Former Lib Dem minister Jeremy Brown speaks in New Delhi on February 16, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Browne's manifesto would be electoral suicide for the Lib Dems

Policies such as cutting the top rate of tax, reducing NHS spending and introducing for-profit free schools are politically toxic. 

Jeremy Browne has long distinguished himself as the most ardent champion of the free market on the Lib Dem benches. But even by his standards, the manifesto outlined in his new book Race Plan (subtitled "An authentic plan to get Britain fit for 'The Global Race'") is strikingly radical. The former Home Office minister calls for the establishment of for-profit free schools and parent vouchers, for an end to the ring-fencing of the NHS budget and the possible introduction of patient charges, for a cut in the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p, for the creation of a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary ("Boris island") and for a reduction in the number of police forces in England and Wales from 43 to as few as 10. 

He tells the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan: "The government has allowed itself to default into timidity. I’m of the view that the most credible answer to the question 'How does Britain deal more confidently with global risk?' is unbridled, unambiguous, authentic liberalism." And, in a swipe at Nick Clegg, the man who sacked him last year, he adds: "We are telling the voters that we offer either diluted socialism or diluted conservatism. We are the diluting agent. The party shows resilience and fortitude, given the battering we have had. But we have defaulted, instead to trying to cause the least offence to the most people. We have sold ourselves as a brake in government, rather than an accelerator."

Browne's philosophical rigour might be admirable, but it's worth noting just how disastrous it would be for the Lib Dems to embrace his proposals. Far from wanting the top rate to be cut to 40p, most voters (68 per cent) support a 50p rate, while 48 per cent favour a 60p rate. As George Osborne learned to his cost, cutting taxes for the top 1 per cent a time of austerity is politically toxic. It's one reason why the normally mild Danny Alexander was moved to declare that the rate would be reduced to 40p "over my dead body". 

The Tories have, however, been smart enough to recognise that no government with an interest in self-preservation cuts the NHS (accurately described by Nigel Lawson as "the closest thing the English people have to a religion"). As a ComRes/ITV News poll found last year, health is the most popular spending area among voters. Just 5 per cent obelieve the NHS budget should be reduced and 71 per cent believe it should be increased - and with good reason. 

Owing to the above-average rate of health inflation (most notably the cost of new drugs and medical equipment), the NHS requires real-terms rises just to stand still. As a recent Social Market Foundation paper noted, "A ‘flat real’ settlement for the NHS is not what it sounds like since it is defined with reference to an irrelevant price index. To keep up with rising input costs, growing demand, and the public’s expectations for an adequate healthcare system, growth in spending on health has historically outstripped GDP growth." 

By historic standards, the NHS is undergoing austerity. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the current Spending Review it will rise by an average of just 0.5 per cent. As a result, in the words of the SMF, there has been "an effective cut of £16bn from the health budget in terms of what patients expect the NHS to deliver". Should the NHS receive flat real settlements for the three years from 2015-16, this cut will increase to £34bn or 23 per cent.

Browne's education proposals would be similarly toxic. A YouGov poll last year, for instance, found that 84 per cent of parents oppose for-profit free schools with just six per cent in favour. The marketisation of education would do even more to alienate the kind of Lib Dem voters who keep a voodoo doll of Michael Gove by their beds. 

Outside of the City of London, there is almost no appetite for the turbo Thatcherism advocated by Browne. As I’ve noted before, if Ed Miliband is a "socialist", so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (putting them to the left of the Labour leader).

Browne might contend that only his vision can save Britain from inexorable decline, but he should not delude himself that he would ever win a mandate for it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

NS
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Labour is condemned to watch helplessly as Theresa May consolidates power

The Zombie Party is too weak to win and too strong to die. 

Labour’s defeat to the Tories in the Copeland by-election in Cumbria, which the party had held for more than 80 years, is a humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund party. This is the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won Mitchum and Morden in 1982. 
 
The victorious candidate Trudy Harrison, who increased the Tories’ share of the vote in this former Labour “stronghold" by more than 8 percentage points, hailed the victory as “truly historic”, while Labour MP John Woodcock called it a “disaster”, and even the shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, conceded it was a “profound disappointment”. 
 
At a time in the electoral cycle when a credible opposition should be winning by-elections and riding high in the polls, Labour is in disarray: rejected, humiliated, ridiculed. It has all but collapsed in Scotland, where the Tory leader Ruth Davidson has emerged as the popular, unapologetic leader of Unionism. And in England the danger now is not that it will lose seats to Ukip — whose leader Paul Nuttall was rejected yesterday in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, which Labour held on a low turn-out after a dispiriting campaign — but to Theresa May’s Conservatives. 
 
The Copeland result was a vindication for Theresa May. When recently I interviewed her in Downing Street she had a simple message for Labour: we are coming after your voters – and she is. 
 
Because of its embrace of the radical left and internal divisions, May accused Labour of abandoning many of its traditional supporters. The party was not responding to their concerns on issues such as “the impact of immigration on lower income levels”.
 
True enough: Corbyn favours mass immigration and open borders yet is an economic protectionist – a classic Marxist position but electoral suicide in our new emerging post-liberal era in which populist movements are rising across Europe and an America First nationalist is in the White House.
 
“I hope there are Labour voters,” Theresa May told me, “out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it. I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”
 
The polls suggest that more than simply disaffected Labour voters are looking at the Tories afresh, as we embark on the epic challenge of negotiating the Brexit settlement.
  
May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the European Union but a demand for change from those people – many of them in places such as Copeland - who felt ignored and excluded from prosperity and greater opportunity.
 
Her vision is for a “Great Meritocracy” (whereas Corbyn’s is for a socialist republic) combining greater social justice with enhanced social mobility. It’s an intellectually fascinating and ambitious project and, if successful (and many doubt her, not least her own right wing), it has the potential to condemn Labour to electoral oblivion.
    
The collapse of the Labour party as a stable and credible political force is dismaying. Many of the party’s problems precede Corbyn, who is sincere and determined but is not a national leader. But then neither was Ed Miliband, who misunderstood the financial crisis, which he believed had created a “social democratic moment”, and misread the country he sought to govern. Miliband treated politics like an elevated Oxbridge PPE seminar and introduced the new rules by which the party elected its leader, disempowering MPs.
 
The distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents”. Something similar could be said of Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all.

Most Labour MPs despise or are embarrassed by their leader. The MPs are divided and demoralised, with some pondering whether to follow Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed (whose resignations created respectively the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections) out of politics. The Corbynites are breaking up into factions (one hears talk of “hard” and “soft” Corbynites), and Corbyn himself is incapable of appealing to those who do not share his ideological convictions.
 
For now, the Labour leader retains the support of activists and members and, crucially, of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and the party’s paymaster. But even his friends must accept that he is leading the party in only one direction – into the abyss.
 
On the eve of the two by-elections, Corbyn posted a message on Facebook: “Whatever the results, the Labour Party – and our mass membership – must go further to break the failed political consensus, and win power to rebuild and transform Britain.”
 
The statement was received with derision on social media. The idea that Labour can win power any time soon (notwithstanding some black swan event) is magical thinking. Corbyn’s personal ratings among traditional working class semi-skilled and unskilled Labour voters are catastrophically poor. He appeals to students, affluent metropolitans with degrees, and minority groups. As for the majority of the electorate, forget it.
 
MPs are reluctant to challenge Jeremy Corbyn because they know any leadership contest would revitalize his leadership, as happened last summer when the Welsh MP Owen Smith mounted an ill-considered and doomed “coup”. Nor is there a pre-eminent candidate waiting in the shadows to strike, as Michael Heseltine was in the last years of the Thatcher administration.
 
So Labour will continue to be the Zombie Party: too weak to win but too strong to die. Its founding mission was to defend the labour interest and to create a fairer, more ethical society. But Labour has lost its role, its confidence and sense of purpose. Obsessed by identity liberalism, bewildered by Brexit and led by a radical socialist, Labour can only look on helplessly as the Tories start to win seats in its former heartlands and hunker down for another decade or more in power.

This column was originally published in the London Evening Standard.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.