Thursday, 15 April 2010

Before The Debate…Some Thoughts on the Manifestos…

I have spent much of this week reading the complete 2010 manifestos of the three main UK political parties – Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative.  I will never get that time back. 

The most important phrase I read in any of these three documents has got to be this: “our core values have not altered and our core beliefs remain consistent.”  That phrase is to be found near the start of the Conservative Party’s so-called “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”, following a fairy-tale passage about how “the Party has remoulded itself for the modern era, applying its deepest values and beliefs to the urgent problems of the hour” after “a journey that began four and a half years ago, when the Conservative Party itself voted for change by electing David Cameron as its leader.” 

Once you debunk the fact from the fantasy – and once you have trawled through the massive 131 page manifesto – the paucity of this opening salvo becomes apparent.  A more truthful statement would read: we are the exact same party we always have been, “our core values have not altered and our core beliefs remain consistent”, but after losing three consecutive elections, four and a half years ago we decided to cynically manipulate public opinion with the appearance of change by voting in the seemingly young and vibrant, David Cameron, to reboot the party’s image for the 21st Century.  The only real change we stand for though is changing things back to how they were the last time we were in charge.

The big idea at the heart of the Tories’ manifesto in 2010 is the notion of their so-called “Big Society”.  The very use of the phrase “Big Society” here is a deliberate piece of theatre: how best to re-introduce many of the same selfish and individualist ideas of the discredited Thatcher government to a political audience who remember only the failings of Thatcherism and the unpleasantness of the “nasty party” of the 80s and 90s?  Why, you deliberately distance yourself from the most defining statement Thatcher ever made about Tory-style individualism and fend-for-yourself governmental abandon – that there is “no such thing” as society – and appear to embrace exactly the opposite idea. 

Don’t be fooled though – appearance is all that it is – and as you read exactly what Mr. Cameron means by creating his “Big Society”, you discover that, in the ideas within: “our core values have not altered and our core beliefs remain consistent.” 

The apparent push for “people power” and “we’re all in this together” sloganeering is, in reality, the same old Conservative shtick in a brand new 2010 window-dressing: deregulate everything, cut centralized government power and devolve the running of nearly everything to private enterprise under the facade of empowering local communities, give more tax cuts to the rich, take more benefits away from the poor, and make sure the City remains doing big business for the few, no matter how bad the unemployment gets for the many… 

“We will increase the private sector’s share of the economy in all regions of the country”


“We will improve Britain’s international rankings for tax competitiveness”

Yawn again.

“Anyone on Jobseeker’s Allowance who refuses to join the Work Programme will lose the right to claim out-of-work benefits until they do, while people who refuse to accept reasonable job offers could forfeit their benefits for up to three years.”

Yawn times three.

“We are proud of the last Conservative government’s industrial relations reforms, which helped bring about our economic revival in the 1980s, and we will always be prepared to build on them if necessary”

Yawn to the power of – what?  They’re actually proud of that horror?  Shit – this is worse than I thought!

“A Conservative government will reduce the amount of paperwork that the police have to deal with, starting by scrapping the stop form entirely and reducing the burden of stop and search procedures.”

And they want to go back to the stop-and-search prejudices of before?  “Our core values have not altered and our core beliefs remain consistent” indeed. 

Whilst the Tory manifesto has clearly attempted to appeal to the people of Britain with this seemingly radical idea of reclaiming government from Westminster and running the country for ourselves, throughout the document only one thing was made clear: “we’re all in this together” and “the Big Society” means, essentially, that once again under a Conservative government you will be entirely on your own.

Private businesses will run rampant, with no regulation and ever-more weakened unions, government protections and government services will be sold off to the highest bidder, or scrapped completely to pay for more tax cuts, civil liberties and basic human rights will be repealed once again in the name of “cutting red tape” and “reducing the amount of paperwork” for police, unemployment will rise up at the same time that benefits will be plummeting right down, education will become polarized, and citizen will compete against citizen for an ever-depleting pool of public resources whilst the wealthy will accrue more and more.

As an avowed anarchist, I actually found it quiet insulting to see how much the language of radical decentralizing and the self-empowerment of local communities was co-opted by the Conservatives to paint a picture so very far removed from what real self-governance would look like, and if ever my argument about the importance of tone in our inevitable oppression at the hands of external governments held true, it was in the reading of the Conservative manifesto. 

When it comes to the actual actions each party is proposing in this election, there is a vast similarity of objectives.  Everybody wants to cut public spending, balance the budget, fix our schools, protect the NHS, improve the environment, continue the war in Afghanistan, re-link state pensions with earnings, commit to an 0.7% budget for aid, support the Millennium Development Goals, etc, but the importance here is in the underlying philosophy which is guiding each party and the way in which this philosophy informs the spirit by which those objectives are intended to be met.

For instance – the Labour party intend to throw a lot of people off their benefits too if they are elected in on May 6th (for the record: I don’t condone this, but am working within the parameters of the given debate).  Like the Tories, Labour will similarly be implementing a new policy if elected in the new Parliament: after two years on benefits, unemployed people will be given a job that they have to take or risk having their benefits cut off.  But the difference here is the tone.  Whereas the Conservatives’ plan places sole responsibility on the unemployed, painting them in the traditional Tory light as work-shy shirkers and scammers and enforcing claimants to take whatever job they are given or risk being barred from collecting benefits for three whole years (a completely arbitrary policy which gives no guarantees of financial security to the claimant and could literally condemn a person to life-threatening poverty if they refuse to take a poorly compensated job), the Labour plan is made in tandem with two very important and co-related policies: an increase in the minimum wage, at least in line with average UK earnings, and the “£40-a-week Better-Off-In-Work Guarantee”.  What this means, in theory, is that when you are forced into taking that job at the end of two years of benefits, the job – whatever it is – will pay you at least the minimum wage, and that higher minimum wage will ensure that by working for a living instead of collecting benefits, you will actually take home £40 a week more than you do on Jobseeker’s allowance.  Instead of the cruel and stupid Conservative notion of just kicking people out of the system and leaving them to rot, the tone of Labour’s nearly identical plan is massively different, and with that tone comes a much more humane proposal.

All political parties running for government this year have put the environment high on their list of priorities, but whereas both Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos make the moral case for tackling climate change alongside pointing out the business and job-creation opportunities that a green economy would bring, the Tories’ emphasis is purely on the business side of global warming: “We have a vision of a greener Britain,” they tell us.  “It is a country that leads the world in the market for green goods and services…Instead of pulling bureaucratic levers from above telling people what they can’t do, we will provide people with the information they need to make more responsible choices. Instead of holding businesses back by imposing unfair retrospective stealth taxes, we will unleash the power of green enterprise and promote resource efficiency to generate thousands of green jobs”     

Again: it’s all in the tone, but it is clear to me that the Conservatives don’t care about the environment, they care about capitalizing on the environmental markets, and the emphasis on “responsible choices” and not “holding businesses back” means an ineffective voluntary transformation to a green economy instead of making real legislative changes to enforce the urgent environmental changes that we need.  And whilst we’re on the subject of the Conservatives’ pro-business/anti-public stance, it should be pointed out that the Conservative manifesto – which repeatedly endorses private solutions for public problems in all areas of British life, and the underlying mantra that “the markets” will sort everything out – is the only manifesto out of the three main parties to not mention the BBC.  Whereas both Labour and Liberal Democrat documents pledge to protect and maintain the BBC as a vital public service broadcaster, the Tories – who have, of course, been endorsed by Rupert Murdoch, a long-time opponent of the BBC’s publically subsidized competition to his commercial media empire – remain worryingly silent on the subject.  Indeed, on the Arts and Culture in general, the Conservative manifesto is strangely mute.

It is the little things like this which show you that no matter how much the Tories may talk a good game, and say all the right things to appeal to people disgusted with the state of politics in this post-Iraq, post-expenses scandal, post-economic disaster world, fundamentally little has changed in the party that got us all here in the first place. 

I encourage all of you with sufficient time and stamina to read all the party manifestos, and I hope, like me, you’re looking forward to watching the first of the three live debates tonight.  Just make sure though that when you do, you keep this one vital thought in your mind at all times; repeating it over and over like a mantra that will protect you from harm; a mantra that might just save your lives: “our core values have not altered and our core beliefs remain consistent.”   

Don’t believe the smoke and mirrors: Same Old Tories, Same Old Dangers…


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