Election Diary: Episode One
The general election campaign started today, which is strange, because it already feels as if it’s been going on for ever. The reason for that lies in the electoral rules set up in 2000, which set limits to spending during the festivities. The ‘long campaign’ began on 19 December 2014. During it, candidates can spend £30,700 per constituency plus 9p per constituent in the countryside or 6p per constituent in town. Today, 30 March, is the start of the ‘short campaign’, during which the respective limits are £8700 plus 9p/6p. This long/short campaign thing explains why it feels as if the election has been running since the dawn of time, and yet nobody’s said anything interesting and nothing has happened. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that between now and 7 May, every political party in the UK is allowed to spend 6p on me. You can’t buy much with 6p, not even a vote, which is no doubt part of the point.
Another sign that the campaign has begun is the imminent publication of the party manifestos (I find myself wishing that the plural were ‘manifesti’). David Cameron is rumoured to have sent the Tory one back for a rewrite, on the basis that the first draft was too policy-wonky. That draft was the work of the Number 10 policy unit, run by Boris Johnson’s brother Jo. It’s fun to imagine all those Etonians sitting around telling each other off for not being sufficiently populist.
The last Tory manifesto was a striking document. As a side effect of writing about the 2010 election for the LRB, I read all three party manifestos; I remain the only person I know ever to have done that. The Tory one was much the most distinctive. It didn’t even say it was a manifesto; instead the document was titled Invitation to Join the Government of Britain. Inside was lots of stuff about the ‘Big Society’. The Tories were keen on ‘encouraging social responsibility in all its forms and across all the country – whether curbing incivility on our streets or supporting social enterprises with the power to transform neighbourhoods’. They had ‘an ambitious goal: to make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe’. There was also a pledge to ‘ensure that every patient can access a GP in their area between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., seven days a week’.
All of this turned out to be worthless as a guide to actual policy-making after the election. Manifestos usually are. The word ‘austerity’ doesn’t occur in the Conservative manifesto of 2010, just as their manifesto of 1979 didn’t mention ‘privatisation’ and the Labour manifesto of 1997 didn’t mention independence for the Bank of England. You could argue that those are the three most consequential economic policies of the last 35 years – and none of them was name-checked in the relevant party manifesto. So manifestos have always been inclined to mislead by omission. Add to this fact the get-out provided by coalition government, which allows anyone in power to chuck out any promise they want, and we have arrived at a point where the manifesti are largely works of performance art. It makes a dispiriting political landscape even more so.
You could put the real Tory manifesto in five words: ‘We will shrink the state.’ People would vote for that, too; though maybe not enough of them to give the Tories an overall majority. And that’s their real problem. Cameron has been party leader for ten years. He spent the first half-decade ‘detoxifying’ the Tory ‘brand’ and has spent the next half-decade retoxifying it. Many people go into politics with the main intention of shrinking the state; you don’t have to agree with this position to see that it is an intellectually coherent one. For people in that camp, the credit crunch and Great Recession were a once-in-a-generation chance to change the direction of politics. As a Tory explained to me in 2009, it was an ‘inflection point’, similar to 1979 and 1997, in which British politics could head off in a new direction, this time towards a smaller state. Fine. The Tories have to a large extent been successful in shaping the debate and discourse around the economy. But ‘austerity’ – i.e. spending cuts – does nothing to make the Tories seem less like the party so many people came to hate during their 18-year incumbency from 1979. It may be that, without detoxification, the Tories will never be popular enough to win an election outright; that’s certainly what I’ve heard some of them say. Remember, they haven’t won a majority since 1992. So the miraculous one-off chance to do the thing that many of them most want – shrink the state – is lost because they’re not able to win elections. It’s going to be difficult to change people’s minds, however imaginatively they spend their 6p.