Give us a choice

“Have the people given up on politics or has politics given up on them?” asks Janet Daley in today’s Sunday Telegraph.  She writes at the end of the week that saw UKIP (“a party that will never form a government, and that has vilified all the plausible governing parties”) come second in Eastleigh, and a stand-up comedian ‘Beppe’ Grillo win the balance of power (a privilege he says he will not exercise) in the next government of Italy.

So why are voters moving away from the mainstream?  For Daley, it’s all about choice.  Or rather, the lack of it as Tories, Labour and Lib Dems converge around a mythical ‘middle ground’.

We hear a lot about the middle ground these days.  As politics become more professional, more centred on the Westminster bubble and more detached from the real world, the middle ground has become a kind of holy grail for politicians and pundits.

Everyone wants to be on the middle ground, it seems.  But It’s a strange-sounding place. Where ideas don’t matter, only impressions. Where nothing but consensus counts – and anything off the mainstream menu is considered unthinkable and extreme.

The middle ground is an insult to voters’ intelligence – and it’s sucking the life out of politics. If our political classes wonder why we’re staying away in droves, just consider what’s on offer on polling day.  More of the same – differentiated only by the colour of the rosettes.  And – as if to distract us (or keep themselves interested) – a background drone of manufactured outrage, posing and low-level scandals.

As Daley concludes (before moving onto US politics: another uninspiring example showing that every unhappy polity is unhappy in its own way): “Democratic politics is about choosing between differing political options: without significant meaningful differences between parties, the democratic process is pointless.”

So – as National Conversation pilot confirmed – if we want to rejuvenate democracy in the UK we need politicians to get off the centre ground, and give people real choices

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Can universal benefits survive?

Universal benefits – paid to everyone regardless of income – are coming under increasing scrutiny as the government tries to reduce the welfare bill.

Last week The Sun launched a “Ditch Handouts to the Rich”campaign, targeting benefits like the Winter Fuel Allowance that are paid to all pensioners.

Over the weekend, Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph weighed in to the debate, writing that “the state can no longer afford blanket cash handouts to whole swaths of the population, based on quite arbitrary criteria (an age which is not even the normal retirement point) and regardless of their individual means.”

In The Guardian, Michael White seems to agree that “free bus passes and winter fuel help for dukes and bankers are hard to justify as “progressive universalism” except in political terms: it locks them in.”  He believes Beveridge would have been “puzzled” by efforts aimed at “defending benefits for high earners solely on principle.”

Is “principle” a strong enough reason for keeping universal benefits or – as benefits and pensions approach one third of the national budget (£202.6 bn, from an overall spend of £701.7bn last year) – do we need to re-think the system?

Get out and make your case

In today’s Sunday Telegraph, Janet Daley takes the Conservative leadership to task for a failure to engage with its own party or the wider public.

Daley doesn’t pull any punches, warning against “policy-by-focus-group” and advising David Cameron and George Osborne to leave “the bunker” and start to test and temper their ideas in the crucible of public debate.

Key quote: “the greatest danger in refusing to engage with argument … is that you never get to test your position and perfect your case. This weakness – the inability to anticipate objections and pitfalls because you have not bothered to construct a rigorous defence – has cost the Tory leadership a great deal…”

Getting out and engaging with people always carries a risk.  But by not starting a real and meaningful conversation with the public, politicians risk being left behind.