Compassionate Conservatism?

Compassionate Conservatism?

How do we understand this new conservative rhetoric of equality and an assault on poverty when we place it against the reality of rising inequality and the expectation that tax credit cuts will put 200,000 more families in poverty?

“It was the Conservatives who first protected working people in the mills; it was the Conservatives who took a great step towards state education; it was the Conservatives who introduced equal votes for women; it was the Conservatives who gave people the right-to-buy. So, of course, it is now the Conservatives who are transforming welfare and introducing a national living wage. This is the party for the working people of Britain.”
George Osborne – budget speech, May 2015

“Every day, in every way, Great Britain lives up to its name. And I know we can make it greater still. A Greater Britain. Where people have greater hope greater chances, greater security.”
David Cameron – conference speech, October 2015

The Conservatives won by a narrow majority in May 2015. The result shocked a London-based commentariat. This was hardly surprising as the capital swung to Labour and London remains where life’s winners congregate, a place from which losers must be expelled. Yet, it was life’s losers who did not turn out to vote for the main alternative on offer, a watered-down version of Conservative austerity being sold to them by Ed Miliband. We were then told the Labour Party did not appeal enough to those who were aspirational and wanted more, including people who wanted more irrespective of who would end up with less. But perhaps fear and fantasy greatly played their part, too. An eighth of the English electorate voted for the UK Independence party (UKIP).

In Scotland it was different. All but three of the constituencies fell to the Scottish National Party. No longer a nationalist party, the SNP had become a national party. It now represented as wide a cross-section of society as it is possible to imagine. The former Royal Bank of Scotland oil economist Alex Salmond became an MP alongside young students and aged socialists. So fifty-six SNP MPs set off to London to take their seats and spread their message. Not since 1918, when Sinn Féin took seventy-three seats in Ireland, has a third party performed so well in the United Kingdom. Change is underway, but many of the English elite remain so blindly arrogant they cannot see what’s coming. To them the Scots are no better than restless children.

As the impact of the May 2015 election became felt throughout England, new voices were heard and grew louder. They said the Labour Party had stumbled not by choosing the wrong leader or electoral strategy, but because it had forgotten how to cooperate and be kind. Labour did not ally itself with the Greens or the SNP, and there was little unity among its own members in the Shadow Cabinet. Instead, Labour saw the election as a two-horse race where being the sole winner was all important.

One now-hardened commentator, Zoe Williams, explained: ‘The problem is so much deeper than who the leader is; and so much more exhilarating.’ Labour had not been offering change, just a diluted version of what had gone before. What for some was exhilarating in the days and weeks after 7 May was the opening up of new possibilities and radical alternatives. There were few signs of optimism among the population at large, but for some there were at least glimmerings of hope. Other commentators, such as Bill Gidding, pointed out that in England the votes for radical alternatives rose, and, in fact, there was no swing from Labour to Conservatives between 2010 and 2015.

Concern about the implications of rising inequality is growing among the well-to-do, who occasionally deign to look down from the hill, from over their high garden walls, and worry that neither hill nor walls are high enough. Today, the London Riots of 2011 are often referred to when you speak to the rich about inequality. Clearly, for many of the elite, poverty and inequality would only be of minor concern were it not for the fear of insurrection. As the poor are pushed out of London the elite feel safer, but all the time more people are living on the breadline, especially in London where rents are skyrocketing. Forecasts published the week after the election suggested that London house prices could double to average £1 million a property by 2030, and surveys were released showing that the richest fifth in Britain held on average 105 times the wealth of the poorest fifth.