There was a bright blue cardboard backdrop and bright blue wall surrounds, and the men were in blue ties, and the women worse various shades of blue. There, in the centre of the stage was Theresa May, in blue and grey hair, so lustrous as to have a sort of reflected rinse of blue light streaked through her helmeted bonce.
“Strong,” she trilled. “Stable and strong.” The audience applauded. “A Britain for families and working people.” The audience applauded and cheered a little. She rounded it out: “A Britain great again in the world! Let’s take some questions.” The audience cheered that.
This, in case you’re wondering, wasn’t a tough room. It was the Conservative Party manifesto launch in Halifax in the north (a Labour marginal the Tories want to take), and it was full of political professionals who know the rule that you should never get complacent, never relax before the poll — and who were now luxuriating in the fact that this one time, they might just be able to.
A reporter asked a question. “BBC.” They were so happy they didn’t jeer him. “You’re rejecting the free market. Is this Mayism?” They jeered him. May thundered. “There isn’t Mayism. There’s only good old fashioned conservatism. What Margaret Thatcher and I have in common is that she was a Conservative and I’m a Conservative.” The audience clapped, they cheered, they roared. The whole room shimmered blue. They say that overuse of viagra will bathe your whole vision in that hue — they say — and that seemed to be happening here.
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The Tories launched their manifesto, and Prime Minister Theresa May was giving them a big old political lady-boner. They cheered some more. Your correspondent, watching from an airport hotel — I am not going up to goddamn Yorkshire to watch the Tories have their victory party three weeks early — all but joined in. May was so forceful, the program so joined up (though not in any conventional way), that after Labor’s spotty process, one at least had to admire sheer political professionalism.
The Conservative manifesto was a pretty phenomenal document, in terms of political change, and, given that it has a chance of being implemented, is worth a degree of analysis. It represents the most decisive break with Thatcherism, and a decisive rejection of the neocon formula that Thatcher and other imported from the US — the idea that there is no contradiction between the free market, and social and communal solidarity, invested in the nation and church — in favour of an emphasis on nationalism, in the propaganda at least. Some are suggesting (as did this correspondent) that it is a return to post-war, One Nation Toryism. But that was a fairly technocratic and low-key, right-of-social-democracy type thing.
This manifesto — with its slogan of “for community and country”, a repurposing of Stanley Baldwin’s “For King and Country” – is imperial nationalism, an invitation to the public to be part of a great enterprise, with a social dividend meted out as part of it. Bismarckian would not be to overstate it, and the program has the same imperative as had Iron Otto’s: to starve socialism of any chance to grow beyond a small heartland, and flourish in the centre.
Thus there is 8 billion pounds extra for the NHS, 4 billion pounds for schools, a rise in the national living wage, a removal of Cameron’s pledge to not raise income tax, a tax on companies employing foreign skilled workers, a restoration of the Board of Trade — necessary post Brexit, but talk about back to the ’70s — a community culture development fund, and so on and so on. The time target for going into surplus has been moved back yet further, to 2025. David Cameron had promised at the end of his first term, two years ago.
But at the same time, there are also a series of moves that gut sections of what remains of the welfare state further — such as making 100,000 pounds in assets (including the family home) the upper limit for receiving state aged social care. You don’t have to sell your 100,000+ pound house — which is every house, south of Birmingham — but the deferred cost is charged to your estate, and charged after your death, with the 100,000 pound buffer in place.
Were the upper limit, say, 400,000 pounds, the move might have a progressive side to it. But since almost no one who owns a house owns a 100,000 pound house it means a big blow to intergenerational transfer of assets among the working-class, lower-middle class, those who’ve managed to hold onto a house and a few other bits and pieces across their life. It means 60-something children of 80-something decedents having to sell the house they were relying on to cushion their old age, and so on. It makes big savings in the social care bill, making it possible to fund the other measures — and to cut company tax further, to 17%.
But above all it is a sign of how cocky the Tories are , with Labour’s performance and the collapse of UKIP — so cocky that they have old people, the Tory-voting backbone, to burn. They have so many of them on side that they they can afford to piss a few, a lot, off, to have a credible program.
The only thing the manifesto was missing was … numbers. No costings. Not a jot. Which is a peerless insight into the way ideology works: Labour has wobbles on costings and they’re a mad “tax and spend” party; the Tories have no costings at all but that’s all right, because they’re the sensible economic party — so, by that very fact, they’re not required to.
To be fair however, you can look at the Tory manifesto and see that the inputs and outputs match up. There’s no wild tax cuts, and no huge spending bonanzas. Labour suffered because it promised large scale spending on the promise of large-scale tax gathering — and much of the public is sceptical of the capacity of the state to collect any tax at all. The launch went off like a bomb, and the political viagra afterglow continued all day.
Then in the evening, the IPSOS Mori poll came out, and Labour — poor old doddery Labour — had gained eight points, up to 34. Break out the fizzy elderberry wine that comrade Reg Arbuthnot made on his allotment (“it’s not meant to be fizzy but what harm?” Mr Arbuthnot said, the ambulance officers told the coroner). Not so fast. The Tory vote was still 49%. The Lib-Dems had halved their vote again, from 14 to 7, and it seems likely that Tim Farron’s happy-clappy stuff had sent a swathe of his voters into non-vote territory, while Labour’s program had brought some long-lapsed voters back in. That’s one of several possible explanations. But none of them add up to much gain for Labour, seats-wise. Forty-nine per cent is a stonking score in a five-party, first-past-the-post contest.
But perhaps I am seeing it all one way. Hard not to. Key figures in the BBC are outrageously biased towards the Tories, a sign that the knowledge class elites are detaching from Labour at a fast clip, and seeing a nationalist, market-oriented, socially modernised Tory party as their natural home. The Tories get a free pass on everything, from everyone. This is what hegemony looks like, we chant, lost in the blue, blue haze.