Monday, August 04, 2008

Three things every Guardian writer and reader needs to know about the Tories

Jenni Russell has an article in the Guardian praising David Cameron. It is an interesting piece precisely because of the errors of fact and analysis in it.

Russell has completely bought the Cameron spin that the Tory Party has changed and is now a party of the centre ground, having marginalised the right-wingers in the same way that Tony Blair marginalised the left. Instead, she claims, the dividing line is that both parties want to achieve similar things, but Labour takes an authoritarian, top down, pessimistic and centralised approach to doing so, and the Tories take a more liberal, bottom up, optimistic approach.

This is an analysis which many people who read the Guardian will find quite plausible, and if it were true, it would be lethal for Labour. Labour can't win an election with just the support of people who read the Guardian, but it certainly can't win without them.

However, Russell's analysis is based on the following three myths:

1. 'Cameron has shifted the Conservatives on to the centre ground'

Cameron hasn't taken on and defeated the right-wing of his party, and there hasn't been a Clause 4 moment - the right-wing of the Tory Party is much more powerful than the left-wing of the Labour Party was in 1994 or thereafter.

The pledge about 'keeping to Labour spending plans for 2 years', which is cited in the article, means not cutting taxes before 2010, and therefore constrains a Tory government not at all. On every issue imaginable, from the environment to poverty to privatising the Royal Mail, the Tories have been lurching rightwards in recent months.

2. 'The Tories have promised plenty of action on poverty and inequality'

Russell mentions the minimum wage, tax credits and child poverty as examples of how the Tories have adopted social justice. But they have refused to sign up to meeting Labour's targets for reducing and ending child poverty, saying that they will "aspire" to meet them, but won't "pledge" to meet them. (Want to know how much an 'aspiration' to end child poverty is worth? If you've got one of those 'aspirations' and 70p, you can buy a copy of the Guardian.)

They might not support abolishing the minimum wage or tax credits - but even in David Cameron's 2005 election manifesto with Michael Howard as leader (back when Guardian columnists knew that the Tories were right-wing and nasty) they promised to retain the minimum wage. What they have done since is to vote against all the increases in tax credits and the minimum wage. If they continue to do this in government, it will mean that over time people on low incomes end up worse-off.

That's even before we get on to their plans to cut taxes for millionaires, the moralistic and failed approach of blaming people for being poor, or their welfare reform policies which are far nastier and less effective than Labour's. But, hey, at least 'they sound nicer' and are 'morally indignant' when talking about poverty. (For those keeping score, 'sounding nice' and 'being morally indignant' are worth about as much as one of those 'aspirations').

3. 'It's impossible to know how far the Tory agenda would be delivered in office, or how successful it would be'

It is certainly possible to make an educated guess, providing your research goes beyond repeating Conservative Party talking points. You could look at what has happened when Tories have gained power in local authorities, for instance. Or you could look at other countries where their policies have been tried out. Or what happened when people on the centre-left across the Atlantic decided that there was no real difference between a boring and uncharismatic technocrat whose party which had been in power for a while and a 'compassionate Conservative'.

In some areas, this kind of analysis shows that the Tories are likely to be different in power from what they are promising at the moment. For example, they say that they want to give voluntary and community groups more opportunities and more funding. But when they get the chance to do so, instead they cut the amount of funding available for voluntary and community groups. This suggests bad times ahead for these groups if the Tories get into power.

In other areas, though, they say what they mean and mean what they say. So when they praise the kind of welfare reform which happened in the USA, which led to more people living in poverty while massively increasing handouts to private corporations, that suggests that they will try to do the same once in power.


Nailing these three myths - that the Tories have marginalised their right-wingers; that they share Labour's aims on social justice; and that they offer a new and untested approach - is important because people deserve to know the truth about what an alternative government stands for and would actually do before they go and choose who to vote for.

Making this happen is partly about explaining the difference between the Tory spin and the Tory policies, with campaigns like the excellent minimum wage one. But just attacking the Tories won't work while levels of poverty are static or even rising, and when the government's message is that our policies on inheritance tax or welfare are similar to those of the Tories. Our next relaunch needs to include some new policies which make it clear even to 'low information voters' such as Guardian columnists about how Labour is making a difference and making our society more socially just and fair.


At 9:43 pm , Anonymous tim f said...

I think number 2 is the most toxic. Fortunately it's also the easiest to deconstruct.

I'm not convinced that it's possible to argue against number 1. The Tories tried to argue that Tony Blair hadn't really shifted Labour to the centre ground in 1997 with their devil-eyes campaign, and it didn't work. I don't think they could have won that election anyway. But it didn't even slightly work.

Similarly people genuinely believe that Cameron has made a real attempt to move his party to the centre. We can show that he hasn't taken the whole of the Tory party with him and divided them, but if we want that attack to hit home, we need to show that the right are the majority of the party at a local and parliamentary level, and that's a difficult claim to verify.

Perhaps more productively we can show that the attempt is just about political positioning, something that the electorate are more likely to reject now than in 1997. But we can't claim that there has been no movement - even if it's true - because no-one will believe it.

At 3:59 am , Blogger Cassilis said...

Started a rebuttal Don and it turned into a post of its own....

At 12:56 pm , Blogger Ian_QT said...

Interesting. The intriguing thing is having this same conversation on right-wing blogs. There its all 'you don't really believe that the Conservative party will be any different to Labour, do you? You're not that naive?'!

At 3:36 pm , Blogger snowflake5 said...

Your point on the minimum wage is spot on. They will keep it, but won't increase it.

This is what happened in the USA. Minimum wage introduced there in 1938 by Roosevelt. It had it's highest purchasing value under Lyndon Johnson. Then it was frozen by Reagan-Bush from 1980 to 1990. Clinton managed to increase it again in his early years, but when Congress went virulently Republican, it got frozen from 1997 to 2007. It was unfrozen by the newly elected Dem Congress (it was their manifesto promise).

So Labour should be saying "will you pledge to increase the minimum wage in line with inflation", not "will you keep the minimum wage", as the latter is an easy promise to keep and won't help the poor at all.

At 9:17 am , Anonymous Paul said...

You make an interesting point (in 3) about how we should get a decent idea how a national Conservative government would behave by looking at how the Conservatives run local government when they gain power.

Yes, I think we should, and it would be a powerful argument, but the problem is that the Labour party/movement appears to have done little systematic ‘looking’, and is not in the position it should be to dispel any Guardian reader myth that there is really little difference between Labour and Conservative Councils.

In my own small patch I have reviewed in some detail what happened to leisure services when our new-ish Conservative administration ‘outsourced’ them in 2005. The data I’ve been able to get hold of shows quite clearly that in the subsequent three years leisure uses plummeted in more deprived areas and rose in wealthier areas, as a result of the pricing and operational processes put in place by the new private contractor. It’s quite clear from the evidence that local Conservatives simply do not have the concept of social justice being touted at national level, and that their faith in the operation of the market overrides all consideration. As a result they have failed to put in place any methods of overseeing the performance-as-it-effects-people, of the private company and are limited to assessing the profit levels under the new regime. The full report’s at my January 14th post for those who are REALLY interested.

Of course, this is not the kind of study that makes either national or local press headlines, because it’s both too parochial and too out-of-keeping with accepted doctrine. It’s too isolated, and not set comparative to Labour Councils’ ways of doing things, to have any real impact.

I’m not sure what the answer is in respect of getting such ‘news’ out to the Guardian readership, but I’m sure it involves, as you suggest, focusing on fact and detail rather than bowing to the processes of myth propagation.

At 11:56 am , Blogger tory boys never grow up said...

Spot on. I am always struck between the similarities between the Conservative stance now and Dubya in is "social conservatism" phase when he was trying to get elected. I wouldn't be surprised in the Australian Tories used the same tactic, topped up with the "dog whistle" racism that is their hallmark.

Need to keep a very close eye on what the Tories are saying about tax credits - given the silence this is what I'm sure the Tories will be targetting in order to provide tax cuts to their core support. In addition, there is no sign whatsoever of the Cameron even looking at trying to engage constructively with the EU - only when I see this starting to happen might I start to think that the Tories were starting to become a modern right of centre political party in the European mold.

The other thing that should be noted is the closeness of Cameron and Osborne to the free market hedge fund types. Surely given the trouble caused by their recent speculative bubble which is just starting to deflate (perhaps due to some well targetted action by the Regulators) the argument for well regulated markets is now stronger than ever and should be vigourously pursued.


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