Conference season brings out the worst in British politics. No question about it. Bad jokes intended to tickle the faithful. Set piece speeches designed to rally them if they’re flagging. All sprinkled with the odd soundbite designed to hit the news headlines in the mainstream media. We are offered question and answer sessions displaying differing degrees of robustness. Some appear genuinely challenging; some appear stuffed with planted questions from oleaginous party wannabes. Most of the material is delivered in a ponderous and uninspiring manner. The lack of gifted orators among the current generation of frontbench politicians is all too obvious.
But the most depressing aspect of conference season is how disconnected from reality it can all become. Hypocrisy is inevitable in politics. There are no doubt delicate diplomatic situations in which telling the unvarnished truth would be unwise or dangerous. But the industrial scale dissembling we witness at this time of year does little except bring politicians further into disrepute.
This is perhaps most evident at the current Conservative party conference.
That is not necessarily because it is the Tories. Rather, there is more at stake for the party in power – greater incentive to claim the credit and greater temptation to promise the earth. We are witnessing a parade of ministers making statements that they must know either promise the unachievable, are flat-out wrong, or are bending the truth to breaking point.
Theresa May’s excursion into criticism of the Human Rights Act is a classic of the genre. Sure, she was careful to say in her newspaper interview at the weekend that personally she would like to get rid of the HRA – which is different from saying it is any sort of policy position. It is undoubtedly possible to finesse the edges of the current law and hope this doesn’t attract scrutiny from across the Channel. But she must know that it is next to impossible to get rid off the main obligations embedded in the HRA without largely disengaging from Europe. Of course, you can relabel the obligations as part of a “British Bill of Rights” if you like. But the substance isn’t going to change much. And that isn’t what her hang ‘em and flog ‘em Little Englander audience wants to hear, or is hearing.
George Osborne’s focus upon further labour market deregulation has a slightly different flavour. Any candid assessment of what is within the Government’s power when dealing with the economic crisis would be driven to the conclusion that the options are seriously limited. One thing that is certain is that the problems facing the country are not a result of too much labour market regulation. As Rick at Flip Chart Fairy Tales reminds us, the UK already has one of the most lightly regulated labour markets in the advanced world. And more heavily regulated countries seem to be doing rather better than the UK in weathering this particular storm. So the Chancellor’s announcements are going to make next to no difference to growth. Mr Osborne isn’t stupid. He must know that these actions are largely symbolic. But the symbolism is significant. The moves are highly ideological. They, of course, shift the balance of power further in favour of the employer. That is to be expected from this most partisan of parties.
Some of the claims made by Ian Duncan Smith for his welfare reforms are equally questionable. At one level, IDS is to be commended for attempting something ambitious that has eluded previous reformers. Given how high the stakes are he no doubt feels obliged to talk up the reforms. But he is clearly over-promising.
Take the example of housing costs. The problem of how to recognise rental costs in a system of housing support has bedevilled policy ever since Britain implemented a national system of housing allowances under Supplementary Benefit in 1972. The challenge is to develop a system that can cope with huge spatial variations in costs. If it works in London then it is too generous in Northumberland. If it works in Northumberland then households in London are reduced to penury. Of course the current system, which has moved from local reference rents to broad rental market areas, gets some way to addressing the issue. But no one has managed to crack the problem entirely satisfactorily. And this is in a system designed specifically to do so. So one has to be sceptical about the current attempt to integrate housing successfully into a universal system. That isn’t an argument against trying. But it is an argument for hard-headed realism not hubris.
The trouble with policy pronouncements of this type – whichever party is making them – is that they treat the audience as unsophisticated and simple-minded. The problems government has to deal with are complex and multidimensional. The chances of them succumbing to simple solutions are pretty remote. The chances of them succumbing to simple solutions that draw their inspiration from ideology rather than evidence are even more limited.
Then again, given the Pavlovian reaction some of these pronouncements receive when set before the massed ranks of the faithful, the politicians appear to have a rather acute sense of what the people are looking for. And what that says about the quality of critical engagement with the most pressing issues of the day is the most depressing aspect of all.