Back to politics as usual?

The Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken today on the themes for the Conservatives’ general election campaign.

The main one is cutting the deficit. I’ll come back to that. The other significance of the Prime Minister’s speech is that – alongside briefing by the Labour Leader on a living standards index and other issues – perhaps it marks a return to politics as usual after the terror attacks in France last week. I say perhaps because it isn’t obvious that politics stopped. This is true in the straight forward sense that public decisions are taken constantly, the meaning of politics is to contest them and the decisions taken during a period of violence, threat or anxiety are contestable too. And after all the Prime Minister did speak about security today and took questions on whether further changes to the law in the UK are needed. This will now unavoidably be an issue in the general election campaign.

Aside from this my reason for saying that perhaps politics didn’t stop is that there was hardly anyone in Trafalgar Square yesterday to coincide with the huge marches across France, a couple of thousand people, and those mainly French. This doesn’t matter except that the news coverage of the attacks and then the reaction to them has been on a different scale altogether, just as much as the activity on social media. I wonder if we’re good spectators in the UK and we think spectating is enough. Our time zone, smartphone ownership, the breadth and activity level of our news media – there are lots of reasons why we are well positioned to spectate. Declining support for the major political parties, as for other mass movements, a limited set of citizens’ values and practices – there are equally lots of reasons why we might not do anything more than spectate.

This matters if only because we’re told that the probability of similar terrorist action to that we’ve watched in France taking place in the UK is high, and perhaps rising. Do we have it in us to come out into the streets and show solidarity if we’re attacked? Or will we merely spectate while politicians model a security response – which will nevertheless divide opinion – and attempt to say something about our common values – which will be inauthentic because we’re not saying it with them.

This is my big worry about our politics as we start the run up to the general election. At least for the moment it’s an abstract one, though debates about immigration and integration are already straining our politics in similar ways. And I mention it tentatively, in fact I’ve spent the last few days carefully failing to put pen to paper. Grief mixed with the flurry of hashtags makes it hard to know for sure when you’re saying something sensible and when you’re talking nonsense.

But the same tension between spectating and responding arises in relation to the deficit as will. I feel on surer ground here. The SMF published a report on the parties’ plans for deficit reduction just before the Autumn Statement. We will shortly release an updated version that paper with details of what was said by the Chancellor and others in response. The fundamentals haven’t changed: different future growth scenarios change completely our view of whether the parties’ plans will be achieved or not; and we still know remarkably little about how any of the parties will achieve their plans in detail.

To say this – and there are more and more people saying it – is already to do more than spectate. Responding means going further in two ways: first, given the importance of growth in deficit reduction, to show where different elements of growth-related spending are located within Government budgets then review the evidence on which types of spending have the biggest effect on growth – this will be our next paper in the series; and secondly, given the very high likelihood that, whoever is in power after the election, public spending on services will fall, to consider how civil society and private individuals can respond in the midst of reform, decentralisation and user charging. To this second end, we will be producing papers on what budgets, and on the basis of what arguments, could be ring-fenced during the next Parliament; as well as developing examples of how spending could be cut while reforming services or providing them in different ways. More for less stretches credibility as a mantra, different for less, is what we mean to explore. The Prime Minister stuck to the headline on deficit reduction today; and Labour stuck to its headline in responding. It would be a failure of our politics if both were able to do that all the time until May.


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