One of the best positions to start from in politics is that if almost everyone agrees on something, either they or the principle itself is wrong. Obviously, this isn't universal; all the mainstream political parties are opposed to capital punishment, or making abortion illegal, even if there's disagreement on the limitations on the latter, which is a Very Good Thing. All the mainstream parties are though at least ostensibly in favour of continuing both the war on drugs and the war in Afghanistan, and these are Very Bad Things indeed.
Which brings us in a very round about way to saying that Ed Miliband last week was rather good, despite everyone agreeing that he was. I do find the whole making a speech without notes and wandering about the stage thing rather tiresome, the equivalent of riding a bike without using your hands, something that is easy to do with plenty of practice, but it was a very decent speech by a man who has been the victim as much of an ever more impatient media and also party than someone clearly not up to the job. He started off slowly, it's true, but he's been improving ever since. Derided by the right-wing press last year for his "predator capitalism" speech, which was shaky in both content and delivery yet soon being ripped off by the coalition, there was even less actual content this year and and yet it was lapped up universally.
Once he'd finally finished labouring on about his comprehensive (yes, Ed, most of us went to them as well and were equally scarred by the process) and finally got to the One Nation bit it was perfectly fine. It was though just a little underwhelming; yes, the Tories have moved so far to the right that they've vacated their old one nation territory and therefore there's plenty of space for Labour to move into, but it isn't much of a rallying cry. The fact is that most of those old one nation people have shifted to the right with the Tories, and therefore they aren't going to move back. Where then does that leave those of us on the left who want a redistributing but non-nanny state, an adequate safety net without the likes of ATOS deciding who's deserving or not, a publicly owned and controlled NHS and a foreign policy that doesn't involve us either directly funding armed gangs or intervening on their side? Inside the tent certainly, but with only slightly more say than we had under Blair.
All this though is for another day, as indeed are any definite policies. Which is fine, as it's utterly pointless for Labour to say what they'd do if they won in 2015 when the coalition doesn't know what it's doing tomorrow. The contrast between last week's conference and this week's Tory soiree in Birmingham is stark: one was a party finding its feet again as a direct consequence of the coalition's disastrous policies, while the other is, err, a party uncertain of what's to come as a direct consequence of their disastrous policies.
The old classic of conference time is, if in doubt, bring out the batter a burglar policy. New Labour did it countless times, briefing to the ever gullible right-wing press that this time they really would be changing the "reasonable force" law to one which would allow you to carry out the most vile torture imaginable on an intruder without PC Plod (or should that be Pleb?) laying a finger on you. Every time the answer came back that the "reasonable force" rule was working perfectly fine as it already allows you to do anything other than lie in wait for and then shoot burglars in the back as they run away (or alternatively, calling up your friends and family and then battering your assailants to within an inch of their lives once they've reached the road outside your house) and nothing changed. Regardless of the ever more ridiculous headlines ("new right to attack burglars", says Torygraph), I'm willing to wager that once again nothing will come of Chris Grayling's wheeze.
If only the same could be said for the ordure presented for the conference's delectation by George Osborne. Osborne is a fairly unique politician in that he actually seems to enjoy being hated: some thought they saw in the Paralympics booing clip his anger and bewilderment at being even less popular than John Terry and Ashley Cole combined. My view was that his cackle and then laugh was the sign of him loving it. Osborne wants to be loathed, as in his mind that means his medicine is working; short-term pain will turn into long-term gain. Not for him the namby-pamby nonsense from of all people, Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome, who recommends an end to the attacks on the poorest as they're the real reason why the party is disliked.
No, here comes another £16bn of welfare cuts, apparently agreed by Iain Duncan Smith, and directed straight at the children of the unemployed, as though those out of work don't think exactly the same way about having another child as those in work do and whether they can afford it, as though the extra child benefit payment they receive somehow make all the difference. The same applies to restricting housing benefit to the over 25s, as though everyone under that age claiming it is out of work when the latest figures suggest that 50% are not. Osborne asked how anyone could justify the incomes of those out of work rising faster than those in work; simple, George. When those out of work are struggling by on their £70 a week through no fault of their own, a rise in line with inflation is more than justifiable when the average full-time working wage last year was £26,200. 5% of not a lot is still not a lot, while 1.6% of considerably more is, err, considerably more.
Much of it was all too predictable. Osborne didn't so much as deign to mention growth, or recognise that there had been a double-dip recession, or even that there was such a thing as the unemployed as opposed to scroungers, all while at the same time criticising Ed Miliband for not mentioning the deficit. That Alistair Darling's plan for reducing the deficit would have eliminated it before Osborne will now manage also went by the by. Instead we got not reheated old Thatcherism, but the equivalent of pie in the sky: workers of the world hand over your rights and don't unite! £2,000 in worthless shares in exchange for complete job insecurity; who could possibly object to such a scheme, except, oh, perhaps anyone with half a brain or the European Union? The only way in which Osborne's brainwave could possibly be attractive is if there isn't any other option, and with the prospect of low to non-existent growth and the introduction of the universal credit, which it seems will demand that part-time workers find full-time jobs or else, desperation might well win out.
It really isn't over the top to suggest this is like something out of Atlas Shrugged: according to Osborne and the Adrian Beecrofts of the world, it's the John Galts, the strivers and the creators, not the humble workers without whom the business wouldn't be able to function that are deserving of reward and rights. Britain can deliver, but only it seems in the race to the bottom.
Labels: Chris Grayling, conference season, Conservative party conference, Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, Conservatives, economics, Ed Miliband, George Osborne, Labour party conference, politics, self-defence