Thursday, 25 March 2010

Let's talk about cash, baby; or, things I do not understand, No 24

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I really wasn't going to do the budget. It's not only that every single person with fingers to type and a brain to think has rushed into print on the subject, it's also that budget day has never been my idea of a good time. This is quite odd, because I am an unrepentant politics geek. I think the thing I have always hated about it is its horrid mixture of gimmicks, political fakery, macro-economic jargon and promises that a child of six know shall never be kept. All of this is wrapped up in a big old ball of ceremony and tradition: the holding up of the battered red case, the solemn incantations on the floor of the Commons, the final 'I recommend this budget to the House'. As I cling onto faith in politics by my fingernails, budget day is always a test of belief.

Besides, this year was a dull and steady budget, so there was not much to write about. It was fitting for a dull and steady chancellor, although the naughty little joke about Belize did manage to surprise. I must confess a sneaking love for Alistair Darling. His dullness is of the most admirable, a very British variety. It is not the ghastly life-sapping boredom of Geoff Hoon or Chris Huhne or Patricia Hewitt. It comes, I think, from a steadfast belief in public service. That is a most unmodish thing to say, but I stand by it. There is no showboating for him, no jazz hands, no dog and pony shows, no Look at me, look at me. He keeps his head down and gets on with the job, and, in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, I think he has not done badly, and deserves respect.

So, I was thinking of writing about something quite else, when the shadow Chancellor came onto the Today programme to give the opposition view. It was the bog standard interview: yes, there will be cuts; no, we can't tell you what they are because we don't yet have the figures; clearly, we can't go on like this and the country must have a change. The burden of his song was that the country now has a clear choice, but the absolute oddity was that when he was pressed and pressed again to articulate that choice, he did not. Finally, in the very last sentence of the interview, he said: it is a question of whether you want a government of energy, leadership and ideas, or what you saw yesterday.

No one could accuse Alistair Darling of having energy or ideas; he is a most pragmatic politician, dealing with economics by increments rather than grand ideology. The curious thing about George Osborne is that he promised ideas, having given none. Admittedly, it was only a ten minute interview, but it was rather like the people who insist they have a great sense of humour when you have never heard them say one single amusing thing, ever, in their whole wide lives. As a voter, I felt cross and short-changed. I would actually quite like a big idea, if it's not so very much to ask. If I cannot have a big idea, could I at least get a couple of concrete proposals? I pay my taxes, I am politically engaged, is it so outlandish to request some straight answers? I decided, grumpily, that the media narrative about there being little economic difference between the two main parties was right.

Quite tiringly, I am devoted to fairness (must, must, must see both sides of an argument) so before dashing into a rant, I dutifully went to the Conservative website and looked at their economics page. And here is the bizarre thing: they actually do have ideas. They are not sweepingly ideological, but some of them are not bad. They have some interesting proposals to support small businesses. By far the best is that they would give 25% of government contracts to small companies. This politically and practically brilliant: it is positive, easy to understand, and ethically sound. Yet I have never heard a single opposition politician say it out loud. I would have it put on T-shirts. I would talk of little else. I would set it to music.

Here's another good one: they would match the one year public sector pay freeze with a five year ministerial pay freeze, preceded by a 5% cut in ministers' salaries. No one wants pay freezes, but spending must come down somehow, or we shall end up like Greece. The cleverness of the ministerial idea is that those at the top of government will share the pain; it might even restore a little of the fragile faith in parliament. Most of all, it shows an active commitment to fairness, even a collective sense that we are all in this together. It is old school, one nation Toryism. Yet, again, I have never heard a single opposition politician say it out loud.

There are a few other devotions to fairness: tax credits and child trust funds will be confined to those on lower incomes; pensions will be capped for those earning over £50,000. This does not sound like the gleeful, savage right-wingery that moderate voters fear. There is some good stuff on credit card companies: excessive interest rates will be stopped, transparent terms and conditions will be insisted upon. Those are not huge notions, but good woman and man in the street stuff, an acknowledgement that huge, profit-hungry companies cannot ride roughshod over the little person. It rather rocked me back on my heels that my left of centre government, for which I voted precisely because I believed that it supported the powerless over the powerful, has done absolutely nothing about predatory lending. It is quite surprising that it takes an organisation once known as the nasty party to propose something so obvious and morally correct.

There are, of course, some things with which I do not agree, like reducing corporation tax. I am not an old lefty for nothing; my bleeding heart does not bleed in vain. But as a package of proposals, it is hopeful, practical, even activist. It says, implicitly, that government can do good, helpful things. My great fear about the Right is that their instinctive distrust of government would resurface, everything would be handed over to the private sector, there would be a reliance on the market, red in tooth and claw, and suddenly we would be back in the bad old days of trickle-down economics. In their economic proposals, I see nothing of this. Take this sentence: 'we could not even think of abolishing the 50p tax rate on the rich while asking our public sector workers to accept a pay freeze'. That sounds like a principle to me. That sounds as if the new Tories might really be new after all.

Here is my question. Why are the Conservatives not talking about any of this? Why are they not in every single television studio, radio booth and op-ed column, singing it to the rooftops? Why are they allowing the narrative to persist that they have no economic ideas? They clearly do have ideas. You might agree or disagree with them, but they are interesting and thoughtful, and some of them seem to me to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Why are they hidden away on a website only the most geekishly political will ever visit, in very, very small print? Why?

This is possibly the most important election since the dark days of the three day week. Poor old Blighty is teetering on the brink. The triple A rating is in jeopardy, the pound is collapsing, we are in acute danger of falling into a double dip recession. The populace is hungry for honesty and good ideas and a sense that something can be done. One of the charming things about the great British public is that they tend not to be obsessively tribal. Even if they have Labour or Conservative written through them like Brighton on a stick of rock, they are prepared to give the other side a go. It is why traditional Labour voters went over to Mrs Thatcher, and stern Tories ticked the box for Tony Blair. If politicians refuse to articulate what they will do, and fall back on waffle and obfuscation, the electorate will shrug their shoulders, buy the prevailing idea that they are all the same, and stay at home.

Come on politicos, be brave. Have the courage of your convictions. Speak loud and proud. We are waiting for you. You have nothing to lose but your chains.


Picture of the day is of Alistair Darling, because I am oddly fond of him, and, whichever way the election goes, this is certainly his last chance to dance with the red briefcase:

Alistair Darling by Getty Images

(Photograph by Getty Images.)


  1. You are absolutely and completely right and it is utterly frustrating. The only politician I have heard actually voice an idea is Vince Cable (although I may not have agreed with it, it struck me as bold indeed to give voice to it). This election, whenever they choose to have it, will be fought and won on the back of this hideous recession and I cannot understand how any party can consider themselves in the running when they don't give the electorate something to bloody vote for.

  2. How I agree with you.

    Could it be that the Conservatives are afraid of giving too much away to what they think are the little understanding masses? Everything can be twisted and misinterpreted in the media.

    I also suspect they're hoping that the voters want a change and that's enough of a vote winner for them, so why rock the boat unnecessarily.

    This is no doubt one reason why current political discussion is so weak and uninteresting too.

    It's as if the Conservatives sit and wait for Labour to make mistakes like a cat waiting for its injured prey to tire.

    I don't have British citizenship (reasons too many to state here) and so can't vote, but really, really wish I could. If only to rock the boat, however insignificantly.


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