Britain deserves better than Labour’s muddle and statism

Britain deserves better than Labour’s muddle and statism

The Conservative Party is in a mess. Brexit threatens to rip up its coalition as well as divide its Members of Parliament. Its poll numbers have dived since Prime Minister Theresa May’s failed attempts to pass her exit deal with the European Union. The resurgence of a far right United Kingdom Independence Party and the emergence of Nigel Farage’s new and populist Brexit Party threaten the electoral prospects of a Conservative Party whose voters have over the last few years become increasingly socially conservative and Euro-sceptic.

In this situation, the prospects of the Government either falling from power after further Parliamentary defections, a failure of its Confidence and Supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionists, or the election of a new Prime Minister who then decides to call a snap General Election in search of a mandate, must be fairly high. In that situation, the Conservatives might well lose. Depending on the identity and pose of any new leader, they are in dire danger of handing Downing Street over to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour.

The May administration is fundamentally out of line with the modern Britain that is emerging and which will be dominant by the 2040s – young, urban, cosmopolitan, libertarian. Instead, it is: illiberal, closed-minded, resentfully nostalgic and above all committed to a narrow and cramped view of how government as a whole can help people, the Conservatives’ continued advocacy of deep austerity long after its rationale and purpose has passed is a marker of their anger and confusion as political hegemony appears to slip through their fingers. Cameroonian ‘modernisation’ seems long ago.

Labour, though, might not be all that much better – for its plans seem both deeply nostalgic in their own way, as well as extremely vague where really specific details are vital for understanding what policies actually mean. Most of all, their answer to everything is more government regulation, intervention and control. There’s no doubt that Britain would benefit from more direction in many spheres, because across the country, life and space has become gritty, shoddy and sometimes downright cruel. But it’s far from clear that the British state – so bereft of answers over Brexit, and likely to struggle for years to come to terms with its backwash – could cope with finding and implementing any solutions.

Take housing. Here the challenge is to make things better for Britain’s increasingly-important army of private renters. Build as many houses as you may, young people in the South-East and London might never own their own homes. They are simply too expensive. Planning reform is simply too difficult for most politicians to contemplate, and Labour hasn’t dared to touch this topic themselves – the first indication of their lack of joined-up thinking.

Some elements in Labour’s programme are welcome. An emphasis on longer-term tenancies. Preventing eviction without a reason, a policy now mirrored by the Government itself. Higher standards and higher fines for landlords who break them. More social housing (though here there must be the gravest of doubts about Labour’s ability to meet their promises during one Parliamentary term). But their plans for indefinite tenancies bear all the hallmarks of glib policy tourism and a lack of long-term thinking.

The German market, from where they’ve taken their cue, often involves renting just the bricks and mortar themselves: tenants are often expected to do most of the maintenance and even rebuilding work themselves. That’s a quite different situation to that pertaining in England. Nor do Labour seem to have decided whether landlords who are getting into financial trouble, or who want to exit the market altogether, can sell up (as they can under the equivalent Scottish legislation from 2016). This is more than detail. Labour wants to impose rent controls, possibly in the first instance by forbidding above-inflation rent increases on the three-year tenancies they talked about at the last election: holding rent increases to this level indefinitely is a quite different policy. They want to make tenancies indefinite when the types of property involved – and what the concept of ‘tenancy’ means – are quite different in England and Germany. It would be deeply unwise to padlock all landlords to all tenancies forever, whatever their circumstances. And so on.

Or have a look at the railways. Labour promise to nationalise these, and to plough all the money saved from profits back into the industry. But the problem here is twofold. Most of the industry is already nationalised, under the guise of Network Rail, and most of the rail infrastructure is paid for by the taxpayer. Railway operators’ profits are tiny, and for some companies serve as little more than a sweetener and a loss-leading shop window. They average out at little more than two per cent of turnover, and although estimates differ can’t be more than a few hundred million pounds a year. The new trains going into service on the Great Western and East coast lines just this year have cost little shy of £6bn. Nationalisation as the answer to our crowded and confusing railways is like trying to squeeze a bottle of olive oil out of three olives and a bit of bark.

The impression lingers that Labour’s new voters, often Remain-oriented white-collar professionals deeply alienated by May’s antediluvian Conservatives, will hate these policies once they see them in action. Primarily voting Labour to take the pressure off public services and to get rid of the chaotic Tories, they might well end up with a government that wants to interfere everywhere – quite against the outlook and basic philosophy of many who’ve supported them at the polls. In that situation, and without much hope of delivering noticeable change in the very short term, a new Labour government might languish very deeply in the polls.

The real Rosetta Stone of our politics would be an agenda that freed cities, charities, co-operatives and local people to find answers to our grave crises of place, infrastructure and home: neither the Conservatives nor Labour seem likely to decode it as things stand. The field is wide open for others who might.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a string of books and articles about economic and social policy since 1945, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2012). He is now beginning a book on the economic and social policies of the Blair governments between 1997 and 2007.

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