Save politics – write your own manifesto - RSA

Save politics – write your own manifesto


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If we want politics to change, let’s make the first move ourselves.

If we want politics to change, let’s make the first move ourselves.

My last post highlighted the difference between what political parties say and what voters think those parties will do in office…..

…..voters may end up opting for the party with the plan they least like (the Conservatives) because they think this party is more likely to end up implementing the plan they most like than the party actually promising that plan (Labour).

However, when it comes to political disorientation this pales into ordinariness compared to this Newsnight interview with UKIP MP Douglas Carswell. The highlights of the interview include:

  • A positive assessment of the multi-cultural, multi-national nature of modern Britain

  • The assertion that what people disparagingly call political correctness is generally simply politeness

  • Warm words about the UK Muslim community

  • A commitment to give the NHS whatever resources it needs to defend its founding principles

  • An emphasis on the need for a politics of optimism and hope

Of course, the demand for a speedy EU referendum is there too, but overall one is left with two big questions – how can the two most high profile people in a party (Mr Carswell and Mr Farage) offer such contrasting images and to what extent are Mr Carswell’s views in line with that of his party’s core supporters? It feels a bit like having Ken Livingstone as the leader and Peter Mandelson as chief spokesperson, or perhaps Bill Cash as leader and Kenneth Clarke as the spokesperson.

This is all part of the tapestry of representative democracy but it also helps to explain the depth of public cynicism. In a world where an ever greater premium is placed on authenticity, the opacity and trickiness of our politics stands out even more. Another dimension of unreality lies in policy making; as the world has become more complex, fast moving and unpredictable the parties have – in a desperate and forlorn attempt to retain public trust – become more extensive and more specific in their promises.

In terms of fiscal policy, politicians have tried to close the credibility gap with ever more ingenious ways of pretending their hands are tied. We have had public pledges, Golden Rules, an independent Bank of England, the OBR and even last week’s fiscal responsibility legislation, yet still politicians fail to deliver. Perhaps they need to take the principle and make it more populist: ‘Ed Balls pledged today that if Labour’s misses its fiscal target, he will volunteer for I’m a celebrity, get me out of here with his fee going to help the squeezed middle’.

But moaning about politics is one thing, it is another entirely to do anything about it. After all one of  the main reasons politicians aren’t straight with us is that we don’t talk sense to them. As Ben Page from IPSOS MORI famously said: ‘the British people are very clear about what they want: Swedish welfare on American tax rates’.

So I thought I’d offer a way forward. How about if we the voters were to define our own policy priorities? I don’t mean simply the top-of-the-head prejudices people tend to offer opinion pollsters. Neither do I mean broad values or aspirations, as everyone signs up to fairness, freedom and hard working families. I also think we should steer clear of single issue policies (like hunting, hanging or assisted dying) because that’s not what general elections are really about.

Instead my suggestion is that we all decide our top three broad policy priorities along with one currently on offer that we most strongly oppose.

I haven’t thought about this for long enough to give my definitive list but here goes as a conversation starter:

  • Substantially improving the prospects of the least advantaged third of children to be top education priority

  • Tax well off old people to improve social care

  • An irreversible shift of power from Whitehall to city regions.

And my number one anti-priority:

  • An in-out EU referendum.

My own list is not the issue. The point is that if we each had such a list it might force us to be clearer and more thoughtful about what we want. It would offer an invaluable shared starting point for political conversations between friends or strangers, and enable us to be more focussed and forensic in weighing up what the parties are offering. It might even give politicians the courage to stop trying to be all things to all people and say ‘if that’s really what you want, you shouldn’t vote for me’.

I am not sure whether we really do want more clarity or candour from our politicians, or a more informed and honest debate. Perhaps we just enjoy complaining. But if we do want change we should stop waiting for politicians and step up ourselves. ‘My mini manifesto’ could be a start.

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