As one of the most tumultuous parliamentary sessions of recent times draws to a close, Harold Wilson’s famous maxim about a week being a long time in politics seems deliciously apposite.
Yet amidst the seismic economic change and bewildering events that have engulfed the financial markets, I would contend that many of the fundamentals of domestic politics last summer remain intact. Gordon Brown may have temporarily convinced the public that he is the man to steer the nation’s ship through the eye of this economic storm, but it is difficult to believe that even in the medium term he has the widespread appeal necessary to secure a mandate.
Looking to the future, the Conservatives’ obvious appeal to the public is ‘change’ but we must think carefully about what in times of crisis this concept represents and the dangers of relying on change alone as a reason for election. The electorate may be angry with the government but it will not necessarily abandon it if its fear for the future means the alternative is less trusted. Until recently our economic proposition was ‘change’ (in personnel) alongside ‘continuity’ (in policy). The current crisis has given us the courage to say what was true before but what should be more compelling now – that the government’s spending policy is not only unsustainable but has failed to provide a proper return for a decade of substantial investment.
The public at large instinctively know that we cannot go on as we have with debt being racked up to the detriment of future generations of taxpayers. However, in these troubled and fearful times it also seeks the reassurance of a government offering security. In this respect, Labour hold a trump card. Their distinctively interventionist instincts play to an audience which wishes to be wrapped in a short term safety blanket in a fast-moving and baffling economic situation. Our task, therefore, is to find a credible way to engender a sense of security alongside our platform of change, simultaneously destroying the notion that Labour’s big state model offers the right remedies for this country in the short, medium or long term.
The Party’s firm stance on spiralling public debt and its inter-generational consequences is to be welcomed. Yet we must persistently explode the myth that this is a ‘do nothing’ diagnosis. Indeed the Conservatives have explained in specific terms precisely what we would do to assist small and medium-sized businesses and individuals at risk of losing homes and jobs. Moreover, our innovative national loan guarantee scheme is designed to get credit flowing more freely again, something the government has conspicuously failed to achieve. This cannot remotely be described as a ‘do nothing’ approach.
We can learn much from the presidential campaign of Barack Obama which offers lessons not only in proposing change but engendering security. During his momentous journey to becoming the President-elect of the United States, the American electorate were left in no doubt that ‘change’ was afoot. However, one of the less observed qualities of Obama’s campaign was a consistency of message which in the end made change feel safe.
Whilst the Republicans’ line of attack on Obama was over his experience, they would have been wiser to have remembered J Paul Getty’s words that ‘in times of change, experience could be your worst enemy’. Getty was proved right by the US voters who saw that some sort of change in the direction of the US government was not only necessary but offered greater security than trusting the old guard. When Obama’s rival, John McCain, eventually cottoned on to this by bringing the concept of change to the later stages of his own campaign, he appeared insincere and a less secure bet. As such, when polling day came McCain had become the unknown quantity next to Obama.
We must articulate to the public that the Labour government’s plan to create a stronger command structure and pump ever more money into public projects represents nothing by way of security. In fact it represents the very opposite. What this government is offering are similar policies to those which will condemn this country to a more severe downturn than many other nations in the global economy. Its solution to uncontrolled debt, spending and borrowing is ever more borrowing, spending and debt for future generations. Truly it is the ‘more of the same’ party which would take us back to an era when Britain was a watchword for unreliability and economic sickness.
David Cameron has made a strong, distinctive start on this with his recent speeches at Policy Exchange and the London School of Economics. The public is ready to accept fresh solutions. It is up to us now to offer them readily and start the long journey towards a stable economic future. However, we must continue to press the twin themes of change and security with equal vigour.