Tails and wagging dogs
The Birmingham conference reveals the tensions and divisions over the coalition government, writes Eddie Ford
This year’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, perhaps to the frustration of Tory spin doctors, has been dominated by George Osborne’s announcement on October 4 that child benefit would be cut for top rate taxpayers. Outlining his plans, the chancellor stated that as from 2013 families with at least one parent earning more than about £44,000 a year would lose their entitlement to what was previously a universal benefit. Only a year ago the very same George Osborne had ringingly declared that he would “preserve” universal child benefit as it was “valued by millions” of families. Of course the tax system should be used to buttress the institution of marriage and “the family”. Then his Birmingham bomb-shell.
Obviously, this creates an anomaly or loop-hole in that families where there are two wage earners - which is increasingly the case - would still be entitled to child benefit if each of them were paid just under the new threshold, but those where one parent stayed at home to look after the children (the ‘homemaker’ or ‘house-parent’) would effectively be penalised and lose their benefit. The rules of the game have suddenly changed. So about 1.2 million families, some 15% of all those in receipt of child benefit, will lose out on payments currently worth £20.30 a week for the eldest child and £13.40 for subsequent children.
But David Cameron has now heavily hinted that this tax break could be extended to higher earners as well, as possible ‘compensation’ for the loss of child benefit. Confusion reigns. Cameron even “apologised” for not including the plan to axe child benefit for higher-rate tax payers in Tory manifesto - sure, a real vote winner! And in turn the Liberal Democrats in the coalition are of course coming under pressure from elements of their rank and file to distance themselves from Osborne’s child benefit ‘reforms’ and the putative tax break, even if the coalition agreement drawn up between the two parties states that it will “ensure that provision is made for Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on budget resolutions to introduce transferable tax allowances for married couples without prejudice to the coalition agreement”.
Self-evidently, the married tax allowance should be opposed as it discriminates against the nearly two million single parents in the UK - who should be treated equally, not as second class citizens, by the tax system. Ditto for Osborne’s thoroughly retrogressive attack on universal child benefit. Yes, obviously, £44,000 a year is well above the average wage, but it hardly makes you ‘rich’ - after all, some skilled manual workers can earn up to that under favourable conditions. For instance, if you are one of these better paid workers living in London - say bringing up three kids on your own or with a partner on a much lower wage - then you may be able to get by, the horrific London housing market notwithstanding, but you are not exactly living the champagne and jet-setting lifestyle.
Rather than declaring war on those working class families who might earn more than other working class families - the so-called “middle class” families we hear so much about from the lying tabloids - the way to deal with the genuinely rich is not to abolish universal child benefit but, to coin a phrase, to tax them until the pips squeak under a progressive taxation system and introduce a maximum wage for all. There is the more general point that the raising of children should not be seen as a purely private affair of the parents, almost as an indulgence, but more as the responsibility of society as a whole. From that perspective, a communist one, attacks on the universal child benefit system are a move to further privatise child rearing under capitalism.
Of course, for all that, George Osborne’s child benefit scheme - or the initial plan anyway - was particularly ill-received by those disgruntled Tories who feel themselves outside the charmed circle of cabinet ministers and high-flyers. They clearly resent the coalition government, unhappy at what they perceive to be the Liberal Democrat tail wagging the coalition government dog - when it should be all power, and all jobs, to the Tory Party boys and girls. For some of them, the loose rag-bag of proto-oppositionists amongst the rank and file and the Tory backbenchers, the child benefit proposals represent an attack on ‘family values’. And of course, from where they are coming from - where the bourgeois nuclear family is seen as the natural and eternal bedrock of society - their grievance has a legitimate basis, given the straightforward fact that more often than not it is the woman who brings up the kids whilst the man goes out to work to perform his god-given role as patriarchal provider (though over the years that trend or model has been undermined).
So, for instance, David Davis - seen by many on the rightwing of the Tory Party as the standard bearer of ‘true blue’ values - damned the new child benefit regime with faint praise. He told the Daily Mail that whilst it “does encourage wives or mothers to go out to work”, which is obviously a good thing as far as he is concerned - and that he has “no problem” with the “principle” of “reducing child benefit for the better off” - it was “an accidental piece of social policy”, not the “wisest way” to go about things. Instead, for Davis, it “would be fairer to consider family income rather than that of individuals”. Here we see Davis attempting to delicately position or balance himself between the traditionalist rightwing which wants to see the benefits system heavily skewed in favour of ‘the family’ - and to that extent want to preserve, even augment, certain aspects of the benefits system - and the more lean-and-mean populist right who relish a chance to quickly dismantle, if not sweep away, all universal benefits. Like the Daily Mail itself of course, which simultaneously, and totally contradictorily, wants both to be a stern defender of ‘the family’ and an ardent foe of what it calls - quite hypocritically and cynically - “middle class benefits” (ie, universal child benefit).
Of course, Davis was a former contender for Tory Party leader in 2005 - eventually losing out to David Cameron by a margin of 64,398 votes to 134,446 votes, with the latter appointing his rival as shadow home secretary following his victory: better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Then in 2008 Davis, in a spectacular and well calculated move, resigned from his post in protest at the Labour government’s attack on civil liberties - chucking in his job the day after parliament narrowly passed the counter-terrorism bill, which extended the limit on the period of detention of terror suspects without charge in England and Wales from 28 to 42 days. Not that his opinions on this matter prior to his resignation, as widely noted, were in any way different from the rest of the Tory shadow cabinet or indeed that of the actual government. Needless to say, he won the Haltemprice and Howden by-election with 72% of the vote, breaking several voting records in the process.
Maybe more to the point, Davis became notorious in July for his ‘Brokeback’ speech at a boozy ‘private’ lunch with former Tate & Lyle colleagues in the Boot & Flogger wine bar in Southwark. Here he claimed to have overheard Lord Ashcroft, the shady ex-Conservative party deputy chairman, refer to the government as the “Brokeback coalition” - implying that the seemingly cordial political friendship between David Cameron and Nick Clegg was analogous to the gay relationship portrayed in the Oscar-winning film. Davis’s comparison was further emphasised by his follow-up joke about David Laws, the former Liberal Democrat treasury chief secretary who resigned from the coalition in May over relatively minor parliamentary expenses, was “one sort of minority” brought into government: Laws, of course, being gay. Possible homophobic remarks aside, Davis’s speech was more significant for his dismissive remarks about Cameron’s “big society” - which he described as “Blairite dressing”, as “if you talk about the big society” people then “think you’re Mother Teresa”.
Furthermore, Davis’s credentials as a leadership contender in waiting - or at least a rightwing stalking horse - were perhaps boosted by his BBC Radio Four programme broadcast on October 4: ‘A working-class Tory is something to be’. On this show he trumpeted his working class background - the only child of a single mother on a council estate and so on - and how people like Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major all came from relatively humble backgrounds, in stark contrast to their aristocratic predecessors: recounting how Harold Macmillan disparaged the ‘upwardly mobile’ Norman Tebbit as a “Cockney interloper” amongst the party elite. Yet, argued Davis, we seem to have gone backwards in some respects - having our first Etonian Tory prime minister in almost half a century.
To date, Davis’s populist bid seems to be having some measure of success. ConservativeHome, a “centre right” website which offers “comprehensive coverage of Britain’s Conservative Party”, recently conducted a poll into prominent rightwing Tory backbenchers. Unsurprisingly Davis topped the poll with 70% of respondents stating that he “represents their views” and 54% believing that he articulates those views “effectively”. John Redwood and Daniel Hannan were some way behind as Davis’s closest rightwing rivals. And he has other potential backers, such as the 1922 committee secretary, Chris Chope - the MP for Christchurch and a supporter of the death penalty. He has complained, and he is hardly a lone voice, that Tory ministers are effectively being “held to ransom” by a “small group” of Liberal Democrats - who, in his view, are “the tail wagging dog on too many occasions”. Not only that, he has spoken to Conservative ministers and a “number of them share those frustrations” - thinking that Cameron is “giving a lot of ground on issues” which are “sensitive” to many rank and file Tories, fearing that the coalition was “proceeding on a basis of continuous appeasement without consulting the backbenchers”.
But having said that, many prominent Tories - even if they are uneasy with the direction in which Cameron is leading the coalition government and the Conservative Party - do not believe that David Davis has broad enough appeal, or the personality, to act as an effective or serious focal point for rightist opposition: too much of a loose canon, a maverick, undisciplined. So the plotting and scheming, something the Tory party has always excelled at, will doubtlessly continue and escalate in the years to come.
As for the rest of the Tory conference, Cameron used his first conference speech as prime minister to warn that spending cuts will “not be easy” for anyone - except perhaps for the millionaires who line the cabinet. He told the Tory faithful, whose faith is certainly being tested this year, that jobs will be lost and services cut following the coalition government’s spending review in October. He also vowed to back “wealth creators”, the “doers and grafters” - the “inventors and the entrepreneurs who get this economy going”, the “people who leave the comfort of a regular wage to strike out on their own”.
Cameron also promised to “protect” the vulnerable, whilst piously - and hypocritically - lecturing us on how you “can’t measure fairness just by how much money we spend on welfare”, as though “the poor are products with a price tag” and that the “more we spend on them the more we value them”. Instead, Cameron went on, “fairness means supporting people out of poverty - not trapping them in dependency”. Naturally, he heaped praise on Iain Duncan Smith, the works and pensions secretary, for his plan to replace all out-of-work benefits with a single, universal payment or credit that - apparently - “rewards work”. In the words of Smith, a universal credit system will restore “fairness and simplicity” to the welfare system.
Or to translate into real world speak, this government will slash benefits and impoverish large sections of the working class. As promised earlier by George Osborne with his benefit “cap” of £26,000 a year. In reality, this means that some 50,000 unemployed families will lose an average of £93 a week, and some might lose as much as £300 a week. This cap restricts benefits to £500 a week, which includes everything - jobseekers allowance, housing benefit, council tax benefit, etc. When you consider that for many families housing benefit accounts for £400 a week, due to the chronic lack of affordable housing thanks to the absolute dearth of council/social housing, that leaves these families with just £100 a week to pay for everything else - bills, food, travel, clothing, you name it. In other words, virtual starvation beckons. No doubt the Daily Mail will say that they deserve to be stripped of their “middle class” benefits. Talk about the politics of envy.
Well, what about the Liberal Democrat partners in the coalition government? Quite contrary to the paranoiac fantasies of people like David Davis or Chris Chope, the Liberal tail is most certainly not wagging the Tory dog. In fact, if anything, the reverse is true - the Liberal Democrats are already being punished in the polls, unlike the Tories. Though of course that will change when the cuts start to hit, to hurt millions of ordinary people, over the coming weeks and months. No less than Kenneth Clarke, the coalition justice secretary, has warned that the UK faces the very real danger of a double-dip recession. Then things will get really, really, nasty. The coming storm of protests and resistance will batter the coalition government and it is the Liberals who are the weakest link, shamed by their association with the ‘Tory cuts’ and racked by internal dissent - with many rank and file Liberals wanting the blood of their misleaders.
Tellingly, at a conference fringe meeting, Tory MP Nick Boles called for “coalition candidates” to stand at the next election - declaring that in the “national interest” Liberal Democrats and Conservatives should not be opposing each other in certain seats. If so, and the chances of such an agreement are very high - the Tories would obviously eagerly embrace such a deal. The Lib Dems face the prospect of annihilation as a distinctly separate political organisation and identity, the wretched equivalent of the Liberals under the national government of Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s. Mere creatures of the Tory party. Yes, we could finally be seeing the tortuous but well deserved death of liberal England in the 21st century.