Labour and the Conservatives: Welcome to the era of the Politics of Nothing

There’s an episode of South Park called Douche and Turd that people like to cite when elections roll into town, but never has it seemed more applicable in a UK sense than it does in 2015.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the episode questions the point of voting when all the candidates on the ballot appear as bad as each other. In South Park’s case, the vote is for a new school mascot, with the choice being between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich. In comparison, in the case of the UK, we’re being told that, whatever party we vote for, there are actually only two choices for Prime Minister – David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

So well worn is the South Park comparison that I was in two minds about whether to mention it, in truth. Aired in 2004, I’ve seen references made to Douche and Turd across social media during pretty much every major election on both sides of the pond since, but it rings especially true in 2015. Why? Because the two main parties in UK politics – the two forces who have been battling it out for the best part of a century – have no vision. After decades of gradually moving closer and closer towards each other ever since Labour’s catastrophic defeat in 1983 under Michael Foot, Labour and the Conservatives now find themselves right slap bang in the middle of the political spectrum, with barely a hair’s breadth between them.

This is no small point, either. Love them or hate them, both Thatcher and Blair were leaders with vision. Their centre-right drive informed their politics from top to bottom, meaning that all of their respective policies – whether the right to buy council homes in Thatcher’s case, or Blair’s decision to place “education, education, education” slap bang in the centre of his initial term – were focused around individual prosperity. Supporters of both would say their eras fostered a culture that supported people looking to better themselves. Critics would say such a stance simply helps the rich get richer, at the huge cost of everyone else. As such, they both faced huge opposition due to the casualties of such a stance, nevertheless, everyone – supporters and detractors – had a firm, fixed ideas as to just who and what Thatcher and Blair stood for.

As a result, both also faced opposition parties that were equally well defined. Michael Foot took the Labour party further into the socialist mire at a time when Thatcher seemed unassailable, while the Tory reaction to the rise of Blair was to deploy seemingly ultra right-wingers of the likes of William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith, who both tapped into more traditional Conservative ideals. The end result was, there was clear daylight between Thatcher’s Tories in the 1980s and the then Labour party and Blair’s New Labour in the late 1990s and the Conservatives. When you went to vote, you knew exactly what you were voting for.

The problem is that, by and large, Blair finished what Thatcher started. There will always be problems in any society but, from a centre-right perspective, much of the longterm aims both the Conservatives in 1979 and New Labour in 1997 would have had for the United Kingdom have been achieved. Even taking into account the financial crash of 2007 and the mess that followed, the UK in 2015 is designed to help entrepreneurs and their kin achieve success. The check-lists both Thatcher and Blair held close to their hearts have been ticked off, leaving any party that sites broadly in the centre scrambling for some reason to exist.

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Which is why, from the perspective of the two main parties, this election campaign to date has been so dire. There’s no great vision that Cameron and the Tories can grab hold of – no great end goal other than keep tracking down the same path. As a result, they find themselves mixing and matching policies – tapping into Thatcherism by offering Housing Association tenants the right to buy their house on the cheap on one hand, but also moving directly into the land of the left on the other by pledging to spend more on the NHS than the Labour party. There’s no coherent narrative to any of the policies in the Conservative manifesto because, as stated, the party has been left with no vision. Instead, what it has to offer is a load of cheap tricks designed to win votes over the course of the next few weeks with no great thought as to just what impact said policies will have on the country in the years and indeed decades ahead.

Labour, too, finds itself in much the same position. When the Labour party of old lost in 1987 and again in 1992, political commentators across the spectrum openly speculated that there was no way any left leaning party would ever get into power in the UK again. Blair’s overwhelming victory in 1997 arguably proved those commentators correct and, at the same time, highlighted that the majority of Britons want to vote for a party in the centre, not one that sits firmly on the left or right. It’s a lesson that, slowly but surely, sunk in amongst the brains sitting at the top table of both parties and, as a result, both Labour and the Conservatives have spent the last decade or so trying to hold the middle ground – not because it suits the values of the bulk of its members, but rather because they believe it’ll win them votes.

Scan back to interviews with politicians in the 1970s and 1980s on election night (most of which are available on YouTube) and you’ll find people with passion. Labour MPs were angry when they lost successive elections in 1983, 1987 and 1992, not because they’d missed out on the opportunity for power, but because being in opposition meant there was so chance they could change the country for (what they perceived to be) the better. That era is now, sadly, long gone. All of the talk running up to next month’s election has been about the power struggle that will kick off on May 8th – in the case of the two main parties, it’s not a case of the party that loses having to sit and watch the country go to the dogs because, broadly speaking, their plans for the country in the next five years are largely the same. Rather, it’s simply become a contest about who gets to sit on the Government benches after the Queen’s Speech.

For me, that’s utterly disheartening. Even if I disagree with someone’s view, I’ll automatically have more respect for them if they have convictions, but the majority of politicians in the two major parties have been trained to not have opinions, to never give anything anyway and to toe the safe party line.

As 2010 and the election next month will prove, however, when both parties sit in the middle ground without any great drive or vision, voters are turned off. Stop anyone in the street and few will be able to tell you just what Cameron and Miliband stand for in the same way they would Thatcher and Blair and, as a result, any party that does appear to have a set plan – however ridiculous that plan may be – stands out by a country mile.

Their policies may be starkly different, but the reason UKIP, the Green Party and the SNP are gaining ground is because, in comparison to the two main parties, they have core principles that all of their policies are built around. You might not agree with everything they say but, because they have a clear stance, there is a logic to their respective positions.

However, in my view, rather than breaking the mould as all three claim, they actually stand like ghosts from the past – all three are parties that have distinct and clear stances, and all three as a result are able to offer voters polarised but easily definable policy packages, just like Labour and the Convervatives used to. At a time when most politicians play the role of middle managers better than they do visionaries, anyone who believes in something clear-cut and recognisable automatically gains credibility, whether you agree with them or not.

Whatever your political persuasion, these three parties have a core that drives them that’s strangely alien to the tepid, tame dreams of modern day Tories and Labour supporters. For the SNP, a desire for Scottish independence has filtered down into all areas of the party; independence for the SNP isn’t just a matter of separating from the UK at some point in the future, but also fostering what it believes is a fairer, more equal society north of the border. Indeed, losing the Independence Referendum may be the best thing that has ever happened to the SNP: Free of the fear that supporting the party may lead to the break up of the UK any time soon, voters from across the board in Scotland can now happily support a party that positions itself as representing the everyman and everywoman. It is a definably left of centre party that occupies a space that the once daring, but seemingly unelectable Westminster wise Labour party used to hold, and as a result, it’s little wonder it’s heading for total domination north of the border.

UKIP, to a lesser degree, has pulled the rug from underneath the Conservatives in much a similar manner, using one singular goal – pulling out of Europe – to bleed into all areas of its policy. As a result, it presents itself as the Conservative Party of the 1980s – the kind of party you can imagine Norman Tebbit mentally spunking over in his quiet moments. The Greens, too, is (as it has always been) a party with ambition and clear objectives. It’s stance on the environment means it automatically takes a different position to the major Westminster parties on many of the issues, such as Trident, fracking and transport. No one can claim they’re unaware as to what The Green Party stands for.

None of these parties will ever win enough seats to govern in the UK in their current make up (putting aside the fact that the SNP only stand in Scotland, naturally) because they are too far to the left or too far to the right to steal a sufficient number of votes from the other side, but what they are doing is highlighting how subdued and forgettable the two main parties are, and dragging away their core vote as a result. What we’re left with is a Conservative and Labour party that are languid, lifeless and unable to command a majority, because both are attempting to be more mundane than the other. Neither can take a risk and move to give a clear vision of what they want for Britain because, in Cameron’s case, that vision has already been achieved and, for Miliband, lurching to the left as far as he’d like would risk alienating the masses.

So, what we’re left with is a giant douche and a turd sandwich, both as unappealing as each other. Oh, and Nick Clegg.

I should point out here that I am, for my sins, a committed Liberal Democrat. Yes, even now. Almost acting as a sideshow to all of the above, Lib Dems are preparing for a halving of the party’s seats at Westminster, with Clegg and co. taking the brunt of the anger towards the current coalition from voters who previously saw the party as an alternative to the status quo. Nick Clegg has, in my view, actually performed well during the campaign so far – he is and always will be a good public speaker compared to much of the competition – but his problem is, no one wants to listen. He’s a national joke, a hate figure, and his days leading the Liberal Democrats are numbered.

For the party as a whole, however, its failure to deliver its mandate while in Government will, in the end, come to its rescue. Most parties in power move to achieve their core goals as soon as they gain the keys to Number 10, but for the Lib Dems, being the smaller party in coalition has been a fruitless endeavour when it comes to shaping the country in its own image.

For as long as I’ve been alive, the two pillar policies at the heart of everything the then Liberals and later the Liberal Democrats have done have been a change to the voting system and for the UK to have a greater, more invested role in Europe. Despite securing a referendum on First Past the Post as a result of its coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dems spectacularly lost the vote on changing the voting system back in 2011, with less than a third of voters siding with the party. What’s more, when it comes to Europe, the rise of UKIP has forced the Conservatives to become more sceptical about the EU and, as a result, our position within it looks more fractious than ever.

It all means that, despite being in power for the last five years, the Liberal Democrats have lost ground when it comes to both of their long term goals. As a result, while the party faces near wipe out in 2015, in any elections that follow, whoever takes over from Clegg will be able to set out the party’s policies around clear and definable goals, just like the SNP, the Greens and UKIP.

It may mean that, once again, the Liberal Democrats are as unlikely to ever gain power on their own as they have been since the rise of the Labour party in the 1920s, but it does mean once the dust has settled on the last five years, the party will have a core goal and a long term vision to pitch to voters. By fumbling the opportunity to make progress on Europe and Proportional Representation, Liberal Democrats may have actually retained their core purpose and distinct identity, almost by accident.

And at a time when the two main parties believe in absolutely nothing, I’ve got all the time in the world for parties who believe in something.

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