Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian
Magicians call it misdirection: directing the attention of a crowd elsewhere so as to distract from the trick happening right in front of it. A bump on the shoulder, a blur of handwaving and – wham! – your wallet’s taken leave of your hip pocket.
Since the crash, British politics has been one epic act of misdirection. Lay off those bankers who shoved the country into penury! Just focus on stripping disabled people of their benefits. Never mind the millionaire bosses squeezing your pay! Spit instead at the minimum-wage migrant cleaners apparently making us poorer. So ingrained is the ritual that when a minister strides into view urging the need for “a grown-up debate”, we brace ourselves for another round of Blame the Victim. The only question is who gets sacrificed next: some ethnic minority, this family on low pay, that middle-aged dad who can’t get a job.
Here is how political misdirection works in real time. Yesterday, Unite’s Len McCluskey came under a barrage of criticism for suggesting that Labour live up to its name and support “ordinary working people”. Evil paymaster! Meanwhile, on the front page of this paper, digger firm JCB called on David Cameron to prepare to take Britain out of the EU – and this was just a company having its say.
I hold no brief for McCluskey – but he is the democratically elected head of a trade union simply seeking to influence the party part-funded by his members. Perhaps this comes as news to some on Fleet Street, but the debate over Labour’s future is not the chew-toy solely of newspaper columnists. Moreover, Unite’s donations to Her Majesty’s Opposition are a matter of easily checkable record. Not so the money poured into Tory coffers by JCB, either as a business or from its owners, the Bamford family. To learn that, we must rely upon forensic researchers such as Stuart Wilks-Heeg at Liverpool University. He calculated this morning that, between 2001-14, the Bamfords and JCB had together given the Conservatives at least £6.7m. One arm of JCB also donated £600,000 last year to Tory campaigns in key marginals, including the all-important battleground of Nuneaton.
So a company that funded David Cameron all the way into Downing Street, and whose chairman was recently made a lord, seeks to influence the government on one of the most fundamental issues in British politics, something that affects all of us – and this is business as usual. Yet a workers’ elected representative adding his voice to the din of an internal party argument somehow represents the biggest political landgrab since a bloke with a goatee popped in to the Winter Palace.
Expect more of this misdirection over the next few weeks. Labour has scheduled the entire summer for its leadership campaign, which could equal months of an entire party sounding like an indecisive satnav: Veer right! Keep left! Meanwhile, in just over a month, George Osborne will lay out an emergency budget to deal with the enormous £90bn deficit that he inherited from himself. Using the traditional lexicon of political hocus-pocus – “hard choices” – he will begin making some of the extra £12bn of welfare cuts the Tories pledged at the last election.
Every feat of misdirection is always intended to distract the audience from a sleight of hand. The same goes in politics – only here it’s aimed at taking our minds off the fact that all this jiggery-pokery is actually making us worse off. Let me show you what I mean, using figures calculated for the Guardian by academics at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (Cresc), using official data. When Thatcher moved into No 10, 28% of all working age households took more from the state in cash benefits, in health and education and all the rest of it than they paid back in taxes. In other words, more than one in four employers in Britain were failing to pay their staff’s way.
More than three decades later, through Major and Blair and Brown and Cameron, that proportion has kept on rising. Now 38% of working-age households rely on taxpayers to pay their way. Think about all those tax credits for low-paid work, those exemptions for people earning too little even to be taxed. We have more people in work than ever before – and more households than ever before relying on the state to keep them afloat.
There’s nothing wrong with these people. These are the hard-working families politicians like talking about – the strivers, the squeezed middle, the alarm-clock Britain. But there’s a lot wrong with their employers – because they now rely on taxpayers to top up poverty pay, even while insisting on cuts in corporation tax and grants for investment. Come 8 July, it won’t be those businesses that the chancellor tells to change their ways – it’ll be the people they employ who will see more money taken out of their weekly budget by the cuts. Because the one thing we know about the next round of cuts is that they will hit the working poor all over again, like a hammer to the face.
This is what politics looks like in Britain nowadays, once the newspapers have their japes and the politicians leave the TV studios: it is about justifying an extractive business class that wants to lean on taxpayers to pay their way, even while lecturing the rest of us about welfare dependency. And it doesn’t change all that much whether the Tories or Labour are in Downing Street. The Cresc team looked at who reaped the rewards from growth over the past three decades. Under Thatcher and Major, the top 10% of all working-age households took 29p in every £1 of income growth. Under Blair and Brown, their share actually went up, to 30p in each £1. Cresc found that New Labour bumped up the share of the poorest economically active households from 0.5% to 1.5%. Taxes and benefits evened that up a bit – the same taxes and benefits that are now deemed unaffordable. So much for trickle down.
This is what all the misdirection has been about: taking our minds off the fact that Britain is a soft touch for businesses that want taxpayers to pay their way, and politicians who count on the middle classes to feel richer, not through their wage packets, but by their house prices, their no-frills flights, their luxury buys from Lidl. What a trick has been pulled on Britain by its political and business elite: never have so many people had their pockets picked at the same time.