Friday, 12 October 2012

Cameron the ‘optimist’ never more out of touch

Depressing. That’s how I found David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party faithful yesterday. An odd word to use you might think, considering this was a speech peppered with references to Britain’s ‘can do’ attitude, to its greatness, and in its ability to overcome adversity and deliver.  A speech which smothered up reality in a warm coat of positivity.

A speech which followed a pattern of recent Cameron conference speeches. Last year he divided society into optimists and pessimists. Indeed he’s made a political career out of this. The latter, in his view, are those that hold everyone back, resist change, oppose for the sake of it. What he referred to this year, lifted right out of Little Britain, as the ‘yes-but-no people.’ Whereas the former embrace a challenge, invite change, and want to work together in order to achieve it.
It's what The Guardian’s John Harris called at the time: "breezy optimism in the political bubble," versus "fear and loathing on Britain's streets," illustrating that "...the disconnect between politicians and the public has never been greater.”

And it’s a very clever, very shrewd tactic to employ. The sunny Cameron shines through, bulldozing his way through all the naysayers and doom-mongers. The PM’s advisers have evidently paid attention to all those American focus groups who say that the public like their leaders upbeat rather than dour and miserable.  
In fact, both Cameron’s and Boris Johnson’s speeches were very ‘American dream’ like. This is a nation where anything is possible, what Cameron called ‘the best country in the world.’ But, behind the endless positivity, and the view that good times are just around the corner, belies a PM wedded to divide and rule. The deservers and the undeservers. Those at the bottom stare down the barrel: 23 applicants for every job, the rise in part time, temporary work, hiding what the raw stats fail to show. The safety net, needed now more than ever, being ripped apart with every new cut.

The attack on housing benefits, on unfairness and injustice, gobbled up the welfare section, with a focus on families claiming tens of thousands of pounds to ‘live in homes that hard-working people could never afford themselves.’ Yet in London, a focus for tabloid ire, official figures show that just 139 families received over £50,000 in rent a year out of 800,000 benefit claimants. Or a microscopic 0.02% of the total. Only 4% received more than £20,000 a year.
If this is ‘the modern compassionate Conservative Party,’ take me back to the good old days.

Whilst we have those at the top of the tree sitting pretty, rewarded with tax cuts, with the backlash against doing down the financial industry in full swing. Bashing bankers? We hadn’t even got started, some could reasonably point out.
So what do we have in Cameron’s Britain? We have the ‘strivers’ and the aspirants. We are the ‘aspiration nation.’ Sounds like something straight out of a motivational handbook. Labour wants a One Nation Economy, the Conservatives an Aspiration Economy. Not the party of the better off, the Conservatives are the party of the ‘want to be better-off.’

The ‘Big Society,’ - the good in theory but out of step with current reality vision that just won’t go away - made another appearance.
One had to admire the chutzpah with which Cameron could claim his party were still the true guardians of the NHS and keep a straight face.

To all those staunchly opposed to the arms trade, such as myself, there was an unapologetic nod to the defence industry and the battle to win contracts. Grubby deals with shady regimes are us.
And what is the glue that keeps everything together? What gives this country its common purpose? Bringing down the deficit at all costs. Deficit reduction has become the new war on terror: loaded with fear and hyperbole:

“We haven’t forgotten who spent our golden legacy, who sold our gold …who busted our banks, who smothered our businesses … who wracked up our debts, who wrecked our economy …who ruined our reputation, who risked our future.”
We must therefore “sink or swim. Do or decline.” In this global race, in order to remain relevant, Britain must keep looking forward. There’s no room for the cynics. All must be swept away in a tide of boundless optimism.

For Labour, two traps have been set. The first concerns the economy. “The damage was worse than we thought, and it's taking longer than we hoped” claimed Cameron. It goes without saying that the state of the economy will still be the burning issue come 2015, but the Conservatives seem determined to peddle the lie that overspending, and not the global financial crash, got Britain into the mess the Tories are tidying up. And it’s a line that sticks, in particular with around a third of voters still happy to pin the blame on Labour’s so-called financial mismanagement.
Welfare reform is the second test. As Liam Byrne, a cabinet member in the previous administration, remarked at a fringe event last week, “Labour has to win on welfare.” Yesterday, Cameron told his party:

“For years people said benefits are out of control and there’s nothing you can do about it. Well, because of our welfare cap, no family will be getting more in benefits than the average family earns.”
Most of the country would have been nodding their heads in agreement.

Labour also has to decide if it is still in favour of academies, which it created, or against. David Cameron has stolen a march and spoke proudly as if it were the Conservatives who first came up with the idea, such has been Labour’s recent ambivalence to them, perceived or otherwise.
What we heard yesterday was a false optimism. An optimism that says that if you work hard enough, play by the rules, all will be fine. It’s simplicity divorced from reality. During a recession what people want is a government that will help them, protect them, but most of all, empathises. Where were the policy announcements to do just this? There weren’t any. There was nothing the average voter could take away from this speech that would make their lives easier. Yes, we live in tough economic times. But, if all there is is austerity, where’s the optimism?

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Friday 12th October 2012

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