It is easy to get frustrated following politics. I’m not talking about the in-fighting, the hypocrisy, or the subsequent tendency for allegations of hypocrisy to overshadow any substantive policy issues. My gripe is with the shallowness of the policy debate.
Too often, politicians confuse ends with means. The result is a complacent debate and vacuous five point plans. Instead of a substantive policy agenda, we get content-free cliches like: “A 5 point plan to heal the divides in Britain: 1. Improve education. 2. Better regional development. 3. Smarter public services. 4. Reform capitalism. 5. More competition.”
Take Keir Starmer’s much-mocked 14,000 word essay, where he wrote that Labour “will always put hard-working families and their priorities first.”
Who would disagree? Can you imagine a politician coming out against “hard-working families” in a manifesto? Who is against respect or prosperity either? Any party with any policy agenda, from Thatcherism to Corbynism, could claim to be based on the principle of prosperity. You might as well campaign on a platform of being in favour of good things and against bad things.
This problem isn’t exclusive to Labour. If you look to the Conservatives’ levelling up agenda, it has barely been fleshed out two years later and we’re still no closer to figuring out how to get there in policy terms beyond presumably additional spending in the North.
In his essay, “The strange death of Tory economic thinking”, Stian Westlake describes how the Conservative Party used to pride “itself on its ability to tell an economic story, to explain its right to govern in terms of an overarching economic vision for the country.”
Brexit is another misnomer. There has been a distinct lack of policy detail between Getting Brexit Done and the eventual sunlit uplands. You can mock the idea of Singapore-On-Thames all you like, but it was at least a somewhat coherent economic vision for Britain post-Brexit. To be fair to them, the Government briefly flirted with the notion that a shortage of truck drivers would turn the UK into a “high-wage” economy – the only downside was that it was economically incoherent.
To her credit, Labour’s Rachel Reeves is at least getting close to telling an alternative story. Her speech last week was strong on documenting the UK’s recent economic underperformance. The Shadow Chancellor has a killer line: “The Conservatives have become the party of high taxation because they are the party of low growth.” And she backs it up with grim stats about investment: “In the nine years leading up to the pandemic the UK ranked third last out of the 38 countries in the OECD for investment as a proportion of GDP.”
Reeves naturally has her own five point plan with headings like ‘An Industrial Britain’ (presumably, as opposed to an agrarian one) and ‘A learning Britain.’ At one point she says: “As well as an investment Britain we need an innovative Britain.”
But beyond pledging to spend eye-watering sums on net zero investment, there is little policy detail on offer. Labour would abolish business rates and replace it “with a new system of business taxation that properly encourages growth and investment.” Yet, they are tight-lipped as to what this would be.
Labour has an opportunity to shoot Boris’ fox by offering a compelling economic story, but if it is to work, they will need to offer credible solutions as well as identifying real problems. For the Conservatives, they will need to offer something a lot more substantive than they have for the last three years.