With our new electoral cycle in place, the Scottish referendum looming and politicians now realising photo opportunities to stand in waders and point at floods are now within 30 minutes of the capital, Westminster seems to be in pre-election mode 18 months early. Civil servants admit it feels rather like purdah already and government lobbyists are questioning the point of lobbying if there's no time for the current administration to implement anything anyway.
Cameron's election guru Lynton Crosby has reportedly told ministers to reduce communications right down to the bare bones of crime, the economy, immigration and welfare. Meanwhile Labour's policy review, while led by the thoughtful and creative Jon Cruddas, risks throwing up a bunch of rather boring proposals, in the hope that the party can quietly get over the finish-line without upsetting anyone. Pundits expect this to be a nasty, negative election campaign. This is the last thing the country needs. Given how the world is opening up to exciting and positive new collaborations and power-shifts enabled by tech, peer-to-peer and creative innovations, such reductive or unambitious stories from our mainstream politicians can only disappoint. Similarly, rather than pitting social justice against economic prosperity - a 20th century assumption - we urgently need a political narrative that binds together collaboration, innovation and sustainable growth, going hand in hand.
Are any convincing policies emerging? The commentariat got very excited when the PM seemed to switch sides recently, saying that money was no object in tackling the floods. Counterintuitively, he also sent in the clumsy state to help communities who had been pursuing a rather Big Society approach to making do and mending. People argued on the radio about to dredge or not to dredge. But any real policies to address the underlying causes of the problems were submerged under the rushing headlines. Events over at the Ministry of Justice are symptomatic of the malaise - leaks and SpAds causing trouble and we still don't know whether the actual policies - Grayling's Rehabilitation Revolution for ex-offenders - stand any chance of revolving.
Meanwhile Labour continue to miss the trick which all parties need to pull - conjuring up policies with the magic and utterly obvious combination of both winning friends and making the world a better place. Ed Miliband set out his thoughts on public service reform which were promising in their analysis - his frustrations with both the unresponsive state and the untamed market will chime with how people feel across the country. But sadly he stopped short of setting out solutions that are within the grasp of all the main parties. At the Social Economy Alliance, we love the idea of people-powered public services. But we're not yet convinced that Miliband, the PM or many other politicians really grasp what this could mean.
So as the spin continues, visions are discarded and ambition reined in, the outsiders prosper. UKIP, independently minded city mayors and a potentially close call on Scottish independence are evidence of something happening beyond the main Westminster power base. However strongly many Scots feel about their distinct national history and culture, one of the drivers of the Yes vote is surely also a tiredness with politics as usual, a distrust of Westminster and politicians with whom we have little in common. Well, maybe we do still share quite a lot culturally - most of us south of the border feel that way too.
If Westminster politicians want to hold the Union together, win a general election and fight off the challengers, then they will need a convincing vision backed up with real policies that can both serve a 'retail' purpose and make a real difference in practice. The Social Economy Alliance (www.socialeconomyalliance.org.uk) is a collaboration of more than 60 organisations bringing forward ideas that are emerging, being tested and working around the country and asking political parties to grasp them and put them to work at a national level. Our ideas are about genuine enterprise, real markets and meaningful social value. These ideas have much support from mainstream businesses as well as among the universities, housing associations, think-tanks, social enterprises and co-operatives that make up our Alliance.
Our current policy consultation suggests:
- To get people into work, we should rip up the model where middle-men cream off big central government contracts to little effect. Instead, allocate a budget to jobseekers, enabling them to choose the support that most suits them. This would open up the market to real competition, open up opportunities to match up SMEs with NEETs and enable bespoke support for those with health conditions and disabilities.
- To revive local economies, instead of debt fuelled consumer spending and house price rises, we should release empty and unproductive property, housing and land. We should use the tax system to unleash them and enable people to come together and build their own more economically productive communities.
- To reduce living costs, we should break up the oligopolies and unleash competition and clear the path for new challengers in energy, food, transport and other critical markets. We should create new and more community-based models of PFI and infrastructure finance which mean our infrastructure is owned by us, from the grid to the rail, road and water networks.
- To reform public services, we should have Freedom of Information and open book accounting for everyone, maximum market shares for providers, points scored against bidders for offshore tax avoidance and for not paying a living wage or added for those offering apprenticeships and paid internships. We should let local people sit in on the board of businesses delivering these services.
- To restore faith in financial markets, we should insist upon absolute openness, transparency and disclosure by banks, pension funds, hedge funds, loan sharks, payday lenders, mortgage providers and credit card providers on everything they do.
- To put business back at the heart of society, we should reward businesses which are economically, socially and environmentally more productive. Instead of throwing billions of pounds of subsidies out of the Treasury and Department for Business with little regard for the effect on people's lives, we must ensure that regulation, tax and spending is supporting the more valuable and useful areas of the economy.
These ideas are not fundamentally of the left or the right. There is some textbook economics here about making markets work, about information, openness and transparency. Some of this is about rebalancing the economy - it's about new challengers from the bottom up instead of being dominated from the top by monopolies and cartels. But it also goes beyond conventional economics to harness values which resonate with voters - trust, responsibility, hard work, feeling connected in a community and building for the long-term.
Good politics is about winning friends and making the world a better place. Politicians will fail to do either if they only play on fears or keep quiet. Our polling suggests these ideas play well with young voters and with those who might be thinking about changing allegiances at the next election. There's still plenty of time.
Dan Gregory is an independent policy advisor for the Social Economy Alliance