Robert Leitch is a Parliamentary researcher and Chairman of CarePlus, a charity which works with the elderly in South East London.
We have all experienced the feeling before – the demoralising sense of being ripped off. I remember first feeling ripped off when I was “offered” extortionate exchange rates by my hotel whilst on holiday. Being ripped off in any setting can provoke a range of emotions: anger, frustration, weariness or resentment.
Of course, such feelings are nothing new to us Brits. When reflecting upon the current woes of our embattled Government, we should perhaps linger to consider the underlying ripped-off mentality that many ordinary, hard-working, and yet frequently forgotten about people possess after years of political (MPs’ expenses), financial (greedy bankers) and social (fraudulent benefit cheats and ASBOs et al) irresponsibility.
Paying £96 to fill up the average family car at the pumps; completing a weekly shop for a family of five; paying an extra 20% for warm food from a local bakery; facing tuition fees of £9,000 per year at university, per child; the ever-increasing parking fees at hospitals; excessive rail fares for commuters; the growing net of the 40p tax rate; the contribution of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to the EU – the daily rip-off list in rip-off Britain is truly endless.
Is it any wonder that so many pensioners were so upset about the decision to freeze their personal allowance? I don’t actually believe that the majority of pensioners would dispute the fiscal implications of this policy, particularly with the record increase in the state pension. However, having worked hard all their lives, and having contributed to our society for decades, this targeted policy must just seem like another state-led plunder announced with minimal respect in the most casual manner.
Reading the above should make us uncomfortable, and perhaps even angry. For there is a real desperate feeling across much of the country that around every corner there lurks a taxman waiting for us to slip up, ready to pounce, certain to diminish the full benefits of a job promotion or pay rise. Ultimately, ready to rip us off. In summary, it is a feeling that we are viewed by the State and our politicians as being mere tax resources – always available to be squeezed for just a little bit more revenue.
Ed Miliband (and it is wholly disheartening even to refer to him) has talked in the past about predatory companies in the private sector. I disagree with his analysis but he has a point. In my view, the general disillusionment in British society can largely be assigned not to predatory companies, but rather to predatory politics. The impression that politicians and political parties say one thing to get elected before acting in the most unscrupulous way when in power has truly taken hold.
Picking up on this sense of disenfranchisement requires only the most basic common sense. It should also be seen as a rather positive development for us conservatives. After all, ill-feeling towards a greedy, obese State and its excessive taxation and waste should be music to conservative ears. It represents an opportunity to break away from the Labour model of spend, expand, intrude, control.
The problem, however, is whether our leaders are picking up on the underlying problem. I am often told that the Chancellor and other main players around the cabinet table are political geniuses, carefully mapping the way through choppy waters towards an overall Conservative majority in 2015.
Unfortunately, I see little evidence of this in practice. More worryingly, neither does the public. Forget Bradford West: the most troubling polling result in recent times is that 72% of the public see this Government as being out of touch. Alas, to be truly honest I can see why. Just take the fuel debacle for example. Such sloppy language and ill-judged advice from senior Government Ministers only served to suggest that too few of them understand the importance of filling up a car before the morning commute for the average person. Ministers, special advisors and Party staff must be able to place themselves in the shoes of ordinary Britons – otherwise the suspicion that the Tory part of this Government is only in the business of politics to benefit the rich, will continue to grow.
It is not too late, however, to pick up and counter the dire public mood. We are the major part of a coalition Government. We are in office now. We still have three years (potentially!) until the next general election. We live in extreme times so we have an opportunity to offer an extreme and profound readjustment of the tax and welfare systems in this country and to make this Government work for the squeezed middle first and foremost.
Yet, without a full understanding of the rip-off Britain mentality, it is an unfortunate probability that this Government will continue to meander down a focus-group led, unconvincing, principle-devoid path towards a largely self-inflicted electoral defeat. Unless we change course quickly, the rip-off Britain sentiment could eventually read as the depressing R.I.P on this Government’s tombstone.