The British electorate faced a difficult choice last night. Should they watch the final Prime Ministerial debate, which focused on the number one issue – the economy – or should they watch Liverpool play Athetico Madrid in a semi final game of the Europa League? Most watched the soccer and they were wise to do so.
The debate, despite a few interesting moments, was as dull as ditchwater. Labour’s Gordon Brown hurled numbers and data at the viewer with no concern for their anger, despair or serious concerns about their jobs, inflation and rising prices of gasoline, housing and food. Nick Clegg, the liberal leader, was clearly out of his depth and struggled for coherence. David Cameron, increasingly looking like a future Prime Minister, scored goal after goal, yet never seemed to emerge as an insightful, caring and smart Conservative leader that the right wing press tell us that he is. The debate was tedious, uninspiring and contained only one new insight.
That insight is what the media picked up today – not one of the three leaders talked seriously about either taxation or spending cuts, both of which need to change if the next Government is to fight the growing problem of deficit, debt and out of control spending by the Government of Britain. And this matters. As the European Union is discovering, not tackling debt and not clawing back profligate spending has consequences – both Greece and Spain’s sovereign bonds are now officially “junk” and there is a growing concern that, even with both the IMF and the EU propping up Greece, there may be sovereign debt defaults in the Eurozone. Portugal and Italy are also in serious difficulties. Ireland and Britain are close behind. A failure to tackle this issue head-on and quickly will be disastrous for Britain. Everyone knows this and is ready for it, yet the leaders rarely talk about it.
One third of the British available for work population either works for Government or is paid in some measure by the Government. This is a large chunk of the electorate. The leaders fear that if they tell the truth about spending cuts, voters will desert them. Gordon Brown, for example, did not deny that some £20 billion will be cut from the National Health Service, but made the ridiculous claim that none of these cuts would have any impact on front line services – how naïve does he think the British electorate is. Cameron has also vowed not to cut health, yet it is a massively expensive and very inefficient service. Clegg’s position on cuts is also vague – he talks of efficiency and removing duplication.
Clegg’s most serious error is to insist that the banks should be forced to lend to those seeking to build small businesses or buy their first house. This is exactly what Governments should not be doing – creating a lend at any cost market for borrowers who cannot afford to pay back the loans. This is how the trouble began in the US and why lending has to be the target of tough regulation. Bank taxes and bonuses are not the issue – profligate risky lending is.
On taxation, all three are talking of taxing banks, outlawing bankers bonuses and making the financial system tougher. The Conservatives are talking about scaling back some payroll taxes, but they are not talking about increasing sales taxes and taxing inheritance – both of which they plan to do.
At the end of yesterday, polling still showed, all three parties are still so close that the election outcome still looks like a hung parliament. The Labour party is polling third, but the difference between the Conservatives and Labour are within the margin of error of the polls. The debate will have made no difference to the poll results. What will is the fact that Brown is increasingly looking and behaving like a loser.
On the day before the debate, Brown was confronted by a long time Labour supporter who asked him what he was going to do about jobs, adding that she thought the presence of so many Eastern Europeans was making it difficult for British workers to get jobs. He answered her question, not very coherently, but was heard to call her a “bigot” when he was getting in his car to be driven away. His comment was captured on tape and broadcast. He had to apologize and then work to recover his image, already that of a bully and an angry man. His recovery made, the people will not forget.
Cameron is increasingly looking like the main beneficiary of the peoples anger at Labour in general and Brown in particular, but not sufficiently statesman like to command the lead. In a hung parliament, he will need a large group of independent MP’s and the Liberals to form a coalition that can govern.
Clegg’s naiveté will be a problem for Cameron. Clegg is insisting of electoral reform as a precondition to collaboration and is also suggesting that the Liberals should get some cabinet seats. This is not at all what Cameron has in mind, so we can expect a prolonged struggle over the shape of the Government. Meanwhile, Brown’s acolytes have been exploring options with their Liberal counterparts. Given Brown’s thirst for power, it is thought by some that he is more likely to cut a deal with the Liberals than Cameron. As sitting Prime Minister, Brown will have first run at cabinet making – in a hung parliament, the Queen is likely to call on Brown to see if he can form a Government, even if the Conservatives have gained significantly more seats than they had at dissolution. Clegg signaled last week that, if Brown came third, he can hardly lay claim to being Prime Minister, suggesting that any deal with Labour would need to be with a different leader – also unlikely. So it will be a messy few days or weeks before the Government becomes clear.
Anthony Howard, the seasoned political observer, appearing on television, reminded viewers that there is a big difference between opinion polls and elections and also a good few days to go. He still thinks there could be a swing to the Conservatives sufficient to give them a very narrow victory, though concedes the possibility of a hung parliament. The way seats are distributed requires a significant swing – 12% or more – to the Conservatives for outright victory in 326 seats or more. Voters are so disgusted with the political class as a whole that such a large swing is unlikely.
The vote is on Thursday May 6th. There is long week-end holiday just before this, which will give some respite from the bickering of the leaders and the relentless television coverage. No one is wasting time talking about real austerity policies or real change – it is all now about trust. No one seems to have sufficient trust in the political class to give them a right to rule, which is the real lesson of this election to date.
Liverpool lost, by the way.