Ed Miliband’s war on waste

How the Labour leader can make a convincing attack on wasteful public spending.

It feels like the Labour party is doing its best to park its tanks on the TaxPayers' Alliance lawn today. First Ed Balls calls for a tax cut, albeit a temporary one funded from borrowing. Then the Times reports that Ed Miliband is planning on attacking wasteful public spending. Don't worry about it, we won't resist the occupation, everyone is welcome. And like a good host handing around the lemonade, I'd like to offer a little advice on how they might make this agenda effective, and make it fit with their broader aims and objectives.

To make it convincing, they'll need to surprise people. If examples of waste sound too trivial or convenient then no one will be convinced. Or if calls for tax cuts are just another way of plugging the Keynesian line instead of a way to let taxpayers keep more money in their pockets, then the political results will be meagre. The party will need to surprise people a little to get their attention.

That doesn't mean they need to sacrifice their principles though. When £250,000 is spent on a shower for Nicolas Sarkozy at a three day EU summit in Paris - a luxury shower with air conditioning and surround sound - then torn out unused because he decides to wash at his normal place in the Élysée Palace ten minutes away, that is equally offensive whether you think the money should be left in people's pockets or spent on public services.

The best schemes to attack are the ones designed to satisfy some already fat special interest, at the expense of ordinary people. Too many Tories love that kind of thing because it gets a round of applause at the right CBI conferences. Look into some of the spending in the Local Enterprise Partnerships for example, a replacement for the Regional Development Agencies that most participants are only involved in as a vehicle to grab Government grants. Heseltine and his committee are going to hand money down like some Aztec emperor bestowing gold on grateful subjects, while other priorities are bleeding sacrifices. The way to help businesses isn't to take their money and then give it back to a favoured few.

The biggest opportunity which the Labour Party is missing at the moment is the Government's plans for a new high speed rail line. HS2 is hugely expensive, over £1,000 a family in total, so no one could doubt the fiscal significance of such an announcement. It won't deliver anything till 2026, and means foregoing opportunities to improve capacity in the shorter term, so services to places like Milton Keynes get more and more congested in the meantime. Even when it is finished many big towns like Coventry will get a worse service. There are more affordable alternatives that can be delivered more quickly and do more to ease congestion.

This is a scheme which will benefit a fortunate minority of passengers. Nearly half of all long distance rail journeys in Britain are made by people from households in the top income quintile. There is no reason to think HS2 will be much different. The business case has assumed a third of passengers are businessmen earning an average of £70,000. Why are the Government taxing the poor to pay for a rich man's train?

Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle is cleverly keeping her options open on this one. She told the Guardian "we rightly start with a blank sheet of paper - that sheet doesn't have a high-speed train line running through it". The last Government only started to work on the scheme under Andrew Adonis - the most ultra of Blairites. The Green Party are opposing it because of the lacklustre environmental case and the effective subsidy to the rich, their London Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones attacked it at a recent event we held bringing together the scheme's opponents.

There are other areas where the government are splashing taxpayers' cash with abandon. You can support International Development, but still question writing cheques to a Rwandan Government the Metropolitan Police thinks might be sending hit squads to London. You can support action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but wonder if we should really be putting £3 billion into a Green Investment Bank which won't be accountable to Ministers, Parliament or the public. Is more investment banking what the planet needs?

And that's before we get talking about taxes. The hideously complex tax code is as much of a burden on the poor as it is on the rich. Improving it will help create a system where everyone pays their fair share and time and money aren't wasted navigating the loopholes.

Failing that, just point and snigger when the police paint a car to look like a pumpkin on Halloween night, or when Cornwall Council plans to send 12 councillors on fact-finding trips to lap dancing clubs.

Matthew Sinclair is director of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Matthew is the director of the TaxPayers' Alliance

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”