A University professor who would put a sign on his door saying "Away Fighting The Forces of Capitalism" when he was out of office once told me that the reason populism tends to pool around reactionary right-wing ideas is that the motivations for, and expected benefits of left-wing ideologies are less easily quantifiable and thus harder to express.
I've never found any thorough academic grounding for this opinion but it strikes me as empirically true; for me right-wing politics are still largely based on protecting the (some would say) natural instinct to look out for number one. Their benefits can therefore be measured against individual freedoms, specifically to create wealth, thus right-wing people tend to support lower taxes and deregulated markets because these maximise the potential to accrue individual wealth.
On the other hand left-wing politics are based on aims that can't be measured or explained so easily; quality of life, equality of opportunity, social mobility and progress - all seen by many on the right as - and scrambled by too many on the left into - blustery shibboleths rather than illustrable goals (that's you Russell Brand).
The constitutional difficulty in expressing left-wing views makes it nigh-on impossible for a pinko Moonbat fellow traveller like myself to correlate them with the policies of any one political party to such an extent that I can feel completely comfortable about voting for it. So, for my own, inevitably longwinded, fundamentally selfish satisfaction I'm going to codify the essence of my methodology for deciding how to vote...on the off chance it might help someone else make their own decision.
Firstly the left versus right thing. When I was six years old my parents asked me, in the way parents do to humour young children into thinking that they're not idiots, which man I wanted to be Prime Minister. I said John Major because, as the older of the two, he looked more Prime Ministerial (I paraphrase). My parents jokingly lamented the fact that the private school they had sent me to had already turned me into a tiny Tory, and that was the last time I ever soberly expressed a sentiment that could be considered right-wing.
In essence, I think that everybody is entitled to a basic standard of living; a clean environment, the right to live free from discrimination, freedom of expression when compatible with the previous point, democratic participation, a house, electricity, water, food, a good education, medical treatment, social care if necessary, protection from crime and accidents, public transport and job opportunities - as a bare minimum.
I believe the Government has the right, and more importantly the responsibility to provide this for everyone and that this aim is achieved by making essential services universally available, which is most efficiently done if the service is the end in itself, and any capital it generates is a means to that end.
This dynamic can be most easily accomplished (and this is where it's important to re-emphasise that this is just my opinion) by placing these services in public hands where practicable, and regulating them where impracticable so that where possible the capital remains the means and the service remains the end.
My recognition that not all services can practicably be publicly owned maybe makes me more centre-left than left left. To illustrate this I'd use the example of American telecommunications technology; mobile phones wouldn't be nearly so advanced if Apple were publicly owned and had not been able to make such insane moolah that they were able to invest in the R&D to produced the iPhone. But on the flipside, were the market more stringently regulated then the phones might be less expensive, and more universally available, and the best technology might be more immediately available (and our f*****g iPhones would last more than a year before the 'Apple killswitch' flicked itself..!)
In order to provide a minimum standard of living, among the most important services the Government should provide is a comprehensive welfare state so that people who can't generate their own capital by working can still, to use the technical term, not die.
These services should be funded through progressive taxation - the richest subsidising the poorest through taxes on income and wealth. Not (and again this maybe places me as centre-left rather than left left) for the sake of imposing a maximum standard of living, but rather so that the people whose lives are least severely affected by doing so make the largest contribution to the services that provide a universal minimum standard of living. All of this needs to be underpinned by normative democratic process and social freedom to the greatest extent possible without these freedoms engendering discrimination, or limiting the freedom of others, otherwise it's just extortion and/or theft.
That's about as simply as I describe my own ideological drivers but it's a key set of moral criteria into which any party who's going to get my vote's policies must fit.
Most parties fall at this hurdle; the stipulation of social freedoms alone is enough to rule out the Britain Firsts and BNPs, and arguably even UKIP - if you consider legal immigration a social freedom and seeking asylum as a human right - though bigger hurdles to voting for them are (to name a few) their insistence that recent migrants not have access to the welfare state and NHS, restriction of child benefit, Repeal of the Climate Change Act and proposed reintroduction of divisive Grammar Schools. These policies threaten hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people's access to housing, food, medical care, a clean environment, a good education and, accordingly, job opportunities. UKIP get the old left swipe (to use a Tinder analogy because I'm well zeitgeist) after barely more than a glance.
The Conservatives, from my perspective, don't bear much more analysis; the bedroom tax threatens people's ability to put food on their table and a roof over their head, as does right-to-buy, albeit indirectly by shrivelling the already arid supply of social housing. Free Schools hoard the good teaching for a select few pupils, outsourcing NHS services to private companies, and the 'top-down reorganisation' has overburdoned clinical staff thereby increasing waiting times, while lowering taxes for high earners, businesses and the wealthy casts doubt on a Conservative government's ability and inclination to continue to fund these services.
If all politics is a stage then the Liberal Democrats' entire manifesto is an aria sung by a eunuch. It's as if they've already negotiated their next coalition with the Conservatives and the meagre concessions they've been given are the ones that make up their manifesto. Increasing the personal allowance is something they take credit for but this now has cross-party support anyway, as do most of their impactful policies such as building houses, balancing budgets and protecting NHS funding.
Veering from my framework slightly, this functionary attitude towards policy-making paints the Lib Dems as merely an extension of the civil service, and since voting should be an expression of morality and ideology, a vote for them would feel wasted.
Back on policy, they have also failed to put their foot down on such issues as the aforementioned bedroom tax which suggests that if they're not a complete political Ken Doll then they are actually a threat to the minimum standard of living. Their one original policy that I could in good conscience support is protecting public sector salaries as these are the people providing the services which are the bedrock of my minimum living standards and shouldn't be victimised for doing so.
That covers and rules out what might be termed the right-wing and centrist parties, and now to delve into the differences between the left-wing parties.
Firstly a word on the left left, as I've referred to them so far; the problem with TUSC, SWP, CPGB et al is that their policies, for better or worse, are so grounded in sweeping philosophical and moral notions that they're impossible to reconcile with the actual mechanics of making legislation - which is key in applying principle to manifesto.
To put it another way, if you cost up the TUSC manifesto (they haven't themselves) and then tried to fit it into the current pie charts of tax revenues and government spending, your chart would look more like the apple pie after that scene in American Pie...
Add in to that the problems these parties have had with democratic process even within their own small organisations and, for all their moral goodwill, they actually represent a practical and functional threat to the minimum standard of living.
Next there's the Scottish Nationalist Party. Although I spend the bulk of my time working in, and puking money into the economy of London, depending on the speed of the voter re-registration process I might still end up voting in my native Scotland, which, allied with a general interest in their explosion in popularity, makes it necessary to consider the SNP. Though I'm against Scottish independence, as I reckon the sheer scale of the administration needed to make it happen would threaten the possibility and sustainability of certain important policies for the whole of the UK, the SNP have cleverly reframed the argument, much as they did during the referendum, to give people the choice between left and right, rather than Scotland and Britain, so this alone wouldn't preclude me voting for them.
The problem comes in the detail, like the far-left parties the SNP's left-ness is too often manifested in statements of principle rather than policy, and, like the Lib Dems, where there are actual policy promises, they seem to be points of differentiation from other parties with which they broadly agree rather than part of an all-encompassing vision for the country (though granted their limited geopolitical remit is probably a factor). So for this reason, while scrapping the bedroom tax and universal credit, opting out of TTIP and investing in wind power would all increase the standard of living for society's worst-off, the sum total of the difference they'd make to people's lives in Scotland and/or the UK as a whole doesn't seem as radical as it is portrayed in the media.
I wish I could bring myself to vote Green. They've done a tremendous service to the country by re-opening a narrative on policies that would increase living standards, but like TUSC etc, the cost of actually doing their manifesto would be astronomical. Vote for Policies shows that I'm not alone in thinking people would be better off with a £10 an hour minimum wage, a 10% reduction in transport fares as part of general renationalisation, 500,000 more affordable homes a year (without building on Green Belts), less reliance on fossil fuels and £12bn extra per year for the NHS but when you wodge the whole thing together we'd be looking at an extra £100bn annually at least. That's 12.5% extra in taxes even to maintain the current deficit levels. So they're an admirable organisation and I hope they're present in parliament (Caroline Lucas would be great) using their starry-eyed idealism to highlight the prudish pragmatism of the larger parties, but, while we don't have a system that rewards every vote, this sentiment alone can't sway mine.
Plaid Cymru are from Wales and broadly agree with the SNP or Greens on most issues, albeit with a more Welsh spin on the whole thing. That's kind of all I have to say but the debates taught us that it's nice to include everyone.
Then there's Labour. Defining Labour in policy terms as a left-wing party has been problematic for a decade now, and so voting for them has always left an odd taste in the mouth, like dentist's mouthwash. There are still problems; proposed discrimination against legal immigrants' use of public services being a big one; apparent thirst for military involvement in Libya, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State another; commitment to cutting the deficit, even if that means cutting spending on services, is probably the most threatening to people's living standards here, albeit in a vague way.
However, speckling these gaping imperfections are policies that will help the poorest members of society (and even people in the middle and upper-middle,) in the areas I stipulated as being necessary for the minimum standard of living; they aim to build 200,000 houses, scrap the bedroom tax, regulate rent increases and scrap tenancy fees (housing); they'll regulate energy and water bills (energy); they'll protect tax credits (food on the table); they'll cut tuition fees, end free schools and invest in apprenticeships (education/jobs); they'll invest in NHS staff and scrap the Health and Social Care Act (universal medical care); they'll freeze rail fares (transport); they'll increase the minimum wage to £8 per-hour and end zero-hour contracts (job prospects).
They'll also, crucially, do this through progressive taxation. A few of these pledges (houses, rail fare freezes) are also part of Conservative manifesto but will largely be paid for by those who can't generate their own capital, society's poorest members, through cuts (universal credit, that bedroom tax again), and middle-earning public sector workers providing essential services, again through cuts to their salaries and pensions, although it must also be acknowledged that the Conservatives have promised to address tax avoidance if re-elected despite arguably fostering it during their first term.
On the other hand, Labour's proposals for increasing tax revenues are predicated on taxes that will affect those most able to cope with increased taxation; closing tax avoidance loopholes, blacklisting tax havens and abolishing non-doms will only affect those comfortably able to pay more tax without facing desolation.
Fair enough, the 50p rate would mildly suck if you earned £200,000 and had to pay an extra £208.33 tax per month, but it wouldn't suck as much as losing £92 of your £300 a month child tax credit as part of Universal Credit.
Similarly the mansion tax is far from perfect, mainly because house prices in London are beyond ridiculous, and redressing council tax rates is probably a more viable and profitable long-term solution (though the two policies aren't mutually exclusive,) but paying £250 a month on your £2m house whose value is rising by £320000 a year (based on a 16% estimate) is always going to have less impact on quality of life than losing £60 of you £290 per month housing benefit because of the bedroom tax .
But these are false dichotomies and in reality the increased tax revenues would also be helping a lot of people n the middle.
For example, I have selfish reasons for supporting these policies; demographically I am somewhere towards the low end of the middle; under 25, on about the average national wage (i.e earning less per year than a mansion tax-able house does just for not falling down,) with little prospect of that increasing significantly any time soon, zero savings, pay a lot of private rent and tenancy fees for a tiny bedroom, pay too much a month for a rubbish train service, pay too much for gas and electricity full stop, had to wait a fortnight for an emergency GP appointment recently etc etc continued on page 94...
It might sound familiar if you're a similar age and stage, and it means that the prospect of my bills not going up next year is more enticing than the £11 the Conservatives tell me I will save on income tax or a new kind of ISA for my non-existent savings. It's not the same for everyone, but, along with the effect these policies will have on people who need a boost much more than I do, it's enough to convince me that, morally, practically and selfishly, Labour are the best option on May 7.