The employment and social policy record of the Conservatives is not that terrible
Given we are in election season, I’m going to try and write more regularly on this blog over the next few weeks. Today I’m going to reflect on the record of Conservative Governments in employment and social policy. On social media and the left-leaning press, there is a tendency to particularly lambast the record of the Conservatives in this area. Some discourse is particularly extreme, and on social media Theresa May/the Tories are regularly compared to various dictators/very austere Victorians.
In actual fact, the record of the Coalition (2010-15) and Conservative majority (2015-2017) Governments in this field is not as terrible as it is made out to be. Don’t get me wrong, the Conservatives do not have a good record in this area. As is well-known, a significant programme of public sector cuts is implemented from 2010. There are also reductions in some benefits, restriction on the right to strike and reform of job protection legislation that favours employers. Certainly, I am not going to undertake a general defence of this agenda.
This side of the story is very well-known, but what is not nearly as well-publicized are the various measures that improve the position of certain categories of workers and citizens. The pension triple lock and increase in the personal tax allowance have significantly ameliorated the position of pensioners and the low-paid, whilst the pledge to make the National Living Wage £9 by 2020 will mean that the UK has one of the higher minimum wages in the EU. Particularly tellingly, certain statistics (ONS statistics and Gini coefficient included) show that inequality in the UK has fallen since 2010. ONS figures indeed calculate income inequality to be currently at its lowest level since 1986. There are admittedly a number of variables at play, but these figures make it difficult to argue that the effects of Conservative Governments have been absolutely terrible. By European standards, the scale of cuts and deregulation has also been at a rather middling level. Certainly, the situation in regions such as Southern Europe and the Baltics has been much worse; these are places in which the adjective ‘terrible’ becomes appropriate.
I am certainly not a Tory and will campaign for Labour in the upcoming election, so why do I say this? Aside from motivations of simply wanting to arrive at something approaching a balanced opinion, there are three very good reasons:
Firstly, it is absolutely crucial for the left to adopt reasonable language when discussing the record of the centre-right. Why so? If this is not done, there is a tendency to confuse the centre-right with the far-right. A generation of European Marxists did this in the 1930s with tragic consequences (the rise of Hitler could have been prevented had the Comintern guided far-left not refused to make common cause with the moderate right), and I fear that some are making similar mistakes today. One has to look no further than France this week. Here, the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his supporters are shamefully equivocating in the Macron-Le Pen second round. This could prove to be a fatal mistake in the long term.
Secondly, if you adopt unreasonable rhetoric about Governments that are not awful, you have no rhetorical room for manoeuvre when really terrible Governments enter office. I fear that liberals in the US are finding this out the hard way. Because many US liberals were so extravagant in their denunciations of more moderate Republicans like Bush/Romney etc., many of their condemnations of the truly awful Donald Trump are not heeded to the extent that they might have been.
Thirdly, and with regard to the British context, the inability of the left to understand that the record of the Conservatives is not all that terrible compromises their ability to understand the prospects of the Corbyn Labour party. Many of Corbyn’s supporters are young, the young are admittedly a group that has been particularly badly hit by the Conservatives, and there is consequently a tendency to presume that all demographics have been as badly affected as they have been. This is not true; as I argue above, certain demographics (many of whom are not rich) have not done badly since 2010 and have some incentive for continuation of the status quo. The inability of the left to understand this point is one of the reasons why many have consistently overestimated the electoral viability of Corbyn since he became Labour leader.