Let’s be clear: the G8 Summit last week was a mini-triumph. It had the lowest levels of protest in recent memory. The headlines were dominated by the Prime Minister’s determined push for a peace conference for Syria, but there were also important steps forward on a transatlantic free trade area, and on tax and transparency.
One might have expected even Dame Polly Toynbee of the Guardian to be impressed by the announcements on tax. Alas, none of it. To which one might ask, what does David Cameron have to do to get a fair hearing? Polly is deeply confused about tax, to be sure. In her haste to get the tax take up, she deliberately adopts the intellectually calamitous tactic of equating taxation with the benefits and public services which it funds (I have discussed this fallacy previously in this column). That makes intelligent debate about the merits of each hard if not impossible.
But she is right about one thing: on tax as on everything else, Labour’s position is a horrible mess. This is the party that abolished the 10p tax rate while in office, clobbering the poorer taxpayer; and which only put up the top rate as an electoral ploy, after more than 12 years in government. And guess what? The absolutely predictable, and predicted, result was gigantic levels of legal tax avoidance.
On the other hand: who is introducing a General Anti-Abuse Rule on tax? Who signed the first-ever treaty with Switzerland to repatriate taxes on undisclosed bank accounts there? Who has consistently raised the personal allowance, to take lower earners out of tax altogether? Answer: the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer.
This is not an isolated example. On a whole swathe of issues, Labour’s standing with the electorate is extremely precarious, its prospects slowly falling apart. The great Russian chess champion Tigran Petrosian was famous for his positional genius. His games had a typical form: a quiet opening, some apparently inconsequential moves, a little manoeuvring and probing, after which the opponent’s position would entirely collapse of its own internal contradictions. So it is with Labour.
To believe this, you need to share one deep and guiding assumption of mine: that far from being the easily herded cattle of marketing mythology, voters are collectively highly intelligent. In particular, they are highly attuned to future changes in their economic prospects, and to the nature of the electoral judgements they are being asked to make.
For this reason, voters may well register a strong protest vote against the established parties in the European election next year, as a plague on all their houses. But protest votes are one thing; choosing a government quite another. When it comes to the 2015 General Election, voters will think quite differently. They will ask whom they respect. Who will get the job done? Who is most likely to bring prosperity and stability? Who will help them to protect themselves and their families?
Labour have been able to bump along so far by feeding off public anger at budget savings and fiscal austerity. But as the general election approaches that road is about to run out, leaving them hanging in the air like Wile E. Coyote.
Why should this be? First, of course, because of what the Government, and specifically its Conservative departments, have done. The economy is slowly starting to regain its mojo, with debt coming down, retail sales ahead, business confidence rising. Key reforms are starting to bear fruit. And British social attitudes are becoming more conservative, as the great popularity of the benefits cap reminds us.
Secondly, because of the simultaneous inevitability and impossibility of the two Eds. The public do not rate Ed Miliband, and they do not trust Ed Balls. They despise Mr Balls for his inability to admit that Labour over-borrowed and over-spent, and they despise Mr Miliband for his inability to fire Mr Balls.
And thirdly, because of the present void at Labour’s core. Labour literally have no answers to the key questions which lie at the heart of the next election. Are they going to yank up taxes and increase net spending and debt? Apparently not, in the name of Clement Attlee. That’s three years of would-be Keynesianism out the window.
Are they proposing to reverse the NHS reforms and place key decisions back in the hands of (Labour) politicians? No; for those would be the politicians on whose watch the Mid-Staffs and Morecambe Bay scandals occurred. Are they going to abolish free schools? Yes…only now not really.
Labour’s current contortions over the benefits cap make the point perfectly. They now have a benefits cap of their own, only it’s a cap on the overall bill, not on how much any family can receive. And it’s not clear how automatic stabilizers could be capped in this way. Oh, and they haven’t said where the cap would be set, either in real terms or as a percentage of GDP. And no commitment has been given to cap any one benefit. And Labour have repeatedly voted against government proposals to cap benefits over the past three years.
In other words, this is a policy which pulls off the seemingly impossible combination of being hopelessly vague, impracticable and self-contradictory at the same time. It is politically inept. It insults the public, as though they cannot see the difference between the two caps. And the smell of hypocrisy is stifling. Little wonder that Labour’s polling lead continues to narrow.
We Conservatives still have work to do, of course. The economy must continue to mend. We must continue to make progress on the vital bread and butter issues, pushing for better jobs and higher wages, bearing down on the cost of living, and getting the housing market to work better. The present assault on tax abuse can and should continue to be extended into wider measures to tackle crony capitalism.
But Labour have spent three years rubbishing the Government’s attempts to reform and reshape this country. Their latest tiny attempts to recover lost ground merely hint at the trouble they will have come election time. What in fact does Labour stand for? No-one ever had much doubt about Clement Attlee. It is a mere mockery of Attlee for Labour to shelter behind him now.