 Stephen Bush isn’t con­vinced

A blue­print for a new po­lit­i­cal move­ment con­tains few pro­pos­als that we haven’t seen be­fore in Lib Dem or Labour man­i­festos, writes Stephen Bush

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by Start Again: How We Can Fix Our Bro­ken Pol­i­tics by Philip Collins

Start Again: How We Can Fix Our Bro­ken Pol­i­tics

Philip Collins

4th Es­tate, £9.99, pp224

What should you do if the prospect of five more years of Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment makes you feel sick but you don’t want Jeremy Cor­byn to be prime min­is­ter?

That’s the ques­tion that is a fre­quent topic of con­ver­sa­tion at West­min­ster, par­tic­u­larly among Labour MPs of a New Labour­ish per­sua­sion. Al­though some are open to the idea of split­ting away, most are op­posed, though there is a small but in­flu­en­tial cadre of New Labour alumni who are will­ing to bend their ears about the ben­e­fits of a split. One of those pri­vately and pub­licly ad­vo­cat­ing for some kind of new party is Philip Collins, for­merly Tony Blair’s speech­writer and now en­sconced at the Times as a colum­nist.

Start Again is Collins’s at­tempt to per­suade read­ers that a new party is nec­es­sary, de­sir­able and to pro­vide a ready-made agenda for such a move­ment.

To do so, Collins dips into one of the more du­bi­ous lit­er­ary tra­di­tions – that of the mid-ca­reer politi­cian’s book: writ­ten not at the end of a po­lit­i­cal jour­ney but at the start; a way to im­prove the pro­file of a mid­dle-rank­ing min­is­ter or the se­na­tor of an ob­scure state to fa­cil­i­tate their bid for a big­ger job. Start Again faith­fully fol­lows this type: half­way be­tween me­moir and man­i­festo, with an anec­dote about his mother teach­ing him to read us­ing the Times em­ployed as an ar­gu­ment for the ex­pan­sion of early years’ spend­ing. There are a few ex­am­ples of the genre that man­age to lift them­selves be­yond the lam­en­ta­ble: Start Again, re­gret­tably, isn’t one of them.

The cen­tral the­sis is that the two big po­lit­i­cal par­ties are in a ter­ri­ble mess: the Con­ser­va­tives have “dragged the na­tion into its own pri­vate feud” over Brexit, while Labour, be­set by an­tisemitism, an­t­i­cap­i­tal­ism and anti-Amer­i­can­ism, is “no longer a noble in­sti­tu­tion”. As for the Lib­eral Democrats, their brand is “fa­tally tar­nished” and they should give up and shut up shop.

Collins then pro­ceeds to set out a number of ar­eas in which the two par­ties are fail­ing and sug­gests ways in which a new move­ment could “start again” and of­fer some­thing new. The pro­pos­als in­clude, in no par­tic­u­lar or­der, a rad­i­cal in­crease in the amount of money spent on early years; a re­bal­anc­ing of the wel­fare state to favour the work­ing young; a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in in­her­i­tance tax; a shift in Bri­tish tax­a­tion away from in­come and to­wards wealth; that the House of Lords be re­placed with a pro­por­tion­ally elected cham­ber; and that vot­ing be made com­pul­sory and the fran­chise ex­tended to 16- and 17-year-olds.

The prob­lem, which will be clear to any­one who has taken the time to study the man­i­festos put for­ward by our two, ap­par­ently de­cay­ing, ma­jor par­ties, is that much of this is in the Labour man­i­festo. Collins’s big and rad­i­cal plan for a life­time cap on the amount that peo­ple can re­ceive in fi­nan­cial trans­fers from their fam­i­lies is al­most word for word iden­ti­cal to that pro­posed by the IPPR, once a gen­er­a­tor of Blairite ideas and now do­ing the same thing for Jeremy Cor­byn.

To­wards the close of Start Again, Collins grandly claims that the ideas con­tained in the book are “hard to clas­sify” on the left-right spec­trum, but this isn’t true. They are, al­most ex­clu­sively, pol­icy pro­pos­als from the left and cen­tre-left. The only pol­icy pro­posal that wouldn’t fit com­fort­ably within a speech from John McDon­nell is that univer­sity tech­ni­cal col­leges be ex­panded. Univer­sity tech­ni­cal col­leges con­sis­tently trail all other types of school on ev­ery mea­sure, which is why so few peo­ple in ei­ther of our ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties are will­ing to de­fend them.

Collins air­ily dis­misses the Lib­eral Democrats out of hand as too “tar­nished” to be worth both­er­ing with, but the book re­sem­bles noth­ing so much as a Lib­eral Demo­crat pam­phlet from the pre-coali­tion days: there are a number of el­e­gant so­lu­tions that sit well at the end of a col­umn, sup­pos­edly ne­glected by big po­lit­i­cal par­ties out of ide­o­log­i­cal tor­por or cow­ardice, but there is no real at­tempt to en­gage with the pol­icy trade-offs that his schemes would in­volve. He writes that to gov­ern is to choose, but the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions are all de­ferred. In the case of the United King­dom’s mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union, Collins writes that Brexit is a mis­take but one we’re com­mit­ted to; he doesn’t al­low this to in­trude on his thoughts about what that means for the rest of his pol­icy pro­pos­als. Cli­mate change, an area in which both ma­jor par­ties have truly lam­en­ta­ble po­si­tions, scarcely mer­its a men­tion in the book.

The tragedy is that the ques­tion of what the “po­lit­i­cally home­less” should do de­serves a deeper and more thought­ful anal­y­sis than it re­ceives here. Start Again? I wish he had.

As for the Lib­eral Democrats, their brand is ‘fa­tally tar­nished’ and they should shut up shop

Stephen Bush is spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent at the New States­man. To or­der Start Again: How We Can Fix Our Bro­ken Pol­i­tics for £8.79 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Philip Collins at­tempts to per­suade that a new move­ment is nec­es­sary. Getty

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