Thom Brooks: Waiting for a credible message of realistic optimism

Journal columnist Thom Brooks on how coming up with a credible, optimistic message can be a vote winner in this year's election

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire Labour party leader Ed Miliband
Labour party leader Ed Miliband

Welcome readers to my first monthly column for the Journal.

They say that a week is a long time in politics. The bad news is that waiting a few months for the start of the general election will feel like an eternity. And that’s before the Prime Minister finally agrees to listen to the public and to take part in televised debates.

The coalition government’s slow march to formally launching the next general election has exposed some of the top issues we’ll hear even more about during the weeks ahead. It’s interesting to note what is said and left unsaid.

For the Tories, gone is any echo of New Labour’s claim that things can only get better. No, the Conservative election tune is more like country roads take me home. Their election poster features a bumpy street that asks voters to please stick with the status quo. Imagine motivating voters with slogans like: What do we want? More of the same. And when do we want it? We already have it. Not the most inspirational message.

The Liberal Democrats can hardly be blamed for not wanting to mention all the things they became known for in 2010, such as promises to end tuition fees and their promise of no more broken promises. Instead, they present themselves as a kind of brake pad with a guilty conscience. Lib Dems seem to talk more about how the government might have been without them. It’s an odd way of being positive to say things are bad, but at least we kept them from getting much worse. Or so they promise.

Then there is Labour’s Ed Miliband. The Leader of the Opposition really is the most difficult job in politics. The Tory-led government has repeated the mantra so often that Labour was somehow to blame for a global financial crisis that many people have actually come to believe it. But which of us genuinely believes things would have been better if the Tories were in power instead?

The biggest challenge for the Labour Party is its greatest opportunity. Too much of what passes for serious ‘criticism’ is better understood as playing the man and not the ball. Labour’s opponents seem to think weaponising attacks with half-truths and gossip might see off voters. It’s almost as if the Tories thrive on feeling sad.

Labour’s opportunity is connecting its future vision to its past achievements. Let this be an election about a government’s record in office. Cameron’s efforts simply don’t compare to Labour’s achievements on health, education, jobs and public services pre-crash. Not by a country mile, or even a bumpy country road.

Cameron’s government is happy to follow Labour’s lead, but then make things much worse.

One example is Labour’s introduction of the Migration Impacts Fund in 2009. Its funds were drawn from increasing application fees for visas and related documents and used to reduce strain on public service providers. The current government announced it would stop the programme within two months of entering office, but retaining the fees.

This is a problem the government is only beginning to recognise in parts of the country, such as Middlesbrough which has received a disproportionate share of asylum seekers from the for-profit organisations that now help manage this system.

The election may hold some surprises, but not where most are looking. Watching Ukip is almost like viewing The Titanic. Both are about faulty ships, but only one is a tragedy.

The problem with protest votes is that they can add up to voting in an electoral mistake that’s really worth protesting about. No one can be blamed for wanting change and something to believe in. It can be tempting to send out a message of ‘none of the above’ when feeling dissatisfied or disillusioned.

A credible message of realistic optimism could be exactly what voters want. Realism is central.

There will be serious constraints on what can be achieved in the near future and this must be acknowledged. But likewise we shouldn’t settle for the politics of let’s grin and bear the next few years. We need a vision of a Britain worth building together.

This is a part of the realistic optimism that, if made credible, could be transformational and help tip the balance in May. It might also strengthen our shared political lives, too.

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