Parties trade radical language on economic model. Who can deliver?
If you are of that school of thought that thinks manifestos are irrelevant, and only hard, costed pledges matter, skip this blog. If you are interested in political philosophy, read on.
There is a very interesting philosophical juxtaposition to make between the ways the Labour and Conservative manifestos analyse Britain's strategic economic problem.
Let me give you Labour's formulation:
"As the economy steadily recovers, there will be no return to business as usual: financial institutions cannot continue the practices of the past. Radical change is needed. Without creating infrastructure and enterprise, accompanied by the diversification of our industrial base, Britain will not emerge from the recession ready for a stronger, fairer future."
Now here's the Conservative manifesto:
"One thing is clear. We can't go on with the old model of an economy built on debt. Irresponsible public spending, an overblown banking sector, and unsustainable consumer borrowing on the back of a housing bubble were the features of an age of irresponsibility that left Britain badly exposed to the economic crisis... Britain needs a new economic model."
The Conservative manifesto contains numerous references to a "new economic model" for Britain. The word "model" does not appear, as far as I can tell from word searching, in the Labour manifesto at all (though "economic future" appears a lot).
This is very interesting. I have looked at the last three Tory manifestos and their economic sections make no mention whatsoever of the old economic model being in any way flawed.
Indeed the language tended to be about "freeing up" the pent up dynamism of the old economic model (ie debt-driven, property-driven financial capitalism); and much of the economic policy in those manifestos was about tax.
Now whatever you think about the Conservatives' ability to deliver, or even design a new economic model the manifesto contains - verbally at least - an absolute U-turn in economic philosophy. It does not go so far as Conservative thinktanker Philip Blond and say "neo-liberalism was wrong" but it does pose that very question.
Indeed this would be an apt first question should David Cameron decide to be interviewed by my colleague Jeremy Paxman.
The language of Labour's manifesto tends, by contrast, to focus on "radical change" through a new emphasis on industrial base, green technology and export-led growth. In this Labour overlaps with the Conservatives. So what you are left with is the "big-state/small-state" difference: there are two distinct visions for the role of the state in the new kind of capitalism, but there is a lot of shared territory.
For Labour this shift in economic philosophy comes easier - there has always been an inner Keynesian/industrialist soul to Labourism: for this reason Labour's language is less radical.
Having made a long feature for Newsnight exploring whether Britain needs a new economic model, speaking to businesspeople, green thinkers, social activists and blue-sky thinkers on the right and left, I confess to being even now a little bit stunned to read the words "Britain needs a new economic model" in the first page of the Tory manifesto.
In truth both parties were somewhat beguiled by the apparent success of the old model. Since they are both now verbally committed to a new one, the task is to interrogate the vision - and question who is best equipped to execute against it.
I hope the upcoming leaders' debate on the economy does manage to pose some of these root-and-branch questions about economic philosophy and not just descend into a late-night Charlie Parker solo about deficits and debts.
The philosophical debates are the tough ones because, in truth, they involve soul-searching questions for politicians in both the Labour and Conservative high command.