By Edward Langley
At the moment the Tories are desperate to talk about anything but substantive policy issues. Why? Because they are suffering from a certain lack of any ideas. ’Theresa May’s desk is the place where good ideas go to die’, read one recent Economist article (and even The Times are arguing the same). Jacob Rees-Mogg blamed the disappointing election result on this shortage of ideas: “What we had to say at the last election was so gloomy. It was that we will manage things better than the other side will, but it is going to be really nasty. We’re going to make you sell your house if you’re elderly and, if you’re young, we’re not going to talk to you at all. That doesn’t work; it was a bad idea.” Not only this, but popular opinion is veering away from the Tories as people are realising that, to some extent, they have had the wool pulled over their eyes…
The 2010 election was won on the basis that the Tories were the safe pair of hands for the economy. They were going to clear up Labour’s mess. Austerity was necessary, mere short term pain for long term gain. They were going to slash the deficit entirely by 2015. Then it moved to 2020. Now the target is 2025, but the OBR argue that there is no chance it can be eliminated before 2030 and it may be even later. The public have awoken to the fact that austerity is here to stay under the Tories, that it was never a solution to the great recession in the first place but has only prolonged the pain. The whole edifice on which the Tories were seen as the sensible choice on the economy is crumbling. At first Labour fell for it, the well-meaning but weak shadow government led by Ed Miliband never really bothered to fight the Tories’ narrative that Gordon Brown somehow caused the Global Financial Crash meaning schools, the NHS and pensions should all suffer as a result. They adopted an ‘austerity-lite’ manifesto in 2015, a sign of just how much the argument had been won by the Tories. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. All the disasters from the NHS crisis to the Grenfell tragedy are shining a light on what austerity actually means, and it is apparent to the public that not only has the economy never really recovered but the deficit, the raison d’être of austerity, is not going to budge either.
Labour should be using this opportunity to explain how reversing austerity will be good for the economy, that Keynesian economics is nothing to be scared of and some public spending will actually put the UK on the road to recovery. To some extent they are. But banging on about renationalising the water industry is a boring, fruitless and unnecessary cause. The problems facing our society today are of a magnitude like never before. From climate change to artificial intelligence, we need fresh ideas and innovative solutions that cross party divides. Think a carbon tax, or a basic income, both ideas that would go a decent way at addressing these problems and neither of which are confined to the left. Many advocates of a basic income are libertarians and taxing carbon is just a market solution to a market failure. But instead John McDonnell can only seem to talk about renationalisation, perhaps a nice idea in theory, but how on earth is it going to address any real problems? Renationalising the water industry would cost the UK £90bn according to recent findings, equal to the entire annual education budget. Why this should be the priority is anyone’s guess. Does renationalisation of water spark inspiration amongst the aspirational? Does it make you feel safer, and more secure in your children’s future? Personally, no not at all. It seems more like a rehash of now ancient debates over Clause IV but the side who lost are now in the driver’s seat and they want revenge. McDonnell is rising to the Tories’ bait, they call him a dinosaur who wants to bring the UK back into the 70s and that is exactly how he is coming across. Labour cannot let the narrative slip back into the Tories’ favour, but to do that they need to start thinking afresh.