The 2010 UK general election is underway and campaigning is in full swing. No-one can accurately forecast the result, but for the first time since the 1970s there is a real prospect that no one political party will secure a majority and, therefore a hung parliament will ensue with parties and senior politicians horse-trading and trying to engage in deals.
There are differences between the parties as the endless party political broadcasts, interviews, debates and publicity stunts between now and election-day on May 6th will seek to show. The size of the government’s spending deficit is £178 billion, give or take a few billions. Labour say they will reduce this but claim front-line services will be safe in their hands and they are the best to get us out of the current recession. The Conservatives will also cut public spending probably more robustly than Labour, but say they will concentrate on efficiency savings.
However, aside from the details of who’s going to cut what, where and when (which is all very vague and probably will remain so until who gets into government) the fact remains that the similarities between the parties massively outweigh any differences.
For example, none of the three main political parties or their nationalist equivalents in Scotland or Wales will countenance any options for nationalising and taking into public ownership the commanding heights of the economy. Nor will there be any talk of sustained and radical redistribution of incomes and wealth to achieve equality. Least of all will there be any notion of implementing a planned economy that would make inroads into or attempt to supplant a market led one.
You would, of course, expect none of this from the Conservative Party, but you will not find a trace of it either from Labour. Since the rise of Tony Blair and New Labour in the mid 1990s, any vestige of radical left-wing, redistributionist, progressive politics have been vigorously expunged from labour policy. Yet, before then elements of left-wing policies were robustly championed by Labour’s sizable contingent of left-wing MPs and occasionally made it into the election Manifestos (most notably in 1983 when import controls, planning, state ownership and unilateral nuclear disarmament became official Labour policy; Labour crashed to defeat and there was a landslide victory for the Conservatives).
More significantly, left-wing polices, whether espoused by Labour or anyone else were a standard part of the political landscape for much of the 20th century. Their effective disappearance from mainstream political debate and confinement to the margins of hard-left parties is symptomatic of the new consensus that has prevailed for the past twenty years.
That consensus, sometimes referred to sardonically as Blairatcherism (a combination of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher) is comprised of a hybrid whereby the free market and free enterprise exert the dominant influence in the economy. By contrast concerns around human rights, equalities, anti-discrimination, diversity and multi-culturalism dominate the socio-political and cultural fields. In other words, the values of traditional right-wing conservatism hegemonise the economic sphere while those of the liberal and centre-left dominate the political.
To be sure, post-recession and the near collapse of Britain’s banking sector, there has been massive government spending and intervention in the economy and there is now talk of a greater regulation over the financial sector. But the fact is that the decline of Britain’s manufacturing sector (or what’s left of it) increases inexorably and there is no real stomach from any of the mainstream political parties, particularly Labour or the Liberal-Democrats for nor any realistic polices of significant intervention or regulation in the working of the free market.
But, equally, apart from criticism and derision aimed at ‘political correctness’ there is no real attempt by the conservatives to deal with the huge levels of regulation and bureaucracy buttressed by colossal levels of rules, laws and procedures which effectively enmesh all aspects of life in this country (except notably that of the financial markets) in red tape and stifles genuine innovation and risk taking. Nor is there any serious resolve to deal with the numbers of quangos and regulatory bodies that are increasingly coming to shape public and private life in this country.
The blurring and effective negation of the differences between the public and private sectors highlighted by relentless privatisation of the public sector (essential if spending cutbacks and ‘efficiency savings’ are to be achieved) and the imposition of a profit-driven private sector ethos onto the public sector will continue. More public services, both nationally and locally, will be hived off or “outsourced” to the private sector or “arms-length” companies. A separate public sphere, based on values around working for the community and the public at large irrespective of any special interests and groups, is now being substantially eroded in the cause of financial accountability, value-for-money and efficiency. Soon, apart from ownership, there will be nothing to differentiate the public, private and even voluntary sectors in Britain in terms of values and ways of working; they will merge into one seamless whole. Again, in terms of how to deal with this elision of the public sector into the style of the private, there is a deafening silence from all of the mainstream political parties
Finally, and not least, the widespread feeling about that people’s lives in contemporary Britain are micro-managed and caught up in a proliferating web of health, social policy, criminal justice and anti-discrimination (amongst others) initiatives, all largely imposed from above, many contradicting each other and all striving to achieve grand totalising solutions to social problems will not be tackled.
Whichever party gets into power at the next election, or whatever coalition emerges from a hung parliament, will have a fundamental problem in trying to cutback massive state spending primarily through ‘efficiency’ savings. The basis of the hybrid consensus that emerged in the 1990s, especially during Labour’s tenure over the last thirteen years was that government could increase public spending massively and also enjoy a thriving economy, with the private sector serving as the main engine of growth. The logic was that increased spending would be paid for from increased tax receipts as people earned more in an expanding, full employment economy. In turn, greater levels of public spending would stimulate the economy further and so on in a virtuous circle of growth and prosperity.
Of course the recession broke that virtuous circle. Britain’s perennial boom and bust cycle which both Chancellor and Prime Minister Brown and a host of pundits had touchingly believed Labour had managed to transcend reasserted itself with a vengeance. More importantly, economic prosperity was revealed for what it was: a debt led binge focused on property and finance which was unsustainable.
But the point is that all the quangos, regulatory apparatus and bureaucracy created over the last thirteen years, the obsession with risk aversion and the desire to rid our society of any vestige of discrimination and inequality (excepting that of economic inequality) all cost money and, more significantly, are backed up by legal requirements created by the boom in legislation presided over by Labour. For the next government, therefore, to seriously tackle spending will require it to get to grips with all the laws (both domestic and European) created by its predecessor which lays the foundation for and reinforces this. The minute this happens though that government will be inundated by the myriad of vested interests, not least the regulatory apparatus, which have a stake in, in fact owe their existence to, maintaining the status quo.
None of the main parties have displayed any indication that they are seriously prepared to tackle regulation, risk aversion or the mountainous legislation that supports it. Consequently, the next government will likely either let public spending increase despite its best intentions or cut back front-line services which will be politically very difficult or (and this is probably the most likely) continue the process of privatisation and the creation of “arms length” agencies until actual direct government control of services becomes minimal.
All of this and its implications for public services and accountability are missing from the current election debate. And that’s ultimately because the main political parties still believe. to be sure with different degrees of emphasis, that the hybrid consensus which has been the bedrock of British politics for nearly twenty years and from which they and the political class in general have profited mightily, is still sustainable. The real reckoning and changes in British politics will come after this election when who ever gets in will realise, probably with a shock that the foundations of the hitherto prevailing consensus have collapsed.