Tag Archives: eric-pickles

Why the Conservatives have been making class an issue

David Cameron and his party have been bending over backwards to tell us how petty and spiteful it is to bring class into politics.

They have a point, up to a point. Certainly the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a dreadful miscalculation by Labour – who, let us not forget, were treating the constituency as an hereditary seat and the idea of someone with the privileged background of Ed Balls claiming to be some kind of latter-day class warrior is just stupid. But regardless of how weak Labour are on the issue, the fact remains that it is primarily the Conservatives who have been making an issue of class in politics in recent years

Where do I start? Clearly there is that single, emblematic tax cut they want to give to all those who stand to gain from hereditary wealth, and in the last week there has been the eye-watering way in which Zac Goldsmith has sought to belittle his own bit of local difficulty by shrugging off a tax saving of £10,000 as if it essentially the same thing as a tenner he might lose down the back of a sofa. This was a highly charged political statement. What he was saying was: “I’m safe and I feel confident enough that I can rub my wealth in your face. What are you going to do about it?” If that isn’t making class an issue, what is?

A few weeks ago, Cameron made the highly controversial statement that what mattered was not the widening gap between rich and poor but the gap between the poor and the “middle” – if that isn’t a statement charged with class consciousness, what is? Again, the fact that Peter Mandelson has been saying essentially the same thing for the past decade and a half, doesn’t exactly help Labour provide a counterpoint to this.

The fox hunting ban is not something I feel particularly strongly about – I view anyone who takes pleasure out of the killing of a wild animal with contempt but there are good reasons for keeping the rural fox population under control and it is an issue that would be better regulated at a local government level in my view. I also feel that the ban hasn’t really worked and that for a lot of the Labour MPs who pushed it through, it really was a class issue. Rather than responding in kind, the Tories tack is instead to emphasise that this is not a class issue but a civil liberties one, whilst simultaneously announcing an intention to limit the right to protest. It is hard to see how legislating on fox hunting could be a priority for any government over the next decade, yet Cameron is determined to do so whilst simultaneously trying to mask it as some kind of march towards freedom. If they weren’t preoccupied with class, it is hard to see why they would be so determined to scrap the ban or to pretend it is about something it blatantly isn’t.

And then there’s this obsession that the Tories have had over the past decade with the social class of John Prescott and Michael Martin. The latter has been particulary interesting. All the time the Tories have been chuckling about the ineptness of “Gorbals Mick” it has emerged that the real Speaker Martin has been bending over backwards to defend the entrenched privilege of MPs – especially the wealthy ones – to trouser hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money in the form of “expenses.” He’s been their most faithful servant, and yet they have bullied him and hurled the most appalling insults at him. It is hard to look at this and not see a resemblance to arrogant Eton schoolboys behaving not like elected politicians but like people who have been born to rule. The only people who turned the expenses issue into the class issue have, consistently, been the Tories and their supporters.

And now we see Eric Pickles entering into that bear pit which is the Conservative attitude to class. Whatever you might think about Pickles, he is a politician with a track record in his own right. Yet what has happened to Pickles under Cameron? Well, he’s reinvented himself as the Tories’ answer to John Prescott. In doing so, he has adopted an avulcular, parodic working class persona which seems to have been plucked wholesale from the Beano circa 1959. Let’s be under no illusions here – this performance has precisly nothing to do with attracting the working class vote. You won’t see him playing up to the camera and mugging about his “chums” on Question Time or the Today Programme. No, it is about giving the party faithful what they want to hear on his regular emails and “war room briefings” in his role as Party Chairman. As far as they are concerned, the acceptable face of the working class appears in charming Ealing Comedies, not on housing estates. The fact that Pickles feels he has to transform himself into some kind of clown in order to keep the party masses happy speaks volumes about the view of class within the Conservatives. Frankly, I await the day before Pickles starts one of his war room briefings with an establishing shot of him showing his prize pet ferret around CCHQ, with all the bright young things around him cooing and stroking the creature. It is only a matter of time, trust me on this.

In short, the one party still obsessed with class in this country are the Conservatives. Frankly, it would be nice if there were a bit more class consciousness within the other two main parties.

(On a personal note, it isn’t that I don’t want to live in a classless, divided society, I really do. It’s just that it is painfully obvious to me that I don’t live in one and that we need to be talking about this much more.)

In defence of Eric Pickles

Longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my glowing record of defending Conservative politicians – especially Party Chairperkins. But I do think there is a danger in going overboard in criticism of Eric Pickles after his car crash performance on Thursday’s Question Time.

I do actually think that an MP with a constituency 37 miles away should be entitled to have a place to stay overnight in central London. MP’s do often work very long, very unsociable hours. Most companies that expect their staff to work in such a way do allow them to claim for overnight accomodation.

There is a danger that by concerning ourselves too much with Pickes’ lamentable performance that we end up with a more iniquitous system which would shrink the pool from which MPs are likely to be drawn. As I have written several times now, there is a very simple solution: allow MPs to buy second homes on their allowances as at present, but ensure the equity is owned by the taxpayer. That way, if they sell up the money (including any profit) goes back to us. It might give them a roof over their head but never again could it be claimed that they were simply doing it to fiddle the system. What’s more, it is already established practice for certain categories of public sector staff.

It is a very simple reform and I have yet to come across a serious argument against it. From the tax payer’s point of view it is actually better than forcing MPs to only rent property or this crazy dormitory idea that people talk about from time to time (just think of the additional cost of security). Indeed, I believe it was actually discussed by MPs themselves last year – and rejected.

This gets to the heart of the problem. The political class appears to have become incapable of reform, even if it is in their direct interest to do so – enlightened self interest has been trumped by immediate self-gratification. This is just one example, and it is linked to the cheapness with which they are prepared to sell our liberties. There is a word for that sort of thing – decadent – and throughout history we have seen what happens when a country’s elite becomes so chronically out of touch. The courts of Louis XVI and Nicholas II spring to mind.

Revolution is an idea that excites the puerile imaginations of socialists and anarchists – many of whom will be taking to the streets today and next Wednesday. The truth is though, they generally hurt the most vulnerable in society as much as the most powerful, and the insurgent political class is typically far worse than its predecessor. Fortunately, we aren’t at that point yet and there is still time to turn it around. A few more years of recession though and things might be very different.

But every time an MP puts in a preening, arrogant performance like Eric Pickles did this week, it enrages yet more people. This wasn’t so much a case of “let them eat cake” as “who ate all the cake?” If Cameron has any sense he should slap him down hard.

Is George Osborne Cameron’s Mandy?

How much longer can George Osborne hold on as Shadow Chancellor? Now is not the time for a flyweight to be in charge of the Tory’s economic policy, not least one who thinks that the best way to stop a “house burning down” is to “fix the roof.”

Today’s revelation by Nathaniel Rothschild that Osborne not only attended the legendary dinner with Peter Mandelson and Oleg Deripaska but that he solicited a donation from the man, could just be the final nail in the coffin. At the same time it smacks of poetic justice – it was Osborne who began this whole cycle of events by making indiscreet comments about a private dinner he had had with Mandelson in the first place.

Osborne has form with this sort of thing as well. Pretty much every time he opens his mouth he attempts to lower political debate to the level of the school playground, whether he is whinging about Gordon Brown snubbing him or making snide remarks about Gordon Brown being autistic. This sort of thing gets him headlines but I don’t think earns him much respect. That is probably at least partially why journalists have been so happy to leak him as the Mandelson “source” in the first place.

Osborne deserves a lot of credit for helping to detoxify the Tory brand with Cameron. As a marketing strategy, their’s has been near flawless. The problem has always been with the substance (and I’m not talking about the Class A Cameron may or may not have put up his nose before becoming an MP). The deliberate strategy to be policy-lite has broadly worked, but the wunch crunch changes all that. The Tories need a heavyweight leading their Treasury team, a Letwin or a Willetts, or their current wobble in the polls may start to become a southbound trend.

Let’s not forget about Caroline Spelman either by the way. The Parliamentary investigation about her nanny is still ongoing, and while I was one of the first to defend her, but things seem to have got much murkier since then. If this comes to the surface once again while the Osborne stink is still lingering, the Tories could have a full scale crisis on their hands. The received wisdom seems to be to replace her as quickly as possible with Eric Pickles. If that happens it will be interesting, as Pickles has a big mouth which could cause him all sorts of problems.

And then there is Cameron himself. As this blog has repeatedly noted, he has a tendency to capitulate rather than confront. Blair was a thousand times more ruthless and even he balked at sacking Mandelson. Both times. What all this seems to add up to is the makings of a political storm. That assumption that the next election is already in the bag may yet prove to be premature.

Tories (and Lib Dems) in a Pickle over Council Tax

Eric Pickles is getting his knickers in a twist about new government guidelines that suggest that “double glazing, central heating and fixed kitchen units” should all be taken into account when adjusting council tax on the basis that (gasp!) they might affect the value of the property.

The reason for this doesn’t really have much to do with the general evilness of the government. It has far more to do with the fact that, um, council tax is a tax which is at least supposed to be based on a property’s value. And who introduced this state of affairs? Why it would be Mr Pickles and his chums in the Conservative Party.

If the Tories are opposed to property taxes, they should propose scrapping them. To propose never revaluing property again is to say that people who live in houses which have, relatively speaking, devalued in recent years should subsidise the winners of the property market. If you don’t like the invasive nature of government inspections, then this is yet another reason for a land value tax – which isn’t based on things like your kitchen or your windows but on the land values which are externally calculated.

But of course they’d never advocate such a thing: it is hard-wired into their genes, as Lloyd George would be able to tell you. Sadly, the Lib Dems are similarly averse to taxing land values, preferring to tax labour instead, which is why Andrew Stunell here becomes a strange bedfellow with Pickles.

For some sanity, we must cross the Atlantic for a sensible editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Dutiful city taxpayers’ real grievance is with the high percentage of property-tax deadbeats, and with the city for not doing more to collect back taxes, which now amount to more than a half billion dollars, according to Hallwatch.org.

While this new wave of assessments should leave the city property tax system less out of whack, it isn’t the best fix.

The reform commission proposed the better ideas in 2003: A new citywide valuation at full market value (instead of the current, wildly confusing fractional system) and a gradual move to a two-tiered system of taxing land more aggressively than the buildings on it. This “land-value taxation” encourages smart growth while discouraging speculators and slumlords.