The Conservative party conference has got me on the verge of signing back up to the Labour party. I’ve moved from being despondently resigned to a Tory government – “Well, we’ve got to have one at some point, so it might as well be now” – to being sullenly hostile to the possibility, but now: alarmed.
I’ll warn you: this post is a bit of a rant. I’m not claiming this as a considered political analysis; just an expression of where my thoughts are at the moment. Getting things off my chest, and all that. Hey, it’s a blog, what did you expect? 😉
What scares me the most is David Cameron and George Osborne’s eagerness to start slashing and burning public spending the moment they get into office. As David Blanchflower argues today, the Conservatives’ plans are just the thing to plunge a fragile economy into a true depression: the real deal, complete with “rapidly rising unemployment, social disorder, rising poverty, falling living standards and even soup kitchens”. Blanchflower continues:
The Tory economic proposals have the potential to push the British economy into a death spiral of decline that would be almost impossible to reverse for a generation.
This is a terrifying prospect, yet the Tories seem to be approaching it with relish. Indeed, they are already holding back recovery, with their irresponsible and unconstitutional instructions to local authorities to put housebuilding programmes on hold and their threat to housebuilders to tear up contracts entered into between now and the election.
“We’re all in this together”
Always reassuring to be told this by a multi-millionaire heir to a baronetcy. Of course, “all in this together” means one thing to public sector workers earning £18,000 – who are being told that’s quite enough money for them – and another thing for millionaires, who are assured that their £200,000 inheritance tax cut is still in the bag.
Though of course, if they’re bankers, George Osborne has warned them that he “reserves the right” to tax them further if they become “reckless” with their bonuses. Ri-i-i-i-ght. (Incidentally: “reserves the right”? You’ll be the government. You don’t need to “reserve the right”.)
That said, Labour needs to handle this carefully. It would be easy for them to turn the public sector pay-freeze into a “payroll vote” issue, which would be a huge mistake (both tactically and as a matter of principle). They need to find a way to broaden their attack by making private sector workers see this as something which also concerns them: both from the losses of public services they will suffer, and the insight it gives into the Conservatives’ tax and spending priorities.
I’d become a bit bored over the years with Labour’s rhetoric of the Conservatives favouring “the few” at the expense of “the many”, but the Conservatives have shown this week that they still live up to the cliché as soon as they feel confident enough to follow their instincts.
The Guardian’s report today on the Taxpayers’ Alliance gives us an idea of whose voices are going to be most influential under a Conservative government. As Jon Cruddas puts it, in reference to the long list of major Tory donors who have bankrolled the TPA:
This is an arm’s-length Tory front operation run by big powerful business interests who want to remove themselves from paying tax by poisoning the well of public debate around the issue.
This is actually the area of recent Tory rhetoric which gives me some hope for a Labour fightback. Blaming the country’s woes on “big government” sounds more like a US conservative concern, and shows the influence of American conservatism on the Cameroons.
I’m not convinced that the British public thinks in the same terms. People are more likely to talk about the government “not doing enough” than about government being “too big”. Yes, they will complain about the government spending too much, or interfering in people’s lives, but that is still seen in terms of the effectiveness (or otherwise) of government rather than in US-style terms of “big” vs “small” government.
Margaret Thatcher’s problem with government was not its size – central government became larger and stronger under her premiership, which was exactly how she wanted it – but its involvement in matters which she considered best left to the market. It was socialism, not “big government”, that she opposed. I suspect that in this she had a much better handle on the British electorate’s political instinct than do those around David Cameron.
On the other hand…
…I’m also hopeful that the Tories have now revealed just enough of what they have in mind to energise Labour into developing a coherent alternative narrative (though, as Polly Toynbee points out today, the early auguries for this are not good). As Nye Bevan pointed out, we don’t need a crystal ball to know what a Conservative government will do: just a history book.
As Martin Kettle points out, the Tory conference (not least Cameron’s own speech) raises serious concerns about the Conservative party’s competence and true agenda. As he puts it, “the course set by Cameron and Osborne is not just doctrinaire”, but “dangerous”. There is an opportunity for Labour here, and indeed at least one poll has shown a post-conference dip for the Tories and rise for Labour, narrowing the Conservative lead to 9 points.
But in his final sentence, Kettle hints at why Labour may still fail to take this opportunity:
An energised Labour party, under an effective leader, could do the Tories a lot of damage right now.
An “energised” Labour party? An “effective” leader? Sadly, the evidence points to neither of those conditions being fulfilled at the moment.