It’s the time of year for the party political conferences, and what a sad time for those who are interested in the political health of our nation. Conferences were never the most uplifting of events, but in the last, what, twenty years they have become ever more depressing. This was a result of British politicos visiting the USA, and noticing that the parties there were not engines for developing ideas or transmitting values, but support organisations, machines for raising money for the political elite. It used to be said that politics was show business for ugly people, and political parties had become fan clubs for the tone deaf. As a result, conferences no longer have any role in forming policy and so become a tribal gathering at which ritual dances are danced, and ritual songs sung, with little content except that our opponents are awful people. To be fair, the Liberals had a few motions that might have embarrassed the leadership, but that might have been related to their leaders’ abandonment of liberal values and the related collapse of public support.
What happens is that the conference is a build up to the speech of the leader, featuring a succession of nonentities who stand up and fill their moment of glory by saying “I’ve got a message for David Cameron/Nick Clegg/Red Ed Miliband” and then adding a few inane insults. Their opponents are without exception, rogues or idiots. The leader appears on stage in a nice suit, makes a lot of vacuous statements generally involving change. Change, it appears, is a good thing, except when your opponents do it, when it is a bad thing (see my blog of last April). The great man then announces a trifling reform that will make Britain Great again, and ends with uproarious applause. His wife then strides adoringly towards him in a dress that is neither too cheap or too costly, and embraces her hero. The TV and press then analyse how good the speech is, with the aid of an opponent (“he just hasn’t answered any of the vital questions”), a supporter (“I think he answered all the questions”) and a tired cynic (“Did you notice how his tie know slipped down whenever he mentioned the economy ”). All is swiftly forgotten and we the go on to the next conference to repeat the awful business.
Ed Miliband came out with a nice phrase during his conference speech – “Britain can do better than this”. The political parties can certainly do better. Where we should start, I think, is an analysis of the main issues facing the country. These are not the state of marriage or unemployed shirkers or for that matter energy prices or school meals. Once you get away from foreign policy matters, about which the parties tend not to disagree (apart from Syria, where I think Miliband played a blinder), there are three crucial matters. Firstly, the low productivity of the UK economy, private and public sectors alike; secondly, the living standards of the majority or our people, with static or falling real incomes and increasing inequality; and lastly the power and effective management of the corporate sector. All three are interlinked and intertwined, and none are simple. The party conferences should be a think tank, where experts and party members confront proper, evidenced research and policies that will make a difference (horrible phrase, I know, but it has its uses) to these issues.
What we emphatically do not want is a parade of politicians and their acolytes finding the most miserable views from a focus group – the poor are idle, foreigners are untrustworthy, educational standards are falling – or from rich people – taxes are wasteful, only the private sector is efficient – and trying to win votes by getting us to turn inwards against our neighbours and against the disadvantaged. This appears to be the line that the Tories want to follow, following the US Republican example, and with the appalling encouragement of Linton Crosby. One moderately encouraging result of the last few weeks has been the lack of success the press has had in depicting Miliband as a dangerous radical for proposing price restraint, more houses and action on training for young people. To my mind the most damaging accusation against the Labour proposals is not “this will paralyse the economy” but to ask “why didn’t you do this when you were in charge ?”.
There’s a very good analysis of the organised hypocrisy of the conference speech here. But if you would prefer a funnier and more cynical approach – almost as good as the famous Peter Sellers track – follow this link.