Can we trust Dave?

Cameron is breaking his "personal" pledges.

So how much is the Prime Minister's word worth? The well-informed James Forsyth wrote in the Mail on Sunday on 13 December 2010:

Breaking one of Cameron's personal promises is one of the great no-nos of this government. All the way through the Spending Review, great care -- and cost -- was taken to protect any commitment that Cameron himself had made.

Downing Street is desperate to protect the Cameron brand. They know that a leader's word has to mean something . . .

Forsyth is right: in an age in which trust in politicians is plummeting by the day, a party leader's word does have to mean something. He's wrong, however, to say: "Breaking one of Cameron's personal promises is one of the great no-nos of this government." The Prime Minister himself has broken a fair few (child benefit? VAT?) and, as this morning's newspapers make clear, he is in the midst of violating a few more.

Take the NHS. Cameron, in opposition, made a great fanfare about protecting the NHS budget from cuts; in fact, in December, Cameron told MPs at Prime Minister's Questions:

We are not breaking that promise. We want to see NHS spending increase by more than inflation every year.

Yet, as the Mirror reports:

An analysis by the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies showed yesterday rising inflation means NHS funding will fall 0.9 per cent over the next four years, equivalent to a cut of £900m.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, has helped to cook the books by reducing the baseline from which the Government measures health spending.

But the IFS said that even with the new baseline Mr Osborne will struggle to maintain NHS spending above "zero" and was "sailing very close to the wind".

Then, there is the issue of pensioners and the Winter Fuel Allowance. From the Guardian:

Older people will receive up to £100 less from the government in payments to help with their winter energy bills -- a cut George Osborne failed to mention in his Budget speech, or include in the Budget document.

The winter fuel payment is currently worth £250 for the over-60s and £400 for the over-80s, following a temporary uplift of £50 and £100 respectively -- introduced by the previous government in 2008. It is this top-up that the current government is allowing to expire from winter 2011.

Yet in a speech delivered 48 hours before last year's general election, Cameron proclaimed:

And I want to say to British people clearly and frankly this; if you are elderly, if you are frail, if you are poor, if you are needy a Conservative government will always look after you. On the journey we need to take this country on, no one will be left behind. And let me say very clearly to pensioners if you have a Conservative government your Winter Fuel Allowance, your bus pass, your Pension Credit, your free TV licence, all these things are safe. You can read my lips, that is a promise from my heart.

Hmm. Dave had better be careful. There was another centre-right leader who made grandiose promises -- before breaking them -- while uttering the fateful words, "read my lips". Whatever happened to him?

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.