2015 is already proving to be a difficult year for those of us who would defend politicians from the accusation that they are “all the same”.
Nobody, save the most ardently partisan Kool-Aid drinkers, is seriously excited by any of the main political parties as they jostle for position in the overcrowded political centre. And as blue merges with red, and red pretends to be blue, who can blame voters for wanting to be rid of any candidate sporting a Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat rosette?
Case in point: Robert Halfon, the incumbent Conservative MP for Harlow (this blogger’s hometown constituency) is now openly attacking his Labour challenger for – of all things – being too supportive of private sector involvement in the NHS.
Round About Harlow reports:
Robert Halfon said: “For the past few months Labour in Harlow have been claiming that Conservatives want to privatise the NHS. In leaflets, letters, and statements, labour in Harlow have tried as Ed Miliband said to ‘weaponise’ the NHS and frighten local residents. Yet the reality is that under the Conservatives just 6% of NHS is not run by the State, compared to 5% under Labour.”
Moreover there has been 3,000 extra nurses, 9,000 more doctors, and 19,000 less managers under the Conservative led Coalition. In addition, the health reforms have saved the NHS £5 billion a year. The Government have increased NHS spending in real terms and given an extra £5 million last year and £4 million in 2015 to help PAH with A&E.
Robert Halfon added, “will silent Suzy disavow herself from Liz Kendall’s support for privatisation in the NHS, or will she apologise for misleading residents about Conservative plans? She should let residents know.”
It should be noted that Rob Halfon is a diligent, hardworking MP, popular with his parliamentary peers as well as many of his constituents. On many issues, he fights hard and fights effectively for the issues that local people seem to care about – fuel costs, hospital car parking charges and so forth.
(Full disclosure: I helped campaign for Rob Halfon during the 2010 election campaign, when I was still a fully paid-up member of the Conservative Party).
But this is irrelevant. We are now witnessing the bizarre spectacle of a Conservative MP trying to outflank his Labour Party challenger from the left, on the centrally important issue of the NHS and future healthcare policy. The Labour Party wants to privatise “Our NHS“, we are now being told, and only the plucky Conservative Party can thwart their evil plans. We have less than one hundred days to save the National Health Service from the unthinkable prospect of an Ed Miliband government.
Has the political world gone mad?
The reason for the rise of the small parties – UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP, anyone but the big three – is not rocket science. When all of the traditional options begin to look the same and talk the same, people will naturally start to look for alternatives. And the British people are increasingly desperate for an alternative to the Labour-Conservative duopoly, two parties that talk about one another as though they are ideological opposites and the very bitterest of rivals, but which in reality are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Remember the last time we went to the polls to choose a government, in 2010? Gordon Brown was furrowing his brow and lecturing us on the need to keep the British economy in his safe, steady hands as we weathered the financial crisis. David Cameron was telling us that we had to finally start living within our means, and take serious action to eliminate the budget deficit and begin “paying down our debts”. But in reality, the two main parties were squabbling over a paltry £6 billion difference in government spending totals, an almost comically insignificant sum in relation to overall spending levels.
In 2010, the voters made their lack of passion for either Labour or the Conservatives quite clear, doing enough to eject Gordon Brown from Number 10 Downing Street while refraining from granting David Cameron the mandate he needed to form a Conservative-only government. How much harsher then will the British electorate’s judgement be this year, in 2015, when there is even less to choose between the two men who would be Prime Minister, and the parties they lead?
And the British people are right to be disgusted with both offerings. Why bother to vote for a mainstream party when Labour and the Conservative Party are engaged in an unseemly fight with each other for the coveted title of Biggest NHS Groupie? Why vote LibLabCon when all three parties want Britain to remain a member of the European Union? And when they all support unlimited, uncontrolled immigration? Why vote for Cameron, Miliband or Clegg when none of them will say a word about the ongoing – and hugely significant – TTIP negotiations, much less dare to take a public stance on the transatlantic trade talks currently underway, under the radar?
Why march into a polling booth at all this May, when both prospective future governments want virtually the same things?
Of course we don’t want identikit politicians, telegenic blank slates happy to repeat whatever the party mantra of the day happens to be – UKIP’s Douglas Carswell made that point very eloquently in The Times of London yesterday (+). But when the political environment is such that Tory MPs are unashamedly staking out positions that would make Clement Attlee proud, something has gone very wrong with our system and with our politics.
If being a Conservative means anything, it requires at its core a belief in liberty and personal responsibility, facilitated by a small government at the helm of a strong nation state. This naturally leads on to an instinctive support for free markets and light regulation, a strong dislike of centralisation or central planning, and a healthy fear of an over-powerful state.
Conservative MPs in Britain should be forced to explain their support for a government-owned and government-run healthcare system, in direct opposition to the core tenets of conservatism, not praised for being among the “good guys” who utter the right platitudes about the NHS.
And yet Robert Halfon is making an eminently sensible decision, at least as far as his own electoral calculus is concerned. Harlow is a bellwether constituency, a home to the coveted Essex Man demographic, and a Tory gain from Labour at the 2010 general election. Voters here have elected the idiosyncratic Conservative Jerry Hayes to be their representative, as well as loyal Blairite Bill Rammell, within the lifetime of this blogger.
People in Harlow are hardworking and pragmatic – they will vote for competence and stability, a steady hand on the wheel during difficult economic times. Who, then, could blame Harlow’s incumbent MP for wanting to court this electorate by portraying his Labour challenger as a potentially dangerous threat to the NHS?
The trouble is, when you replicate this same decision-making process across all 650 constituencies, you end up with a macro-level picture that looks very much like cynical political calculation, and a gaping hole where political conviction should be.
What is the Conservative Party, if it doesn’t believe in competition and free markets? And what is the point of a Labour Party that openly shows, through word and deed, that it cares more about its newfound metropolitan, liberal power base than its northern working class grassroots?
If, as expected, we wake up on 8th May this year to a hung parliament and a weak new government dependent on the whims of Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett or Nigel Farage, our centrist politicians will not need to go far in search of the culprit – they need only look at themselves.