Even when they agree, Cameron and Miliband dress their vision for Britain in clashing colours

Everyone in Westminster knows that the nation’s creaking infrastructure needs an upgrade but Cameron’s “global race” and Miliband’s “new economy” must be depicted as ideological antitheses.

There is a cathedral of clay, concrete and steel 30 metres beneath the East End of London. Tunnels ten metres high stretch into the distance, reverberating to the growl of heavy machinery. At one end a drilling machine, 150 metres long, gouges tonnes of earth every day. This is Crossrail, Europe’s biggest engineering project – a £14.8bn colonisation of the space beneath the capital for new east-west commuter rail lines.

Politicians love this half-built subterra­nean realm. David Cameron and Boris John­son recently came on a joint visit. George Osborne has been down here. Nick Clegg is planning a trip. The appeal is obvious. Here are jobs, apprenticeships, economic growth, progress. Better still, Crossrail is coming in on time and on budget.

Everyone in Westminster knows that the nation’s creaking infrastructure needs an upgrade but no one is sure how to pay for the job. British politics being what it is, Labour and the Conservatives have found ways to dress the same ambition in clashing ideological colours. For Cameron, it is all about the “global race” – equipping the UK to rival emerging economic powerhouses around the world.

This ambition is folded into a familiar Conservative prescription for a more competitive economy: lower corporate taxes, fewer workplace protections, emancipation from Brussels, benefit cuts as a device to promote self-reliance. Austerity is advertised as a means to make the state sleeker, not weaker. Slashing departmental budgets is supposed to leave capacity for investment in tunnels, roads and power stations, co-sponsored by private and foreign investors. (We can compete in a race with China if the Chinese build us enough running tracks first, apparently.)

Labour is much more comfortable with the idea of state intervention to foster growth, especially if it means bolstering sectors other than financial services and regions other than the south-east. It is axiomatic for Ed Miliband that politics is now all about enacting this economic “rebalancing”. This flows from his conviction that the financial crisis irrefutably discredited notions of state shrinkage as a route to collective prosperity. In the Labour leader’s view, the Tories are disciples of “old economy” dogma and so incapable of meeting what he sees as the defining challenge of the epoch – redesigning the economy so wealth and opportunity are more fairly distributed.

In truth, the Tory leadership is not opposed to a spot of economic intervention if it serves political expediency. Osborne is inflating the housing market with his Help to Buy scheme. In the depths of stagnation, the Treasury discovered an affection for infrastructure spending. Danny Alexander went rummaging behind Whitehall sofas for loose change to boost pet projects.

With growth returning, the Chancellor doesn’t want that side of the story to complicate his message of steely fiscal discipline. The primary concern is establishing a distinction between the Tories, who have the guts to keep cutting until the deficit is slain, and Labour, which can’t wait to get splurging again. This permits no discussion of borrowing for investment.

That is an option Labour wants to keep open, but Miliband knows that debt has been rendered politically toxic by the Tories. One shadow cabinet minister reports that his constituents view public borrowing about as enthusiastically as a policy of “slaying every first-born child”. This is a problem for Miliband. His instincts are to promise a government that does more; the election campaign will bring demands to prove that Labour knows how to do less. The rhetoric of national renewal doesn’t travel so far when delivered into a tight fiscal corner.

One idea for escaping this trap, under active consideration in Labour policy circles, is to pledge devolution of revenue-raising powers away from Whitehall. Regions and cities could have more say over local property and business taxes, with a view to investing the proceeds in local housing and infrastructure. Crossrail offers a precedent. Around a fifth of the cost has been met by a dedicated “business rate supplement” paid by the capital’s enterprises.

Labour enthusiasts for this approach point out that it also featured in Lord Heseltine’s 2012 review for Downing Street on “strat­egies for growth”. In keeping with White­hall tradition, Heseltine’s recommendations were welcomed by No 10 and diluted by the Treasury. Osborne found £2bn per year, a fraction of the sums Heseltine had in mind, for a Single Local Growth Fund, from which local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) will bid for handouts. LEPs were formed by the coalition to replace regional development agencies, which had been identified in 2010 as pointless Labour quangos and scrapped.

It isn’t the first time a government has dismantled the work of its predecessor and then re-mantled it, having worked out what it was for. The need to overcome this cyclical volatility was one of the priorities identified by Sir John Armitt, the former chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, in a report commissioned by Labour last year. He recommended the creation of a cross-party National Infrastructure Commission to develop priorities for investment without partisan point-scoring. The idea was lost in bickering over who was more responsible for the failure to think long-term. The irony went unremarked.

The Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition both want to present themselves as the sole proprietor of a vision to equip the country for the challenges of the future. Each will accuse the other of being trapped in the past. For general election purposes, Cameron’s “global race” and Miliband’s “new economy” must be depicted as ideological antitheses, precluding any constructive discussion of what the challenges are and how the investment that everyone agrees we need can be afforded. Short-term political tribalism, it seems, is indispensable in order to form a government committed to the long-term national interest. And irony is one industry where Britain has always been a global leader.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband during the service as Justin Welby is enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury at Canterbury Cathedral on March 21, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.