I name thee… Tory!

There are many things about the way that politics is covered in the press that are quite irritating; worse they are often misleading, so that people see only the bright light of the headline rather than the actual detail of the debate or statement to which it refers.  One of these is Tory-hunting, by which I mean the desparate hunt by journalists and others to find things to make the Tories sounds like the ‘Nasty Party’ or recall the Thatcher Years.  There is a directly opposite and almost equal tendency to search for evidence of ‘Old Labour’ ‘tax and spend’ or fiscal irresponsibility in New Labour and what-is-it-now? Labour.  I say this is a media thing, but that’s not quite true, actually it is something politicians join in with, which is equally annoying.

Anyway, here are some recent examples:

The UK Film Council is being closed down.  If you believe (or indeed are) Colin Firth, the Coalition/Tories want to stop funding British film. Mike Leigh strongly inferred the change it was akin to the scrapping the NHS (although to be fair he may have been referring to the suddenness as much as the scale of the change). The UKFC is closing, but funding for films is not going to stop; the BFI is taking on the role. Given that the last goverment were attempting to merge the two bodies, it is not exactly a gross miscarriage to merge their functions in one body (although of course no one knows quite how well it will work in practice).

IDS: two of Iain Duncan Smith’s statements have been leapt upon this year.  First he had the gall to tell people that there might be jobs they could do that they would have to travel to rather than simply looking in their towns.  He suggested that maybe people might have to travel for an hour (like many do in London) to get to work… and get this, he said they might have to “get on a bus”.  You see, it’s just like Norman Tebbit’s “on your bike” comment, isn’t it?  Isn’t he evil? There are problems with what he said, of course, the cost and unreliability of travel being just two among them. But the media reaction ignored the simple truth at the core of it, that lots of people travel to work.

The second ‘evil’ IDS statement:

“We created over four million jobs in those 13 years and … 70% of those net jobs were taken by people from overseas because people in this county weren’t capable or able to take those jobs.”

According to the Guardian, this meant that ‘its a sin that people fail to take up work’.  To others, he was saying that unemployment itself was a sin. Actually, what he said was the it was wrong that those without work were not capable of taking up these jobs; to put it another way, that they had not been trained sufficiently/correctly while out of work.  At least that’s my take on it.  He said it badly; sin was certainly the wrong word to use.  Nonetheless, it was a statement that the failure to deal with unemployment was bad, not that the state of unemployment was inherently sinful.

Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher.  This tory-hunting is not a recent trend.  Before becoming Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who withdrew free milk at school from children aged 8-11. For this she became “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.  As John Redwood points out, though, free milk for those in school from 11-18 was cut by a Labour government, and for 5,6 and 7 year-olds by a subsequent Labour administration. They, of course, were not milk snatchers!  The subsequent lack of reintroduction of free milk for over 5s since 1979 suggests that neither party is all that bothered by the matter. People just like the rhyme.

I could go on, but it is worth pointing out again that this is not simply the preserve of the left attacking the Tories. The image that Labour have had to try to live down is one of fiscal irresponsibility, against the party’s unfortunate track record of devaluation of the pound. New Labour were attacked as a party of tax and spend, recalling ‘Old Labour’, even after adopting Conservative fiscal policies in 1997.  Whatever the cupability of Gordon Brown in the financial crash, the current Coalition trick has been to explain the deficit and cuts as being due to Brown’s ‘reckless spending’ since 1997.  Occasionally people like to point out that Brown’s spending plans were accepted by the Tories up to 2007, but to little avail so far.

Alan Johnson summed up the damage done to Labour’s image recently:

He is quick to agree that Labour’s economic credibility is in pieces. “We lost it. That’s the truth of the matter. We’ve lost it to such an extent that when we do polling, the 13 years of what we did — low interest rates, inflation under control, the highest level of employment in our history, paying down debt — all that’s been turned into 13 years of overspending and debt. The Conservatives have been so effective at getting out this mantra that when we poll the public we’re back to where we were in the tortuous days pre-1997. On economic credibility, we are in a really worrying position.”

The arguments are not completely baseless, Tories are more likely that Labour members/ministers to want to cut things and to say unacceptable things about those out of work or on benefits. And of course they are making very deep cuts in public spending (at the same time, Labour would have cut substantially and it was Nick Clegg who said, well before the election, that ‘savage cuts‘ were needed).

And Labour do spend more; also Brown liked to hide spending in PFI debt, while banking of ever-continuing growth and failing to rein in the excesses of the market and proerty bubble.

If we were to boil the two parties down to their core differences, we can see where these criticisms come from and why the parties have acted the way of have done in their last few years in opposition (respectively). Essentially, the Tories put economic growth (and hopefully stability) first – the idea being that increased growth will improve life in Britain, for them and their investor/business-owning friends, and for those who will be employed by them (in theory at least).  Labour put social factors first, figuring that it is more important to make sure that everyone can find a job and be in a decent situation now, rather than waiting for future growth.

In 1992, the Conservatives lost any semblance of fiscal responsibility, swiftly followed by the New Labour reassurances that the economy would be safe in their hands.  When the the supposedly-banished bust turned up at the end of the boom years, Labour lost that credibility again (as Johnson said).

A powerful legacy of the 1980s for the Tories is the image that they do not care about anyone but themselves and their middle- and upper-class friends. What David Cameron made a great effort to do in opposition and with the coalition’s stress on ‘fairness’, was to reassure the public that they really did care.  Not for nothing does the phrase ‘compassionate conservative’ exist; we don’t need the phrase ‘compassionate Labour’.  It seems incredibly unlikely that the cuts (or rather halting of public spending increase and consolidation into specific ring-fenced departments) are going to be ‘fair’.  Benefits and public services are inherently used more by people who can’t afford any alternative, or who would be worse off having to do so.  The poll figures suggest that the image of caring Tories is already on the way out, Labour have slipped ahead a couple of times recently despite not really having any policies of their own.

So, there are reasons for the simplistic headlines, but they are often misleading.  Much better to read the actual story or statement rather than say ‘evil old Tories’ or ‘reckless old Labour’ in response to a tedious soundbite.

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2 Responses to “I name thee… Tory!”

  1. Ken Says:

    Of course, the ‘Tory cuts’ are only to take us back to 2007 levels of spending (or somewhere between 2006 and 2008, depending on which study you look at). So they do have some more credit on spending plans other than politcal opportunism!

    • aforlornhope Says:

      Yeah, exactly. Remember those days of austerity!
      The trouble is that cuts look especially bad for two reasons: 1 – they contrast with the spending increases promised in the dying days of the Brown government; 2 – the NHS and some of the other more expensive bits of public spending are ring-fenced, driving up the level of cuts elsewhere.
      The way they explain the need for cuts (and the deficit) as resulting from Brown’s excessive spending, rather than from the finanical crisis is getting rather tedious, though.

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