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There is no hiding place in the hard times

The current crises – economic, climate, political – reveal the true colours of Labour and the Tories

If a crisis tells you a lot about the nature of a person, an economic crisis reveals the true character of political parties. There is no hiding place for your values in the economics of hard times. Throw in the post-expenses political crisis and the climate crisis, and you see the contours of politics - and indeed the parties' manifestos - for the coming five years.

We plan to show in our manifesto that we have learned the lessons of these crises, and that, despite the constraints they impose, we can continue to pursue our vision of the good society. Politics is shaped by circumstance, but our politics will not be imprisoned by it. So we will demonstrate that we can respond by making Britain more prosperous, fairer, greener and more democratic.

We know what we will be up against. The Tories' only vision of the good society now seems to be the small state. The economic crisis has proved to be the perfect cover for them to advocate what they never stopped believing in. That remains a fundamental difference in ­politics today: between a Conservative Party that thinks people are best left to fend for themselves, and Labour, which understands the role of government in protecting people and enabling them to pursue their vision of the good life.

The response to the recession is the most ­obvious manifestation of this difference. We see it in everything, from the action Gordon Brown took to stop recession turning into a depression, to the actions taken to prevent repossessions and help the unemployed back to work. But the differences will also play themselves out in how we sustain recovery and build the economy of the future.

Prosperity after the recession has to be different from what went before. We cannot rebuild our economy with a focus on a single industry, even the financial services sector. We need to strengthen British manufacturing.

Take the area of low-carbon industry. Thanks to both government investment and a clear framework of regulation, an offshore wind manufacturing base is starting to be developed in the United Kingdom. We are helping to build the automotive industry of the future with our support for electric cars. But the Labour manifesto will go further, pursuing an active industrial policy to build the economy of the future.

Another lesson demonstrated by the economic crisis is that we need to grow together, not apart. That is why it is right to reform the bonus system and tackle tax avoidance at the top. But our attention should not be focus­ed just on people at the very top of the wage scale. We need a renewed emphasis on pro­tecting living standards for the lowest paid through the minimum wage. We need to address the ­issue of consumer credit, tackling loan sharks who charge interest rates as high as 200 per cent and trap hard-working people in a web of debt. And we need to make as much progress as possible on improving the supply of affordable housing, to rent and to buy.

So there are differences in the way to manage the economic crisis, differences in the lessons we learn and differences in what we believe is feasible and right in the wake of it. There will need to be tough decisions on where to target resources in the coming years, and we are determined to ensure maximum efficiency in the way we spend public money. But we approach these decisions with completely different values from our opponents.

For example, while the Tories want to spend £1bn on inheritance tax cuts for millionaires, we will make a clear choice of priorities so that we can both help build the economy of the future and improve public services. Indeed, we will put in place new rights and enforceable guarantees for people using our public services. And we are already showing ways of funding important priorities. For example, Andy Burnham has demonstrated how we can replace the current postcode lottery of care services for the elderly with a single-quality national standard.

Advances in elderly care speak to a central issue for the coming years: how we not only restore prosperity, but also speak to people's wider aspirations. We all know that proper care for the elderly, decent childcare for your kids, time off to spend with your family, are as central to a better life as earning more.

Just as we must meet the challenge of the economic crisis and go beyond it, so too with the climate crisis. We are ambitious not only about tackling climate change, but about building a low-carbon economy and society - making a difference to jobs, quality of life and fairness.

That is why our manifesto will look at the way we design cities and towns to make them better places to live. We will help modernise people's homes to reduce energy use. We will give local communities and local authorities more power to make key decisions that affect the local environment and climate change.

And, once again, there are significant differences between us and our opponents. The Tories used green politics to try to decontaminate the brand. But they should be judged by their actions. All around the country, Tory councils oppose wind farm applications: 60 per cent of all requests. The Tories have chosen to form a new European grouping with climate change deniers. And they oppose the support we are giving green industries, which are key to Britain's future prosperity.

If climate and economics are the most urgent crises, the crisis of politics is in a sense the most challenging. The expenses scandal has made a bad situation worse - the public's faith in politics was frayed even before the abuses were revealed. Turnout at elections is depressingly low. Politics is a minority sport. Our constitutional reform agenda remains unfinished.

Dealing with the crisis of accountability in politics means reforming the expenses system, but it will take more than that to rebuild our democracy. We need a mandate to complete House of Lords reform and pursue wider political change, not just at Westminster, but with a genuine empowering of people and local authorities. If we can lead the way again here, the Tories won't follow, because they have never been serious about democratic reform.

If, in five years of a Labour government, we sustain growth and rising living standards, radically improve our system of social care, set Britain on its way to being a low-carbon society and further reform the institutions of British democracy, that will be a good start.

There is a difference in politics today. Make no mistake: the Tories have a very clear strategy about how to pursue their vision of the good
society. They will winnow away the standards of public services and the broader welfare state as a way of weakening support for it. That's why they are planning to abandon the hard-won guarantee of an 18-week maximum waiting time for hospital treatment, as well as the two-week cancer referral guarantee, and the like. It is what their council leaders are calling the Ryanair model of public services: the poor get the bare minimum, the rest have to pay.

Labour at its best has always stood up for lower- and middle-income Britain. The same will be true at the coming election, as we seek to rebuild prosperity, protect and improve public services, and make Britain a fairer place to live. The true test of progressive politics is its pursuit in tough times. We will meet that challenge in our manifesto.

Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and MP for Doncaster North, is co-ordinating the Labour Party's manifesto for the next election

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter