So what were the main planks of the Tory policies announced in Birmingham? My notice was drawn to two particular announcements.
Firstly we had the proposal to remove unemployment benefit from 18 to 21 year olds if they don’t find a job within six months and coupled to this is the removal of housing benefit from people in the same age group. They would also reduce the benefits cap to £23,000.
On the other side of the coin I received an e-mail from Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps in which he promises to build 100,000 new ‘starter’ homes with the offer of a generous discount on the purchase price. No cost has been attached to that so I did a quick calculation of my own. 100,000 houses with a sale price of, say, £180,000 each getting a 20% discount will cost about £3.6 billion. They also promise to build a smaller number of ‘rent to buy homes’.That’s where the occupant rents the house until they can afford to buy it and then receives a generous discount based on the rent they have already paid. So, 10,000 ‘rent-to-buy’ houses at a cost of £180,000 equals another £1.8 billion.
The cost of the rent-to-buy houses will, eventually, be recovered when/if the houses are sold but they have to be paid
for up front. That £5.4 billion more than wipes out any savings that George Osborne has promised as a result of his proposed benefit cuts.
I have always considered class warfare to be a tool of the left. Let’s punish the rich for being rich, then take their money
and give it to the poor. At the same time it doesn’t do any harm to the election prospects of the left because the rich are not their natural electorate.
But looking at those two Tory policies side by side is this not just as much class warfare?
We will punish the unemployed youth simply for being unemployed. There’s no votes to be lost because the unemployed youth don’t vote Tory. Ditto the removal of housing benefit for the same age group. Ditto reducing the benefit cap.
On the other hand, we will build a new Tory electorate by using tax payers’ money to subsidise the purchase price of their
houses, for which they will feel grateful.
Now, my friends, acquaintances and regular readers of my blogs will no doubt be aware that I’m no fan of our overblown welfare state. Too many people live on benefits and I think that in the past this has been encouraged by politicians of a particular persuasion in order to buy votes. However, that doesn’t mean that I think we should ban the payment of benefits willy-nilly. First you must put the horse squarely before of the cart.
If you wish to withdraw unemployment benefits from 18 to 21 year olds you must first ensure that there are enough jobs in the local economy for those people to fill. If they then refuse to take the jobs there is at least an argument for withdrawing benefits. But I can’t think of a single region in the country where businesses are saying “we can’t get enough 18 to 21 years olds to fill the job vacancies we have”. There are plenty of employers complaining that they can’t get enough people with the required levels of skills, but that is a different argument.
Withdrawing unemployment benefits without providing job opportunities first is punishing people for something over which they have no control. It’s like punishing umbrella makers because it’s raining.
The withdrawing of housing benefit is just as bad. You are punishing people for being young and not thinking in terms of the wider issues, such as overcrowding, family discord and other domestic issues. The message is “Stay at home with Mum and Dad, because you don’t deserve a place of your own if you are poor”. Because the entitlement to housing benefit isn’t just the preserve of the unemployed. People on low wages are also entitled to housing benefit, so what the Tories are now saying is that even if you are hard-working you must stay at home with Mum and Dad. There’s a fine reward for taking on low paid work rather than living on unemployment benefit. Can you see the flaw in this argument? Because I can. People might well say ‘if I’m going to lose my housing benefit anyway then I might as well be unemployed’.
But that would eventually result in the loss of unemployment benefit, wouldn’t it? Yes, and this is why it’s such a vicious
proposal. It forces young people to take unrewarding, low paid employment while at the same time not allowing them to have a place of their own in which to live. It keeps the poor in a state of poverty without giving them a viable route out of it.
As most people know, except socialists apparently, you don’t end poverty by throwing money at people, because once the money has been spent you have to throw more money. But you also don’t end poverty by making people poorer and eroding their standard of living, which is what the Tories now seem intent on doing.
You end poverty by giving people a route out of it. Where is the promise of new skills training to make young people more employable? Where are the tax and NI concessions for companies employing young people, especially if they provide them with on-the-job training at the same time? Where are the partnerships with industry that will make that sort of thing happen? I’ll tell you where. They’re absent without leave from the Conservative Party Conference.
Of course these benefit cuts will mean big savings for the government, won’t it? We’re living in a time of austerity and we need to cut our public spending. True and if that was the aim of these policies then we would perhaps have to grit our teeth and accept it. But it isn’t. The money saved will go to doing something very different.
As I said above, the savings will go towards the building those starter homes and selling them at a discount. The savings are going direct into a project that will, the Tories hope, build a home owning Tory voting electorate. Just as the political left bribed people with benefits to vote Labour the political right are bribing people with housing to vote Tory. It
has been done before. After Margaret Thatcher’s government allowed people to buy their council houses at enormously discounted prices there was a surge in Tory voting at the next election, mainly amongst those who had bought their council houses.
We do need more housing and lots of it, there’s no doubt about that. We also need houses that people can afford to buy, especially in the city centres. But it doesn’t all have to be privately owned housing. In fact the far larger need is for social housing.
Here’s an idea which might be a vote winner. How about building low cost one bedroom flats for young people in places where there are well paying jobs for them to go to. You could even make them rent-to buy if it helps. I‘m sure there must be votes there for someone; probably the party that introduced the policy. You can still build the starter homes, because young single people will eventually get married and have children. They will earn more money as they gain skills and
work experience and some of those may want, eventually, to own their own homes. But there are some people who just don’t want that.
The Tories see home ownership, or lack of it, purely as a matter of money. If you have money then you buy your own house and if you don’t then you live in social housing. But that isn’t the case.
There are many sociological and psychological reasons why people choose to buy a house, or conversely, choose not to. Home ownership is a huge responsibility as well as a huge cost. Some people just don’t want that responsibility or the cost. It doesn’t make them bad people. It doesn’t make them welfare scroungers. It doesn’t even make them unambitious. It just makes them people who would rather not take on the responsibility, or the cost burden, for home ownership. Who knows, some of these people may even vote Tory.
I’m starting to see a pattern emerging from the Party conferences. Perhaps I’ve been slow on the uptake, but it appears to me that our current crop of politicians have no eye for the long term good of this country. They are interested solely in getting themselves elected.
Before the 1997 election the Labour Party had a real problem. The left wing policies that many politicians supported and wanted to see implemented were the kiss of death come election time. Many of the voting public didn’t want them anymore. So there was a new mantra. Get elected first, then we can change the country for the better. We will hide away the socialist policies that no-one wants until after the election. Unfortunately real change is usually painful so the newly elected government of Tony Blair steered well clear of it, preferring to bribe the electorate with their own money through the further expansion of the benefit system.
The mantra is now about how to getre-elected, it’s the only thing that matters. These new polices from the Tories make that clear. There are no votes for us amongst unemployed 18 to 21 years olds, so let’s build a new breed of home owning Tories who will vote for us at the next election and keep us in power.
What becomes of the poor and the low paid as a consequence of this policy? Who gives a shit. They’re never going to vote for us anyway. The main thing is to get re-elected and to stay in power, not to end poverty.
Er, no. A quick reminder of the purpose of a constitutionally elected government: The main thing is to govern this country
wisely and for the benefit of all the people, not just the ones that vote for you. These policies do not do that. These policies are divisive. They are the Tory version of class warfare.
I tried to find some positive note from the conference on which I could comment and thought I had found one with the
announcement that the government will fund GPs to hold evening surgeries. Then I thought it through and realised that it’s really just more window dressing and totally meaningless in the context of the bigger issues of GP’s practices. But
surely being able to see your GP in the evening or at weekends must be a good thing. Well, yes and no.
On the one hand hourly paid workers will no longer lose money because they won’t have to take time off to see their GP. But on the other hand it will allow employers to insist that employees make medical appointments for the evenings. One wonders who came up with this idea. Could it be the employers?
But hourly paid workers will be in competition with the workaholic salaried staff who also want an evening appointment so they don’t have to take time out of their busy days. Especially commuters who already want the appointments at the start or end of the working day so that they can still travel to work. Then there’s the young Mums who would like an evening appointment so that hubby can look after baby while Mum goes to the doctor, or vice versa.
But that isn’t the big issue. The big issue is how long you have to wait to get a routine appointment and the hoops you have to jump through t get it, like phoning up at 8 am because if you phone after then there won’t be any appointments left for that day or the next. This won’t lead to reduced waiting times for appointments; a common complaint amongst
patients. Because each practice will still only have the same number of doctors. If a practice normally has 4 doctors on duty during the day they will now only have 3, because the one who holds the evening surgery will take the day off
instead, but will still demand more money for doing it. The practice will also need to employ more admin staff to cover the extra opening hours, so the taxpayer ends up paying more for the same amount of medical staff.
What really needs to be addressed is the shortage of GPs. While the leafy suburbs and the country idylls don’t fare too badly it’s a different story in Tower Hamlets, Moss Side and the other inner city areas where GPs (and MPs) fear to tread, where GP practices are routinely understaffed and over worked. My mother constantly reminds me that the practice she attends used to have 8 doctors and now only has 5, one of whom is part time – and she lives in a pleasant and reasonably affluent part of London. At the same time patient numbers have increased, of course.
So, the trick Cameron missed was not promising more opening hours for GP practices, it was promising us more GPs, because that is what is really needed. Where was the plan to encourage more doctors into general practice? Where was the money to pay for them?
On Thursday, after the Conservative Party Conference had ended, Jeremy Hunt gave a speech to the Royal College of General Practitioners in which he promised to increase the number of GPs. But he then effectively kicked the issue into the long grass by instituting a review which won’t report until after the general election next year. I don’t think we will
see any improvement out of this. Even if the Tories get re-elected everyone will have forgotten what Hunt said by then and the report will be quietly buried.
Finally, on Wednesday, there was some good news from this conference for poorer people, even if it was a blatant bit of
electioneering. A tax cut for the lowest paid with a promise to the raise the basic rate tax threshold to£12,500. But not until the fiscal deficit is eliminated which is estimated to be 2018, but don’t hold your breath.
Of course it’s also a tax cut for the better off as the tax thresholds apply to everyone who has an income, and there is a bit more for the middle classes with a promise to raise the higher rate tax threshold (the 40% level) to£50,000 – that’s almost double the national average wage. So if you’re a natural Tory voter you win at both ends of the tax scale. Yet another example of quite subtle, but also quite definite, Tory class warfare.
So what can we expect next week in Glasgow? The Lib Dems will be trying to persuade their jaded and disappointed supporters that they are still a major force in British politics, despite all the indications that they’re not. It will almost certainly be the last time Nick Clegg will attend conference as the leader of his party. Is there anything the Lib Dems can
say that will persuade their supporters to stick with them, let alone attract new voters? I can’t wait to find out.
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