Same Difference

by Quinn

It is tempting to say that the two main political parties are almost identical to each other these days. Tempting, but wrong. There are still some significant differences; for example, I would rather set myself on fire than vote Conservative, whereas I think a mere scalding from a just-boiled kettle would be preferable to voting Labour, though only just. That’s quite a gulf.

But this squabbling between the Tories and Labour over who first thought of reviewing the police stop and search laws seems a sign of the times. It is not as if this is the first occasion that something like this has happened; there were similar complaints last year over the parties’ inheritance tax plans, and the accusations that one party is stealing the other’s clothes go round and round. There needn’t even be any policy in the first place for the parties to mirror each other; re-defining the term “brassneck”, the Tories have been accusing the government of dithering over Northern Rock since September, all the while shuffling around without a coherent thought to call their own on the subject. Well, that is until recently, since the odd shadow junior minister has now been allowed to appear in the media and, when pressed and pressed on the matter, eventually been permitted to mumble “administration”, sotto voce, in the hope that no one hears.

What a change around. Perhaps it is because my political consciousness was forged and battle-hardened during the Thatcher years, but I still find this all quite peculiar. During the ‘eighties it was all but unheard of for Labour and the Conservatives to agree on anything, and often their disagreements were quite vicious. At that time any bad economic news was greeted with fury on the Labour benches – quite unlike the smug and gleeful hand-rubbing you currently sense from the Tories – and if a single proposal from either party had appeared to mimic a policy of the other you can only imagine it would have caused revulsion, soul-searching and self-flagellation on the part of the policy makers.

It is undoubtedly a good thing if political parties don’t reject a policy out of hand and out of dogma simply because it is part of the opposition’s manifesto, but I’m not sure we are any better off nowadays. Rather than seek to present their own firmly held beliefs in order to win the hearts and minds of the electorate all that seems to matter now is winning a handful of votes in a handful of swing seats; and yet all the while each party still instinctively opposes whatever the other party says, only on ever more spurious grounds. How can the government prevent people from being daft enough to leave a laptop in a car? How can the opposition prevent it in the future? The parties fight it out in wheezes and japes, through proposing unsolicited terror legislation in order to characterise the opposition as being weak on security when they’re not, or by asking a question at PMQs just a few days before a report is to be published on the very same subject – knowing full well that the prime minister can’t pre-empt the report – purely to portray him as someone who can’t answer a straight question.

All this rather than doing the job they are paid for doing; to introduce only the laws that are necessary, or to effectively hold the executive to account. It seems to me that Derek Conway’s sons aren’t the only ones to have received public money while failing to do the parliamentary work we should expect of them.