Wednesday 4 December 2019 10:46 am

Let this dismal election spur us towards national renewal

Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre

For political nerds, a club of which I confess to being a fully paid-up member, elections are usually times of great excitement. Yet this election is by far the most dismal I have ever experienced. 

My general feeling — matched, it feels, by much of the electorate — is one of deep, gnawing disappointment and boredom. I can barely bear to read the papers or turn on the television.

I have never before, for example, experienced a TV audience laughing out loud at the leaders of both main parties when they are questioned on trust and truthfulness. It has been a disheartening experience watching programmes like Question Time where it has seemed that the only adults in the room are in the audience, not on the platform. And sometimes the party leaders refuse to even be in the room at all.

It was embarrassing to hear one audience member, to give one example among many, asking the panel why they would not be honest and tell the public that improved public services need to be paid for. “We all understand that, and would be happy to pay a little more to support our NHS and education,” she said. Well, quite.

Indeed, if the manifestos of the two main parties were subject to the same regulation as applies to commercial life, they would both be hauled up for mis-selling. 

The Conservative party manifesto seems driven by the desire to do as little as possible, except pretend that endless repetition of “Get Brexit Done” somehow adds credibility to a slogan that is just as vacuous as Theresa May’s “Brexit Means Brexit”. 

As for the rest of it, all the Tories promise is a dollop of extra expenditure without any tax increases to pay for it — a promise that has been fully discredited by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). 

Our economy and our politics are in crisis, and the best that Boris Johnson can do is to avoid as many TV debates and interviews as possible, lest he be pressed on anything the voters might care about.

It is hard to believe that this flaccid, shirking, do-nothing incarnation of the Conservatives is the same party once led by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. 

The Labour party has gone the other way. It has embraced the imperative of radical reform of much of our economy — by coercion if necessary.

Labour’s manifesto is a hive of hyperactivity promising to change Britain from top to bottom. Such a boiling-the-ocean programme is both undeliverable and backward-looking, harking back to 1970s socialism. This is not a programme for a 21st-century world. And of course, Labour’s fiscal promises, from free broadband to a vast investment plan, have also been savaged by the IFS.

Labour has a point that laissez faire governance has been taken too far, and that we may well need a more robust state to guide us through what is rapidly becoming a near-anarchic free-for-all. But that need not mean state intrusion into every aspect of people’s lives, nor an attack on so many areas of business. The British people will not stand for a regurgitation of that which led the UK economy to collapse in the 1970s.

Such good policies as have been ventured — for example, the Liberal Democrats’ idea to change our education system from being a joyless exam factory to one focused on building enthusiasm and wellbeing among students — are having zero cut-through among the depressing cacophony of fabrications, misrepresentations, and outright deceits that is the current election campaign.

What I am left with is a distinct feeling of the end of times — or at least, of an era. Our system of political economy is running out of steam. It has reached the end of its useful life, and many are crying out for a new model fit for a 21st-century world to emerge. 

Our political parties and policymakers are, quite reasonably, struggling to see the shape of any such future system. They are therefore caught between the Conservatives’ paralysing fear of doing anything that might rock the boat and Labour’s delusion that everything can be changed overnight to some backward-looking design dreamt up in a party HQ nostalgia session.

In the early 20th century, the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci put it like this: “The old is dying, and the new is struggling to be born; in this interregnum a variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Something positive can, therefore, come out of the current gloomy situation — and not necessarily a Communist revolution. Rather, this turmoil is a sign that the country has embarked upon a process of much-needed change and renewal. This dismal election is merely a part of that process. We will come out of this funk at the other end — eventually. 

The challenge for citizens is to ensure that we become an active part of that renewal, rather than sitting on the sidelines and continuing to delude ourselves that our tired political establishment and archaic parties can sort it all out.

On that journey of renewal, a hung parliament that forces a deeper rethink of our system would be the best outcome for this election. Neither of the two larger parties should be trusted with the keys to the kingdom.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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