Friday, 22 October 2010

Could we have had a British Tea Party?

If Gordon Brown had formed a government in May of this year politics in this country would have been very different. Lord Ashcroft's analysis of the campaign concluded that if the Conservative Party's target seat campaign hadn't been as successful as it was, then Labour would most probably have been the largest party in the House of Commons.
So this week we could have seen Chancellor Ed Balls announcing increased spending on schools and housing to go on top of the tax rises introduced in his June Budget. We would have seen a growth in the size of the state and a return to Keynesian economics of the scale not seen since the 1930s. This is very similar to the path President Obama has taken the US down over the past 18 months - a huge stimulus package aimed to get the US to spend its way out of the recession.

While the current government faces criticism for not being straight with the electorate over the cuts announced this week, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have managed to re-shape the way politics is conducted. The manner in which the coalition government was formed 'in the national interest' has gone some way to reduce the belief that politicians are in it for themselves. The belief that politicians only care about retaining power is a key driver of the Tea Party movement in America.

A further root of the Tea Party movement is a deep worry of the size of government, the level of bailouts to the banks, the stimulus and the expansion of government supported welfare including health care. This all feeds into a sense that politics is a self satisfying, self justifying runaway train with no one working in 'the machine' of Washington prepared to slam the brakes on. A movement that started as grassroots campaign in just a few States is now being described as a cause.      

So the mid-term elections are gripped by a political narrative driven by the Tea Party: outrage that politicians simply don't listen and merely pay lip service to an ever increasing national debt. This is in stark contrast to the view in the UK seen in today's YouGov poll which says the majority believe the spending cuts to be unavoidable. But we are only a few chess moves away from being in the same position as the US.

Polls on both sides of the Atlantic conclude that people are generally dissatisfied with the way their politicians are performing. There is a cynicism and lack of trust at a level never seen before. While some fundamentals that affect the well-being of families are not yet right: both the US and UK economies are sluggish when compared to other countries, most notably Germany.

Where the UK is different is that the expenses scandal has allowed a new broom to sweep through the House of Commons. Old, very nearly dead, wood has been replaced. Individual constituencies were left satisfied that they had voted for change at the General Election. This even if they returned a politician of the same political colour. The make up of the new Commons has also allowed a few 'mavericks' to be added to the mix. While in US politics, it seems you only gain credibility if you are seen as an outsider, in the UK the MPs of the coalition have, and are, changing the way politics is conducted.

If Prime Minister Gordon Brown was still in Number 10 and using his great clunking fist and cabal of enforcers to govern, what would the reaction of the new intake have been? It might have been the case that a few of the more independently minded of the Conservative Party may well have started to take the opposition party away from the centre ground. Some 'A listers' who have little loyalty to the Party could have become serial rebels. A vocal few may have rallied around the flag of David Davis as he called for a reduction in the size of the state to a nominal percentage of GDP. The Birmingham conference could have become the start of a Barry Goldwater style rebellion against the Conservative leadership and its perceived lack of ideological backbone.      

We have seen a grassroots movement challenge the political establishment in the UK in recent times and make a significant impact in a short space of time. The Referendum Party was, however, much more a single issue party than the Tea Party movement is in the US. If Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister many of their concerns would be applicable here in the UK. For that reason alone we should be thankful for this week's spending review and its cuts.

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