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Thursday, July 09, 2015 

All hail the new Tories.

If it wasn't for how it demonstrated beyond doubt just how pointless the Labour party has made itself in such a short time, yesterday's cognitive dissonance at George Osborne's theft of large parts of the Labour manifesto would have been hysterical.  The same document only Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn have seen fit to defend as everyone else, Blairites especially have all but blamed it for the defeat was used in a (futile) attempt to make up for the use of the very worst parts of the Tory manifesto.  Alistair Darling has said Labour's disarray is a result of the failure to articulate a coherent economic policy, except err, in large part Osborne took Labour's apparently incoherent economic aims and made them his own.  Ed Balls' promise was to balance the budget as soon as possible; voters might not have believed it, but that was the policy.  Osborne accordingly put back by a year his surplus plan, reduced the amount to be raised through cuts in departmental spending and also, most shockingly, is borrowing more.  An Ed Balls budget would have obviously done things much differently overall, but he would have without doubt followed the same basic themes.

Osborne's budget was not of course an even vaguely left-wing one.  Nor, however, was it an out and out Thatcherite one.  How Osborne achieved this hasn't really been acknowledged enough.  Most chancellors after all go into elections promising jam tomorrow and then clobber everyone once re-elected.  Osborne by contrast was completely open about how everyone voting Tory would end up being shafted, not expecting for a moment that he would be delivering the first sole Conservative budget in 19 years less than 4 months later.  Both the March budget and the Tory manifesto were put together in the expectation of another coalition.  They were bargaining chips, as proved by allowing the Liberal Democrats to set out what their priorities would be from the dispatch box.  Amazed to be handed a slight majority, the problem was how to not alienate those who voted Tory but had done so for reasons very much other than the contents of the manifesto.

Most in the circumstances would have blanched at going ahead with the £12bn in welfare cuts.  It was never a serious commitment, until it was decided it was, and for the opportunity it provided.  Despite not thinking it would get them a majority, the Tory electoral plan was simple: ensure those most likely to vote, i.e. pensioners and the boomers coming up to retirement age were overwhelmingly on their side by promising not to touch their perks, emphasise the risk everyone would be taking with a unreconstructed Labour party, and then hope something else would turn up.  It did, in the form of the SNP, and it just about took them over the line, thanks mainly to the utter collapse of the Lib Dems.  This targeting has duly become the party's raison d'etre: for all the talk of blue collar Conservatism, one nation and all the other rot, the Tories seem to have come to believe they can remain in power in perpetuity so long as they keep the upper middle, the wealthy, and the old on side.

Yesterday's budget was put together with this at its core.  Not for Osborne or Cameron's Tories the old Thatcherite belief in social mobility, or at least not without pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, as hardly anyone who made it truly did.  No, instead their aim is for society to remain almost completely in aspic: why else would they as Jonathan Portes notes, removed the very incentives to work and earn more that were there in the tax credit system and were already affected negatively by universal credit?  Why else would they continue to do absolutely nothing about the dire shortage of housing?  If anything, their aim seems to be further inflate the bubble; buy-to-let landlords rightly come in for much criticism, but as the IFS points out, the lack of supply is not going to be helped by reducing their tax incentives while allowing property owners to pass their estates on tax free.  Why else remove the grants for poor students?  Why else generally treat the disadvantaged young disgracefully, whether by removing their access to housing benefit, or capping child tax credit at two children for new applicants?  Potentially helping youth unemployment by not extending the "national living wage" to the under-25s doesn't even begin to make up for it.

Going on alongside this targeting and othering, as that's what it is, are disinterred Victorian notions of morality and poverty.  Tim Montgomerie, now of the Times, tweeted his support for Iain Duncan Smith's "rejection of the Left's materialistic idea of poverty for broader understanding of basis of a good life" last week in response to the moving of the goalposts on child poverty.  Rarely is so much explained about a world view in so short a sentence.  It shouldn't shock then when a close reading of the budget red book shows Treasury officials will allow rape victims made pregnant by their attacker to keep their child tax credits if they decide not to abort the baby and already have two children, as clearly in such an instance the mother is blameless.  Having a third child in any other circumstances when already not well off is clearly a choice, and a choice that has to be punished.  No other factors come into it, not least that the child itself is blameless.  To be on benefits is also a choice; ask not what you can claim, but what it is you can do.  Hence why those who cannot work currently, but might be able to shortly will from now on get the same pittance as those on JSA.  Claiming anything, even being employed by the state, is to be inferior: 1% extra a year is all such people are worth.  Don't argue this isn't still a generous safety net: the same politician yesterday pumping his fists as the rebranded minimum wage was announced says it's so.

This point couldn't have been reached thanks solely to an election victory, naturally.  We've arrived here thanks to what always happens following an economic crash: the public biting downwards, rather than up.  The poor are to be envied for the little they have, asked why it is they get something for nothing, equally fetishised and demonised.  Just this week Channel 4 brought us a new series of How to Get a Council House, where the deserving and undeserving are neatly boxed and delineated, while Channel 5 showed Benefits by the Sea: Jaywick.  The Sun, most of whose readers will be receiving tax credits and duly face losses in the region of hundreds of pounds thanks to yesterday's budget are told this is a "WELL FAIR STATE", while the Mail depicts Osborne as no less a saint than the mythical George himself, slaying dragons.  And again, the fact is a majority, albeit a slim one of those who bothered to vote, signed up for this.  You're not supposed to blame the electorate, but it's not as though the Tories hid their intentions.  Like it or not, they wanted it, they've got it.


Contained in the IFS's analysis of the impact of yesterday's budget reforms is the starkest of truths: the only people to gain are those in income decile group one removed from the richest.  Those right there are the people the Conservatives are governing for, the only people they imagine they need to govern for, as everyone else is either stuck with them or written off.  The poor either don't vote or vote Labour or UKIP; public sector workers vote Labour; the young either don't vote or vote Labour or Green; they're all lost causes.  Everyone else, well, why would they vote for a Labour party that only represents those people?  Such is the new Conservative way of thinking.  Such is the space a Labour party that has taken all the wrong lessons from its election defeat has left its opponent to move into.  If they won't defend their manifesto, we'll take it.  Osborne isn't a genius, he's an opportunist and a strategist.  Shrinking the state is secondary to winning.  Ideology helps to explain, but doesn't tell the full story.

All hail the new Tories.

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