Friday, October 09, 2009

The Mancunian Way


The power of dreams


Sheltering from the rain in a Manchester shop doorway, Tyler was accosted by a woman sporting a Citizen Smith style beret.

"You're one of them Tories, aren't you - I can tell from your Daily Telegraph. How's it going?"

Tyler glanced round nervously for her gang of Militant Tendency vigilantes, but she seemed to be alone. "Well... it's going fine..."

"Good. Because we need to get rid of this lot as soon as possible - they're a complete disaster."

Really? A Tory voter in a Manchester?

"Mind you, I could never vote Tory. I'm a retired teacher, you see - Labour's our party. You'll have to win without me... let's hope you can."

She surely spoke for many disillusioned Labour voters. They want this shocking government out almost as much as we do. But they simply cannot bring themselves to vote for the Evil Tories, especially under the leadership of an old Etonian toff.

Cam and Oz spent much of the week trying to make it easier for such voters to make the switch.

The 50p tax rate will stay not because it makes any economic or fiscal sense (it doesn't), but because it proves we're all in this together. Sure Start will stay not because it's transformed the lives of our most disadvantaged kids (it hasn't), but because it proves Tories care about the poor. The NHS and international aid are ringfenced not because their budgets contain no fat (they most certainly do), but because they prove Tory compassion*.

But look, let's not carp. Tyler liked the Big Message from this Conference: it was Big Government wot done it, and Cam intends to put it back in its box. At last we seem to be focusing on the Big Issue.

So on the economy, George sounded like he really does intend to take a Big Axe to spending.

To be sure, he gave us precious little detail (only identifying £7bn of cuts out of the £50-100bn needed), and to be sure, he rashly rejected some of the cuts set out in the recent TPA/IOD paper (eg he will retain Child Benefit, the winter fuel allowance, and free TV licences for the over-75s). But he's now a million miles away from all that "sharing the proceeds" wibble.

On "Broken Britain", the emphasis will be on personal responsibility rather than state direction.

There will be tax breaks for families, and a big push on welfare-to-work programmes, making much more extensive use of private sector job brokers.

True, there wasn't enough detail on the crunch issues - brokers ripping off the Simple Shopper (eg see here), welfare rates too high to make work worthwhile, and a minimum wage too high for high unemployment areas. But the direction is absolutely right. A society with 10% of its entire population comprising working age welfare dependents is a society that has to take tough action.

And then there's our political structure. As we've blogged many times, the key to more cost effective public services, not to mention a much-needed revival of democratic accountability, is to decentralise power back to local level. Again, Cam made all the right noises.

True, he had little to say on the crunch issue - ie the decentralisation of tax raising powers - but he has at least positioned this as a key issue.

Overall, we were encouraged. The direction is now much closer to what we need the next Tory government to do above all else - downsize the state.

"All" that remains is to fill in a couple of details - like how are we going to get the tax cuts essential to the growth of private enterprise? Once they've done that, we might even get a glimpse of those sunlit uplands Cam promised us yesterday.

Of course, it still won't be enough to tempt retired Mancunian teachers away from Che.

But then, nothing ever will be.

*Footnote The real reason for ringfencing the international aid budget was underlined by the warm-up video screened just before Cam's final speech. It featured a personal endorsement from none other that St Bonio himself. No matter than Bone is a notorious humbug who spends his life avoiding taxes and emitting humongous amounts of greenhouse gases. £7bn pa down various DfID plugholes is apparently a small price to pay for his support. We hope it will impress all those retired Mancunian teachers, because it left Tyler in urgent need of the sick bag.

PS One of the great things about these conferences is that you bump into all kinds of unexpected people - especially when the party is so close to power. As Mrs T and I slumped at a table in the coffee bar we were joined by that Grand Designs bloke off the telly. Very interesting. He even offered Mrs T a nibble on his chocolate nut cluster. No. Really.

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