Prisoners of the Past

Prisoners of the Past

Paul Thompson: Prisoners of the Past

It?s not blindingly obvious that what parties put in their manifestos matters all that much during an election campaign. Few people read them and even fewer take them seriously as a guide to action. The best that could be said is that they may articulate a few key themes that might provide an identifiable narrative for voters.

As Alan Johnson has noted elsewhere on Arguing the World , the Tories used the manifesto launch to push their empowerment message. I?m a lot more skeptical than Alan. It?s a gloss on traditional small state ideology, which in the context of likely swinging public spending cuts will be a precursor to widespread privatization. Nor is there much sign that the electorate takes the progressive rhetoric of the Tories seriously given their prior record.

What of Labour? Their manifesto has more radical policies than 2001 or 2005. Drafted by Ed Miliband, it is more economically interventionist, seeks to regulate the market with respect to corporate activities in a way very different from the Tory “you?re on your own” message. But it lacks an identifiable theme. All that Mandelson could come up with was “Blair plus,” which is about as attractive to most of the electorate as the BNP describing its policies as Hitler lite.

Understandably, Miliband could barely hide his contempt for the phrase. New Labour has not articulated a sense of political direction for a long time. To counter “time for a change,” Brown has plugged the theme of “we are in the future business.” This has even less resonance than Tory empowerment. New Labour has just too much baggage, from Iraq to financial misdeeds and its disastrous love affair with the city and deregulation. Brown and company want to forge a new political settlement but that?s not possible without an honest conversation about its own previous actions and choices.

In sum, both major parties are prisoners of their past, and in the first televised debate it showed. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, won the debate because for much of the electorate he and his party have no past. Clegg?s “plague on both your houses” and “we?re not the old politics” line was designed to exploit that and it worked.

This is why Obama parallels don?t make any sense. Yes, the president was the change candidate, but given the length of the American election process he was a known quantity by the time of the actual vote. Instead, Clegg is a blank slate that the sections of the public can deposit their anti-establishment frustrations on. That such frustrations would surface during the campaign is predictable, and we also now know that the three-way television debates made it likely that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats would be the prime winners. But they won?t be the only ones. This election could break the mold. Whether what emerges will be remotely progressive is an entirely different matter.