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Tuesday, April 13, 2010 

The Conservative manifesto.

yesterday's Labour manifesto cover was superficially reminiscent of socialist realism, or at least socialist realism in the age of Photoshop and when the artist was instructed to forget subtlety, at least it was colourful and stood out without being garish; the Tory manifesto by comparison, looks austere and stern in its dead blue hardback bounding, although the already mercilessly mocked invitation to "join the government" somewhat lowers the tone. It's doubtful whether when they were putting it together they were deliberately thinking of modelling it on Margaret Thatcher, but it has all her qualities as can be expressed in book form; you can almost imagine her using it to smack an unruly member of her cabinet around the head.

The shadow of Thatcher continues to overshadow politics in this country to a far greater extent than Reagan say does in America, almost certainly for the reason that we continue to be riven as a nation as to her legacy, something not mirrored to quite the same extent in the States. The Conservative manifesto released today can be seen as an attempt to meld the smaller government philosophy of Thatcherism with the repugnance felt by many towards the extremes of individualism which were also flaunted during that same era; the refrain throughout is the Cameron attempt to put the infamous quote "there is no such thing as society" into a thoroughly modern Conservative context, that there is, it's just not the same thing as the state.

Credit has to be given to the Conservatives for trying to mould together what would seem to be two competing value systems: the individualism of Thatcherism with the co-operative, communitarian philosophy of helping each other to help themselves in the hope of creating something unique, perhaps something which might one day be identified as "Cameronism". It is however the naturally contradictory nature of the two, combined with the gaping holes in the manifesto itself and the unmentioned fact that they've wanted to do this because it's cheaper rather than necessarily better that undermine the in places fine words which litter the document.

To fully understand the manifesto you also have to chart how Conservative thinking has changed since David Cameron became leader. While much has been said about the now almost clichéd "detoxifying the brand", it still remains for the most part the same old Tory party underneath, even if the advisers are new. Cameron himself meanwhile has gone from calling for sunshine to win the day, urging the public to vote blue to go green, to decrying our broken society and now, finally, to wanting to build the "big society". In his foreword, which reads like an especially heavy-handed attempt to inspire ala Barack Obama's "yes we can" speeches, he claims that "if we can [insert list of fixing everything together] do that, we can do anything. Yes, we can do anything." It's really difficult not to sneer and giggle at just how weak that repeating of the mantra is, almost as if Cameron himself is trying to convince himself of it, rather than doing so for emphasis. It's this uncertainty that reflects just how suddenly this change in Conservative thinking, and it is a huge change, has come about, and makes you wonder just how real the belief in it is.

For this sudden "empowerment" agenda is almost inimical to the values that arguably, if we have a broken society, caused it to fracture. Many nodding their heads at the idea of communities working together, such groups running public services and public sector workers being their own bosses will be thinking: well, isn't this same party that rejoiced and continues to rejoice at the smashing of the trade unions and thinks that they should be consigned entirely to history? Isn't it the party that helped to atomise communities where their work was either the most important or one of the most important parts of their identity? Well, yes, it is, but then these groups which the Tories are suddenly so keen on devolving powers to must seemingly be either apolitical, or share the Conservative philosophy on cutting costs while not believing in the state's ability to do so. What happens if these groups become the "vested interests" which the Tories are so convinced need to be challenged? What if they demand changes which the Tories are ideologically opposed to? Where or when exactly will they intervene if they decide that these groups and the schools they might set up or the hospitals they might run either fail themselves or rather attempt to go against the Tory grain in what they provide? Will they truly be free or is this empowerment agenda simply the bogus attempt to marry two contradictory values and provide something "different"?

After all, the aforementioned refrain of society not being the same thing as the state is the classic straw man. Those critics of Thatcher never claimed that the state and society are one and the same thing; rather, that her formulation was the classic example of how the Conservatives rewarded a very constrained individualism while being actively hostile towards difference. This continues to be reflected in the Conservative party today and in the manifesto which it has produced. It claims that we're all in this together and for us to come together despite our differences, yet the policies within it make clear those who are most deserving, those that are more equal than others in Orwell's classic formulation. Married couples, especially it seems those where one of the partners doesn't work are more deserving, as shown by the promised tax allowance, while rather than everyone having to pay their fair share, it remains Tory policy for the inheritance tax threshold to rise in effect to £2m. This same confused approach to cutting the deficit is also reflected in their refusal to countenance the planned national insurance rise for next year, instead almost certainly deciding upon a VAT increase which will disproportionately impact on the poorest, those who have to spend and whom simply can't afford to save.

It's also instructive just how quickly the manifesto seems to imagine we can suddenly move from the "broken society" to the "big society". It claims that it's "the size, scope and role of government" which is now "inhibiting ... the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality and increasing general well-being." This is so wrong as to be close to criminal. While inequality and poverty have either increased or stayed roughly the same by most measures, the very fact that they haven't got even worse is directly down to Labour's almost silent attempts at redistribution. The actual section on fixing society itself rather than public services along the lines of the "big society" is woefully thin, being dedicated almost entirely to neighbourhood groups, and even this involves further reform of the local services rather than the transforming of local communities as whole. Then there's just utter gibberish, such as this last point on how to "stimulate social action further":

develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action.

Would someone perhaps like to explain exactly what that means and how such a thing could be measured?

Strip away the choice to focus on the "big society" and devolution which may well never arrive, and you have much the same Conservative policies which have been there since time immemorial, crime being the most instructive. They're still dedicated to repealing the Human Rights Act, without explaining how a "British Bill or Rights" will be any different or what the point will be when those who want to claim or challenge under the HRA will still be able to go to Strasbourg, still want to crackdown on teenagers drinking at all rather than challenging the actual behaviour, and still want to stigmatise the drinks which those drinking to get drunk don't touch, or won't touch after they've put the tax up. They still want to send every knife carrier to jail, no exceptions, without bothering to understand why some do so. They still want to elect local police commissioners, without learning the lessons from America of how this politicises the police and makes corruption endemic. They still want to build even more prisons, and would turn the probations service over to the private sector. They want more drug rehabilitation orders to be abstinence-based, a recipe for disaster which I've witnessed personally over the last year.

If Labour's manifesto showed how 13 years of government has made the party tired and complacent, then the Conservative document released today should have been brimming with ideas and the lust for power, the "natural party of government" riding to the rescue yet again to save us from bankruptcy at the hands of Labour. The latter is much in evidence; the former, away from the attempt to create a dividing line over the role of the state, the attempt to fuse together individualism and small government with strong, well-funded public services and community action, has been abandoned. The same old heart of the "stupid party" remains, covered up by veneer of progressive politics which will be forgotten or actively abandoned at the first possible opportunity. It's impossible to deny that the Conservatives have changed since they were last in power; the problem is that they haven't changed anywhere near enough.

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Great post. I think you've nailed one of the problems around the 'big society' agenda - it's assumption that voluntary and community action can be divorced from political aims.

If you look at some of the most cited civic action groups of the last few years - the Citizen's Organising Foundation (which include London Citizens) and the Transition Towns movement they are both built around radical programmes of social change - addressing the root causes of problems, not just their symptoms. The Big Society seems inherently blind to the idea that some people or institutions (apart from the state) might be to blame for deprivation, environmental catastrophe or atomisation - possibly because the most likely culprits are their mates.

On a slightly different note, I think I can decode 'develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action.' It seems like there's a couple of different things going on there, which have gotten a bit confused though (this is going to get a bit wonkish now):

Wellbeing measurement is a concept that draws on the psychological work of Richard Layard and others and which tends to use survey tools to develop and measure very broad conception of 'quality of life' which include self-perceptions of mental and physical health, supportive relationships, sense of being in a functioning community and so on. A number of big deal academics (Stiglitz, Giddens) are calling on governments to use national wellbeing surveys as an alternative to GDP in measuring social progress, as they hope it can help government's to move away from growth-focussed economic and social policy (there's a good site on this at http://www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org.)

However, while wellbeing is an interesting high level indicator, actually isolating the impact of how X or Y policy impacts on Wellbeing is extremely difficult.

Another thing that this sentence seems to be referring to then, is a measure like Social Return on Investment. SROI is basically a way of trying to make cost benefit analysis into a not-stupid way of assessing government services which ought to make people's lives better. SROI works by examining the experiences of people using a service, finding out from them what 'social value' it has provided them (as opposed to financial benefits) and then trying to find 'proxy' financial measures for those non-monetary gains which can be included in the cost benefit analysis (See here for more: http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/social-return-investment). Because it captures non-monetary benefits, SROI tends to promote a more humane, supportive approach to public services which are an antidote to brutal efficiency oriented approaches , so it's probably (in my view) a good thing, despite having a somewhat awkward methodology. But it's a very different thing to Wellbeing - it tries to fix problems with existing cost-benefit analysis, not

But wait, there's more! The problem with that bloody sentence is that it's throwing around terms like well-being and social value without really thinking about what they mean. There's a real tension between seeking to measure well-being - which is primarily about the intangibles - and any kind of value-based measure. Well-being is by its very nature, holistic, difficult to attribute and impossible to assess on monetary scale. To suggest that we can stimulate social action by measuring (and then presumably generating targets or incentives for) wellbeing impact is so reductive as to be basically meaningless.

This is a classic example of how radical ideas end up getting stripped of their ideological baggage and end up being the latest flavour of business as usual. Measuring wellbeing offers a powerful alternative to the way we think about progress and about the purpose of our economic and social institutions. It's not something you can slap on to existing institutions to make them all fluffy and social.

See, if that's what it does mean then I perfectly understand that: surely though another reason they've covered it in almost impenetrable jargon is that the idea of putting a measure of well-being as either equal to or close to GDP is anathema to the right of the party, although Cameron has mentioned general well-being before in his more happy, flaky moments.

You think it's a dog-whistle aimed at deep-green policy wonks?

Well, no. It probably is however at least a nod to the thinking you've encapsulated, and to Cameron's previous attempts at going beyond economic growth as a be all and end all.

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