This is the season for the annual conferences of British political parties, and next year there will be a general election to look forward to. Perhaps now is a good time to think about some political issues. In terms of votes cast have we seen the end of the ‘landslide victory’? The last UK election and the recent Scottish referendum are examples of votes which in reality were very nearly ties. Why is this? One possibility is that opinion polls now permits political campaigns to continuously adjust their pronouncements to make them more acceptable to current voter opinion. A second explanation is that the choices offered to voters are really not all that different. The Scottish referendum was effectively a choice between independence and ‘maximum devolution’. A choice between independence and ‘being treated like Yorkshire’ might have had a very different outcome.
As a lifelong social democrat I should welcome the UK Labour and Conservative Parties offering voters distinctive political choices, but I’m not at all sure that today they do. One reason for this is the increasing prominence of financial responsibility. One can easily understand electors being willing to accept unwelcome political views in exchange for ‘a safe pair of hands’ with the national economy, if indeed such can be found. Are the economic policies of the two parties really distinct? Both seem to espouse reduced public spending with substantial borrowing until national income equals expenditure. The only difference being the time envisaged necessary to bring this state of affairs about; Conservatives quicker, Labour slower. This is not the stuff that had the voters’ blood pumping in 1945. The three major parties are falling over themselves to protect the NHS. The truth about this institution, of course, is that an increasing population, an ageing population, and the development of some highly expensive ant-cancer drugs, entails the NHS spending a great deal money more simply to stand still. The biggest single item of NHS expenditure is staff salaries. For the first four years of the current government annual increases have been below the rate of inflation; effectively the NHS staff, like other public sector workers, have been taking pay cuts. Will either party agree to meet future pay awards in full?
I have considerable sympathy for voters who claim of political parties that ‘they’re all the same’. The Private Finance Initiative as a means of funding hospital building was introduced by a Conservative PM, John Major, but heavily promoted by Labour’s Tony Blair. University tuition fees were introduced by a Labour government, with the subsequent Conservative administrations showing no sign whatever of reversing the arrangement but rather increasing the amounts that universities are allowed to charge. Grammar schools are either a good thing (in which case Conservative governments should create more of them) or a bad thing (in which case a Labour government wanting to create a more equal society should close the ones that remain). In fact neither of these situations occurs. Involving the armed services in foreign military entanglements, hugely expensive both in financial and human costs, seems something that both parties are prepared to contemplate. Finally there are single issues that cut completely across old party divisions; withdrawal from membership of the EU being the obvious example. This is not an undertaking that that finds an echo in my own heart but many people evidently find it a desirable enough to found an entirely new political party (UKIP) to bring it about. It is clear that many Conservative party members, and a significant number from the Labour party, would also be prepared to abandoned old political loyalties to achieve EU separation.
We all want our politicians to be honest but what does this involve? There is an old US definition to the effect that ‘an honest politician is one who when bought, stays bought’. I should say myself that an honest politician is one who after explaining the beneficial consequences that will flow from any particular piece of legislation then moves on to explain the possible harmful effects. In this realm of tears is any action purely good in its outcomes? Not a chance.