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Dominic Raab MP: Miliband's cost of living gamble shows that he's out of ideas

Dominic Raab is the Member of Parliament for Esher & Walton.

Screen shot 2013-08-18 at 08.13.10So, Ed Miliband thinks he’s Ronald Reagan, pinching the Great Communicator’s pitch to America: ‘Are you better off than you were five years ago?’

Yet when Reagan honed this line against Jimmy Carter in 1980, he was asking voters whether they felt more secure, who they trusted to ensure America’s best days lay ahead - not just to conduct a household inventory. Reagan played on deeper anxieties, citing high unemployment, double-digit inflation, interest rates over 15 per cent - compounded by the foreign policy fiascos of the Iranian Embassy siege and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Those conditions don’t chime with Britain today. The 2015 UK election is more like the US campaign of 2012 than 1980, when Mitt Romney tried and failed to copy Reagan. Like Britain now, US unemployment was just under eight per cent, but Obama could point to substantial jobs growth to argue the economy was on the right track. Likewise, voters blame Bush and Brown for the economic mess Obama and Cameron inherited. As for confidence abroad, Cameron will take credit for extricating British troops from Afghanistan, and more still for sticking the occasional two fingers up at the European Union. Where Romney failed to regain lost Republican trust, Miliband faces a similar battle.

Nor is Labour’s ‘cost of living’ attack a sure bet. Voters today are better off than they were in 2010 on many measures. Where they’re not, Labour policies risk making matters worse. Reagan focused on unemployment. Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England – whose appointment Labour lauded - ensured it remains central to economic debate here, by signalling we need 750,000 more jobs before interest rates rise to curb inflation.  Who’s best placed to deliver that? Unemployment today is lower than in May 2010. More private sector jobs were created in just two years of coalition than after a decade under Labour.

Carney’s strategy carries real risks, but it keeps interest rates low, easing pressure on those with debt and blunting Labour’s opportunity to play on high inflation - which at 2.8 per cent is less than the 3.4 per cent inherited from Gordon Brown anyway. All this hems Miliband in. Treasury Ministers have already totted up the cost of new Labour policies at close to £3,000 of debt for every working family. It’s difficult to see how Labour can offer free childcare or a jobs guarantee – as trailed - and pass muster as a credible custodian of the nation’s fragile finances.

Nor is tax fairness the Tory blind spot Labour salivates over. Last year, those earning £10-15,000 per year paid a quarter less tax than in Labour’s last year of office – while those earning over £1million paid a quarter more. But don’t people feel worse off? Some may, because household debt remains precariously high. But, that’s a cul-de-sac for Labour too: household debt rocketed from 70 per cent of gross domestic product in 1997 to 109 per cent in 2009, receding to 98 per cent today.

Presumably, Miliband has other cards up his sleeve.  The New Statesman reckons he will promise to reinstate the spare room subsidy. That’s lunacy. It’s one thing to carp at transitional disruption caused by cutting housing benefit for those with unused spare bedrooms, another altogether to reintroduce a rule that couples financial profligacy with moral short-sightedness. Why, with long housing lists, wouldn’t any government prioritise according to need? As for housing stock, the coalition has built more affordable housing every year than Labour did in any.

Miliband also flirts with wealth taxes. But he knows that, to raise meaningful revenue, they would wallop the middle classes and hurt the recovery. Equally, turning lofty talk of ‘pre-distribution of wealth’ into tangible policies is every bit as hard as it sounds. Legislating for a living wage or banning zero-hours contracts would deter firms from hiring - bringing Labour into conflict with Carney’s jobs target.

Miliband’s most resonant attack was carving a distinction between capitalism’s predators and producers – singling out energy companies and banks. But, their monopolistic grip tightened under Labour. It was Miliband as Energy Secretary who pioneered the arbitrary green subsidies inflating energy bills, while Chris Bryant’s mouth-footed attempt to flay Next and Tesco's for hiring foreign workers just reminds the country how lax Labour were about immigration.

Miliband’s new slogan is: ‘David Cameron is out of touch, you are out of pocket’. If that’s all he’s got, voters may reasonably conclude Labour is out of ideas. 


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