The political quote of the week belongs not to one of the three participants in Britain’s first televised election debate between the main party leaders, but to David Miliband. “When JFK said America would send a man to the moon,” the Foreign Secretary wrote on his blog, namechecking the same US President alluded to by David Cameron at the Tory manifesto launch,” he didn’t say ‘build your own rocket’.”
Margaret Thatcher used the non-existence of society as an excuse to gut the state; Cameron, with the counter-intuitive boldness of the PR man, has used its rude existence to do the same. Steve Richards called Cameron’s Big Society “reheated Thatcherism” this week, and that seems just right – as Eddie Izzard put it, “It’s Thatcher, but in new suits.”
The genius – if that is what it is – of the Tories’ little blue hardback is that it hides its big purpose behind its big idea: the state is to be supplanted by Victorian philanthropism, the contention that a volunteering sector happy to help the poorest part of society – the part least likely to set up their own schools, hospitals and welfare systems – and largely unsupported by a state cutting itself to ribbons, will somehow replace government. It’s a contention, not an intention, because the ‘modern’ Tory party doesn’t care a jot if that’s what the volunteers do. It just wants to do away with the state. It will do this beneath the cloak of the Big Society, but once that is whipped away this country, like the hand of a clever magician, will be emptied out.
A poll this week suggested that the deal might already be done – in the marginals, a Crosby/Textor poll for the Telegraph suggested, the Tories are safely in majority government territory. But would you trust a poll showing a similar figure for Labour, if it were conducted by Campbell/Gould associates? Lynton Crosby ran the dog whistle Tory campaign of 2005; Mark Textor was Boris Johnson’s campaign manager. One hesitates to accuse any poll of political bias – though the Tories themselves are not beyond it – but everything is still to play for. We can at least deny the Tories a majority; but who is best placed to do this for us?
Nick Clegg, who has done himself and his party huge favours with a creditable performance in that otherwise inconclusive TV debate, spoke at the Liberal Democrat manifesto launch of hardwiring fairness into society. The most obvious plans to achieve this involve breaking up the banks and reforming politics. But, as ever, Liberal Democrat fairness is not egalitarian in purpose: the party’s commitment to raise the income tax personal allowance to £10,000 does not help the poorest fifth of our society, which earns on average about £11,000 a year; their policy to restrict tax credits will actively damage it, since, according to the IFS, £6,453 of that average income is made up of … tax credits and benefits. (See table 1 here.) That’s not fairness; it may be liberalism, but it bears little resemblance to the leftist tone Liberals are known, when it suits them, to adopt.
Vote For Policies, a website touted this week at the Green manifesto launch for reasons that will be obvious when you hit their homepage, is a useful tool: you vote for policies blind, and the site will tell you where you are best matched. This has so far been a difficult election campaign for me, since I’m so used to being able to sit on the sidelines and commentate about how hopeless the Tories are. This is the first election of my adult life in which the Tories stand a chance, and yet I have been unable to provide full-throated support to any alternative party. I was ready to be won over by the Lib Dems; that tax problem I found in their manifesto felt like a deal-breaker. Vote For Policies, meanwhile, showed – confirmed – that on most issues I am over-whelmingly with Labour. This almost-but-not-quite match is all you can expect. On civil liberties, on the war, on immigration, I am set against the party of Attlee, Bevan and Brown; but in terms of sentiment, in the general direction of travel, they are my best option.
Here’s why: if you are against the Tories on married couples tax breaks, on eviscerating the state, on refusing to protect education funding and on pretending that a rise in VAT is fairer than a rise on National Insurance; if you think tax credits, Sure Start and partnership with the third sector have improved communities and brought them together in ways unimaginable in 1996; if your vision of a tax system is that it should ensure the bonds of society are strengthened rather than broken, and of the National Health Service that it is both preventative and comprehensive; if you think it strange that we can’t afford to protect frontline services but we can afford to give a tax break to the richest 3,000 estates; if you think it doubtful that frozen pay and innumerable lay-offs in the public sector will do anything to help a fragile consumer economy; if you find laughable the suggestion that the party which couldn’t trust real local government (Bob Piper on this) will now give up a coercive power it enjoys excercising in its own backyard (Michael Crick on that); if an invitation to join the government of Britain strikes you as an invitation to do its job for it, then Labour offers the alternative. The Liberal Democrats might, it is sure, make excellent and natural partners in a hung parliament – and this result may well enable a proper purge of the old system which forced Labour into its Blairite bondage in the first place – but their approach is too scattered, too confused, to ensure the fairness they profess to desire. (And where’s the commitment on a continued fox hunting ban, chaps?)
The great criticism of Labour – one I share, and one I have trouble getting over – is that it is overly authoritarian, too fond of CCTV cameras and DNA databases. But the Tory anti-statist response is too much – ravenously, hungrily – the reverse. In reverse is the last direction this country needs to go. The Tory manifesto launch was glitzy, but it’s big idea seems to have fallen flat, not particularlty mentioned since by any Tory in any media appearance. As was revealed in ITV’s debate, Cameron’s sleight of hand is yet to rival Paul Daniels, let alone David Blaine. This is a progressive moment. You can find that quote on page 0:5.