It’s so late there’s no-one awake on Twitter; but I don’t want to go to bed yet, because I’ve just watched Labour’s latest party election broadcast, and I don’t want nightmares.
The film has attracted some criticism, even from within Labour, for being negative and ‘over the top’; frankly, I think it’s spot on. I like the way the Tory cut-merchants look quite a lot like Tory canvassers: voters on low to modest incomes should be aware that when the chap in the blue tie asks if David Nuttall, or Susan Williams, or Iain Lindley, can count on your vote, he is asking you to make your own life less liveable.
Some people still do remember life under the Tories. When the voter in the last scene of the film – the man in the car – says with rising panic “I don’t have weeks, or months,” it takes me back to the slow horror of the 1990s NHS waiting lists. I’ve only ever been a child under a Conservative government, but I can still remember the months of uncertainty and worry as members of my family waited for diagnosis and treatment.
And I remember life before Tax Credits. During the early 90s – I believe this was while my mother was on maternity leave with my sister, but I’m sure she’ll correct me if I’ve got it wrong – my family became briefly stuck in a loophole in the benefits system where we were entitled to nothing. No maternity pay. No income support. No Family Credit. And the financial cushion of Tax Credits was yet to exist. We relied on family and friends to help us out. At one point, our church offered us a food parcel. If this is David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society – parents forced to choose between humiliation and privation – it looks like a familiar nightmare to me.
But not everyone does remember, and we can’t expect them to. If your family was comfortably-off in the 90s and you’ve brought up your own children under Labour, you might think that provisions such as Tax Credits are an immutable fact of life. The outrage of the mother in the first scene of the PEB – “That’s not fair!” – highlights just how difficult it is for some people to believe that the Tories could take this essential support away from them – and just how much of a blow it will be when they do. Because they will.
The Tories plan, if elected, to introduce a Powers of General Competence Act which would shrink parliamentary control over local authorities.
Speaking to the Local Government Association last year, David Cameron called on local authorities to use these powers to “do more for less” by following the example of businesses. Tory-run Barnet council duly responded by following the example of EasyJet – slashing everything they didn’t see as essential, and making everything else a fee-incurring extra.
Except they didn’t quite manage to do that. When they tried to cut live-in wardens from their sheltered accommodation, current legislation meant that the High Court was able to stop them. Barnet Tories called on Cameron to free local authorities from ‘restrictions’ like the Disability Discrimination Act.
It gets worse. Another Tory council – Essex – have submitted a proposal to the Minister for Local Government that they be allowed to set local benefit rates:
The last few months of difficult economic circumstances have highlighted a number of major problems within the existing structure of the labour market in the UK. This proposal seeks to tackle one of these, specifically the problem of market distortion caused by working age benefits…We therefore propose that the duty to set the eligibility criteria and amounts payable for all working age benefits for all claimants in Essex be devolved from central government to ECC…This would put us in a powerful position to tailor the most important work-related benefits to local market conditions and ECC skills and training programmes.
As Paul says:
“It’s pretty clear what these weasel words mean. Being “in a powerful position to tailor the most important work-related benefits to local market conditions” is policy speak for reducing benefits to such an extent that people will take any job, anywhere, in any conditions…These people are ruthless anti-working class bastards who know exactly what they’re about, and are desperate to get on with out-Purnelling Purnell. The guy must seem like Nye Bevan to them…The final decision on this proposal for local authority control over central government spending lies with the Minister. That’s why it’s important that there isn’t a Tory government, and the prospect of a Tory local government minister, on May 7th.”
Imagine a Britain in which Income Support is subject to a postcode lottery. We’d be fine in Manchester. The people I work with in Salford would probably survive. But if David Cameron wins next Thursday, I warn you not to live in Essex, I warn you not to live in Barnet, I warn you not to live in Bury, I warn you not to live in Walsall.
It’s true that there probably is a more positive way to say all of this – that instead of frightening people with the vision of Tory waiting lists, we should make more of, for instance, Tracey Cheetham’s moving personal account of the first-rate treatment she received from Labour’s wonderful NHS.
But my own positive story of life under Labour is simply that after the 1st of May 1997, life for my family got easier. Visibly, noticeably, palpably, edibly – pick an adverb, it got better. It was still very often a struggle – don’t get me wrong, there are still things about welfare benefits that grind my gears, and one or two things that make me furious – but for the past thirteen years, I have felt not only the safety that comes with falling crime rates, but the comfort of knowing that my family is better off in work, and that no matter what life throws at me I will never have to face absolute poverty.
It’s a feeling of security, and I’ve got used to it. And the fear of losing this security – the fear that my mother could lose her Tax Credits, and so have to give up work, and then claim benefits at the mercy of her Conservative local authority – is why the thought of waking up to a Tory government on May the 7th gives me nightmares.