Ballot papers

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Four politicians set out the main parties' pre-election wares. Gillian Peele reports.

WHY VOTE LIBERAL DEMOCRAT? By William Wallace WHY VOTE LABOUR? By Tony Wright WHY VOTE CONSERVATIVE? By David Willetts Penguin Pounds 3.99 each HOW TO BE A MINISTER By Gerald Kaufman Faber Pounds 8.99

Eighteen-year-olds voting for the first time in this year's general election will have no memory of what it was like to live under anything except a Conservative Government. Even for those of us who have been around longer, the pre-Thatcher era is a little hazy. Was it a paradise of social harmony and consensus politics that was rudely "hand bagged"? Or was it a hell of warring forces that needed to be tamed? Is this history relevant to today's voters, who are looking towards the 21st century? If history is no guide, how can we judge the arguments of those competing for our vote?

Penguin have published three short (and inexpensive) paperbacks setting out the main arguments for each of the three major mainland parties. As the authors of these volumes represent the more reflective wing of their parties, the result is a set of books which direct the attention from the self-interest, noise and superficiality so often encountered on television to a set of rational arguments about which philosophy and policies ought to govern the nation in the next five years.

Of course, these arguments are stirred around with a good dose of partisan conviction, but the reader is likely to be able to distinguish the ingredients easily enough.

William Wallace, an academic specialist in international relations and a Liberal Democratic peer, makes the case for using the vote to help transform Britain's "sterile" two-party politics into a more democratic, open and representative system. Good government, Wallace argues, requires a "careful balance to be struck between three linked elements: state, market economy and society".

Much is made of the international context of national politics and of changing social and economic imperatives, including the need to protect the environment and to divert more resources to education and training. There is, predictably, an extensive constitutional reform agenda, though Wallace argues that a party's style is as important as its policies. Liberal Democrats, he suggests, want to spread power as broadly as possible.

The logic of Wallace's argument points in the direction of a fluid and multi-party system of government. But here two questions arise which are never answered. Do the Liberal Democrats really want coalition-style bargaining or do they want to avoid contamination by dealing with other parties especially if they are "suppressed-coalition" parties? More immediately, how would the Liberal Democrats order their priorities if asked to participate in government? Unfortunately, these tracts have no index so the reader curious to compare attitudes to "coalition" (or indeed federalism) cannot do so.

Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock and Burntwood but formerly an academic,argues the case for New Labour. He suggests that the right-wing ideas which supported the Conservative dominance in the 1980s and early 1990s are in retreat and that there is now a renaissance of thinking on the progressive left.

The Labour Party has been "changed, changed utterly". It can now offer an alternative to the "fragmented individualism" of the market and turn the country away from the crazed ideological trip begun in 1979. A new politics is being born from the "exhausted ruins" of the Conservative years - a politics which seems to combine "a market economy with social responsibility" and offers the prospect of a "new civil culture, vital and expansive, bubbling with energy and imagination."

Certainly Wright's book bubbles more than Wallace's, but the discerning reader may by this stage find that the take-home message is much the same. What divides Labourite and Liberal Democrat is that, barring a miracle, Labour is much more likely than the Liberal Democrats to get the opportunity to implement the new vision. And a careful reading of "Ourselves and Others", Wright's section on the international arena, suggests that many in any New Labour government will feel a good deal of Euroscepticism.

David Willetts, Conservative MP for Havant and in charge of research at Conservative Central Office, has the most daunting task. Urging the reader to vote Conservative after the party has been in office for so long would be a challenge even without the series of local difficulties into which the government has blundered. Moreover, Willetts is as aware as Wallace and Wright that market values by themselves will not sustain a public philosophy.

Indeed the author has frequently urged the construction of a "civic Conservatism" which can foster the public good. The Conservative, says Willetts, stands between "the two errors of socialist collectivism and libertarian individualism". Yet when he argues for a more diverse country and even asserts that Conservatives want to "shift more decision-taking to local institutions", the reader is likely to respond with disbelief.

The truth is that the post-1979 emphasis on market forces and consumer power has impoverished the party's political thinking. Social diversity - or as Willetts calls it "lumpiness" - is likely to be dissolved by market forces, especially when combined with a strongly centralising state and a blind spot on constitutional issues.

The Conservatives may have once been the party of "Middle England" and it may be so again. At the moment, however, its identity is difficult to determine; and the polls suggest that Labour, rather the Conservatives, can more easily claim to represent majority sentiment in England, let alone Scotland or Wales.

The case for Conservatism, which Willetts makes powerfully, relates to the claim that the Conservatives have successfully reformed the economy and revitalised the country on lines which go with the grain of public sentiment and common sense. A switch of government could jeopardise that prosperity especially if, as Willetts suggests, Labour's instincts remain collectivist rather than genuinely entrepreneurial.

What impact will any of this have on the voter? My guess is that given the underlying agreement which emerges from these tracts, the electorate will opt for a new team and for putting weary ministers out to pasture for a bit.

If the polls are correct and Labour returns to government, Gerald Kaufman's witty little book will come in handy for Whitehall novices and aspirants, as well as for the opposition spokesmen hoping to get in next time round. It will also provide a salutary warning of the pitfalls that await any voter thinking of straying into politics as a profession.

Gillian Peele is tutor in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

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