Sam Barrett is a Conservative activist from Kent. He is due to begin studying Politics at Exeter University this coming September.
There has been much debate about the debates. All the party leaders have offered their opinion. Cameron’s refusal to take on Miliband head-to-head is politically shrewd – with the Tories neck and neck with Labour in the polls, it is understandable that he would not want to give Miliband a sniff of the ascendancy. Similarly, the broadcasters’ initial unwillingness to include the Greens while inviting Nigel Farage meant the Prime Minister was right question their reasoning.
However, the damage done to the Prime Minister’s reputation in not agreeing would be far outweighed by the damage he could do to Miliband if he were to agree. Couldn’t he ignore the risks and prove his critics wrong by taking on Miliband, knowing that he has a key weapon that will tear out the very heart of Labour’s argument?
We can discuss the NHS and immigration, but underpinning these two issues is the economy - without a strong economy sensible and sustainable progress cannot be made on either front. According to YouGov, it has been the issue most commonly cited by the British voters when asked to decide on ‘the most important issues facing Britain today’ since June 2010. It would be Cameron’s main weapon in a debate.
The focus would have to be exposing Labour’s so-called ‘cost of living crisis’ for what it really is, myth. But before this, reeling off a few facts and figures on Britain’s progress since 2010 on the global economy would not be a bad idea. The OECD and IMF have heaped praise on the Chancellor’s policies, particularly citing the performance of the labour market. Compared to 2013, in 2014 780,000 more people were in work which was the biggest annual rise in a quarter of a century.
Britain’s progress internationally is important, but is not going to mean much to ordinary working people. The key aspect for them is whether they are feeling the benefits of this success. This is where Labour’s “cost of living crisis” argument, paired with blaming the rich, comes in.
Labour’s case is a myth: people have seen their wages rise and the rich are paying more to the state than ever. The Opposition are clutching at straws. Theirs is not a particularly good story to tell, whereas the Conservatives’ record is markedly better. The concern is, though, that not enough people realise this and confronting Miliband on this important issue can therefore do more harm to him than Cameron and the Tories.
The Prime Minister could go for Miliband’s jugular by dispelling this ‘crisis’ talk and emphasising that the economic recovery is in fact being felt by everyone. The Prime Minister could remind the public of the ‘cost of living crisis’ proposals outlined by the Labour leader in 2013, in particular reintroducing the top rate of tax to 50p, knowing that figures published by HMRC since would be enough to make Miliband wince.
According to HMRC, under the Coalition it is the poorest who are paying less of their income in tax and Britain’s highest earners who are paying over a quarter of the nation’s income tax. The former have seen the personal tax allowance rise to £10,000 making basic rate taxpayers £112 better off while taking as many as three million lowest earning people out of the tax net. The amount the latter have paid has risen from 25 pre cent of the nation’s tax bill when Labour came to power to 27.3 per cent this year. Similarly, cutting the top rate of tax to 45p has contributed to income tax revenues rising from £38 billion to £46.5 billion.
Furthermore, Labour’s pledge to “strengthen the national minimum wage” can be robustly scrutinised on the basis that they have not come up with anything that will explain how they are going to pay for it, save from perhaps higher taxes. Again Cameron could focus on the facts: coupled with record employment, wages rose by 2.4 per cent in December compared with the year before which is significantly above inflation. The IFS reports that average household incomes have returned to pre-recession levels. Indeed, any talk from Miliband of wages falling below inflation or of inequality rising could be challenged by merely citing Labour’s record. Under Labour, wages plummeted by 6 per cent with inflation running at 5 per cent and, as affirmed by the IFS’s Gini coefficient analysis, inequality reached a peak in 2007-8.
We can all understand the reasons why Cameron has refused a head-to-head debate. It is right for him to stand up to the broadcasters who are trying to determine the General Election campaign and it is also right to consolidate the Tory position in the polls. But I wonder whether there is scope for him to set a purely economic agenda for these debates to make sure people know of the progress being made. With the latest Lord Ashcroft poll revealing that only 19 per cent of people say that they are feeling the benefits of an economic recovery, perhaps it would be wise to explain the challenges that have been overcome and to present the vision for the future.