Monday, 5 October 2009

Conservative Policies - Thatcherite Bigotry & Pain Return

I know I have complained that the Conservative Party who have this conference this week have been lacking in policies, but this is because I feel that no party which see themselves as the heirs presumptive to control of the British state should be able to simply slip into place without offering something to the electorate. This is a charge that David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives has face for many months now. To some degree the continued assumption that he will win the next election has meant Cameron has felt little need to outline any policies. Partly this is because on the key issue facing the UK at present, the recession, the Conservative line since about 1974 is that no government can do anything about economic downturns and it will do more damage than good if it tries. Though few people seem to have picked up on it, the Conservative emphasis on cut-backs is really no different from the deflationary policy of the 1930s adotped by the UK when faced with the Great Depression and contrasts sharply with the post-Keynesian, stimulus approach of Obama and Brown.

Given that Gordon Brown seemed to rally flagging Labour supporters last week at the Labour Party conference, Cameron seems to feel under some pressure to come out with policies. However, as I suggested recently these are in the flavour of what the Johnson administration has been attempting in London: the mix of frightening Thatcherite-authoritarian policies and simply headline grabbing policies that mean very little in substance. Given that I do not read 'The Sun' newspaper (I do not want to give any more cash to Rupert Murdoch and no longer travel on London Underground where I would pick up a range of right-wing newspapers to monitor for free), I was glad Polly Toynbee repeated the list of 10 pledges that Cameron outlined in 'The Sun' last Friday. Now the covers are coming off we can see why Cameron has been quite quiet on his policies, which if the bulk of the population pay attention to, will make them worse off. These pledges are Bushite with a British flavour. Fortunately he has not made a pact with the fundamentalist Christians (to some extent Blair exhausted that avenue in his years in office), though he does seem to be seeking 'moral' behaviour through economic policies, but certainly he is clearly addressing the super-wealthy that George W. Bush portrayed as his core constituency.

The broadcast media have picked up on the policies aimed at those people on benefits. Of course, this group has been hammered constantly since the 1980s. Yet, all parties seem to think that there are millions of lazy people dodging work and simply claiming from the state. The view that these people notably on incapacity benefit (about 2.6 million people) but also single parents, are not trying hard enough to find work. Given that unemployment is at 2.4 million people, many of whom were in work until recently, does Cameron really believe that UK companies have the capacity to take on, say, 1 million more workers. For the past twenty years anyone signing on for benefit has had to go through rigorous checks and periodic reviews. People who have had tax credits overpaid are often compelled to pay them back. The Labour governments have kept on tightening the regulation and monitoring of people on benefits in the way Cameron says he wants to; of course to his partisans, Labour is still not strict enough. Cameron seems to assume, like many right-wingers, that the whole civil service and local government is filled with people who simply bung money and housing at the people right-wingers dislike, feckless single mothers and immigrants. Of course, most local councillors and many civil servants are conservative (many are Conservative) and are very hostile to just the groups that the Conservatives want to target.

What so many people forget is that the bulk of people on benefits want to work. We live in a highly consumerist society and you are not seen to exist if you are not consuming. Consumption can only really come when you have a regular, good income. Consequently most people want to work. Work also provides a social network and if Cameron actually spoke to some single mothers and some people on incapacity benefit they would find that isolation and loss of dignity are additional painful factors for people in those conditions, work can help resolve such situations. There are lazy people in the UK but from other countries and Britain's history I would reckon these number around 60,000 people of working age in the UK at present. The bulk of the others on benefits would rather not be.

Of course, like so many governments, the Conservatives simply focus on the supply side of the labour market without looking at all at intervening in the demand side, i.e. the employers. I worked in a job centre in the mid-1990s when unemployment was much lower than now and saw how the disability officers struggled to place even a handful of disabled people in employment. Employers turned up their noses at such people and still do despite all the legislation. I had an employer in recent years moaning on about how terrible it was when people 'concealed' their disabilities. I have an 'unseen disability' diabetes and used never to mention it to anyone in any job. Even working for a liberal employer which worked with a lot of disabled people as consumers I found my managers made no efforts to address disabilities in our workplace and I was criticised for literally hours (I had to share a car with my boss one day) about how my disability had impinged on a meeting when my blood sugar went low because the meeting dragged on so long. Eventually I spoke out and found there were other concealed people with conditions among the workforce who had been suffering. This was at a supposedly liberal employer with quite an involvement with disabled people so imagine what it is like trying to get work with the average hard-nosed company especially in this period of economic difficulties.

The same applies to single parents. Of course, the default assumption is that these are all teenaged mothers. In the 2001 census it showed that of the 11.7 million children in the UK 22.7% lived in lone parent familes, around 10% lived in step families and 45,000 children were in care or other communal establishments; of the lone parent families 91% are headed by a mother. This means 65% of children in the UK live with their two natural parents and in fact 75% live in two-parent families. The latest figures I can find for teenaged mothers is that they had 41,700 in 1998, this compares to 2.65 million children in lone parent families three years later. It is clear that teenaged mothers do not make up the majority of single parents. Of course, by definition and teenaged mother soon ages into a non-teenaged mother. However, my point stands that a lot of single parents are older women left alone due to separation, divorce and death. As seen from the step family figures, probably half will not remain in this state forever. In addition, new family models such as two single mothers living together is becoming more common. Will that be counted as a step family in the future or two lone parents?

As the recent case with the two female police officers banned from taking care of each other's children shows, the laws at present seem to weigh against lone parents working to provide a more developed family structure for their children, and, vitally for Cameron's policies, attempting to create structures that allow the women to work. Child care is costly for even middle class parents let alone working class ones. Family structures are fragmented because people have been compelled and are facing even more pressure at present, to move to find work in other areas. Yet, the alternative of informal child care arrangements between friends is being ruled out. I can see that this may be a back handed policy to try to encourage contraception, but that will happen only long term and does not deal with the current issues of raising children. Mothers last week were told that their children will be less healthy and less intelligent if they work full-time but Cameron wants them all to go out to work. Presumably this is because it is felt the lower classes are getting too uppity and keeping them overweight and ill-educated will stop them challenging their superiors! Of course, this contradiction between supporting families in the shapes they come in today and yet getting more women into work has been one that plagued Blair as much as it will Cameron.

No government in the past thirty years has really attempted to address it, instead they put pressure on the parents to solve it for themselves. What they fail to realise too, is that it is not simply about lone parents, but two-parent families too. If you see a school or a childminder's at collection time, you will see that fathers as well as mothers come and collect. This is because with two working parents you are not better off than with a working lone parent. You could have four parents per child and if they all worked, as Cameron wants them too, then they would still need someone to sort out the child care. Having two parents does not make the child care issue go away as some assume. Since the late 1960s it has been basically impossible for a two-parent family to survive financially without both parents working. Yet, the lazy assumption of politicians is somehow is that Daddy goes to work and Mummy raises the children and this falls down when there is only Mummy. However, for forty years it has been falling down even when both parents are around, but Cameron's mind, like that of many politicians, is stuck in 1957.

This is much the same thinking behind Cameron's plan to 'reward marriage'. There are already tax breaks for married couples anyway. Marriage in itself is neither good or bad, it is simply a legal state. What is 'good' or 'bad', even moral/immoral is the behaviour of the people in that relationship and how they treat each other. Men taking responsibility is declining and more could be gained in education on what it really means to be a man, not in the macho sense which is all that seems to be emphasised these days, but in a sense of being a human capable of being in partnership with others. We certainly need education in what it means to be a father as many men seem to have no clue. In addition, with the Thatcherite consensus feminism seems to have become a dirty word and with the rush to return to Jane Austen behaviour combined weirdly with the widespread sexualisation of society, women are being clobbered from both sides and men feel themselves freed from any responsibility either because they are like some late 18th century gentleman or they are something resembling a Los Angeles pimp handling his 'ho's (whores). This is no basis for any marriage. A marriage in name only is no marriage and does not deserve reward. Will Cameron reward civil partnerships? It could be argued that they reduce promiscuity among gay men and decrease bullying in lesbian relationships, so surely they should be rewarded? Of course, you can have a 'bad' civil partnership as much as you can have a bad marriage, but somehow to Cameron stability comes with marriage, and, no doubt because of his 1957 perception of the world, that leads to economic stability and that, he believes, reduces expensive dependence on the benefit system.

The key problem with so much about benefit 'reform' it simply believes that if you hammer lone parents and the disabled with so many financial penalties they will be compelled to get the work that they are believed to be shirking. You need to compel employers to be fairer in their recruitment and stop being prejudiced against disabled people and working mothers. We also need a lot more free, state-provided childcare. This is the only way you will get most lone parents into work. By pressing child carers to become pre-school teachers and by legislating against informal child care arrangements you are exacerbating the problem. Of course, in the Thatcherite-Blarite-Cameronite mindset, none of this is the concern of the state and people must sort out their own lives. People can be as moral as you like, marry before they have children, not divorce and have the father stay around, but they cannot buck the pattern established by employers and the cost of living in the UK.

I will now turn to the other elements of Cameron's pledges. I think the same morality angle is behind the policy to increase magistrates' sentencing powers from 6 months to 1 year as magistrates' courts are seen as the point at which the low level crime which exercises voters the most is dealt with. The point about people using knives to kill should expect a prison sentence seems fine too. I would add to that, that people who use cars to kill should also expect a prison sentence, but naturally that would upset too many of Cameron's speeding, 4x4 drivers for him to accept it. The key issue is where all these prisoners will go. Labour has failed to build more prisons, no-one wants them in their district and yet the public want more prisons. They do not want crematoria or wind farms either but we need them all. Cameron will find it even tougher to force through the building of more prisons because he will be more sensitive to the opinion of rural voters in the areas where such prisons will be built. I anticipate that magistrates, as a result, will be compelled effectively to use house arrest and more electronic tagging, either that or we will have to have the prison hulks of the past or form criminal ghettos in certain cities ('Escape from Moss Side' anyone?).

One is to reduce the number of MPs by 10%, which Toynbee sees as gerrymandering as the reductions will not come in large, low populated rural constituencies where the Conservatives are strong but in areas that back Labour. This seems to be a step to avoid the repeat of the 1997 landslide. I am sure that by the mid-2010s Labour will bitterly regret that Blair abandoned any steps towards proportional representation. Ironically the landslide of 1997 might prove to have been one of the most damaging things to happen to Labour's long-term future. Of course, Conservatives have adopted such tactics before notably the regime of Dame Shirley Porter on Westminster Council in the late 1980s. Given that she fled to Israel and was compelled to pay a £12 million 'surcharge', i.e. fine for her part in that scandal (reduced from the original £27 million originally imposed), I believe she should have had the 'dame' title stripped from her. She claimed she had only £300,000 in assets, but was clearly a multi-millionaire. Kit Malthouse, one of Boris Johnson's deputy mayors who has taken political control of the Metropolitan Police, only joined Westminster Council in 1998. However, it is not difficult to argue that such attitudes that rewarded a leading Conservative who had adopted a policy now clearly seen by the House of Lords as having been gerrymandering, persist in the Conservative Party. Someone should track down where Westminster Conservative councillors from that era have gone now, I would bet some are advising Cameron whether directly or indirectly.

It is not surprising given that contempt of the electorate that Cameron wants to replace the Human Rights Act. Of course, this is seen by the right-wing as a law which only favours criminals and terrorists but in fact protects the average Conservative voter as it does everyone else. This is the false assumption of so much Conservative policy that if you are doing things correctly or morally then you have nothing to fear, so there is no need for legislation to protect you. As the murder by police of Ian Tomlinson a passerby of the G20 protest and of Jean Charles de Menezes shows, you can be anyone and yet be caught up by and killed by the state machine, however law abiding you might be. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is over 65 years old and yet the UK Human Rights Act is only 11 years old. The reason why Bush had prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay rather than on US soil is because the establishment of the republic that became the USA had a Bill of Rights which the regime's policy was violating. Anti-terrorist legislation has been used in the UK to put people against which no evidence has been brought, under house arrest. Scrapping the Human Rights Act will simply make such approaches easier and strip away a lot of defence we have against and increasingly authoritarian UK state.

Economically Cameron's pledges are aimed at benefiting his 'core constituency' of the very wealthy. The Thatcher years locked all parties but particularly the Conservatives into always being seen to cut taxation or rather find it from no direct sources which usually dent consumption further. Cameron will cut corporation tax from 28p to 25p in the £ which will clearly benefit companies who are back awarding their leading lights millions of pounds in bonuses. What such a cut needs to be accompanied by is a compulsion on the percentage of profits that need to be reinvested in the company and a restriction on how much profit can be sent overseas, but of course the Conservatives would never limit their greedy friends in that way. He wants to raise the inheritance tax threshold on money and property left from £325,000 to £1 million. Even at £325,000 only 6% of the population pays inheritance tax. Apparently the rise will, however, cut tax receipts by £1 billion in favour of the very richest people in the UK.

Despite this £1 billion windfall, Cameron wants to reduce the budget deficit currently at £175 billion. Of course, believing in a Keynesian approach I see nothing wrong with that, but it seems to be anathema to all political parties who now seek to reduce it. I would certainly argue that without that deficit unemployment would already be over 3 million and the burden on the UK of that greater slowdown in the economy, i.e. lower tax returns and consumption would mean we would be in a worse state. A limit on bankers' bonuses and a windfall tax on utilities could do a lot too, but seems to have been ruled out by those who have the real power in the UK. Cameron will have to introduce cuts across public spending and in this we leap right back into the 1980s. Thatcher cut the civil service staff by one third in the 1980s and it has never returned to those levels. Part of the problems for schools, social workers and hospitals stems from the cuts imposed in the 1980s especially in terms of hospital cleaners, and we are reaping the results even twenty years later. Cameron says he will not cut back the National Health Service, but as it seems apparent he will not cut back on defence (the Trident nuclear weapons programme currently costs £76 billion with which you could punch a huge hole in the deficit) and in fact promises the so-called Military Covenant (which sounds terribly Cromwellian) and arguing soldiers should be properly equipped to do their jobs. I accept the latter point about proper equipment and this is one point that Labour should be very embarrassed upon. However, the UK should not still be involved in Afghanistan 8 years on and Iraq 6 years on in wars that were started on false bases and mainly for US profit. Cameron will not reduce military involvement in these countries and by saying he will equip them better is indicating the defence budget will rise, suggesting that he will need to make cuts elsewhere to pay for this as well as reduce the deficit. If the Armed Forces expand they will absorb more of the unemployed, but of course, single mothers and the disabled are precisely the type of people they do not want to employ. This show that there is so little linkage between one policy and another, so much policy from all parties is handled in a vacuum.

Cuts will come somewhere and if not ameliorated by tax rises which have been ruled out nor in health and defence will have to come in other areas. It is unlikely he will squeeze the Revenue & Customs or the Borders Agency in which so much faith to 'protect full up Britain' is being place. As has been shown recently social welfare, the poor cousin of health care needs more funding. Yet, Cameron will freeze council tax for 2 years. This is returning to the Thatcher approach of the poll tax, in believing that local people would favour low tax charging Conservative councils over high-spending Labour ones. It always forgot that in any town the majority of the electorate actually benefits from high council spending. In addition, this will have to be balanced against high profile cases such as the killing of Baby P and the shortage of social workers. Council spending has been pared down and pared down to a situation in which many cannot afford the upkeep of leisure facilities and have had to reduce refuse collection to an unhealthy frequency. Yet the mantra that somewhere there is massive 'waste' is still chanted. Cameron will apparently find this waste and cut it as if the Labour governments never even thought of this. Ironically cutting back on social welfare and local authority activity cuts into the kind of employment disabled people and single mothers are very likely to go into, certainly if they want something better for their futures (rather than the futures of the wealthy) than working in a call centre.

This brings me back to my point recently about 'adult' movies and call centres being the only places locally with work that does not need you to have followed a lengthy path of specific qualifications. Women performing naked in front of webcams is rocketing, generating £1.1 billion in 2008 (up from £730 million in 2006) with companies saying they have 40-150 UK women signing up each month; the largest has 27,000 women on its books. So is this the kind of moral Britain that Cameron is driving for, especially in targeting single mothers?

So, overall, when pressed for policies, Cameron has really simply returned to Thatcherism with all its benefits for a small elite in British society and new sticks to beat the marginalised, those seen as the 'undeserving' so much harder. Despite his lip service to morality, in fact, by simply squeezing the supply side of the labour market he will make it harder, with more children left 'home alone' and more women pushed into dubious work. Cutbacks will lead to the deaths of more children and elderly people. Those unfortunate not to get work let alone work paying a wage you can live on, will again be demonised and as in the 1980s will breed a generation of young people resentful of the society which seems to mark them from birth as useless. There is a basic lack of understanding of how the UK economy and society works because too many politicians care only about wooing the super-rich (not even the middle class) and have assumptions about society that were outdated fifty years ago. I know it is hackneyed now, but in 2009 it seems as relevant as it did at the time: “I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old.”

P.P. In fact remembering those words from 1983 sent me to dig out the whole quotation from Neil Kinnock and it seems eerily appropriate even 26 years later:

"I warn you. I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right. I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can't pay. I warn you that you will be cold – when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work – when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies. I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light. I warn you that you will be quiet – when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient. I warn you that you will have defence of a sort – with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding. I warn you that you will be home-bound – when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up. I warn you that you will borrow less – when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income."

Some of this will be my epitaph.

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