In the opening week of official election campaigning, the big issue seems to be whether National Insurance rates should go up. The ‘deeper questions’ behind this particular issue are not much more gripping. Can Labour maintain public spending without damaging global market confidence in Britain’s finances? Can the Tories cut the deficit and pay for tax cuts using ‘efficiency savings’? Can the Lib Dems elbow in on this apparent re-run of traditional Labour v Tory debates on tax cuts v public spending? The problem of course is not that economic policy is dull or uninteresting, but that these debates aren’t about economic policy at all, but rather trivial gimmicks and mood music.
All the talk over whether this or that policy would ‘put the recovery at risk’ assumes that the recovery is a quasi-natural phenomenon that can basically be taken for granted. Get this or that right, we are told, and it’ll be 2005 again before we know it. There is no sense of the deeper problems underlying the recent downturn, and no longer-term thinking about what needs to be done to ensure the kind of growth that would make economic policy, and perhaps even the rate of National Insurance, something worth arguing about. This is not surprising of course. The election campaign so far merely confirms that the current crisis is not merely ‘economic’, but societal. With no substantial debate about the nature of contemporary capitalism, let alone any alternative, the political class drifts along in a dream world, while the rest of us can only hope things are not as bad as we fear they might be. Who needs catastrophic climate change?
In this context, it is crucially important that the political class is not allowed to make the election campaign all about its own narrow concerns. There may be no realistic prospect of the election bringing in a progressive or even effective government, but we can at least take the opportunity to open up political debate and develop an alternative agenda. This is the thinking behind the Institute of Ideas’ 21 Pledges for Progress. On this blog, we’ll comment on election campaign developments from the perspective outlined in the pledges, and aim to inject some political substance into the debate.
Of course, a number of other organisations and campaign groups are thinking along the same lines, including POWER2010, which has published a five-point pledge for constitutional reform, and the anti-monarchy campaign Republic, which has its own Democracy Pledge. The Guardian’s Liberty Central blog has published a list of questions on freedom issues to put to candidates, while the Christian think tank Ekklesia has launched what it calls an ‘ethics election’. Rather than limiting our commentary to the antics of the main parties, we’ll also look to engage with these and other initiatives. If you know of any, or are involved in similar campaigns, please let me know.