David Taylor-Gooby: Don't smugly say all political parties are the same

Journal columnist David Taylor-Gooby says the parties have to engage the electorate - and the electorate must try to engage

Vincent Cole Ed Miliband MP, leader of the Labour Party
Ed Miliband MP, leader of the Labour Party

If I had been writing this last week I would have been talking about the Labour Party’s leadership. As it was the supposed “crisis” has evaporated pretty quickly, despite the best efforts of sections of the press and politicians to keep it going.

I spoke to some senior County Durham politicians last week, and I could not find any enthusiasm for leadership change. The answer of a senior councillor was instructive. “It doesn’t matter what we think – he is the leader and we have got to get on with it.”

I am pleased Ed has fought back with an excellent speech – perhaps the one he should have delivered at Conference. But the whole episode makes one reflect about the nature of politics and leadership. It is very wearisome to hear people saying, as someone did on Question Time last week “They are all the same”.

People smugly think that if they say that it absolves them of thinking seriously about politics. It is certainly not the case at this election that they are “all the same”. We are shaping up for a real ideological battle.

People are not aware of the serious thinking which has been going on in the Labour Party. The reason Ed Miliband did not make major policy statements previously was because he did not want to before they were ready. Now they are.

The argument goes something like this. The Blair period of government was based on the idea that a “hands off” approach to the economy would produce considerable wealth which could be spent on all sorts of worthy things like schools and hospitals.

For a period it worked, thanks to a particularly benign set of economic circumstances, cheap imports and low interest rates for example. But we now know it could not continue for ever. Banks were taking unsustainable risks, and many projects were delivered “on tick” (aka PFI) which has come back to bite us. So the Labour Party had to go back to the drawing board.

Peter Byrne/PA Wire Labour Leader Ed Miliband on stage at Manchester Central, during the Labour Party Annual Conference
Labour Leader Ed Miliband on stage at Manchester Central, during the Labour Party Annual Conference
 

The problem with letting the economy rip is that it produces effects which we do not like: greater inequality, low wages, a growing north/south divide and high house prices.

The New Labour answer was to dish out subsidies such as tax credits and housing benefits to alleviate the effects. The trouble was that the bill for these kept getting bigger, and eventually became impossible to sustain. So Labour has to produce a fair policy without a lot of spare money. The aim is to ensure the same thing does not happen again by ensuring a higher minimum or living wage, much stronger controls on monopolies such as energy companies, and a tougher regime for banks.

The tax regime would become much tougher for those on higher incomes.

This is not anti-business but ensuring a fair and stable environment for business to operate in. The sort of regime many European countries have.

This contrasts starkly with the Conservative vision which assumes greater inequality is necessary to generate more wealth, mainly in London and the South East. The Tories want an unregulated low-wage economy, disengaged from Europe even if we do not actually leave.

Such a model would not want high quality social services, nor would it value well performing public bodies such as the NHS or the BBC. Look at the current ideological approach to the East Coast Main Line.

So we know what the different visions are. They now have to be articulated and explained. The Conservatives do not do this clearly. They talk about “enterprise” and “low taxes”, and constantly snipe at supposed inefficiencies in organisations like the BBC, NHS and local government despite the fact that these organisations have achieved remarkable efficiency savings over the last few years. So it is up to Labour and Ed Miliband.

I recognise we live in an anti-political age, where people are distrustful of big visions. Explaining what you are about is difficult. But it has to be done to win back people to engage in the real debate about which direction we want the country to go.

  • David Taylor-Gooby is a freelance writer.

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