If you have not read the Labour manifesto I commend it to you. It is about tax and spend, just like all the other manifesto’s. That is what governments do, they collect taxes and pay for vital services such as defence, health and education, oh and filling the holes in the road. In relation to tax and spend the Labour manifesto differs from the Tory one in this respect only, that it is better costed!
The Labour manifesto is radical in that it has made the “hard choice” to raise taxes, what is more, it has made the “hard choice” about who is going to pay those higher taxes. Normally when you hear a government minister talking about “hard choices” you think someone is about to get a kicking. Often it is a group of citizens or workers distinguished by their weakness. But not always. The past decade has seen governments of all persuasions talking about the sacrifices that are needed by the majority in order to “balance the book”, “deal with the deficit”, “live within our means” and a range of other cliches raised to the status of policy. Certainly, the hard choices of the Cameron administration were very much about that.
The Labour manifesto addresses all the issues you might expect but critically in relation to care, education, health and industrial strategy it does not talk about how they will be improved by greater efficiency, more competition, delivering more with less or even moving the deck chairs in some complex restructuring exercise. There are some elements of this but bottom line is they say they need more money. And despite the automatic response of the government to any criticisms of its actions, that “Record amounts are being spent on [insert service of your choice]” the reality of most people’s experience is things are getting worse. Services are deteriorating. The “record amount” going into the National Health service is so effective the government does not want the figures for Health Trust deficit’s to be published before the election.
So the Labour Party manifesto is a radical document, it marks a real shift in thinking. It is not constrained by a mindless mantra that nationalisation is necessarily bad because experience seems to show that privatisation is certainly not necessarily good. What is more the risk of nationalised industries gong wrong and thus costing the tax payer a whole pile of cash is not such a powerful criticism when we discover that if private industries, say finance, go wrong they cost the taxpayer a whole pile of cash and more.
Having said all this I suspect in time the Tory manifesto will come to be seen as the most radical of all the current manifesto’s. For the past thirty to forty years there has been a growing consensus structured around a neoliberal economic model of the world which has been about lower taxes, a smaller state and weaker trade unions. The rationale for this is that such actions will lead to improved productivity and greater economic growth. The rising tide of wealth this will create will lift all boats.
Unfortunately, so many boats seem to be stuck in the mud of increasing debt, insecure employment, deteriorating services and, oh, ever more pot holes in the road. A growing sense of frustration with the mantra of jam tomorrow and ever increasing inequality today has permeated the political mantle. The pressure building in the electoral tectonics is palpable and making itself felt in what has become labelled as a popular revolt.
This popular discontent across the whole of the West cannot be dismissed as the irrational response of the “basket of deplorables”. Firstly, there is a growing academic literature raising concerns about inequality and the negative impact it is having on the economy. Whilst some of this is from academics with radical or left wing leanings, it is not all. There are voices from the right who are concerned that the market is rigged and the “invisible hand” is cuffed to the interests of the very wealthy.
To her credit it seems as if Mrs May senses all this and sees something needs to be done and the solution may not be “the market”. The manifesto talks about governing from the mainstream, and states, “We must reject the ideological templates of the socialist left and libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do.” (my emphasis)
The manifesto contains a number of straws which suggest the wind is changing. There is of course a huge difference between rhetoric and reality. The rhetoric could be dismissed as a cynical attempt to attract traditional Labour voters with empty promises. After all this is the government that has promised to get immigration down to tens of thousands, eliminate the deficit and indeed reduce the national debt. It was also Mr May who made very strong comments about workers representation on boards which is being diluted as we speak.
What’s more, excitement at some more progressive comments by the leader of the Tory Party needs to be set against the reality of a lot of very powerful people whose interests will be directly damaged by a rejection of the neoliberal orthodoxy. They are not going to be persuaded because we have a politician who sees there are genuine issues in relation to inequality and opportunity and they will fight to maintain the common sense view of the world that suits, very well, their personal interests.
The common sense view of the world which has evolved over the past thirty years sees the market as an impersonal and efficient allocator of investment, goods and wealth. A view of the world which sees people as rational utility maximisers who have perfect knowledge of the market, and exchange goods, services and labour freely. The reality of most people’s lives is not like this. The twenty first century market bares no comparison to that of the eighteenth, nineteenth or indeed most of the twentieth century. Putting that aside, the bowdlerised version of this model, which is at the core of the libertarian neoliberal view, is even further from the reality.
The Conservative manifesto seems to recognise this. It is a breach in the orthodoxy. It is a chink in the armour that has defended an increasingly indefensible world view. Whatever the outcome of the election the framework of political common sense is starting to change. At the moment it is about opening up areas of debate that have been closed for decades. It will take time for this to crystalise into clearer manifesto’s of change and change itself. However, better there is an increasingly conscious and rational debate about the way in which opportunity and wealth is managed and ditributed in our societies than the alternative.
For the avoidance of doubt, whilst I think the Tory manifesto may prove to be the most radical of the 2017 election I will be voting Labour. The radicalism of the Tory manifesto lies in its implicit recognition that some of what Jeremy Corbyn says about wealth and power is true.