Silence of Britain's political lambs

As the conference season nears, the two main parties are running scared of debating the big things that matter to the nation
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The Independent Online
Never (probably) in the history of party politics has so much been talked about so little. The democratic deficit is now so deep and wide that virtually nothing that matters will be discussed at their conferences by either of the parties that hope to win the next election. (Yes, the Lib Dems will boldly tiptoe where the others fear to tread, but only because they have nothing to lose.)

Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is strong on loyalty but short on opposition, except in ephemeral or peripheral matters. With an ever narrowing political agenda we descend into a vortex of trivia. Even the royal family are discussing their future as I write - but the politicians dare not speak. What do we pay them for, if not to thrash out the big issues ?

Leadership matters. An electorate fed on political pap has no chance to grow in sophistication. Politicians pandering to popular prejudice prevent anyone hearing arguments that might move their ideas beyond neanderthal discourse.

Let us imagine, though, another political universe. Let us pretend that the two main parties were engaged in serious debate about the things that really do matter to us. Here then, is the Fantasy Agenda for the party conferences, the dream debates on the subjects that dare not speak their name. Whatever you think about these issues, should they really be hors de combat in serious politics?

Monarchy - abolition of

Nearly half the population thinks it would be no loss, growing numbers want to see them get on their bikes. But no party dares discuss it.

House of Lords - abolition of

1,200 unelected peers to spend more time with their families.

House of Commons - culling the number of MPs

651 amateurish and often intellectually idle MPs to be halved to produce a professional cadre better able to draw up and monitor legislation.

Northern Ireland - withdrawing from

Nothing else works. Threats of a blood bath are unproven. Until the people of Northern Ireland know that their destiny is in their own hands, they will never take responsibility for developing a workable democracy.

Europe - wholehearted unequivocal support for

Yes, they will debate it, but only with an eye to immediate political advantage, not with an eye to the far future.

UN Security Council - relinquishing our permanent seat

We no longer merit this, either by power, by superior diplomacy or by moral leadership.

Defence - reducing it to minimal needs

In keeping with the above, we should scale down our forces to fit our impoverished pocket and our global insignificance. Billions of pounds are spent on generals, admirals and regimental nostalgia that would be better spent elsewhere.

Environment - CO2 emissions and global warming - realistic reduction of

This is something in which we should and could lead the world

Taxes - raising

The voters deserve honesty. Everything has to be paid for - no pain, no gain. Fantasy economics suffuse both parties, promising both tax cuts and more of everything. Treat us like grown-ups.

National Insurance and universal benefits - abolition of

Time to admit that National Insurance is a scam, a regressive tax, a burden on employers; it has no funds and pays out too much these days to richer families and pensioners instead of targeting resources on the poor. (Not a vote-winner with richer families and pensioners).

Police and prisons - cutting their inflated numbers.

We waste vast sums appeasing popular demands for more bobbies on the beat and more criminals inside, instead of spending on what really works in crime reduction: especially proven rehabilitation of young offenders, education and training.

Private education - nationalisation of

As proposed by Tory MP George Walden, to ensure the brightest children get access to the best schools and rich parents become equally concerned with the quality of state schools.

Religion - disestablishment of C of E and banning of all religion in schools

Most people do not believe, very few attend church. Muslims are right to demand state schools of their own, unless we turn secular and abolish all state funding for religion - in schools and in charity law.

Contraception - a young person's clinic in every school

Concerned about teenage mothers? Abandon the double standards by which we surround children with sexualised culture - TV, pop music, movies - then turn prudish when it comes to ensuring they all have easy access to the means of preventing disastrous young parenthood.

Ecstasy and cannabis - legalisation of

Politicians wonder why the young turn their backs on Westminster. Could it be because MPs will not even discuss Ecstasy, which has one death per ten million doses (penicillin has one per 200,000 doses), and is safer than a trip to a fairground? How can they believe us when we say heroin kills, if they know soft drugs don't?

Now that would get the whole nation glued to the conference coverage gavel-to-gavel. But if one wretched Labour MP raises any one of these as a possible subject for illuminating contemplation, the punishment is outer darkness - or the Overseas Development Agency. (The right could also draw up their own agenda of political unmentionables - capital punishment, castration of paedophiles, conscription, immediate withdrawal from Europe, etc)

Is the Opposition right to refuse to oppose on most big issues? No - it has denied the public a chance to understand the issues. But then - given the parlous state of public debate into which the parties have plunged us - I have to admit that this is no time for Labour to break out. It is too late now, so close to an election, to introduce the voters to the luxury of imaginative thought. After four election defeats, why take risks? Mouth zipped, no views, no controversy, no politics - new labour, new nothing.

But why are our politics so dysfunctional? Politicians are largely to blame. The failure to talk wisely about things that matter earns growing contempt for the whole political process. Seventeen years of one party rule has atrophied our political brains. We have become so profoundly conservative a nation that we have reached almost complete political stasis.

Those who hope for change will have to put their faith not in words spoken before the election, but in actions afterwards. All we can do is gaze into the eyes of Labour's front bench and guess whether they are in this game to achieve more than mere power. I think they are.

That may be optimistic, for the autism that afflicts Labour now may have become endemic. Exaggerated paranoia about every Daily Mail headline or Heseltine barb may be every bit as paralysing after a good victory at the polls. We can only wait and see. But I choose to think that once in power Blair will dare to elevate the level of debate and bolder counsels will prevail.