On the eve of the Tory Party conference, the anger among their opponents is very much – and rightly – focussed on the impact the coalition is having on the most vulnerable in society. Unemployment, cuts in jobs and services, privatisation of the NHS, the bullying of the sick and disabled by Atos. Single mothers are set to lose 20% of their overall income; of course the Left (an ambiguous term, I know) is bound to focus on what looks like a systematic attack on the old, the poor, the sick, women and children. Tory populists respond by measures to allow faster driving, more bin collections, easier sacking – no Tory prejudice is left unstroked.
In the face of all this, it’s easy to overlook that the poor and vulnerable are not the only victims. One of the most interesting outcomes is the way in which Tory policies are having a really devastating effect on some of the party’s most loyal supporters; older, hitherto affluent people, living in comfortable suburbia or in the nicer bits of the countryside, often on fixed incomes from private pensions, or from savings. They’re people who have all the accoutrements of financial comfort, but are increasingly finding life very difficult.
Income from their savings has fallen drastically – and many of them are living off the sort of pension provision that was gambled away by speculating bankers before 2008 (there’s a trope about Gordon Brown’s raids on pension funds, but the total cost of Brown’s dividend tax is about £5bn per year. The cost of the bankers’ crash of 2008 to pension funds is likely to be around £500bn, and that’s before you consider the costs of the contributions holidays that companies regularly awarded themselves). Many of them are people who were economically active in the Thatcher years, and heeded the calls to privatise their pension provision. Now they’re facing huge increases in costs of living – double-digit increases in fuel costs – while their income stagnates and falls. Ironically enough, these people are the backbone of charitable giving, the authentic heroes of the Big Society – but not for long as their income falls and they need to cut back to pay for their daily necessities, or prepare for an uncertain future of NHS cuts and private sector provision. Some will still have children at university, or who cannot afford a home and are still living with them.
And even their environment is being threatened, as Tories eschew the obvious answer to Britain’s housing crisis – a massive social housing programme focussed on brownfield sites – to allow their friends and donors in the property business to build developments unhindered by considerations of sustainability or local impact on sensitive environments.
In other words, these stalwarts of Tory middle England are being trashed. No, it’s not the same as the daily struggle faced by the low-paid, or those dependent on benefits as a result of disability, or single mothers. After all, we’re talking about people who own their homes outright and still enjoy a quality of life that is beyond the dreams of the poorest in society. But the fact that people in their later years are having to count the pennies for the first time does not make their worries any less real. It’s a telling comment on contemporary Conservatism that the Tory party no longer speaks for these people – in Cameron’s Britain, it’s the financiers and bankers who trashed the economy in 2008 who matter. It emphasises that for all its attempts at populism, the Tory Party really only speaks for a tiny, financially-empowered minority.
Will these scions of middle England rise up against the party that has deserted them? It remains to be seen.