JHere’s a question that matters when you’re voting: Did they make life better? This month, the Conservatives will be in power for 12 years. Today, during the local elections, we have the opportunity to pass judgment on their record. What does it look like?
It’s an amazing thing, but it’s really hard to think of government policies that, in this period, improved the lives of people other than the wealthiest and most privileged. There are a handful. There’s the Same-Sex Marriage Act passed during David Cameron’s first term, although it was crafted by the Liberal Democrats and opposite by a majority of Conservative MPs. There is a higher threshold for paying income tax, a higher minimum wage (although it is lower than real living wage), shared parental leave and automatic affiliation to retirement. There’s the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, no-fault divorces, the law against coercive behavioran improved traffic code, the carbon floor price, soft drink tax and plastic bag payments. Cameron oversaw a successful Olympics and Boris Johnson’s government ran an effective vaccination program.
To this brief list, we could add a few policies that might be positive in principle and have succeeded in bringing about some improvements, but have been disastrously designed and implemented. These include Universal Credit, increased free childcare hours, furlough payments and net zero. But that’s about it: remarkably thin choices over 12 years of government.
Weighed against these benefits, there is an astonishing litany of harms. As the May 5 elections are about council seats, let’s look at what happened to local authorities. Since 2010, they suffer cuts in central government funding by almost 60%. This has caused devastating losses to local services including Sure Start Children’s Centres, Youth and Community Services, Respite Care, Libraries, Local Buses, Recycling, Arts and Culture. And it’s not over: further massive cuts are expected next year. Several municipalities are now on the verge of bankruptcy and must sell the last of their assets. Poorer boroughs have been hit the hardest – both for leveling. The social fabric of the nation has been torn apart.
Why? Of course, they will tell you, to save money. If so, why have they lavished money on pet projects and favored interests? While Cameron and George Osborne tore up public budgets, they somehow found £2billion for a needless and chaotic NHS reorganization. They spent £4.5 billion a year on the war in Afghanistan, for reasons they could never clearly define; with this money they could have canceled either freezing all public sector salaries or cutting the Universal Credit budget – and still have $1 billion in change.
For the price of a contract or two issued to friends of ministers through Covid’s dubious ‘VIP channel’, the current government could have reversed all losses to the Arts Council budget, or bring national expenditure on libraries back to its level 2010 level. Of the £12.1billion of protective equipment the government purchased in 2020-21, it struck off £8.7bn, thanks to the disastrous cronyism of procurement policies. It is about six times the national budget for rebuild schools In England.
Abandoning due diligence during the pandemic, against the advice of officials and other experts, the Tory government managed to lose around £3.5bn in loans bouncing back to fraud while £5.2bn leave payments have also ended up in the hands of fraudsters or have been paid in error. He appears to have made little effort to recover these stolen funds.
The budget for the test and trace program – £37billion – which the public accounts committee says has reached none of his goals and failed to make “a measurable difference to the progression of the pandemic”, is equivalent to more than double the entire 10-year reduction in the central government grant to local authorities. For the same price, we could have avoided all this suffering, all the loss of services and damage to civic and community life, and we still had £22 billion in change. Conservative austerity programs have little to do with saving money. They are inspired by an ideology called neoliberalism, which seeks to destroy the very notion of effective government.
This social vivisection, carving up a living society to see if its parts can survive in isolation, has been devastating for the people governments have the greatest duty to protect – the poor and vulnerable. Despite the pandemic, during which accommodation for the homeless magically materialized as soon as they were deemed “at health risk”, the number of people living on the streets is estimated at 38% higher today than in 2010.
A tiny fraction of the social housing we need is under construction. The cruel cap on benefits and the bedroom tax have achieved minimal savings while inflicting enormous suffering. The Malthusian benefit limit for two children imposed in 2017 is synonymous with child poverty and nothing else. The number of food parcels provided by the Trussell Trust has increased from 41,000 one year before the Tories took power over 2 million today. Nearly one in 10 parents expect to use a food bank this summer.
Shamefully but unsurprisingly, life expectancy in the most deprived areas has been declining since 2011. If you want just one government performance indicator, this is it.
The NHS crisis, caused by 12 years of underfunding, coupled with the pandemic backlog and, to be fair, the legacy of New Labour’s disastrous private funding schemes, is likely to accelerate this trend. Six million people in England – more than a tenth of the population – are now waiting for treatment, the highest number since records began. Patients are often stuck for 24 or even 48 hours in emergency and accident departments. A few hours of waiting for an ambulance after dialing 999.
I could go on discussing the truncation of civil liberties; the deliberate fueling of division through culture wars; the flagrant mismanagement of the pandemic, causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths; Partygate and the destruction of public trust; the assault on public protections, leading, among other horrors, to the disaster at Grenfell Tower; the administrative collapse of dozens of public services, illustrated by the current Passport Fiasco of offices and transformation of our rivers into open sewers; a 14% increase in crime this year caused largely by fraud, against which there is now almost no recourse; the blocking of carbon cuts; oh, and the little matter of Brexit.
It is on this record that we should vote, in today’s elections and those that will follow. The last 12 years of Conservative government have made life in this country worse. Much worse. What else do you need to know?