A brief overview of what the various parties offer in the run-up to this election.
Time for change: The Tory master plan to make everything even worse.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Gordon Brown's government is that they've managed to be so terrible that even the Tories look like a decent alternative. But now that Labour have demonstrated their utter incompetence, what do the Tories have to offer? Their "plan for change" starts by promising to spend less – in other words, to cut wages and fire people. That's the unemployment problem sorted, then! They also promise "a government that is unashamedly pro-aspiration" – which translated into English seems to mean "a government that is pro-rich people getting even richer".
The Tories also say that their priorities are summed up in three letters: NHS. That's a bit like a fox saying that it's going to make hens a priority – it might be true, but not in a good way. For example, they're promising to introduce a "payment-by-results" system throughout the NHS, which will mean that healthcare providers who are struggling to cope will face budget cuts rather than the extra resources they need. The Tories also promise to apply the free-market obsession with "choice" (which usually means privatisation) to healthcare. Of course, if everyone had a decent GP surgery and hospital in their local area, there'd be no need to "choose" another one, but the Tories are determined to introduce competition to every area of life. When you look at the state of the privatised railways, Cameron's promise to "open up the NHS to include new independent providers" starts to sound very scary indeed.
Of course, behind all the friendly, inclusive rhetoric, some things haven't changed about the Tories, and their promise to be "pro-aspiration" definitely doesn't include supporting workers who aspire to improve or defend their pay. Cameron has warned trade unionists that they face a "very determined" group of people, and says that he "would be very happy to strengthen" laws against workers taking workplace action to improve their pay or conditions. He may say that he hates "big government", but Cameron clearly thinks that it's a good thing when it stops ordinary people from acting together to protect themselves.
Class War? Labour offer no choice for the working class
The Labour Party have a pretty impossible job ahead of them at the moment: having completely buggered up the economy, they now have to convince voters that they should carry on running everything (or at least trying to). It's unlikely to work, but it's worth taking a look at their attempts to win us over.
Their "Choice for Britain" manifesto sets out their "proposals for a post-crisis economy". It includes a tough line on bonuses which promises that there will be "no return to business as usual in the banks" – which is a bit rich coming from the party that was so shamelessly (Gordon) Brown-nosing the banks right up until the very moment of the crash in 2008. But in case the anti-bankers pledge makes Labour sound a bit too different from the Tories, the manifesto goes on to state that they stand "resolutely in the centre ground of British politics" – bad news for anyone who still deludes themselves that Labour might uphold any left-wing values. They also promise to "face up to hard facts and common sense" – which is a bit late now, but seems to translate into the same thing the Tories are promising: wage cuts and job losses.
Labour have a tricky problem here, as they need to make themselves look different from the opposition while getting ready to implement exactly the same anti-working-class measures as the Tories. So in a desperate attempt to move the discussion away from actual policies, they've tried to launch what the media have dubbed a "class war" campaign, playing up the presence of Eton-educated toffs among Cameron's team. There is some truth in this, because the tax-dodging aristos that populate the Tory leadership are obviously going to look out for their own class interests. But raising the question of class is a very dangerous move for Labour. Considering the Labour Minister for Defence Equipment is a Cambridge graduate named Quentin who spent twenty years as a Tory MP and claimed over £20,000 for repairs to the bell tower of his £5m house, it's hard to see them as champions of the poor and downtrodden.
The history of the Labour Party offers a sad lesson to anyone who'd like to see a better world. Set up by people who genuinely wanted to see a fairer and more equal society, it gradually abandoned more and more of its values in the hope of gaining power, until it reached its current sad state: utterly bereft of real identity or guiding principles, and soon to be without any power either.
What's the point of the Liberal Democrats?
If Labour and the Tories are fighting over the centre of a very narrow political spectrum, where does that leave the Liberal Democrats? To be fair, they have come up with a set of ideas that do set them apart from the other two major parties. The only problem is, they won't be able to do anything about any of them. After coming out with bold promises to scrap student tuition fees and to introduce free child care for two-year-olds, a citizen's pension, and free personal care for the elderly, Nick Clegg has now admitted that there's no chance of them doing any of those things. In fact he has declared that Britain needs "savage" cuts, so there's clearly no way that public services would be safer in Lib Dem hands than under the Tories. If they got into power, the Lib Dems would face exactly the same task as the other two parties: making sure that working-class people pay for as much of the recession as possible, and that the market system that got us into this mess carries on functioning as normal. The Lib Dems will never challenge any of the basic assumptions of this crazy economy, and so they're doomed to remain a poor imitation of the other two parties: perhaps a bit blander and less nasty, but still committed to keeping power in the hands of a tiny minority and fighting any attempt by ordinary people to change things.
The British National Party: A radical alternative?
If there's one thing that everyone agrees on about the BNP, it's that they're different from the other parties. Anti-racists and anti-fascists will tell you that the BNP's different and worse, the BNP will say that they're different and better, but they all agree that they're different. It's a lot rarer to see anyone point out that, in a lot of important ways, the BNP actually stand for keeping things the same. They may talk big about scaring the political elite and empowering ordinary people, but their promises are just as hollow as the ones you hear from the other politicians.
It was perhaps last year’s expenses scandal more than anything else that discredited the mainstream political parties, and the BNP would like you to think they're different. But a look at their record shows they're as sleazy as the rest. In Barking & Dagenham, seven BNP councillors attended only 27% of meetings – but each still pocketed the full £9,810 allowance. One BNP councillor in Sandwell attended no meetings at all for six months and was booted off the council – but he still took his allowance. They've avoided paying income tax and National Insurance contributions by pretending that some staff were self-employed, and their 2007 party accounts failed their audit as several thousand pounds of expenditure were not properly recorded. That wasn't a one-off mistake, either: their accounts for 2008 were filed six months late, and an independent auditor said that the records failed to "give a true and fair view" of the BNP's finances. They've now been fined five times in the last two years for their dodgy account-keeping.
The fact that the BNP are a greedy bunch of expenses-fiddling chancers should be enough to stop them posing as any kind of alternative, but there's also the question of what they actually stand for. They say they want "British jobs for British workers", but in fact they're against any attempts by workers to protect their jobs. Their confused attitude was shown in Merseyside last year when they managed to get a whole six activists together for a protest against the TUC. If it wasn't already clear enough, their contempt for ordinary working-class people was spelled out when their councillor Simon Smith declared that "white working class scum will be swept away by a future BNP government." The BNP says that people who are sick of out-of-touch toffs like David Cameron should vote instead for Nick Griffin – but he’s really just another greedy, sleazy politician born into a rich Tory family who was educated at a private school before going on to study at Cambridge.
A lot of the time, anyone who'd even consider voting for the BNP is dismissed as a Nazi or unhinged. We don't think things are quite that simple. The people who vote BNP because they're scared or angry about issues like jobs and housing are right to be angry – although they're wrong to blame these problems on immigrants – and when the BNP say that mainstream politicians have abandoned ordinary people they're telling the truth. The difference is in how we react to these problems.
Unlike the BNP, we don't want you to vote for us and we don't think you should trust us to solve all your problems. We want to see ordinary people taking direct action to improve their lives, and we’re committed to supporting this wherever we see it happen. Compared to this genuine alternative, the BNP's big talk can be seen for what it really is: another set of empty promises from another bunch of cynical politicians hoping to line their pockets.