Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The strange, the mad and the dangerous - Labour grapples with policies

Party conferences are times to impress the faithful as well as the wider public. To do this, you can put on memorable performances, or you can reveal novel policies that may define the public debate for a long time to come. George Osbourne's announcement about stamp duty reduction in 2007 was an example of the latter. It defined the discussion about the tax burden and tax justice at times of phenomenally risen house prices for middle Britain.

Labour's conference in Liverpool was a chance to present some equally impressive policies, yet the party decided to field policy ideas that must have puzzled many watching British politics. First up was the odd. On the eve of the conference, Ed Milliband announced that Labour would lower the tuition fee cap to £6000. This surprised many, not least the student unions, since it was Labour's policy to introduce a graduate tax instead of tuition fees. The announcement was hence a U-turn before a full policy was even announced, forcing the party to converge on the coalition's terrain who equally advocate financing universities through tuition fees rather than a graduate tax. Why Milliband felt the need to formulate a policy prematurely on something so sensitive and on something where the Labour party would only benefit from sharp differentiation to the LibDems will probably always remain a mystery.

The strange was to be followed by the mad. In his final conference speech, Ed Milliband announced that any future Labour government would tax 'bad' companies more than 'good' ones. He defined bad companies as those that are 'asset strippers', presumably meaning those that are private equity funded. Is he going to tax companies that create thousands of jobs in the British economy such as AA, RAC or Weetabix into oblivion? Labour as the job terminator, rather than the job creator? If this policy will ever make it into a manifesto, he will be asked, I imagine, what the difference is, not just between a bad and a good company, but also between a 'bad' and a 'good' job.

The list of policies however was topped by the announcement of the shadow culture minister Ivan Lewis that all journalist should have to apply to government for a license if they wanted to publish in the UK. Needless to say that I would not be able to write this blog if such a licensing scheme was to go ahead. The howls of disapproval (or rather the laughter of disbelief) started to rise through the media outlets almost instantly, with many Guardian journalist leading the march.

If you think about it, not even communist regime of Eastern Europe dared to introduce licensing schemes. They operated censorship in a far more subtle way. So what on earth motivated the shadow culture minister to suggest that government should decide who can and who cannot publish? Some journalists were quick to make some rather unkind comparisons between his suggestions and the situation in Zimbabwe.

I am certain this proposal will disappear quickly in the archives, filed under 'indefensible' but the fact remains that this ragbag of policy ideas reflect a party in philosophical and ideological confusion. Labour needs to regain its sure-footedness on policy otherwise it will stumble from one policy disaster to another.

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