A manifest lack of inspiring ideas

Roll up, roll up for spiked’s guided tour of the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat election manifestos.

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‘Anti-state’ authoritarianism
Brendan O’Neill on the Tories

As someone who has campaigned long and hard against state intervention into people’s lives – and who still dreams, late at night, of getting rid of that ‘body of armed men’ altogether – you might think I would warm to the Tory Party’s manifesto. It seems anti-state. ‘There is such a thing as society’, it declares (contradicting Thatcher’s infamous dictum), ‘it’s just not the same thing as the state’. In place of New Labour’s ‘massive expansion of the state’, we need to build the ‘Big Society’, say the Tories, one in which people and communities have more power over schools, healthcare, policing and the development of new infrastructure.

However, the Tories’ seemingly anti-state stance doesn’t spring from anything like a thirst for freedom or a trust in people’s abilities to take charge of their lives and communities. It is merely part of a powerful new trend amongst the powers-that-be for evading responsibility and outsourcing their authority to other forces in society. Their posturing against the state is less a rallying cry for a new, more liberated way of organising society than a snake-like shedding of jobs that they no longer feel capable of executing. The Tories’ (and others’) shadow-boxing with the state is motivated more by a distrust of themselves than a newfound trust in the people.


The Conservative Party
2010 election manifesto

For all the excitable claims that the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ idea is at least more inspiring than anything in Labour’s exhausted-sounding manifesto, it is in fact a very New Labour concept. It echoes Tony Blair’s promise to create a ‘stakeholder society’. New Labour’s rather desperate belief was that the severe ruptures in society wrought by the experiences of the 1970s and 80s – with the collapse of the ‘consensus politics’ of the postwar era, Thatcher’s attacks on trade unions and working-class communities, and the collapse of traditional institutions and solidarities towards the end of the Cold War – could be mended by giving everyone ‘a stake’ in society. All we needed was government funding for ‘social inclusion’ projects and an invitation to people to behave in a more ‘socially responsible’ way and – hey presto! – a tight-knit society could be magically reformed.

Now, the Tories, too, seem madly to believe that a good society can be refashioned from above – through initiating an annual ‘Big Society Day’ and setting up a ‘Big Society Bank’ to fund social enterprise – not recognising what a contradiction in terms this is. Societies are not created by diktat, but through such non-governmental activities as solidarity, free association, shared interests, informal networking – the very things that the Tories in the 1980s, and Labour in the 1970s before them, helped to destroy. There is more than a hint of regret in the New Tories’ anti-Thatcher phrase: ‘There is such a thing as society.’ Where Thatcher claimed society was unimportant as a desperate justification of her part in helping to dismantle it, the New Tories say it is important in the desperate belief that if they say it often enough – Hare Krishna-style – a coherent, positive, good society will reappear.

The second noteable thing about the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ is that, for all its anti-state posturing, it will not increase people’s freedom and choices. On the contrary, the Tories want to empower ‘neighbourhood groups’ to police their local communities, want to increase the early interventions into family life started under New Labour in order to correct ‘dysfunctional families’, and – get this – plan to use ‘the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to [pursue] voluntary and community participation’. Not only is this a spectacular contadiction in terms – manipulating people’s minds to get them to volunteer? – it also perfectly sums up the Big Problem with the ‘Big Society’: the Tories really believe a caring, participative society can be created through the management of people’s behaviour.

Lastly, the Tories’ anti-state stance is really about shirking their responsibilities should they get into power. There are some things the state should do: it should provide an excellent standard of education and first-class healthcare and it should innovate in infrastructure and economic affairs. Yet in all of these areas, the Tories want to outsource authority – to parents (whom they encourage to set up their own schools), to patients (who will be given more ‘choice’ in health matters), and to local communities (who will have more say, apparently, on what should be built and where). Here, ‘choice’ is not really about giving people more autonomy – it is about the state dodging the job of providing universal and visionary standards in public services. Unable to work out what an excellent school would look like, or how we might go about building loads of new roads and nuclear power stations, the Tories will instead say: You sort it out! That’s not our job!

This is what life will be like under an ‘anti-state’ government: it will do lots of things it shouldn’t do, such as intervene in our children’s lives and seek to manipulate our behaviour, and none of the things it should, such as provide inspiring education and meaningful innovation.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

A return to postwar Britain
Tim Black on Labour

What a cover! It looks like a caricature of Eastern bloc propaganda, a supreme leap of bad faith. Perhaps at some subconscious level that’s precisely what it is. A commitment to a new dawn from the man with no future – prime minister Gordon Brown. The conscious intention, however, was probably somewhat different. Writ large in the retro design, Labour presumably intended to evoke the new-dawn optimism, not so much of 1950s China, but of Postwar Britain: except for World War and rations, read economic crisis and efficiency savings.

It’s a vision that certainly tallies with the catastophe-riven picture of contemporary Britain painted by Labour. From the embattled tone struck by Brown himself in the foreword to the manifesto, where he writes hopefully, and not entirely convincingly, of the ‘postcrisis era’, to the constant references throughout to the ‘new climate of financial restraint’, this is meant to be a manifesto for a newly austere nation emerging from a dark period. This, we are told, is ‘not a business-as-usual election’: this is an exceptional election for a historically exceptional time. The problem for this Labour Party, unlike its postwar incarnation, is that it has played a central role in this crisis period.


The Labour Party
2010 election manifesto

Not that you will find anything approaching culpability in these 70-odd pages. Instead you will find a celebration of Labour’s post-1997 achievements: investment in public services, regeneration of city centres, the minimum wage (one of Labour’s ‘proudest achievements’), and so on. Unfortunately for Labour, this is not 1997. This is 2010, and public spending is no longer cool in Britannia. So coupled with the boasting – incongruous for such a tired, widely despised regime – one can also enjoy new New Labour’s depthless vision and empty platitudes: ‘This is a manifesto that is idealistic about what is possible but realistic about how to achieve it.’

So what of the idealistic-but-realistic substance? What of Labour’s cut-price ambition? It is everywhere – and nowhere. Public services will be improved, we are told. But this will be achieved by spending less. Brilliant. However, it does raise the question of what exactly was being paid for before? Excessive bureaucracy? Gratuitous inefficiency?

Elsewhere, there is talk of ‘long-term investment in wealth-creating infrastructure’, of ‘nurturing private-sector dynamism’. This being New Labour, it is not just a question of providing investment (setting up a £4billion public investment fund and compelling the banks to lend), it is a question of determining the ends of investment. Hence there is also a revived notion of ‘industrial policy’, with particular emphasis on low-carbon and digital technologies: ‘Our vision is of a society where economic prosperity and quality of life come not from exploiting the natural world but from its defence.’

If the state-determined ends of, and limits to, growth hint at a suspicion of people’s free activity, New Labour’s long-standing distaste for the masses is stated explicitly in an amazingly titled section ‘Crime and immigration’ (unlike a horse and carriage, the two do not actually go together). Here we see Labour boasting about falling crime levels alongside pointing out what it sees as the real problems today: ‘Binge drinking, problem families and anti-social behaviour.’ As one would expect of a government that has progressively criminalised and stigmatised so many aspects of our behavior, the answer to all these problems is intervention – the earlier the better. In one single sentence, Labour even declares itself particularly worried about the dangers posed to children by tobacco smoke, alcohol and – wait for it – sun beds.

Business secretary Lord Mandelson described the manifesto as ‘Blair-plus’. Which is a bit like adding a little to not very much. In many ways, though, Mandelson does unwittingly touch upon something. With Blair added to Brown, the manifesto amounts to pure unadulterated New Labour, from statements of the bleeding obvious (as if anyone is against ‘value for money’), to a determination to manage the vigour and joy out of life.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

A manifesto that’s no better than ‘fair’
Rob Lyons on the Liberal Democrats

Like their election slogan – Change That Works For You: Building A Fairer Britain – the Liberal Democrats have always been an unhappy compromise. In the past, they were stuck between the working class party – Labour – and the party of business, small and large – the Conservatives. If you really couldn’t face voting for one of the big parties, you could always stick an ‘X’ next to the bunch in the middle. But what do you do when the two big parties shed any vestiges of principle or ideology and become unhappy compromises themselves? There you are, a plucky third force in British politics, and suddenly everyone is camped on your turf: the overcrowded ‘centre ground’. It’s SO unfair, you can hear them stomp.

Perhaps it is this state of affairs that has inspired the key motif in the Lib Dem manifesto. ‘Every manifesto needs to have an idea at its heart. The basic idea that animates this manifesto is something I have always believed’, writes Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. What is this big idea? Fairness. Fair taxes. A fair chance for every child. A fair economy. A fair deal for cleaning up politics. In fact, under the Lib Dems, everything would be fair, from the environment to immigration. It’s such a nice idea, who could be against it? A generous interpretation would be that this obsession with fairness is simply vacuous. A more hard-nosed view would be that it’s a way of selling us a crappy vision of the future where Britain remains pretty much as it is today, but the misery is shared out fairly.


The Liberal Democrats’
2010 election manifesto

Being ‘fair’ seems designed to appeal to the most childish instincts in the electorate: that the recession is not our fault, it’s the fault of the bankers. So ideas like breaking up the big banks, introducing a ‘mansion tax’ on homes worth more than £2million and cracking down on tax dodgers are all about blaming the fat cats. Perhaps it’s all the fault of politicians, which is why the Lib Dems promise to start ‘cleaning up politics’. Maybe you think it’s the fault of foreigners, so the Lib Dems will have ‘firm and fair’ immigration policies including a ‘regional points-based system to ensure that migrants can work only where they are needed’.

The Lib Dem manifesto is a peculiar mix of vague principles – like fairness – and ‘fully costed’ specifics like introducing ‘a Universal Service Code to secure high-quality customer service in the private and public sectors, for example by requiring that the customer service phone number is free from mobiles and landlines’. Nice idea that you won’t get charged if you’re kept hanging on, but does this really have a place in an appeal to the electorate? Yet this is the stuff of modern politics. In the absence of big ideas, policy wonks come up with bucket loads of really small ones. If the endless tweaks to the tax system aren’t enough to drive you to distraction, how about the plan to ‘help protect children and young people from developing negative body images by regulating airbrushing in adverts’?

Elsewhere, some Lib Dem policies are simply insane: why, when Britain is facing an energy crisis in the next decade due to closing power stations, would you reject out of hand the idea of building new nuclear power stations? Perhaps the Lib Dems have a cunning plan to make sure the blackouts are distributed ‘fairly’.

There’s the occasional nod to freedom. So, the manifesto supports ‘an individual’s right to live their lives as they see fit, without discrimination, with personal privacy, and with equal rights before the law’, but the Lib Dems replace one illiberal measure with another. So, scrapping identity cards and regulating CCTV might be a step forward, as would reducing the maximum length of pre-trial detention from 28 days to 14 (even if that is still far too long). But then these are replaced with yet more police officers and allowing telephone and other intercept evidence to be used in court. This doesn’t sound very ‘liberal’ or ‘democratic’.

But in practical terms, the minutiae of Lib Dem policy are irrelevant. The Lib Dems remain the none-of-the-above party; the politicians you vote for when you’re sick of politicians.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill explained why this is a very important election. He also attacked the Tories’ ‘clean politics’ agenda and called for a fight to re-enfranchise the electorate. And after the Tories’ victory at the Crewe by-election last year, he called for positive politics. Mick Hume argued that the Tories are full of New Labourite nonsense, and that they have changed, but not for the better. He also pointed out that the demise of New Labour did not amount to a Tory revival. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics or Vote for politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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