of these issues has yet to be felt in head-on debate.

"The plans that (Tory leader) David Cameron and (Shadow Chancellor) George Osborne outlined this week are the most wildly dangerous economic proposals that Britain has seen in the past 100 years," Blanchflower wrote. "They show absolutely no understanding of basic economics."

Meanwhile, the third largest party (in Britain as a whole) have been jumping up and down about youth crime, armed forces pay, property tax, why they would have thrown away the key to al-Megrahi’s cell... anything to grab a little action. But instead the Liberal Democrats who grabbed most headlines were those who lost power in Japan for the first time since 1955.

Polls suggest that a very large number of voters sympathise with where the Liberal Democrats are coming from (except, perhaps, on Europe), but are still reluctant to vote for them - even if they are impressed by Vince Cable, who will be projected alongside the anonymous Nick Clegg for the forthcoming electoral campaign.

So for many psephologists and commentators, the die is cast. The polls are suggesting a 50-90 seat Conservative majority on or before next May.

But the script can still be re-written.

If Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the nationalists in Wales and Scotland and the Greens were to recognise what they have in common (not just their differences) and what separates them from the Tories, and if tactical voting was to become a factor once more, a hung parliament would not be impossible.

As Niall Cooper of Church Action on Poverty has said, it is also a question of the public and civil society not letting politicians off the hook on the really big issues: poverty, the planet and the system that maintains an equilibrium in favour of the rich and powerful. (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/10244)

Then there are the specific political reform issues. Press the right buttons and politicians of all parties are not found short of encouraging rhetoric about democracy and the need to reinvigorate it. Those who will face the electorate in a few months know that the expenses-fuelled unrest earlier this year will return to haunt them – as the Times warned in ominous terms this weekend. Issues of legitimacy, both for the system as a whole and for the individuals within it, linger on.

What’s more, there have been more than enough rumblings from the electoral fringes of late (including unpleasant ones from the likes of the BNP) to indicate that established political operators are still vulnerable. Expect a multi-pronged charm offensive to be landing on your doorstep, in the media and through your letterbox some time soon.

That said, “it’s one thing talking up democratic change, it’s quite another finding levers to pursue it which don’t instantly switch off the very people they’re supposed to empower.” That was the acerbic judgement of one parliamentary aide recently.

An abiding problem for reformers inside and outside the Westminster cabal is that things like PR get, well... bad PR. Constitutional issues, parliamentary re-engineering and electoral reform bore the pants off most voters, reckon pollsters and pundits. Such concerns are easily portrayed as technocratic, specialist, complicated and nerdy.

Curiously, the same response is often heard from those taking to the streets and airwaves to combat climate change, stick up for the health service, attack global poverty and advocate many other causes. This despite the fact that they all need the system to work better and more accountably in order to succeed in their main aims.

Recently I mentioned a joint initiative of civil society groups and political reformers called Real Change (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/10072), seeking to put democracy back at the heart of national and local debates about all the other issues that seem to touch people’s lives rather more immediately.

No sooner had the coalition been launched than it, too, found itself changing. A significant injection of resources from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trusts generated an enhanced campaign called Power 2010 (www.power2010.org.uk), which is seeking to combine traditional democratic renewal agendas with an injection of fresh ideas and impetus from the grassroots.

Getting to actual and aspirant MPs in the postbag, at meetings and through websites is bound to be one priority. Those gathering around Power 2010 need quite a head of steam if they are going to persuade parliamentary candidates and the media to take these issues serious. For it is clear that what does not form part of the agenda before a new government is formed, is going to be much harder to push forward after the ballot dust settles.

But in spite of these difficulties, many sense a larger stirring in Britain’s political class. Gordon Brown’s attempt to float an electoral reform kite that Labour dropped shortly after its 1997 landslide may strike cynics as the pose of someone staring down the barrel of defeat. But when hardened opponents of PR like Roy Hattersley switch sides on principle, you know something bigger is happening.

The question is: can it be realised in an effective way before the forthcoming election?

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. www.simonbarrow.net This article is adapted from two recent ‘Westminster Watch’ columns in Third Way, the monthly magazine of Christian comment on culture, society and current affairs. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/

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