A few people have asked why I am voting conservative in the UK General Election, varying from polite enquiry to, well, less polite enquiry. And, apparently, my new facebook profile picture with Conservative banner has been mentioned in our Global Sustainable Development cohort’s group chat (I thought my ears were burning…). So, below is an explanation which started out briefly at lunchtime today but ended up not-so-brief after the past hour or two.
When thinking about how to vote, I try to think about the long-term impact of the positions parties take on the people of the country. I start with my own conception of progress, as-in, what I think a better future would look like. Obviously, that’s complicated, and changes, and I am not going to sketch it out here. But, the area which is most pertinent to this election, and where I seem to be far from the current political mood among colleagues, students and facebook-friends, is the balance of state, community, and individual responsibility I want to see in the future. For me, society would be better if people were to help themselves and others in their community first, with the state acting as a back-up for situations in which that can’t happen. The state has an active role of its own in specific areas, but it should be entirely subservient to an expectation that, if and when we can, we will help each other as citizens.
Most of our current political parties, on the other hand, see the state as the central arm through which people can help each other. I can see the emotional appeal of that position – “give another x% of your income to the state and we’ll take care of the poor/sick/struggling people for you, as well as look after you if you hit challenges in life” sounds nice and progressive. But, it abstracts responsibility from the individual and encourages us to see issues as un-resolvable without interference from outside authority. This starts with how most of us bring up our kids; protecting them from conflict, rather than teaching them, slowly and painfully (for us and them), how to negotiate it. And the messaging continues throughout our lives in Britain.
For me, this messaging and the consistency with which it is repeated in school and by other authority figures, acts against most adults feeling able to make moral choices of their own, or from intervening when there are perfectly solvable problems in front of them. After all, are we not paying the state for “that”? In short, the belief in the centrality of an abstracted state degrades individual agency and therefore, damages communities – I would also draw attention to a link between this sense of helplessness to the huge rise in mental health issues (not the only cause, obviously, but an important one). If this position on the problem of democratic states is new to you, Minogue’s The Servile Mind is a good articulation.
When thinking about the state’s role, there is also the issue of its sustainability not over the next Parliament but over the next generation. While some other countries have been building up sovereign wealth funds to cover future commitments, we have been spending our wealth (and more). Even more damagingly, we have done so in a way that effectively commits future generations to do the same. Pensions are the most obvious example of this, but the furore around Social Care also illustrates how hard it is for politicians to row-back on previous commitments for the State to support people. Our spending has been normalised at a level and of a type which can only be sustained with moderate-but-consistent economic growth. And without consistent growth, our commitments in coming decades would be unpayable.
It is relatively uncontroversial to argue most of the growth we have seen in Britain in the past few decades (if not longer) has been to the active detriment of poorer parts of the world, as well as proportionally unfair to poorer elements of our own society, and environmentally damaging. It should not (in my opinion), and fortunately will not be sustained – financial growth will slow over the coming decades. When it does, pension and social care commitments, alongside other areas which are heavily reliant on current taxation, but not fully represented in the headline figures which political parties trade through election season, will become even more of a burden than they are now. And a lack of growth isn’t the only reason pensions/care will be getting more expensive, of course – if you disagree with me on the economics, think about the demographics (especially if immigration reduces). Practically, we cannot continue as we are in the long term without a substantial increase to total taxation.
To get to this election specifically. The Labour manifesto sees both current government spending and taxation roughly 6% higher than the Conservative manifesto (I’ll ignore the increase to capital spending). That is to say, it fails my sustainability test – the tax increases only offset the spending increases, so if the manifesto were enacted we would still be in a financially parlous position for the long-term. The only solution offered to this, by McDonnel and the economists who signed off on the costings, is to assume/promote more growth (and then, to promise the proceeds of said growth to a VAT cut, rather than long term balance). As an aside: I would entirely agree with cutting VAT before corporation tax.
Labour’s messaging also, both in tone and policy content, continues to argue that the state will look after us throughout our lives. It emphasises the sense of helplessness-without-the-state which I find deeply troubling – perhaps most explicitly when stating “only Labour can be trusted to unlock the talent of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people.” But the manifesto as a whole sees Labour as the active agent in “improving everybody’s lives”, providing “services that support us all” etc. etc. I understand the appeal of that, for those who don’t share my faith in individuals, but personally would not vote for it.
The Conservatives are, a little, closer to what I believe in. I don’t agree with everything in their manifesto, and the use of “strong and stable” is heinous. But, the overall direction set by the document and their messaging, I prefer to that set out by Labour. The regular use of “together”, and “we” (meaning the public and the government combined, rather than the political party) are perhaps the most obvious rhetorical difference. They are indicative of a less active role for the state in shaping the country’s future, and a more active role for individuals and communities. Something which I applaud, even if the commitment appears far from wholehearted.
The Conservatives are also trying (though mostly failing) to grapple with some of the long-term issues of sustainability I mention above. And they are doing so in a surprisingly progressive manner. To take two contentious issues which have been spoken about a lot through the campaign: social care, and tuition fees. On tuition fees, first – the current system which the Conservatives will maintain is FAR more progressive than scrapping them and paying for University through general taxation. The only people paying directly for their education, among UK citizens, are those who earn over £21k – on earnings above that you pay 9% of your income. Depending on growth assumptions, anything from a third to 85% of students (those least well off) will never repay their full student loans (which are wiped after 30 years), and the remaining cost will be paid by the state. Only the well off pay the full cost.
On social care, the proposed system involves domiciliary and residential care being given an equal footing when it comes to state funding (a good thing). It also sees an increase to the “asset floor” from £23k to £100k – so if you have less than £100k in assets, you pay nothing towards your social care. And, if your assets above £100k include a house, the house doesn’t have to be sold until you die. So, while the heirs of £100k+ estates might lose out, those who cannot afford to pay for their own care will be supported by the state. I see that as a positive change for the country – and wish that May had not backed down in suggesting a cap on the total amount to be charged to a person’s estate (which will only benefit the wealthy).
Overall, if the Conservatives live up to their manifesto, it would see the state both taking a less active role in our lives rhetorically, and staying broadly stable consistent as a percentage of GDP. Their plans still do not, for me, add up to a solution that is sustainable in the long term, but the direction of travel is more positive than the one offered by Labour. Given Brexit, the direction of travel we set now takes on additional importance. It will determine how we leave the EU, which EU laws and regulations apply in future to all of Britain (rather than which apply to the subsection of our industry which exports to the EU). This matters, hugely. I might cringe every time I hear the word strong or stable, and think May has run a terrible campaign, but with the upcoming negotiations we would be better off with a S&S government which can control parliament – something that I do not believe Corbyn, even with a majority, could provide. We also need one which can take short term political hits, in order to make decisions which are beneficial for the longer term, which is why I hope we see a substantial Conservative majority.
Note that throughout I have been attempting to stress the “I” in my position. As those who know me are well-aware, I can happily and honestly respect people who take an opposing viewpoint, both on specific issues and on the wider philosophical argument. Going further – I do not see my position as normative; I do not expect, or want to persuade, those who read this to agree with me. Disagreement in politics/philosophy/life, to my way of thinking, should be expected, valorised, and hopefully based on mutual understanding.