David Cameron, looking tired and not a little strained, dutifully took to the stage at the Conservative party conference yesterday and proceeded to handwave for a while. “Our plan is right,” he insisted in reference to his government’s economic policy. “And our plan will work. I know you can’t see it or feel it yet.” He went on to describe the plan as similar to, you guessed it, building a house: “The most important part is the part you can’t see – the foundations that make it stable.” In the absence of detail or even underpinning logic, listening to this section of the speech resembled sitting through a sermon: the evidence of God’s existence is everywhere, oh ye faithful. It’s just invisible.
The week before, Ed Miliband hadn’t fared much better: “The tragedy of Britain is that it is not being met,” he intoned. “My mission. Our mission. To fulfil the promise of each so we fulfil the promise of Britain.” This sort of clumsy phrase-making marred and muddied a speech which some have characterised as wildly left-wing but which was in truth less coherent than a piece in the New Statesman by Miliband’s ex-speechwriter. Cameron had a finer turn of phrase, but the hollowness and timidity at the heart of his speech was also what, ironically, make Miliband’s sound scarier and more off-piste. There may be a bone to flesh in the latter’s speech, but all was thin gruel this past month. There has been a wooliness about the conference season that is symptomatic of a political class without the courage to spell out their nascent responses to dumbfounding events.
Even following Miliband’s mincing repositioning, it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party: each political tribe, and Cameron chases Miliband even as he mocks him (for instance on the division between predatory and productive businesses Tories had been lampooning all week), have focused on the squeezed middle. The problem, of course, is that the longer our political leaders opt to be mealy-mouthed the more likely it is that many more of us will be poor. They spent the last three weeks desperately trying to ensure nothing actually happened – a boo here, a catflap there were treated as cataclysms. There is much worse to come, and as Steve Richards so rightly comments today, no evidence in rhetoric or deed that we’ll have an answer when it does.
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.
Political journalists have been getting excited this week. Their narrative, after all, has in recent weeks failed to account for a more complicated pre-election period than they had predicted: Tories falling behind in the polls, Gordon Brown regaining confidence. In the rush to fit these (possibly – probably – short-term) creases into a new schema, we’ve heard some surprising things. This morning in the Mail, then, Peter Oborne gets hot under the collar about a snap election; Steve Richards, in the week’s most obvious sign of over-excitement, wrote that the political environment has turned against the Tories. (Matthew Parris, meanwhile, sees it as turning to the right. All is confusion.)
What’s afoot seems simpler: the Tories made a few tactical errors early in 2010, but their strategy remains sound. This week saw a pretty transparent attempt to find a new policy which could capture the public’s imagination in the way the inheritance tax stuff did back in 2007. All this kerfuffle about a £20,000 ‘death tax’ (about which yet another bad poster was published) reaches back to an old Green Paper currently under consultation; it received a deal of negative press back in July of last year. It’s old news. Andrew Lansley, Cameron’s health spokesman, has even been in cross-party talks about the proposals (only one of the options on the table is the ‘death tax’). Needs must, however, when clear blue water is required.
This particular tactic might be cynical, and Cameron may have come across as hectoring at PMQs, but it puts the Tories back on the front foot – and that’s the main thing. The balance of probability still seems to be, as even Polly Toynbee admits, on a Tory government after the next General Election. I agree with her that this may not be for long; but the Labour leadership hopefuls are limbering up for a post-election contest because they still suspect, despite the Tories’ failure to land a killer blow, that Cameron is winning on points.. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that all this under-the-radar fumbling is part of the strategy; I might even suspect that the Tories are scared of their supporters becoming complacent, except that in an interview today William Hague begs them not to be. He also ups the ante, using scare-talk about a Labour victory. As the paper paraphrases him: “Britain will be diminished, its voice silenced, its credibility shredded.”
There’s a new aggressiveness, then, to Tory attacks. If journalists are excited now, this increasingly scrappy – even nasty – campaign will give them a lot more to gurgle about before long. Woo.
When a government minister is upbraided in public by an actress, in a photo opportunity which looks for al the world like Jennings being admonished by the school nurse, it is a sure sign that someone, somewhere, has lost control of the news agenda. Phil Woolas allowing himself to be cornered by the Gurkhas’ most recognisable advocate was bad enough; but Joanna Lumley succeeded in sounded both intelligent and plain-speaking, whilst the immigration minister was reduced to tongue-tied semi-concessions.
This would have been a major public relations disaster for any other government, but Brown’s is made of sterner stuff: they want to take it all on. To that end, the Daily Telegraph – which Guido Fawkes was accusing a few short weeks ago of being in Downing Street’s pocket – is drip-feeding the world the lurid details of Cabinet ministers’ expense claims. The expenses system is hopeless, and this story could have broke any time in the last 10 years – ministers apply to the system that exists, not the one we’d hope to exist. It has, though, broken on Brown’s watch, and this because Brown has lost the authority to control his own party – who voted against him and with Miss Lumley – let alone the media.
Nick Robinson says the whole mess has brought the reputation of Parliament to an historic low. Perhaps, perhaps not. What is clear is that it has brought the ability of a government to manage the narrative to an historic low – matched perhaps only by the dying days of John Major’s government, when Labour set to grinding an already defeated party into the dust.
The Tories look set to kill Brown with kindness, supporting him in the vote on part-privatisation of the Post Office, trapping him into either abandoning a flagship policy or passing it with opposition ayes. They also know they can’t push things too far – Cameron risked looking like a bullying toff this week at PMQs, and more of that will likely not be so forthcoming. The Tories are not loved like Blair’s New Labour; they can put the boot in only so far.
Still, Labour will likely do the job themselves. As Steve Richards (often good on internal party politics) points out, the party has many more problems than merely its hapless, decompassed leader. Certainly, though, he doesn’t help them pretend otherwise.