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11 February 2015updated 12 Feb 2015 10:51am

It’s Labour, not the Tories, that has a “long-term plan” for the economy – but who knows that?

The party needs to aggressively contest Cameron’s ownership of the politics of growth. 

By George Eaton

An assertion that is repeated often enough becomes the truth. In the election campaign, the Conservatives’ “long-term economic plan” is proof of this. The head of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth, exposed the vacuity of this mantra when he observed: “Do you know what it is? No? Exactly. Neither do I.”

The voters, though, are less disdainful. One Tory strategist says that he knows of no slogan that polls better among focus groups. The confidence with which Conservative MPs deploy their message both reflects and reinforces their advantage on the economy. Their poll lead on that issue stands at 15 points; David Cameron and George Osborne lead Ed Miliband and Ed Balls by 22. Aides say that the Chancellor, a man who was booed at the Paralympics in 2012, is congratulated by the public on “sticking to the plan” during his hard-hat tours.

The truth is that he has done anything but. Having vowed nearly to eliminate the deficit, Osborne is now only able to boast of having halved it – the target he once derided as hopelessly profligate. But as Margaret Thatcher understood, the appearance of consistency is more important than the reality. When Labour MPs refer ironically to the Tories’ “long-term economic plan”, they risk merely reinforcing their opponents’ ownership of this issue.

Their incredulity is forgivable. There is nothing in the Tories’ programme to justify the claim that they possess an elixir for the British disease of short-termism. They have pledged to achieve an absolute Budget surplus by the end of the next parliament but, as Longworth noted, “That is not a plan for growth and enterprise.” Indeed, by precluding borrowing for investment, it is a plan for the reverse. The promise of an EU referendum is so long-termist that Cameron voted against the policy in 2011. “This is not the time to argue about walking away,” he warned then. “Not just for their sakes but for ours. Legislating now for a referendum, including on whether Britain should leave the EU, could cause great uncertainty and could actually damage our prospects of growth.” His subsequent pledge was made only to stave off regicide.

The Tories’ reputation for solidity is perhaps their greatest electoral asset. By impugning Labour’s economic credibility, they aim to cast it as a party whose good intentions lead inexorably to bad outcomes. Their rejoinder to Miliband’s pledge to outspend them on health and education is that high-quality public services ultimately depend on a “strong economy”. Labour’s problem, they suggest, is that it always runs out of other people’s money. Miliband’s complaint of depressed real wages is met with a similar retort: living standards will rise only if GDP rises. To this, the opposition protests: if growth has returned, why have earnings remained so feeble?

It is this accusation that explains Cameron’s belated appropriation of a slogan previously used by the TUC: “It’s time Britain had a pay rise”. Miliband, with satisfaction, regards this rhetorical shift as evidence that the Prime Minister is “playing on our pitch”. He is encouraged by Barack Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012, when the US president, like Labour, trailed on economic management and on deficit reduction but led on living standards. If Cameron wants a fight on the latter, Miliband believes there will be only one winner.

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But the 2012 US election, one studied obsessively by strategists on both sides, also offers a cautionary tale for Labour. Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan’s question from 1980 – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” – but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and it doubted his Republican rival could do any better. The Tories’ belief is that British voters will eventually reach the same conclusion about Labour.

To counter this danger, the party must aggressively contest Cameron’s ownership of the politics of growth. As the Prime Minister encroaches on Labour’s territory, it should respond with raids on his. The danger is that the party’s preoccupation with living standards has allowed it to be too easily cast as a socialist troglodyte that knows only how to cap, freeze and tax.

The irony is that in areas such as appren­ticeships, infrastructure, banking and the EU, the opposition has the most pro-growth policies. A study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research published on 9 February found that owing to its looser fiscal stance, the economy would grow faster under Labour than the Conservatives: a fact entirely lost in the current debate.

The message that Labour could support business better than the Tories was delivered by Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna at the British Chambers of Commerce conference. In an echo of Michael Heseltine’s promise to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner” to promote British industry, Umunna declared, “We will work every day, strain every sinew, to make your lives that bit easier: easier to do business; easier to export; easier to create jobs; easier to succeed.”

The Labour leader has made no shortage of “pro-business” speeches but the perception that he is hostile to wealth creation has become ingrained. In his days as an adviser to Gordon Brown, he was known by Blairites as “the emissary from Planet F***”. One MP complains he has left Balls and Umunna playing an equivalent role for business.

There is still time for him to remedy this impression. In his next speech on the subject he should unhesitatingly echo Umunna’s assertion: “Any debate on building a fairer society is academic unless there are businesses creating wealth.” If he does so with enough conviction, he may just start to be believed. 

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