There is a danger that Conservatives will be so busy straining at Miliband’s gnat – his open espousal of socialism – that they will, without really noticing, swallow the camel of what he is really up to. For the central question for Labour since the collapse of Lehman Brothers has been not so much about ideology as practice : namely, how does the Party pay for its client group – the public sector elite and welfare claimants – when the taxpayer is unwilling to stump up? How does Labour cope in an age of austerity?
Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday found the answer and blazed a trail. When, previously, he floated “predistribution”, everyone laughed because no-one knew what it is. But yesterday, he spelt out exactly what it means, as follows: if the taxpayer is unwilling to pay for Labour’s client state, business must stump up. Energy firms must pay for lower energy bills and developers must pay for more houses. So what’s wrong with that, one asks? Don’t hard-pressed consumers need lower utility bills, and people who can’t afford to buy a home?
Quite so. But all these schemes prove is make a lesson from the past one for the present, too – that socialism doesn’t work, and predistribution won’t, either. If energy firms are forced to subsidise consumers, they will quit Britain – precisely as Centrica is threatening to do this morning. If developers are required to give up land (or if it is stolen from them, to put it more plainly), they will down tools and stop building. And if the banks are required to pay for all Miliband’s bribes and boondoogles, they will go too.
Alarmist? Not when Labour’s electoral needs mean that it must grow its clients – exactly as Gordon Brown did. A modest levy on the firms or developers or banks is never enough. The Dane will always be back for more Danegeld. I am almost grateful to Miliband for spelling out so starkly what the choice is between the philosophies of Britain’s two main parties. The challenge now for the Conservatives, as they prepare for conference next week in Manchester, is to spell it out just as clearly, and then turn philosophy into practice.
For there is a golden chance now for David Cameron to revive and strengthen one of the Party’s many roots – one that has wasted away since New Labour was concocted, but was a reliable support for those Tory election victories of the Macmillan and Thatcher years: namely, business. Since the fall of the Liberals and the rise of Labour as one of Britain’s two biggest parties, the Conservatives have been the party of enterprise. Tony Blair blurred the choice for voters by bowing to the Thatcher settlement and making Labour more business-friendly.
Sure, much of Blair’s pro-business rhetoric was no more than lip-service. Firms didn’t queue up during Labour’s 13 years to say how brilliantly it was doing – and haven’t done so since the Coalition came in either, though Michael Fallon is doing a lot of good work, reforming employment tribunal appeals, toughening the one-in-one-out regulatory scheme and saving business over £150 million through the Red Tape Challenge. David Cameron now has an opportunity to spell out how a majority Tory Government would go further.
In particular, he and his team have a platform next week to help show that what is good for business is good for voters – and essential for public services, since they cannot be sustained if enterprise makes no profits with which to fund them. And if business isn’t delivering the goods (because, for example, monopolies are stifling competition), Cameron can demonstrate that Conservative solutions are better than Labour ones. One of main drivers of higher energy bills for consumers is a lack of competition in the sector – the dominance of the “Big Six”.
It follows that opening it up to new providers is a more reliable means of bringing bills down than keeping it closed – and driving the providers we’ve already got out of the country, to boot. The ideas for doing so are coming not from Miliband’s nod to the Attlee years of rationing and queues, but from Tory MPs and others who are looking to a future of more choice and new technology. John Penrose has sensible ideas about reforming the regulatory framework. Greg Barker has set out a vision of turning the Big Six into the Big 60,000.
But if David Cameron really is to proclaim next week that the Conservatives are the party of business, he must prove it – not on paper but in Government, and the department in which Barker serves would be an excellent place to start. The legacy of opposition mistakes and coalition compromises is that Britain is trying to decarbonise too fast and green taxes are consequently too high. One change for the better would be for the Government to slow the pace of introduction of the carbon price floor.
It would be win-win all round. Business pays the tax. And consumers pay the price, since the costs are simply passed on their bills. It is this problem which Miliband wants to crack through higher taxes. But the solution to it isn’t higher taxes but lower ones – part of the philosophy and practice not just of the Thatcher years, but of conservatism stretching back to the post-war years and further. Politicians love soundbites. Here’s one for Cameron and his colleagues for Manchester and beyond. The Conservatives mean business.