How progressive are the Tories really, Mr Reeves?
Today’s (2 August 09) Observer has a longish article by Richard Reeves, the Director of the think-tank Demos, in which we are invited to accept that “The “Prog[ressive] Cons” have seized control of the party. Whether they can make it do their bidding is the biggest political question of the next five years.” This is a large and potentially important claim which deserves our attention.
So if, as seems likely, Mr Reeves’s detailed account of the allegedly progressive elements in current Tory thinking and policy-making is based on extensive contacts with senior Conservatives and therefore accurately describes what David Cameron and his Cameroons are currently cooking up for us, we’re entitled to examine it with special interest. We must try to assess the genuineness or otherwise of the Tories’ vaunted progressive credentials as recounted by Mr Reeves. Alas, many aspects of Mr Reeves’s account prompt doubts about his central thesis. For example, —
The state of the public finances has been a blessing, giving Cameron some political cover to back off the regressive, if initially popular, pledge to raise the ceiling on inheritance tax to £1m.
My understanding, quite possibly mistaken, is that so far from “backing off” from this pledge, the Tories remain committed to it, although now somewhat ambiguous about the timing of its implementation. The Tory backwoodsmen (and women) would hardly stand for the abandonment of such a tribally iconic promise. The Tories are already irrationally obsessed with the level of national debt and insistent that the top priority of government should be to start reducing it, not just over time but immediately, by sharp cuts in public spending, even before we have emerged from the recession (which could well last another two or three years or even longer, according to most sober observers). Even if it made sense to cut government spending while still in recession (which it fairly obviously doesn’t), the failure to contemplate raising taxes on those with the lowest marginal propensity to spend (i.e. the rich) as well as the failure to promise to cut public expenditure in ways that won’t undermine increased spending by the least well-off, has a decidedly old-fashioned Tory ring to it. A commitment actually to reduce the wrong tax (because it affects only the rich) instead of raising the right ones (to reduce the deficit without any negative consequences for overall demand) necessarily reinforces scepticism.
A [Conservative] green paper is planned; this needs to spell out in detail how they plan to encourage employee ownership and boost savings for those on low income.
We may all marvel at the putative spectacle of a Tory government encouraging “employee ownership” if this means what it seems to say. The Labour Party long ago abandoned the concept of what used to be called Workers’ Control as being far too radical. As for boosting the savings of the poor (which is presumably what’s meant by the queasy phrase “those on low income”), actually encouraging saving by those with the highest marginal propensity to spend — the poor — while we’re still in recession would be economic madness. The aim should be to encourage spending, not saving, by those likeliest to spend any extra money they receive. The reduction in VAT was a good and necessary example of how this can be done (it’s apparently beginning to show results, despite not particularly ‘progressive’ Tory cries of pain); a straight hand-out of money to everyone on incomes below a given level would be even better.
This [Conservative green] paper is also likely to unveil plans to turn assets such as parks, libraries and leisure centres – owned by the state – over to the community. The rhetoric of the “post-bureaucratic age” never really took off, not least because it’s a phrase almost as ugly as Brown and Balls’ famous “post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory”. But if it means anything, it must mean the creation of a post-bureaucratic state. If old Labour was about giving power to workers over the means of production, new Conservatism is partly about giving citizens control over the means of government.
It’s not easy to disentangle the multiple muddles in this. The vast majority of parks, libraries and leisure centres are owned and controlled not by “the state” as such but by elected local authorities. How would “the community”, which is apparently to take them over from local authorities, make and carry out policy on them, fund their up-keep and pay their staffs, without delegating decisions to officials of some kind, who would need to be served by advisers, accountants, secretaries, and the rest — in other words a “bureaucracy” in the “post-bureaucratic state”? How would the decision-makers be made more accountable to “the community” than elected local councils are now? What view of this plan will the massed ranks of recently elected Tory (and LibDem) Councillors take? What safeguards will there be against decisions by the New non-Bureaucrats to sell off the local parks for ‘development’, close the libraries and sell the buildings to other ‘developers’, and charge such fees for use of the leisure centres as will ensure that only the well-heeled middle classes can afford to use them, undisturbed by the rowdy behaviour of those less well-off than themselves?
The notion that there’s anything remotely ‘progressive’ about such a half-baked and reactionary project is for the birds (and perhaps the Daily Mail). Thatcherism and New Labour have already emasculated our once-thriving local government democracy — remember the Chamberlains? — to the point that parks and libraries are just about all they have left: everything else has been ruthlessly taken over by a series of obsessively centralising governments. To remove local government control over even the pathetic remnants of their responsibilities and hand it to some new undefined “post-bureaucratic” system would simply compound past error. The description of public servants at either state or local level as ‘bureaucrats’, a pejorative term for those who supply an absolutely indispensable service to society, is just pandering to the kind of prejudice enthusiastically encouraged by the right-wing tabloids. Just what’s ‘progressive’ about it beats me.
More broadly, the depth of the fiscal hole is genuinely worrying the Tories. There is a danger, as Philip Hammond discovered, of appearing to be too keen on wielding the axe. But only the most rabidly right wing are actually glad of what one senior Conservative describes as an “existential crisis” in the public finances. There are some innovative ideas being floated for the way to handle the internal politics of cutting spending.
There will be a long cuts cabinet to agree the broad shape of government expenditure and the Tories are likely to run this before any ministerial appointments are made. This means that the cabinet will be able to agree cuts to certain departments – behind a “veil of ignorance”, if you like – without this being portrayed by the media as a defeat for the cabinet minister in question.
More confirmation, then, that the Tories plan to start on their programme of cuts in government spending immediately on coming into office, even though it’s virtually certain that we’ll still be in deep recession at the time. The Tories are determined to cut government spending just at the time when any government should be further increasing selective spending — spending designed to preserve and create jobs (both to put spending money in working people’s pockets and to reduce government liabilities for unemployment benefit and other low-level payments to the victims of recession). Simultaneously, a recession-conscious government should be reducing taxation, especially indirect taxes, on middle-income and lower-income families, again to increase overall spending and stimulate demand in the economy, thereby encouraging lending, investment and production to meet it. Tory policies of instant and apparently indscriminate cuts, if implemented, can only deepen and prolong the recession, inflicting needless misery on yet more people who will lose their jobs and be unable to find new ones, will be evicted from their homes, and will see their incomes and access to public services sharply reduced. All this, apparently, to demonstrate the Conservatives’ “progressive” credentials.
All cabinet ministers may have offices in the Cabinet Office.
So instead of the decentralisation of central government, giving greater autonomy to senior ministers and their departments, and breaking the stranglehold of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office (a polite name for the Prime Minister’s Department) over the work and decisions of the whole of Whitehall — a stranglehold established by Thatcher and reinforced by Blair and Campbell — that over-centralised power is actually to be reinforced again by an incoming Tory administration bent on having cabinet ministers sitting in offices all together in the Cabinet Office to receive their daily orders from on high. Over-centralisation has been responsible for much of the blundering of the Blair years, including especially Iraq: now it’s to be made even worse. Progressive? Progressive my, um, foot.
A civil service reform bill will be near the top of the agenda. The civil service neutered Blair for years and the Tories are determined to hit the mandarins hard and early.
This must be the most foolish misconception of all. So far from neutering Tony Blair, the civil service was largely sidelined by him in favour of small groups of cronies on the infamous sofa in No. 10. Already by the time Labour came back into office in 1997 Mrs Thatcher had deprived the civil service of much of its capacity for delivering informed, impartial, loyal but if necessary unwelcome advice, by filling almost every top civil service post with an official (or, sometimes, an outsider brought in for the purpose) who could be relied on to be “one of us”. Blair and Brown enthusiastically continued this self-defeating process, with the malign consequences bitingly described in the Butler report on the use of intelligence over Iraq. Many of New Labour’s worst blunders, including Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, might well have been avoided if Blair and other New Labour ministers had allowed themselves to invite and then heed impartial official advice: not to be ‘neutered’ or paralysed by it, but to make good and productive use of it. It will be a tragedy if this self-perpetuating failure to make positive use of the resources of the civil service is carried over into a Cameron administration. A genuinely progressive government will use and heed experienced officials, not “hit [them] hard and early”. (Note Mr Reeves’s use of the tendentious and pejorative word ‘mandarins’ to describe honourable, well informed, dedicated, and loyal public servants. But I suppose that if they aren’t ‘bureaucrats’, in the scabrous lingo of The Sun newspaper, they’re lucky only to be called ‘mandarins’.)
Given the need to cut spending, but also the commitment to progressive ends, the Conservatives will have to create a smaller, but more redistributive state…
Once again the obsession with cutting government expenditure, even in mid-recession, is apparently to be allowed to dictate the agenda. Leaving aside the worrying implications of cutting instead of increasing government spending in a recession, it’s not the mark of a progressive party to be determined to create “a smaller state”, which is anyway incompatible with the aim of making the state more “redistributive”. A smaller state will inevitably lack the levers and clout that are absolutely essential to the restructuring and tighter control of our bloated financial sector, if a recurrence of economic and fiscal disaster is to be avoided. The follies of Thatcherite and New Labour’s “light touch” regulatory régime, “flexible” (meaning unregulated) labour market policies, reckless sales of public assets and responsibilities to private sector pirates, money-grubbers and assorted crooks, and instinctual kow-towing to private interests at the expense of the public good, are what have helped to bring our economy to its knees and led to the miseries now being inflicted on tens of thousands of wholly innocent people. These are the hall-marks of the smaller state. Now the Tories want to make it smaller still.
Such an aim confuses harmful over-centralisation of power and responsibility with the necessary and beneficial possession of both by publicly accountable authorities, central and local. It’s the mark of the reactionary, not the progressive, to see “the state” as the enemy, to be reduced and cut down to size, and not as the indispensable instrument for creating a more just, free and equal society. Yet they simultaneously seem to want this smaller and less effective state to be more “redistributive”! Do the rich backers of the Conservative party in the City and out in the country houses of the shires really want to see their share of national wealth and income appreciably reduced, by a Tory government, in order to give a fairer share of both to those less well off than themselves? It might not be a zero sum game in the longest of long terms, but in the short term and in mid-recession it certainly is. Seeing will be believing. Meanwhile a healthy helping of scepticism appears to be in order.
There are signals already that middle-class welfare will be attacked. Middle-income tax credits, child benefit and higher education (still a middle-class gravy train) will all be examined.
Once again the language of ignorant prejudice (universities “a middle-class gravy train”) is to be allowed to warp Tory policy. If the middle class disproportionately occupies university places, as it certainly does, it’s a waste of time blaming either the universities or the middle class for that imbalance. The remedy lies not in “attacking middle-class welfare”, presumably by making it even more expensive to go to university and thus making the universities even more socially exclusive than they are already: it can only be done by continuing the process of improvement of state education, fostering much higher aspirations on the part of both schoolchildren and their teachers, and forcing the public (i.e. private) school sector to do far more than most of them seem willing to do at present to share their facilities and resources, including teaching resources, with the state sector. That would be the mark of a progressive government; “attacking” the middle class for its disproportionate ability to get its offspring into university only creates a damaging illusion of progressiveness.
The commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid is a sign that there is a global dimension at work, although it is still pitifully low.
Here at last is a genuinely progressive Tory policy commitment, reproducing exactly that of both Labour and the LibDems. 0.7% of GDP spent on development aid is a worthy but demanding target, established long ago by the United Nations and universally accepted, anyway verbally, and if only in principle. Britain under Labour, with commendable Tory support, is one of few donor countries actively living up to this commitment and well on course to hit the target. To call it “a sign that there is a global dimension at work” seems to have no discernible meaning, and grudgingly to call the commitment “still pitifully low” makes no obvious sense at all. Fortunately in this area at least even the Tories know better.
Above all, the Conservatives have a progressive trump card in the shape of their education policy, which could smash the middle-class opportunity hoarding made possible by high house prices in the catchment areas of the best schools. The Conservative plans to let money follow the pupil to the school of their parents’ choice and, crucially, to add a pupil premium to the poorest children. A Labour cabinet minister said to me five years ago: “If the Conservatives ever go for a vouchers system weighted in favour of the poor, we’re in real trouble”. They have – and they are.
Another worrying fallacy. “Vouchers” are supposed to ensure that parents can ‘choose’ their children’s schools. But choice depends on spare capacity — more places at “the best schools” than there are parents wanting them or children to occupy them. Without that spare capacity, universal right and ability to choose are impossible, and a cruel deception too. Choice is meaningless unless based on accurate information, and if all parents know which schools are “the best” — to borrow Mr Reeves’s language — it’s hard to see why any of them are going to “choose” the less good or the worst. By definition not all state schools can be “the best”. They can’t all in practice even be equally good (although they might of course be equally bad). Some kind of selection is logically inevitable, whether by ability (as in the days of the 11 plus and still now with the surviving grammar schools, condemning the less able to second-class citizen status for life), or by location (with rigorously enforced catchment areas, which risks the kind of middle-class exploitation by moving house referred to by Mr Reeves), or by purported religious faith (as with the so-called faith schools, a pernicious and indefensible misuse of public money used to support them), by lottery (as now practised by a few local education authorities), or, as the Tories now propose, by vouchers. Just how this is supposed to work remains a mystery. Are state schools going to start charging school fees which can be paid partly or in full by state-issued vouchers, with the poor receiving vouchers denominated in higher money values than the better off — and the rich perhaps receiving no vouchers at all? Are places at ‘the best schools’ going to be auctioned to the highest bidders, i.e. those with the most money or the most vouchers? That certainly seems to be implied by Mr Reeves’s talk of ‘let[ting] money follow the pupil to the school of their parents’ choice’, and ‘the taxes of “hard-working families” [being] used to give an advantage in the education market to the children of the “feckless, idle poor”‘ (my emphasis). If so, this casual abandonment of free primary and secondary education for all, regardless of parental means, one of the most basic bedrock principles of the welfare state, accepted unquestioningly by all Labour and Conservative governments since the war, will blow a massive hole in the entire national consensus on social and welfare policies that has dominated the political scene since Beveridge (a Liberal) and Butler (a Conservative). Parents will find themselves forced to buy their children’s schooling, with the burden that this will impose on the poor partially mitigated by giving the poor more money — but money in a form (school vouchers) which actually limits their freedom of choice of how to spend it. Above all, a voucher system, even if it somehow avoids expressing the vouchers’ relative values in money terms, does nothing to avoid the reality that if all parents are free (or paid) to choose the best schools for their children, most are going to be disappointed, whether or not they have the vouchers. Perhaps the articulate and engaging Mr Gove can explain how he plans to square that obstinate circle. Until he does, we’re entitled to regard a voucher scheme as the most potentially reactionary and regressive, i.e. the least progressive, of the many educational gimmicks with which successive generations of parents have yet been dazzled (or not).
And finally — before this post turns into a pamphlet:
…while the prospect of a Conservative government was once a chilling one to any progressive, there is now the possibility that Cameron, supported by his small band of cutlery-rattling [sic] progressives, really has changed his party, as Peel, Disraeli and Thatcher did before him. We’ll know soon enough.
Well, indeed we will, unless a disillusioned electorate wakes up to the Tory reality in time. But if Mr Reeves’s account of the new progressive Conservatives and their policies is really based on his close contacts and conversations with leading Tory policy-makers, and accurately describes their intentions, then it looks as if traditional Tory reactionaries, obssessively concerned with low taxes, reduced spending on social services, frantic impatient reductions in the national debt, untrammelled freedom for financiers and big business to pursue their own self-enriching and anti-social agendas, and an ever smaller state, are going to have nothing much to worry about. Smooth-talking Dave will see them right, talking reassuringly all the while about how progressive he and his government are. Mr Reeves, rather surprisingly, seems to have been taken in by all this. But then someone who mentions in the same breath Peel, Disraeli and Thatcher as Tory ‘progressive’ reformers of their party does seem unlikely to define what’s ‘progressive’ in the same way as the rest of us.