It’s not just me who’s asking this question: a lot of centrists feel alienated, whiplashed, and winded by finding ourselves suddenly derided as “the militant left,” “Trots,” and “crusties” for what is, in fact, a simple lack of radicalism.
Most of the Conservatives' policies would be good ones, if the things they believe were true. Closing Remploy factories would be a good way to foster integrated employment if their welfare to work programmes really were successful at getting more disabled people into secure employment. Cutting public sector jobs would be fine if the private sector really was picking up all the slack. Cutting housing benefit would be a good idea if rents really were only high because of subsidised rents, and if rents would definitely drop when benefits were cut. But none of this is happening, none of its true. Like a socialist believing in, say, ever-higher tax rates because it satisfies their sense of justice even if a high top rate of tax generates less revenue, so the coalition seem to believe in cutting, and privatising, the most random public services like the NHS and, now, it seems, the police, in face of all pragmatism, just because it appeals to theirs.
Does realising that mean I’ve become more left-wing? It certainly feels like it. I end up on the “leftist” side of the debate almost every time I discuss politics these days, unless I’m talking to the hard left. But I don’t feel like my views have changed. So the other day I did something I haven’t done in years; I took the good old ‘Political Compass’ quiz.
I am still exactly – exactly – where I have been (which is a centre-right fairly moderate libertarian, if you’re interested), ever since I dabbled in the Tory society at uni, and then went off to work in the private sector. Because I still believe free markets help keep people free. I believe the top rate of tax is too high – especially since the 50p rate was put in place. I believe strongly that private property rights, and private ownership, are important civil rights. I believe that the profit motive can have benefits for society. I believe in strong law and order, and I want taxes to be as low as possible – without sacrificing the basic things that make us civilised, of course. I believe state spending on luxuries like arts, humanities, and even some environmental projects, should be fairly minimal, especially at a time of cuts in public spending elsewhere.
But I also still believe that a legal minimum wage which is more or less in line with inflation, and which more or less covers people’s living costs, keeping them above the poverty line (which ours doesn’t) is a really important part of a successful economy, to say nothing of it being an important part of a civilised country. Businesses are nothing without customers; people need money in their pockets to buy things. Dirt-crunching wages shouldn’t be shrugged off as “part of the medicine.” Low wages and high unemployment are not part of the medicine; they are symptoms of the illness. I believe health, education, welfare, legal aid, and policing need to be kept away from the market, because they are, unfortunately, incompatible with the profit motive. I believe when you work you should get paid, and when you’re sick you should get support. These are not controversial viewpoints, not in this country. Or at least, they weren’t, last time I checked.
And this brings me back to my original question: how did this happen, this dragging of the entire political narrative to the right? How did backing a state-subsidised “wage” of £1.60 an hour for doing a job that profits someone else become a moderate view? How did outsourcing police duties to private suppliers become the sensible centre? How did opening up the National Health Service to EU competition law and allowing 49% of hospital beds to be occupied by private patients* become the common sense option for public service reform? How on earth have the decent, hard-working people of Britain let this happen? And we have years left of this; how much more can happen before we get furious?
Why aren’t we furious? Is it me? Perhaps the political centre was never where I thought it was. Perhaps I’ve always been a “socialist,” and “socialism” actually just means not letting families become homeless because they’re poor to pay their rent. Is that what socialism is? Chris Grayling seems to think so.
But I think not. If it was, we’d have a lot more socialists, and “socialism” wouldn’t be used as a way to invalidate someone’s position. I think working for profit and being paid a wage that you spend within the economy to profit other businesses is a pretty important part of capitalism. I know a lot of socialists, and none of them think I am one.
Perhaps that’s the trouble with blind ideologues. They think everyone else is also a blind ideologue. When people polarise or simplify the arguments that oppose their policies or opinions, all they do is demonstrate how polarised and simplistic their own perception of the world is. It doesn’t matter when it’s Alexandra Swann writing in the Guardian, but it does matter when it’s the people running the country. They are supposed to be accountable to, not dismissive of, the public.
Tony Blair calmly ignored the million protesters who marched through London in opposition to the war in Iraq but at least he never derided them as a bunch of “crusties” or “Trots.” He talked to them, listened to their arguments – with his eyebrows politely raised in that way he had mastered to make it look like he was taking something very seriously indeed – and then respectfully disagreed with them. He did not mock them for drinking at Starbucks, or for whether they sat, stood, or slept as means of protest – something David Cameron seemed to think was a valid criticism of the Occupy London protesters.
This is not unlike when, being corrected on a point of fact in the House of Commons, our PM told the MP in question to “calm down” and mocked her for, well, doing what she’s paid to do, which is hold the government to account when they get things wrong.
It’s not just the Conservatives, of course. Career politicians in all parties are quick to mistake privilege for authority. If you’ve heard of “mansplaining”, you’ll know what I mean. (“Mansplaining” is basically just when a man assumes an automatic position of authority when talking to a woman about something she actually knows more about, usually without even realising he’s doing it, just because he’s a man and naturally sees himself as authoritative). The government seem to be guilty of, well, “affluent-splaining,” and “able-splaining,” and a whole load more besides.
So, for example, when sick or disabled people, who are regularly subjected to Atos tests which find them “fit for work” when they are plainly not, or find themselves losing access to benefits they badly need, in, you know, real life, and they tell this to government ministers, they get told it they’re wrong because isn’t happening and they’re being protected. When people say they are told by the Job Centre that workfare is mandatory, and show a letter which describes it as such, Chris Grayling irritably insists that they’re wrong because it’s definitely voluntary. When Bill Gates tells the government that we should back a “Robin Hood” tax, George Osborne explains that we can’t do this because the business world won’t wear it. That one is actually my favourite: George Osborme (a public sector worker with inherited wealth and a degree in Modern History), telling Bill Gates, about business! And, astonishingly, when an HIV-positive voter – a successful self-employed businessman called Andrew Scholfield – writes to all the Liberal Democrat MPs to express fears about the Health and Social Care Bill, Stephen Williams MP and Andrew Stunell MP (according to Unite) send him this:
Andrew Stunell, MP for Hazel Grove, emailed Mr Schofield: “Consider just how counterproductive it is likely to be to send an unsolicited bar-room rant to a load of very busy people at the end of a long day.” And Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West, told Mr Schofield, who lives in Salford: “You win the prize for my most nonsensical email of the day” and that he was writing “complete drivel”.
These career politicians think they can tell us what we, the public, think; what “normal people” (as Iain Duncan-Smith charmingly put it) think. They forget that we are normal people. We talk to each other. We tell each other what we think. And they seem to have forgotten that “normal people” – I give IDS the benefit of the doubt, and assume he meant most people – did not vote for the government.
The last general election result is what really highlights the level of arrogance being displayed here: Labour catastrophically lost the last election, the Conservatives did not win it. Most of the public who didn’t vote Conservative gave their reasons as being that they “didn’t believe the Conservative party had really changed” and, more specifically, they “didn’t trust the Conservative party with the NHS.” Far from being a “prejudice” against the Conservative party, as David Cameron laughably described it in a Guardian article during the run-up to the election, these suspicions turned out to be rather well-founded. Actions speak louder than party political slogans, and the coalition’s actions have been very clear. I’m not judging them on anything but the detail of their own bills and policies. How can that be a “prejudice”?
The thing is, the Conservatives are playing a risky political game with this strategy. Every time they sneer that only socialists and “Trots” can believe in even the most moderate principles of a civilised social democracy, they are telling people like me not to bother voting for them, ever. They could not make it plainer that I am not welcome in their political discourse and they don’t want my vote. Not just mine: despite their constant insistence that conservatism is for everybody, it seems, from their policies and their attitude, that they don’t want the votes of an awful lot of people in the political centre. People with rent to pay, people with aspirations, working people who hope to send a kid to university one day or own a home; people who expect the rule of law to be enforced properly and there to be enough police around to protect them from crime. Anyone who wants to live in a sensible, civilised, meritocracy. If they don’t want our votes, that’s up to them. But they may find that, astonishingly, Iain Duncan-Smith’s grasp of what “normal people” think is even more distorted than mine is.
*It should be noted that Shirley Williams has said that this is not what the bill will allow but almost everyone else seems to be in disagreement with her about that.