What will Labour's "policy goodies" be?

Policies likely to be announced before the election include building a million affordable homes, scrapping the bedroom tax and creating living wage zones.

With the return of growth to the economy after three years of stagnation, Labour has smartly moved on to attacking the coalition over the "cost of living crisis". Wages are unlikely to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest, leaving the average earner £6,660 worse off. But if Labour is to win the election, it won't be enough to convince voters that they're poorer under the Tories. It will also need to convince them that they'd be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan's famous line - "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" - but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and they doubted Romney could do any better. The Tories hope and expect UK voters will take the same view of Labour in 2015. 

It's for this reason that party activists and backbenchers are so desperate for Ed Miliband to fill the policy vacuum. Labour's recent briefing David Cameron's out of touch, you're out of pockets promised measures including the reintroduction of a 10p tax rate, stricter caps on rail fares and a new energy watchdog with the power to force suppliers to pass on price cuts when the cost of wholesale energy falls. But while all worthy moves, such Brownite incrementalism is unlikely to have voters rushing to the polling booths. 

It was in an attempt to reassure the troops, then, that Chris Leslie, the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury (who has been acting as Ed Balls's deputy while Rachel Reeves has been on maternity leave), promised that the party would unveil a series of "policy goodies" in the months ahead. But what could they be? Here are some possible candidates. 

A million affordable homes

All three parties have identified housing as one of the defining issues of the moment but while the coalition's Help To Buy scheme is inflating demand, it does little to address the fundamental problem of supply. Labour has already said that it would bring forward £10bn of infrastructure investment to build 400,000 affordable homes and in 2015 it is likely to pledge to build a million over five years, a level closer to that required to meet need. In part, this could be achieved by removing the cap on councils' borrowing, a move that Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have been pushing for but which George Osborne has consistently rejected. 

As a policy, a mass housebuilding programme ticks all the boxes: it is easy to explain and appeals to aspirational voters. It would stimulate growth and employment, help to bring down long-term borrowing ( for every £100 that is invested in housebuilding £350 is generated in return) and reduce welfare spending. And it offers a powerful dividing line with the Conservatives. 

Scrapping the bedroom tax

The bedroom tax, which reduces housing benefit by 14% for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25% for those with two or more, has become the most potent symbol of the unfairness of the government's cuts. 

While Miliband has consistently refused to pledge to repeal it, I'm told by a source close to the Labour leader that the party will promise to do so in 2015 as part of its "one nation" approach to welfare. 

Creating living wage zones

Miliband was quicker than most to recognise that the minimum wage is not enough to guarantee an adequate standard of living and that tax credits are an inefficient means of making up the difference. In response, he has consistently spoken of his ambition to dramatically expand use of the living wage. 

While the party will not introduce a compulsory version, as many activists would wish, it will take significant steps to increase its use in the private and public sector. This is likely to include making it compulsory for all government departments and contractors to pay the living wage and establishing "living wage zones". As outlined by the Resolution Foundation and the IPPR, the zones would operate by transferring some of the savings received by the Treasury through the payment of the living wage (lower benefit payments and higher tax revenues) to local authorities to help them work with businesses to increase wages to living wage levels. 

A jobs guarantee for anyone unemployed for more than a year

In response to the distressingly high level of long-term unemployment (which rose again in the most recent quarter to 909,000), Labour has promised to introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee for all adults unemployed for 24 months or more (and for all young people unemployed for six months or more). Ahead of the election, it's possible that it will announce a lower limit of 18 or 12 months. 

Free universal childcare for pre-school children

Miliband has long admired the example of the Nordic countries, where free universal childcare is credited with enabling high levels of female employment and Labour is likely to unveil a similar policy in 2015. This won't be cheap, but the party can make a hard-headed economic case for reform based on the finding that for every woman who returns to full-time employment after a year of maternity leave, the government receives a net benefit of £20,050 (over four years). 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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