Rhetoric Rhe-tory-c

Party conferences are a strange entity. In times of political stability they can seem nothing more than a parade; the key figures are rolled out one by one, gradually building up to the party leader who finishes the ceremony by inviting their partner on stage for the sake of the cameras as much as anything else. At times like this, it seems nothing more than an indulgence, a treat for those who have clung to the party regardless and, as a result, its effect seems negligible. But in uncertain times like the present, the party conference becomes pivotal in the winning over of those covetable swing voters. And the Conservative party has seized on media and popular consensus to try and turn it into votes.

The most popular economic scandals of recent times have to be ministers’ expenses claims, bankers’ bonuses and the government’s budget deficit and this is exactly the agenda that George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, and David Cameron’s speeches followed. Cameron stressed the urgency of redressing the government’s outstanding debts, which has been estimated at £175bn, arguing that it would only worsen if left to accumulate. However, trying to tackle such an enormous debt in the midst of the worst financial crisis of this generation would appear to be economic, and thus political, suicide. Aside from this, the numbers just don’t seem to add up.

The Labour government has already come under criticism for its proposal to tax 50p in every pound for the highest incomes and for its policy on cutting pensions by buying up existing government bonds. But far from pledging to repeal these changes, despite his fiery rhetoric in the past, Osborne has plans to raise more money from taxes and by other means if the Conservative party comes into power. This is in opposition to Cameron’s initial reaction to the credit crunch – to move the party firmly to the economic right, proposing a Thatcher-like laissez-faire approach to recovery.

Osborne’s plans mainly centred on a massive cut in public spending. However, in times of high unemployment it is obvious that this cannot come from cuts in benefits to low income or state dependant families (especially as this group seems to be onside since the Sun’s defection). Rather he radically proposes it will come from cuts in public and private sector wages. This involves job losses and, to appease the populace, MPs’ salaries could take a 5% cut and public sector pay would be frozen and capped at the level of that of the prime minister. This extends to entities like the BBC and the Bank of England. He also made a threat to private banks that unless they took a more responsible attitude to bonuses then he would take measures to ensure that they did.

The main factor behind all these promises seems to be a desire to project an image of honesty to contrast with the sleaze now associated, by many, with the economic establishment. But in actual fact, many of Osborne’s policies are not as far-reaching as they at first seem to be. Most noticeably his ceiling on public sector pay is not retroactive and so does not affect those already earning in excess of it. And he stated that many of these things were not concrete pledges but warnings to those in the relevant industries.

What he plans to do is a gamble that risks entrenching the recession instead of easing it. Salary cuts are bound to filter down through corporations; if the boss takes a cut in his salary then his juniors are likely to take similar cuts and so on, in order to protect the tiered nature of the body. This, combined with further job losses, could create a culture of saving which stands to prolong the recession. Osborne’s proposals also threaten to make the public sector unable to compete with the private and so unable to attract talented individuals, leading to a decline in efficiency and stagnation in the labour market. In the age of globalisation and international finance, his threats to the banks have little weight.

But these are only the most palatable of Osborne’s proposals as the measures described only stand to amount to one fifth of his forecast fiscal surplus. On top of this, there is talk of a sizeable cut in child benefits to those earning in excess of £31,000 per annum and if ends still don’t meet then there’s always VAT; possibly one of the most effective ways of raising cash in the short term. But this can only spell further falls in consumption and a longer recession as middle and lower class families tighten their belts.

To take a lesson from history, this particular Conservative electoral campaign has an uncanny similarity to Disraeli’s 1867 campaign. Faced with a divided Liberal government, Disraeli encouraged his Tory party to go against their traditionalist principles and cave in to popular pressure in order to win the working class vote, safe in the knowledge that the privileged would always vote Tory. In order to do this he hijacked the Liberals’ 1866 Reform Act, which had been blocked by his own party, radicalising it so that when it was finally passed it went further than the Liberals had ever aimed for it to go.

The Tories lost the 1868 election.


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