Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show: articulate but vague

The Conservative leader is a showman, but he is still weak on policy

Having just watched David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show, I feel a little as if I've just witnessed a conjuring trick at a children's party -- puffs of smoke, but no real magic.

As expected, the Conservative leader was articulate, polished and smooth, but also slippery and frequently vague, failing to give conclusive answers to the big questions.

In a studiously calm tone of voice, he repeated the words "modern" and "compassionate" ad nauseam, invoking the spirit of Tony Blair when he said:

I haven't made these changes some wheeze to get elected. This is who I am; this is what I am.

But he didn't actually explain what exactly it is that he is. As Marr said at the end of the interview: "I still don't know whether you are a radical or a central manager."

The focus was on message and image, rather than conviction or ideology. For example, Cameron used the "very, very frank, and clear, and positive" Conservative commitment to ringfence the NHS budget as evidence of a reformed party. This rhetoric describes the image that the party hopes to convey with the pledge, but does not offer any detail about why it has ringfenced health spending, or how it will deal with the implications. In response to Marr's suggestion that this could force cuts of up to 20 per cent for other departments, Cameron fell back to his default position: "I don't know the figures, but at least we're admitting there will be cuts."

Similarly, when Marr pushed Cameron on George Osborne's scathing criticism of government plans to increase National Insurance, the Tory leader made a virtue of vagueness. Unable to commit to reversing the NI increase, Cameron declared: "This shows that we're being very disciplined -- we will not pledge to get rid of it until we work out how." He defended his confusion over marriage tax breaks on the grounds of "responsibility", too.

Of course well-thought-out policy is desirable, but it seems that this notion of "responsibility" is being invoked as a smokescreen to disguise a simple fact: the Conservatives don't have all the answers. Repeat something enough, after all, and eventually it will stick.

Disappointingly, Marr didn't pick up the issue of inheritance tax, though Cameron himself made a nod to it when he said that Labour was sending an anti-aspirational message: "Don't leave money to your children." The Tory leader utterly refused to engage with issues that were embarrassing to him. He interrupted Marr to speak about his "strong team" when the presidential style of that giant poster was mentioned, and when asked what Lord Ashcroft thought of the pledge that all peers should be UK taxpayers, he said: "He's very happy about it."

Cameron did make a few policy announcements, aimed at small businesses. These include reducing the time it takes to start a new business in the UK, making insolvency levels more lenient to stave off bankruptcy, and legal reforms to allow everyone to start a business from their homes. He also said that the Tories would impose an annual cap on immigration and tighten up the student visa system.

But these are relatively small measures. Cameron said he prided himself on bringing the Tories away from fringe issues and into the mainstream debate on areas such as health and education, but this is irrelevant if he does not engage in any sustained and detailed way.

His appearance today confirmed what we already knew: he is a showman, but policy is still a weak point for him and his party. Labour must subject these spectacularly vague statements to proper scrutiny, as it did with the marriage tax proposals before the disasters of last week took hold. Retrieving that momentum may be the only way for Labour to save itself from a crashing defeat.

 

PS: Having blogged several times about The Poster of our boy Dave, I must give special mention to his (pre-prepared, I would guess) joke about the airbrushing fiasco: "I didn't have anything to do with it, but Samantha did say to me, 'If that was airbrushed, get your money back.' "

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).