Why I agree with the left – up to a point.

The Prime Minister’s “ fightback” announced in yet another Prime-Ministerial newspaper article, tells us he is going to “stick by his principles” over 42 days’ detention without trial. Which principles might these be, and how can they be reconciled with the traditions of Labour down the years? Is the principle that he now intends to be decisive? In which case, why are his Chief Whip and Home Secretary busily going round whispering about concessions and test marketing packages of changes to see if they could then win the vote? They are undermining the apparent wish of the PM to be decisive and strong, as set out in his article. Is it a long-term ambition of Labour to make us live on edge in a society where the authorities have much stronger powers to arrest and detain than in all civilised democracies, as if we were living in some tin-pot dictatorship? I don’t remember that coming out in the speeches and writing of great Labour luminaries in the past. Or is it the principle of remaining a slave to Blair’s most famous sound bite, “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”? In which case, how will he balance it with something that is tough on the causes of terrorism and what does he think those causes are?

The truth is that this is a dreadful way to start the fightback. Labour advice to the PM revolves around two principal camps. The modernisers and pragmatists say he has done so much damage to the ambitions and aspirations of middle England that he needs to ameliorate the position. He needs to offer some tax breaks, some improvements in public service based on decentralising and offering more choice, and back off from his strident agenda of regulating and terrorising the law-abiding. They do not think he can win an Election doing this, but he would be in damage limitation mode and it should save some marginal seats compared with the wipe-out predicted by current opinion polls. The left agree he has lost the Election, but say he should go down fighting, putting in as many socialist measures as possible over the next couple of years to strengthen the core vote and to leave Mr Cameron a difficult legacy. They think this should also save some seats, as more traditional Labour voters would turn out, even though it guarantees losing more votes or failing to restore lost votes in the marginals.

I think there is a third way. I have some sympathy with the modernisers. The Prime Minister does not have a prayer of a good result in the Election if he continues to trample on most of us with his hobnailed higher tax sized boots, grabbing us at the same time in his regulatory clunking fist. He needs to abate the tax pressures on family budgets as I have frequently argued in these columns. I also have sympathy with the left. I do think the PM should try to do something to further his aims. Let us take him at face value, as a man who wishes to do something about child poverty. In a typical muddled Labour way there are grains of importance on this beach of mistakes.

As a radical Conservative I want change, just as left wing Labour people want change. Like them I want to see an end to the scourge of poor housing, low incomes and no incomes. I want every child to go to a good school, and to have a chance to advance by education. I want every adult to live in a society where they can be entrepreneurial, can realistically aspire to own their own home, and shares in the company they work for. When I advised a former PM, I urged her to strengthen the policies for home ownership and to develop policies for enterprise, small business ownership and wider share ownership, as I wanted to see an ownership society.

The left disagree with me more about methods than aims. I, like them, want to see more people do well and have a chance of a good life. I, unlike them, know you cannot make the poor rich by making the rich poor, and cannot give opportunity to many by taking it away from some who already have it. To be more specific, closing the grammar schools or pricing more people out of public school by removing tax advantages will not create a single new place at a good school for someone currently struggling in a bad one. Taxing people who have already done well does not incentivise the work-shy or workless to get a job, but may drive potential employers offshore or deter foreign investors from coming.

So what should the PM do? He should triangulate as a good Blairite. He should tell the left they are right to want a crusade against poverty, but he should tell the modernisers their methods can be harnessed to the task. Instead Brown is likely to throw more regulations and excess public spending as a bone to the left, which makes his task more difficult with middle England, and then throw the odd tax break to middle England to confirm his reputation as the highest spending and borrowing PM by far. All of which will mean the economy will not function well, and middle England will remain under the cosh of an expensive and inefficient state.

What the UK needs is someone who will be radical to help get people out of poverty. It does not need more public subsidy and further distortions in how the cash is spent around the country in favour of the poorer areas. It requires choice of school, making every school independent, and tougher love in the benefit system to encourage people to work or back to work. Controlling immigration would also help.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted June 2, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I never listen to a politician who claims to have principles on a policy-by-policy basis. How about Brown stating his principles BEFORE embarking on supposedly principled drive towards 42-day detention?

    Mind you, I can't really see what principle would make him breach human rights in such a spectacular fashion and expect to get away with it.
    http://lettersfromatory.wordpress.com

  2. Posted June 2, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I suspect his programmes against child poverty & for more help to Africa are genuines Brownism since he could probably get more votes for the cost elsewhere.

    I had hopes of Brown as an acolyte of Adam Smith, patron of the Barker report that said the way to cut the housing shortage was to build houses & generally more techn ocratic & less smiling than Blair. The only Labour leader who appreciated Thacher & her achievements (facing the only Tory leader who, at the time, appeared not to.

    The problem is that he hasn't really done anything.

    He should cut corporation tax & our whole government regulatory mess & generally get on with improving our competitiveness in ways he MUST know would work. If he could get Britain's long term growth rate significantly up he might still lose (or he might not) but he would have established a place in history & given Labour a chance to win again, having achieved far more in 3 years than Blair did in 10.

  3. Posted June 2, 2008 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    "The left disagree with me more about methods than aims"

    Exactly. We've tried the Left's approach with the welfare system (which to be fair, does not look much different to what they inherited from the Tories) and it clearly does not work. So let's give your ideas a go – how about reducing the marginal withdrawal rate and tax burden on benefit claimants and lower earners? Maybe reduce or scrap Employer's National Insurance to cut cost to employers of employing people? That looks like a win-win to me.

  4. Posted June 2, 2008 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I heartily agree with your argument, you mentioned controlling immigration and I believe the best method of immigration control is to reform our welfare state so that our unemployed will find it beneficial to compete with migrant labour from eastern europe. Indeed this would kill three birds with one stone, unemployment,poverty and mass immigration.

  5. Posted June 2, 2008 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Your last two sentences said it all.
    This government is flat broke. So any reduction in the ridiculous tax burden will not be coming in the near future.
    One other thing, of course, which Brown could do is to get the Police back on the streets to deal with louts and terrorists and drugs. He won't, of course. He wants to micro manage everything.
    I give this government another two months maximum, myself.

  6. Posted June 2, 2008 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    The following is my blog on TPA today. The first link below particularly, needs reading by all Conservative MPs and some lessons learned.

    As we are celebrating Tax Freedom Day, spend a while on these two essays from David B Smith. Just in case you get too excited today. The two quotes following will give you the flavour of the content.

    “… It can be argued that the state cannot fund itself, and that a more relevant measure of the tax and spending burdens is their ratio to the non-socialised element of national output. This is currently [2001] some 57¼% of the basic price measure of GDP, which has partly replaced, and is broadly equivalent to, the factor cost measure in the new ESA-95 national accounts. Put this way, the state and its beneficiaries are now spending, in total, 74¾p for every pound spent in the private sector and extracting 74½p in non-oil taxes.”

    “… It can be argued that the state cannot fund itself, and that a more relevant measure of the tax and spending burdens is their ratio to the non-socialised element of national output. This was some 51.25 per cent of the factor cost measure of UK non-oil GDP in 2005/06, for example. Put this way, the state and its beneficiaries are now spending in total 95.25p for every pound spent in the private sector and extracting 83p in non-oil taxes.”

    The first is http://www.cf.ac.uk/carbs/econ/matthewsk/pubspend

    The second is http://www.iea.org.uk/record.jsp?type=book&ID

  7. Posted June 2, 2008 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    One of the things that concerns me is that GB apparently wants the state to be able to lock people up for 6 weeks "as a matter of principle". What sort of principle of that – the principle of the State being able to use arbitrary power as it sees fit?

    If he said that it went entirely against his principles, but was an unfortunate practical necessity, his argument might hold more water, especially if he was prepared to give some examples of where suspects have not been able to be charged because of the current limit.

    But there is no evidence, it's just macho posturing.

    And the alleged "concessions" that require emergency detention to be ratified by Parliament are no such thing – the Legislature shouldn't be able to lock people up arbitrarily either.

  8. Posted June 2, 2008 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Housing Shortage?, reduce the population, crime?, reduce the population, prison overcrowding?, reduce the population, landfill problems ? reduce the population. CO2 Emmisions ? reduce the Population. Welfare / NHS overstretch ? reduce the population.

    Why wont they do it ?

    Because the Over riding issue is the Eradication of National Identity and the Nation state.

    'They are creating a new race of People, they call them EUropeans'
    http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/865

    The Terror Laws are ultimately for use against YOU.

  9. Posted June 3, 2008 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    There is almost always a problem when a politician asserts that he is taking a particular course in order to be true to his principles.

    The problem arises from the fact that the course he takes is either right or wrong, regardless of principle. To do the right thing is to do the right thing whether it is done as a matter of principle or a matter of pragmatism, whereas to do the wrong thing as a matter of principle is to allow dogma or vainglory to take precedence over reason.

    The only principle that matters in politics is a desire for a particular outcome. "This is what I wish to achieve … [add one's desired outcome here]" is the principle, the method of achieving that end is a matter of practicalities not of principle.

    During my lifetime there have been many examples in the UK of the successful implementation of principled policies.

    One of the most striking examples is The Race Relations Act 1976 which expanded greatly on provisions in two earlier similarly named Acts of Parliament. There has been, and continues to be, much debate about how the aims of the Act should be implemented, but those debates are a matter of practicalities not of principle. Because the 1976 Act states a principle clearly, and has been supported by all major political parties, that principle has become one of the mainstays of our society.

    There is no discernible principle behind the proposal for an extension to 42 days of the maximum time a suspect can be held in custody without charge.

    A principle undoubtedly exists, namely that the maintenance of law and order requires the state to have the power to detain some people who are suspected of having committed serious crimes while investigations continue to seek sufficient evidence to allow that person to be charged with an offence. How long that maximum period of detention should be is a matter of practicalities not of principle.

    For Mr Brown to argue that he stands by 42 days as a matter of principle is utterly meaningless.

  10. Posted June 3, 2008 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    I want my Liberties Back, I don't trust my Government anymore, I'll take my chances with the Fraudsters, Criminals, Muggers and Terrorists.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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