On Thursday afternoon, Labour’s NEC and the Shadow Cabinet came together for the “Clause V” meeting. These only take place once during a Parliament, and for one purpose – to sign off the party’s manifesto. As we reported on Thursday:
“The meeting took just over an hour, and by all accounts was a friendly, positive and upbeat affair. Some changes were made to the manifesto at the meeting – but don’t expect to see any copies leaking out, they were all numbered and collected back in at the end of the meeting.”
Yet as those copies were collected back in – complete with their first page outlining a “Budgetary Responsibility Lock”, the Tories were getting ready to spend three days shredding years of work on their economic credibility by making a series of unfunded spending commitments.
This we see the kind of serendipity that can define an election campaign. Labour could not wish for a better backdrop for the launch of a manifesto framed by a pledge of fiscal responsibility than repeated evidence of the Tories giving up on making the sums add up. In recent days we’ve had:
- A Tory volunteering pledge that has significant costs for the public sector that they can’t explain
- A rail fares freeze of the kind that Cameron described as “Marxist” when Miliband tried something similar – which they haven’t funded either
- And finally, £8 billion pounds in money for the NHS which they’ve failed – at any time or on any level – to explain where it would come from. Jeremy Hunt refused to answer questions about NHS funding 18 times on Saturday, but – not to be outdone – George Osborne managed to dodge the question 18 times in a single car-crash interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday.
All of which are the sort of “unfunded spending commitments” that would “wreck the NHS” that Cameron warned about just a few months ago. Whilst Labour prepares to spend the day embracing budgetary responsibility, the Tories appear to have forgotten what it means. I bet Labour HQ could hardly believe their luck, as the manifestos began to roll off the printing presses, that they had been handed such an opportunity.
Of course in an ideal world, I’d prefer that the first page of Labour’s manifesto wasn’t taken up with a “budget responsibility lock”. Not because there’s anything wrong with promising to cost and responsibly fund the promises in your manifesto – there isn’t. Nor is there anything inherently Labour about promising to borrow and spend more than can be raised. But in that ideal world, the first page of Labour’s manifesto would explain the clear principles by which the Labour Party would govern. It’d tell a story about the better Britain that the party was planning to build, and the journey that both government and people would need to take to get there.
But we’re not in an ideal world of course. No such world exists. We are living in a world where there’s a general election in 24 days, and where ensuring not only that your plans are costed but that everyone understands they’re funded, is paramount. That’s why I can’t quite fathom why the Tories are so happy to fritter away years of hard won economic arguments (although I fear it might work), or why the SNP are willing to reveal their desire to put dogma ahead of economics – even if it means Saltire-wrapped austerity. No doubt the SNP (aided by the Greens and Plaid) will affect the necessary intellectual gymnastics required to attack Miliband on the economy come Thursday’s “challengers debate”.
But this is all manageable, as long as Ed remembers that today is not just about ensuring the fiscal credibility of the plans he’s putting to the country – it’s also about igniting a sense of passion and mission about the country he wants to see. Sunlit uplands are there to be shown, whether it’s a properly funded plan for the NHS, a higher minimum wage, building more homes, devolving power, expanded childcare, lower business rates to help small business grow, freezing energy bills, banning non-doms, cracking down on tax-avoidance or eliminating zero-hours contracts and the Bedroom Tax. Some of this may be less ambitious that I or you might wish it to be and there may be things missing from this vision – but there’s no denying that it’s a fundamentally different vision to that which the Tories will present in their manifesto tomorrow.
This morning in Manchester, Miliband will tell the country:
“I want to be Prime Minister for one reason only. To build a different kind of country; a fairer country; a more equal country; a more just country; a country that works for working people once again.”
Serendipitously, after five years of long, hard slog – a slight move towards Labour in the polls suggests a route may be opening up for him to become Prime Minister. Today we’ll get the clearest idea yet of what such a period in office might look like.