Leave Labour to its tactics, there’s a better alternative

Mark’s below article was published in today’s Daily Telegraph – you can also view it here

As Conservatives back in Westminster watched Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour conference last week, a sense of quiet satisfaction descended.
With each economically illiterate policy the Labour leader announced, the clearer the dividing lines for the 2015 election became.

The foolhardy pledge to cap energy prices suggested a return to the 1970s and will surely fall apart before voters go to the polls.

By vacating the centre ground New Labour so effectively occupied under Tony Blair, he has allowed the Tories to contrast Labour’s costly fantasy politics with a grown-up policy prescription that deals with the world as it is, not as some would wish it to be.

Unfortunately, I am not sure we can be so dismissive. George Osborne addresses the Tory conference today in the knowledge that Red Ed is issuing a defiant challenge to the status quo, which may resonate with more voters than we would care to admit.

In truth, it is not just the usual suspects on the Left, but increasingly plenty of middle-class, traditionally Tory-minded people who feel that the system works not for them but for an overpaid and ineffectual elite.

Last week, Ed Miliband sought to present David Cameron not as leader of the country but as chairman of an insulated Establishment, champion of the status quo and Lord Protector of vested interests. The Labour leader is a hypocrite. With his childhood among the North London intelligentsia and an adulthood cosseted by the corridors of power, Ed Miliband is as much a member of the privileged elite as the Prime Minister.

Similarly, the energy costs he laments have his fingerprints all over them – as energy secretary he at least had the political courage to admit his green policies would substantially hike prices.

Nevertheless, he has presented a tricky challenge to my party. Knowing that the Tories would pin the label on him anyway, Miliband is now wearing his Red Ed badge with pride as champion of the ordinary man.

How can the Conservatives best respond without pandering to an anti-wealth narrative and without alienating the voters to whom Labour’s message appeals?

I suspect the Tory leadership may be tempted this week to fight fire with fire. After all, the Coalition has form. The Government is not averse to a bit of market rigging itself – what is Help to Buy if not a state-backed fiddle of the housing market?

Ministers have, at times, failed to resist the temptation to engage in ill-conceived banker bashing. And the Treasury has already tinkered on fuel and beer prices.

Yet it would be a mistake to indulge Miliband’s economic illiteracy by mimicking his tactics. What no mainstream party seems to have grasped in recent years is that voters respond to authenticity. The Tory revolution of the 1980s was conducted not via groups but came from a confidence in what we were doing.

Of all the themes the Prime Minister has developed in the course of his leadership, his idea of the “global race” is the one he seems most comfortable articulating – the notion of the UK as a forward-thinking, diverse nation pursuing high standards in education, modernising welfare and liberating businesses in a fiercely competitive world.

Unlike the Labour price freeze promise, the rewards will not be instantaneous.

In contrast to Mr Miliband, that will involve Mr Cameron taking an unashamedly pro-business stand by making some unpopular decisions.

In today’s global race, successful countries will be those in which ideas and dynamism are captured and retained. That means an immigration system open to highly skilled workers. The Government may have to admit that it got aspects of its visa policy wrong.

It means building a stable environment which breeds confidence when it comes to borrowing, lending and investing – not posing the threat of retrospective taxation. It also requires targeted infrastructure so that hubs are linked into transport, supply and high-speed broadband networks.

Let’s please, therefore, get a decision on aviation before the election and give energy firms some long-term political certainty on new investments. We need to build regulatory environments in which taking on staff is not perceived as too costly or high risk. We need schools and universities to provide employees equipped for work.

Finally, we need a government much more customer focused and able to adapt to change, recognising open competition as the ultimate safeguard of consumer interests.

At Manchester this week, I want to see the Conservatives make the urgent case for the supply side reforms that have been thwarted by coalition compromise. Above all, like the most innovative entrepreneurs, the Government should not be afraid of risk taking. Take export guarantees, where our performance lags well behind Germany and even France.

Inevitably, some export guarantees – especially in the SME sector – will go sour but that is the price any forward-looking government must pay.

Rather than sneeringly dismiss Ed Miliband’s approach, Conservatives must calmly but firmly dismantle his ideas. We have a bold, alternative message that combines optimism with realism, ambition and modernity. Let’s have the courage to spread it.