The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain’s historical novel, tells the story of two boys who first swap clothes and then identities. The tale of how a poor child from Pudding Lane changed lives with the son of Henry VIII gave rise to many other fictional accounts in which the leading characters trade places. This week, role-swapping appeared to move to politics. In the war of the manifestos, Ed Miliband cast aside all shreds of Labour profligacy to drape himself in the hair shirt of Tory austerity. Not to be outdone, British Prime Minister David Cameron recast himself next day as the worker’s champion. Where Miliband defined himself as prudence personified, proposing a Budget responsibility lock with every policy costed, Cameron threw caution to the wind in his paean to “buccaneering Britain”.
Those closest to the Labour leader had expected that their party’s progress in key marginal seats would elicit a flurry of “eye-catching” Conservative initiatives. But even they might have been startled by Tuesday’s blandishments. As well as exhuming the Thatcherite right-to-buy pledge, offering 1.3 million housing association tenants the chance to acquire their properties, Cameron extended free child care and promised that many minimum wage-earners would be lifted out of income tax.
The manifesto launches, the last formal roll of the dice in a tied election campaign, saw both sides take unprecedented risks. Miliband’s embrace of austerity perturbed some in his party, while Cameron’s splurge invited the accusation of reckless and uncosted promises. Voters may surmise that the choice between Labour and the Tories boils down to a castor oil prospectus versus a snake oil alternative. Much as Miliband’s marvellous medicine and Cameron’s golden tickets might suggest that the parties have swapped stances, the old orthodoxies of both sides remain intact. Labour’s manifesto, promising government involvement in the minimum wage, the railways, utility companies and private rents, endorses the power of the benign state. The Tories’ offering, by contrast, is a hymn to individual advancement. Like Margaret Thatcher, Cameron is seeking to resurrect the “property-owning democracy”.
First mooted by the Tory MP Noel Skelton in the 1920s and adopted by the liberal philosopher, John Rawls, the idea was given life by Thatcher, who used it as the symbol of the Britain she hoped to create. Thrift and toil would, in her argument, allow ordinary families to buy their homes and so have security, dignity and freedom cemented within their own bricks and mortar. Iconic in its time, her policy has a tainted legacy. Britain’s housing stock is dwindling, and the proportion of homeowners has been falling since 2007.
With the average London home now costing 13 times the median income, three million adult children live with their parents because they cannot afford to buy or rent, and poor tenants are priced out of their homes by a bedroom tax imposed to claw back any cubby hole of wasted space. Cameron’s proposal, in his critics’ view, will vastly deplete the meagre stock of social housing as well as being unfair to private renters. If Miliband came late to fiscal straitjackets, then Cameron was just as tardy in taking up the cudgels on behalf of working people. Late in the day, he has heeded wiser voices within his own party, such as Robert Halfon, George Osborne’s canny PPS and the founding father of White Van Conservatism.
Cameron is an odd evangelist for the struggling classes. His last gambit before the manifesto launch, to exempt homes worth up to £1 million (Dh5.45 million) from inheritance tax, benefits the wealthy as opposed to those eking out a living in urban favelas or modest suburbs. Once the PM’s appeal to ordinary voters might have been greeted with derision. Now Labour cannot be so sure. The blue-collar voter whom Cameron seeks to woo was hitherto likely to vote for Labour. Now that support base has splintered. Some erstwhile loyalists have drifted to Ukip, others to the Greens and, in Scotland, many have deserted to the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The party grandees who warned Mr Miliband not to pursue a “core vote strategy” should ask themselves: What core vote? Labour’s manifesto tries to supply an answer. Defined as it is by fiscal rigour, the austerians in the leader’s office did not produce the dry checklist feared by those who wanted a story of social democracy forged in a furnace of economic meltdown. Much of the plan was written by Jonathan Rutherford, an academic and long-time colleague of Jon Cruddas, Miliband’s chief policy reviewer. Cruddas is a proponent of fiscal conservatism and devolution, both of which are strongly reflected in a manifesto paving the way for money and control to be parcelled out to combined local authorities.
On schools, for example, central government would relinquish most if not all direct control, with the blessing of the education spokesman, Tristram Hunt. Supporters of the great power giveaway are looking beyond May 7. Win, lose or draw (as Cruddas is fond of saying) Labour is signed up to vesting power in the people. In the short term, however, the blue-collar politics of work, family and community are suddenly crucial to both parties’ bid for power. It is here that Mr Cruddas, who comes from working-class stock, has been most influential. Labour’s manifesto pledge to become the party of “work, family and community” reflects the values of a politician who accused Tony Blair’s Labour party of being so middle class that it appeared, in his phrase, to be “camped out drinking Liebfraumilch in a Holiday Inn in Watford”.
If some Tories would be happier sipping Crozes Hermitage at Claridges, others value, as does Cruddas, the modest conservative touchstones of fair wages, decent homes and high skills. Distaste for rampant inequality and the excesses of the Midas classes are not the unique purview of the Left, any more than family solidarity is the sole property of the Right.
The other manifesto unveiled on Tuesday, that of the Greens, should remind the main party leaders that idealism, even the uncosted sort, has sufficient allure to poach voters craving something better from politics. At the eleventh hour, the men who hope to be prime minister have settled on the same target group in a bid to win back trust.
For all their efforts to steal their opponents’ thunder, or to overcome their own weaknesses, the manifesto battle is not primarily a story of Damascene conversions. Instead, both candidates have converged on the terrain inhabited by the working men and women that post-recession politics has betrayed. The leaders’ differences hinge on a single word.
Cameron is telling blue collar voters that he will champion individuals seeking the “good life” for themselves. Miliband is promising the selfsame electors that contentment and prosperity depend on a society committed to building “a common good”.
The outcome of the election will depend on which interpretation of goodness proves more appealing. The only certainty is that white van man, once parked on the hard shoulder of politics, is back in the driving seat on the road to power.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2015