Three parties, three weeks of good politics – and bad government

Inside Whitehall: To win elections parties think they need eye-catching populist policies

There may still be a year and a half to go until the next election but in Glasgow, Brighton and now this week in Manchester Britain’s political parties are drawing up their battle plans.

Support the Liberal Democrats and your child will get a free hot lunch in the middle of the day. Choose Labour and your energy bills will be frozen for two years. Give the Tories a chance to govern again and you’ll be rewarded with a tax break for being married.

Three parties, three ideas – but with one thing in common: they are good politics, but bad policies for Government.

Take Nick Clegg’s plan to give every five-to-seven year-old a free school meal. To be extended to all primary school children, the policy will save families an average of £437 per child per year at a time when people are struggling.

But at a time of huge cuts to public services it is surely perverse to be spending more than £500m of taxpayers’ money on an initiative that will disproportionately benefit the better-off. Children whose parents earn less than £16,190 a year already get free school meals – and there is a strong argument for raising that threshold.

But why should parents who earn £40,000, £50,000 or even £100,000 benefit as well? The answer is that the Liberal Democrats want the votes of middle-class parents at the next election and this is an eye-catching “give-away” that will go down well on the doorstep. Good politics – bad government.

Next take Labour’s pledge to freeze energy bills for two years. At first glance, the policy seems attractive. We all suspect that energy companies have been ripping us off for years and Labour’s price freeze has no cost to taxpayers.

But it is not without downsides. While we believe we are being over-charged for our gas and electricity, the  evidence for this is not compelling. Electricity prices in Britain are lower than in Ireland, Spain and Germany as well as the European average. Nor are utilities hugely profitable. Most of the “Big Six” operate on margins of between 4 and 5 per cent and, when bills go up, the cause tends to be changes in the wholesale price of energy.

All things being equal, those reasons would not be enough to think that the energy companies could not absorb a price freeze. But Britain faces a looming energy crunch. We need to spend billions on new nuclear, renewable and gas generation to keep the lights on, as our aged, dirty coal and gas-fired power stations come to the end of their lives.

To pay for this investment, the energy companies have permission from the Government to raise up to £5.6bn from consumer bills by 2018. But under Labour they will have to absorb the cost of this investment themselves for two years and it is hard to see how they will be able to do this.

And what about the Conservatives’ tax break for married couples? Recognising marriage in the tax system has long been a cherished ambition of David Cameron.

But it is hard to see how it makes good government. The plan uses the tax system to discriminate against widows and widowers, single parents and unmarried couples who live together. So a gay couple in a civil partnership with no children earning less than £40,000 a year would benefit – but an unmarried couple with three children earning £30,000 a year would not. Mr Cameron is using the policy to appeal to core Tory supporters – but it’s basically another £700m of borrowing (or cuts) from the party that promised no unfunded spending commitments.

The truth is that to win elections parties think they need eye-catching populist policies. But to govern well they need nuanced, complicated policies that are hard to explain. That’s what we should remember when casting our votes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Sales Apprentice

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £20,000 - £60,000

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Team Leader

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence