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Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right, We're Stuck in the Middle

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Faced with a choice of a sensible but uninspiring technocratic government, an even duller left winger and a clown (on the right this time), a quarter of Italian voters went for a joker.

We shouldn't be too smug about this in the UK. Our election results in just over two years could look pretty similar, with none of the major parties providing any inspiration or commanding real confidence. Another hung Parliament on a low turnout beckons.

Small answers to the big question

The economy has been the only real political show in town now for the best part of five years. And the responses of the Conservatives, their Coalition partners the Lib Dems and the Labour Party have been varying degrees of tinkering.

George Osborne's approach exemplifies this. Janan Ganesh in the FT is, no doubt, right that the next Budget will be cautious. That's partly, as Ganesh says, because the Chancellor got burned by last year's omnishambles of a Budget. But it's also because Osborne's shown himself to be a small 'c' conservative when it comes to radical measures.

However, it's not just Osborne who's cautious. Labour are scared and scarred by their own failings in the dying days of the last Government, and how easily the Tories can attack them still.

This fear is a logical response to polling that shows that Miliband and Balls still lag behind on trust on economic issues, even when voters think the Government needs to change course.

Being right and still losing

In both the Labour and Conservative cases, the cautiousness may be economically prudent over the long term. Like Mario Monti, they could well be essentially right.

But, like Monti, it's not going to win either of them an election. Most voters don't analyse the detail of the parties' economic policies. They want a party with a vision that they can buy into.

No party in the UK has been able to provide an inspiring long-term vision, or given so much as a hint of a sun-lit upland that we might reach.

This triumph of pragmatism and realism over vision means the two major parties are essentially advocating minor variations of the same sorts of policies.

A major economic upswing might still save the Tories, just as a 'Black Wednesday' style catastrophe could catapult Labour to a majority - but neither is that likely in the 26 months before voters go to the polls.

The future

That means we're on for another hung Parliament.

There are those on the left and right who are thinking, writing and debating about better ways to inspire voters - and the 2010 Conservative and Labour intakes contain talented and thoughtful MPs. But these ideas and people don't have time to fundamentally reshape their parties' agendas before the next election.

So, presented with parties that don't promise any better way of doing things, voters might as well do as their Italian counterparts and split their votes between the clowns, the dull and the jokers (your choice which is which). Like Italy, the effect of that will be that no-one wins.