Comment: Cameron’s Thatcherite manifesto

Did anything this afternoon sound familiar? David Cameron’s ‘progressive’ manifesto had a barrel of Thatcherite policies hiding in it.

By Matthew West

There’s something depressingly familiar about the way in which David Cameron took to the lectern this morning to announce the launch of the Conservative party’s manifesto.

I’m not entirely sure what it was. Maybe it was the fact that we’d seen the long line of shadow cabinet spokespeople giving speeches ahead of the glorious leader before. Not quite in this way, granted, but basically if you think of last year’s Conservative party conference as one great big press conference you kind of get the idea. Like last autumn the emphasis – other than the fact the multi-millionaire George Osborne was in this with us together – was on trying to establish that David Cameron wasn’t a one man show. But I’d love to ask the average voter how many of the shadow cabinet they can name. I’m thinking it’s probably no more than three of them and that’s probably a stretch.

The other main issue, and again one that is all too familiar, is the fact that the Conservative party is unable to sum up what it stands for in a catchy sound bite. You’d think that Cameron being the master PR professional that he is would have been able to come up with something better than “We’re all in this together”.

And then there was the manifesto itself. Unlike previous election manifestos we were presented with an old school exercise book – sturdy, heavy, the sort of book that is meant to last several years because it is handed down from one year to the next at school.

It is 120 pages long and is meant to counter any criticism that Cameron is, well, “light weight” to quote another US president with the ability to uplift almost an entire nation with the scale of his rhetoric. I could say I resent Cameron quoting John F Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” but I don’t get particularly misty eyed about Kennedy in the way that people who remember the sixties do.

So at 120 pages long you would expect one or two policies. After all, that’s what we’ve been waiting for from Mr Cameron for the last four years isn’t it?

On that front, some of you will be disappointed. Others may hardly be surprised at all. What we got was Thatcherism, just dressed up differently. The ‘Big Society’ concept that Cameron is promoting is an attempt to reject Thatcherism in the eyes of the voting public, while reaffirming it in practise.

Let’s look at the economy. The Tories say they can stop the national insurance increase slated for next year by making efficiency savings this year to the tune of £6 billion. There are two problems with that. Firstly, if his party is unable to deliver better negotiated contracts and reductions in discretionary spending on things like travel and paperclips Cameron will have to borrow more, actually increasing the public debt rather than reducing it in order to ensure national insurance isn’t put up. That, or government departmental budgets will have to be slashed even further and possibly as early as the proposed emergency budget the Tories want to hold should they win the election.

Secondly, Mr Cameron’s views on government efficiency drives are well documented so that begs the question: is he simply lying to the public, using an eye catching measure to win votes and big business support? The Financial Times blog recently pointed out Cameron’s position perfectly, unless that is, he’s had a ‘road to Damascus’ moment as far as government spending and productivity is concerned.

Last week the FT dug out this old quote from May 19, 2008 in which Cameron said: “The government ‘efficiency drive’ is one of the oldest tricks in the book. The trouble is, it’s nearly always just that – a trick. In fact it’s such a cliché, there was an episode of Yes Minister about it, called ‘The Economy Drive.’ Ministers are summoned, officials instructed, the media prepared for sweeping savings in the running costs of government. And then, a few months down the line, the sheepish-looking ministers and officials come back and say ‘well actually, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as we’d hoped, prime minister.'”

Something tells me the Conservative plan to scrap the rise in national insurance next April would turn out to be “not quite as straightforward” as the Tories had hoped should they win the election.

Then, of course, there is the plan to shove all 2.6 million incapacity benefit claimants off the benefit while they are reassessed to see if they really are disabled. Apart from being grossly insulting to anyone in a wheelchair, deaf, blind or in any other way physically impaired what are the Tories proposing here? Nazi style queues where the physically impaired are assessed by teams of doctors to determine their ability or lack thereof to work before telling them work will set them free? It’s as unworkable as it is ridiculous to think that it is even possible to re-assess all 2.6 million incapacity benefit claimants without causing massive disruption in the entire system. Can you imagine the bottle necks? I can just see the headlines now: “Elderly disabled couple die through government neglect as incapacity benefit claim held up due to reassessment process.” And yes I agree it’s probably a good thing I don’t write headlines.

But benefit claimants are never going to vote Tory are they? So no doubt the Conservatives feel they can pick on them. So much for we’re all in this together, eh David?

As usual the Conservatives want to cut tax and spending and cut benefits alongside. It’s simply the presentation that’s a little different now. David Cameron wants voters to think he is a One Nation Tory. He wants them to think he truly believes in the idea of a big society. Problem is his big society is run by a small government. So what he is really saying when he quotes President Kennedy isn’t to take a bit more personal responsibility. It’s ‘I’m alright Jack and if you’re not, well that’s not my problem’.

Take, for example, the Conservative plan to put power into the hands of the people by creating local community groups to manage services such as libraries that might be under threat or keep local parks open. This is effectively saying that if you want to keep such services open or keep green spaces, instead of the council being responsible for them, and funding them through council tax receipts, the local community will be responsible for keeping them open and operating them. What it also does is pave the way for local authorities to close those threatened libraries and parks and then have the excuse of being able to say that if you want to keep them open you can always form your own cooperative in order to do so and they can be run privately. That isn’t reducing big government, it’s just offloading responsibility for services I pay my council tax to receive!

Oh and on council tax, do you really think people are going to vote for council tax rises? Of course they’re not, so what you get is more libraries and parks and other essential services being closed, or run down until they might as well be.

Meanwhile, giving local people more control over planning permission simply means that neighbourhoods will be able to decide that the family that lives down the street can’t have an extension on their home because it wouldn’t be in keeping with the rest of the village. Or, under another proposal in the manifesto, that they can nag the police about the same family to the point where the police end up victimising said family at the behest of the rest of the community just because they are a little bit different. NIMBY’s all over the country will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of being handed that kind of power.

Then there’s the suggestion of a free vote on the hunting ban, a law that had a huge amount of support around the country when it was finally enacted. The Conservatives say it is unworkable. That sounds an awful lot like “our mates are breaking the law most weekends during the hunting season so we’re going to change the law back,” Dave. Not to mention raising the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million to protect your rich, what’s the word Eric Pickles likes to use, oh yes, chums.

And if this one line doesn’t sum up the Conservative proposals I don’t know what does. It’s straight from the manifesto, page 38 to be precise. The Tories want to: “develop a measure of well being that encapsulates the social value of state action”. I’m a journalist, I work with words every day, I even like to think I’ve a decent vocabulary and heightened comprehension skills and I still, having re-read that sentence a dozen times, don’t know what the hell it is supposed to mean!

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