Johann Hari: The harsh truth about Tory policies

Cameron adopts policies which will hurt the poor because he's never known any

Friday 06 November 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The most common complaint against David Cameron is unfair and untrue. Critics keep charging that he has no policies – but in truth, now he has dropped his early attempt at kum-bay-ya Conservatism, Cameron is offering a fairly detailed prospectus. Unfortunately, it is of policies that will harm Britain.

There is a laboratory where these Tory policies are being played out now. It is called London. Boris Johnson said he was a "progressive conservative" who would "help the poor" and "green the city". One of his first acts in power was to lay off half the people in London government working on lowering the city's carbon emissions, and to kick plans to limit pollution levels into the long grass.

One year in, it is clear he has delivered handsomely – for the rich. He has given them a de facto tax cut by abolishing the extension of the congestion zone to well-heeled west London, and by abandoning the £25-a-day charge for SUV drivers. He has paid for it by pushing up costs for the poorest people in London, ramming up bus fares by 20 per cent. He has opposed all new regulation on the City of London, and still praises sub-prime mortgages – the cause of the Great Crash of 2008.

Under the Conservative council of Hammersmith and Fulham – named by Cameron as a model for how he will rule – things have gone further. It has paid for tax cuts by shutting down 12 homeless hostels, increasing the cost of meals on wheels for poor pensioners by 60 percent, and suddenly charging disabled people who need home help £12.40 an hour.

The council's leader, Stephen Greenhalgh, says he wants to abolish council housing and let rents rise to market levels. He argues that council estates today are "barracks for the poor" and complains their residents are "hard to get rid of". A recent meeting of Tory policymakers – including Cameron's housing adviser Owen Inskip – dismissed council housing as a "dead end" and mooted charging market rents. Prices for the poorest people in London would soar to between £150 and £650, stripping many of a secure roof over their heads.

Yes, New Labour has often been dire – but the people who say nothing could be worse are learning the hard way that it ain't so. Poring through Cameron's policy documents, I could find only one instance where there would be a clear improvement: he would not build a new terminal at Heathrow. He deserves credit for that. But otherwise, his announcements casually write off British lives. For example, he says he will not erect any more speed cameras, no matter how bad a car crash hot-spot becomes. When it is pointed out that they cut deaths by 40 per cent and currently save 900 lives a year, he keeps his eye on the speedophile vote and refuses to budge.

Cameron will oversee a huge rise in religious fundamentalist schools. His policy is to allow any group of parents who want to establish a school to be given public money. In every country where this has been tried, the groups organised enough to snaffle the cash are extreme religious followers who want to "protect" their children from secular values. Secular campaigners are staring at Tory plans in a new kind of disbelief.

Of course, the most consequential policies so far cover the economy, where Cameron is promoting a fringe philosophy rejected by every other elected government. Most economists believe that when private spending collapses, the Government has to fill the gap in demand by borrowing and spending – or a recession turns into a depression. Yet Cameron says governments must cut spending to pay down the debt, however bad the economic weather.

The country that has steered out of the recession fastest – China – did precisely the opposite. It ramped up state spending to 88 per cent of GDP growth. Even Angela Merkel, who used to share Cameron's analysis, was so struck by this she now plans a large debt-funded stimulus. Professor David Blanchflower – one of the most distinguished economists in Britain – says Cameron's policies mean another million people will lose their jobs. "It could send the economy crashing into a ten-year depression," he warns.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Cameron and George Osborne can adopt policies that are so harmful towards ordinary people and the poor because they have never really known any. Barely a week passes without Osborne making a slip showing he is surreally out of touch.

He recently claimed his inheritance tax cut on properties worth £1m would be enjoyed by people living in ex-council houses. He then said his £20,000 a year private school, St Paul's, is "incredibly liberal" because "your mother could be the head of a giant corporation, or a solicitor in Kew."

If you think council houses are worth a million quid and solicitors in Kew are the lowest rung on the social ladder you can imagine, how does it affect your policies? Of course you can blithely advocate increasing the retirement age to 66: I doubt he even knows that in the place where I was born, Glasgow, most men are dead years before they reach that age.

This Cameroon-cocoon is best captured by the soon-to-be Tory MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who at the age of forty is accompanied at public events by his nanny, who he calls "Nanny." He recently snapped: "If I've got a nanny, I've got a nanny. And if anybody doesn't like it – tough!" He then added: "I do wish you wouldn't keep going on about my nanny. If I had a valet you'd think it was perfectly normal."

In the midst of all this, Cameron's policy documents show he will try to change Britain's political landscape to make it harder for the Tories to be defeated. He will abolish 10 per cent of parliamentary seats, almost all in Labour areas. He will scrap the rules requiring commercial broadcasters to be politically impartial, unleashing the rabid Fox News model against the British left. And he will threaten to outlaw trade union funding for Labour.

So let's be fair to him: David Cameron has policies. Lots of them. They suggest a sound-bite for the new election: Vote blue, and we'll all be singing the blues.

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