Marcus Evans Group | Worldwide Headquarters | American Offices | Latin America | European Offices | African / Asian Offices

Conference seasson: where is the economic urgency – or the plan? | Jackie Ashley

The economic outlook is dire, and social crisis will ensue. The left must fight back with a new strategy for growth and hope

We may be about to see the most deluded and dangerous party conference season in modern British history. Unemployment rates, particularly among the young, are terrible. Nobody has a clue where growth is going to come from. The international climate is darkening. On Monday the banks discover their fate with the publication of the Vickers report – but the mood from Tory ministers is for caution and compromise.

What lies ahead? A xenophobic lurch in politics against Europe, and a new, punitive mood about the poor? Another financial crisis seems very possible, and it’s no longer clear we have avoided a second great depression. We’ve had our wake-up call, but are we truly awake?

We ought to see impassioned, urgent debate in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham about the thing that matters most to voters – economic policy. George Osborne, the brightest of the Tory ministers, ought to feel himself under intense pressure for a change in tack towards a new plan for growth. The Lib Dems should be in greater revolt over banking and fairness. Labour ought to be in angrily questioning form, with rafts of specific proposals for growth.

Yet the signs are that there will be enough wriggle-room on banking for both Tory and Lib Dem ministers to get away with a few nods to party prejudices – a vague form of words on the 50p tax rate here, rhetorical bonus-bashing from Vince Cable there – rather than any real change of course. There will be headline-grabbing announcements from Osborne about new infrastructure projects which will, I’m told, look less substantial when we see the detail.

Meanwhile Labour has been thrown back on the defensive by Alistair Darling‘s account of his battles over financial honesty with Gordon Brown. Ed Miliband didn’t even raise the economy in prime minister’s questions last week and Ed Balls is again struggling with questions about the Brown legacy. Just when we need the trumpet to sound most confidently, the note is uncertain.

It has been left to trade union leaders, meeting in London to cut costs, for the first time in the TUC conference history, to lead the attack. They predict mass civil disobedience and a winter of strikes and they may be right. But none of it will make the slightest difference without a clear political strategy – and that means an economic strategy for growth and hope.

What might that be? Where would it come from? There is an increasingly visible alternative economic strategy, which bears no resemblance to the old one, loved by the Bennites, and it should frighten the life out of progressive people. It’s the slash-welfare, cut off from Europe, send the foreigners home strategy of the hard right. And if we’re not careful, it is the next place British politics is heading. Today, a failure of coalition policies could send voters to the right just as easily as to the left. Look at how the Tory backbenchers and thinktanks are aligning themselves. Listen to the squeaks of alarm coming from the few one-nation Tories left, men such as Stephen Dorrell and Damian Green.

What is missing is a centre-left growth strategy that goes further than simply attacking the speed and depth of spending cuts. Labour in particular needs to become ruthlessly focused on jobs, and willing to entertain almost any idea, however unorthodox, to get the economy moving. That’s the only way to get people listening again.

Here are some of the ideas (certainly not a complete list) being talked about by the shrewder MPs.

On tax, the left needs to rethink. The 50p rate should stay, not because it raises a lot of money but because to cut it would be such a terrible signal to the lower-paid majority: the opposite of “we’re all in this together”. But a growth strategy needs to focus on helping businesses, especially small ones.

Labour ought to become a tax-cutting party for real, job-creating companies. It’s rumoured that the coalition is considering a one-year tax holiday for certain kinds of business startup. A pro-growth opposition should get in first.

There should be a determined alliance between Labour politicians and radical Lib Dems who understand the big banks must be broken up and the bankers’ threats ignored. Well over three-quarters of people think the government has been too soft on the banks. I’d like to have seen a joint session at one or other conference between Vince Cable and Labour frontbenchers. On this, there should be no compromise, no fudge and a real sense of urgency.

It’s time for a return to serious regional and industrial policies. Simply bashing the failed City model is not enough. We need an alliance between businesses, city leaders, universities, schools and politicians to rebuild the skills base, clear away barriers to growth and build a new infrastructure. Next year’s Labour conference should be less a party gathering than a national growth and jobs summit.

Being pro-growth will mean eschewing short-term political calls, such as backing the countryside campaigners against the housebuilders. The Tories are in trouble on this, and it would be easy to make that trouble worse – perhaps even to defeat the government in the Commons. But if we want development and jobs, the country needs more houses, and must support building. That ought to take priority over party politics.

Finally, opposition politicians also need to make more of their European alliances. The Tory right is about to launch another anti-Brussels crusade and will need to be vehemently fought: there is no better British future without more trade and business across the EU. The only effective action over banks, regulations, tax havens and trade, is action together.

And here’s what should worry us all. We have a dire economic outlook that is going to leave millions without the opportunities and lives they deserve. We are living through the second phase of a major social and political crisis. Yet there is little sense of urgency, little tension, little argument. An amazing number of people seem to think the coalition is doing “all right” – because of Libya, for heavens sake. Or that the banking system is now sorted. Or that the argument about cuts is over.

I am listening hard. But I can’t hear the fightback. I haven’t heard a properly cogent call to arms for a new plan for growth. Once the conference season is over, the parties retreat to Westminster and business as usual. Will the dogs bark while there’s still time? © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds