Deep crisis, shallow politics


Son Joseph is sitting SATS in Hastings so I travelled down with him. Last night saw the town at its worst. The streets seemed to be full of drunks staggering in and out of loud, ugly bars. As well as the inevitable bouncers, there seemed to be police outside almost every bar. At one point I counted eleven police officers in the small town centre area - all this when people are supposed to be out to have fun! 

But this morning in the glorious sunshine things are very different. The shopping areas seem lively and reasonably pleasant and, as well as the long beach stretching out into the calm sea, there is the old town to explore and the beautiful Holy Trinity church. 

This early autumn sunburst has come at just the right time. With public services creaking, unemployment rising and the global economy teetering on a precipice we don't need mother nature adding to the cloud cover. Keeping up morale is pretty crucial right now but you wouldn't know it from the party conferences.

The LibDems suffer from such a deep identity crisis that the only thing holding them together is bashing the Conservatives (from the conference floor) and Labour (from the platform). The one significant speech was by Vince Cable and it might as well have begun with 'what do you want first; the bad news or the really bad news?'

It hasn't been easy resisting the many invitations to enter the debate about Ed Miliband's speech. Although, as a former speech writer, I found it hard to hear the message when there were so many sloppy mistakes in the drafting, Labour's leader is to be applauded for trying to say something substantive and for speaking from the heart. But if you are going to open up a controversial new political debate you need to be clear in your argument and solid in your evidence and examples. It shouldn't be impossible to talk about problems in modern capitalism without sounding anti-business. Ed could, for example, have quoted any of a growing number of business leaders who have themselves complained about short-termism and called for more responsible corporate leadership (a tactic I used in my annual lecture on the same topic a few weeks ago).

I also think Ed would have got more credit for his focus on responsibility if he had been willing to challenge his own party to think about what responsible opposition might involve in these difficult times. On my one day in Liverpool I couldn't help noticing how comfortable and self satisfied many in the Labour Party seems to be despite the absence of a credible path back to power.

I also thought Miliband's attack on the Coalition was misjudged. There certainly is a lot of public anger and worry to tap into on the NHS, but right now - just 18 months after it was elected - I would focus a critique of the Coalition on it's competence not it's values. It is this the voters really care about and there's no shortage of ammunition. 

As commentators are already saying, David Cameron's big challenge is to offer hope without sounding complacent or out of touch. But no doubt many other ministerial speakers will be bolstering their popularity with the activists with some fierce bashing of the LibDems and Labour. 

I know I am unrealistic in my hopes for a new politics, but did it really have to be this way? If next week goes as I expect, all three conferences will have seen leaders choosing to pander to party loyalists rather than challenging them, and all three will see the megaphone of adversarialism turned up a few more decibels. It's the kind of behaviour that would fit well with Hastings on a Friday night.  But I can't help thinking the good folk strolling past me as I drink my second cappuccino of the morning might have welcomed something a bit bolder, braver and more generous to give them hope when the winter starts to set in.


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