The Tories are shrinking the state while Labour go back to the 1980s

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, November 29th 2015

These are tumultuous times.

Chaos in Syria. Complex and shifting alliances. The Turks shooting down a Russian plane. There is disarray in the Labour Party on Syria and Trident. And all in the week of George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on public spending.

The Tories appear dominant in British politics only six months after they won their surprising majority: based on 24.3% of electors and a narrow parliamentary majority of 12 seats.

Osborne cleverly positioned himself retreating from his own unpopular positions. Tax credit cuts were abandoned, while police cuts were reversed. A number of popular looking policies were giving priority such as a business tax for apprentices, £27 billion ‘magically’ found, and soothing rhetoric used about the importance of social justice.

None of this can hide the fundamental shift taking place. ‘Never waste a crisis’ is a political truism. Osborne has used the bankers’ crash and ballooning of public spending from the banking bailout to make the state the problem, and to embark on an ambitious strategy to dramatically shrink and reframe what it does.

Over the course of ten years the Osborne aim is to reduce the state from 45.7% of GDP to 36.5%. This is way beyond the scale of cuts Thatcher managed. Former BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders called this ‘the biggest cutting of a state anywhere in ten years.’ Indeed, the only bigger cuts have been the brutal shock therapies which happened in Eastern Europe after the Soviet Bloc collapsed.

The working poor hit by tax credit cuts are still going to be hit. 2.6 million working families are still going to lose £1,600 per year. Student nurses in England are going to have to take loans as grants are abolished. There will still be £12 billion of welfare cuts.

Whilst the Tories continually say that ‘we have to live within our means’ Britain prepares for a whole raft of military, defence and security expenditure. Trident has gone up to an ‘official’ figure of £40 billion – with Tory MP Crispin Blunt estimating it will cost four times that over its lifetime – £167 billion.

If that were not enough Cameron put the case for the UK taking part in bombing Syria. He boasted this week that the UK is the only country in the world which meets ‘both its NATO and international aid commitments’. That is an empty claim in a country which is drastically cutting back public services, where local government is being savaged by 77% cuts over ten years, and where hundred of thousands of working people have to regularly rely on foodbanks because the welfare state is by deliberate design so inadequate.

The Syria decision is a complex one, not aided by the shifting sands of the political and military battlefield of that country. How do you defeat an ‘idea’ and the fanatics of ISIS? Does the West have the stomach for a war without end, when ‘the war on terror’, already fourteen years old, hasn’t exactly been a success?

Then there is the shambles of today’s Labour Party. A party whose members elected and support Jeremy Corbyn. A Shadow Cabinet and Parliamentary Party which doesn’t – with a mere four supporters out of 31 in the former, and 20 out of 232 in the latter.

This means that the party has no clear stance on anything – the Autumn Statement, Syria, Trident, name your issue. Such is the hostility between the warring camps that the Labour civil war at times resembles the kaleidoscope of Syria in its complexity. Only with no hope of outside intervention.

The Corbyn leadership was meant to be about ‘straight talking’, understanding the anger created by Iraq and austerity, and winning back once former Labour voters who have switched to the SNP, UKIP and apathy. Next week’s Oldham West and Royton where Labour are defending a 14,738 majority over UKIP will be the first real test of this.

There needs to be a reality check. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher remade British politics as Labour tore itself apart. The same is happening again. Some of the protagonists are even the same people: Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Ken Livingstone. They seem to have learned nothing from the past.

The Tories are being allowed to savage public services and spending, sell off national assets (Eurostar, Royal Mail, with housing associations and Channel 4 next), and punish the poor. Large parts of the Labour Party seem to not care about this or barely understand. History could repeat itself – first as tragedy and now as farce.

What is coming to pass as ‘the new mainstream’ of British politics is something unimaginable even a few years ago. George Osborne this week showed his political ambition, not just to be Prime Minister, but to make a mean, lean country only interested in the ‘strivers’. This is a battle for the soul of Britain, and so far a one sided one.