The great interventionist debate

What do the railways, supermarkets and big business have in common? Well, if you believe what you read in the papers, they might all by subject to greater intervention by a Labour government if Ed Miliband takes up residence in Downing Street come 2015.

Over the weekend, Mr Miliband has decried David Cameron as a “cheerleader” for Pfizer’s mooted takeover of AstraZeneca, but also indicated his interest in seeing greater state intervention in the running of the railways – while leaked Labour plans also suggested that supermarkets and food manufacturers might be taken to task by a Labour government in more proactive way than is currently the case in order to make the population healthier. While there is clearly a difference between intervention and nationalisation, Labour appears willing to offer a contrast to the Conservatives’ willingness to ‘nudge’ the public and business towards a particular outcome since 2010.

The potential rewards for Ed Miliband and his Shadow Cabinet are quite clear in that there is the potential for a considered political strategy to link Labour’s willingness to intervene with the Party’s cost of living narrative to create an appealing proposition to voters by 2015. It is, after all, hard to imagine that the public would not take an interest in any proposal that offered improvements to the rail industry and infrastructure, and which delivered cheaper fares.

But the risks are also quite clear, and the Conservatives will have ample ammunition with which to hit back while also drawing attention to their achievements in government. Labour will have to plot a very careful course in order to not be accused of a heavy handed approach, of fostering a ‘nanny state’, or (perhaps most damagingly for Ed Miliband) being accused of being in the pocket of trade unions (one of the more vocal advocates of intervention in the rail industry has been Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite) that would likely be delighted by the prospect of greater state intervention.

The stage is being set for an interesting ideological debate.