Friday, 15 February 2013

Ed Miliband is no longer a policy-free zone

I have had some harsh things to say about Labour’s economic policy in the last couple of years. Has anything changed?.

I was at the Labour Local Government Conference last weekend (brilliant btw).  Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn were both good – really good.  The atmosphere was positive, upbeat and full of enthusiasm.  It was not at all the gathering of beleaguered local politicians you might have expected.

Two complaints were expressed – firstly that Labour was ‘a policy-free zone’, and secondly that policies were too often made in the Westminster bubble and announced to a membership which knew nothing of them.

Jon Cruddas and Angela Eagle denied both.  ‘Banish cynicism’ exhorted Angela Eagle.   ‘We’re working on it’, was Jon Cruddas’s response.   I returned home informed and energised.

The Bedford Speech
Then, yesterday, Ed Miliband gave his ‘Rebuilding Britain with a One Nation economy’ speech.   

Polly Toynbee loved it. She thought it was ‘totemic’, and showed Mr Miliband as ‘a man with the makings of a brave and visionary leader’.  Even Dan Hodges declared that it made Labour 'look serious on policies'.

Over at Tax Research UK, Richard Murphy liked it too.  He said that it showed that Ed Miliband had given ‘an unambiguous message that Labour is committed to redistribution’.

By contrast, Tory Harlow MP Robert Halfon called it ‘a PR wheeze’.  The New Statesman declared it plagiarism from Obama.  And the Telegraph leader was even more hostile, denigrating Mr Miliband as: ‘in reality the champion of divisive, old-style “us versus them” politics’.  The hostile response from the Tories suggests that Mr Miliband must have got something right!

You’ve never had it so bad
Reading the speech, the first obvious feature was that it started off criticising the government and their conduct of the country thus far.   In a speech of 3339 words, the first 1374 words laid out point by point the hopeless mess of this incompetent administration.   Three times after that he turned aside from his narrative to have more goes at the Tories.  In all, a massive 44% of his speech was, purely and simply, an extended attack on the Tories.

Too much?  Probably not.  The basis of the speech was the conceit that it was a mirror-image of Harold Macmillan’s ‘You’ve never had it so good’ speech, so a ‘never had it so bad’ start was perhaps imperative. 

Moreover, I think the public is generally probably coming round to the idea that the Tories ARE messing up the country, and that the excuse that everything is ‘Labour’s left mess’ is wearing a bit thin.   In Britain we tend to chuck out the old rather than bring in the new, so a swingeing walloping of the Tories was sound political common sense.

Fine words and fair promises
Having excoriated the Tories, Ed Miliband then turned to Labour’s ‘One Nation’ vision for the future.   I counted 1592 words (48%) of what my mother would have termed ‘fair words and fine promises’; pledges to action, but without any specific policies attached.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some of these promises were wonderful stuff, for instance:
• ‘The starting point is that the recovery will be made by the many not just by a few at the top.’
• ‘The One Nation Labour government led by me will put a fairer tax system at the heart of its new priorities.’
• ‘We need a revolution in vocational education and apprenticeships.’
• ‘A One Nation economy needs to support businesses that create sustainable, middle-income jobs.’
• ‘We need a new One Nation strategy for small business.’

These are all key statements of principle, but they are not policies.  They are the fine principles upon which future policies might be based – things to look forward to – but they are not yet policies.

Real Policies
So, in amongst this general vision for a ‘One Nation’ Britain, Mr Miliband included just 265 words of genuine, defined ‘policy’.

There were 14 policies in the speech, and here they are:
1. A temporary cut in VAT.
2. Cancelling the millionaire’s tax cut.
3. Not cutting tax credits this April.
4. Breaking the stranglehold of the big six energy suppliers.
5. Stopping the train company price rip-offs on the most popular routes.
6. Introducing new rules to stop unfair bank charges.
7. Capping interest on payday loans.
8. Taxing houses worth over £2 million (the ‘mansion tax’).
9. Using the money raised by the mansion tax to reintroduce a lower 10 pence starting rate of tax.
10. Creating a new technical baccalaureate to complement A-levels.
11. Demanding that Britain’s employers step up and offer real apprenticeships and training right across the country.
12. Legislation to break the banks up if the banking system does not change its culture.
13. Stopping takeovers that are waved through on the votes of speculators and hedge funds.
14. Working with companies and workers to encourage a living wage across our country.

In one fell swoop, this list ends the myth that Labour is a ‘policy-free zone’.   Indeed, Labour’s list of policies is beginning to go beyond policies and is increasingly looking like a programme of reform.   Personally, I especially like the look of 4, 7, 11, 12 and 14.   Labour members will be delighted to campaign for such a programme.

Ironically, Mr Miliband’s speech only included one new idea (using the money raised by the mansion tax to reintroduce a lower 10 pence starting rate of tax).  All 13 other policies had already been announced in some form or another – most of them around the time of last year’s Party Conference.

But were you aware of them?  What made this speech brilliant was that – as far as I am aware for the first time – Mr Miliband put them all together into one speech.  What started out a ‘never had it so bad’ speech, turned into a ‘could have it good again’ speech.

So there is a lot to be pleased about if you are Labour.

Two Caveats
But did I like ALL the speech?

My only disappointment was the only new policy – the 10p rate of tax.

For me it was a waste of £2.2bn.  My big beef at the moment is housing.   I think that housing it the key to the future.   I think we need to return to council houses – or at least, if you insist, social housing controlled by registered social landlords.  Not only will an ambitious council-house-building programme help to home all those thousands of families in desperate need of a house, it will also remove the premise for the bedroom tax, and will stimulate at the same time the construction industry … which will help get the economy going.

So here was £2.2bn we could have taken from the mansion tax and applied to building council houses … how appropriate would that have been!

But we didn’t. Instead we bowed to the Progress mantra that what Middle Britain wants is tax cuts, so we have to give tax cuts to capture the centre ground.

Which brings me to my associated caveat: is this what the Party wants?

Having been to the Conference last weekend, my guess would be not.  Given two minutes I bet I could have got fairly overwhelming support for my council housing idea.  The tax-cut is pretty paltry anyway – Richard Murphy has shown that £2.2bn will barely fund a 10p tax-band of £1000.

Conclusion – still a way to go
As the Tories continue to fail, the way is opening – in the country as well as in the Party – for genuinely radical and innovative policies.   If I had my way, I would borrow a huge sum from the Bank of England, plough it into council-house-building with cast-iron procurement-associated requirements regarding the use of local workers, local apprentices, local suppliers etc. … and then instruct the Bank of England to write it off as a bad debt which would never be repaid.

Ed Miliband’s Bedford speech was a welcome milestone along the way, but it is not yet the final destination.

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