The Labour campaign bus. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Leader: Political cross-dressing – how the Tories and Labour are fighting to cover faults

The party manifestos fight hard to cover up perceived weaknesses. Labour don't want to admit they'll borrow to invest; the Tories don't want to explain the welfare cuts.

The perception that Labour cannot be trusted to control the public finances has hardened into received wisdom. This might be unfair – Gordon Brown used to operate with considerable fiscal discipline and preach “prudence with a purpose” in the early years of the New Labour government – and it is largely a consequence of the aftermath of the financial crisis and the effectiveness of George Osborne’s rhetorical assault on Labour’s economic record. But it is a fact.

Distracted by a protracted and bitter leadership contest in 2010, Labour feebly allowed the Tory-led coalition to frame the fundamental economic argument as one of Labour profligacy v Tory competence. Fatuous and alarmist comparisons were made between Britain and Greece (which was trapped within the eurozone and, because it did not have an independent central bank, unable to use monetary policy to mitigate the effects of the downturn). While the Miliband brothers set about fighting each other, the Tories were winning over the British public to the view that Labour was to blame for the debt crisis afflicting the country.

It is this perception that Ed Miliband very belatedly attempted to address with his front-page manifesto promise of “fiscal responsibility”: that each of Labour’s policies would be fully funded and require no additional borrowing and that he would eliminate the deficit by 2020, notwithstanding another recession or economic crisis.

The trouble for Labour is that the public has very little trust in politicians’ promises or “vows”, which is why Nick Clegg is so loathed, why Labour has become so unpopular in Scotland, where the SNP styles itself as an anti-austerity party, and why Tony Blair has never been forgiven for the Iraq war.

Mr Miliband’s mission in politics is to reduce inequality and to use the tax system and structural reforms of the economy to close the gap between the richest and the rest of us. Polling shows that his crackdown on “non-doms” commands widespread public support even if it might not raise much revenue, as does a rise in the minimum wage. Yet it is a sign of Labour’s weakness that it has felt obligated to offset every policy in this vein with tough talk about cutting benefits and the deficit. Mr Miliband knows that his party is vulnerable to caricature as a group of old-school socialists.

By contrast, the Tories have been spraying around unfunded commitments as if they had been subject to a secret takeover by Scandinavians. Individual ministers may struggle to explain where the extra money pledged for the NHS will come from but Mr Osborne’s calculation is that his economic credibility is sufficiently strong that a little wooziness will be forgiven. In the Tory manifesto, however, the party has moved from the arena of unachievable promises to downright regressive ones. Inheritance tax is currently paid by 6 per cent of estates, so raising its upper limit will benefit only the wealthy. And while “Right to Buy” was popular in its first incarnation under Margaret Thatcher, it has had devastating consequences. The social housing stock was never replenished; it created a new rentier class (a third of Right to Buy homes are rented out) and the state now subsidises more working families to rent in the private sector, causing the housing benefit bill to swell. It is to Labour’s credit that it has pledged to tackle this crisis at its source – lack of supply – with a housebuilding programme. There is also a cap on rent increases and a mansion tax, a move towards the asset taxes for which we have long argued. Earned income for low and middle earners is taxed too heavily (as is consumption; VAT is a regressive tax) and unearned income and static assets too little.

If there is a lesson to take from the Tory and Labour manifestos, it is that both are intent on neutralising their perceived weaknesses. Labour will not admit that it would borrow to invest (a necessary flexibility, as all Keynesians would understand) nor set out where serious cuts would be, and the Tories will not explain how they intend to make £12bn of welfare cuts and more – their numbers are so absurd as to be almost beyond discussion. The war of the weak is ending with both parties trying desperately to feign strength.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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