“Why,” said someone on Twitter last week, “are all the people best able to run the country cutting hair, driving taxis or writing columns in newspapers?”. As it happens, I think my hairdresser might do a better job than most. She would certainly do a better job than Ed Miliband, who made more of a mess of his conference speech than any politician I can remember. To forget one of the biggest political issues of our time, and the one that will, today, probably lead to the election of the first UKIP MP, would have been bad enough, but to chuck in, or rather out, the deficit was verging on the surreal. Is this guy living on Mars? (Answer: no. He’s living in nice house by Hampstead Heath, which would certainly warrant the “mansion tax” he seems to think will pay for everything.)
Nick Clegg wants us all to “shine”, which is lovely, and makes you think of those ads for Timotei, which used to have pretty girls stroking their blond hair in sunlit meadows. It was a shame he had to make “tough choices” in coalition with a party he suddenly seems to hate, but even though he hates it, he thinks it would be a great idea to do it again. If forced into a marriage of convenience – and how else will the Lib Dems ever have any role to play in national politics? – he would clearly prefer the devil he knows to the man who looked like a devil when he was eating a bacon roll. At least then, he could look like the good guy, whereas a Nick-Ed double-act would only make you think of an embarrassingly unfunny but painfully accident-prone Laurel and Hardy.
David Cameron, it has to be said, gave what political commentators like to call a “barn-storming speech”, though most of them give the impression a barn is something you might convert into a holiday home if you ever left SW1. Cameron is good on tone, good on delivery, and good on sincerity, or what looks like sincerity, which isn’t always quite the same thing. His promise of tax cuts for absolutely everyone certainly went down well with the people in the hall (no, let’s not call them “the party faithful”) and with the people catching snippets of his speech on TV. Is there a creature on the planet that doesn’t want to pay less tax? Even the left-leaning BBC journos who say they think higher tax would be a great idea tend to offer their “goods and services” through “tax-efficient” companies, thus having their cake of guaranteed income while keeping the tax they don’t have to pay through PAYE.
The maths didn’t add up, of course. As long as you don’t forget to mention the deficit, you can make all sorts of wild promises about how you’ll fund your bread and circuses. One way, suggested by a newly skinny George Osborne with a peculiar new haircut, was to make sure the poor can’t afford any carbs at all. It’s one thing to think the “welfare” system the coalition government inherited was “bloated”, wasteful, and discouraged work. Which, by the way, it did and was. It’s quite another to cut an arbitrary three grand off a capped limit that is, for a family living in London, already pretty damn low. Have you tried feeding, clothing and housing a family in London on £23,000? The Tory foreign office minister, Mark Simmonds, resigned in August, claiming he was struggling to survive on a salary nearly four times as high.
It was, to be honest, all pretty poor. In spite of Cameron’s excellent job on presentation, the Tories came across as nasty and surprisingly vague on financial detail. The Lib Dems came across as irrelevant, but did well to grab a few headlines when no one really cares. And Labour. Oh dear, Labour. Labour came across like a school debating society where “all must have prizes” because it would be too upsetting to tell any of the participants that they really didn’t have a hope in hell.
On the positive front, none of them came up with anything you could really call a “vision”. We all like fairy tales, and particularly the ones where the whole world suddenly bursts into colour, as it does in The Wizard of Oz. Who doesn’t dream of a world “somewhere over the rainbow”, where “trouble melts like lemon drops” and you pay American levels of tax and get Scandinavian levels of services? The trouble is that no one has a clue how to get there. Probably because you can’t.
Like the Mongolian “throat singers” I once heard, who manage to produce two notes at the same time, politicians know that the audience in front of them isn’t nearly as important as the audience sitting at home on their sofas, eating family-size buckets of ice-cream while dreaming of being thin. They – we – don’t have to worry about how you get elected when what you’ve really got to offer the electorate is probably a fair bit worse than what they’ve got now. “Vote for me, and your life will get worse at a slightly slower rate than if you vote for the other guy” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “yes, we can”. But at least it has the virtue of being – or possibly being – true.
Politics is tough. It’s really, really tough. If you think it isn’t, by all means try it. At least if you’re a cabbie, or a hairdresser, or even a columnist, people sometimes say “thank you”.