The Tories a joke in Washington

Imagine a football match in which your team is performing formidably. It leads 3-0, then, inexplicably, it slows down, allowing the adversary to advance despite a weak, unconvincing performance and a desperate shortage of star players. Welcome to the match of your lifetime: Team Labour v Team Tory.

Though based in Washington, DC, where I am a Master’s student, I follow British politics closely. It seems to me that during more than a decade of leadership, Labour has delivered Britain into the 21st century. Sustained investment in state education has yielded demonstrable results. The risk of being a victim of crime is at historically low levels. The effectiveness of the British health-care system is envied in the US, and again the improvement is undeniable. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is potently orchestrating domestic and global economic strategies.

Yet, for reasons I find increasingly hard to understand, the Labour Party has been hesitant about defending its own policy record. This is surprising because Labour’s decade-long policy output is so superior to the Conservatives’ platform for the future that the latter does not stand up to serious analysis. On education, for instance, the Conservative vision is to divert funding to building new independent schools. This will incur unnecessary costs for taxpayers. Additionally, some of their proposed schools are to be funded based on the number of children they attract. The Tories are ignorant of, or unconcerned by, the severe distributional implications of this competitive system.

Wealthier parents will have an incentive to invest more in their children’s education in the same way they invest in luxury cars. Inevitably, schools in poorer areas will fall behind. The imperative for education should transcend the obsession with individual success conditioned by market competition and the profit motive.

Equally questionable is the Conservatives’ evaluation of education, which resembles

an engineer’s assessment of road construction. Using percentages of “poor discipline” and “truancy” to punish teachers and state schools is nonsense. It conjures up America’s No Child Left Behind programme, whose assembly-line approach consigned students to a vicious cycle of inequality. Education is a complex co-productive process, in which students, parents and teachers are all responsible for the outcome.

Tory policy on crime rests on a false causality between law enforcement and criminal behaviour. Overall, their objective is punishment at all costs to deter criminals,

but with no guarantee of subsequent social integration. They assume that punishment will generate fear and reduce criminal intent. But criminals do not act because of an absence of fear. Crime rates may be simultaneously a function of the economy, health, deprivation or family. Isolating enforcement from the rest is imprudent. This demonstrates a failure to distinguish between “law enforcement” as procedure and “increasing personal and public safety” as a policy goal.

Also unreasonable is the Tory rejection

of programmes such as early release. They shape their response to fit transient public fear, and call for more prisons and more severe sentencing, irrespective of crime type. Yet here, again, the Conservatives refuse to consider that the costs of building additional prisons and extending incarceration stretch out into the future, multiplied by the costs to society when inmates are released without proper rehabilitation. Cost-benefit analyses overwhelmingly show that enforcement tailored to the degree of criminality is more cost-effective than generic long sentencing, and transitional programmes are twice as cost-effective as longer sentences.

On health, the Conservatives introduce profit motives, exposing the NHS to the uncertainty of the free market. They believe that health providers must have financial incentives to deliver a better service, which implies an infusion of government funds into greedy competition among doctors and hospitals. Inevitably, rewarding providers for success will transform health care into a supply-driven system at the expense of the taxpayer. You can expect the NHS to overflow with unnecessary medical procedures that will increase costs.

Finally, the Tories’ overall economic policy is inconsistent with their spending pledges for education, health and crime. First, they commit to interventionist funding at all costs, especially as they promise corporations seats at the table. Next, they pledge fiscal conservatism by lowering business taxes and raising the inheritance tax threshold to £2m. This is oblivious to long-term negative consequences, including an imbalanced national budget.

The immaturity of the Tories’ platform reveals itself again as they intend to interfere with the demand-and-supply dynamic of the jobs market. They promise to ensure work for everyone, which is noble indeed. However, their actions would disregard sensitive aspects of the economy such as elasticity of demand for certain jobs. Failure to consider these will hurt British workers in the long run and could unleash endemic unemployment.

When we discuss the Conservatives’ policies here in Washington, DC, we are often reduced to laughter that a political party seeking to govern a country as important as Britain could publish such plans as it has. But it has. It is time that they were subjected to proper attack.

Alina Palimaru is a student in advanced public policy analysis at American University in Washington, DC

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times