17 February 2015

Greek crisis overshadowed by Ed Balls and his receipts for window-cleaning


Rarely have the antics of Britain’s political parties looked so parochial and inconsequential; and that is saying something. Even before the latest stage of the Greek crisis began unfolding, it was clear that the British election risked becoming a small-minded affair, despite the international situation being more grave than it has been for a generation or two. But we’re through the looking glass now.

Today in London, Labour is under fire because… well, do you know what? I almost can’t be bothered to explain it. But it’s my job, so here goes. The row over HSBC and tax avoidance last week has morphed rapidly into a squabble about the individual tax affairs of party donors and then, because of a silly off-hand remark by Labour’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls, into a fight over whether or not he gets a receipt from the window cleaner, in order that he might demonstrate that he is not paying cash in hand and aiding tax avoidance.

Journalists will get the blame for the descent of the campaign into the realms of trivia (it was ever thus) but the problem at root is a lack of seriousness on the part of the main parties. That is not to deny that there are serious people involved in running the various campaigns.‎ Of course there are – although they already tend to look pretty frazzled even though there are eleven more weeks of this left.

But the parties do not help themselves. We live in an era when cabinet ministers are given gold stars on a campaign wall-chart kept by the leadership to encourage them to get out and campaign in the country. A lack of gold stars, it is said,‎ will impact negatively on their promotion prospects after the election.

These are cabinet ministers. These are ministers of the Crown being treated as though they are marketing executives on an away day blue-sky thinking brainstorming session. What is worse, is that many of them put up with it because they sense they have no choice.

At least a few ministers, such as Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, are trying to elevate the level of debate by talking about (contested) reforms designed to rescue lives by getting people into work . Most of the campaign, however, seems to be dominated by daft rows and supposed gaffes about nuns and pink vans (Google it).

Of course, I love writing about a good gaffe as much as the next journalist. Leaders seeking votes need to be kept alert and the British have a fine sense of the ridiculous.

However, in this election the contrast between what is going on in the village and events in the outside world is too stark. This is a lamentably parochial and fundamentally unserious campaign.

Consider what is really going on. The Eurozone is in crisis and talks with Greece have collapsed. Russia is besting Ukraine, the British constitution is wobbling under attack from the SNP, global trade may be stalling and NATO looks vulnerable. Meanwhile, Islamic State is rampaging in the Middle East.

Despite all this, the major British parties are spending their time ahead of a landmark election shouting at each other about pink vans, nuns, a rich man’s bank account and receipts for window-cleaning.

‎Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.