Is it a marathon, a sprint or jogging on the spot, Ed?

The Labour leader's strategy relies on voters one day realising that he was right all along. Then re

The Labour leader's strategy relies on voters one day realising that he was right all along. Then rewarding him for it.{C}

The Financial Times has an interview with Ed Miliband this morning, revealing in that it shows the Labour leader unperturbed by his party's apparent failure to break through in opinion polls and confident that voters are swinging in his general direction.

In fact, he tells the FT opinion is "moving significantly towards us" and cites as evidence the fact that David Cameron has had to imitate some of Labour's language about responsibility at the top of society and excessive corporate pay.

Meanwhile, the Labour leader continues to express certainty that, eventually, voters will see that the coalition's economic plans have unravelled and start listening more to the opposition.

I think 2011 was the year when the economic argument has shifted. The government's economic strategy has fallen apart in my view.

Well yes, that is his view and he soldiers on in dogged determination to bring the country round to sharing it. The problem is that Miliband has yet to demonstrate that he has any effective techniques for mass persuasion. By his own admission, Cameron is prepared to ape Labour's potentially popular banker-bashing postures and there is a peculiar complacency in thinking that voters care who said something first. Miliband's strategy seems to be based on an assumption that you can build a wonderful edifice of analytical truth about the failings of the current system and critiques of the incumbent government, so it is all ready to be admired when the electorate deigns to pay attention. I can't think of an example of this approach - build it and they'll come - working in recent political history.

Of course, Labour can take some comfort from the party's fairly easy win in yesterday's by election in Feltham and Heston. I doubt that will stop the frustrated murmuring that is getting louder on the opposition benches. The party's strategic dilemma, or rather its confusion, is neatly encapsulated in one especially odd line from the Miliband interview today:

I always said it would be a long journey to be just a one-term opposition.

Surely if the ambition is to be in opposition for just one term, the journey is, by definition, relatively short. You can just about see his point - there is a lot of work to do in a short space of time. But at the moment it feels as if Labour hasn't decided whether it is running a marathon or a sprint - or maybe just jogging on the spot.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496