All political parties struggled in the election to convince people that they would keep their word. Mr Miliband came up with the most ludicrous response to this problem, with his Edstone. The idea that you need an inscribed stone in your garden to remind you of what you believe in and need to do struck most of us as absurd. The content of the promises was banal which compounded the problem. Labour’s refusal to tell us where the stone went, and their unwillingness to keep repeating the trite “pledges” from the stone reinforced the impression of absurdity.
The main promise, constantly repeated throughout Labour’s campaign, was he would save the NHS. This was a promise about NHS England, as people in Scotland and Wales knew the General Election was nothing to do with their NHS. This was a particularly dangerous risk to run, as we all realised Scotland was flirting with voting SNP. The whole Labour campaign ignored Scotland, as every time they talked about the NHS they were speaking just to England. It reinforced the idea that they took Scotland for granted, grated with many former Scottish Labour voters, and allowed the SNP to say Labour in Scotland was just a small subservient branch to England. The actual promise on the Edstone was ‘An NHS with time to care’. No numbers, no money, no meaning.
This central promise was based on a lie. Conservatives under Mr Cameron have no plans to introduce charges for the NHS, or to make people take out private health insurance, or to sell off hospitals. Both main parties agree the current settlement of the NHS, largely free at the point of need, with a mixture of private sector and public sector provision – public sector hospitals, private sector GP contractors. Neither party wishes to change this. Parties spent the election competing with each other over how much extra money to pledge to the existing NHS. Labour will discover this year there is no secret Tory plan to privatise or damage the NHS as we currently know it. Many electors had worked this out and were bemused by the Labour campaign.
Labour did not promise to end austerity, which many left wing voters took up as their mantra. I found this odd. I myself was happily saying I am against austerity. Surely the whole point of the election was to choose a government which can help the country fashion greater prosperity. The problem arose owing to the use of the word austerity. Austerity to the political classes means limiting the rate of growth in public spending below the level of previous plans, and below the level many politicians and officials would like. Austerity to most normal people means having less money to spend themselves.
Labour had no positive message for strivers, for private sector workers, for people who want to get on in the world. Their obvious enthusiasm to tax anything that comes from success and their wish to manage any market they did not like sent out the clear signal that they were anti enterprise, anti wealth creation, and therefore a threat to jobs and growth.
The Edstone offered us a “Strong economy foundation”, “Higher living standards for working families”, “The next generation can do better than the last” and “Homes to buy and action on rents”. It summed up the lack of ambition and the lack of a specific government plan on what to do. Every recent generation has been better off than the one that went before. Why were the higher living standards confined to working families and not also offered to single people and pensioners? There will always be homes available to buy. The issue is how many, where and at what prices?
It is true the Edstone was soon dropped and turned out not to be central to Labour’s campaign. The underlying banality was however central. What was Labour’s economic approach? How would they make us more prosperous more quickly than the Conservative plan? Their failure to answer that question left them in difficulty.
Their final pledge on the stone was “Control on immigration”. It was something many potential Labour voters wanted. There was no detail on how they would control immigration, and no numbers placed on what is at base an argument about how many people we can accommodate.
Their campaign by design had nothing to say to Scotland. It also failed to reassure possible Labour supporters in England that Labour did have answers on immigration, the economy and aspiration.