“Tories pull into four point lead over Labour” proclaims the headline in today’s Telegraph, citing an Ipsos MORI poll that put the Conservatives on 33 per cent to Labour’s 29. But not so fast: “Labour opens up five point poll lead over Tories” reads a contradictory headline in the Guardian, talking up an ICM poll that put Labour on 33 per cent with the Tories languishing at 28.
Both polls come packaged together with their predictable narratives – Labour have opened a lead because their Road To Wigan Pier attack on the Conservatives is beginning to resonate with voters, according to their supporters, while the Conservatives are gaining ground because of Ed Miliband’s disarray on immigration and the beginning of the inevitable UKIP implosion, according to theirs. But looking past the partisan spin, neither poll makes encouraging reading for Labour or the Tories. In fact, the inability of either of Britain’s two dominant political parties to command the support of more than one third of the electorate is very damning indeed.
The reasons for the Labour Party’s malaise are fairly self evident – residual mistrust and dislike following thirteen recent years in government, a growing alienation between the party elite and their traditional core voters, total incoherence on the topic of immigration and the UKIP threat, and the abysmal personal ratings of their ex-leader in waiting, Ed Miliband. This blog has covered all of these symptoms of Labour decline at one point or another. But far more interesting are the reasons why the Tories are failing to generate any real approval or excitement, even among their supposedly natural voting blocs. These reasons are simple but stark: the Conservative Party has made a hash of delivering against the promises on which it was (kind of) elected, and has spent far too much time apologising for and excusing its policies along the way.
Janet Daley forcefully made this point in the Telegraph less than a fortnight ago:
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that spending cuts on the scale that were implied by the Chancellor’s plans would lead to a “fundamental reimagining” of the role of the state. Yes indeed. And given the dead end to which an ever-larger state has brought us – and the rest of the West – that is surely what will be required whether we like it or not. It will take courage, rationality and a profound questioning of social priorities, but it will have to happen. In their hearts, the people know this and might well reward the political leader who admitted it openly. But Mr Osborne chose to deny it, presumably in the interests of short-term electoral safety. Even though by doing that, he undermined the idea that he had created a clear gulf between Labour and the Conservatives, thus setting up a real ideological choice for voters.
Absolutely – potential rewards do lie in wait of any political leader who dares to tell harsh and uncomfortable truths. Just ask Nigel Farage. But as a general rule, if there is any one single narrative that describes our current wretched politics, it is the depressing saga of elected politicians being too cowardly to present the British people with difficult truths and stark choices. And what are these hard truths? Namely:
1. We cannot go on aggressively expanding the public sector and ensnaring more and more working and middle class people in the web of benefit and public service dependency in the good years without either making the tax burden intolerably high or causing unimaginable levels of human misery when recession and tough economic times make government retrenchment necessary.
2. We can no longer blithely continue to support Britain’s membership of the European Union and the free movement of people between member states without first acknowledging that the status quo has severely undermined the living standards of people at the lower end of the labour market, and then actively pursuing policies to help these people compete more successfully in an increasingly globalised, automated world.
These two statements hint at a multitude of individual failings from all of Britain’s mainstream political parties, but if you boil down the reasons for the majority of political discontent in Britain today you will be left with these crystallised core issues at their root.
Daley is also correct in her pessimistic analysis of the wider political context behind George Osborne’s pro-big government triangulation:
I do sympathise with the Tory leadership. For personal biographical reasons, they are at a peculiar disadvantage here. But there is a great deal at stake. In the interests of our hold on sanity and realistic behaviour there must be a broadening of the discussion in which these decisions are made. Entirely too much has become unthinkable. The parameters within which economic and political solutions may be discussed have grown so narrow, and the vested interests that protect those limits have become so professionalised and militant, that it is almost impossible to hold a realistic debate without fear of becoming an untouchable. And there is so much to argue about.
This blog has far less sympathy, and would argue that politicians managed to articulate clear personal convictions and ideological dividing lines in recent decades past without too great a difficulty, and were in no way forced at gunpoint to move opportunistically and simultaneously to the fuzzy middle ground where they now languish. But in fairness, it is the Tories who have lost their nerve more than Labour, at least in the post-Thatcher years.
The Labour Party and those on the left make absolutely no apology for their big government views. They will look you in the eye and tell you that massive wealth redistribution facilitated by a powerful, coercive welfare state is not only the best means of ensuring human happiness, but that such a system is a moral necessity – and that those who dare to think otherwise are callous, cruel or otherwise morally defective. Stop any Labour activist or candidate in the street and ask them why the state should be heavily involved in the lives of its citizens as chief landlord, healthcare provider, educator and even employer, and rarely will they be stuck for a heartfelt answer.
By contrast, if you were to accost a Conservative activist – or, depressingly, even a member of David Cameron’s cabinet – and ask them why the state should backpeddle from these paternalistic roles as fast as is humanely possible, you are not even guaranteed to win their agreement with your premise, let alone hear them make compelling arguments in favour of the small government / big society approach. And even if your victim does hold true to their Conservative principles when put on the spot, their ideas are likely to be prefaced and annotated with all manner of apologies, exemptions and disclaimers – I’m technically for small government, but of course we should maintain the NHS in its current form. Maybe the Major government shouldn’t have privatised the railways. Perhaps Michael Gove’s education reforms were a step too far. Maybe Britain does derive its clout on the world stage through being a member of the EU.
This is depressing indeed. The Conservative Party is willingly going along with Labour’s manipulative, pernicious and false narrative – that everything good, everything that makes life possible and worth living comes from the government, and that if the state did not undertake these multitudinous activities for us there would be left behind an empty void, soon to be filled with human tribulation and the return of Beveridge’s five giant evils.
Thus any Tory attempt to roll back the public sector is presented apologetically, as a sad necessity brought about by Britain’s budget deficit, rather than a deliberate, welcome and potentially transformative act. Never is it clearly and convincingly explained that by increasing individual liberty and limiting the portion of the public square dominated by government, we free ourselves to pursue our own interests and implement community-derived solutions to community-based problems. In an age of puerile, soundbite-based policymaking, 2010’s Big Society was the closest either main party has come to a real ideological imperative in years, and yet the Tories have now more or less totally disowned it.
Labour point to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement and shriek that the Conservatives want to return Britain to some dystopian, Orwellian past, and rather than aggressively combat this lie with counterarguments of their own, the Tories sulk and complain about media bias. And yet it should be easy to explain that no amount of timid Conservative cutbacks will plunge Britain back to the 1930s. We live in a world of colour now, of the internet and smartphones and medical technology and health and safety legislation and an established welfare state that is not going anywhere. Those on the left who love to perpetuate Labour’s alarmist myths should take the time to read The Road To Wigan Pier, as well as Down And Out In Paris And London, and then reflect on just how immeasurably better the lives of the working poor have become since Orwell published these seminal works (though of course there is still progress to be made).
Shrinking Britain’s bloated public sector does not mean a return to uninhabitable slums, bread and dripping for tea and an early death from untreated tuberculosis – and to make such comparisons is wantonly misleading and in really rather bad taste. Neither would a return to a 1930s-size state result in a backward slide to 1930s-era living standards. An intellectually robust, ideologically cohesive Conservative Party would not shy away from pushing back against this base left-wing fearmongering, or from firmly and unapologetically making the case that a smaller state can be a positively good thing rather than a sad but necessary evil.
Where is that confident, principled Conservative Party when we really need it?