This cruel and regressive Tory manifesto gives another spur to the left, argues Lindsey German
The Tories must be supremely confident or supremely stupid to launch the manifesto that they will put forward today. They can, of course, be both. And this can be the opportunity for Labour to really push its alternative and eat into the Tory vote.
The Tory thinking must be, they are far ahead in the polls, they are especially strong among older voters, so they can get away with anything. End the triple lock which guarantees pension rises, means-test winter fuel payments, end the tax lock which will push up inflation, and most damningly increase charging older people for social care in their homes. None of this is likely to win them any friends.
Add to this scrapping free school meals for all infant schools to replace them with breakfasts (as if kids don't need both), further attempts to limit and penalise migration, and this is a real Blue Meanie manifesto.
But it contains real dangers for the Tories, who have to a certain extent always relied on working-class voters (a third of working people have always voted Tory) who had aspirations to own their own house, put money into savings and had private pension plans. This lifetime of prudence by no means makes them wealthy, but it will mean they are means tested on what assets they have - something which will lead to a great deal of bitterness.
I don't want to say much about social care and pensions here, except to say that it is a disgrace that we have a totally privatised social care system whereas we have a public NHS. There is no logic to this apart from profit. Everyone knows this system is in deep crisis and this is in part exacerbating the NHS crisis. Everyone knows the system of care is poor and has been made much worse by Tory cuts. It needs to be publicly owned and controlled. We hear so much about well-off pensioners, but British pensioners are among the worst off in Europe, and millions of us have to continue working because we can't afford not to.
Perhaps most nauseating is the way these attacks on millions of people are dressed up as being fair - fair to the very poor and fair to the young. They are nothing of the sort. Means-testing is costly and inefficient. It excludes some who are just above the level which qualifies but who cannot afford to pay privately. It also fails to reach those who do qualify in the way that universal benefits do.
As for fairness to the young: we have forced young people to pay for higher education, increase pensions payments, be priced out of decent housing, and have to work in increasingly insecure and poorly paid conditions. Instead of redressing any of these problems, the Tories are saying, your lives are getting worse and now we're going to enforce comparable conditions on the older generations.
It is a race to the bottom. And it is an attack on all working people, whatever their age.
If May wants to support working class people, try supporting trade unions
So the Tories are launching their manifesto in Halifax, Yorkshire former textile town with its beautiful Piece Hall and Labour traditions. It had a tremendous Labour MP till a few years ago in the form of Alice Mahon, a redoubtable working class woman whose integrity was never in doubt and who was good on most policies including Opposition to war. She retired in 2005, and now the seat is a narrow marginal. Labour is slightly ahead of the Tories and there is a relatively big Ukip vote from last time in 2015.
The Tories' plan is to highlight this as the sort of place where Theresa May can appeal to the traditional working class. Well maybe. But there could barely be a stronger contrast between May, who wants to imbue us with the values of the vicarage, and is so stiff and awkward when talking to anyone who is not a Tory candidate, a rich businessman or a paid lackey, and Mahon, who speaks from the heart and has always seen politics as working for people, not advancing her own career.
May's attempt to appeal to the working class vote when people feel (quite rightly) that they have been ignored and taken for granted by local councils and MPs is about as convincing as the wolf dressing up in granny's clothes - and just as dangerous. Empress Theresa may think it's generous to give workers the right to request a year off without pay to help patch up an ailing social care system, or to people live in council houses for a decade until they too are sold off on the market, but most people shouldn't confuse these with proper statutory paid leave or proper secure council houses.
It might also be worth asking if she's so keen on workers' rights, why not cut the costs of employment tribunals, or allow trade unions collective bargaining rights at work? Because those are rights which would actually win some victories over bullying employers, which is the last thing she wants.
The wages you can't live on
This is all important because after the election she knows things can only get worse. Yesterday the FT made clear that higher inflation is eating into real wages and that these wages are dropping for the first time in 3 years. Levels of personal and state debt are both at record levels. Personal debt is not, for the most part, people buying luxury cars or big houses - it is people borrowing to feed their kids, or buy school clothes, or replacement household goods. They do this because their wages are not high enough to cover the costs of their reproduction, to use a Marxist phrase.
People simply do not earn enough to live on without borrowing in an economy notorious for its low wage, low productivity economy. So she wants suppliant and weak, under-represented workers who will be grateful for a few crumbs.
Is Theresa aiming at dictatorship?
Everything in this election is about Theresa May. The Tories are downplaying their brand and promoting her as - we all know - strong and stable. This is a tacit admission of deep rooted Tory unpopularity. It also undoubtedly will lead to future deep divisions among them. While there is a show of unity within Tory ranks it doesn't go very deep. Chancellor Philip Hammond looks like he's up for the chop after the election. Too much like George Osborne for May's liking. And possibly Boris Johnson, who is definitely off the number 10 guest list. With polls predicting a big majority, she will want to clear out all opposition on her own side. So there will be battles ahead inside the Tories.
Her aim of winning working class votes is to increase any sort of base in this direction, both to weaken Labour and to weaken her own opposition. I think it's pretty clear that she will be very autocratic if she is able to get away with it, and will - as we saw in the Home Office - be unpleasant and authoritarian. There really is such a difference between the two parties this time. So first thing is to deny her that big majority. Still, a long way to go, but things are moving in the right direction.
We can do better than 200
There was a lot of uproar about Len McCluskey yesterday and his claim that Labour couldn't win but should strive for 200 seats. Headlines on Guardian front page and repeated ad nauseam on the BBC. He came out with a much better statement later on, where he said he was genuinely excited about the manifesto and thought a lot could change in three weeks. To me it underlines three things: be careful what you say in this election because they will pounce on anything; the media is frankly now ridiculous in its political priorities and its incessant baiting of Labour, and can only be fought against in the most robust way possible; and the important discussions about what will happen after the election (and don't think for a moment our enemies aren't having them) must be subordinated to a real fight to maximise our vote and win as much as we can. I'm in favour of looking at the serious odds against us, but not in favour of thinking that there's nothing we can do. The manifesto has made waves, the polls are ticking up, and who knows where we will end up?
For what it's worth, I think Jeremy and his team have done a very good job in the circumstances, attacked as they are from all sides. They have put forward brave left-wing policies of the sort demanded by socialists for decades now, and they have shown there is an alternative. Crucial though the vote is, it doesn't end there. We will have huge battles either to stop the Tories or to back up a left government which will be faced with ruling-class opposition from day one. This is a new phase of British politics, increasingly defined by class and the whole future shape of society. Those of us who predicted it would be this, not a rerun of the EU referendum, that would shape the election, are being proved right. And that includes Jeremy Corbyn.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Lip service to the left, but moves to the right - weekly briefing
- Do not be fooled: Trump is the problem
- Soleimani assassination is an act of war
- Past mistakes, future opportunities - weekly briefing
- What we should take from the election and what we do next
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December
- We have a world to win – election briefing Polling Day