Bless ’em, the Tories are kicking off 2014 by entering full-on, flag-waving triumphalist mode. Who can blame them? The longest fall in living standards since the 70s – the 1870s, that is; the worst so-called economic recovery in more than a century; more debt than Labour piled on in 13 years; and a pledge to wipe out the deficit which is now as likely to be realised as the Moon turning into a giant blancmange. And if that isn’t enough to make you light a candle for St Maggie (God rest her), their bankrollers have their tax cuts, they’re handing the NHS to their mates, and those money-grabbing disabled people who crashed the banking system are finally having their pockets emptied. Rule Britannia!
If, maybe, the cheerful combo of rising bills and shrinking pay packets doesn’t have you spontaneously belting out REM’s “Shiny Happy People”, the Tories have a tailor-made solution: the politics of envy. Getting up at 6am to slog your guts out for a wage that barely lets you clothe your kids properly? There’s a skiver down the road, churning out sprogs every other Wednesday, blinds closed, using flatscreen televisions as coffee tables! Your 28-year-old son stuck at home, one of five million people on a council housing waiting list because the Government won’t build homes? Those Bulgarians are living it up in Kensington mansions at HM taxpayers’ expense! Are your measly wages topped up by a non-existent pension, because Scrooge-like private sector bosses have decimated pensions over the last few years? Those scrounging ne’er-do-wells – like teachers and nurses, whatever they do – have pensions coated in actual gold! In austerity Britain, if your house burns down, the Government doesn’t build you a new one. No, instead they promise to burn down your less deserving neighbours’ house instead.
It was starting to look like the Tories were going to get away with all this, building a Little England, seething with bile and fear, of booming profits and crashing living standards. Labour appeared to have decided: “Sod this for a game of soldiers, providing a semblance of opposition is way too much hassle, let’s have a lie-in until May 2015.” But then Ed Miliband realised that the populism of the Right could only be confronted with populism from the Left.
Every time Labour indulges in bashing immigrants and unemployed people, it just allows the Tories to set the terms of debate, driving issues up the national agenda that ensure the Right thrives. Labour will never win at being trusted to kick foreigners or poor people most, and should file for moral bankruptcy if it did. Similarly, the Tories cannot win on the “cost of living crisis”, as it’s been christened, and realised they have to change the subject, and quickly.
So 2014 has to be the year when left-wing populism flourishes. That means learning from the Right: simple messages that are repeated ad infinitum, hammered into the electorate’s skulls, constantly forcing opponents on to the defensive. Why are we, the taxpayer, subsidising the poverty wages of the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, to the tune of tens of billions of pounds each year? Instead, let’s have a deficit-reducing living wage, which would inject a healthy dose of demand into the economy and, according to one economist, create 58,000 jobs. Why are landlords allowed to fleece the taxpayer with rents that need topping up with state benefits when we should both control rents and give councils the power to build homes, bringing down the social security bill, creating skilled jobs and sorting out the housing crisis?
Scientists are warning of a “catastrophic” 4C hike in global temperatures by 2100, but that seems a bit far off, doesn’t it? So let’s make it a bread-and-butter issue: let’s have an industrial strategy that creates hundreds of thousands of renewable energy jobs, bringing down the benefits bill and giving people skilled, dignified work. You and I have to pay our taxes: we don’t have accountants drawing up tax laws in the Treasury on our behalf. So let’s combine all-out war on tax avoidance with a new 50 per cent tax on the top two per cent of earners – that’s those on £100,000 or more. They’re booming while others have to choose between heating their homes and eating, so it’s only fair. Rather than subsidising the rail barons, let’s take our railways into public ownership, this time with passengers helping to run them. And instead of letting the Big Six hold millions to ransom, let’s take the energy companies into public ownership too, by swapping shares for bonds.
In the privileged bubble of Westminster and Fleet Street, these are wacky, extreme, nationalising-your-gran-will-be-next sorts of policies. But polls show that voters regards them as common sense. This year, the Right will continue to serve its agenda of fear: a smorgasbord of kick-your-neighbour policies. So we need an agenda of hope. In 2014, let’s hog the political conversation for a change. Who’s in?