I listened to last week's Week in Westminster today on the way into work and heard Peter Lilley say something very interesting.
It was during a debate with Labour's Patricia Hollis where she was suggesting that David Cameron was mistaken to have ring-fenced benefits for pensioners in the way that he did before the election. Lilley pointed out quite rightly that Cameron ended up doing this as a result of a large amount of pressure applied by Labour who accused him of planning to reduce pensioner age benefits and demanded that he rule it out. Now they are saying he should not have ruled it out. Hollis at this point spluttered incredulously that Cameron should be strong enough to make his own decisions on policy.
They are both right. Lilley is spot on in his description of what happened and is correct to highlight the hypocrisy. Labour might not be in office but Conservative policy was not made in a vacuum before the previous election. Cameron was indeed responding to Labour attacks. I think he should not have ruled out pensioner benefit cuts but you can understand why he did. Older people vote in much higher numbers than younger people and with Labour unwilling to allow a sensible debate about it and instead running scare stories about what the "evil Tories" were planning for your granny Cameron's response was predictable.
I'm singling out Labour here but all parties do this. The Tories probably prevented Labour from getting a majority in 1992 by running "Tax Bombshell" scare stories. The repercussions of that were felt all through the New Labour years with Blair always refusing to raise income tax (which is partly why our economy is in the mess it is now with so much investment on the never-never). He bore the scars on his back of that election campaign. And I know my own party are not beyond a bit (or even a lot) of opportunistic positioning when it suits, some of which has bitten us hard on the arse now we're in government. I hope we have learned lessons.
But sadly as a whole the political class tends to learn the wrong lessons. If we want genuine and lasting reform of things like pensions, the welfare state, the NHS, schools and all sorts of other areas we need better than hypocritical posturing.
Sadly I don't think we're going to get sensible debates on any of these issues. Our political system seems to actively militate against it. Maybe it's the inbuilt adversarial nature of it. Maybe it's just too damn easy (as Labour has done for the last two and half years and the Lib Dems used to be famous for) to just oppose everything a government does and claim it would be much better under you.
It of course leads to mass disillusionment eventually but hey, at least we got one over on the other lot eh?