Monday, 11 October 2010

Cameron's Blunder with the Electorate

It seems very few people voting in the May 2010 election were aware that the Conservative Party, if it came to power, even as part of a coalition, was going to pursue a hard monetarist policy that makes the policies of the Thatcher years look bland.  I complained on this blog that there was very little in the party leader, David Cameron's statements on policy before and during the election and now it is apparent why that was the case as his intentions were clearly to smash the public sector, stimulate the unemployment of millions, crush demand and find many more opportunities for his friends and potential future friends to make money providing previously state-provided services.  The borrowing taken out by the Brown government 2008-10, following Keynesian principles, though ironically to buoy up only the banking sector (who without a gram of gratitude to us tax payers who saved them have continued to take huge salaries and bonuses), rather than stimulate the whole economy, has supposedly given Cameron as prime minister the right to smash up the British economy on the basis of ideology rather than any real practical economic approach.

Of course, we have seen this before.  Margaret Thatcher was a convert to New Right monetarist views in the mid-1970s and they caught hold in different degrees of virulence in both the Conservative and Labour parties in the late 1970s, assisted by interest groups, notably in the UK's case, the International Monetary Fund.  Consequently we saw in the economic policies of the Callaghan government 1976-9 the foundations of what Thatcher would pursue more vigorously 1979-90.  The approach was echoed especially in the USA but also large parts of Europe and was seen as the path all the states coming out of Communist control towards the end of this period should follow.  Thatcher's approach was to reduce direct taxation whilst increasing indirect taxation (i.e. VAT on goods) and severely reduce the public sector through privatisation in order to reduce the supply of money in the economy and keep down inflation.  It was not applied that clinically and Thatcher also took revenge on certain sectors of the economy, notably coal mining and also embraced ideological, not only economic elements of the New Right, such as crushing trade union power, which, it was argued was an inflationary pressure too.  Many supporters of Thatcher benefited, having their companies take over everything from collecting refuse and cleaning hospitals to running the major utilities, though railway privatisation was not to come until John Major succeeded Thatcher.

Thatcher's policies led to mass unemployment.  People do not seem to realise/remember the way that unemployment was measured during the Thatcher years; the figures excluded numerous people who these days are counted as unemployed.  Thus, when official figure in 1982 was 3.072 million there were actually hundreds of thousands more people out of work.  In 1997 the new Labour government moved towards ILO figures which are more accurate, yet continued to massage their figures to an extent.  You can see the gap when looking even at Labour figures in 2001 which claimed unemployment was below 1 million when, in fact, on ILO measurements it was 1.535 million.  With such errors we can estimate that in 1982 unemployment was probably at least 3.5 million if not 4.5 million, anyway between one eighth and one fifth of the working age population was unemployed, depending on the region you were in, even under official Conservative government figures.  The UK which had moved to have service-sector industry as the largest contributor to the economy over manufacturing as early as 1974, now rushed headlong into shedding much more of its manufacturing and primary industry, i.e. coal mining, agriculture.  Of course, this was part of the European trend at the time but it was done sharply and far faster due to government policies.

Despite hitting record levels of unemployment, Margaret Thatcher kept on being voted back into power, being the longest serving prime minister since 1827.  Her government had a 44-seat majority in 1979; 144-seat majority in 1983 and 102-seat majority in 1987.  She was removed from power by her own party in 1990 so never actually lost a general election as leader of the Conservative Party.  Her successor, John Major, who continued her policies, but tried a more 'human face' to them won a majority of 21 seats, though ironically receiving the highest number of votes any party had won up until that date, scoring over 14 million (of course rising population levels made this easier, but Major got 1 million more votes than the Labour Party scored in 1951 when it actually lost the election despite getting more votes than the Conservatives: this is a consequence of the distortion of the popular vote in the British system).  Now, Cameron has no majority, he can only remain in power either with the acquiesence of the Liberal Democrats, or what he was fortunate to be able to do, having them in a coalition with the Conservatives.  I doubt even if he manages to limp to the end of his (hoped-for fixed) term of office, he will not win the next election.

Why do I think this?  Cameron has learnt from George W. Bush('s adviors) that if you use something so apparently scary, then you effectively get a blank cheque to carry out whatever extreme policies you want to.  I have already outlined what cutting 25% from the Department for Education will mean to your local school in terms of teacher numbers, let alone what it will mean for prisons, social workers, health care professionals, job centre staff, etc.  To reach that figure you could easily wipe out whole departments of government and their employees, e.g. laying off all teachers and all prison staff only scratches the surface of the cuts.  Thus, all of us, even if we use private education, private health care and drive our car everywhere are going to see the impact.  Have you tried telephoning a tax office recently?  Will you dispose of all your own refuse when the dustbin collectors come once per month?  Will you feel safe when every prison has lost a quarter of its staff and the police have lost a quarter of theirs and there are literally no social workers in some towns?  Yes, Bush's policies work to a certain extent, but they do not buy you or your ideas longevity, you can see that the US electorate preferred a (half-)black President over more of Bush.

While Cameron may have learnt from Bush, he does not seem to have learnt at all from Margaret Thatcher.  What enabled her to come back to office time after time, despite her running down so much of the British economy and so throwing people right across the social spectrum out of work, was that she worked on building a core constituency across the country.  There has always been the 'working class Tory' in the UK, i.e. someone from an ordinary background who may not have had many opportunities in life but adheres to the aspirational aspects of Conservatism, driven by patriotism and a belief that personal problems are not shaped by impersonal factors like the economy or society but by personal effort.  Thatcher knew that beside the big business people who went round gathering the fruits of lower taxes, deregulation of working environments and privatisation, there was another constituency to attract.  These were the people enabled to buy their own council houses and who bought a few shares in British Gas.  These were the people who were told it was the trade union at their workplace causing the unemployment not the employer making cuts to reduce costs and re-employ the same people at lower wages.  These are the people that won John Major the 1992 election and bolstered Thatcher's majorities.  These are the people who went over to Blair who seemed to speak their language, had a bit of the tawdry glamour they like, was not going to reverse the Thatcher policies and Thatcher bigotry against 'laziness' that they love.

Cameron is not addressing this constituency.  Instead, he has gone for his 'big society' which sounds painfully like a Liberal Party policy from the mid-1970s.  It may be based in Christianity, but these days it seems rooted in a kind of wishy-washy hippy approach to things.  Of course, Cameron sees charities and volunteers as stepping into the void left by sweeping aside huge swathes of national and local authority provision.  However, he does not realise, since Thatcher declared there was 'no society' people feel absolutely no obligation to help their neighbours, and their sense of 'community' is very narrow, excluding a large range of people in their district on basis of class, ethnicity, age, even which town they were born in.  They have no interest in helping these people and feel uncomfortable in being pressed to do so.  They never despised 'the state' in the way Thatcher did, because in fact through the 1980s it was the state which gave them the fruits.  In addition, the state, takes away from them all the things they would otherwise have to worry about, like where the young people of their district will live.  In fact, they want a stronger state with more police and stricter rules about who lives where.  Cameron's big society depends on shared vision and a willingness to help the less fortunate, this is not what the Thatcher supporters want, they favour segregation and their 'fair share' of state provision.  Just look at the schools they have flocked to, faith schools with selection.  Cameron, and especially Michael Gove, in contrast, tell them to set up their own schools, something they do not have the time from watching sport or going to the tanning salon, to do.

Cameron's problem is that he has been far too distant, all his life, from mainstream society.  Thatcher came from a grocer's family and went to grammar school.  John Major worked in a garden ornament business, for the electricity board and in a bank.  Cameron and Blair were clearly part of the elite and for much of their lives never mixed with ordinary people.  Even though Thatcher and Major were certainly above working class, they met and saw people who were far worse off than themselves.  They may have then seen it as the way to get on was through your own efforts, but they saw people who were less lucky or did not have the inclination to 'pull themselves up'.  Thatcher knew that out of the batches of the ordinary she had to engage and get political support at least from the people like herself who ended up somewhere better than they had started.  Cameron has no idea how to do this; I doubt he has any real understanding of such people, and unlike Blair, the prime minister he most resembles, he lacks the simple charm and good advisors to enable him to approach the interests of such people.  Blair also had 'Old' Labour members still around to keep dragging him back to contact with ordinary people; Cameron seems to lack even the small business person connections, let alone any route into the views of the Disraelian-style working class Tory, whose watchword is not monetarism, but 'decency'.  Cameron is too much like Bush when he told the ultra-wealthy that they were his core constituency.  With the electoral college system and some jiggery-pokery that was sufficient for Bush to win twice.  However, the British political system, even without proportional representation will not be that forgiving to Cameron.

Cameron is offering nothing to those people who will tip the balance between him winning or losing the next election or in fact, if the coalition chooses, to go for an election before then to boost the Conservative majority.  The only thing we keep hearing is about cuts and even for those voters who like to pride themselves on being self-made, they will begin very soon to see the impact of those all over in terms of the condition of the roads, how long they have to wait in government offices, the level of crime and so on.  Cameron could win them over by stealing more ideas from the UKIP, because one thing that this constituency likes is to bash Europe and foreigners in general.  However, Cameron has backed away from even the kind of bigotry and high profile complaints over immigration we heard around election time.  They have shut off immigration of the kind big business likes, i.e. low-paid, but I imagine they expect to fill those jobs with the growing domestic unemployed.  The failure of the BNP at the last election and banning of English Defence League marches is taking some pressure off Cameron from the right, but the 'soft' bigotry of UKIP supporters and sympathisers is still a force out there.  I am glad he is not tapping into it, but I think as a consequence he has lost the one tool for connecting with that constituency that Thatcher won and held for so long.

I imagine part of the problem is that Cameron's thinking is so distant from the middle classes let alone the working classes of Britain.  Edward Heath raced yachts but had come from middle class background, not too different from Thatcher.  You have to go back to Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who only managed one year as prime minister to find someone so far away from even the well-off in Britain let alone the ordinary people.  Cameron, like Bush, moves in such high wealth and privileged circles that he finds it difficult to engage with people who in fact got him into power.  Fortunately for the moment in Britain, money does not entirely match votes and Cameron needs to find a way, as Thatcher unfortunately did, of engaging the 'ordinary Tory' if he wants to stay in power for any length of time.  I do not think he has the capability of doing it.

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