Pensioners sidelined by atrocity
The Tory manifesto’s attacks on the elderly is no longer in the headlines - but Paul Demarty wonders why such risks were taken
First things first - joy at the discomfort of one’s enemies is one of the few palliatives available in this age of defeats and inhumanity. So we must concede that we have enjoyed the spectacle of the ‘dementia tax’ as much as the next fellow.
The Conservative manifesto launch was supposed to project power and clarity, and - yes - strength and stability, but ended up in a storm of controversy over Theresa May’s plans for the elderly, removing the 2.5% minimum rise in the state pension with which George Osborne bribed pensioners (only to be rewarded with the Brexit vote and his subsequent defenestration from number 11), means-testing the winter fuel allowance, and - most controversially - extending the number of people required to pay for social care in their declining years.
The latter measure got the tag, ‘dementia tax’, on the basis that it would hit most directly people in need of non-residential care in their own homes, and thus affect those with diseases like dementia, as opposed to those that become a patient in hospital or hospice, thanks to ailments like cancer. It is a bit of a stretch, and in reality the controversy is not so much about the parents as the children. For, under the proposal as it stood, the ‘assets’ against which free care entitlements were means-tested would, for the first time, include the patient’s home, if they owned it; it was thus a highly selective, random inheritance tax levied exactly against the one asset to which the English petty bourgeoisie and its shrill tribunes in the middlebrow papers are absolutely devoted - real estate. Under a relentless barrage of criticism, the plans were ameliorated, with a ceiling put on the fees that could be charged - a pretty embarrassing climbdown, although in reality a minor one (the substance of the proposals remain, and so does the fuel allowance change and the breaking of the ‘triple lock’ safeguard for the level of pensions).
Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench wasted no time in putting the boot in, although not with more means than the usual cheap point-scoring. The whole thing reached a nadir with a rather undignified dispute over digital advertising - the Tories came up with the wizard idea that they could buy advertising on Google searches for ‘dementia tax’, pointing to a Conservative website explaining “the facts” - to which a Labour response was to be rapidly crowdfunded (such things are bought by auction). The latter proved to be a waste of everyone’s money when May capitulated, although - who knows? - perhaps it made all the difference.
Indeed, we are reminded, by the turgid Labour response to all this, that there appears to be an inviolable contract, by which contemporary parties of official opposition are bound. The terms of this contract state that opposition must be limited to permanently asserting that the government is shambolic, in disarray, etc, and must be got rid of, in order to be replaced by sensible and competent custodians of the kingdom. Every so often, of course, the government will indeed be caught with its trousers down, and its ministers at sixes and sevens as to how to respond. There can be no doubt that the Tories made far more of a cock-up of all this than was necessary - first of all by announcing their U-turn, and then by apparently failing to ensure that everyone was on message. In the context of the official Tory ‘narrative’ - whereby all and sundry repeat the phrase, “strong and stable”, like a Buddhist mantra - the whole thing is more than a little embarrassing.
What the Labour response has lacked is anything of substance - we are merely expected to take for granted that, as the builders of the welfare state and the ‘nice’ party full of ‘nice’ people, they would not rob shivering pensioners of their home equity. This may very well be true, but it leaves too much unexplained. To wit: why is it the Mail and the Telegraph leading the charge against May and Jeremy Hunt on this question?
The answer is, in the end, a matter of electoral strategy.
What is the Conservative Party? Perhaps due to its venerable age compared to other European political parties, the Tories are peculiar - presenting, on the one hand, a similar aspect to the Christian Democrats of Germany and (formerly) Italy, the Republicans and the longer-standing Gaullist tradition in France, and so on - default parties of government, parties of the establishment, of the godly (or the officially godly - not even very much of Catholics or, conversely, in the Latin countries, of Protestants). No such party can govern purely on the votes of bankers, bishops and judges: it is necessary to gather some section of the popular masses under one’s banner. The petty bourgeoisie is typically coopted, and invited to view its interests as those of property (like the bankers), tradition (bishops) and order (judges).
In this aspect, the parties of the ‘mainstream’ European right must compete not only with the left, but also forces further to their right - Poujadists, ethnocentric populists and the like. The Tories stand out as partially encompassing such forces: rank-and-file Conservative associations have historically engaged in strike-breaking and other forms of direct confrontation with the working class (to say nothing of Tory governments), and even now its European parliamentary group is shared with the likes of Poland’s Law and Justice party, after nice guy David (‘call me Dave’) Cameron found the official centre-right European People’s Party too leftwing.
If you have an electoral base, it is a good idea to try and make it larger; thus one of Maggie Thatcher’s key strategic aims was to build a “property-owning democracy” - “property” meaning its peculiarly British euphemistic sense - real estate. In real terms, owner occupancy rose, although it has levelled off since the crash of 2008, and now is slightly shrinking, whereas private renting is growing rapidly.
On the bishops-and-judges front, there is a Tory dependency on the conservative skew of the elderly. This is, of course, a stereotype: but not one without statistical basis. Church attendance grows as we climb up the age distribution; acquiescence in modern ‘liberal’ social attitudes falls; and so on. This attitude is encouraged by what amounts to bribery. Such was George Osborne’s ‘strategic genius’ - it was his idea to triple-lock pensions, he who refused to countenance any attacks on the winter fuel allowance, eviscerating municipal budgets and starving the NHS instead. The favouritism of Cameron and Osborne to their core constituencies was nauseating in its obviousness.
There is, needless to say, a considerable overlap between the two aforementioned Tory constituencies. The Office for National Statistics has an interesting breakdown of home ownership by age group - for the three lowest groups (taken together, 16-44 year-olds), home ownership has fallen since 1981. Only for the over 65s has it risen continuously, decade on decade. It is a great time, in this property-owning oligarchy, to be old - since you had half a chance to buy your house when they were remotely affordable.1
On the face of it, then, the Tories’ decision to bring in the dementia tax is bizarre. It is a frontal assault on their core vote. So hostile is it to the ‘ideal type’ of the Daily Mail reader that May might as well have sent Kenneth Clarke over to defecate on Paul Dacre’s desk. So why?
There is first the Tony Blair factor. Blair and his cronies realised that his core vote, at that time, had nowhere else to go - having suffered under near two decades of Tory rule, during which time many Labour heartlands and working class swing constituencies alike had been devastated by deindustrialisation and attacks on basic forms of social solidarity, they were hardly likely to vote for John Major, or William Hague, or Michael Howard ... The challenge, according to the polling wonks, was to win over the ‘middle class’, and Blair went right to it, cutting a deal with Rupert Murdoch and execrating his core support.
Likewise: who are the owner-occupying petty bourgeoisie (let alone landlords!) going to vote for to protect their inheritance from the revenue office? Jeremy Corbyn? Not bloody likely. Who is the ‘average pensioner’ - Brexit voting, somewhat more religious than the average - going to vote for to protect British decency? A red-flag-waving socialist who wants to go back to the 1970s? Really now.
Of course, no pensioner is the ‘average pensioner’; nor do homeowners think only of inheritance tax. The polls did nudge in Labour’s direction, by a couple of percentage points. But not enough to matter. This is the second major issue. Osborne’s bribes are a millstone, so far as the treasury is concerned. The Tories are prepared to drag it around if it is the cost of doing business.
But now, with a double-digit lead in the polls with no realistic prospect of reversal, with a media strategy apparently calculated only to convince people it is worth voting at all? What is the point of committing yourself to throwing good money after bad at people who (even if they do not say so, they at least think in guilty silence) may not even have another election in them? What an opportunity to lance a throbbing boil - and if the cost is that the Tory majority is 80 rather than 120, who is really counting? The combination of loudly-complaining Tory MPs and candidates and a media firestorm seems to have broken the will of May and her advisors, ‘red Tory’ Nick Timothy foremost among them. With my armchair general’s cap on, I reckon it would have been a better idea to press on regardless. Again, what are Tory MPs and candidates going to do about it - defect to Labour?
In the event, of course, the thing is already old news. It did not take the vigorous exertions of the Tory press office to squash this story, but Salman Abedi and his terrorist atrocity in Manchester. Instantly, we were in national mourning mode, and all political leaders were required to issue the usual platitudes.
Yet all political leaders, in the face of terrorism, are not created equal. This is a gift, in the end, to the Tories. It is May, with her ‘strong and stable’ shtick parroted anew by the press, who will benefit - not Corbyn, with his history of sympathy with Irish republicanism and a million other things he can neither continue to aver nor plausibly renounce. To pin your hopes on your opponents’ embarrassment is not to exploit the news agenda, but to become its slave.
Excluded from all this, as a final result, is the actual question at hand, or indeed questions. If the matter is in the end one of Tory ‘competence’, then it is not a matter of there being a clear political and moral obligation to provide social care on the basis of need, which May’s advisors and the authors of various green papers seek to bury under the usual landslide of spurious invocations of ‘fairness’ (‘everyone else has to suffer like dogs, why not the elderly?’); nor is it a matter of the property-owning democracy having been a disaster from the point of view of people actually having somewhere to live without it costing them half their income and the taxpayer a great treasure in subsidy. On the last point in particular, Labour’s manifesto is criminally inadequate and unambitious.
So May’s little wobble is an embarrassment - but it will not lose her any elections in the near future.