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Sunday, October 14, 2012

The week I shed my anti-Tory taboos | Nick Cohen

There are often as many differences within right and left as between them about the big issues – except one

If the Observer had sent me to a Conservative party conference 20 years ago, I'd have written that seeing Tories herded together made me realise how much I hated them. A little late in life for my own comfort, I have since learned that every man and woman must cross-examine their prejudices before they can truly grow up. After scrutinising mine, I realised that my taboos against Tories had to go.

If you had been in Birmingham, you would have seen that Conservative activists are no different from activists in other parties: admirable and, alas, rare people, prepared to give up private pleasures to try to change their country. As for the politicians, we met a health minister and former obstetrician called Daniel Poulter, who was so obviously committed to the NHS, so clearly concerned about the sick, that only my promise to the Observer's political editor not to embarrass him in front of his contacts stopped me reaching for his lapels and bellowing: "What the bloody hell are you doing in the Tory party?"

According to leftist orthodoxy, Tories are sexist and racist. On the sex question, it is true that our upper-class leaders condescend to women as if the second wave of feminism had never reached the shore. Nothing they have done, however, matches the spectacle of the "socialist" government of Ecuador and assorted celebrities and conspiracy theorists helping Julian Assange evade charges of sexual molestation and rape. It was hard to be too harsh on Tory sexism last week when others of a leftish perspective have denounced women who allege that they are victims of abuse and the due process of laws against sexual exploitation as a CIA plot.

As for racism, you will find figures on the Tory right who go along with prejudices about blacks and Asians. But then there are Labour leftists who go along with radical Islamists and their prejudices against Jews (and women and gays). You choose your politics and you picks your prejudice. Although it is better to resolve when you make your choice to take on the bigotries on your own side with as much determination as you lacerate the failings of your opponents. For as a rule you will find that the great questions of an age create divisions within the left and within the right rather than between the left and the right In every instance, that is, except one.

More significant than any party conference speech was the admission last week by the International Monetary Fund that the assumptions about austerity it shared with the British Treasury, the finance ministries of the eurozone and the Romney campaign were hopelessly wrong. The IMF thought that every £1 of cuts or tax rises took 50p off GDP growth. In those circumstances, getting control of the budget deficit quickly seemed a hard but practical task.

Only now, after all these years, has the IMF noticed that the great crash of 2007/8 paralysed the banking system. Only now has it grasped that if, say, every country in Europe is cutting spending and raising taxes no country in Europe will be able to expand by increasing its exports to its depressed neighbours. Its long struggle to see the blindingly obvious completed, the IMF decided that, in fact, every £1 in tax rises and spending cuts takes between 90p and £1.70 of GDP. Far from setting us on the road to recovery, austerity has pushed us into stagnation without end.

The consequences for Britain have not been as grave as for the eurozone. We do not have the 50% youth unemployment of southern Europe. There is no fascist movement that apes Greece's Golden Dawn by attacking immigrants and proudly displaying a party flag that does not even bother to pretend that it isn't a swastika.

For all that, Britain has not escaped the suffering brought by a monumental economic blunder. As our business editor, Heather Stewart, reports, the TUC says that if the coalition had merely taken a modest estimate from the middle of the IMF's range, and assumed that every £1 in tax rises and cuts would take £1.30 from GDP, it would have realised its austerity programme would suck an extra £76bn from the British economy. It did not and delivered recession, an assault on public services and the fastest collapse in living standards since the 1920s.

The coalition and the Bank of England never admit their failure. But you could sense the fear that failure brings in Birmingham last week. The press said that the Tory leaders were frightened of Ed Miliband because he made a decent speech at the Labour conference. I suspect the knowledge that history was proving Ed Miliband and Ed Balls right frightened them more. George Osborne did not mention the word "growth" once. He and his colleagues said they wanted to help the "strivers": the broad mass of working- and middle-class families who are finding the cost of the weekly shop or of filling up the car ever more burdensome.

I am sure they were sincere. But because they cannot match their words with actions, they retreated to offering cheap and pointless gestures on crime, the last resort of the despairing politician. The Conservatives in Birmingham were happy to talk to householders who want to kill burglars. But they had nothing to say to the young who cannot afford to pay for a home or to the middle aged and elderly who are finding it harder to afford to heat a home.

Beyond the strivers lie the poor. The failure of austerity economics has hit them hardest, although Establishment commentators will not admit it. They praised David Cameron's "moral" mission to grind down welfare benefits. They applauded his declaration that he was cutting only because he wanted the unemployed to enjoy the independence and self-respect that work brings. Neither they nor Cameron acknowledged that with six unemployed people for every vacancy, it is disgraceful to cloak the slashing of benefits with windy moralising. The state may force a few into finding work by threatening them with penury. But it cannot compel the majority because there is no growth and hence not enough work to find.

Cameron did not come to power wanting to deepen poverty, but that's not the point. His economic failures leave him with no choice. You do not need to believe that Tories are necessarily wicked people to see that their refusal to rectify their mistakes has wicked consequences. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds