For those not aware of what a political party conference event is like try thinking of an incredibly large and unconventional wedding that goes on for three days or more with more food and drink involved than is medically sensible to consume. Dysfunctional guests and bewildered observers combine together in an orgy of debate and criticism – all within public gaze – to try and convince each other and the general public that they are the best party for Government.
Coming in the months after a general election, the 2017 political party conference season was even more important than usual as the victors and losers assess why each did, or did not, fare so well. But as we all know, there were more losers than winners in the June election. In fact the party that didn’t win thought it did, and the party that did win wore the hangdog picture of a loser. I’m not going to analyze the myriad debates that took place in Brighton and Manchester the last two weeks, but I am going to assess where the parties stand on what I believe are five key tests for anyone aspiring to govern. I know we have a Government in place (for now) so this assessment is really a scorecard on where they and Labour are now, just in case there might be another election shortly. Which I’m told by the Government there isn’t, but they said that earlier this year – so who can tell.
In the Britain of 2017 many things matter to us all, some of which we might agree on. If you are a politician you have to embrace these many things in a catchphrase that sets you out as the ones that really understands the mindset of the electorate. So for Labour it is ’for the many, not the few’ and for the Conservatives it is ‘building a country that works for everyone’. Different words, same sentiment. Here are the five things I think matter:
- People want to be safe, and secure, in their daily lives
- They want a Government that is economically competent
- The electorate wants, and possibly expects, fairness in society
- People expect Governments to deliver on their promises
- The electorate believe they want change, but really need stability
So who is doing well in each respect? Here’s my take.
The issue of security has never been higher. In the digital age everyone is quickly aware of the latest ‘threat to society’ and it troubles them. They expect Governments to resource properly the forces that bring a sense of security, or safety, and no Government can compromise on this. It is a no win situation, so all parties promise to spend and do more and at the margins argue about who does it best. They shouldn’t bother this is a no-brainer; the electorate don’t elect parties on this, they just expect it to be a high priority.
They also expect their Governments to be good at looking after their money. The ordinary consumer may be baffled by fiscal rectitude and the like but they know when a Chancellor is not telling it straight (see below on fairness). No one likes paying more tax, but presented effectively taxpayers know why they should pay more for essential services (health, etc) but selfishly we all think someone else should pay more. So parties have to balance being tough on finances with a deft touch to persuade voters that they are the ones to trust. Being an incumbent is not an advantage as this Government knows; equally pointing out that the Labour party’s plans don’t add up only appeals to a narrow populace in the Westminster village and some in the media. Neither party is a winner here, as economic competence (like security) should go with the territory of power.
We can all judge fairness in different ways. Take the tax system as indicated above; the general belief is that the rich should pay more than the less well off, which is broadly the case. But I think the public needs more from its politicians/Governments when it comes to being fair. Here the Government doesn’t do so well, as the perception is that they perpetuate unfair systems whether it is welfare, education or health. I think it is also about personalities where, for example, someone like Jeremy Corbyn is considered to be more considerate and compassionate than some in Government. While his opponents in Government scoffed at his initial approach to engaging at Westminster, the public saw a person who didn’t want to name call and was prepared to put the public ahead of his own interests. Labour are ahead on fairness not just for the reasons of personality but more for the fact that they have traditionally championed the underdog. More of the British public like this. The referendum on EU membership showed that you cannot take the public for granted when looking at such issues, which this Government should be aware of.
Which brings us to the topic of Brexit. Mrs May’s Government have vowed to deliver on the majority vote on this and will be held to account for it. They know this carries huge risks as they haven’t really clarified yet what it is they are actually going to deliver. I’m not sure the public buy the argument which is ’trust us, we know what we’re doing’ when they can see on a daily basis that the opposite is more the case. But being accountable is the thing. Labour, by contrast, don’t have this problem of accountability and can promise what they like without apparent recourse while in opposition. The only vote that matters is at the ballot box goes the argument but Labour should be wary of taking the electorate for granted when it comes to making promises that they have no intention to deliver on. Nick Clegg and the pledge on tuition fees is one most recent example of a significant own-goal, closely followed by Mrs May and social care. The public mood is one of accountability, and they are tired of being misled. Both the major parties know this, and would be foolish to be anything other than straight and transparent. It’s a bit difficult for them I think.
And finally the current mood in Europe is that change might be good, but in reality not too much change. The success of Labour during this years’ election campaign was driven in part by appeal for their style of politics but also in large measure by a need for change, or for something that is different. The EU referendum also illustrated the ‘don’t take us for granted’ argument where a majority of the country voted for significant change. Some have argued that some didn’t properly understand what the nature of this change might actually be, but that’s not the point. The point is that democracy allows for the potential for change, it just has been usually the case in the UK that this hasn’t been so profound in decades. The SDP has come and gone, UKIP is not the force it was, and the politics of the far right are not for the many. Yet the centre left is now in the ascendancy here, at least in terms of support for the Labour party, which could lead to significant change in the way politics is undertaken in the UK. The more the Government and Conservative politicians demonize Jeremy Corbyn the more this seems to be counter-productive. ‘Jeremy is authentic’ Labour activists and journalists alike told me at the Labour conference, as though this was the magic ingredient for success. If being authentic is the new reality for the electorate, then Labour could be the beneficiary of this. Talking straight is not always the preserve of politicians but the lure of power (or staying in power) is a key motivator for not wanting too much change on Election Day.
On the above count, the opposition may be marginally ahead on the voter preference for their Government. But no one should consider themselves sure of this. Whenever the next election is, both the major parties have a lot to do.
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