Wednesday 7 May 2014

Miliband's Labour is to politics what the Co-op is to retailing

I spent the appropriately joyless socialist May Day bank holiday wading through piles of accumulated correspondence, including the candidates’ addresses for the enthralling Euro elections.

UKIP’s was all about immigration and taking back control; while the Conservatives focused on their economic record and “fighting to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU”. At which point the cynic in me wondered why I had observed such limited progress on that front during their four years in power.

I cannot comment on the Lib Dems because they have not bothered to write to me, no doubt correctly concluding that one (and most probably both) of us is a lost cause.

And then there was Labour, which appeared to be fighting a completely different election from the others, focused entirely on domestic issues like “the cost of living crisis” and the NHS.

Easy to see where he gets his "intellectual self-confidence"

It is certainly brave of them to have picked another five word catchphrase for endless repetition, bearing in mind what became of the last one: “no more boom and bust”.

You can certainly argue “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” about the various interest groups who claim that Labour’s evolving programme would spell disaster. Turkeys rarely enthuse about Christmas, so energy companies, landlords and rail franchise-holders may all be expected to say that price freezes, rent controls and increased state involvement in the railways are all thoroughly bad things.

But that does not mean they are not right.

No one old enough to have experienced the Stalinist anti-service culture of the old state telephone, gas, electricity or rail monopolies would ever wish them back.

Furthermore, all experience suggests that free markets will ultimately deliver better and cheaper products and services than anything dreamt up by politicians and implemented by civil servants.

If you doubt this, consider the food retail market where, without any encouragement at all from Mr Miliband, the major players are making their contribution to alleviating “the cost of living crisis” by slashing prices.

Not content with spending hours of TV airtime and acres of newsprint telling us about it, one of them even tastelessly blazoned its message across the Angel of the North.

The reason for this is simple: the exponential growth of the discounters Aldi and Lidl, privately owned by German billionaires. Their great triumph has been to undermine the age-old British conviction that “you get what you pay for”.

I know thoroughly upmarket (even titled) people nowadays who boast that they rarely shop anywhere else for food and household essentials. Well, apart from Waitrose, naturally.

The market share figures bear out this polarisation, with the cheapest and poshest chains flourishing, while those in the middle are squeezed.

Retail experts predict falling profits from Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Already two of these cannot be mentioned on the business pages without use of the adjective “troubled”, and some suggest one may even go bust.

At which point there will no doubt be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about job losses and abandoned property, as there already is when village shops and other long-established independent retailers close their doors in the face of relentless supermarket and internet competition.

We could try to stop this perpetual retail revolution through Government intervention, or consumers could just be allowed to vote with their feet and purses.

Labour will always be on the side of intervention. Witness their policy review document, leaked at the weekend, spelling out some of the options to deal with our burgeoning obesity. Suggested measures included bans on shops selling cheap alcohol and restrictions on fat, sugar and salt.

Inviting the question why, if there really is “a cost of living crisis”, so many of us can clearly afford to eat and drink more than is good for us?

One of the more appealing Tory maxims is “trust the people”. Mentally competent adults should not need perpetual nagging about their choices on what to feed themselves, how to fill their leisure hours, or where to buy their groceries.

Luckily Labour already has its own model for how the people ought to shop. It’s called the Co-op.

With this grasp of maths, it's lucky they're not running a bank

Maybe its brilliant success story could be replicated in the handling of their national economy?

Oh, I forgot. That’s already happened.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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