However misguided the Tory vision of a future Britain might be, at least we know they have one. It is time for Labour to start thinking similarly. The numbers attest to this need: recent polls show the first Conservative lead in over two years and give Ed Miliband’s party its smallest share of the vote for four years. Ed Miliband has hired Obama’s former advisor David Axelrod to help him with communicating the party’s policies – but that will not be enough if the party continues to lack a grand vision of what Britain under Labour can look like.
The Tory vision of Britain is of a country centred around its biggest asset — London — with most of its citizens in work, more foreign investment coming to the City of London, more money for life sciences going to its prestige universities, and more industries manufacturing their products in the UK. In his attempt to illustrate how the government is working towards this vision, David Cameron spends his testosterone-fuelled PMQs talking about BMW engines, Jaguar and Land Rover factories in the Midlands, and the new Honda factory that will create hundreds of new jobs. In a similar vain, his fellow Etonian comrade-in-Bullingdon, Boris Johnson, is calling for a direct train line between Oxford and Cambridge in order to enable the two universities compete with Harvard on medical research and attract more money.
The Conservatives are interested in full employment at all costs – this involves zero-hour contracts, poverty whilst in work, rising costs of living by no means matched by salaries and even more lax employment laws. It means Oxbridge folks running the country and the City being at the centre of it all, transcending the North-South divide, with London becoming a country of its own that every now and again — when their financial institutions take a hit — needs to be bailed out by the rest of us. The profits of the potential benefits of Tory Britain will go to those at the top; those privileged enough to afford the increasing costs of education and those rich enough to be able to work for free as interns in one of the most expensive cities of the world.
Whatever we believe about the Tory vision of future Britain, and irrespective of how grossly misguided their policies are, they do paint a picture of what Britain’s potential might be which is fairly easy to sell to people – as long as the costs and beneficiaries are not brought up.
Labour, on the other hand, don’t have a similar vision for Britain. They describe a less conservative, neo-liberal model of existing Tory Britain. We see them trying to either reverse or abolish Tory policies but we don’t know what their grand picture looks like.
The way Labour has dealt with the high prices and lack of competition in the energy market is indicative of their confusion and lack of clarity and authority. Having firstly created the private oligopoly of the big six energy companies, Labour then attacked the coalition for not doing enough to ensure that there is competition in the energy market, and then they proclaimed that they will freeze energy prices. In the meantime, the six companies are still big and mighty, threatening to hold back on investment in anticipation of the increased costs and decreased profits. The ‘freeze’ is not a solution to the problem; it’s a temporary fix. Short-term solutions such as this seem sloppy when not accompanied by a grand long-term vision.
The way Labour deals with the problems in education is similar. They want to decrease the cap on tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. They don’t engage with the fact that three years ago the cap was at £3,000 and they do not explain where the money is going to come from. They also don’t address the core issues: primary and secondary education where kids attending fancy public schools have exponentially more life-chances than children attending state schools, the graduate unemployment crisis and the army of indefinitely unpaid trainees exploited by their employers, and the marketisation of education that will make Britain a culturally poor country that only trains accountants, economists, lawyers and doctors, with no emphasis on the humanities and social sciences. Labour should paint us the picture of a better Britain and then outline the step-by-step measures that it will take towards that grand vision.
In the debate over railway infrastructure, Labour has acknowledged that the UK has one of the most expensive and outdated railway services of Europe, and said that they will consider renationalising the railway service to reduce red-tape, private profits and other costs. They even gave the example of the East Coast Railway line that was nationalised after the company that run it went bust, noting that the now nationalised line is as profitable as the rest. Even in this instance of Labour taking a step in the right direction, however, they are still hesitant and wary of not disappointing the average voter who they assume is not likely to support re-nationalisation.
As the polls show, Labour’s current attitude of making Tory policies a little less severe on working people is not working. The time has come for Miliband to articulate a more holistic vision of what the UK will look like under Labour, and to stimulate the imagination of British people.
Originally published in New Left Project on 18 May 2014.