It may be only two years since the Conservative Party last published an election manifesto but the one published this week is in some significant ways very different from the last one.
That’s because Theresa May is determined to reshape the party in her own image. Some see the changes as evidence of a clear shift to the left. In part that may be motivated simply by the tactical need to woo Labour voters. But does it also indicate a different sort of Conservatism from the sort we have been used to? And what are we to make of the most striking changes in policy?
There is no getting away from the impression that the Conservative election campaign is very much the Theresa May election campaign. It is her name that is blazoned over the battle bus, with the word ‘Conservative’ reduced to small print. And other prominent Tories, such as Boris Johnson, are conspicuous by their invisibility.
It’s clear why the Tory leader is pursuing this strategy. She hopes to draw a contrast between what she claims is her ‘strong and stable’ leadership and Jeremy Corbyn, whom she wants to portray as simply not up to the job. But she wants too to win a mandate on her own terms. That, in part, is why she called the election in the first place.
From the moment she entered No 10, Mrs May has sought to project a very different image of Conservatism from that of her predecessor. Her emphasis was on ‘ordinary working families’, of being against the elites and of wanting to ‘build a great meritocracy’. Perhaps the most striking change was in her attitude to government itself. Ever since Margaret Thatcher was Tory leader, the Conservative Party had conveyed the impression that it thought government was the source of many of the country’s problems. But Mrs May ventured the idea that it might also be part of the solution to those problems.
The Tory leader repeated the claim at her manifesto’s launch on Thursday. She said that government ‘can and should be a force for good’. The implication, spelt out in the manifesto, is that a Conservative government under her will be much more interventionist than Tory governments have tended to be and much more like Labour governments have sought to be.
So, for example, Mrs May proposes to put a cap on energy bills, a policy not dissimilar to one proposed by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader at the last election, and dismissed as ‘Marxist’ by the then Conservative leadership. She has expressed a willingness too to use government to constrain business when she thinks unfettered capitalism is getting out of hand. But it is perhaps in her attitudes to tax and spend that the shift is most marked.
The Tories went into the last election committed to eliminating the government’s budget deficit by 2020 and to doing so without raising income tax, national insurance contributions or VAT. More austerity was the means to square the circle. Mrs May has abandoned much of this, by putting off till 2025 any ambition to put government finances back into the black. She has also conspicuously refused to repeat the pledges on income tax and national insurance, though she has stuck to the commitment on VAT. The implication is that she is giving herself room to raise public spending. And it is in relation to that that the most eye-catching element in the manifesto is being seen.
It has become almost universally accepted that social care in Britain is in crisis. In the ten years up to 2015 the number of people aged over 65 increased by about 25%; the number over 85 by over 30%. Meanwhile, the funds available to local authorities to spend on those in these age groups who need social care, either in their own homes or in care homes, has been cut by around £4.5bn. Part of the effect has been felt in the NHS, where elderly people who no longer need medical treatment have been blocking beds simply because there is nowhere for them to be discharged to.
From a political point of view, as potent a problem has been the resentment felt by many at the threat potential care costs pose to their own finances and to their ability to bequeath hard-earned money to their children. Under the current system people needing social care have to pay for it themselves until their assets are reduced to £23,500 (a figure that includes the value of their house when they receive care in a care home, but excludes it when they are still living in their own home). Only then does the state begin to pick up the tab. Many people feel this system is unfair, not only because it jeopardises what they regard as their right to bequeath money but also because it is simply a matter of luck whether or not people end up depleting most of their capital on social care bills.
The last Tory manifesto sought to deal with the problem by putting a cap (of £72,000) on the total any individual would have pay for care. The Tory government even enshrined this in law. But now Mrs May is proposing a wholly different approach. She wants people to be eligible for state funding of their care (of both sorts) once their assets (including the value of their house) fall to £100,000 rather than the much more punitive £23,500 now. But she has abandoned the plan to put a cap on the total amount anyone would have to pay for their care.
This might seem a strange policy to come from a Conservative leader who depends on the votes of the rich since the effect will be to increase the potential burden of care costs on those whose assets don’t fall below £100,000. But her justification is that it is fairer: if such wealthy people were to have their care costs subsidised by the state, the burden would fall on younger tax payers who can less afford it, she argues.
But this change of policy has been attacked on different grounds of fairness. Critics argue that since anyone’s need for care is largely a matter of luck, principles of insurance should come into play so that anyone, no matter how wealthy or not they are, should be eligible for state help should luck turn against them. This, after all, is the principle of the NHS: whether or not you get ill is (to some extent) a matter of luck and the NHS treats you for free irrespective of how wealthy you are. What applies for cancer treatment, they say, ought to apply to care in old age. If dementia forces you into a care home in old age, why should you have to pay for it yourself when you don’t have to pay if cancer sends you into hospital? It is on these grounds that Labour is calling Mrs May’s new policy a ‘dementia tax’. What’s needed, critics say, is a much more radical policy that integrates health and social care.
How this new policy plays with the electorate remains to be seen. But what is already clear is that it is an example of how Mrs May is intent on redefining Conservative attitudes on what is or isn’t fair and of seeking to identify her party with ‘ordinary working people’ rather than with the rich.
Does her rebranding of the Conservative Party convince you or not? Do you think her party is now different under her leadership from what it was before? What do you make of her specific policies on, for example, capping energy bills, and leaving herself the option to put up taxes such as income tax? And what do you make of her new social care policy?
Let us know what you think.