Conservatives 2.0

With the Tories still setting the political agenda in the run up to the election, Alex Nunns examines what a Cameron government might actually have in store for us

January 4, 2010
8 min read


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


  share     tweet  

Did you know that you are about to enter the ‘post-bureaucratic age’? No? Perhaps you should prepare – stock up on tinned food, bottled water, survival suits. Because if the Tories win the next election they are not only promising a change of government but a change of epoch.

The ‘post-bureaucratic age’ is the Tory leadership’s grand theory, their version of Blair’s third way. It is presented as the idea that links Cameron’s anti-state rhetoric, his new-found love of localism and the detail of policies from education to regulation. But the thinking is riddled with contradictions, and if the Conservatives triumph the country may strain under the weight of them.

With such a dull name the new epoch is never likely to be as popular as, say, the Stone Age, but the post-bureaucratic age comes with its very own narrative. In the beginning people didn’t have the internet or even mobile phones, so no one knew what anyone was doing. They were pre-bureaucratic. Eventually the telegraph was developed and the bureaucratic age was born. This was okay; it brought progress and suited us all pretty well right up until John Major’s government fell. But then came Gordon Brown, and life wasn’t worth living.

By this time, however, the internet had been invented, allowing everyone to know what everyone was doing. Bureaucracy became unnecessary because, as Cameron puts it, ‘the argument that has applied for well over a century – that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make decisions on our behalf – simply falls down.’ All that was needed was a Tory government and Lo! the post-bureaucratic age would be upon us.

You see, David Cameron has a vision. Either that or a highly developed sense of irony. He looks at the way neoliberalism nearly died from gluttony after being freed from the nagging restraint of the state and concludes, as any rational person might not, that the state got us into this mess. His ‘post-bureaucratic’ solution is more neoliberalism.

An odd effect

The recession has had an odd impact on Cameron. Before the crash he wasn’t too worried about public spending. In fact he put much of his energy into fighting his own party over the issue, pledging to match Labour’s spending in key areas. But after global capitalism crumpled, Cameron decided that domestic public spending was to blame, and pretended he had always said so.

Cameron and Osborne now present the problem as public debt, rather than recession. Their solution is a quick and sharp reduction in spending. Many economists believe this will be a disaster that will tackle the symptoms of the crisis while aggravating the cause, but it means that if elected the Tories will have a mandate to cut.

At the Conservative conference in October, Osborne declared ‘we’re all in this together’ before singling out public sector workers for a pay freeze. The measures he outlined totalled around £7 billion of ‘savings’, a fraction of the £70-80 billion needed to tackle the debt on the Tories’ timescale. The cuts will be huge.

Cameron has pledged that spending on health and international development will continue to grow. Education, the home office and defence will probably be shielded. That means that welfare will bear the brunt. The first step will be to throw 500,000 people judged capable of work off incapacity benefit and onto jobseekers’ allowance, worth £25 a week less. The whole benefits system will be made harder to access, and money will be withheld from anyone who refuses job offers.

The Conservatives describe this policy as ‘tough and tender’. Tough and tender. Like nasty and compassionate. It’s fishy and fowl.

But here’s where the post-bureaucratic age comes into its own. The unemployed will be freed from ‘bureaucracy’. The task of finding them work will be privatised, with companies being paid a premium if their ‘client’ stays in work for a year.

There’s just one flaw. This is a policy that will work best when it’s not needed, and badly when it is. In a recession, jobs don’t exist to get people into, especially if the Tory spending squeeze keeps unemployment high. Private firms will be reluctant to take part. Inevitably the terms will have to be skewed in their favour, and the whole thing will cost a fortune.

The Tories stole the policy from Australia, where it worked so badly that the government had to tighten regulation because of fraud and market failure. The result was more bureaucracy and cost.

Uncounted sums

Privatisation and bureaucracy – this turns out to be characteristic of the post-bureaucratic age. The Conservatives claim they will reduce the cost of NHS bureaucracy from £4.4 billion to £3 billion – figures that bear no relation to the real cost, which under New Labour has been hyper-inflated by market reforms. Pointless tendering exercises, contracts, lawyers, billing and now even NHS advertising have diverted uncounted sums of money. Yet the Tories will go even further with ‘true payment by results’ – paying hospitals according to health outcomes, not activity. Imagine the bureaucracy needed to grade the success of every procedure and allocate funds accordingly.

In a post-bureaucratic world, Cameron says, centrally run services will be replaced by ‘local control over schools, housing, policing’. But Cameron shares the Thatcherite notion that consumer choices are equivalent or preferable to democratic ones.

So in education all schools will have the chance to become academies. Local authorities will be sidelined in the name of localism. Academies will be run by faith groups, charities, companies or parents. Tory spin has focused on the latter, but after initially saying academies would be non-profit the Conservatives have revealed they will allow the running of schools, including teaching, to be outsourced. Companies will be able to charge a management fee and make a profit.

Since planning is an idea from a previous epoch, academies will be allowed to open even where there are surplus school places. There will be competition for finite resources. For every winning, profitable ‘local’ academy there will be a local comprehensive loser.

Despite the talk of localism, shadow education secretary Michael Gove plans to micro-manage from the centre any area of school policy he feels strongly about. He is particularly concerned that all pupils must wear a tie; ex-soldiers will be recruited to enforce discipline; a propagandist version of British history will be taught; and he will personally sack bad headteachers.

The new Conservative rhetoric sets great store by local government. Osborne has said: ‘When it comes to rooting out waste and cutting costs or improving services through innovative new policies… Conservative Whitehall will have much to learn from Conservative town halls.’

If we take him at his word it seems the country will be run like a budget airline. Conservative controlled Barnet has branded itself ‘easyCouncil’. Its leader Mike Freer, a banker, has adopted Ryanair’s business model and told residents not to expect services to be comprehensive.

Instead, in social care, recipients will be given a budget and told to choose whether they want to use it for help with, for example, shopping or cleaning. Freer showed how seriously he takes social care when he said people could spend it on a weekend in Eastbourne if they want. The no-frills strategy also involves Ryanair-style extra charges for priority treatment, such as jumping the queue for a planning application. And Barnet aims to privatise as many services as it can.

The goal is lower council tax, but vulnerable people will pay the price in lost services. Freer has already tried to cut live-in wardens in sheltered accommodation, but in a possible glimpse of the future the plan has been halted after residents (who are presumably local people too) took it to the courts. Another threatened area is social housing. Stephen Greenhalgh, the leader of Cameron’s favourite local authority, Hammersmith and Fulham, has proposed ending social housing as we know it by putting council house rent up to market levels then offering means-tested housing benefit. He wants to end secure tenancy and bring back a partial right-to-buy with a moralist twist, saying: ‘We want to give tenants the right to acquire “free equity” of up to 10 per cent if they are good tenants, and the right to buy up to 25 per cent of their home on a “buy one get one free” basis.’

Labour’s failures

The closer you look, the more the post-bureaucratic era resembles the Stone Age after all. There are plenty of opportunities for Labour to attack, yet Brown and company are consistently missing them.

Key Conservative proposals won’t work because they are only extensions of New Labour policies that don’t work. For all the bluster about Brown’s statism, Labour is heavily implicated in this ‘post-bureaucratic’ dystopia. Market reforms in the NHS have prepared the ground for the Conservatives.

The ‘tough and tender’ benefit reforms are an extreme version of James Purnell’s policies (introduced before his entirely principled resignation). Even the plan for profit-making state schools is inspired by the example of a London secondary run by an American firm with the current government’s blessing.

Most significantly, Labour has accepted the Conservative focus on the deficit, not the recession, with Brown pathetically announcing cuts of his own after seeing the positive reaction to Osborne’s conference speech. The government has left itself with little in the armoury to fight the election.

So buy plenty of tinned food and bottled water, and brace yourselves for the new epoch.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself


2