Editorial: Politics on the ropes

There is little enthusiasm for our current leaders
April 24, 2013

Dave, Ed or Nick—asked who they would rather sit next to on a train, voters grudgingly said they’d prefer the prime minister (Peter Kellner, £), but there wasn’t much in it. Or much enthusiasm. Electoral politics has had a bad decade. The world’s old liberal democracies have been hit by shocks they did not foresee, even if they caused them—Iraq, collapsing banks, currency turmoil. Their claim to have built the highway leading to “the end of history”—a state of perfection in organising a society—has understandably been regarded with suspicion, or derision, elsewhere.

Mark Mazower (£), author of majestic histories of Greece and of 20th century Europe, describes how the promises of democracy have never been as straightforward as its advocates often portray. But in some places where it has the deepest roots, it is now on the defensive, as elected politicians struggle to persuade disaffected voters to tolerate cuts, while finding ways to promote growth, regulate finance and blunt the impact of inequality. When people don’t have the right to vote for their leaders they desperately want it (as Anthony Loyd’s report (£) on Iraq, and our poll for the top world thinker of 2013 both show). But elsewhere, governments are having to argue for their legitimacy anew.

In Britain, recession has been lethal for each party’s capacity for reform; it is no coincidence that they are all floundering, although there are the first signs of a debate which could change politics for the better. Each party claims to be progressive in the sense of professing to measure economic progress not just by growth but by some notion of social justice. But so far each has failed to offer a way to encourage growth, preserve entrepreneurial incentives, make necessary cuts to public spending but counter the effects of inequality.

Conservatives have not shown that they are convinced that inequality is a problem. But Alison Wolf shows (£) how, even when created by meritocracy, it can be damaging to social mobility. That is the wider lesson of her portrait of the new “super-families”—where both parents are highly educated and in professional jobs—and who, she says, can build a fortress of money to secure the path of their offspring to the same life. Richard Lambert (£), vice chancellor of Warwick University, attacks the student loan scheme (which the government said should not discourage poorer students) as unsustainable. (On a more positive note, David Goodhart finds one successful attempt to promote ethnic integration).

Ed Miliband’s team has been no better—their reflex has been to increase taxes on “the rich” and to oppose cuts. This is hardly the “growth policy” for which they have been clamouring. They have failed to show, either, that they could contemplate the kind of reshaping of welfare that is now inevitable.

This debate will dominate the 2015 election. Parties need to show how they will reshape welfare and pensions to spend more on the poor and young, in a way that helps growth. How they should do that is a question on which Prospect will focus over the coming months.