The announcement of the 2010 General Election means, of course, party literature falling through your door at an alarming pace, and I was delighted yesterday afternoon to see my local Conservative candidate, Nigel Dawkins, grinning up at me from a campaign leaflet pushed through my letterbox.
“And so it begins,” I thought, and immediately began to deconstruct it.
First off, we have the cringe-worthy photograph on the cover. Ignoring the negative campaigning of the highly emotive and factually dubious headline (“My children’s share of Gordon Brown’s debt will be over £75,000”), we have a nauseatingly stage-managed picture of Dawkins sitting on a park table alongside his three children. Two of these children are in their respective school uniforms: look! The picture says. I’m a local dad with local kids who go to local schools. My children wear the same school uniforms that yours do. Vote for me! Vote for me and my local children! The third child is in her Brownies uniform, complete with badge-laden sash. Again: look at my locally engaged and community minded kids. I’m one of you. My kids go to Brownies too! Vote for me. Vote for me please!
Beneath all this, we have what seems to be the running theme of Dawkins’ campaign at the moment. A tag-line: “In 10 years of serving you as a city councillor, I have never claimed a single penny in expenses”.
No prizes for guessing why Conservative Central Office chose Dawkins to run for MP then? Shameless opportunism? Surely not.
Inside the leaflet, we have an expansion on this theme, framed around the damning details of local Labour opposition, Steve McCabe MP, having claimed not only £5,500 in expenses for a new bathroom, but recently having paid for a leaflet entitled “Annual Report 2009” with tax-payers money instead of funding the leaflet himself.
The highly expensive, full-colour, glossy Nigel Dawkins leaflet I am reading this information in, Dawkins makes sure to tell me, is different than those of evil Steve McCabe. “This leaflet,” he tells us, “has been produced, printed and delivered by Nigel Dawkins and the Selly Oak Constituency Conservative Association.” Indeed, above that statement is a pledge: “I am not a member of any other organisation or political group other than my political party and nor will I ever be. I promise that I have never taken any money, nor will I ever take money for any reason, including contributions to my election expenses, from any other organisation.” “No talk, no expenses claims,” goes the slogan on the next page, “Just 10 years of action and hard work.”
Now, this all seems very admirable until you actually think about it. First of all, we have to remember something very important when Nigel Dawkins tells us he has never claimed a single penny in expenses: whilst that may well be so, he has not been an MP either, and thus has not been entitled to claim from the clearly flawed and abused MP expenses system that was put in place by Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government during the eighties and nineties in order to circumvent the pay-freeze imposed on public sector workers and give MPs a package of bonuses and pay-rises through the back door. I too have never claimed a single penny in MP expenses, because I too am not an MP. “If I am elected as your MP”, Dawkins tells us, “I will only ever claim for travel costs and rented living accommodation”. Well, of course he would, because we are now living in a post-expenses-scandal world. Sadly, Dawkins has missed the gravy train years of ridiculous MP expense claims, and would no longer be able to get away with the sort of stuff his predecessors did. Meanwhile, his record on expenses as a councillor, claimed through a completely different expenses system than that of MPs, is largely irrelevant when it comes to the hypothetical question of what expenses he might have claimed had he been an MP. It is classic smoke and mirrors.
Similarly, we must look deeper into the idea that Dawkins will accept no money from anyone “other than my political party” for his campaign publications, or anything else. That might be all very good and well, but where does his political party get its money from? A related attempt to smear Steve McCabe comes from the “great shock” of discovering him to be a member of the UNITE union. “Birmingham MPs should not be members of a trade union!” Dawkins’ leaflet loudly blares in big red writing. Ignoring for a moment the patently ridiculous idea that no MP should be a member of a trade union (how far do we take that idea? Should no one who has ever been a member of a trade union be an MP? And what exactly is wrong with representing unions, and thus the rights and interests of organized working people – British citizens – in Parliament? There seems to be no similar outrage when politicians court the professional lobbying organizations of workers’ bosses, such as the CBI? But I digress…), wouldn’t you rather know that your local MP is getting support from Britain’s largest trade union, with over 2 million members across the country, who openly explain their goals, purpose and political ideals quite clearly on their website and let you know exactly what they want from the politicians that they lobby, than that he is getting his support from the usual collection of shady corporations and private donors whose lobbying and interests remain secret? Councillor Dawkins may well only get his money from his own private coffers or from the Conservative Party, but unless we know exactly where that money is coming from and what it represents, that makes Dawkins no less bought or compromised than anyone else. If anything, it makes his allegiances far less transparent.
It would be nice if we all had vast sums of wealth to borrow from in order to fund our own personal political campaigns, but because of the great financial disparity in this country – as promoted in the individualistic economic policies of the Conservative Party – it is only the rich who do. Do we really want a politics reserved only for those who can afford it, as Councillor Dawkins seems to suggest?
Finally, after a photo-spread rightfully celebrating some of the local council successes in improving near-by parks and leisure facilities (victories that Dawkins absolutely deserves to take some credit for, though it should not be forgotten that the Birmingham city council, though Conservative-led with 49 elected councillors, also has 36 Labour councillors, 32 Lib Dem councillors, and 3 Respect Party councillors who all work together to make these things happen. Indeed, Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Selly Oak, Dave Radcliffe, a Selly Oak councillor, has equal claim to many of these success stories and local victories, and Dawkins’ attempt to co-opt and spin these combined political efforts as his own personal crusade has been sticking in my throat for months), we come to the last page of the leaflet: “The issues that people want answers to…” and here we have the reminder, if one was ever needed, that we’re not just voting for friendly old Councillor Nigel Dawkins here in Selly Oak when we put a cross next to his box on May 6th, we’re voting for a Conservative, as part of a national campaign by the Conservative Party to get back into power. Thus we have the usual Tory drivel – above a slightly suspect Union Jack-heavy photo of Dawkins that wouldn’t look out of place on a BNP pamphlet – about “Labour’s ‘open-door’ immigration policy” causing “the largest and most sustained rise in immigration in our history” and the promise that the Conservatives will “reduce immigration to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, instead of the hundreds of thousands a year under Labour”.
In my mind, “immigration” in politics has always had a slightly nasty sense of racism about it, be in from the Right or from the Left. It is to my great dismay that all parties here in Selly Oak seem obsessed with stemming immigration as a priority because, personally, immigration is just not something I feel too strongly about. Indeed, I feel proud to live in a country that helps the disadvantaged from around the world and which offers opportunities to all people, no matter what their race or country of origin. However, at least Steve McCabe’s position on immigration seems to be born from practical experience in government, with an inherent sense of fairness and human decency amongst his track record of proposed “solutions”, and isn’t just some nostalgic appeal to the past, based on fear and dangerously sweeping promises that offer no real explanations of what such a reduction in numbers would entail.
The same veiled xenophobic “fear of the unknown foreigner” oozes from Dawkins’ position on Europe too: “A Conservative government would change the law so that never again would a Prime Minister be able to agree to a treaty that hands over areas of power from Britain to the EU without asking the people in a referendum”. It smells like an argument for democracy at first whiff, but it doesn’t take long to register the same stench of anti-European prejudice beneath it that has for so long permeated the Conservative Party. Not only is it based on some underlying fear about Europe, but it is an easy and disingenuous promise to make: the Lisbon Treaty has already been signed, as had Maastricht been before it (by a Conservative Prime Minister, I might add!). Never again would a Prime Minister be able to agree to a treaty that hands over areas of power from Britain to the EU without asking the people in a referendum, because never again will such a treaty be needed; it already exists and therefore the issue is moot.
Further redundancies like this are to be found throughout the rest of the page. Alongside repeating his empty record on expenses as if new expenses legislation is a distinct Conservative policy and not just the universally endorsed consequence of all MPs – Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative alike – being caught with their hands in the cookie jar one too many times, there is the equally vacuous promise to “give teachers the power to restore discipline in the classroom”. What does that even mean? Give them guns? Bring back the cane? Or perhaps that ridiculous idea Michael Gove has already broached about putting soldiers in the classroom? Whatever Dawkins means by the claim, it isn’t clear on the leaflet, and it isn’t meant to be. It is meant merely to sound appealing, and remind us of the spectre of David Cameron’s infamous “Broken Britain” without offering any sincere evidence, solution or meaning to the problem allegedly being discussed. Which is the same thing that Nigel Dawkins has been doing regarding “Industry and Jobs” ever since the Cadbury buy-out by Kraft: promising changes in policy and “woulda, coulda, shouldas” under a Conservative government that are simply contradictory and untenable under the free-market economic philosophy that guides Tory economic policy.
“Labour’s ‘everything is for sale’ industrial policy”, which Dawkins calls “a disaster”, is simply a continuation of the exact same Conservative “everything is for sale” industrial policy that destroyed British industry and jobs throughout the 80s and 90s. Labour’s “neglect of manufacturing” which has “wreaked havoc on jobs” is a direct descendant of the deregulation and privatisation enacted by the Tories during the reigns of Thatcher and Major, and still promoted by the Party to this day. There is absolutely no sign whatsoever of David Cameron denouncing the misguided free-market economic system that has brought us here. If anything, it will only get worse under a Tory government, as the continued insistence on public spending slashes and tax cuts for the rich as a solution to our economic woes show only a continued commitment to doing everything in their power to make life easier for the rich whilst crushing the lives of the poor.
Those of us who remember the 1997 election will remember the failed Conservative smear-campaign of “New Labour, New Danger”. The idea they were selling at the time was that Tony Blair’s re-vamped new Labour was somehow even worse than the Labour Party of the past. In 2010 I feel we need a similar slogan: “Old Tories, Old Danger”. The Conservatives can try to spin it and distort it any way that they may like, they can even try to fool us with empty ideas about a vote for them being a “vote for change”, but once you actually unpack and unravel their hollow and meaningless platitudes the evidence becomes obvious: although the leadership may have changed and some of the faces we’re seeing on TV appear to be young and new, the Conservative Party of 2010 is the same old party we booted out of office back in 1997; the same old party it has always been. And Councillor Nigel Dawkins is just the latest in a long-line of Tory opportunists trying to present himself as something different when, in fact, he is anything but.