I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks shouting at middle-aged white men. They are very keen to reassure me I’ll come round to their side once I grow up a bit, get a fatter pay packet and stop being so young, naïve and female.
Because, this much we know to be true – the left-leaning among us might have the bleeding hearts, but it’s the centre-right, cynical but pragmatic, who make the necessary hard decisions to fix the economy – because they used to be like you, you know, until they got real. You can accuse the Nasty party of a lot of things, but naïve idealism is not usually one them.
There’s a persistent narrative here that needs interrogating, not least so I can stop getting into arguments with old Tories. It’s become so ingrained that even people who stand against Conservative policies have internalised the belief they are based in hard-nosed, sensible economics.
In this narrative, it’s the centre-right taking action to make things better for everyone, unlike the starry-eyed, fiscally irresponsible left. This means the views of the majority of people on the ground, actually dealing with the reality on our economic situation and not just looking at numbers on a page – largely women, many young, minority ethnic, most not particularly well recompensed for their efforts – are being shouted down as naïve.
The people at the sharp end, the social workers, charity workers and users of services, are best placed to attest to the reality of austerity cuts – the suicides over benefits sanctions, the mentally unwell children placed in police cells instead of hospital beds, the disabled people forced to lose their homes and move into unsuitable accommodation. They know that the economy isn’t working for most people. Still the narrative of the idealist leftie with their head in the clouds vs the pragmatic, right-leaning maker of sensible decisions persists.
Most people who consider themselves centre-right, and largely plan to vote Conservative, aren’t uncaring. But, just as they believe of people on the other side of centre, they are frequently naïve. They hear about the jobs miracle and not the reality of underemployment as one of the biggest cause of poverty.
They hear about the bedroom tax and think “probably sensible- if they have more rooms than they need”, not about the true implications for families of having to pick up and leave their communities and support networks. Or the shortage of social housing with exactly the right number of rooms.
To turn your head away from the realities and cling resolutely to abstract figures – the halved deficit, the two million jobs created – requires some fundamental naivety about what’s really happening on the ground.
Having one of those two million jobs isn’t much use to you if it’s an unreliable, zero-hours, minimum wage contract, when you have to pay expensive child care and travel costs to go to it. A geographically mobile economy just isn’t going to fly when you rely on your sister down the road to look after your kid on a Wednesday afternoon while you go to a job interview.
Even David Cameron, in an interview with the Times, seemed to be under the mistaken impression that disabled people are protected from the bedroom tax.
Paul Noblet, head of public affairs for homelessness charity Centrepoint, believes the good news figures mask the true picture. It has become more difficult to place homeless young people during this parliament as social housing grants have been cut. Meanwhile, uncertainty around housing benefits has made private landlords reluctant to take on claimants as tenants.
“When you point this out to people on the right and centre right they often don’t know it’s going on,” he says. “It seems to be unintended consequence rather than ideology, but it’s happening nonetheless.”
He describes one Centrepoint resident who worked several zero hour contracts, topping up his unreliable salary with benefits: “Peripatetic employment causes havoc with the system – you end up being overpaid one month then underpaid and getting into a real tangle, just because you’re trying to do the right thing,” Noblet says.
Many on the centre-right who don’t come into contact with the results of economic policy on the ground might not get to hear about the real impact of those abstract ideas, that are so neat on paper, but don’t quite square with the messiness of people’s real lives.
This should matter, even to the most cynical and self-serving Tory, because cuts to early intervention services, including housing benefit when necessary, often prove more costly to the public purse in the long run.
An independent cost-benefit analysis of Centrepoint’s own service showed for every pound of taxpayers’ money, the charity saved £2.40 in keeping people away from extra use of the health service because of rough sleeping, in savings to police and court services, and in getting young people from claiming benefits to working and paying money in in taxes and national insurance.
Given the failure to get income tax receipts in has been a major reason the deficit hasn’t been reduced as fast as the government would like, these are economic realities worth thinking about – but hearing the good news stories on paper makes it easier to ignore the long term effect.
It makes it easier to believe the notion that the Conservatives have the magic bullet solution. What is worse is this is a view espoused so regularly and with such conviction that even dedicated lefties are starting to believe their social values have to come at the expense of economic risk.
We need to be very clear that all the Tories have done is position themselves at one end of a massive and inevitable trade-off between cutting the deficit at the expense of making deep cuts to services, or spending more money servicing your debt. Neither situation is ideal, no party has the magic solution – although this government’s particular mix of tax and spend happens to largely benefit people at the top and hurt people at the bottom – but let’s stop pretending the Conservative party is somehow the national guardian of the economy from the financially incontinent left.