Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Two useless manifestos

Political manifestos can be bland affairs: a trail of verities with only a few new things in them, half of which are designed to appeal to the party faithful while the other half win over some crucial component of the electorate. Not so in this election, with two potentially real and big milestones in British political history rising up on the horizon. On the one hand, a Labour Party committed to a universalism in welfare and a control of the economy that no-one has advocated since the 1987 election; on the other, a Conservative Party under Theresa May (above) seemingly determined to break with the free-market liberalism that took over the party in the mid- to late-1970s. It’s big stuff: or, at least, it purports to be.

Which makes the shoddiness of those very documents all the more disappointing, really. They just don’t match up to the occasion of any election, let alone this one, held in the shadow of Brexit – the single most important policy upheaval since at least the 1970s, and probably since the Second World War. The Government’s effort is a deeply unimpressive list of already-announced and hitherto-known targets, spiced up with some inedible pseudo-Disraelian musings about the role of the state, but also burdened down by one terrible miscalculation: a ‘Dementia Tax’ for social care that could just cost the Conservatives scores of seats they might otherwise have won. Labour’s own pantomime horse is just as bitterly disappointing. Nationalisation: not much about how it would be effected, structured, managed. More taxes: nothing on the fact that they probably won’t raise what Labour say they will. And a load of middle class giveaways, while the party leaves low income workers to suffer. Sometimes we wonder why we bother writing about public policy at all.

Let’s start with the Conservatives. Here we were really confronted with a trail of nothingness. Yes, they are going to negotiate Brexit on the basis of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. Totally irrational and needless national self-harm, yes, but at least cut-and-dried in the voter’s mind. There are a series of interventionist measures, too – all designed so that Mrs May can appeal to the new blue-collar working class Conservatives she imagines flocking to her banner. An Industrial Strategy. New rules on planning gain that make sure volume housebuilders give back to the community. More social housing. Increased funding for the National Health Service. So far, so bland. But other pledges involved supping water soup. Yes, there are to be some more grammar schools – though there probably won’t be very many, and they are likely to be satellites of those that already exist. Wake us up when it's all over.

Worst of all, the Conservatives inexplicably chose to announce wholesale reform of social care for the elderly with a pre-emptory wave of the hand, saying that at-home care would now draw on pensioners’ housing equity, but be limited at £100,000. It’s fair to say that this on-the-hoof busking has, well, not proceeded entirely to the party’s design. Not only did this seem to place risk at the door of chance, charging voters for long-term conditions rather than acute health crises, but it made no sense even on its own terms. Political history will probably long record that this was the main reason why Mrs May gained only a middling majority, rather than a landslide, and it’s an inexplicable blunder until you realise that this was meant to signal the Conservatives’ new desire to help young, poorer and capital-poor voters… who, er, all hope to take advantage of inheritances the Conservatives now wanted to snatch from them. No wonder it’s the middle-aged, not just the over-65s, who seem to have swung away from the Conservatives since this particular policy smell was emitted.

Now: Labour. It’s hard to know where to start with this one either. We’ve long noted Labour’s drift to the right, shrugging when the tax and benefits system hurts working people on low incomes but showering unbounded largesse on higher-income graduates, quite often themselves the exact same white-collar Labour members who just happen to imagine themselves representative of working people. So we get a sharp tax cut for richer graduates in the shape of university tuition fee abolition, and an expansion of child care and free-for-all school meals, while at the same time most of the Conservatives’ welfare cuts are to be left in place. Nye Bevan this is not. Labour has now become such a middle-class party that it cannot even see when it is betraying its own voters. Some of them will have the last word on this in the voting booth on 8 June, but in the meantime we have to bear this kind of leftier-than-thou nonsense as our stand-in for socialism.

There was at least an attempt to cost out the whole thing, rather irrelevant as this is when the whole Brexit process is about to get underway – and at a time when we therefore don’t know very much about our growth path in the next Parliament. That was more than the Conservatives managed, as their own effort didn’t contain any costings at all. But none of it stacked up. Labour’s going to raise income tax for higher earners – an increase the yield of which is highly uncertain, and deeply contingent on how high earners respond. They’re going to raise Capital Gains Tax and Corporation Tax to pay for the rest, though no-one at all who knows anything about it thinks that these will plug the gap either. And oh, by the way: in this little while they'll be bringing forward university fees’ abolition to this September (almost impossible and, by the way, uncosted), nationalising social care (ludicrously under-costed) and ramping up infrastructure spending - while negotiating on Brexit (uncosted), nationalising the water industry, and railway franchises, and socialising the energy grid. Maybe they’ll crack the secret of cold nuclear fusion while they’re at it. We wouldn’t be surprised. Look: come off it. If J.K. Rowling wasn’t a noted opponent of Labour’s present fantasyland incarnation, we’d presume she’d written this lot.

The public know, in their hearts, that Mrs May’s little clique of sub-Salisburyites and neo-Chamberlainites like to think of themselves as Red Tories, but won’t lower the Inheritance Tax threshold to pay for social care in a fairer and less random way. Voters understand that the long list of half-evasions between the blue covers just amounts to ‘we’ll be beastly to you, but there’s nothing you can do about it for a decade, because the Opposition’s a joke’. And they see Labour’s wish list for what it is: a great big box of nice stuff for better-off Britons that’s been thrown together at the behest of a leadership team that sure as beans wouldn’t pass A-Level Maths. Neither is remotely credible.

All the while the real problems before us are left unattended. While our politicians slumber on, British productivity continues to lag. It is unlikely that the Conservatives’ social care debacle, or Labour’s sudden conversion to abolishing university tuition fees, will do much to rectify that. And where was the deep thinking, and creative politicking, on Further Education – the reform and funding of which is far more important than how little the Treasury can eek out to University Vice-Chancellors? On the onward march of Artificial Intelligence and robotics, which we’re always being told are about to transform the world of work? Or: what the curse of mass surveillance? Where was the work on porting our rights, training and especially pensions around and between jobs? On protecting banking, copyright, pharmaceuticals, aerospace co-operation and students from a ‘hard’ or (if you like) a ‘clean’ Brexit? On the protection of, and liberty while using, the World Wide Web – about which the Conservatives have a frankly pathetic section talking about new controls? Basically, they were nowhere: just as you were, reader, forgotten amidst the cut-and-paste workarounds of our parties’ overrated sherpas and signallers.

The need for a fundamental reconstruction of British politics has never been clearer, because the ease by which very small and closely-networked cadres of ersatz zealots can capture what were once parties rooted in real life stands once again revealed by this contest of the incredible in pursuit of the unlikeable. Remember: Andrea Leadsom – Andrea Leadsom – nearly became Prime Minister. In just ten days, John McDonnell – John McDonnell – has a non-negligible (though not very high) chance of moving into No. 11 Downing Street. On that day, one of these tawdry ‘manifestos’ could well be a tool in the hands of those who want to railroad the courts, the press, the police, the universities, the House of Lords... and the voters themselves. Britain can be better than this. One day, it will be.