There is one question that counts when you cast your vote: have they made life better? This month, the Conservatives will have been in office for 12 years. Today, in the local elections, we have a chance to pass judgment on their record. What does it look like?
It’s an astonishing thing, but it is genuinely hard to think of government policies that, in this period, have improved life for people other than the richest and most privileged. There are a handful. There’s the same-sex marriage legislation passed during David Cameron’s first term, though it was developed by the Liberal Democrats and opposed by a majority of Conservative MPs. There’s a higher threshold for paying income tax, a higher minimum wage (though it falls short of a genuine living wage), shared parental leave and automatic pensions enrolment. There’s the Modern Slavery Act 2015, no-fault divorces, the law against coercive behaviour, an improved highway code, the carbon floor price, the soft drinks levy and payments for plastic bags. Cameron oversaw a successful Olympics, and Boris Johnson’s government executed an effective vaccination programme.
To this brief list, we could add a few policies that might be positive in principle, and have managed to deliver some improvements, but have been disastrously designed and implemented. These include universal credit, increased hours for free childcare, furlough payments and net zero. But that’s about it: remarkably slim pickings across 12 years of government.
Weighed against these benefits is an astounding litany of harm. As the elections on 5 May are for council seats, let’s take a look at what has happened to local authorities. Since 2010, they have suffered cuts in central government funding of almost 60%. This has caused devastating losses to local services, including Sure Start children’s centres, youth and community services, respite care, libraries, local buses, recycling, arts and culture. And it’s not over: further massive cuts are expected next year. Several councils are now close to bankruptcy and must sell the last of their assets. The poorest boroughs have been hardest hit – so much for levelling up. The social fabric of the nation has been torn apart.
Why? Obviously, they’ll tell you, to save money. If so, why have they been lavishing cash on pet projects and favoured interests? As Cameron and George Osborne ripped into public budgets, they somehow found £2bn for a pointless and chaotic reorganisation of the NHS. They spent £4.5 bn a year on the Afghan war, for reasons they could never clearly define; with this money they could have cancelled either their entire public-sector pay freeze or the cut to the universal credit budget – and still have a billion in change.
For the price of one or two contracts issued to ministers’ friends through the dodgy Covid “VIP channel”, the current government could have reversed all the losses to the Arts Council’s budget, or brought national spending on libraries back to its 2010 level. Of the £12.1bn of protective equipment the government bought in 2020-21, it wrote off £8.7bn, thanks to the disastrous cronyism of procurement policies. That’s roughly six times the national budget for rebuilding schools in England.
Abandoning due diligence during the pandemic, against the advice of civil servants and other experts, the Conservative government managed to lose an estimated £3.5bn in bounceback loans to fraud while £5.2bn of furlough payments also ended up in the hands of fraudsters or was paid in error. It appears to have made little effort to recover these stolen funds.
The budget for the test-and-trace scheme – £37bn – which, according to the public accounts committee, has achieved none of its aims and failed to make “a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic”, equates to more than twice the entire cut across 10 years in the central government grant to local authorities. For the same money, we could have avoided all that suffering, all the losses in services and the damage to civic and community life, and still had £22bn in change. The Conservatives’ austerity programmes have little to do with saving money. They’re inspired by an ideology called neoliberalism, which seeks to destroy the very notion of effective government.
This social vivisection, carving up a living society to see if its parts can survive in isolation, has been devastating to the people whom governments have the greatest duty to protect – the poor and vulnerable. Despite the pandemic, during which accommodation for rough sleepers magically materialised as soon as they were deemed a “health risk”, the number of people living on the streets is estimated to be 38% higher today than it was in 2010.
A tiny fraction of the social housing we need is being built. The cruel benefits cap and bedroom tax have made piddling savings while inflicting enormous pain. The Malthusian two-child benefits limit imposed in 2017 delivers child poverty and nothing else. The number of food parcels supplied by the Trussell Trust has risen from 41,000 a year before the Conservatives took office to more than 2m today. Almost one in 10 parents expects to have to use a food bank this summer.
Disgracefully but unsurprisingly, life expectancy in the most deprived areas has been falling since 2011. If you want a single indicator of government performance, this is it.
The crisis in the NHS, caused by 12 years of dire underfunding, coupled with the pandemic backlog and, to be fair, the legacy of New Labour’s disastrous private finance schemes, is likely to accelerate this trend. Six million people in England – more than a 10th of the population – are now waiting for treatment, the highest number since records began. Patients are frequently stuck for 24 or even 48 hours in accident and emergency departments. Some wait hours for an ambulance after dialling 999.
I could go on, discussing the truncation of civil liberties; the deliberate stoking of division through culture wars; the gross mishandling of the pandemic, causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths; Partygate and the destruction of public trust; the assault on public protections, leading, among other horrors, to the Grenfell Tower disaster; the administrative collapse across dozens of public services, exemplified by the current Passport Office fiasco and the transformation of our rivers into open sewers; a 14% increase in crime this year caused largely by fraud, against which there is now almost no recourse; the stalling of carbon cuts; oh, and the small matter of Brexit.
This is the record on which we should be voting, in today’s elections and those that follow. The past 12 years of Conservative government have made the life of this nation worse. A lot worse. What else do you need to know?