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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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.