If you’re on Boris Watch, then this article in the Times (£) will surely grab your attention. It features several of his prescriptions for the Conservative manifesto. For instance, the Mayor of London doesn’t agree with Theresa May that the party should set an immigration target for the next Parliament. He does, however, think that there should be clearer commitments for defence spending.
The most striking theme of the piece, though, is Boris’s support for Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith. He echoes the former, and his recent “warriors of the dispossessed” speech, by saying that “There is a problem with wealth inequality in my view.” And he supports the latter over a policy to give council houses to tenants who return to work. In his words, “It deserves serious consideration.”
This would be a difficult policy to enact, not least because a good proportion of social accommodation is owned by housing associations rather than by the Government. Yet it’s still good to see one of the Tories’ leading lights cast his rays on – again, in his words – “people on low incomes”. As Tim Montgomerie has highlighted in launching his Good Right project, the party hasn’t lacked for a moral mission in the past. It should have one now.
But Mayor Johnson’s words do raise some questions in my mind. And so too did Gove’s, although I wrote at the time that I wasn’t in the mood for quibbling. Now, perhaps because of yesterday’s greyed-over eclipse, I am.
It comes down to the sort of dispossession that’s being fought against. Too often, it can seem like a Tory conception of dispossession. Don’t have a job? We’ll encourage you into one. Don’t own a home? We’ll help you buy one. Don’t go to a good school? We’ll improve it and send you off to university. Don’t have a husband or a wife? We’ll get onto it. Don’t have enough money for a comfortable retirement? We’ll sort that too.
This may sound like flippancy on my part, but it’s not meant to be. These are mostly all righteous causes – I do have concerns about the emphasis on home ownership, although that’s for another post – allied to some of the Coalition’s finest policies. It’s right to raise ladders to a good education, a happy home life, a secure old age.
But what about those people who may never reach the lower rungs? For some, a happy marriage isn’t the aspiration, but simply getting their head straight after an abusive relationship. For others, even renting a home would be a dream, let alone buying one. For others still… well, you get the point. There’s a danger that Conservatives could neglect those who are especially dispossessed. It’s all well and good giving council houses to people who return to work, but what about those who don’t have a council house in the first place?
This isn’t just a matter of morality – although it’s certainly that – but also of politics. Drug addicts and victims of abuse and homeless people may not be a massive voting bloc, but they are part of the electorate’s test for whether the Tories count as champions for the dispossessed. And the same goes for Labour. The “squeezed middle” is an important concern, but their election campaign doesn’t seem to reach beyond it to the tragic depths of British poverty.
Happily, the Conservatives do have policies in this area – e.g. the “troubled families” programme – but they are seldom talked about. They should be, and there ought to be more like them, for even a Good Right can always be better. Quibble over.