The Conservatives Have Blown It

by James Meadway

26 November 2019

Andrew Parsons /Flickr

The Conservative manifesto needed to be big, bold, and clear about what it was going to do for this country.

In recent polling, 60% of the country said they want a change in economic direction, whilst just 2% want things to carry on as they are. For the Tories to win in the places they would like to win – those ‘Labour heartland’ seats, battered by austerity and the victims of four decades of neoliberalism – they needed to offer something definite. The Vote Leave crowd, formerly noisily resident in No.10, now obviously sidelined, at least grasped this: either big spending promises, or big tax cuts, or both. End austerity with a bang. It’s not a very Conservative approach, but needs must – and with the party in long term decline, with few ideas for the future that aren’t wildly unpalatable (‘Singapore-on-Thames’; selling off the NHS), they had to offer something.

Unfortunately, the Conservative party really is the Conservative party and, for all the “fuck business” fun and games over Brexit, it really is committed to austerity. In addition, the Tories have a folk-memory of 2017 in which a lengthy manifesto – quite long on direction-changing, quite short on actually desirable policies – was held responsible for their subsequent defeat. (This isn’t entirely fair, or accurate: the national conservatism of then-advisor Nick Timothy helped a surge in Tory votes to reach their biggest vote share since 1983. What barred their landslide victory was that the Labour vote surged even more.)

So austerity is, in the words of the fiscally-conservative Institute of Fiscal Studies “baked in” to the manifesto promises, and the desire to avoid any boat-rocking has produced a thin, watery document whose content will not stand up to scrutiny. It contains £2.9bn of additional annual current spending – not even remotely close enough to reverse a near-decade of the worst spending cuts in this country for generations. By 2023-24, if the Conservatives ever get a chance to implement their plans (and assuming they intend to stick to them), spending on government departments outside of health will still be 15% lower than in 2010.

Indeed the manifesto’s first contact with political reality has dragged out the sleight of hand the Tories have used for their central promise that “50,000” new NHS nurses will be provided for. In fact, 18,500 of them will be from assumed levels of nurse retention – that is, nurses already employed – making a nonsense of the whole claim. Culture secretary Nicky Morgan’s attempted defence of the manifesto on Good Morning Britain was excruciating to watch, as Susanna Reid pointed out the idiocy of trying to count the numbers turning up for work each morning as if they were new hires each morning.

Other examples of parsimony masquerading as cornucopia abound. The £250m fund for childcare, as the FT economics editor Chris Giles pointed out, amounts to £1 week for every primary school child. For social care, despite promises made by Boris Johnson earlier in the week to “solve the social care crisis once and for all”, there is a comparatively meagre £1bn of new funding, the Tories’ running scared of 2017’s dementia tax fiasco by fudging the issue with vague promises of future plans.

Meanwhile, where the manifesto really is claiming to spend some cash is on infrastructure and research – £100bn for purposes to be decided (we are told) at the next Budget – the one that was due a few weeks ago having being cancelled in a fit of pre-election petulance. (Donald Trump, in a notable parallel, also offered some big infrastructure promises in 2016, claiming he would invest $1tn to overhaul the US’s transport and communications networks. He hasn’t.)

But even here the Tories’ claims have run ahead of their costings, with the Financial Times’ sharp-eyed Alphaville blog spotting that the Elon Musk-style ‘gigafactory’ to produce batteries – cost in the US: $4.4bn, or about £3.4bn – had been allocated just £400m, a full £3bn short. More significant is the funding provided for potholes, coming to £2bn over five years. Perhaps this looked like a key doorstep offer to concerned voters when it was being planned, but as the centrepiece of a five (or more) year programme for government, it looks ridiculous: it’s double the level of social care or childcare funding being offered, if you want a sense of Tory priorities.

The peculiarity now at the centre of the Conservatives’ campaign is this: politics is back, with a vengeance. The era of technocratic management has long gone, and with it the prospect of thinking minor tweaks to the existing set-up will work electorally. Real wages are still below their pre-crash level, our public services are crumbling, and – outside of a few favoured hotspots – we live in an economy in a visible state of some decline. An entire generation have been deprived of the conventional routes to stable, secure, basically middle-class existences.

Politics matters, which means that arguments over policy matter – arguments over who gets what, and why, matter. The Tories – if they wanted to clear a road to victory – needed to set out a programme that convincingly began to undo the damage they themselves have caused. Coupled with Brexit, it could have been at least a coherent offer to the seats they have chosen to target – a rehash of the 2017 manifesto, but with a bit more oomph; more cash thrown around, more shots of ‘Boris’ bouncing about the place, talking up our glorious future, etc.

Instead we’ve got the PM like a balloon slowly being deflated, dragged round the country to jeering crowds. Shouting BREXIT for five weeks is probably electorally more convincing than shouting STRONG AND STABLE for five weeks, but continually reminding everybody about something they are heartily sick of may not be the genius campaign strategy in reality that it appeared to be on paper. The 40% it’ll get, they’ve already got. But the 1990s-style triangulation at the centre of this manifesto – splitting the difference between the presumed radical change of Brexit, and the paucity of the actual programme on offer – is incoherent, risking losing on both sides of that argument: too radical on Brexit, not radical enough on tax and spending.

There’s an almighty fight on in this election: the Tories can still win, and for them the fight, as ever, is far easier than for their opponents. (“Playing politics on easy mode,” to quote Novara Media contributor Matt Zarb-Cousin.) But with just over two weeks to go, and clear signs that the campaign is already beginning to shift the balance, this election is eminently winnable for Labour. And the Tories have just made that victory ever so slightly easier to obtain.

James Meadway is a Novara Media columnist and former advisor to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell.

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