By Ian Richardson
One of the clearest examples of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ so far in the British election campaign has been the media’s flagging of the Tory manifesto as stealing moderate Labour’s clothes by ‘abandoning Thatcherism’ and instead pitching ‘for the centre ground’, allegedly abandoned by Corbyn’s Labour. In reality May’s Tory manifesto is the most right wing Tory manifesto since the Second World War, going way beyond Thatcher in its proposals to deepen the attack on the welfare state, extending austerity’s scope to both the very young – ending free school lunches – and to the elderly with the ending of winter fuel payments except to the very poor and a ‘solution’ to the social care crisis of making those needing it pay for it themselves from the value of their homes.
Moreover, far from May cleverly seizing Labour’s electoral terrain, the impact of the manifesto has been to shave several points off the Tories’ vote share, with two polls over this last weekend showing Labour closing the gap with the Tories to single figures.
Quite aside from the inherent unfairness of the proposals to attack the mass of the older population who are living on fixed incomes, it would appear to be insouciant electoral hubris by May. The cut in winter fuel payments for up to 10 million pensioners, axing the ‘triple lock’ on pensions, and introducing a stealth ‘death tax’ that will eat up all but £100,000 of both savings and home equity of those needing social care, assault that section of the population that delivers the Tories their most reliable support, both politically and in the proportion who actually vote.
The social care proposals are particularly iniquitous. The social and economic impact will be doubly negative. The new system will face the elderly with a choice between care they need or running down what they can hope to leave their children or grandchildren, who in turn will be struggling to meet rising higher education fees or get on the housing ladder. And it will also lead to a huge bonanza for privateers and profiteers. The price fixing, rip off merchants and poor care standards that dominate much of the residential care sector will be extended to the needs of those attempting to live out their final years at home.
The proposals to hit the elderly are just one strand of May’s austerity offensive, although probably the most electorally costly. In addition, the education budget is being cut in real terms, and free school meals will be gone. The under-funding and privatisation of the NHS will be extended.
The claim this is a manifesto for ‘workers’ is equally absurd. The promise to protect the minimum wage from inflation is de facto abandoned, as minimum wages will now only be linked to average earnings, which even the Bank of England expect to fall in real terms over the next period – a view that no one seriously challenges.
The Tory manifesto also makes no explicit commitment to rule out rises in income tax or National Insurance. This almost certainly means that they are in the pipeline. At the same time, it proposes to cut taxes for business and the rich. Corporation Tax rate will continue to fall, Osborne’s tax cuts for the rich will be maintained, inheritance taxes will be cut for the wealthy and capital gains taxes are also being cut. No wonder the billionaires and offshore trusts that own the press rejoice, and the BBC arm of the state supports this attempt to entrench and extend inequality.
The response of the British media has been even more craven than usual. With few honourable exceptions they have simply reproduced the nonsense from the Tory campaign that Theresa May is a centrist, that she is reaching out to Labour voters, that she is not Thatcher, that the Conservatives are now the party of the workers and similar drivel that insults the intelligence. Pretending to be political ingénues, the media has latched on to the worthless bauble of the proposal to introduce an energy price cap originally proposed by Miliband’s Labour, to suggest the Tories are moving to the left under May. Not only is this ridiculous when the overall thrust of her manifesto is properly assessed, but the price cap is unlikely to survive serious lobbying from the Big 6 energy companies.
In reality, this is the most reactionary manifesto from a major party in the entire period since World War II. Its central aim is to destroy the social and political settlement of that period based on all-party support for the main elements of the ‘welfare state’.
As has been outlined before, the Tory- Lynton Crosby strategy in this campaign is to destroy UKIP and win over its entire vote. This drives the main messages of the campaign, which was launched on whipping up anti-EU sentiment, and constantly returns to dominant themes of petty nationalism and anti-foreigner rhetoric. Even foreign policy is little Englander and narrow, with the Tory manifesto only mentioning one country in the section on foreign policy: the United States. This is all aimed at UKIP voters, but May also hopes that these themes will bury the economic impact of her austerity proposals.
It should also be noted that this requires the Tories treading a fine line of winning the UKIP vote by occupying their space, and not building the UKIP vote by pushing their issues to the top of the agenda. This means stressing Tory pledges on immigration while not using overtly racist or Islamophobic rhetoric which could breathe life into UKIP rather than kill it. However, it is obvious that from 9 June onwards the Tories’ racist offensive will resume, as scapegoating will be necessary to cover the renewed offensive on living standards. The election is a purely tactical respite from blatant racism.
The anticipated fall in living standards, as continuing inflation erodes incomes, is chiefly a result of Brexit. The fact that this fall is advancing inexorably as Brexit approaches, is why May made her election dash now; living standards have already begun to fall and will fall further. The Financial Times describes the recent period as the longest decline in wages for 200 years.
Moreover, if there is a Hard Brexit – that significantly limits access to the EU Single Market – the pound is likely to fall again and drive inflation even higher. Over time, the new impositions on trade will have the effect of lowering all incomes, both wages and profits. The Tory plan is to shift the entire burden of the adjustment on to the former, to protect profits.
The Corbyn leadership will seek the opposite outcome. Where the Tories are aiming to drive living standards lower, Labour’s policies aim at the opposite. Where the Tories will clobber pensioners and dismember the NHS, Corbyn’s Labour promises the opposite. Labour will raise the minimum wage, not cut it in real terms.
Labour has advanced in the polls precisely because these policies are popular and work in the interests of the working class and the poor. They are galvanising broad sections of the labour movement and can win votes to Labour.
This is the most stark choice at a British general election for generations. Every socialist, everyone who wants to maintain living standard, or the NHS, or the education system, everyone who opposes clobbering workers and pensioners to pay for the crisis caused by the Tories should get out the vote for Labour on 8 June.