Despite appearances, it’s Miliband, not Farage, who’s breaking with tradition and upsetting the status quo

If voters want more of the same they must choose between Farage and Cameron

 

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There is a striking disparity between the perception of two party leaders and the policies they espouse. Nigel Farage triumphs as the anti-establishment outsider, challenging orthodoxies and fuelling the anti-politics mood of which he is a beneficiary. Meanwhile, suffering poor personal ratings, Ed Miliband is viewed as part of the loathed Westminster establishment, a former minister who has spent most of his life in politics.

Such perceptions are easily formed. Farage has never been a minister. He has no record to defend. He is not an MP at Westminster. Miliband was briefly a TV producer on a political programme before becoming a special adviser at Westminster. He has worked at Westminster ever since.

On Sunday, Andrew Marr’s BBC show staged an illuminating sequence, one that showed how easily formed perceptions are misleading. There was an interview with Farage followed by one with Miliband. Finally, the two sat together and had a mini-debate. What became clear was how much Farage is a product of the Thatcherite 1980s, at least as much as David Cameron and George Osborne. Indeed I suspect if Margaret Thatcher were still active she would be a fan of Ukip, or at least urging Cameron to be more Ukip-like. Her voice is not required in that respect because Cameron is to some extent dancing to Ukip’s tunes. He does so partly out of fear, but also because there is quite a lot on which he and Farage agree.

Both men are small-state economic liberals, except in relation to immigration. Farage supports a so-called flat tax, one rate of tax on all earners. Osborne’s first move as shadow Chancellor in 2005 was to declare his interest in a flat tax, a support that faded only when the likes of The Economist dismissed the idea as being too right-wing.

Farage wants a smaller state. The essence of Cameron and Osborne’s economic policies has been to regard the state as the cause of the crash in 2008, in the form of too much public spending. They too seek a smaller, less active state. As Cameron declared at the beginning of his leadership, there IS such a thing as society but it is not the same as the state – an elegant reworking of Thatcherism.

Miliband and Farage were something of a novelty on Marr. What also became clear in the programme was the degree to which Miliband seeks a break with current orthodoxies. While Cameron, the 1980s free marketer, stands back as Pfizer proposes to take over AstraZeneca, Miliband proposes intervention. This is not merely opportunism on his behalf. His belief that government can make positive interventions is the essential dividing line at the next election.

Since 1979, orthodoxy insists that the state is always stifling, that it wrecks markets. On the whole this remains the instinct of Farage, Cameron and some of the more extreme Blairites.

On the other side of this divide there is Miliband, Michael Heseltine, John Major (at least in relation to the energy market), Vince Cable, and more rounded Blairites like Alan Johnson, who in an interview yesterday, urged Miliband to propose a wider range of interventions.

Their advocacy of state intervention would be mainstream in most equivalent countries. As Miliband said on Sunday, there is no other government that would sit back and let a significant takeover happen without getting involved. In the UK, Miliband’s arguments mark a big leap.

Of course, Farage seeks to leap out of Europe, and Cameron pledges an in/out referendum that could also lead to such a big jump, but these two positions are also a consequence of 1980s and 1990s-style politics, an assumption that the EU is to blame for virtually everything.

I have argued before that it is tempting to follow the personalities rather than the policy trail – good old Nigel with his pint and cigarette; emollient Dave. When Miliband tries to look like the outsider, addressing small groups with a loudspeaker in town centres, he looks silly. He reinforces a sense that he is an insider uncomfortable with a more challenging environment. When Farage does the same he seems the perfect fit, one of “us” raging against the political consensus.

But follow the more important policy trail and Farage moves closer to the consensus. Harold Macmillan’s policies were well to the left of Cameron’s. In policy terms, if voters want more of the same they must choose between Farage and Cameron. Perhaps a majority of voters in England will opt for variations of that status quo.

But in policy terms there is only one candidate for significant change and it is not Farage.

Politics and ‘24’. It’s all the same...

A new series of 24 starts this week, set in London rather than the US. Once again the hero, Jack Bauer, will face impossible dilemmas every hour. In an earlier series, Bauer had to decide whether to shoot his wife and save the world, or save his wife but destroy the world. I seem to remember he shot his wife.

The series is a huge global hit. The appeal of the much less popular art of politics is precisely the same as the attractions of 24. Both are about nerve-racking dilemmas that require near instant resolution. The attempts to reach resolution can trigger consequences that lead to greater dangers.

Early on when Tony Blair was Prime Minister I asked him what, in essence, his new job was like. He replied: “Each day I face decisions which can be summarised as, ‘Do I cut my throat or slit my wrists?’”

There were no easy answers. Each decision brought further problems, and this was long before Blair had to decide what to do when it was clear President Bush wanted to invade Iraq – an unavoidable political nightmare for him whatever route he chose. The high-stakes dilemmas of a very human vocation mean that quite often leaders face days like those experienced by Jack Bauer.

A friend has worked on the new series and tells me that it is as addictive as the previous ones. Fans of 24 would love politics if they gave it a chance.

@steverichards14

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