The assertion that politicians twist the truth and occasionally just tell bare faced lies will not come as a surprise to most. Following the expenses scandal the entire country was united, irrespective of class and generation, in disgust at our MPs and their detached dreamland played out in a bubble of privilege a million miles from the concerns of their constituents. However what is deeply worrying is the way in which the parties are responding in the build up to a General Election that faces a range of crises that seem certain to lead to voter dissatisfaction and another decrease in turn-out. A combination of economic gloom, inaction on immigration and the tarnished reputation of Westminster is threatening to make a mockery of democracy at a time when any new government needs a strong mandate from the people to make right decisions not popular ones. Sadly though trends in the campaigning we’ve seen so far suggest a preoccupation with popularity rather than the honesty needed for the nation to reconnect with politics.
One issue in particular highlights all the factors that appear to deter campaigners from truthful messages, as opposed to easily digestible slogans. This election will be fought largely over the economy and who is best qualified to oversee its recovery and inevitable change of course in the next few years. The Conservatives made much of the need to slash the deficit and preserve Britain’s integrity in the eyes of the financial world but have since backtracked so that in reality dividing lines between the government and opposition are about whens, not whats. The two parties essentially agree but Labour would simply delay cuts for an extra year.
In their election campaigning thus far the Tories have struggled to strike a balance between attacking Gordon Brown’s track record of handling Britain’s budget with their own inexperience in the area. Rather than focus on the Prime Minister’s mismanagement of the economy whilst Chancellor during the boom years as they have previously done, the Tories have honed in on Brown’s actions as Prime Minster during the economic collapse. The VAT cut has come under intense Tory scrutiny and has been portrayed as a prime example of the government’s needless spending and failed fiscal stimuli. However in reality the cost of the VAT cut is insignificant as a contribution to the record breaking national deficit. Its effectiveness can certainly be questioned but the real damage was done by years of growth in public spending during the boom years under Blair.
The reason the Conservatives choose to withhold this truth from the public in their campaigning is that whilst it may show Gordon Brown’s incompetence it is harder to attack the Prime Minister on his history of ploughing money back into society. Such an image of the Prime Minster as a good natured man now attempting to rectify his mistakes in the fairest way possible does not fit well with the Tory representation of a bully incapable of accepting advice and determined to forge a political legacy for himself by conning the country and dragging it to the brink of economic oblivion. David Cameron also no doubt likes to remind himself that Brown made mistakes as Prime Minster, despite “saving the world” from economic collapse by leading the way with government guarantees for the banks. Labour too are equally guilty of twisted messages when it comes to the battleground of the economy however. They could rightly emphasise the role played by the Prime Minister in stabilising global finance, but such an important success is now viewed as a turn-off for voters because bankers are universally hated figures and the Tories will pounce on any mention of the slump to point out it was a Labour government’s doing in the first place. Instead then Labour’s efforts have focused on making the Tories the evil figures of austerity, when in actual fact either party would be forced to cut ruthlessly in the next government.
The way the economic debate is unfolding teaches us a number of essential truths about the absence of truth in politics. Firstly the two main parties have broadly similar policies in many areas and the actual dividing lines are ideological ones ingrained in the minds of voters. Secondly politicians assume the public has a limited attention span and forgetful memory; it will therefore be unwilling to embrace plans for long term change and unlikely to recall the truly vital errors of the distant past. Thirdly the main parties will never acknowledge that the other took the right course of action. And finally the reason they will not recognise the strengths of their opponents, even when justified, is because they are reluctant to concede any ground as both have something to lose.
“Change that works for you, building a fairer Britain”. This is the campaign slogan unveiled by the Lib Dems today, as they seek to combine elements of the Tory emphasis on change and Labour’s on fairness to be the party of compromise. However if the Lib Dems really want to break the mould and appeal to Labour and Tory voters they must embrace honesty. If Nick Clegg can answer questions honestly and with genuine passion at the TV debates scheduled during the election campaign he could propel his party up in the polls towards a position of greater influence that may enable real change. British people are in dire need of reassurance that democracy is not failing their country and it will take more than empty slogans with honest gestures to convince the electorate this time; it will take trust and respect.