When was the last time there was so little ideological difference between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition? In recent weeks, the Tories under Rishi Sunak have shifted further Left, and Keir Starmer’s Labour further Right, making them almost indistinguishable.
Broken Britain exudes dysfunctionality, yet both parties are committed to business as usual. We might as well be living under a government of national failure, a grand coalition committed to accelerating our decline and allergic to any kind of inspiring vision. Our national discourse is characterised by a toxic, deeply misleading narcissism of small differences, perfectly encapsulated by the performative row over the aerated concrete calamity. The truth is that the two parties now agree on tax and spend, almost to the pound, so their claims and counter-claims on austerity, concrete and the rest are worthless.
In a radical break from Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn, and her own previous views, the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has rightly ruled out any kind of wealth tax (including a mansion tax), promised not to increase capital gains tax (even on buy to let) and pledged not to increase the top (or any) rate of income tax. She’s also ditched Miliband’s green spending plans.
In truth, her job is already done: the Tories have pushed taxes to a post-war high all by themselves. Reevesonomics is a mere variation on Rishinomics, the differences de minimis. Under either politician, regulations will continue to be imposed on labour and product markets, incentives will be eroded further, the stealth nationalisation of transport companies and other firms will proceed apace, ever greater resources will be allocated centrally and favoured industries promoted.
We will continue to grow a bit quicker than Germany and Italy and similarly to France, and fall behind America. Tory and Labour alike refuse to accept that too many people go to university for their own good. Our Armed Forces will continue to wither.
Sunak has largely refused to diverge from the EU; conversely, Starmer has promised not to rejoin the customs union or single market. The Brexiteers will be betrayed under Labour, but it is not clear by how much more than under the Tories. Legal immigration has surged dramatically; both parties are united in a technocratic belief that the public is best ignored on such matters. On Channel crossings, Labour may ditch Rwanda, but it will end up having to take drastic action, too.
The Tories’ Left-wards drift continues to shock. Michael Gove is citing the Marxist economist Thomas Piketty and calling for “extracting what we need for public services from those who operate in a rentier fashion”. Jeremy Hunt, whose big idea was to lower the threshold at which the 45p tax rate kicks in, has resumed Sunak’s policy to appoint Left-wing, Remainer economists to top positions, including to the Monetary Policy Committee. Sushil Wadhwani, a member of his advisory council, wants a 100 per cent tax on pay rises above 3 per cent.
Regardless of who wins, there will be no radical simplification of our absurdly complex tax system. The Civil Service will continue to be ever more openly Left-wing. The Bank of England will still misunderstand how the economy works, fuelling inflation and bubbles, precipitating busts and campaigning against Brexit and for net zero.
In many ways, Labour is already in power. The supposedly Tory NHS “workforce plan”, unveiled recently, is one of the greatest betrayals of conservative principles of modern times. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that it means spending on NHS England would rise by 2 percentage points of GDP by 2036–37, or £50 billion a year in today’s money. By 2036–37, a staggering one in 11 (9 per cent) of all workers will work for the NHS, a boon for Labour’s electoral prospects. To pay for it, VAT would need to rise by 7 points, or all rates of income tax by 6 points.
Next time you hear the Tories telling you they believe in a small state and low taxes, just laugh: theirs is a diabolical plan. The NHS was a socialist booby trap set up by Clement Attlee and, boy, has it worked. Under the plans, NHS England’s staff would rocket from 1.5 million in 2021–22 to 2.3-2.4 million in 2036–37 (and even more if productivity growth doesn’t double). Some 49 per cent of public sector workers will work for the NHS. The alternative is a completely different health system, something the Tories have been too cowardly to advocate.
The Tory approach to welfare is equally appalling. One of their great breakthroughs in the mid- 2000s was their realisation that millions of people were parked on benefits, trapped in a system that incentivised them not to work, a calamitous waste of potential. It was a moral imperative to rescue them, the Conservatives argued persuasively.
Two decades on, the failure is complete. Iain Duncan Smith’s heroic creation of Universal Credit has been perverted, partly by lockdowns. In August 2005, 5.3 million people of working age were claiming out-of-work benefits; today, 5.4 million are doing so, and at a time of labour shortages. There are some 20,000 extra monthly claimants for sickness benefits. The cost is exploding. Yet the Government’s crackdown won’t take effect until 2025, by which time Labour is likely to be in office.
Then there is net zero, supported by both parties, a legally binding policy that imposes rolling five-year carbon budgets, policed by the Climate Change Committee. The Tories may seek to take the edge off some of the worst measures, but their refusal to change the legal framework confirms that they have, in fact, capitulated.
There are residual differences between the parties. In one area – planning, where the Tories have failed abysmally – Labour might allow more homes to be built, and thus be an improvement. I will believe it when I see it. In stark contrast, Labour’s raid on private schools is disgusting, a deliberate attack on 615,000 children, and a good enough reason never to vote for Starmer’s party. State schools won’t improve either under Labour. The party is also set to embrace woke extremism, with disastrous consequences for free speech, families and national cohesion. There is a chance the Tories might leave the European Convention on Human Rights, but none that Labour would. The Tories invented the war on cars, but Labour will escalate it.
Despite these caveats, the bottom line for Middle England is profoundly alienating: vote Labour or vote Tory, get the status quo. It’s a recipe for national self-harm on an unforgivable scale.