Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why people will vote Conservative, and the illusion of Tory competence

Recent polling for the general election has started to show the Tories slightly ahead of Labour. This can only be explained by "floating voters" starting to be swayed by the "message" that the Tories have to explain their economic plan, and the comparative incoherence of the Labour "message" (as well as people's opinion of each party's leader).

For this reason, it's worth spending some time to study the psychology of why the Tories are seen as "a safe bet", and exactly what type of "economic plan" they have.

First, some context: who exactly are "the Tories"? The modern Conservative Party stems from the old Tory party. The word "Tory" started being used after the English Civil War, to define people who supported the monarchy and represented the established gentry. This is in comparison to the "Whigs" (later to become the Liberals), who more represented the merchant class of the day, and thus in favour of greater controls on government and more effective accountability and transparency.

In this way, the modern-day Conservatives - who are essentially the same group of interests as three hundred years ago - could as well the called the aristocratic party, albeit with some cosmetic alterations to fit into the 21st century. While Margaret Thatcher arguably went the furthest to try and change that perception, the reality could never be hidden. The fact that the Prime Minister is of noble stock (more on his personality here), and many of the Cabinet went to "public school", says all we need to know about how their background influences their perception and judgement (more on that later).

The recent publicity given to the Conservatives' fundraiser, that was essentially a "who's-who" of the rich (and nefarious) elite, as well as some of the shamelessly out-of-touch antics that went on there (shopping trip with Theresa May, girls?), say more than any words could. This was the Conservatives demonstrated how the Conservatives behave on their "home turf", away from prying cameras (or so they thought). And in spite of such naked money-grubbing, many people still view the Conservatives as the most competent group to rule the country. Why?

Born to rule

It helps if, when you want to run government, you sound like you know what you are doing (even though you don't). In this area, the Conservative Party, in its leader and senior members, have a group of people who are nothing if not self-confident. One of the main reasons that Cameron became leader was his clear self-confidence in his own abilities, and his clear ability to appear statesman-like. He could talk for an hour without a tele-prompter (woo-hoo!), and knew how to "sound modern" and act like a human being. Cameron called himself the "heir to Blair", and made himself believe he was.

Since being in government, Cameron has always appeared the statesman. This explains why his leadership ratings are so much higher that Ed Miliband. The same can be said for George Osborne (who is really running the country): because he seems so self-confident, even all the people in economic institutions who criticize his policies (and are much more qualified than him) are like water off a ducks back.
These two "bright young things" are the ones who are running the show, and because they seem so self-assured at what they do, it is enough to convince those in the public, who don't have the time to check the facts. The Conservatives seem to know what they are doing; compared to them, Labour's plan is incoherent (even though it may be better!).

The character "The Joker" in The Dark Knight said that people don't panic if everything goes to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. To an extent, the same may be said of the Conservatives' economic plan.
What exactly is their plan?

As we are now looking at voting for a party that will govern for (potentially) the next five years, let's look at George Osborne's plan. As he reminded us late last year, most of the austerity measures have yet to happen. The Conservative plan is to shrink the state even further, to a point where it may not even be recognisable in its current form. Put another way, a vote for the Conservatives could be seen as a vote to destroy the UK as we know it.
Osborne's justification for this is that we can no longer "live beyond our means". But this term is highly-misleading at best, for this comes back to justifying austerity as a measure to rectify the previous Labour government's overspending. And this is based on a fabrication, or a willful twisting of the historical facts of the financial crisis. By creating this false narrative - in short, a lie - it creates a mindset in the public so that people see austerity as inevitable - or as Cameron has said "there is no alternative". In short, it is treating people as subjects.

If there is truly "no alternative", then why have elections at all (as Greece is finding out, to it's cost, at the moment)? This mentality goes back the moniker I gave to the Conservative Party - the "aristocratic party". In its heart of hearts, Britain (or more exactly, England) is a monarchy, and the centuries since the Civil War have never dimmed the instinctive respect people have for the ruling elite. Otherwise, why on earth do people find the trivialities of the royal family so distracting? The Conservatives know this. But in spite of the plethora of evidence that has damned the elite as a corrupt and instinctively self-serving institution, few people care enough (or feel powerful enough) to do anything about it.
This explains why the Conservative Party is so adept at modifying its outward appearance, and changing with the times. After all, Britain's politicians in the nineteenth century didn't give away suffrage out of the kindness of their hearts: it was a simply case of political expediency. As politicians at the time said, it was either give away some control away from the centre, or face a revolution. The Conservative Party - like the establishment it represents - has always worked to stay one step ahead of the game, predicting where future threats will come from, and seeing them off before they mature. While this hasn't always worked perfectly, the party has always done what is necessary to survive and protect vested interests - as the recent fundraiser demonstrated.

It is this self-assured quality that other politicians, and the public, naturally find disarming. But with self-confidence also comes complacency, and incompetence - and this government has been more incompetent than most.

The worst government ever?

The list of blunders of this government is analysed in the epilogue of the book "The Blunders Of  Our Governments".
I talked briefly about the government's (i.e. George Osborne's) economic policy. Even according to the government's own criteria, it has failed - by a large margin - to do what it intended. Controlling the deficit is one of the government's key objectives, and it has utterly failed to do so. This is for the simple reason that those running country have little understanding about how government and the economy really works. They think they know how things work, but in reality have little idea. This is why economic experts think George Osborne's plans are, at best, rubbish, and at worst, downright dangerous for the economy.
The deficit has continued to increase because, for one thing, borrowing has not been controlled, and government tax receipts (such as from income tax) are massively down. This is the effect of the "Osborne recovery": where many jobs are low-paid, insecure and with poor employment rights. Under the Conservatives, this appears to be the "new normal", where the UK is ran like a developing country. Sadly, most people seem so distracted by the simple act of fending for themselves in this new, much more unforgiving, environment, that few have time to think who is to blame for it.

In a sense, the country seems to be in "recovery" not because of government policy, but in spite of government policy.

Osborne's other big blunder has been the "help to buy" policy, which every respected economic institution calls a potential economic disaster in the making. If continued into the next parliament, this scheme - which effectively subsidizes home ownership - could create, not only (yet) another housing bubble, but  - due to inevitable, eventual rises in interest rates - create a mammoth negative equity crisis like twenty-five years ago. This scheme alone demonstrates how much Osborne cares about politicking, but cares little for proper economic analysis of policy.

The blunders continue with other parts of government, which often seems intent on making one bad decision after another.
In some ways, this government could also be called an "experimental government", as many of the ministers who run departments seem to use them as a means to try out new ideas - often without any serious appraisal beforehand. Of course, this idea is not new; what does seem unique is the scale of the "what about-ism" that many ministers possess, and also the purely ideological grounds for many of the decisions, without being based on proper evidence for its benefit to government finances. While Cameron publicly appears the statesman, his "hands-off" approach to controlling his ministers has turned departmental policy into a free-for-all. This is one of his (many) failings as a leader, despite the appearance of the contrary.

To name just a handful of examples, there was the re-organisation of the NHS masterminded by Andrew Lansley, which occurred without any consultation with those who worked in the sector. After some time, Lansley was demoted, but the policy (and all its chaos) has continued under his successor, Jeremy Hunt.

The raising of tuition fees to £9000 looks to have been a massive financial disaster for the government, because there is little likelihood of the government ever recouping much of the money from graduates. The purpose of increasing the fees was meant to make higher education better value-for-money while at the same time increasing the quality of university education, while the jury is still out on the latter (and who can say when we will know?), the former has been a complete cock-up, likely to cost the government untold sums of money in written-off loans in the future.

The government's much vaunted target to reduce immigration into the "tens of thousands" (which Cameron himself said the government should be held to account on at the end of its term) has seen immigration - at best - remain at much the same level it was at the end of the last parliament. Again, this was due to pleasing its party base, without any thought being put into the reality of what controls the UK government has over its border (regarding EU immigration, none). This is why some people have turned to UKIP. The government's targets here have been shown to be a laughing stock.

The reform of the Probation Service - while not on many people's radar - is one of huge consequence for the sector in question, and is - again - a victim to ministerial ideology and whim. The Probation Service is to be downsized and the probation services provided to lower and medium risk offenders will be open to tender from a wide number of companies. The service itself is - unsurprisingly - up in arms about these changes, which effectively privatise most of the sector. Many suspect that these private sector companies will cost more - they usually do - without there being any real evidence that this approach would have any beneficial effect on re-offending rates (and may well reduce the quality of the service).

The "bedroom tax" is a prime example of Conservatives in government having little idea about the reality of life for many people in the UK, as well as having no understanding of the UK's housing stock. It hasn't stopped them from making policy based on their out-of-touch understanding of reality. The result of this policy has been to cause a great deal of financial hardship for some of the most vulnerable in society, including the disabled, even - tragically - suicide. The idea of this policy was to make further savings, but the savings that have actually been made are much less than were originally anticipated.

The introduction of Universal Credit (UC) has been a disaster in all senses of the word, and has been a prime example of how not to do something. Again, this was another "project" due to ministerial whim. The fact that Iain Duncan Smith hasn't been sacked is a testament to the failings of David Cameron's leadership.

The reduction of the armed forces looks to be a blunder strategically, as well as being short-sighted and without using any proper analysis. This is most surprising (and worrying), considering that the Conservatives would have been assumed had good contacts with the armed forces' establishment.The reduction in the regular army was meant be replaced by a reserve army, but the numbers of actual recruits for the reserve army are currently running at more than five times less than the forecast numbers.

There are also the various fiascos of out-sourcing - for example, the A4e scandal, which completely missed its targets on the government help-to-work programme; more infamously, is the gross incompetence of G4S to provide security for the London Olympics, as well as costing the government a fortune.

The fact that the Conservatives still insist on using the private sector as the first port of call for service provision, in spite of the mass of evidence that few of these providers ever do the job either competently or prudently, tells you everything. It tells you that those in the Conservative Party who govern the country are incapable of making a judgement based on the facts, and will persist in doing the same thing again and again, even though it never works. Are they stupid, corrupt or both?

And people call them competent?

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