“The Conservative Party has changed. Rich or poor, from north to south, there is an alternative to Labour.” So says David Cameron, in a week where the Tories are desperately trying to claim that their party is somehow different to the party that made working class people’s lives a misery throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Many Tory policies are dressed up as ways to “help” working class people who have been “abandoned” by Labour. But the Tory party is the same nasty party it has always been. That was made clear late September, when it launched an attack on the unemployed and the sick. The Tories want to use medical assessments to force those on incapacity benefit into work; they claim that at least 500,000 of the 2.6 million claimants are capable of working. These policies will leave many people recoiling in horror.
Not surprisingly, they make no sense. The theme of the conference was “Get Britain Working”. But the Tories are saying that they will cut £25 a week from incapacity benefit claimants’ benefits. This is the difference between incapacity benefit currently £89.90 a week - and jobseekers’ allowance - £63.40 a week. So those removed from incapacity benefit won’t be “getting back to work”—they will simply be forced to exist on even lower benefits. And the public sector spending cuts that the Tories want to implement will result in the slashing of thousands of jobs.
So David Willetts, the shadow universities and skills minister, spoke of young people who are “so alienated from education” that they can’t go into an apprenticeship immediately. The solution, he says, is to get them to do work that may lead to an apprenticeship or a job - presumably in the meantime they will be working for free. What’s more, the Tories will pay bosses to take on workers. So unemployed people will have to work for no wages. The bosses will be paid for the strain of taking on unpaid workers. The Tories are still the party of the bosses. Kenneth Clarke, the shadow business secretary, spoke about the need for “tax incentives” and the need to “get rid of red tape” to help business And what has been Labour’s response to all this? To say that most of the proposals are already government policy. So Labour has said that it is already using the private sector to get people off benefits. It has plans in place to force 10,000 medical assessments a week on incapacity benefit claimants—and boasts that the Tories won’t be able to do any more than that. It is a measure of Labour’s betrayal of working class people over the last 12 years that, even when faced with the Tories, so many people will still find it impossible to stomach voting for the Labour Party.
Tory plans to cut benefits and services are a chilling reminder to working class people of the true nature of the bosses’ party. But just as depressing has been Labour’s response. Its reaction to every Tory attack is, as Labour work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper put it, it’s “a rehash of what we’re already doing”. So the Tories want to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 by 2016. But this is not an original policy - Labour plans to do the same, only ten years later. And Labour tried to pull the rug from under the Tories’ feet on Tuesday when chancellor Alistair Darling announced a pay curb for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers—a pledge the Tories had planned for later that day. The media focused on the more well-off people that the freeze would affect. But around 700,000 workers will face either a freeze or increases of just 1 percent. The way to beat the attacks will not be to back one neoliberal party to stop the other—it will be to start organising resistance on the ground.
Part of the Tories’ attempt to wipe out the terrible memory of their previous governments is to claim that working class people are backing them. Eric Pickles, chair of the Tory party, opened the conference by making a particular appeal to trade unionists. “I say to union members worried about spiraling debt, job losses and the neglect of thousands of young people consigned to life without a job and a sense of purpose—vote for a party determined to get Britain working, to give our young people a life-changing experience that only a job can bring.” At least ten unions were holding fringe meetings at the Tory conference this year—a worrying and unusually high number. Most shockingly, Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, is set to speak at a fringe meeting titled “Finding the path to economic recovery”. He was to share a platform with Tory policy chair—and bank director—Oliver Letwin. The Tories say that this is the first time they can ever remember this happening. Union leaders may think that because a Conservative government is looming, they need to get a foot in the door to try to have some influence over its policies. But the Tories have made their anti-union agenda clear. The job of trade unionists is not to try and cosy up to them or debate where the cuts will fall—it is to start organising now to stop them.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.