Jack Straw: The Tories are trying to buy the election

Never before in the history of our elections has a party spent so much to help so few

Wednesday 30 December 2009 01:00 GMT

I've now been offering this prize for weeks – at open-air meetings in my Blackburn constituency, at Labour Party dinners around the country. And still it's unclaimed.

It can't be the prize – two tickets to Burnley Reserves – which are clearly the height of generosity. So it must be the question: "Name one Conservative councillor who in the last 12 years has complained publicly that too much central government money has been invested in their area" – ie, that the new schools, health centres, sports facilities, those extra police officers and teachers, should never have been provided.

But that is precisely what David Cameron and George Osborne are saying, when they claim now that there's been too much public spending, for it's on these key services that much of the money has been spent – though they both, and all the other Conservative MPs, have been as silent as their local representatives have been shameless in claiming credit for the achievements which have flowed from this investment, like a doubling in good GCSE results in many areas, and a sustained drop in crime.

Just as Conservative wards would have suffered had Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne been in charge, so it's been as well for the country, and its families, that these two were not at the helm when the world recession took hold just over a year ago.

There were dire predictions about what this global meltdown would mean for the British people in repossessions, bankruptcies and job losses. Mr Osborne's advice was to do nothing, to let the recession take its course. But Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling took action to save savers and boost the economy. A tax deferral scheme was set up to help businesses stay afloat and keep people in jobs – and 200,000 agreements with businesses have been made so far.

I've seen the direct benefits in my own constituency. There's been far better advice and assistance for those struggling to avoid repossession. In consequence repossessions and mortgage arrears are running at around half the rates at which they peaked in the early Nineties.

Proportionately half as many businesses have gone under as in the last recession. The rate of job losses has been four times less than if we had repeated the experience of the early 1990s. The dire expectations have been confounded, but this didn't happen by accident. It happened because of the choices we made.

Now, as we start 2010, we face another big choice. Mr Darling has made clear that our first task for the new year must be to secure the recovery. We need to get the economy growing in order to get the deficit down. Mr Osborne, by contrast, threatens to choke off the recovery with cuts at the worst possible time. He and Mr Cameron promise an "age of austerity" – one in which ordinary families and the public services on which they depend would suffer.

But this week we discovered that there is one glaring omission from Mr Cameron's "age of austerity". There is one group for whom 2010 will not be a year of belt-tightening, but of big spending on an unprecedented scale. I am not just talking about the wealthy few who would benefit from George Osborne's £10bn-worth of unfunded and unfair tax cuts. I am talking about the Tory party itself.

At the same time that Mr Cameron tells the British people we face "austerity", he has ordered his party to fight the most expensive election campaign in British political history. It is an American-style campaign, costing millions, with wealthy suitors each paying £50,000 to join David Cameron's dining club, and British high streets covered with billboards bankrolled ultimately from Belize. Mr Cameron says the Conservatives have changed, but what we are seeing is an attempt by his party to buy the next general election.

And why? It is because Mr Cameron will say, do and spend almost anything to stop the general election campaign being about policy beyond a slogan on a billboard. For he knows that the substance of his policies will not stand up to scrutiny; that his policies stand principally to benefit the privileged few – and that the mainstream majority would end up paying the bill.

That is why, when Labour supports the aspirations of families from low and middle incomes, he wrongly accuses us of "class war"; and why, when Labour exposes the fact that the Tories want to spend billions on tax breaks for the three thousand wealthiest estates in our country, he criticises us for creating "dividing lines".

These ridiculous claims are a deliberate Conservative smokescreen to conceal the unfairness of their policies. From record-breaking, expensive advertising campaigns to the phoney rhetoric about class war, it's clear that Mr Cameron's strategy is to do everything he can to deflect attention from scrutiny of what a Conservative government would do. Ultimately, regardless of whether it's free flights from foreign companies or billboards bought ultimately from Belize, it doesn't matter how much money Mr Cameron throws at this campaign. The closer we get to the election, the more the Tory policies will come under scrutiny.

And as they do so, we are confident that the choice facing the British people about the future of this country will become clear. The truth is that the Conservatives made the wrong choices on the economy: on Northern Rock and on help for businesses and families. Now they threaten to choke off the recovery. And all of this is at the same time as they pledge a tax giveaway to the three thousand wealthiest estates.

Never before in the history of British elections has a political party spent so much – to help so few.

Meanwhile, I'm upping the prize on offer to one almost beyond price – two tickets to Blackburn Rovers first team. Any takers?

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