Why this election matters after all

Allister Heath
DAVID Cameron’s Tories do have a vision for Britain, and it is different from Labour’s. The gulf between the parties is not as wide as it once was, for sure, but the election will matter.

Take the Tories’ education policy, detailed in yesterday’s manifesto. It will allow the private sector to set up and run new, state-financed, non-fee paying schools: it is a revolutionary step which could have a huge impact. Electing police chiefs would force the authorities to deliver what citizens want, rather than waste resources on politically correct posturing.

Halting Alistair Darling’s national insurance increase for most voters is a good move, as is freezing council tax for two years; though in total these account for just one per cent or so of public spending. The Tories’ plans to cut the deficit are almost identical to Labour’s; there is no real detail in the manifesto, which is worrying as it is not clear where the mandate for any drastic cuts will come from. They want to cut corporation tax to 25 per cent, a great move, but the effective tax rate may not drop because reductions will be “paid for” by eliminating allowances. There are nods to supply-side economics but the Tory policies to free up the economy and cut red tape are timid –?and there is no real strategy to deal with the EU.

Britain needs more people to serve in charities and involve themselves in civil society. We also need stronger families and networks, what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”. For that we need a smaller state which does less, allowing charities, firms and individuals to do more; we also need better incentives to allow the millions of people tragically and hopelessly stuck on welfare to find work.

The Tories are spot on when it comes to one part of this, welfare reform; they understand how perverse incentives have undermined work and families. But they are on weaker ground with the rest of their “big society” agenda, which looks suspiciously like a rebranded big state. “Our ambition is for every adult in the country to be a member of an active neighbourhood group.” Really? What about those so busy trying to make ends meet that they have taken on two jobs, or who are too ill or too old or who have to care for young children or elderly relatives? And what about the barmy proposal for vast numbers of state-funded community organisers? It’s nonsense – slightly sinister nonsense, even, with authoritarian undertones and entirely unaffordable in an age of drastic austerity. One can’t chide the state for its bossiness and all-controlling bureaucratic officialdom – and simultaneously try and make volunteering compulsory. There is such a thing as freedom and being allowed to do whatever one wants with one’s life, rather than being bossed about by do-gooders. It is worrying how, for all their empowering rhetoric (and in some cases proposed actions, such as on civil liberties) the Tories have forgotten about this.

There are other problems: the unilateral bank tax will damage London; even the NHS needs to economise, contrary to what the Tories claim; the idea that employees will bid for the ownership of local hospitals and run them successfully is far-fetched.

But politics is about the art of the possible. There are plenty of good policies in the Tory manifesto, a few brilliant ones and few bad ones. By contrast, Monday’s Labour manifesto was almost entirely grim. Let’s see what the leaders’ debates bring us tomorrow night.