About the daftest piece of legislation rushed through in the early days of this coalition government was the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
Not only was it technically flawed, but just when we thought the quality of political debate couldn’t get any worse, it has condemned us to the longest, most tedious and crass election campaign in our history. We still have another four months of this before we will probably elect a minority government of one shade or another that will last about 18 months.
Our whole constitution relies on the government of the day having a majority in the elected House of Commons. When support for the two major parties is at an all-time low, it is even more important that if that party loses its majority or the support of its parliamentary props among the smaller parties, then it resigns and triggers a fresh election. If parliamentarians have any sense, the first act of the new House will be to consign this ridiculous nonsense to the dustbin of history.
There is also a desperate need for plain speaking. Every poll underlines our collective mistrust of the current crop of politicians. The parties appear to assume voters are stupid. Take the Conservative claim to have halved the deficit. It is true the current deficit has been halved as a proportion of GDP — but in cash terms it has only been reduced by a third. And while it has been reduced, we owe billions more than when this government, including the chancellor, came to office.
Or take the Labour claim that a Tory government would deliberately destroy the NHS and sell it to their rich friends. Every MP and voter I have ever met believes that the great and undisputed strength of our NHS is that it is free at the point of demand based on need rather than means. No party has ever budged from that firm belief. It was actually the last Labour government that wisely decided they should let the private sector run some parts of the service to deliver it more efficiently.
All three main parties have fudged the immigration debate. They now look nervously over their shoulder at Nigel Farage, who appears to epitomise the plain speaking that voters long to hear on this and other issues.
Farage is living proof that to all life’s most complex problems there is a simple, one-sentence answer. The trouble is it’s always wrong. But he taps a frustration the other party leaders ignore at their peril.
At the last election David Cameron and George Osborne took the brave — some said rash — step of telling people that if they were elected things were going to be tough. Vote for me and I’ll make things difficult for you is not generally regarded as an attractive electoral message. But it rang more true in voters’ minds than the idea that we could just borrow our way out of trouble, and it worked. All three party leaders would do well to remember that lesson.
As usual, this election it’s the economy, stupid. The next government will need to eliminate our budget deficit and both major parties say they will do so. They will have to close a gap which is currently roughly £100bn a year. So, over the coming years they will have to increase tax revenues (not the same as increasing tax rates of course) and cut public spending. The Conservatives say the balance should be one third tax increases and two thirds spending cuts. Labour talks of a 50:50 split — although Ed Miliband has hinted at a higher proportion of tax increases. Each strategy poses major questions which the parties have so far fudged.
The sooner we see the parties taking that debate seriously, the sooner we might see some respect returning for the UK’s political class.
Steve Norris is a former Conservative minister and London mayoral candidate. He is chairman of Soho Estates and the National Planning and Infrastructure Association