Chris Giles wrote about a month ago that “Britain will not have much of a choice at the 2015 election. However much they talk about clear differences, the parties have rarely been closer on economics”. He will probably hate me for saying this, but I was reminded of his article when I watched this interview between Jeremy Paxman and Russell Brand. The common theme, which Chris Dillow also picks up, is that the current political system offers no real choice.
This theme, common on the left, has a long pedigree. I remember being told to stop being exercised by hanging chads in 2000 because a Gore presidency would be very much like a Bush presidency. This idea is clearly ludicrous if we look at US politics today. But does it apply to the UK? I’m afraid I’m going to be very unforgiving. It either represents naivety or indulgence.
Chris Giles has grounds for his view, in that on issues like austerity Labour are trying hard not to appear very different from the current coalition. On the other hand, if you are struggling to ‘pay the bedroom tax’, Labour’s commitment to abolish it could make a big difference to your life. He may also be right that the actual content of Ed Miliband’s conference proposals on energy and housing are modest, and hardly the return to full bloodied socialism that some on the right hysterically proclaim. The governments ‘Help to Buy’ scheme is much more likely to involve a prolonged period of government intervention in a market. But I think if you were to conclude from this that a Labour government after 2015 would have a similar economic policy to a Conservative government, you would be being very naive.
Consider two big dividing lines between left and right on economic policy: the size of the state and the distribution of income. On the first, there are strong arguments that the current government’s austerity programme is not so much about the perils of high debt but a deliberate attempt to roll back the size of the state. Is it really likely that Labour would continue that policy if it was elected? It is much more likely that we would see a repeat of what happened under the last Labour government: an initial period of sticking to inherited plans to demonstrate prudence, and then a programme of real growth in areas like health and education. On the second, as I outlined here, the current government’s policies will lead to a significant increase in poverty over the next decade. When it was last in power, Labour tried very hard to achieve the opposite (although I agree it was much more concerned about poverty than inequality). Is it really likely that Labour will behave quite differently, and much more like the Conservatives, if they regain power?
Now you could argue that the financial situation of the government will remain so dire after 2015 that any government will be forced to keep cutting spending and welfare. Maybe. However I think it is more likely that the economic recovery will turn out to be much stronger than currently forecast, and that the OBR will revise up their estimate of potential output as this happens. This will create 'fiscal space'. If this occurs under the Conservatives, I would put my money on significant tax cuts, while under Labour we will see many of today’s cuts in spending and welfare reversed.
Another way of making the same point is that it is naive to believe politicians when they set out their political programmes. In a two party system within the framework of a simple left/right scheme, it may be optimal as an opposition to position yourself just to the side of your opponent, as long as this does not alienate your core vote. Once you regain power you can revert to type. (Remember Cameron’s compassionate conservatism before the last election.) The problem with that dynamic is that it may lead to the appearance that ‘all politicians are the same’ as we move towards an election, which may discourage some ‘rationally naive’ potential voters (those who are not too interested in politics) from voting. (It may also generate such a negative view of politicians that it leads otherwise sane people into rather silly positions.)
It is clear that Russell Brand is not disinterested in politics, so he should not be so naive. He seems pretty passionate about issues like equality and climate change, so it seems blindingly obvious to me who he should vote for. So why does he appear to encourage others not to vote? The argument of the true revolutionary is that anything that makes the current system more palatable just delays the revolutions eventual triumph. But that need not be what is going on here. Instead it could be a reluctance to be associated, however mildly, with a political party that is far from your political ideal (even though it is not quite as far from your ideal as the others). The number of times I have heard someone say: ‘Even though I hate party B, I couldn’t possibly vote for A because of their position on X’. But as I have argued above, the gap between parties A and B (and C) can make a significant difference when one gains power. So to refuse to vote for A because it makes you feel somehow complicit in the aspects of A’s platform you do not like seems to me just personal indulgence.
This is not to dispute that many like Brand or Dillow feel that we require much more radical change than is offered by mainstream politics. They should continue to use the media to promote that view when they can. But for people like them, working out which political party is the least bad is fairly costless. Using this knowledge to vote, and making this knowledge public, does not compromise their more radical views, and it could help make a significant difference to many peoples’ lives.