“We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT” said David Cameron. He then raised VAT.
Having just raised National Insurance, Tony Blair told Jeremy Paxman that “At the time of the election we didn’t have plans to increase national insurance or any other tax“.
I was reminded of the past absence of plans when Tory Backbencher after Tory backbencher popped up during the Queen’s speech debate to ask Ed Miliband if he would rule out raising National Insurance after various news reports said Labour was considering the idea.
The Labour leader dismissed these planted questions. Did he have plans? He wouldn’t be tricked into saying – because this was the sort of politics that people hate.
He’s right, I think, in more ways than one.
He’s right because the questions were an attempt to distract him from a genuine attempt to lift the political debate to slightly higher ground.
Miliband had opened his speech by talking about the mistrust in politics revealed by the European elections, the rise of UKIP and the large numbers of abstentions. He argued that these were major challenges that required a serious, considered response, and the tragedy of the Queen’s speech was not that the measures were bad, but that they were insufficient to the times.
While he attempted such a big argument, whipped efforts to skewer him on his plans for National Insurance must have seemed particularly petty.
There’s no good answer to such a question – rule it out and you’ve tied your hands. Rule it in, and you’ve handed your opponents a great big scary poster for the election campaign. So you dodge the question, as Cameron did, and Blair did, and yes, as Miliband did.
That’s politics, annoyingly. If Miliband dodged, he dodged because dodging is what you do when someone tries to chuck a custard pie at you. What else was he supposed to do?
It was a powerful opening, a plea for a politics better than the codes and artfully constructed pledges that can characterise modern politics and which drive distrust and even disgust. The trouble is, it’s hard to stress the need for plain speaking when you’re ducking and diving.
When his inquisitors were asking, in that sly back office way about the cost of his own plans, Miliband found himself forced to speak in the language he disdained moments before.
Miliband did not want to answer such a question. To soon. Too much of a trap, too easily misrepresented. Too… risky.
Yet if you seek the higher ground, if you wish for trust, perhaps such questions must be confronted. Their implications made clear.
The list of issues we need to change in Britain is long.
Yet sometimes politicians appear to give the impression that all it would require to fix them is the election of their party, while declining to explain what negatives might accompany their choices, what difficulties they might face in implementing their plans, what costs there might be to their hopes, and why despite those costs, it is still worthwhile, and needed, and valuable.
Perhaps what has left mainstream politics adrift. We all have challenges we prefer to discuss, and consequences we find harder to confront.
For the Tories, the acceptable challenges are about the deficit, the need for growth, the need for more jobs and expanding businesses. For Labour, the good challenges are about fairness, about those left behind, about the need to reduce insecurity and inequality.
The Labour party is right to argue that insecurity and inequality are defining issues of our age. I am proud to support a party that believe this.
But ultimately these challenges are not separate. To speak of inequality and insecurity while avoiding choices you must make on taxation and deficits and spending to remedy these leads you to a politics of smoke and mirrors, of no plans and silences and taunting backbenchers.
To boast of growth and expansion without action for those who do not benefit is horrific.
Of course there is far more to achieving equality and security than tax and spend, more to delivering growth than deficits and prudence. There are rights and responsibilities, powers and privileges too. But there is a hollowness to a debate without a clear boundary on these issues. Always the questions: But how far will you go? How much will it cost? Who will bear the burden? Who will get the rewards?
At their best, Miliband and Cameron rise above these limiting agendas. Cameron talks of the need for the minimum wage to rise. Miliband speaks of business growth and local banks. But even these welcome steps rarely involve a critical look at their own agenda
Too often, the impression is given that a list of bills a Labour government would pass, or the mere maintenance in office of the coalition is a sufficient programme for a better Britain.
These would present no problems, no costs, no need to raise VAT, no increase in NI, no need to trade off business freedom with worker security. There are no plans for any pain. At least none that can be admitted. Yet when we talk among ourselves, we know the costs are real, the limitations great, that the bill for our hopes will be presented.
I think Ed Miliband is right that the higher ground is there to be claimed, and voters are hungry for a leader to embrace it.
To do so, I think, will require a politician prepared to speak as frankly about the challenges their own dreams face as of the flaws in their opponents plans.
In other words, perhaps voters in order to trust us, perhaps voters want to hear the detailed plans, whatever they might cost.
The era of no plans is dead.