Oberon Houston: A vision for Britain
The Abolition of the 10p tax band may have been a disaster for Brown.
He may have confused even his own backbenchers, when he accused the
Tories of being for it, and then against it. Presumably he was for it
when he introduced it, and is now so against it he is abolishing it.
Confused? I was. However in the ensuing debating frenzy, we have been
constantly challenged as to whether we would re-instate it or not, to
which the rather feeble response is that we cannot say. A couple of
weeks ago on The Marr Show, David Cameron was being pressed on exactly
this, "So if you won't re-instate it, what will you do?" said Marr.
What happened next, I regard as a defining moment in the debate on this issue. Cameron retorted angrily:
"What I can promise is this; I will never single-out the poorest workers in this country for a tax increase."
This is the stuff people want and need to hear. To react to specific fiscal policies such as the 10p rate abolition, as many involved in the debate rather vacuously wish us to do, isn't responsible. A budget needs to be integrated, balanced, correct for the time it’s presented, and above all, consistent with every policy. Further, government policies need to complement each other; most are in some way connected and have a cause and effect relationship. Together they form the government's ‘vision for Britain’. To debate the specifics of one party’s specific, detailed policy in isolation does little to the quality of the debate. So if the ‘vision for Britain’ is the way to go, how to the two main parties compare?
I have followed Gordon Brown closely for many years, and listened carefully to the interviews he gave after his local election defeat. It's now clear that he, and his ministers are warming us up to what will be billed as a policy 'shift', one that forms the core of Brown's 'Big Vision for Britain'. Brown, when pressed hard for specifics, summarised that his passion was: "A Britain with opportunity and fairness for all." Straw and Miliband have both also briefed on this in the last few days, highlighting that this theme will form the foundation of the re-launch. So what, then, is Brown's big vision?
He believes that to transform Britain into a country of fairness and prosperity, the poor and disadvantaged need access to education, which will 'equip them for a better future'. He intends to provide this through large complex state-run schemes supporting adult educational initiatives and high-profile street outlets coordinating careers advice and training services. Despite the laudable objective here, the reality is that this falls far short of a coherent strategy, never mind a vision worth imagining. These welfare-to-work schemes have been tried by virtually every developed country across the globe for decades now, and have consistently proved costly, complex, and very ineffective - exactly words that could describe their biggest proponent. Brown loves these initiatives, despite introducing the disastrous 'Individual Learning Accounts' (ILAs), an adult education scheme which was very badly run, riddled with fraud and eventually had to be axed (during which incidentally Brown took a typically low profile, leaving junior ministers to handle the meltdown). And despite spending the money robbed from the pension funds on the hugely expensive 'New Deal' Scheme, a youth employment initiative which ultimately resulted in long-term youth unemployment increasing from 1997 levels, despite all this, Brown still hankers after more of the same. Get ready for more 'eye-catching initiatives', with huge advertising budgets. In reality they are recycled, tinkered with, re-badged, failures. This, my friends, falls far short of a vision – and, worse still, its all Brown has in his locker.
So there we are, the real battle is about the ‘vision for Britain’, not pointless tattle about policy specifics. This is what we should be engaging in. The announcement that we would match Labour spending levels in the first two years of government was a mistake. Already we have to defend that position in the face of changing economic conditions, something that doesn't fit the narrative we are trying to solidify. Specific announcements that we will cut taxes are similarly to be avoided, nobody believes that taxes will be higher in the long run with us; we don't need to spell this out. We need to get a far more fundamental message out there, what our vision is. I believe that our policies should comprise a vision for Britain to improve the prospects of everyone, especially those who are responsible and hard working, the strivers. People want to hear that we will provide them with effective education for their kids, ensure they have a health service which will look after them, that we will spend their money wisely, that we will work to build strong economy and, above all, we will govern for the benefit of everyone in Britain.
The poll leads we currently enjoy over Labour, a huge 26% lead in the case of the last YouGov poll, are more in anticipation of the Conservative Party delivering on this vision than a case of job done. The hard work on policy may still largely lie ahead of us, the responsibility may be great, the expectations high - but after ten years in the wilderness, the opportunity we have must be seized and cherished.