The Prime Ministerâ€™s â€œ fightbackâ€ announced in yet another Prime-Ministerial newspaper article, tells us he is going to â€œstick by his principlesâ€ 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 donâ€™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 Blairâ€™s most famous sound bite, â€œtough on crime and tough on the causes of crimeâ€? 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.