Welcome to the parallel universe of David Cameron. It is a world in which the Tories stand up for the poor, lead the fight against dictatorship and stop people from being given benefits on demand. It is a world that exists in a conference hall in Manchester this week, in a few daily papers the rest of the time, and in the less well-informed parts of the right-wing blogosphere. It has nothing in common with the world that most of us live in.
The real story of David Cameron’s conference speech yesterday (5 October) is the blunder that saw him removing his comments about credit card debt at the last minute. It appears to have taken his advisers a while to realise that being lectured on managing your personal finances by a multi-millionaire would not go down well with people struggling to make ends meet. Nor would the prospect of being told to give money to banks by politicians who have already bailed them out with billions of pounds of our money.
In terms of what Cameron did say, it is difficult to know where to start in pointing out the inaccuracies and half-truths. On at least one occasion, he told a straightforward lie. He said that people receiving disability benefits were ‘Not officially unemployed, but claiming welfare, no questions asked.’
What are these mythical benefits that are given to people without asking questions? My father was on disability benefits throughout the nineties. Many friends of mine have been on them since. All of them had not only to answer strings of questions but undergo tests and interviews, some of them ridiculously over-the-top, that in some cases made their health worse.
Cameron said, ‘Now we’re asking those questions’. He failed to mention that Atos, the company contracted to ‘ask the questions’ – and to re-assess people for ability to work – has done its job so badly that around 40 per cent of appeals have been upheld. Atos’ approach makes clear that the government is interested in throwing as many people off benefits as possible.
Then there were Cameron’s comments on Gaddafi, for whose overthrow he appeared to take personal responsibility. The people of Libya might feel that they had something to do with it too. Cameron said that Labour were saying sorry for ‘sucking up to Gaddafi’ but nor for what ‘really’ mattered. The implication is that siding with Gaddafi is not a major problem. This would explain why Cameron’s government attempted to sell sniper rifles to the Gaddafi regime only weeks before the Libyan uprising began.
Cameron re-announced the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage. This was announced two weeks ago by Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone. Indeed, a consultation had already been announced and Featherstone was effectively confirming that it had been postponed. She promised legal recognition of same-sex civil marriage by 2015. Throwing people off benefits can be done overnight, but marriage equality apparently takes a minimum of four years.
The more I read of Cameron’s speech, the more sickened I felt. But none of it quite compared to a comment made the day before by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary. He claimed that the Conservative Party are ‘the party of the poor’.
This is the party of the poll tax, privatisation, mass unemployment and the great social housing sell-off. This is the party that is now leading an assault on the working class and lower middle class with policies that lead to increased homelessness, fewer jobs, lower pensions, worse public services and the abolition of benefits vital to disabled people.
The Tory Party’s core purpose has never varied over the last three hundred years. It exists to promote the interests of the rich. I’m sure that the Conservative Party includes compassionate individuals who genuinely believe that they are working for the best interests of society as a whole. But as an institution, this is not how the Tory Party has worked. The Tories have opposed every major progressive policy ever introduced, from old age pensions at the beginning of the twentieth century, to the National Health Service in the 1940s, to the minimum wage fifty years later.
But Cameron and Duncan Smith are right about one thing: Labour is not the party of the poor. Labour presided over an increase in inequality. The ConDems are simply going further. Working class and lower middle class people are increasingly unrepresented by all three establishment parties. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on these parties. Progressive political change does not start with politicians, but with ordinary people like us. It’s time to remember our own power.
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion. For more of his writing, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com .