Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Did Jeremy Corbyn win the general election?
The answer is NO, of course.
However, it is hard to believe that just a few months ago, Conservatives were arguing against unfunded, multi-billion-pound spending programmes because of the need to keep down the deficit and debt. Yet, now, the Government is using billions of taxpayers’ money – more than Labour ever imagined, and absolutely necessary and justifiably – to deal with the economic and financial shocks caused by coronavirus.
Of course, it can be argued that the Treasury is only able to do this because it got the deficit under control (just imagine if, God forbid, this pandemic had occurred during the 2008 banking collapse) and fixed the roof that hadn’t been mended when the sun was shining. Moreover, Labour’s manifesto plans virtually threw taxpayers’ money down the plughole. For instance, spending up to £20 billion on ‘free’ broadband – hardly value for money.
Nevertheless, the implications of the Chancellor’s actions to spend hundreds of billions of pounds is enormous.
If monies can be found in moments of crises to alleviate the financial hardship of millions of our countrymen and women, why cannot funds always be found to solve very difficult problems for the public sector in the future? When the Coronavirus is history, why not spend not £14 billion extra on education but £50 billion, and another £50 billion on the NHS? Or use another £20 billion on income tax cuts for the lower paid, and an extra £20 billion on roads?
It will be much harder to make arguments to say no to this, because the response will always be: “Well, the State has shown what it is willing to spend in the recent past”. I have no doubt that the argument will be that the Coronavirus spending took place in exceptional circumstances. Absolutely. But the principle and precedent of public spending on necessities will be there against any argument about the need for austerity and for essential spending on public services.
So, Conservatives are going to need to come up a radically different narrative that explains why massive spending is not always possible. That the principle and precedent of public spending on necessities cannot apply to everything.
To be clear, I have no doubt that the Chancellor is doing the right thing. I agree with him one hundred per cent on the measures he has taken. I also believe that there must be a serious package for the self-employed.
But even before the recent, additional coronavirus spending, it was clear the Budget signalled that the age of austerity was over; public expenditure on research and development, infrastructure, schools and the NHS was now a good thing. With coronavirus finances added to that, it is clear that austerity is not over for an age, but a millenium.
Britain is now a moderate social democratic state – which, I suspect, most people feel aligned with and which much of the public prefer. Apart from the hard left, those in politics will either be on the right side of social democracy or on the left. On the right side (the Conservative side of which I am proud to belong), we are saying we believe in low taxation alongside a mixed economy. Where possible, we use the levers of economic and social entrepreneurship and civil society, glued together by economic and social capital, customs, tradition, and stability, rather than the State.
For those on the moderate left side of social democracy, they will have a much stronger belief in the State using the levers of power to implement change. But, whether moderate right Conservative, or moderate left, whilst austerity is dead, the age of social democracy will be with us for a long time to come.
It wasn’t Corbynomics that won the election – but was it social democracy?
Of course, the awful coronavirus has shown our public and private services at their best. ‘Protect the NHS’ is not just a slogan reminding us to stay at home, but three words that illustrate the umbilical cord between the British people and our National Health Service. I would think that people will also see certain elements of the private sector in the same light, as we are kept fed, watered and informed over the coming months.
We can’t but watch in amazement as teachers, doctors, police, fire officers, delivery drivers, supermarket and corner shop employees, critical workers in infrastructure and security, the media – and many more besides – just keep on working day in, day out, putting their own health (and that of their families) in order to ensure both the public are protected and that everyone has access to daily necessities and information.
But there are political heroes, too. Alongside the Prime Minister, Secretaries of State, like Matt Hancock who, with ever-increasing panda bear eyes, is working round the clock for the NHS and has performed brilliantly on the media and in Parliament as to what is going on. Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, too – especially on the social justice side of things in helping the homeless and advising local councils. Gavin Williamson and Nick Gibb having to decide the future of education for millions of pupils across the country, which will have an enormous effect on children’s outcomes in later life. The new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak – in the job for just a couple of weeks, yet taking some of the biggest financial decisions in our nation’s history.
I am not by nature a sycophant, but it is worth remembering the burden that some members of the Cabinet have to bear in making life or death decisions in what is a national emergency. We should thank these people from time to time. They are heroes, too.