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

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation