Is George Osborne now the last hope for progressives in Britain?

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The wolf in sheep’s clothing? George Osborne at the Conservative Party Conference

By James Tune

There has been plenty of debate following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party about precisely how unelectable he is; about how Labour have chosen to return to the rose-tinted glory days of the 1980s when power was regarded as a secondary ambition and the wishes of the electorate were ignored. The election of Corbyn was a backwards move, one that looked to the past for inspiration rather than the future, and one which has left the progressive centre ground of British politics for the taking.

The issue at hand for Labour is that it is from the centre ground that British elections are won and this is especially true for parties of the left. Tony Blair, a man now vilified by the party he brought into government, is the only Labour leader to win a general election since 1974. A generation of Labour voters, who became politically aware during the days of New Labour, are now feeling unrepresented and disconnected from the party they have supported during the past two decades. These voters are now casting glances across the political aisle at a party in government, a party who claims to reward hard work and ambition, whilst also embracing social change. A government which on the surface looks awfully similar to New Labour.

George Osborne’s summer budget this year was brutally clear about its political motives. This was a chancellor setting out the foundations of his campaign to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. And his campaign would be fought from the centre ground; a new national living wage, another rise in the personal tax allowance and further funding of the NHS. Osborne is trying to claim the progressive centre ground of British politics as his own, much like David Cameron has attempted to do in the past through embracing the climate change agenda and social change such as same sex marriage. When comparing Osborne to his rivals for the Conservative leadership it cannot be denied that he appears to be a political moderate; someone capable of advancing the mantle of one nation politics.

However, in reality those progressives who are feeling disconnected from the new Corbyn-led era of the Labour party must be cautious of the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is George Osborne and his claims of centrism. In reality Osborne is still very much dedicated to neo-liberalism and the Thatcherite agenda. Osborne has consistently shown since taking the office of Chancellor in 2010 that his biggest ambition is to reduce the size of the state and to advance his austerity agenda, to the detriment of many of the worst off in society. Whereas Tony Blair and New Labour represented a movement which embraced economic responsibility in order to implement a progressive agenda, the Conservative and Coalition governments of which Osborne has been a leading member have been characterised by rising inequality peppered with media managed concessions to help the austerity pill seem less bitter.

The current debate over tax credits showcases the differences between New Labour and the current government perfectly. Tax credits were introduced by Gordon Brown and the New Labour government to make work pay and to supplement the incomes of those in low paying jobs, to ensure that being in work was more economically rewarding than relying on state benefits. In his budget this summer George Osborne announced widespread cuts to the tax credit system; at the same time he announced the new living wage. The living wage is a progressive measure if considered alone, but when looked at alongside the cuts to tax credits it loses its value to many working people.

It has been estimated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that three million families, who are amongst the lowest paid and most deprived in the UK, will lose on average £1,000 due to the tax credit cuts. This is another action in a long line of policies spearheaded by George Osborne which has a disproportionate impact on the least wealthy in society, following on from the rise in VAT to 20% in 2010 and the bedroom tax. Although at times Osborne may talk of progressive goals, his actions are dictated by his neo-liberal Thatcherite agenda.

George Osborne is an extremely successful political actor; someone who reacts quickly and intelligently to a changing political landscape. He has in the aftermath of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader reached out to disaffected centrists within the Labour tent to attempt to broaden his political base. As the question of the Conservative leadership becomes increasingly prominent he will attempt to paint himself as a moderate, a centrist and even a progressive. His record as Chancellor is what he should be judged upon, and it is a record dotted with black marks for those of the progressive centre.

Ultimately the election of Jeremy Corbyn has left the progressive centre ground of British politics wide open. Whilst Osborne and more moderate elements of the Conservative party will try and claim it as their own, the legacies of Thatcherism and austerity politics prevent them from truly embracing progressivism. Those of the progressive centre are left with a difficult choice in the current climate as they wander through the political desert without a natural home. Abandoned by the left yet courted by the right, progressives must be aware of the dangers posed by the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Photograph: mrgarethm via Flickr

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are not representative of Palatinate, and are those of the author only. If you would like to respond to, or comment upon, the opinions expressed, please feel free to email the Politics section at politics@palatinate.org.uk.

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  1. Srinath Kailasa on Facebook
    Oct 23, 2015 - 07:11 PM

    Josh Newmark

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