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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide