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.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
news

Sport
footballThe latest scores and Twitter updates from tonight’s games, featuring Bayern Munich vs Man City and Chelsea vs Schalke
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur
film

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959

News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
Extras
10 best table lamps
indybest
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

IT Project Manager (technical, applications, infrastructure)

£55000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: IT Proj...

English Teacher (Bristol and South Gloucestershire)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: English teachers for day to day cover,...

Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 6 Teacher RequiredThis teaching...

SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's Stortford / Stansted

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week