Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 21 December 2013

The Conservatives and the ghost of Christmas past

In October 2002 Theresa May, the then Chairman of the Conservative Party, said to her party’s conference: "There's a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party." That tag owes something to the contrast between the public images of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair: the Iron Lady compared to Blair’s easy informality. In terms of policies it is not totally clear that the label was deserved. Poverty increased, but the poor were not denigrated. Unions were broken, but many felt the unions had become too powerful and selfish in their use of power. The state was reduced by privatising utilities, but the welfare state was not seriously diminished. Unemployment rose substantially, but inflation had to be brought under control. But whether deserved or not, I think May was right in her observation.

David Cameron also appears to have believed that the Conservatives had this image problem, and in opposition he aimed to create the idea of a modern compassionate Conservative Party. Hoodies were to be hugged, environmental goals embraced, and most tellingly of all, rather than deny the relevance of ‘society’, he wanted to create a ‘Big Society’. I am not concerned here about how real or radical these changes were, but instead just note that he felt a change of image was necessary to end the Conservative’s run of election defeats. The fact that they did not win the 2010 election outright perhaps suggests the strength and toxicity of the nasty brand.

What a difference a few years make. As the government finds it more and more difficult to cut government spending on goods and services, it aims austerity at welfare spending. There is plenty that has already happened, some well known, some not. As to the future, here is Paul Johnson of the IFS talking about the implications of the latest Autumn Statement. The scale of cuts he is talking about for welfare are huge (particularly if state pensions are ring fenced), yet they appear to be Osborne’s preferred option. The Conservative’s current Party Chairman  and an influential MP have recently suggested restricting benefits for those with more than two children, to encourage ‘more responsible’ decisions about procreation. Never mind the impact this would have on those children.

Changes to welfare already introduced, together with falling real wages, have led to a huge rise in the use of food banks in the UK. Here is data from the Trussell Trust, one of the main operators of voluntary food banks. 346,992 people received a minimum of three days emergency food from Trussell Trust food banks in 2012-13, compared to 26,000 in 2008-09. Of those helped in 2012-13, 126,889 (36.6 percent) were children. The Red Cross is to start distributing food aid in the UK, for the first time since WWII. A letter from doctors to the British Medical Journal talks about a potential public health emergency involving malnutrition. It is undeniable that benefit changes are a big factor behind these developments, yet the government seems intent on hiding this fact. 

Actions are of course more important than rhetoric, but rhetoric can help define image. It is undeniable that ministers, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, have attempted to portray the poor and unemployed as personally responsible for their position due to some character failure. Even a proud institution like HM Treasury cannot resist being part of this process. (‘Hard-working families’ looks like going the same way as ‘taxpayers money’, becoming a routine slight against either the unemployed or the poor.) Both Cameron and Osborne will be too careful to emulate Romney’s 47% moment, but too many Conservative MPs appear to share the attitudes of some of those on the US right.

So what accounts for this U turn from compassion to disparagement? The recession is one answer, which has hardened social attitudes. The success of UKIP, the political wing of the majority of UK newspapers, is another. [1] Yet it seems incredible that a political calculation that appeared valid before 2010 can have been so completely reversed in just a few years. Even Theresa May, whose speech started this blog, has joined in on the act. There are those vans of course, but asking landlords to check the immigration status of tenants is an incredibly stupid and harmful policy. We will see in 2015 whether it pays to be nasty. [2]

Yet even if the strategy works in the short term, and even recognising that politicians often do questionable things to gain votes, this just seems a step too far. It is one thing to create hardship because you believe this is a necessary price to improve the system or reduce its cost. Perhaps you really believe that cutting the top rate of tax at the same time as cutting welfare will benefit everyone eventually. But it is quite another thing to try and deflect any criticism by unjustly blaming those who earn too little, or who are trying to find work. That just seems immoral.

I suspect Cameron as the Compassionate Conservative would have agreed. He would have also noted that, although nastiness might accord with voter sentiments today, at some point in the future voters in more generous times will have no problem forgetting this, and just remembering the Conservatives as the nasty party. As Christmas approaches, this tale from Charles Dickens seems apt. 

[1] For those who are offended by this sentence, let me say this. There are two obvious explanations for the correlation between UKIPs policies and the views of the Telegraph, Mail and Sun. One involves the causality implied by the sentence and the post that it links to. The other is that newspapers just reflect the concerns of voters. But if the latter is true why do they (with the odd exception) just reflect the views of voters on the right, rather than those on the left? And why do the mistaken beliefs of voters tend to correlate with the impressions created by these newspapers, as I note here?  

[2] Even if it does, I strongly suspect one casualty will be the LibDems. If their leader spoke out as Vince Cable has done, they might just have a chance of not being associated with these policies and attitudes. But he has not, and as a result the party is in serious danger of losing many votes and I suspect much of its activist base. 


  1. Let me do a little better than Wiki on the Big Society. Cameron in a speech that I heard said that it was in accord with the ideas of Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke of the 18th century, J S Mill and Tocqueville in the 19th, and Hayek and Oakeshott in the 20th century.

    It had a rhetorical balance as a statement, but there's no there there. Even Smith and Burke didn't get on, as Emma Rothschild has documented, let alone trying to fit Hayek and Oakeshott together.

    And I see the BBC goes from crisis to crisis:

    "The BBC has appointed the Sunday Telegraph's Kamal Ahmed as its new business editor, replacing Robert Peston, who is taking over as the BBC's economics editor. Mr Ahmed has been business editor of the Sunday Telegraph for four years" (20 December 2013, BBC, 'BBC appoints Telegraph's Kamal Ahmed as business editor').

  2. The problem I have with the welfare cuts is that the payments are supposed - indeed, as a taxpayer I would hope that they only do - cover necessity, so withdrawing them must be damaging and quite possibly contributes to later expenses - eg for courts and prisons. Cutting off child benefit after two children is a good example, but I find the overall benefit cap at the average wage (shouldn't that be average wage plus benefits?) particularly stupid. If you want to deter certain behaviour of benefit claimants, rather than cut their support, I believe it would be better to put them on a shorter leash, such as requiring them to account for their spending or giving them benefits in kind (like food stamps) instead of money. Trample roughly over their dignity by all means - no one died of that - but do not compromise their health or the development of their children.

    1. “Trample roughly over their dignity by all means - no one died of that - but do not compromise their health or the development of their children.”

      Really? I'm not a psych. but I'd guess “trampled dignity” could well've been a contributory factor in the 'welfare reform'-related suicides that I've read about and in compromising health more generally and welfare more widely:!350&app=WordPdf&wdo=2&authkey=!AJTbB-gzwsSCayQ

      TBH, I really don't understand this “charity - but only for the 'deserving'” view of the welfare / social security system. I've always seen it as a last resort insurance policy - one which 'someone like me' sure as hell didn't expect ever to need but I was happy to pay for. back in the eighties I was (hard-) sold an expensive financial package which included a very generous income protection component. I remember arguing with the sales lady about it and her pointing out that in a worst case scenario, although I surely wouldn't starve if I had to rely on it, the social security I was *entitled* to was frighteningly measly. Frightening, I tell you. Ironic.

    2. @phayes, Thanks for that most useful link, which nicely documents the downright persecution of benefits claimants going on at present. I did know a bit about this regime already, since it is affecting some of my family (one of whom was given a hard time for asking to change their job centre allow them to attend a job interview!), but it still makes you angry to read about it. Actually, the report arguably proves my point, since the report is entirely about "financial sanctions", and what reportedly makes most people suicidal seems to be more the desperate position losing benefit puts them in, rather than the loss of dignity. I also think that sanctions comprising greater control rather than suspension of payments should mean that the sanctions are not motivated by crude money-saving.

    3. It's interesting to analyse the welfare/social security equivalence in the previous reply, because this is the battleground of framing so beloved of the right. Welfare carries the implications of guilt, patronisation and the workhouse. Social security implies a more Nordic or Latin model, of shared commitment to shared goals.

      gastro george

    4. Tim are you not falling for the hate D/Mail dichotomy : there are two types of people those on benefits long term & the hardworking. We know this is rubbish simply because a serious road accident, chronic disability, absence of wife/husband/partners, incapacitated family member needing support, and lots of redundancy in banks, shops, factories services, zero contracts for family earners...and on and on. Europeans get this idea of social security so why do so many swallow the idea of us and them? Its you, me and any of us who pay NI for those vicissitudes of life which can hit any of us anytime.

    5. I don't think so - I doubt whether the DM would agree with my opposition to the benefit cap. Even Labour have gone along with the idea.

      But I don't think it does any good to deny that there are many people who are working the benefit system. Only yesterday, someone was complaining to me that her neighbour on social security is buying Christmas presents for her kids that she and her husband - who both work in low-paid jobs - cannot afford for theirs, because said neighbour has an undeclared live-in boyfriend and does cash-in-hand work. I think that it is as detachedly, pontificatingly middle class to dismiss such views as it is of the DM to pander to prejudice against benefit claimants. Besides responding to the concerns of poor "strivers" about unfairness, I suspect that spending some more resources on distinguishing between deserving and undeserving (which has nothing to do with working or not working, or even ever-working) claimants might actually pay for itself in deterring fraudulent claims as well as identifying misspent benefits.

    6. @Tim I suspect that you would find that:
      1. The people who are "working the system" are a tiny minority.
      2. Seeking to clamp down on the said abuses is not particularly cost effective (especially when compared to the comparative cost-effectiveness of chasing tax evaders),
      3. Clamping down on the said abuses would also lead to greater complexity in the benefits system.
      4. That complexity would also give rise to yet another set of perverse incentives.

      Far better to attack low pay and cost of living issues that lead to the resentment in the first place.

      gastro george

    7. We have no worries catching the 'benefit cheaters' after all they are committing 'fraud' against all tax payers. The big worry is the Tory anti-Welfare agenda as preached typically by the D/ Hate/ Mail has become a Neo-Liberal ideology/ minimalist state rage against 'social security' as we know it in our advanced social democratic societies. It is a grandiose 'stigmatization' exercise covering all those suffering misfortune. It blinds us to the real victims of poverty/ ill health/disability/family breakdown.

      Moreover it ignores tax evasion which is massive- where ever we pay 'cash in hand' or our self-employed distort their business expenses or big corporates off shore their tax payments to Luxembourg or Ireland.

  3. When you call the Cameron of a few years ago a "Compassionate Conservative", it is worth remembering the US origins of this phrase in GWB's 2000 presidential campaign. It was classic dog whistle politics which made him sound like a reasonable undogmatic man to the general public, while those on the right knew he was referring to an extreme form of social darwinism

  4. Do they not realise that further impoverishing millions of people is only likely to lead to enormous social and economic costs in the future; greater poverty, malnutrition, health (physical and mental) problems, crime...
    Desperate people in desperate times resort to behaviour and actions they otherwise may not have...and the immediate net reduction in costs to the treasury will surely (in the absence of a new glut of jobs available for the low/medium skilled) result in an enormous increase in costs going forward.
    Or perhaps most of those affected by welfare cuts will simply start their own businesses, as the Conservative party urges? - problem solved!

    1. They probably do realise that it is a possibility, but their over-riding aim is to win the next election, and any popular policy will help. The future costs of those policies is a bridge they will cross if and when they come to it. Hell, they can probably turn that problem to their advantage anyway - eg become the party of law and order!

    2. Indeed as they did in the riots of 2011 & just about everyone in the UK followed their analysis except all foreign media which saw it as a serious symptom of a dysfunctional society. Recall the D/Mail attacked on their front pages anyone suggesting it was socio-economic.

  5. Simon,

    Your reference to literature, in this case Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' - especially at this time of year - is particularly apt. Literature is actually a key piece of the puzzle to tie together the macro, the history and the politics.

    Dickens' was a 'progressive' journalist whose writings criticised the unfettered liberal economics of the 19th Century with the hugs inequality and where the poor were destitute. This book rails against the Scrooge class - the heartless, inhumane and very rich class - and their beliefs and mores. There are many parallels with today, I think.

    I went and picked up the book as result of reading this blog, and as I was reading the book, I came across this passage which resonates (my comments in brackets) on charities, in equality, poverty, the politicos and the 1%:

    "At this festive season of the year, Mr […], it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
    "Are there no prisons?"
    "Plenty of prisons..."
    "And the Union workhouses." demanded […..]. "Are they still in operation?"
    "Both very busy, sir..."
    "Those who are badly off must go there."
    "Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
    "If they would rather die," said […], "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

    Merely enter the name of the appropriate politician, and it doesn't sound too out of place, does it?

  6. Your point about UKIP and the newspapers is pretty fair in my opinion. I live in Europe and am shocked about the hysterical Euro-hate being spouted in Fleet Street and from the mouths of some people who are so far right wing that even the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party wasn't right wing enough for them to join.

    Just like that infamous pre-war political party in Europe's largest Nation did in the 1930s, Cameron's Conservatives are scapegoating any weak group he thinks he can stick the blame on. The amazing thing is people believe him, and they believe the newspapers. Was it Harold Wilson who once said "If you tell a lie often enough it becomes the truth"?

    As for the BBC, they have been silenced, neutered, and PC'd into a state of helplessness. I worry about Britain's future. I really do.


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