The Tories are desperately playing catch-up with Labour

Having spent months denouncing Miliband's energy price freeze as a "con", the Tories, spooked by the opposition's poll lead, are now trying to match it.

When Ed Miliband announced his pledge to freeze energy prices if elected, the Tories insisted they wouldn't enter a bidding war with Labour over the cost of living. 'Don't play on Miliband's turf' was the message from George Osborne to Conservative MPs. As the Chancellor told the Daily Telegraph last month: "I do not feel under pressure to match gimmick for gimmick. If anything, we are winning this argument with the British public precisely because we have been consistent, we have continued to put a grown-up argument to a grown-up country." Rather than reinforcing Labour's frame, the Tories would seek to shift the debate back to their preferred terrain of the deficit and GDP.

That strategy now lies in ruins. After the government repeatedly branded Miliband's plan to freeze prices a "gimmick" and a "con", energy company sources have now told the BBC that it is pleading with them to do just that (a transparent attempt to head off the move). The proposed freeze would last for at least 18 months until the middle of 2015 (after the general election in other words). Far from denouncing Labour's offer, the Tories, spooked by the opposition's stubborn poll lead, are now trying to match it. 

I expect ministers will respond by pointing out that the move is contingent on there being no major increase in wholesale prices and on the transfer of some green levies from consumer bills to general taxation, but much of this detail will be lost. Having spent months telling voters that a price freeze is unworkable, the government is now sending the reverse message. It leaves Ed Miliband with a political open goal: "David Cameron is 'asking' the energy companies to freeze prices; I'll force them too." 

As shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint said last night: "David Cameron is making himself look weaker and weaker with every passing day. For months he has been saying Labour's energy price freeze is a con. Now he is begging the energy companies to do the very same thing. But the truth is that only by legislating for a freeze can we guarantee that it will happen. David Cameron won't do that because he's not prepared to stand up to the big energy companies. All this shows is why we need a Labour government implementing Labour policy to freeze prices until 2017 and reset the energy market so that it works for the long term." Job done. 

At the end of a week that began with George Osborne U-turning on payday loan charges (and appropriating Miliband's rhetoric on setting "the rules" of the market) and continued with the government doing so on plain cigarette packaging, it creates the impression of a party in a strategic tailspin. After seeking, with some success, to project an image of competence, "omnishambles" is back

The government's wild lurching is reminsicent of that of Gordon Brown following George Osborne's 2007 conference pledge to cut inheritance tax. Rather than dismissing the Chancellor's gambit (which ultimately did his party more harm than good), Brown forced Alistair Darling to try and match it in his pre-Budget report, with predictably disastrous consequences. Far from wrongfooting the Tories, it created the impression of a government that was at the mercy of the opposition, in office but not in power. The irony is that, as Raf wrote recently, Osborne himself has cited this affair as evidence of why his party should not enter a political auction with Miliband. But under the pressure of events, that insight has now been cast aside. 

The Tories' plan for victory in 2015 is supposedly to present themselves as a "grown-up" party with a "long-term" plan. But rarely have they looked more childlike or short-termist than this week. 

David Cameron speaks during an interactive session with students of the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta on 14 November 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Lindsey Parnaby / Getty
Show Hide image

The public like radical policies, but they aren't so keen on radical politicians

Around the world, support for genuinely revolutionary ideas is strong, but in the UK at least, there's less enthusiasm for the people promising them.

You’re probably a getting a little bored of the litany of talking head statistics: trust in elected officials, parliament, the justice system and even democracy itself has been falling steadily for years and is at record lows. Maybe you’ve seen that graph that shows how people born after 1980 are significantly less likely than those born in 1960 to think that living in a democracy is ‘essential’. You’ve possibly heard of the ‘Pasokification’ of the centre-left, so-named the collapse of the once dominant Greek social democratic party Pasok, a technique being aggressively pursued by other centre-left parties in Europe to great effect.    

And so, goes the logic, there is a great appetite for something different, something new. It’s true! The space into which Trump et al barged leaves plenty of room for others: Beppe Grillo in Italy, Spanish Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jean Luc Melanchon, and many more to come.

In my new book Radicals I followed movements and ideas that in many cases make someone like Jeremy Corbyn seem positively pedestrian: people who want to dismantle the nation state entirely, use technology to live forever, go off grid. All these ideas are finding fertile ground with the frustrated, disillusioned, and idealistic. The challenges of coming down the line – forces of climate change, technological change, fiscal crunch, mass movements of people – will demand new types of political ideas. Radical, outsider thinking is back, and this does, in theory at least, offer a chink of light for Corbyn’s Labour.

Polling last week found pretty surprising levels of support for many of his ideas. A big tax on high earners, nationalising the railways, banning zero hours contracts and upping the minimum wage are all popular. Support for renewable energy is at an all-time high. According to a recent YouGov poll, Brits actually prefer socialism to capitalism, a sentiment most strongly held among younger people.

There are others ideas too, which Corbyn is probably less likely to go for. Stopping benefits entirely for people who refuse to accept an offer of employment is hugely popular, and in one recent poll over half of respondents would be happy with a total ban on all immigration for the next two years. Around half the public now consistently want marijuana legalised, a number that will surely swell as US states with licenced pot vendors start showing off their dazzling tax returns.

The BNP effect used to refer to the problem the far-right had with selling their ideas. Some of their policies were extremely popular with the public, until associated with the BNP. It seems as though the same problem is now afflicting the Labour brand. It’s not the radical ideas – there is now a genuine appetite for those who think differently – that’s the problem, it’s the person who’s tasked with delivering them, and not enough people think Corbyn can or should. The ideal politician for the UK today is quite possibly someone who is bold enough to have genuinely radical proposals and ideas, and yet appears extremely moderate, sensible and centrist in character and temperament. Perhaps some blend of Blair and Corbyn. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But this is politics, 2017. Anything is possible.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

0800 7318496