At different times, the Conservatives have been called the “nasty party” and the “stupid party”. I am beginning to wonder whether the epithets now apply simultaneously; that the Tories may have become both nasty and stupid.
It was, believe it or not, Theresa May, now Home Secretary, who first pinpointed the nastiness. In 2002, when she was chair of the party and had been an MP for five years and was in her middle 40s, she said: “You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party.”
As for being stupid, that goes back 150 years earlier to John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and political economist who, in a parliamentary exchange with a Conservative MP in 1866, said: “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any Hon Gentleman will question it.”
The link between these two criticisms is that the voters will no longer put up with “nasty” parties, if they ever did. May saw the connection in 2002 when she said, “There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies”. In fact, numerous studies have shown that citizens are at least as sensitive to the behaviour of the people in government as to the precise nature of the decisions they make.
That is because nowadays we are no longer a homogenous mass but an agglomeration of minorities. In my own circle of family and friends, for instance, there are people who are disabled and others with serious illnesses. There are those who are single parents, others who are retired. There are middle-aged people with back-breaking mortgages, others who are and young and ambitious. There are regular Church-goers as well as non-believers. There are people in jobs, and people who cannot find work. There are Londoners who can’t conceive of living anywhere else (I am one of these), and people who resent the capital city and all its works. Each of these minorities has its own particular concerns and needs, prejudices and resentments, but yet feels sympathy for any group that is badly treated.
To go back to the nastiness of the Tories, a vivid example was provided this week by the Prime Minister’s decision to withdraw support for rescue operations that save thousands of migrants from drowning as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Then, much nearer to home, we learnt a few days ago that people living with progressive and degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s, motor neurone disease and rheumatoid arthritis are being subjected to what a group of charities describes as “upsetting and unnecessary” benefits assessments to see whether they will recover enough to look for work in the future.
Many more examples can be added to this doleful list. Yesterday, for instance, the Resolution Foundation published its latest estimate of the prevalence of low-paid jobs. It finds that one-in-five employees (20 per cent, or around 4.9m individuals) earned less than what is defined as a living wage. In this context remember the recent announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, that if the Conservative Party wins next year’s general election, then most welfare payments that the working poor rely on – including child benefit, tax credits, jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit and income support – would be frozen in April 2016 for two years. They are currently rising by 1 per cent a year. In other words, the working poor will have to get a little poorer.
Finally consider what Freedom of Information requests answered by 72 councils across the UK have revealed – councils are confiscating more than 100 homes a week from elderly people to fund care-home fees. This is because the current law means local authorities do not have to pay such costs. Those with assets worth more than £23,500 must pay their own care bills. As a result, many families are forced to sell the family home or hand it over to the council. The Government recognises the problem but declines to deal with it until after the election.
Of course all governments have to act from time to time in a way that is perceived as nasty. But when decisions are unpopular in the short run, as the French political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon observed in his book Democratic Legitimacy, they are likely to be accepted in the long run if the process leading to them is judged to be fair.
A wise administration would pay attention to the four main elements that go into creating a sense of procedural justice. Those concerned should have been able to play an active part in the process. The rules should be applied with sensitivity to individual situations. Decision-makers should be impartial and fair. And the agents of the system with whom people have to deal should treat them with respect. This is what is meant by the behaviour of the people in government as opposed to the policy decisions they take.
Now in this respect, Conservative members of the Government have been rather clumsy. There is no evidence that people living with progressive and degenerative conditions or members of the working poor or families struggling to pay care bills for elderly relatives have been consulted. There is no evidence of sensitivity to individual situations or else the bedroom tax legislation would have recognised the special difficulties of disabled tenants who are unable to share a bedroom and would have taken into account where homes have been specially adapted.
As for the agents of the system with whom people have to deal, outsourcing many of these tasks has not produced happy results. Naturally the outsourced staff work by the book. They cannot be flexible or understanding. They are chiefly concerned with getting the job done as quickly as possible so as to reach the profits targets set by their employers. And then, in the final analysis, claimants are not dealing directly with the state at all but with a sort or mercenary army. Mutual respect cannot exist in these circumstances. The Coalition led by its Conservative ministers has often gone about its work in an unfeeling, insensitive manner. And for that shortcoming there could be a price to pay at the next general election.