David Cameron: from foolhardy champion swimmer to panicked doggy-paddler

The prime minister's party conference speech had only regurgitated rhetoric, with no policy, ideas or budget to back it up.

 

Do you remember that funny 1980s film, Weekend at Bernie’s? Two losers trying to pretend that their boss hadn’t really died, so that they may continue to party at his expense? That, for me, was the inescapable image of the Conservative Party conference.

The corpse, in this case, is the government’s neoliberal economic policy, complete with comedy hat and sunglasses. The rigor mortis of contraction and unemployment is making it increasingly difficult for George Osborne to manipulate the arm into nonchalantly waving at a passing Christine Lagarde. She’s not buying it. The party is over.

I was fully prepared to write a piece attacking all the erroneous figures, the misquoted statistics, the circular arguments. But I won’t. Firstly, because it is futile; the depressing truth is that nobody with the intellect to be interested in such writing believes much of what this (or any) government says. Secondly, because, having heard Cameron’s evangelical call to arms, there are more fundamental things to address.

“I'm not here to defend privilege. I'm here to spread it”, says Cameron. The delegates cheer ecstatically. But what is the reality behind the one-liner? Privilege is by definition what one has above what others have. The very core of privilege is inequality. In short, the prime minister of a country in which less than 10 per cent of the population control more that 50 per cent of the wealth, wants more inequality. Of course he does, he is part of that 10 per cent.

Still, we mustn’t resort to the “politics of resentment”, we were told with metronomic regularity this week. We mustn’t think ill of those hard-working people who do well. The implication being that, if you’re not doing well, you’re just not working hard enough. Also, that all those who do well, have worked hard. Like Osborne and Cameron who inherited their wealth.

Cameron saluted “the doers” and “the risk-takers”. The Doers and Risk-takers in the City of London and Wall Street, those arsonists largely responsible for setting the world on fire, salute you back, David. And why shouldn’t they? They are seemingly untouchable by regulation, prosecution – and now, even resentment.

On the other hand, when it comes to resenting the poor, the unemployed, the unionised, the immigrant, the sick, the squatter, the public servant, the European, the young, the old, the intellectual, the Muslim, the demonstrator - resentment is not only allowed. It is encouraged.

In this current climate of unemployment and misery, it has never occurred to me when leaving home for a job, to be anything other than grateful that I have a job. I have never glanced at a neighbour’s drawn blinds and thought “you lucky sod, surviving on sixty quid a week”.

The reason 2.6 million unemployed cannot be shoe-horned into three hundred thousand vacancies is mathematics. Not a lack of aspiration.

That word - aspiration… Repeated again and again. “Conservatives are the party of aspiration.” They are here to help those who aspire. “The young people who dream of their first pay cheque, their first car, their first home – and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things.” More cheers from the hypnotised delegate-flock.

It doesn’t occur to David Cameron how utterly depressing it is for the leader of this country to define “aspiration” as the lust for money, cars and property.

It never occurs to him how hypocritical it is for this to come from someone who knew they would get a car as a present on their eighteenth birthday, always have a comfortable home to live in and a pay cheque guaranteed upon graduation because daddy could pull strings.

It does not occur to him how hilariously at odds this is with his rhetoric on the big society. How it exposes the idiocy of the expectation that once this fictional young person, bred to be selfish and materialistic, has accumulated enough pay cheques, enough cars, enough homes, they will go out and run a soup kitchen for those “less aspirational”.

It never even occurs to him that this mass psychosis, of judging success solely by reference to what each person can grab for themselves, is at the root of the social decay he bemoans; at the root of crime, poverty, environmental damage, the looting last summer, the financial crisis in 2008.

But most frighteningly, it does not appear to occur to him that the position of prime minister involves more than passionately delivered, hollow words.

Last year, he framed his speech with “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with her armbands on”. This year he says “it is time to sink or swim”. An elegant, if unwitting, indication of how his thinking has moved on; from foolhardy champion swimmer to panicked doggy-paddler.

The UK economy is fast becoming a small makeshift raft, cobbled together from antiquated dogma, U-turns and fiascos, adrift in a sea of global uncertainty. Selling off the planks to passing sharks is not a solution. When the water is ankle-deep, crew and passengers look to the captain for action, not regurgitated rhetoric, however deftly delivered.

All he can do is stand there and shout passionately “The Free Market will save us! Enterprise will save us! Aspiration will save us!” Abstract, deified, neoliberal concepts without a smidgeon of policy, detail or budget to back them up.

I recognised his speech for what it was: A drowning man’s gurgling prayer.

 

David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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There is no mandate for cutting immigration at the expense of living standards

Leave voters were asked if they would pay a price to cut immigration. The answer was clear. 

The Tories are in a mess on Brexit. The nation remains divided. But everyone accepts the need to prioritise reducing immigration, even at the expense of lower living standards.

These are the three key truisms of post-referendum Britain. But it turns out that only the first of those two propositions is actually true. The third, that there is a popular will to lower immigration at almost any cost, is not true at all. The latest poll from YouGov shows that even a majority of Leave voters are unwilling to accept any reduction in their living standards at all in order to curb immigration.

In the era of "fake news", it is important to begin with the facts. YouGov conducted its latest poll on Brexit on January 11 and 12. It found that the nation was indeed split and only marginally changed from the June referendum outcome.  In this poll, 44 per cent of all voters said they would to Remain and 43 per cent said they would vote Leave. This is well within the margin of error (as was the June referendum itself), and there was little recorded movement from one side of the divide to the other.

By introducing the question of immigration the YouGov pollsters made the responses much more decisive, and quite at odds with the received wisdom on the issue. YouGov asked only Leave voters what is the maximum amount of money they would be willing to lose "in order to regain control of immigration". The responses ranged from nothing at all to accepting a loss of over £200 or month per month and all points in between. The clear majority opted for nothing at all. They were willing to make no financial sacrifice at all. 

Remember, this is solely among Leave voters. It cannot be ruled out that some minority of Remain voters are willing to give up income to see immigration. But this would surely be a minority, possibly a tiny one. Therefore, the overall majority of voters, Leavers and Remainers combined are not will to let their living standards fall in order to lower immigration.

This stands in complete contrast to widespread assertions that the narrow Leave win in the referendum was "really" about curbing immigration. Theresa May herself has said that voters gave a very clear message they wanted tighter controls on immigration.  But of course immigration was not on the ballot. We know that popular sentiment is not pro-immigration. How could it be when voters have been told for years that it is the cause of all their woes?

Still, the clear evidence from the latest YouGov poll (and others) is that voters are unwilling to accept any decline in their living standards to achieve lower immigration. This makes it clear that immigration is not the paramount issue. Living standards are, as they usually are.

This has clear implications for all political parties. YouGov’s poll shows us that Labour cannot win by promising to cut immigration at the expense of living standards, which would surely follow any decision to quit the single market. Indeed, 65 per cent of the 2015 Labour voters voted to Remain. Among the minority Labour Leavers, two-thirds would not be willing to see any fall income in order to reduce immigration. The net result is that just 1 in 10 Labour voters in 2015 are willing to cut see their incomes fall to curb immigration.

Labour’s winning strategy will be to focus on its economic programme for government. Our electoral strategy will show people how Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell's economic plan can make the overwhelming majority of people better off. And keep on showing them. The reactionary Tory agenda can only make people worse off.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health.