The phoney war begins

Everyone knows that the General Election is this year. So, like clockwork, on the year’s first working day, the spin machines of both Labour and the Conservatives trundle into action, and then into overdrive and counter-spin, back-spin, side-spin and top-spin.

How long before they go into tail-spin?

You can now watch both in glorious web-colour in this BBC article.

The big problem with both Alastair Darling — stuttering and slipping his way through his speech like a reveller who has walked out onto the ice — and David Cameron — sauntering up to the microphone, leaning on the podium, like a Blairette imitating his idol — is that both were strong on attacking the credibility of the other, but bring no credibility of their own. Darling, of course, has not been a disastrous Chancellor, just an unlucky one. The world economic crisis would have happened whatever he did. It was just his bad luck that it happened on his watch. However, like Napoleon’s generals, we, the public, prefer lucky chancellors. David Cameron is not a bad man. He’s had some personal tragedy to contend with, and it probably really has changed him as a person. But he has no credentials for running the economy, and neither has his sidekick George Osborne.

It is much easier to shred the credibility of your opponent than to put up something credible. But credibility, or, more importantly, trustworthiness, is what politicians have in shortest supply at this time. We do not really care whether George Osborne’s budget is full of holes, or whether David Cameron really saw eleven mistakes in eleven seconds (seems a bit unlikely, though) in Alastair Darling’s analysis. What we really care about is whether or not we can really trust either of them.

On today’s showing, we cannot. Vince Cable, now the most trusted man in British politics, and probably the one politician people really trust with the economy, wisely stayed silent today. He does not need to enter the phoney war yet. After a decade of telling us that Punch and Judy politics is over, Darling and Cameron clashed in exactly that fashion. There will be other, more serious battles, but keeping out of that particular clash of sausage and hammer says a lot more about Vince Cable than either Darling or Cameron were able to say about themselves.

For “war-cabinet” read “My team isn’t good enough”

UK Conservative leader David Cameron has a problem. If he really believes that he is going to lead the country later this year (though the polls are pointing towards a hung-parliament), then his team is simply not strong enough. True, he’s got former chancellor Ken Clarke — good old Ken — but, aside from that, he has no-one with economic clout and muscle. And his party is determined that it will not follow Clarkeonomics, whatever happens.

His speech this weekend is full of promises on what he would to the economy. And I do mean ‘to’. The problem is, neither David Cameron nor treasury spokesman George Osborne have ever managed the finances of a large company, let alone a country. Their careers have largely been as political advisors and opposition MPs. They are skilled in saying things that sound right. They don’t have experience doing them.

If the General Election were a job interview, then David Cameron would be the candidate who has all the right words on the application form but, when questioned, can give no examples of how he has done them, and little specific about how he would do them, if given the chance.

This is the real reason why David Cameron has now suggested a ‘war-cabinet’. He’s thinking specifically of the war in Afghanistan, but he’s already made overtures to the Lib-Dems about us ‘not being so different’ in other areas. Clearly, Cameron’s hope is not very distant from Brown’s abortive ‘government of all the talents’.

Cameron doesn’t have the people who can rescue Britain’s economy, and he’s hoping that other parties will provide them. Naturally, of course, what he really wants is Vince Cable, the Lib-Dem treasury spokesman who foresaw the economic crisis, warned against it, and is the most trusted man in British politics. Gordon Brown wanted the same thing, and also didn’t get it.

It’s all very well for Cameron to talk about swingeing cuts to the public sector, higher taxes and (essentially) a national austerity programme. But this is not how companies are successfully turned around. My experience of turn-arounds, as a senior manager in some quite different organisations, is that it’s all about the senior team sitting down more or less every day tugging, tacking, adjusting, checking and re-checking the analysis, probing potential avenues, following up good decisions with careful planning even more carefully executed. Above all, it’s about a positive skepticism when things appear to be going in the right direction. Foolish optimism has been the death of far too many corporate recoveries.

It’s true that, in turn-arounds, companies do sometimes make redundancies, cut costs, increase their income stream by raising prices, issuing shares, or selling off capital. But companies that entirely fail to turn around and fizzle into administration also do all of these things. Especially when powerful forces are defending their own budgets, it’s often easier to cut the bits of the organisation that actually make it work, than to identify inefficiencies and deal with those. In fact, any company-wide solution, such as the ones Cameron describes, is apt to failure in a time of crisis. When times are good, companies can engage in grandiose strategy-rhetoric, and get away with it. When things are tight, the margin for error is slight, and the big picture stuff, without the little picture execution, hastens demise.

Cameron is increasingly revealing that he knows he does not have the team to make it work. Good. Voters should look elsewhere. Everyone know who the next Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to be. The current political system does not favour that solution. But it is five or more months to the election. And even a week in politics is a long time.

Give parliament a clean start

Just 265 MPs have stated definitely that they will stand again, and parliamentary officials are predicting a quarter of MPs will eventually stand down before the General Election, according to the Daily Telegraph. Although this is set to be the biggest exodus in living memory, voters may legitimately be asking the question: “why aren’t more going?” We know that politics in Britain is broken. A large number of MPs who assisted in breaking it, by first voting against the disclosure of their expenses, and then through their unrepentant response when found out, are still staying. Should we really rehire the people who broke it to fix it?

Staying on too long in parliament is like staying too long as the captain of a sports team, when you no longer have the fitness and reactions to be there. I feel this somewhat keenly at the moment, since, as of 1 January, I have stepped down from captaining the West Midlands fencing team. At the age of 43, I am more than twice as old as half of the team, and it was time to move on. The upper age for politics is rather older, but even MPs need to recognise when it’s time to go. This time, though, it’s not retirement and pension which is the issue — it’s the simple fact that MPs have lost our confidence. For some this is an unfair ‘guilty by association’, but others lost our trust because they abused it. For the good of the team, they need to be off.

It appears, though, that not everyone has got the message. In fact, we have politicians who fought tooth and nail against Heather Brooke’s campaign for full disclosure of expenses, voted against it in parliament, and then tried to resurrect their careers and put one over on their opponents by representing themselves as the peoples’ champions when the Telegraph got hold of the story.

We are expecting a number of announcements over the next weeks. Some MPs can honourably step down, having worked hard for many years for the good of their constituents. They deserve our respect. Some MPs who are expenses-damaged but still holding on should go. That way, they can win back some of our respect, and ensure that the next parliament is given the best possible start with a clean slate.

It will be a long, hard job to win back the confidence of the public. But it is a job which must be done, no matter how hard, nor how long.

In 2010, demand better

British democracy has three problems. The vast majority of votes make no difference to who forms the government. The system persuades governments to go for short term wins at long term cost. Many politicians believe, or have believed, that you can get away with it.

Actually, we don’t have to have any of these things, and in 2010, we are in a position to demand better.

MPs are only beginning to get the message that they can no longer get away with it in the way they once did. Even that really only applies to expenses. I discovered recently that one MP was writing to newspapers to praise himself for not having to repay expenses, while at the same time making a profit of £1 million on a second home whose mortgage had been paid by the taxpayer. Clearly, he still believes he can get away with the second part, as long as he isn’t stained by the first. Some MPs appear to believe that they can conceal their background of privilege. Others appear to believe that past criminal behaviour will never come to haunt them. Many seem to think that a safe-seat means the electorate will never hold them to account for any of it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we should. Letters to the MP. Letters to the local newspaper. Reminding ourselves and our friends that we don’t have to put up with it. Changing the way we vote.

The bi-polar parliamentary system ensures there is little continuity from election to election. Even a party winning a second term can abandon the promises of its first term on the grounds that it has sought a new mandate for a new manifesto. More importantly, although it will probably be blamed for things which it does which later turn out poorly, it can almost guarantee not to be blamed for things which it doesn’t do. We are only in the situation regarding climate change now because successive governments did nothing. In the 1980s, instead of using North Sea oil money to build an infrastructure which no longer relied on fossil fuels, we spent the money getting ourselves out of recession and back into boom-and-bust. True, at the time we were mainly worried about when the oil ran out, and to a lesser extent about pollution. But both of those, if acted upon, would have been enough to help us stave off the catastrophe our grandchildren will now face. We don’t have to have two big parties which hate each other and use every opportunity to ridicule each other and scupper one another’s plans. Of course, any attempt to change this is met with the argument “this is how things have to work”. But they don’t. Other countries, not just the ones we tell jokes about, have multi-party systems, and parties and politicians are held responsible over the course of several parliaments.

In 2010, we can insist on grown-up politics. We can demand that our elected leaders work together for the common good. We do not have to tolerate bickering in the House of Commons. Once again, it will only change if we make sure our politicians know that it is what we expect and demand.

We now face the prospect of a General Election whose result may well be decided by ten or so swing seats up and down the country. No party is predicted to get anywhere near 50% of the vote. But one party or another may well discover it can form a government based on how many of those swing seats go which way. Those ten seats have, between them, less than a million voters. Turnout is likely to be around 70%. The winner in each of those seats will probably be winning with 35-45 per cent of the votes cast. The actual majority is liable to be 3-5 per cent in each of those seats. Which means that the fate of 61 million people may be settled by the swing votes of less than 100,000 people. In other words, less than 2% of the voters will decide the fate of all of us.

We all laughed at the way George W Bush won his first term despite the fact that most people voted for his opponent. But our system is more laughable than that.

We almost certainly do have to put up with this in 2010. We do not have to put up with afterwards. Again, change will only happen if we make it clear that this is what we want, and we are prepared to change our votes to get it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we owe it to ourselves to do so.

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