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Wednesday, August 20, 2008 

The political equivalent of Soylent Green.


There are two ways to look at George Osborne and the Tories' latest kite-flying exercise, this time on social justice, equality and fairness: you can accept that it takes a great degree of courage when very few dispute that under the Conservatives inequality sky-rocketed to levels which hadn't been seen since the early 70s, that it's the Tories recognising their past mistakes and moving onto the New Labour agenda; or you can just be staggered by the chutzpah from a group of politicians that don't seem to have any limits to how far they will go to prove that they really, honestly, truly care about subjects which they previously had very little time for.

On the basis of Osborne's article, it's difficult not to come to the second conclusion. It's with a piece with most of the recent articles by the Conservatives that have appeared in the Graun - big on rhetoric, minuscule on actual policy. The one thing that Osborne's has going for it is that unlike Oliver Letwin, who managed to write over 600 words without naming one specific policy, he actually suggests what the Tories would actually do were they to win power. The problem is that we've heard it all before multiple times, and indeed, some of it is what Yvette Cooper covered in her piece on Monday.

Instead, what we have is mostly the same old mood music, the speaking your weight which so grates, especially when it comes from someone like Osborne. This week's Private Eye, quoting from the Conservative document "A Failed Generation", dealing with the idea that schools have to be the "engines of social mobility - where talent and hard work, not background, determine success" notes that the self-same Conservative shadow cabinet which supposedly drew it up contains no less than 14 Old Etonians. Osborne himself is an Old Pauline. It's the sort of education you require to be to able say, without moments of doubt, that "after a long and bitter ideological argument over two centuries, ... the free market economy is the fairest way of rewarding people for their efforts." The new Conservatives however, being caring and sharing, now accept that "unfettered free markets are also flawed."

It would of course be lovely if the Conservatives had came to that conclusion, even if did further constrict the ideological space the three main parties are fighting over. Yet this sudden acknowledgement that unfettered free markets are also flawed seems to be incredibly opportunistic: only last year John Redwood announced his unreconciled belief in the "trickle down theory" and also proposed removing all the current "red tape" surrounding mortgages, right at the time when the unsustainable lunacy of 115% or higher mortgages has brought the likes of Northern Rock so low. In any case, Osborne doesn't actually say what the Tories would do to tame the free market; he only mentions a "robust framework". Yet isn't that exactly the red tape which the Conservatives and business so despise? He mentions also flexible working and a charge on non-domiciles, but with again without providing any details on either.

The same goes for redistribution, which Osborne believes has failed. The Conservatives, the supposed party of radical economic reform, or at least since the days of Thatcher, again don't offer an alternative here. As has been argued before here and elsewhere, the best possible alternative policy is to abolish tax credits and raise the lowest earners out of tax altogether, at the same time instituting a basic citizens' income and raising the top rates for the highest earners, or at least those of over £100,000 a year, and also cracking down far far harder on tax evasion, which by some estimates costs more than £25bn a year in lost revenue, far above that on benefit fraud and through overpayments on tax credits. All Osborne is offering are the same crackdowns on the sick and the unemployed, with an ever harsher regime that that envisioned under Purnell.

Osborne though perhaps really drops himself in it by mentioning fairness between generations. While this is a dig at the huge borrowing, it also brings to mind another tax change which the Tories have promised, that on inheritance. Their raising of threshold to £1 million is one of the only few firm pledges which the party has made, and while it goes down well in middle England, where most seem to be the under the impression that they'll be paying while it only affects 6%, and will even less considering the drop in house prices and the subsequent raises which the government has introduced, it will also mean a further drop in the receipts that the Conservatives will have to work with, as well as backing background rather talent and hard work throughout the generations.

You know full well though that none of this really matters. The Guardian's comment pages have only become more bulging with Tories of late because they think that they need to be slightly less dogmatic than in the past in order to dispense with the fusty old image of themselves not caring in the slightest about things like social mobility. It's also designed to annoy their own grassroots, exactly as New Labour and Tony Blair so often did. He seemed happiest not when he was fighting the opposite party, but instead his own backbenchers, because it so delighted the right-wing press. Here was someone who was doing their job for them, even if the policies were perhaps a bit to the left of what they would like. The difference here is that the promises are so vague as to be meaningless. No one for a moment believes that if Osborne becomes the next chancellor he'll be making many more speeches to the Demos thinktank; no, this is just another step in the public relations battle, the phony war between Labour and the Conservatives over who can occupy the tiniest piece of ground you've ever seen, situated somewhere to the right of centre on the political compass. Russia and Georgia has nothing on this.

Once again, the political choice we are left with, at the exact same time when the politicians themselves so emphasise choice in every sector but their own, is little to non-existent. Would you like James Purnell for your welfare policy Sir, with his slightly less sinister grin and tight fist, or would you prefer Chris Grayling, with his forced smile and glint in his eye? The British political scene really is an unpleasant, claustrophobic place to be in when the most attractive party looks, from here at least, to be the Liberal Democrats. And even their leader and their policies look to be degrading into the same mulch. Soylent Green for you Sir? Honestly, it's delicious.

Update: This has been posted over on Lib Con, where there are more comments. Tom Freemania also has an excellent fisk of the Conservative document underpinning Obsorne's article and speech.

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I love that phrase "tax avoidance", as if it were a contaminant sensible people took precautions against. The taboo word is "fraud". I think we should use the phrase "income declaration avoidance" with reference to people who receive benefits while working for wages.

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