A number of media commentators (for example, Danny Finkelstein today in the Times) have observed that conference season seems to be about promises not challenges. Although Nick Clegg has little but more pain to offer his Party, Labour and Conservative politicians have generally plumped for a crowd-pleasing attitude to both their party faithful and the half-listening public.
Speeches have adopted the reassuring tone of self-certainty and disdain for opponents while free school lunches, tax breaks for spouses, energy and fuel tax freezes have been among the examples of the largesse on offer to voters. There is an inverse relationship between specificity and sacrifice – the promises are concrete while the sense that there is still tough stuff ahead is vaguely asserted with the implication that the pain will fall only on the undeserved (whether they be energy company fat cats or the long term unemployed).
Yet, any objective observer of the position of the UK would say that in both the short and longer term citizens will have to make demanding adaptations if we are to meet challenges such as global competition, austerity, population ageing and climate change.
The argument of my RSA annual lecture in 2007 – that we face a widening gap between the aspirations we have for a better society and the trajectory on which current ways of thinking and acting place us - is, if anything, more obvious today than six years ago.
Its pointless blaming the individuals: Political insecurity, electoral competition and public exhaustion are key factors at work in this retreat to populism. All the party leaders have become used to questions hanging over their own leadership and their Party’s prospects at the next election. They simply lack the authority to challenge their Party. With some justification each party thinks it will lose out if it doesn’t offer the voters the best bag of goodies. Meanwhile the public’s tolerance for bad news has been eroded by years of economic gloom and falling living standards.
It is very easy to be pious and superior when judging politicians. As a failed Prime Ministerial speech writer I am only too aware of how hard it is to translate rigour and subtlety into a viable and engaging political message. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be deeply underwhelmed by the tone of this conference season.
There has been the lack of a credible story about the longer term challenges and choices facing Britain. Thatcher saw the liberation of the individual, and a shift of influence over human affairs from state to market as key to the future. For Blair the task was modernisation. Ideological narrowness in the former and the reductiveness of the latter are valid criticisms, but at least both were based on a clear analysis of what needed to change. Today’s respective top line offers - shifting power from big business and abolishing the deficit - may be perfectly respectable steps on a road, but a road to where?
Once again, but this time particularly acutely, the narratives on offer have a missing middle. At the top are value assertions about fairness, freedom, parenthood and apple pie; at the base, specific policy commitments. Missing is an account of the underlying intellectual analysis and political strategy which connects the two. Miliband tries harder, with ideas like pre-distribution and responsible capitalism, but still when the chips are down tactics and opportunism trump strategy and clarity.
Worse still, is the absence of the public as subjects rather than the objects of politics. History shows that agency matters – particularly in mature democracies. As I have argued before, that’s why the Labour’s statist grand plan to abolish child poverty achieved less public engagement that the Mayor of Oklahoma’s folksy fat busting. I defended the Big Society for longer than most of David Cameron’s allies because there was at least the potential for a credible story of reciprocity between change in Government and complementary changes in public norms and expectations.
At question is the whole paradigm of national politics. The contrast with local government is telling. Just about every council leader I speak to knows that engaging citizens as partners (both through their institutions and as individuals) is vital to economic renewal and managing the gap between demands and resources.
‘We’re in this together’ was crafted as a statement about fairness. It would be more powerful as a message about how change occurs in society and the importance to social and economic renewal of shared understanding and commitment. Our prospects depend on the ability of us, as citizens, to adapt and develop. The task of politicians (in Government and opposition) is – through challenge and support - to help us be the people we need to be to create the future we say we want.
We need our politicians to be personal trainers edging us towards greater fitness through being clear, demanding and encouraging. Instead, as a class, they feel more like slightly creepy relatives wheedling their way into our affections by telling tall tales and slipping us sweets that we enjoy at the time, but may end up making us feel sick.