How can we trust our politicians?

With British political parties competing to gain ground in the popularity stakes, one reporter examines how increasingly ambitious promises are swelling public distrust…

In politics, a month is a long time. Over the last few weeks, we’ve had the three main party conferences, a by-election and ongoing protests over hunting.

Certainly not an easy time for anyone. Arguably, the senior Conservatives have had it the hardest. Having your conference preceded by coming fourth in a by-election is by no-means a way to comfort your delegates on progress. So the Shadow Cabinet had little choice than to look to the future – looking at their past certainly wouldn’t help their new series of slogans. It seems ‘trust’ is the new ‘in’ word at Tory HQ.

They believe the reason they’re not in power is because the people stopped trusting them, trust that now no longer lies with Labour. Their response? To publish a ‘Timetable for Action’, outlining what they would do in office. But forgive me, but isn’t this just a re-branded manifesto? And even if it were more, we’d have to elect them before we can allow them the opportunity to come good on their pledges.

The most amusing aspect of their economic policy was “a clever way of saying nothing at all”. They don’t give firm policy promises so as not to disappoint when they get in and may (or may not) be able to live up to their pre-election promise. But then, what do we vote them in on? The general ideas - but not promises - they present?

The greatest problem with the Conservative party and its new trust approach - on the back of the lack of trust in Prime Minister Tony Blair, primarily over Iraq - is that they are old faces at odds with the 'progressive party' label they've adorned themselves with. We rarely see a young, charismatic, eager politician on the opposition's front bench.
Michael Howard won’t be trusted with the economy or employment, because of his actions as Home Secretary in the Tory-glory days. And these issues are vital to a generation who rack up around £20,000 of debt before they graduate university.

But this isn’t negative… Michael Howard is being innovative, and innovation at least buys him time. I don’t imagine he’ll be Prime Minister, I don’t think he does - he is simply a Conservative party leader. He holds a place in history that may allow him to go down as the leader who modernised the Tories if not, then he'll simply be another one who lost a general election. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) pushing them into fourth place was a scary reality for them, proving they needed to either be decisive or appeal to Euro-sceptics more.

Labour, of course, invented political re-invention. And with it, they created their own social climate – commonly referred to as social liberalism. This is why I think the Tories lost so devastatingly in the 1997 general election. Blair and the Labour party worked hard to bring about the climate that saw minority groups accepted.

Male or female, gay or straight, black or white, everyone felt that suddenly Labour wasn’t the party they had to support, but the one that they chose support, the illusion of choice is a very powerful tool, and they have the best spin-doctors in the country to maintain that appearance, which may be why the only damage done to them comes from within.

The most amusing ‘spin’ they doctor is this whole Blair-Brown feud. By publicising it as they do they give the impression that the opposition is within their own ranks. By doing this those who feel let down by one arm tend to simply think that the other side is worth their vote, rather than another party.

But there is one issue that they cannot spin. Iraq. Shockingly divisive, and more so than the government expected. Why? Labour's social liberalism, in short. You cannot bring about a culture that emphasises the value of any human life, and then proceed to war with other human life. It undermined the very core of what New Labour stood for, and being proven to either be incompetent or lying certainly doesn't help.

But the Tories can't cash-in much on the dissent this has caused. They voted for the war, so those votes had to go to the other main party, the Liberal Democrats. Bless them, they continue to punt away on their own. And they might be number two this time next year. They have a lot going for them – perhaps their greatest advantage is that none of the electorate can remember any mistakes they made while in office.

They want increased taxes, but the abolition of tuition fees in their entirety. It’s little wonder around 50 per cent of the student population are believed to be favouring them. They will also win support from environmentalists with their policies to further enhance Britain’s green-initiatives. Additionally they’re proposing pension rises. And if that doesn’t get the growing number of elderly Britons on their side, little will.

Another card they hold is they offer an alternative for the disenchanted. They’ve got the former Labour-supporters who are particularly annoyed over matters of policy, and the former Conservatives who are irritated by the ineffectiveness of their front bench.

Problems? Trying to be too much to too many is the most regular criticism, along with dismissals that they are idealistic and impractical. But cutting the Labour majority of over 14,000 to 2,000 was an excellent, if not disappointing achievement.

So who will win next spring? Labour. Blair may be controversial, but he will have to make some serious errors to be ousted from power next year. He’s upset the hunters, who vote Tory anyway, he’s upset a few over Iraq and education (probably around the 20 per cent who swung to the Liberal Democrats in Hartlepool), but he can afford it, having the huge majority he does.

Nevertheless, they will all be fighting the same battle this time, which is an improvement on 2001. Labour have the power of spin, the Liberals have the power of ideological appeal, and the Conservatives have their anti-Europe and new ‘trustworthy’ appearance.

While I’d place that bet on Labour, it’s no longer the foregone conclusion it once was. And that can only be a good thing – all animals perform at their peak when they're being hunted.