Yesterday’s Guardian had an interview with George Osborne. The Shadow Chancellor has taken to declaring that the Tories have taken over from Labour as the vehicle for progressive politics in the UK. He has been appointed to the advisory board of the think-tank Demos. So apparently some other people seem to think he is within the broad confines of the New Labour project. I’m not one of them.
Bad from a left-wing perspective as New Labour may be, there is a fundamental difference between them and the Tories, as has been revealed in both this interview and a story from today’s Observer about the Shadow Cabinet’s desire to destroy the NHS. Basically, New Labour has some sense of the importance of the state as a provider of services, and have some commitment to their albeit far too limited view of equality and fairness. A good example of this was Peter Mandelson’s response to Osborne’s claims. Now, we all know Mandelson is far from trustworthy, and the original master of Blairite spin. But he does a good job of bringing out the differences between himself and Osborne, and the reality of Cameron’s lick of shiny paint on the callous Thatcherite edifice.
When Cameron and Osborne took over, they promised to follow New Labour spending plans, and that they would maintain and improve public sector investments. This was an attempt to ape New Labour’s succesful attempt to convince middle England they could trust it with the budget by keeping their first term expenditure within Tory spending plans. Once the banking crisis hit, the mask slipped, and this language was dropped in favour of the Tory perennials of public sector reform and retrenchment. Apparently progressive politics now means a rhetorical commitment to public services while saving money. Something that did not pass unnoticed by the Guardian
Tory circles are abuzz with excitement about yet another chance to wage war on the big state, and usher in Cameron’s “post-bureaucratic age” even more zealously than the party leadership plan to. Tax rises have not been ruled out, though as Osborne recently put it, “the bulk of the strain in dealing with this debt crisis has to be cutting public spending”. Only health and international development have been ring-fenced – though today, when it comes to health spending, he says only that “we will work hard to protect it”.
Given the fact that it is precisely their public spending levels that have enabled the Germans and French to exit the recession, we can see that Osborne is motivated by the same cruel and heartless ideology as ever. It’s not quite the open class war rhetoric of Thatcherism, but as we can see, it’s not far from it.
“Maybe I’m being too optimistic,” he says. “There is an absolute resolution on behalf of the Conservative party that we will deal with this debt problem … I think we have demonstrated our toughness in sticking to our message. We are the people who said the government’s spending plans were unaffordable. We are the people who have talked to the country about the debt crisis and the Age of Austerity. No one should doubt that if they elect a Conservative government, we will deal with the public finances, and put them right.”
This time, there’s at least a glint of Thatcherite steel. “And if necessary, we are prepared to stand up to people who are in our path. But I begin with the hope that we can work with the public sector unions, and others, in trying to deal with this problem. Now, if they don’t want to have a discussion about pay restraint, and they don’t want to have a discussion about how we make public-sector pensions more affordable for future generations, then so be it.”
So how do his shadow cabinet colleagues see Tory progressive politics in action?
The Observer can reveal that leading Tory MPs – who include Cameron’s close ally Michael Gove – are listed alongside controversial MEP Daniel Hannan as co-authors of a book, Direct Democracy, which says the NHS “fails to meet public expectations” and is “no longer relevant in the 21st century”.
Others listed as co-authors in the book, published shortly after the 2005 general election, include shadow cabinet members Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt and frontbencher Robert Goodwill.
More than 20 Tory MPs and MEPs have given support to books by Hannon calling for the NHS to be scrapped. Hannon told Fox News that the NHS was a 60-year mistake. Charming. In my recent post on the sense of entitlement felt by the rich Tories who form Cameron’s inner circle, I expressed a hope that Labour would use the brayings of these arrogant elitists to their advantage in the forthcoming election campaign. Looks like it could be beginning to happen.
Gordon Brown last night broke off from his holiday to issue a statement declaring he would place the future of the NHS at the heart of the next election. “I will not stand by and see the NHS and its brilliant staff denigrated and undermined, whether that’s by the right wing in the United States or by their friends in the British Conservative party,” he said.
Let’s hope that Labour has the requisite moral courage to play on the social origins of Cameron’s crew. Not only are they incapable of understanding the lives of working people, they have no desire to do so, and feel contempt for the working poor, never mind the unemployed. The Tories have nothing to offer but pain for working people. This must be the message of the Left for the next election.