By Ratna Lachman
As the Conservative Party conference winds to a close, Ratna Lachman the Director of JUST West Yorkshire reflects on the proceedings.
Whether intended or not, the paean to Margaret Thatcher which marked the opening of the Tory Party conference this year, has exposed the chimera behind the Big Society and the ‘we are in it together’ rhetoric that the Conservatives have been peddling since they came into power. Listening to minister after minister taking to the Conference podium declaring a war against the ‘feckless’ ‘shirkers’ while standing up for the good ‘hardworking people’ of Britain represents no mean sleight of the Tory political hand. However blaming the downtrodden for their misery, while tinkering at the weak regulatory framework that led to the deficit crisis in the first place, highlights the moral turpitude which politics has descended into.
Conference delegates were visibly delighted at the proposed welfare war declared by George Osborne against the 200,000 ‘something for nothing’ long-term unemployed who will be subject to compulsory community work, mandatory intervention regimes and daily trips to the Job Centres. However the issue of bankers’ bonuses that have returned to pre-financial crisis levels and tax breaks for the richest hardly received a mention. For all the chest-beating and the railing against the ne’er dos that is rousing the party faithfuls and capturing press and media headlines, the conference has largely been silent on how it intends to deliver a sustained and cohesive investment and economic regeneration strategy to return the long-term unemployed and the many ‘hardworking’ people who find themselves relegated on the unemployment heap, back into work.
The irony is that many of these so-called ‘feckless’ unemployed that the Tories have aimed their ire at are indeed the very ‘hardworking’ people that the successive Thatcher-Blair-Gordon-Cameron governments have abandoned. The 2-nation Britain – with large parts of the North turned into economic wastelands while the Southern economies in the Tory heartlands are booming – is the product of successive government legacies which have failed to redress the systemic and structural under-investment that have led to the high rates of unemployment among the poor, the young and ethnic minorities.
The Tory party conference has clearly demonstrated that the Conservative leadership is already setting its sights firmly on the 2015 electoral prize. They know that there is little to be gained from developing a policy framework for the Common Good because that would mean taking resources away from the Tory heartlands to the North where successive Conservative governments have failed to achieve a foothold. The legacy of this policy is clear to see in a place like Bradford where the government’s recent infrastructure investment project by-passed Bradford altogether. The district’s hollowed out city-centre bears testimony to a city that has fallen on hard times and desperately needs a cash injection to kick start its economic pulse. However as the Leader of Leeds Council, Keith Wakefield has rightly pointed out the English regions have had their resources cut by £4.5 billion in the last three years, while London and the South East have seen their budgets rise by £235 million in the same period.
So what do these figures really mean when translated into the lived reality of everyday lives? Bradford has among the worst health outcomes in the country and poverty levels in its inner-city wards rank it among the worst 5% in the country. In 2013-14 the funding gap will create a £30 million budgetary shortfall with the figure rising to £20 million in 2014-15 and £15 million in 2015-16. The Council has already made savings of over £72 million and has reduced its workforce by 1,400 posts over the last two financial years. With little meat left on the bone, the Council is proposing to make £6.7 million cuts in Early Intervention Grant used to fund Children’s Centres and Early Years services. So has the impact on young people’s life chances even been considered at the Tory Party conference? Of course not! Instead the Tory leadership has been extolling its ‘Help to Buy’ Scheme, which will deliver £12 billion worth of mortgage guarantees on up to 95% of loans, to banks. The scheme has been couched in the beguiling language of meeting the home-owning aspirations of ‘hardworking people’ who are ‘trapped in rental accommodation’ and do not have ‘rich parents’ to meet their home owning aspirations. In amidst this electoral ‘sweetener’ to a potential Tory electorate, the PM even did not even make a passing mention of the 1.85 million households on local authority waiting lists – a figure that has nearly doubled in the last decade. Neither did the conference hear of any investment in a nationwide social housing building programme that would enable those who can ill-afford the 5% deposit required of the scheme, the right to decent housing. The failure to introduce sanctions against unscrupulous landlords or to cool the overheated London property market with a mansion tax or a prohibitive stamp duty regime to prevent entire neighbourhoods from becoming the playground of the rich and famous highlights the extent to which gesture politics has infected our bodypolitic. So what are we to make of the 50,000 people who gathered outside the Tory Party Conference in Manchester to protest against the dismantling of the State and the neo-liberal excesses that have led to the abandonment of the social justice agenda? The symbolism of their protest assumes that the values that define us as a society are born out of a shared view of the world. But can we expect that a Cabinet of Millionaires brought up in the rarefied world of money, connections and privileges and who only occasionally glimpse at our world through their class-tinted glasses, to understand poverty, privation and want? Of course not!
The privileged class in whom the electorate has vested power in, ultimately lead “parallel and segregated lives” and make only occasional forays into our world – as Ian Duncan Smith did during his brief sojourn in the estates of Glasgow. For the most part the North is a foreign ‘country’ to the Tories and the poor, an alien species. If they were indeed ‘one of us’ they would not be imposing an austerity regime for an additional five years – a burden that will ultimately be borne by the very ‘hardworking’ people that the Party appears to be championing.
The truth is that in Britain half a million people – many of them from ‘hardworking’ families – use food banks each year just to stay above the breadline and by 2020, Oxfam predicts that 800,000 children and 1.9 million adults will be at risk of living in poverty by 2020. [Oxfam Report, ‘A Cautionary Tale’] Britain is now ranked “amongst the most unequal in the world” where the chasm between the haves and have-nots is the widest it has ever been.
The wonder is that despite these alarming statistics so many Britons continue to invest their future hopes on the ideological promise that neo-liberalism and capitalism will deliver them the better life they seek. Perhaps the beaming faces across the Tory conference floor are not manufactured smiles aimed at the 24-hour rolling news programmes; perhaps they are borne out of a sense of relief that the Tory fairy dust appears to be working its magic on the ‘hardworking’ Britons after all.
JUST West Yorkshire