Recess, recession and reform

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
18 Aug 2010

It may seem as if formal political life gets replaced by its own burning embers during the parliamentary recess in Westminster, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But surface appearances are deceptive.

David Cameron has already skipped one holiday to pursue his ‘cuts road show’, inviting the great British public to debate how and where the debt-and-recession scalpel should be inserted. Now he's conducting a PR campaign for 'the first 100 days' while on another.

At the same time, the technical war of words between MPs of all parties and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority over the new system of Commons’ allowances has continued unabated.

Then there’s the Labour Party leadership hustings. The post-Brown and Blair beauty contest rumbles on in partially filled halls and internet chat rooms across the land. It may be attracting comparatively little publicity outside the dedicated politicos – but that will change again in September.

Meanwhile, what passes for an official opposition is in much better shape than most of its movers and shakers would have predicted three months ago - indeed, level-pegging with the Conservatives, according to an 18 August 2010 Guardian/ICM poll.

In the immediate aftermath of the May general election it seemed as if most established political bets were off. The voters had hung precedent out to dry, and the inevitable ‘honeymoon period’ for the new government was not so much aimed at the cabinet and Prime Minister as at the very idea of a coalition administration nuzzled up on the banks of the Thames. Surely “this sort of thing” was meant for the “Celtic fringes”?

Some habits die hard, however. The briefly resurgent Liberal Democrats sunk to a record low of 12 per cent in opinion polls following an arrangement which many of their brightest-eyed supporters saw as a deal with the devil. By contrast, the Conservatives have maintained a dignified public posture while simultaneously engaging in a crafty softening-up exercise for a reduction in public expenditure on a scale that turns Thatcherites green with envy. It's the contortionists who are running the show now.

Equally intriguing has been the persistence of not-so-new Labour. With no clear leader, no defined policy alternative, and a debate on the future shape of centre-left politics that bypasses an electorate more attuned to the impact of emerging policies on the wallet, the party has already clawed its way back from 29 to 37 percentage points.

The general lack of bloodletting and the media focus on Posh and Clegg has helped, naturally. But imagine what new shifts might happen when the Autumn Spending Review reveals the full scale and (for many, not least the most vulnerable) the full horror of the Coalition’s cuts? The architectonic upheaval we have seen in the political landscape looks set to go on for a while longer, and no one is quite sure where it will all end.

In part that may depend upon the outcome of a referendum on voting reform which neither changers nor non-changers want in its present form. The Alternative Vote (AV) belies its name. But it may yet be the last saving hope of those whose motto remains: “We’re all in favour of change. So long as it doesn’t make any difference,” politically at least. Economically, the knives continue to be sharpened and poised.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his regular 'Westminster Watch' column in Third Way, the magazine of Christian social and cultural comment.

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