Firstly, a disclaimer is in order. Fresh from the Times Red Box today we gather “the idea which has taken hold in the past seven months that the only good ideas emanate from those in possession of a blog and a beanie hat.” No beanie hats here I’m afraid, only an intact although ageing head of hair. No effort will be spared to obtain the necessary headwear. In Labour red of course. Until then the current scribbler will have to be considered a mere apprentice to the craft.
Given the 2019 election result, it’s not a trivial task to move the national conversation on and make Labour a credible alternative government-in-waiting. This is true in our own constituency with its reflexively Conservative voting population. Even a slight shift in the thinking of our local demographic would be a useful indicator of movement amongst the wider electorate. How can this type of progress be made?
Part of the challenge lies in the common misconception that a Labour government would wreck the economy as discussed by James in a previous blog post. Herein lies an angle of attack for a new shadow chancellor. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated (https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14721) that the Conservative manifesto commitments on deficit and debt are impossible to achieve given the government’s ambitious spending plans: “With rising investment spending, even keeping to current budget balance would not see underlying debt fall over the period of this parliament.” The Prime Minister seems intent on ignoring the manifesto commitments which appear to have been made to avoid scaring the horses and keep the voters in the South on-side.
If we take the Conservatives infrastructure investment figure together with the increases in day-to-day spending the PM wants, that gives an overall spending bill of £200 billion over the course of this five-year parliament. But the Conservative manifesto claims that they “not only want to freeze taxes, but to cut them too”, while also stating that public sector “debt will be lower at the end of the Parliament.” Short of a huge increase in economic activity generating greater tax revenue from lower rates and unbelievable improvements in efficiency, more borrowing will be required by the Conservatives.
There’s nothing terribly profound here. Borrowing has to make up the deficit i.e. the difference between what the government spends and what it receives in tax. It is just another means of getting spare money from people: they won’t pay more tax, so let’s borrow from them by selling them government bonds instead. But that means the Conservatives debt-lowering commitment looks decidedly wobbly. Thus revealed, the government doesn’t look like the paragon of fiscal prudence it wishes to be in the eyes of its devotees in the southern shires. But it can count on those votes in any case, so it doesn’t have to try too hard and can take the South for granted. Or can it? The voters here are so thoroughly, through-and-through Tory voting and Labour avoiding that they do not require reassurance. It can be assumed that they will fall into line, holding onto the myth that the Conservatives are the responsible adults who can be trusted to look after the nation’s finances while Labour is the prodigal spendthrift that will bankrupt us all. That’s certainly how it would appear but as time passes, we may find that the voters in the South are not so daft and see through the PM’s rhetorical trickery.
Meanwhile, the government turns its face northwards and transforms its look to a generous benefactor who will spare no expense to level-up with eye-catching spending plans. The voters up there want bigger, more interventionist government and don’t care for the prudent, bank managerish approach. They need a more radical reset of the lopsided state of the nation, where there is a great concentration of wealth in London and the South, while the North suffers high levels of poverty and deprivation.
How long can the Conservatives maintain credibility and trust with both sets of voters? One Chancellor is already gone, consigned to the back benches, surplus to requirements. He wanted to make some kind of stab at making the finances work but this did not align with the smoke-and-mirrors illusion show required by the PM and his tea cosy wearing Svengali chief advisor. The replacement Chancellor looks like he will be a compliant poodle. If not, he may be gone soon too.
Compared to this, Labour’s plans actually look organised and sensible while at the same time being forward-looking and transformative. Yes, like most other parties, Labour recognises the urgent need for investment and reprioritisation in spending. However it promises to do so in a way that is effective and enlightened, lending via a National Investment Bank backed up by a network of Regional Development Banks to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure and turn us into a leading light in the new Green industries and technologies that are so important – it is literally a matter of saving the planet from ecological and climate disaster. Labour sees this as a positive opportunity for the country. It isn’t something that has to bankrupt us and cast us back into the Dark Ages. On the contrary, it is something that can be a huge advance for jobs, happiness and health across the land, a way of helping to make our entire country a great place to live.
There’s plenty of material here for the next Labour shadow cabinet to get stuck into. Whoever wins the leadership contest, it’s time to tear down the tired old misconceptions and spell out the bright, optimistic vision that Labour can bring into the national debate.