The focus of British politics is now clear. The prospects of the different parties at the General Election due in May 2015 dominates everything. No doubt it is with relief that the political elite and their coterie of journalists and commentators focus on this question, rather than the much more difficult one of how to make this country a better place for its citizens. The defining event of this year’s conference season so far has been Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech. For good or ill, he seems to have set the political agenda. But does this tell us anything about whether Labour really would do a good job of running the country?
To read the commentaries, Mr Miliband has made a decisive shift to the left. He did this by focusing his ire on big business, and threatening them with government action. There were two signature policies. One was forcing energy companies to freeze their prices while the government reconfigured the regulatory regime to squeeze them more permanently. The second was forcing private sector developers to “use or lose” their land banks to build houses. All this in an attempt to reverse the decline in living standards that the bulk of the population has suffered since the economic downturn started in 2008.
Commentators of the right and centre, such as the Economist’s Bagehot column, interpret this as Labour vacating the decisive “centre ground” of politics, where elections are won and lost. This is the ground which the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg is trying to push his party into, in spite of grumbles by older activists. The Conservatives’ David Cameron is likely to stake his claim there too, and ignore the voices of his party urging him to adopt right wing populism to fend off the threat from Ukip. They will attack Labour’s policies as unworkable, and part of a failed socialist outlook. Mr Cameron will offer tax cuts as a surer route to improving living standards; Mr Clegg will offer tax cuts too, though rather narrower ones, and something about tackling barriers to social mobility (affordable child care, better schools, etc.).
Commentators of the left, like the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, do not deny Mr Miliband’s leftward lurch and seem quite content. His new policies are popular with the public, and have lifted Labour’s poll ratings; there may be many more populist left wing policies, bashing bankers and big business that will go down well electorally. With a large chunk of the previous Lib Dem vote going to Labour, and the Conservatives struggling with Ukip, the next election is Labour’s to lose.
But rather than evaluate these calculations at face value, let’s pause and step back for a minute. All this looks like the narcissism of small differences. All three parties remain firmly embedded in much same policy space. Mr Miliband would have made a decisive step to the left if he had outlined a policy of increased public spending, funded by extra taxes. In this way he might be able to halt and even reverse the relentless squeeze on benefits and public services. But he has decided not to; instead his party will have to make something in the region of £26 billion of cuts in the next parliament (a number I have culled from this perceptive article by the Resolution Foundation’s Gavin Kelly in the paywalled FT). He has said nothing about where these cuts, or increased taxes, will fall. The Conservatives would be making a radical shift to the right if they were proposing to make deeper cuts to the state, which they can only do if they cut the NHS (or rather make the public pay for more of its services) and old age pensions. There is no sign of that.
And there is something else. None of the parties is embracing more than gradual or token decentralisation of power from Westminster. Instead they argue over this, that or the other centralised tax, subsidy or regulatory regime. This can be seen in the season’s signature policy ideas. Mr Clegg has announced free school meals for English school infants; all of them, everywhere, because it looks like a clever idea based on a couple of pilot schemes. Mr Miliband wants to bash energy companies through central regulation: but how does this help solve the country’s slow path to reducing carbon emissions? And what on earth is the point of the Conservatives’ tax break for married couples?
But Mr Miliband deserves credit for one thing. He, alone amongst the three party leaders that I can see, has pointed out one of the two central challenges of the British political economy. That is that the benefits of economic growth are bypassing most people. This is nothing new, but economic stagnation is making it hard to gloss over. It arises primarily from technological change, and its effect on manufacturing industry and office work, helped along by the rise of globalisation. The problem isn’t that our tax and benefit system is failing to redistribute wealth, it is that increasingly wages are too low in the first place.
But there Mr Miliband’s insight seems to end. He seems content to blame big “predator” corporations, and offer the hope that better regulation will help. He didn’t even mention the second great challenge, which is that real terms funding for public services and benefits will fall rather than rise in the years ahead. He offers palliatives rather than solutions. Britain’s right and centre are no better.
What is the solution? In my view there are three interrelated elements. Improve the education system so that skills better balance where the jobs are in future. Redesign public services and benefits so that they can be tailored to individual and community needs. Strengthen local networks to counterbalance the effect of the rise of centralised, winner takes all networks. These three require a radical decentralisation of power. How long will it take before our political classes start to realise this?