Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Conservative and Labour manifestos launched: role reversal and fantasy politics in the 2015 election

Yesterday Labour launched their manifesto for the election, followed by the Conservatives today.

Before going on to some of the specifics, first of all it's worthwhile looking at the "first impressions" given by both parties' manifestos.

Both parties went for a "corporate" look using their party colours, with the Tories having a long angle shot of some of the cabinet "big names" (read: future leadership contenders) sat at a table. That said, it was also instructive about who wasn't in this particular photo  - the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and Eric Pickles, for example, or Grant "Michael Green" Shapps. The idea portrayed here is, one assumes, that of a solid, reliable team of ministers who work well together. The irony is that Cameron's speech talked about how "the people" were against some of his ministers' reforms, but they went ahead anyway; the reality is that it was Cameron who was against some of the reforms, but his ministers ignored him. IDS, for example, refused to resign when asked, and Cameron didn't want to fire him over the Universal Credit fiasco. So even the photo on the manifesto front page indirectly reflects some of the "behind the scenes" goings-on between the personalities in the party.

Staying with the Tories, their manifesto's "summary" page declares "we have a plan for every stage of your life" which was instantly mocked by some (see entry for 11.16) as sounding terrifyingly like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four. So are the Tories now re-branding themselves as Stalinists, taking their tips from the Chinese Communist Party? Conservative government for life, from cradle to the grave! Clearly, some people in party headquarters doesn't get out much if they think that "summary" looks reassuring...

Talking about Labour, as they were the party of opposition, they needed to give the impression of reassurance and competence. Ed Miliband now regularly wears grey ties, which makes me think that someone has told him it makes him look like a bank manager (it does!). The impression Labour and Ed Miliband want to give is one of almost "boring" competence, compared to the "danger and risk" to the lifeblood of the country that the Conservatives offer with their continued drive to austerity and the EU referendum. Many commentators spoke of how impressive Miliband came across compared to the past, and how to some it "looked like Miliband, but sounded like someone else" i.e. it was Ed Miliband, but the "adult/serious/competent/confident" version. This was the "yes, I'm ready to govern" version that Miliband wanted to show, contrasting with the version that Cameron and the media have shown in the past.

One more point worth mentioning was about how the press were handled by both parties during their launches, which displayed the different tones and attitudes of both sides. Miliband was keen to have an in-depth feedback with the press, even telling his (jeering) activists to show respect when he was being asked a hostile question. By contrast (and again, very "Chinese Communist Party"), the Tories' press session was must briefer, with Cameron "answering" fewer questions (usually by completely changing the topic), and having an aide hold the microphone for the press to prevent any follow-up from Cameron's "answer". Once Cameron gave his "answer" the mic quickly went over to someone else. The event was shamelessly stage-managed to avoid any awkward moments for the Tories' "dear leader"...

The role reversal of Labour and the Conservatives is striking in their manifestos and the pledges that they have made. With the Tories having a "wobble" last week, and Labour appearing to set the pace at out-flanking the Tories on their "competence" pledges, the pressure has been on the Tories to respond. After the clumsy, un-costed and ill-thought-out policy announcements at the end of the week (£8bn extra a year for the NHS? What planet are they on?), the Tories were looking to their manifesto to regain the initiative. It's never good for the Tories when they - as Ed Miliband said - make the Green Party look fiscally responsible.

Losing the plot?

The "eye-catching" policy of the manifesto launch was introducing the "right to buy" for housing association properties.

Here is an idea that qualifies as "zombie politics"; resurrecting an idea that was brought to life thirty years ago, and trying to re-package it decades later as the "next big thing". This policy also summaries everything that is wrong about the Conservative Party and the people who run it.

As Thatcher's original idea was politically popular, Cameron and his allies think the same trick can work again thirty years on with offering to sell-off Housing Association properties. For one, shows a condescending attitude towards people who live in these properties: it assumes that they want (and can afford) to buy these properties outright, rather than preferring the security that the long-term HA leases have, without having to pay the maintenance costs.
Second, it is clear that this a policy cynically aimed at Labour voters (as most HA properties are in lower-income areas), while at the same time aimed at getting the attention of  middle-class "floating voters" that the Tories are the "party of aspiration". But it's arrogant to assume that people in the 2010s have the same attitudes as those in the 1980s, because the social circumstances have changed. The housing crisis is at the back of everyone's minds, and evidence has shown that this policy isn't even popular with voters themselves. If you forgive the muddled metaphor, the Tories seem to think that voters are like Pavlovian dogs that whose "lights" can switched on and off at the click of a finger. They think that voters are - essentially - simple.

In this way, Cameron's Conservatives show how they are still living in the past, and think that they can win an election in 2015 on policies first thought up in 1979. It's superficial, arrogant and lazy thinking, and in a whole host of ways, is absolutely terrible economics. It's the worst of both worlds - a horrible political idea, and an economically-insane one. It also happens to be illegal, with HAs liable to challenge any Conservative attempts to enforce sell-offs in court.

This condescending attitude towards the public has been apparent from the stage-managed photo opportunities which people can see through immediately, and are heartily tired of seeing. It is odd that Britain is has of the most intelligent electorates in the world, yet the two main parties - the Tories in particular - treat the electorate as though they are idiots.

The overall impression of the Conservative manifesto was of a party in flight from reality. In government, they missed their economic targets by a mile, and made a mess of almost every major project and "reform" they handled. In many policies they announced in the manifesto, the costings couldn't be explained, and the cuts to made were only mentioned in the most abstract way. The Tories were telling us they could make massive savings with cuts (from where, they didn't say) while at the same time spending money here, there and everywhere. No-one with a brain could take this stuff seriously. Less than six months ago George Osborne was warning of the massive scale of the austerity to come after the election. Suddenly, the Tories have had massive attack of amnesia and self-delusion. Where does this madness end?

Cameron makes his party as being - wait for it - the "party of the working people". This is so laughable it's ridiculous. Why do so many of their party donors are tax-avoiders and have "non-dom" status, and why do the City invest in their party then? If anything, the Tories are the "trades union of the rich".

The only people that the Tories can be kidding is themselves.

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