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The “Clean for the Queen” campaign is Tory Britain at its worst

Behind the usual monarchist deference is an insidious attempt to redefine poverty as a moral choice, rather than a result of the government’s austerity.

Forelocks at the ready, peasants. It’s time to Clean for the Queen. In honour of Her Majesty’s birthday, Tory politicians and major retailers have come together to encourage all good citizens to clean up their neighborhoods next weekend. Around the country, purple billboards, formatted in the style of those cloyingly awful “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, urge the underclass to “spruce up your streets! vacuum your villages!”, as if Hyacinth Bouquet had suddenly been appointed Supreme Leader. The jolly press releases fail to mention that the reason the neighbourhoods got dirty in the first place is that the council cleaners were fired. Major sponsors of the event include McDonalds, Greggs, Costa and Kentucky Fried Chicken, who are hardly irresponsible for the mess. 

Worse still, someone has persuaded a number of Tory ministers to dress up as day-labourers, complete with litter-pickers, gurning in purple uniforms. No Tory minister should be allowed to pose in public with household cleaning items. Have they forgotten the prime minister’s many eye-watering attempts to look comfortable in a high-vis jacket? Have they forgotten Boris Johnson’s appalling photo-op after the London riots, waggling a broom like a fascinating tribal artefact from a conquered nation?

The Mayor of London is graciously providing free binbags for all those lucky serfs who might want to have a go at cleaning the high streets while they wait for the food banks to open. There will presumably be songsheets on offer so that the formerly feckless youth of Cardiff and Coventry can perform sprightly choruses as they scrub, and choreographers to co-ordinate a marvellous broom-dance. Bono can do a solo as the unquiet ghost of Nye Bevan. 

 It’s a fantasy right out of Dickens – as long as you’ve not actually read Dickens and base your conception of British society entirely on the muppet musical remakes, which have a whole lot less violence and disease and a whole lot more singing penguins. 

In a week when more cuts to public services and welfare benefits were announced in the wake of troubling economic forecasts, all the state has to offer is a roll of free binbags and the exhortation to scrub and smile.  It has been some years since the Conservative party quietly dropped “We’re All In This Together” as a campaign slogan. Let’s be realistic: this is Tory Britain, and the only thing we’re all in together is the rain. It just won’t do to talk about money, particularly when you’re busy gutting and skinning the welfare state so you can decorate your office with its pelt.  Gone is the embarrassing pretence at cross-class solidarity: these days, it’s all about standing up straight and remembering all the verses to “God Save The Queen”, even the dodgy one about slaughtering Scotsmen.  We don’t talk about money, and who has it. That would be common. 

Last week, Cameron’s snug mask of patrician concern slipped when he mocked the leader of the opposition for looking, essentially, like a pleb. Jeremy Corbyn was trying to discuss cuts to the health service in Cameron’s own constituency when the prime minister suggested that instead of yammering on about the NHS the Labour leader ought to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem”.

This plea for decorum came, lest we forget, from a man who recently had to publicly deny having had sex with a dead pig. But the wealthy and their children may do as they please: nobody is scouting around Eton for volunteers to Clean for the Queen. 

If it’s common to talk about money, it’s downright oikish to talk about poverty. The Queen doesn’t want to hear that nonsense. In fact, the government is halfway to winning its battle to redefine child poverty as a measure of something other than the actual amount of money that families actually have. 

Previously, the government has had to deliver reports to parliament about how many children were poor, but those figures were getting embarrassing, so Iain Duncan Smith has been fighting for some time to remove that requirement. The state will still publish the figures but will no longer have to formally tell MPs how many kids are living below the poverty line, which is set at 60 per cent of the median income. Instead, the DWP will be allowed to report on other things, like whether the children’s parents are employed, which is convenient, as thanks to wage suppression you no longer have to be out of work to be flat broke. New standards of acceptable child deprivation will presumably include how adorable and well-mannered the little ragamuffins are, and whether they’ve wiped their noses and learned to recite the names of every former colony of the British Empire before they get their evening gruel. What does it matter if these children live in poverty, as long as they keep Christmas in their hearts? 

At least they can be kept busy mopping for the monarchy. Most of the organisations getting involved in the scheme appear to be schools and scouting groups, which is interesting, as I thought we had laws about child labour. But cleaning is an onerous and unhealthy job that people generally require a salary to do. 

I’m not sure if anyone has explained this to Boris Johnson, David Cameron or Iain Duncan Smith. I’d like to know, in fact, when any of these men last cleaned anything – their desks, their suits, their financial records, anything at all. They may actually believe that dirt magically appears and disappears in proportion to one’s moral uprightness, measured, of course, by wealth. The right sort of people have their dusting and polishing done by the staff or, in a pinch, the wife. Recently, cleaners at the Foreign Office were disciplined after demanding less insulting wages. It must have come as a great surprise to the ministers there that government departments are not, in fact, tidied by elves while good Tories are tucked up in their beds dreaming of lucrative private sector contracts to come.

Back in the real world, the reason Britain has a problem with litter because local councils have been forced to cut their budgets by up to 40 per cent in two years, for no good reason other than to fund Tory tax breaks for the same companies that are sponsoring “Clean for the Queen”. Councils have had to choose between closing their child crisis centres, shutting down libraries, or firing half their cleaning staff. Many of the “grot spots” that the beleaguered Clean For The Queen social media team has chosen to shame in public are untidy precisely because they’ve had to get rid of the people who were actually employed to tidy up. 

Now those same people are being asked to do the work for free. In 2014 John McArthur, a 59-year-old worker from Motherwell, was made redundant from his minimum wage job at a local recycling centre – and then forced to do the same job for free as part of a “Community Work Placement” designed to motivate the unemployed to get back to work.

The point of all this is to redefine poverty as a moral choice, a lapse of judgement, as if the soaring numbers of people sleeping on the streets have done the equivalent of leaving the house without their trousers on. They have simply forgotten to be rich. Similarly, the sick and disabled people whose benefits have now been cut to just £73 pounds a week have not tried hard enough to not have cancer, or broken bones, or bipolar disorder. If having to decide between starving and freezing doesn’t motivate the surplus population to miracle acts of self-healing, imagine how much more gumption they’ll have when we replace benefits with small packets of Disney stickers, motivational quotes and maybe some collectible plastic figurines of the royal family where you can pull a string and have the Duke of Edinburgh ask you why you haven’t got a job yet.

The poor don’t need money, they need a better attitude. Recently Frank Field, who is a Labour MP in the same way that Donald Trump is a man of the people, opined in the Telegraph that children should be required to sit through lessons in how to avoid poverty – not by joining a union and agitating for humane wages, but by getting married. This advice, aimed at young girls, would have appeared retrograde in the 1950s, but in today’s Britain it is acceptable for a politician to declare that marriage must be prioritised as “the great civilising force on males”. “Of course no one should advocate the continuation of a partnership that involves mental or physical abuse,” writes Field. “But the possibility of such abuse must not be used to promote single parenthood.”

Motivation is not the problem. People are not, on the whole, unemployed or underemployed because they are lazy or feckless or make poor choices. People are unemployed because there are fewer jobs available, and those that remain pay far less than they once did as the cost of living continues to rise. This is not happening by chance, but as a direct result of government cuts that are destroying the public services ordinary people rely on in the name of “balancing the books”. The books in question, if you’re wondering, have roundly failed to balance.

It’s all about incentives. The poor need to be incentivised to work, even when there are few jobs available and fewer still that pay a liveable wage. By the same logic, if we simply stop providing chemotherapy to cancer patients, they will be incentivised to heal themselves. If we stop teaching science in schools, our children will be incentivised to become astrophysicists. If we drive a hundred thousand disabled people into the sea they will be incentivised to grow gills and fins. I expect the white paper from the Department for a Work and Pensions within weeks. Oddly, the well-off do not seem to require negative incentives, but positive ones – unlike the feckless poor, the flighty rich must be tempted with government handouts and soft, welcoming tax deals unless we want them to flee the capital, which would be a disaster for reasons explained with mumbling and a patrician handwave.

If all that makes the difference between penury and survival is the right incentives, then poverty is not an artefact of inequality, but a moral choice. If social breakdown comes about not because of austerity but because of falling standards, then people shouldn’t blame their bosses or elected leaders for their cramping stomachs and freezing homes. Instead, they get to blame themselves, and blame each other. Soldier on in shame and exhaustion, as long as you don’t get so depressed that you can’t work.

Britain is a dirty place, but the grime is where it’s always been – below the surface, settling into the cracks in sixty million anxious human hearts. If you’re wondering what this has to do with the Queen, the answer, of course, is nothing at all. The Queen is ninety years old. She does not care if the bins get taken out, and neither does the Cabinet, as long as we’re not out there actively upending wheelie bins in disgust. The Queen’s birthday is merely a convenient occasion for another cloying appeal to this country’s most subservient, cap-doffing instincts: don’t make a fuss. Sit up straight, peasants. Put on a proper suit and tie. Don’t talk about poverty. Don’t talk about inequality. Stiffen that upper lip while you sing the National Anthem. Polish your front step till it shines. Scrub and smile. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad