Note the bold outflanking move by boyish shadow chancellor George Osborne in the Guardian today. parking his tank on Gordon Brown’s lawn in advance of the beleaguered Prime Minister’s fightback expected from next week.
“We have discovered that state attempts to guarantee fairness through monopoly provision by monolithic public services turns out to be as unfair as previous ideas of 98% tax rates and forced equality of outcome. So if monopoly state provision is not the answer, what is? Evidence from around the world shows that, just as a broad consensus now exists that we should be free to make our own choices and to innovate in the private sphere, so we must trust choice, competition in provision, and local decision making in public services.”
“A fair society” is of course Gordon Brown’s signature slogan. He has to answer the charge that the wealth gap has widened under Labour. Brown’s problem is that no government anywhere has managed to allow an economy to grow without opening up some wealth gaps. Redistribution by itself is a blunt instrument if only because human nature seems to dictate that take-up is so patchy.The best most governments hope for is that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
But Osborne’s vague if cheeky stuff only adds to confusion over what the main UK parties stand for. Market mechanisms in the public services are as Blarite as they are Tory. “Taking responsibility” is code for welfare to work, a policy embraced by the Conservatives as long ago as the mid 80s, adopted half-heartedly by Brown as Chancellor in 1997 and now reheated in James Purnell’s supposedly new welfare payments plan, in a desperate attempt to cut the stubbornly high disability and welfare budgets. Yet these can’t be bought down if unemployment increases, as it’s bound to do more and more in the turn-down.
As Conservative blogger Iain Dale devastatingly demonstrates, Labour will have to do better than the hapless Yvette Cooper’s poor efforts to stigmatise Cameron and Co as “all frisbees and photo ops”.
Little bribes like extending utility subsidies to poorer families won’t do the trick. If Brown can’t come up with a convincing reply to the mounting Toryattack over the next few weeks, he probably never will.
The parties could do worse than take the advice of former Tory MP now Independent columnist Michael Brown and “tell the truth”. Will they? They might yet surprise us.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London