by Nick Wright
The Guardian/ICM poll found David Cameron did best in the TV standoff with 54% of respondents ranking him higher than Ed Miliband. The Guardian’s parallel panels of swing voters agreed.
Cameron was undoubtedly the most polished performer while, in my opinion, Miliband came across as the more grounded in real life and, for all his hesitancy over key questions, as sincere.
Not much of this matters. These events tend to confirm existing prejudices and preferences. The significant question is to what extent this first encounter influenced swing voters and how this translates into electoral shifts in the handful of marginals where Britain’s hopelessly unrepresentative election system situates the decisive battles.
The grounds for debate, or rather – as Cameron is still running scared of a direct confrontation – a policy clash, has narrowed since both leaders had earlier ruled out raising revenues either through a VAT or a National Insurance increase.
On this score Cameron has form. Before the last election he promised not to raise VAT. He did.
VAT is a typical Tory tax. It’s effect is to ensure that the penniless pensioner pays tax at the same rate as the posh plutocrat.
National Insurance is something different. Every time a politician treats it as simply another tax they undermine its original status as a universal contributory scheme into which people pay in order to guarantee universal health and welfare systems which they may, or may not if fortunate, need to draw upon.
Given that the British people – despite a sustained ideological and political assault on its foundations – retain a firm attachment to the main elements of the welfare state; and that this is compatible with neither the Tory, Lib Dem, Labour nor SNP ‘austerity’ tax regimes, we must conclude that, on the economy, these political leaders are being economical with the truth.
In fact, if we take their promises at face value they are all closet supporters of the Communist Party’s approach to revenue raising which is to fund investment in jobs, peace and public ownership by taxing the rich and cutting arms expenditure.
Instead of reinforcing the Treasury orthodoxy around austerity and the public finances Labour might find political advantage in promoting traditional value that find a resonance among working people.
Labour should be constantly emphasising the collective values which underpin security for working people. Firstly, the NHS safe in public hands. Labour does relatively well on this issue. Surprising since many of the Tories privatisation dodges follow on from New Labour. Today’s pledge to limit the profits of NHS privateers falls rather short of what is necessary to squeeze out profiteering.
Bizarrely, we now find Tories criticising Labour for PFI. It is easier to find a manual worker in the Commons tea room than a present-day Labour politician willing to defend this flagship Blair/Brown policy.
I came across previously proletarian Labour ladyship – who as a trade union big wig staunchly defended Gordon Brown’s PFI policy at TUC conference – ‘misremembered’ her largely imaginary opposition to the policy when it originally came under attack from public sector and NHS unions.
Secondly, comprehensive schooling. The most disreputable thing about Labour’s current approach is the abandonment of the comprehensive principle.
True, it was mutilated by the continued existence of selection – both open in form of the grammar schools in some counties and tacit everywhere else where class operated as the principal criteria for a school’s ‘selection’ of its intake – and by so called ‘faith schools’.
(Not to mention the unmentionable in privileged Labour circles – the already existing highly selective private education sector).
Labour thus threw away one of the key elements in its post-war coalition of the working class and progressive middle classes and surrendered vital ideological ground to petty bourgeois individualism and the market mentality.
There were some innovative approaches to education – and some serious investment – by the last Labour government, not least from Ed Balls in the then Department for Children, Schools and Families.
But the free market militants of the tendering tendency, fronted by the unlovely turncoat Lord Adonis, wedged open the door to class discrimination, selection and privilege with Labour’s academies policy.
A firm assault on the tax privileges that buttress private privilege in schooling, a staged integration of selective schools into a genuinely comprehensive school system and a vocational and higher education system that would unlock the talents of all our children would have helped to rebuild a winning alliance.
Thirdly, a new approach to employment. The Institute of Employment Rights is promoting the entirely virtuous policy that a strengthening of collective bargaining, trade union and workplace rights could improve living standards for working people and drive a more productive and equitable economy.
This is precisely the kind of policy that would make sense of Ed Miliband’s desire for an economy that would put people back to work. It would grow the tax base and reduce the burden that unemployment places on revenues.
Such a rational approach is outlined in the Manifesto Press book Building an economy for the people, An alternative economic and political strategy for 21st Century Britain.