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Keeping my Freedom Pass, blowing things up from inside and the invisible crime wave

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

No, I shall not be handing my pensioner perks back to the Treasury, as Iain Duncan Smith suggests. There’s no knowing what the government would do with the money. Most likely, it would spend it on further tax cuts for the rich.

There is something perverse and illogical about making a benefit available and then asking people to give it back. Though winter fuel allowances arrive automatically if you are over 62, the simplest way for the rich to forgo their free bus passes and, if they are over 75, free TV licences is not to apply for them in the first place. No doubt they could also insist on paying for their prescriptions and eye tests. I have never heard of anybody doing so. Though most rich people, I’d guess, wouldn’t wish to take the bus (such a rough ride and so many poor people), affluent residents of Greater London cheerfully use the Freedom Pass, which allows Underground travel without charge, and often boast about it, as Joanna Lumley did the other day.

The government has trouble persuading many rich folk to pay taxes that are legally required, so why it expects them to surrender benefits to which they are entitled is unclear. Introducing voluntary principles to financial transactions between state and citizen is to move into dangerous territory. How long before ministers suggest that the 45p rate of income tax paid by high earners should be optional?

Grey expectations
Many people talk about pensioner perks as though they were part of the fabric of the welfare state. In reality, they were introduced quite recently, mostly by Gordon Brown, as electoral bribes. It has dawned on politicians that the old can swing elections. Not only are pensioners the group most likely to vote, their numbers are growing. Those now reaching or approaching pensionable age came to maturity in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the political tribes began to dissolve. Unlike previous generations, they do not have fixed voting habits; they are biddable. Several writers, including the universities minister David Willetts, have lamented how young people face worse prospects than their parents did – but it would need a brave and skilful political leader to redress the balance.

Spat’s entertainment
What fun to follow the Twitter dispute between the BBC political presenter Andrew Neil and the Kent University journalism professor Tim Luckhurst. It ranged over Neil’s role in launching Sky TV and Luckhurst’s brief tenure in 2000 as editor of the Scotsmanwhen Neil was editor-in-chief. The spat culminated in Neil offering to “pay to straighten your teeth”, presumably after he rearranges them in a bout of fisticuffs.

I was reminded of how, in one of his less inspired moments, Geoffrey Robinson, then the proprietor of the NS, arranged for me and some colleagues to visit Neil at his London offices. We were to seek his wisdom on how to boost circulation, which, as Neil demonstrated to us with graphs, he had done (it turned out temporarily) at the Scotsman. The PowerPoint presentation concluded, we awaited his magic formula. “Ye blow it up from the inside!” he barked. “Take an old, established institution and blow it up!”

Crime and reason
The explanation for falling crime figures, which, against predictions, continued falling during austerity, eludes even the most omniscient commentators. Michael Howard’s claim that it’s because, as home secretary in the mid-1990s, he started locking up more criminals doesn’t make sense because crime is down across the developed world.

My theory is that crime hasn’t actually fallen – it has just changed. When your bank rings to notify you of “unauthorised” use of your debit or credit card, you probably don’t think of yourself as a crime victim. The bank tells you to shred the card and sends you a new one. Neither you nor the bank informs the police. You don’t, therefore, show up in the figures.

For the criminal, this and other forms of “invisible” crime, mostly online fraud, make perfect sense. Why work unsocial hours burgling houses in dangerous conditions and risk getting cold and wet when money can be made sitting in comfort at home? My theory admittedly doesn’t account for the fall in violent crime. Until you think that the internet offers ample opportunities for violence in a different form. See above.

Ill manners
The University of Buckingham Press has sent me a slim and rather eccentric volume, Defying Decrepitude, written by the university’s former vice-chancellor Sir Alan Peacock, a distinguished economist.

At 91, Peacock reports from the distant land of extreme longevity on how visits to surgeries and clinics play an increasing role in life as the body falters. What he doesn’t know – because it wasn’t true more than 20 years ago, when he was in his sixties – is that medicine now intervenes long before anything is wrong with you. I have no significant illness or disability and have never spent a single night in hospital (I touch wood as I write). Yet I am required to visit my local surgery regularly for tests and reviews and, each morning and evening, to ingest a variety of medicines. We used to see doctors when we were ill, hoping they’d make us well. Now, we see them when we’re well, hoping they don’t make us ill.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide