Following the end of the Blair/Brown era and Ed Miliband’s acquisition of the Labour leadership, the removal men were called in to package up the New Labour project and place it into storage. With this transition progressive aspirations within the Labour Party have been continuously downgraded. Meanwhile across the political Rubicon, David Cameron embarked on a Steve Hilton led strategy to detoxify the Conservatives; who also evoked the spirit of William Wilberforce to preach the virtues of compassionate conservatism. The 2010 election led to coalition with the Lib Dems, which would surely further harness any right wing instincts the Tories might have and keep the modernisation ship sailing.
For any nomadic or otherwise interested centrist were those Tories at the top of their Party, who were rumoured to refer to Tony Blair with barely concealed reverence as ‘The Master,’ worth a look?
The answer, as the Coalition’s increasingly rickety cart stumbles onto May 2015, has to be an emphatic no. When David Cameron suggested at Wednesday’s PMQs that green taxes on energy bills may be rolled back, if you listened closely you could hear Steve Hilton’s cries of anguish crossing the Atlantic. The Tory modernisation project has now fully gone the way of the proverbial dead parrot. An ex-modernisation project.
The window dressing of this project went look ago, the photo calls in Norway etc were replaced with serious talk of reducing the deficit and an age of austerity. The ideals of the Big Society have been largely left by the wayside; so much so that Miliband has now firmly taken up the collective action mettle with an expansion of his One Nation Labour ideology. The Tories’ embryonic green credentials were the last semblance of their modernisation programme.
More concerning is the Tories’ apparent willingness to also discard compassionate conservatism and rush to the comfort zone of the Right. This will happen when you employ Lyton Crosby as your election strategist and the electorate’s cautious, uncertain approach to life after the economic downturn is jumped upon to turn the implicit nods and winks of Michael Howard’s ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ 2005 campaign into the explicit ‘racist’ vans and rhetoric around benefit scroungers.
Welfare Reform is a case in point. Let’s assume that Iain Duncan Smith did sincerely have an epiphany during his visit to the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow and was so affected by what he witnessed that he vowed to utilise right of centre ideas to combat the issues and improve such peoples’ lives. In complete contradiction to this it is interesting to note that George Osborne has taken it upon himself to harden the language around benefit claimants. He’s spoken of the closed curtains of idle neighbours and at 2013 Conference noted, in relation to the ‘help to work’ proposal, “So we’re saying there’s no option of doing nothing for your benefits. No something for nothing anymore.” Conversely Duncan Smith spoke about the same plan in terms of a compassionate mission to assist those trapped by the system.
But Duncan Smith’s nose is not completely clean. Firstly there are the actual welfare policies. Few policies are so ostentatiously divisive as the bedroom tax. This farcical scheme unnecessarily penalises separated parents and couples who use a ‘spare’ bedroom whilst one of them recovers from illness (to name but a few groups). What’s more it is so obviously impractical. Additionally the intrusive nature of ATOS assessments for disability claimants are particularly odious.
Secondly, there are worrying signs concerning Duncan Smith’s conduct as Work and Pensions minister. The revision of the appeal process against ATOS’ assessments places even further stress and possible financial hardship on disabled persons. In May 2013 he was rebuked by the UK Statistical Authority for falsely exaggerating the impact of the benefit cap on returning people to work. Furthermore, analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing on the impact of the benefit cap in Haringey (a pilot area of the scheme) concluded that the Government was failing in its aim to save money via the use of the benefit cap.
If such research continues to show that areas of the Government’s welfare reform are not working are they likely to be amended? If not they become punitive for the sake of punishment. Factor in a reluctance by the Government to have such a laser focus on other areas of the Welfare budget, such as winter fuel allowance and free TV licences for wealthy pensioners and one surely has to ask are these reforms designed as an honest process to reduce the social security budget and by extension the deficit or a disproportionate targeting of certain groups?
The cracks in the compassionate conservatism agenda are also apparent in another important area, health. Both Osborne and Cameron are children of Thatcher, but neither have first-hand experience of the personal cost of her policies; therefore they rely on a more rose tinted assessment. From this viewpoint when completing a high level analysis of the virtues of Thatcher’s desire to shrink the State, it’s advantages appear convincing. What better way to reduce the amount the NHS eats into the Treasury’s coffers then to permit unfettered privatisation. So when David Cameron promises to safeguard the NHS then oversees the passing of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 (despite opposition of medical bodies such as the British Medical Association) it looks like a classic example of attempted State shrinkage; a return to a Thatcherite agenda than a modernising one. Furthermore such decisions do not operate in a vacuum, in seeing the market alone as the answer to the NHS’ ills the human cost has been poorly considered. When one sees raising waiting lists and overstretched A&E units one has to ask how this sits with the compassionate conservatism the Tories have supposedly adopted.
Perhaps the worst culprit is David Cameron himself, as Tory leader he has overseen this move to the Right. He won election to the leadership and saw his Party gain the largest share of the votes at the 2010 election on a modernising platform; in reality he has been unveiled as the great pretender. A true progressive is not in thrall to his Party, he has respect for their traditions, but he places the aspirations of the electorate first. For ultimately it is them he was elected to serve.
Cameron used to plead for understanding from his Party for those he saw as being neglected within the country, now at 2013 Conference he stood on a platform whose background was proudly adorned with the words ‘Welfare capped, crime down, immigration down.’ This is not the language of a moderniser, more the mental to do list of a text book right winger. A right leaning moderniser would not hold private reservations about legislation allowing gay marriage and offer the (actually financially miserly) gambit of tax breaks for married couples, these actions make him socially conservative not a radical visionary.
Cameron repeats the mantra ‘for hardworking people,’ but shows no real interest in helping the working poor or those who give up their time to be full time carers. Let’s not forget that the raising of the income tax threshold was a Lib Dem policy. Surely a right leaning moderniser would look to include the aspiring working classes within his grand project. Surely a compassionate conservative would seek to give some assistance to those who dedicate themselves to social care.
The Tories have returned to their comfort blanket of right wing rhetoric, real modernisers would have no time for such easy options. Real modernisers appreciate that rhetoric alone is not enough.
The Tory high command are either fair weather modernisers, not willing to fight for the progressive course as the high winds of the Tory Right blew harder or they were not modernisers at all but offered themselves as such to the electorate only to show their true colours once in power. Only one can be true.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?