There is a temptation for any General Election to be regarded, by those of us caught up in them, as the most important we have ever seen. More often than not, that turns out not to be true. Some elections, however, do mark a turning point in the nature of politics and of the state.
General Election Series
Ahead of the general election each of the six main parties were invited to contribute to Click on Wales about why they should have your vote on the 7th May. This series will run an article from one party each day up until the general election. Read all of the articles here.
Three occasions stand out in the modern era.
The 1945 General Election set a policy direction which has proved remarkably durable. The NHS remains – in Wales at least – recognisably based on Bevanite principles. Its belief that collective solutions produce the most effective response to common problems continues to resonate whenever such problems arise.
The 1979 election produced a far closer result, proving that fundamental change does not require a landslide to produce it. Mrs Thatcher may not have succeeded in rolling back the frontiers of the state in a wholesale way – the share of national income taken by government was higher at the end of her premiership than at the start of it – but she did change the nature of the UK economy, more or less ending heavy industry; decimating manufacturing industry; expanding financial services and putting us on the path to the great crash of 2008. The post-Thatcher world is not the same as the one she inherited.
The 1997 election ended the hegemony of the Conservative party in UK politics – it had dominated the 20th century. It is now nearly 20 years since the Conservative party has won an election outright, the longest time it has failed to do so in the era since universal suffrage began.
Now, the need to ensure that this failure continues in 2015 is absolutely imperative.
The Tory-led government since 2010 has been a dismal failure, socially and economically. But its promises for the next five years prove that if it were to win in May, we really ain’t seen nothing yet.
It is not an idle threat to say, as the Prime Minister puts it, “to permanently reduce the size of the state”. With the Autumn Statement, we know that this involves a reduction to levels of public expenditure last seen in the 1930s. The economy is, at last, returning slowly to growth. However, on this point Cameron and Osborne are clear – public services will receive no share whatsoever in the growing cake that the public will have created.
This is why I clearly believe that the General Election of May 2015 will be a fork in the road election. Down one track lies the Conservative future in which collective solutions will have been progressively eroded in favour of private and privatised futures. The old JK Galbraith description of corporate America – private affluence and public squalor – is already too true of contemporary Britain.
A Conservative victory in May will institutionalise that process to a point where it will overwhelm the solidarity defences, which, for 70 years, have helped to keep an increasingly complex and disparate society together.
Along the other fork lies a Labour government faced with real economic challenges but with a clear ambition to respond to them fairly; a commitment to provide public services with a proper share of a growing economy and a willingness to borrow to invest where the return on that investment would be clear.
All this matters hugely to securing the future of the UK – indeed to whether there is to be a future for the UK as a truly united nation – and to the future of Wales. That tired substitute for thought – the accusation that there is no difference between the political parties – has never been less true.
A further five years of unrestrained reductions in public expenditure will change the landscape of public services profoundly. The health service in 2020 will not survive a Conservative victory in 2015 in the shape and scope we see it today.
Voters making their way to the polling booths on May 7 will shape the destiny not simply of themselves but of many who will follow them in the future.
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