That wrenching sound you can hear is the noise of the Tory columnists slamming their gears into reverse. Until yesterday, they had assured their readers that Ed Miliband was a useless, limp-wristed bleeding heart without the machismo to hack it as prime minister. He was weak. He was hopeless. He was toast. But that was then. This morning conservative journalists have been issuing their versions of “Ed Miliband: An apology” – as Private Eye likes to say.
Far from being a whey-faced wonk, he is now a red-in-tooth-and-claw, “socialist” (Toby Young in the Telegraph). Far from being a wimp, he is a terrifying “demagogue [who] wants to fuel tensions and the politics of envy” (Allister Heath, City AM) Far from being a loser, he could reach Downing Street (Max Hasting, the Mail) And so on, and on and on.
Not one Tory paper stops to ask where, for instance, Miliband might have got his idea that developers should face escalating fines to make them release land with permission for building – on pain of confiscation if they did not. Who could have inspired him to come up with a policy denounced as the “road to tyranny,” no less, by Iain Martin in the Telegraph ?
Step forward that notorious revolutionary, Mr Nicholas Boles, the Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford. In an article in the Financial Times in September 2011, he said, quite rightly in my view, that in an age of austerity governments should look for measures that would tackle social problems without adding to the state’s debts.
Chief among them, said Boles, was a Land Value Tax that already operates in New South Wales. Farmland and people’s main homes are exempt – so it does not strike at hard-pressed farmers or elderly people on low incomes living in houses that have become very valuable.
Instead, the tax bears down on vacant land, holiday homes, investment properties and commercial properties. If we were to implement it in the UK, it would need to be deductible from business rates so that struggling retailers and other firms were not faced with a devastating double whammy – and it might in time replace business rates altogether. Thus targeted, the tax would deter speculative land banks and would encourage property owners to develop brownfield sites and put rundown areas of inner cities back to good use. Over the longer term, it would lower the price of development land and help us get off that quintessentially British roller-coaster of house price booms and busts.
Boles is often described as an ally or intimate of David Cameron. If only that were true. The coalition did not pick up his idea. Its only response to the housing crisis is to use taxpayers’ money to pump up a property bubble – the very “roller-coaster” Boles denounced.
If this government is seen as a footnote in British history, it will be because it has failed to deal with the great questions facing the nation. Housing is a mere aperitif. The banks have not been broken up. They are still too big to fail and indeed too big to bail out. It has not tackled the Fabian public sector in which the manageriat enriches itself at public expense. All the talk from Michael Gove and his kind about extending choice hides the fact that there is still no democratic representation in services as diverse as the NHS and BBC. Most egregiously of all it has failed to respond to falling living standards. If you want to leap to the defence of the utilities, as so many on the right did this morning, you at least should be able to counter Miliband by making the case that they have not milked the consumer for their shareholders’ and managers’ private advantage, but charged reasonable prices and invested in new plant. This morning’s papers make no attempt to argue that their hard-pressed readers’ have been treated fairly, and their silence tells you all you need to know about the weakness of the argument from the right.
It is not as if Conservative writers are plutocrats who cannot understand the frustrations of people who dread a cold winter and count their pennies in Tesco. The Mail and this newspaper, in particular, have published fine pieces on the decline of the middle class, and how hard it is to find a decent home and a reasonable standard of living. It is just that their ideology makes them reject any solution that infringes market doctrines, which are clearly not working anymore. Thus when Miliband proposes modest, and doubtless inadequate, measures, they go wild.
I wonder if Conservatives and Liberal Democrat leaders will go berserk with them. Do they really want to end up on the same side as hedge funds hoarding land and the over-paid and unaccountable bosses of privatised utilities? That is not a “dividing line” I would like to cross if I were in their shoes. Do not be surprised if, within a few days, we have Cameron and Osborne coming up with a hasty programme of their own, and issuing statements that might have come from the pen of that “red-in-tooth-and-claw” revolutionary, who now leads the Labour Party