TO ADD TO THE TORIES’ many other woes, a real credibility gap has now opened on their handling of the economy. The Chancellor’s upbeat spring statement message seemed unreal amid the volumes of gloomy news about the UK economy as Brexit approaches. Britain has one of the lowest levels of investment in infrastructural investment in the developed world. Productivity is flat-lining. House building is at its lowest since the 1920s, despite spiralling demand. Over a third of all workers are not making enough to keep up with the cost of living. Nearly a million people are on zero-hours contracts and three million rely on insecure work. Small wonder consumer confidence, reflected in high street and credit card spending, is down.
After cuts to over half of their budgets, the financial position of local authorities is “unsustainable”, according to a new parliamentary report. New benefit changes are expected to leave eleven million families worse off. The number of rough sleepers has doubled since 2010 and a 40% cut in early intervention to support families has resulted in the highest number of children being taken into care since the 1980s.
Even by its own standards, this government has failed dismally. It promised in 2010 to eliminate the deficit by 2015. After eight years of savage, needless cuts, that date has now been revised to 2031. The debt has increased by £700 billion. By just what yardstick can the Tories’ economic record be judged anything other than an unmitigated disaster?
Unsurprisingly, many mainstream economists deemed the spring statement an irrelevant fantasy. Unsurprisingly too, a recent poll gives Labour a clear 11 point lead. Theresa May must be hoping for another Falklands War moment to turn her fortunes around. The life-threatening attack on a former Russian spy in the streets of Salisbury is unlikely to provide it - however hard the Tories try to weaponise national security against Labour. Let’s be clear: the use of a deadly nerve agent, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds, is an outrage. Its perpetrators should be brought to justice. If this was an act of state terrorism, then sanctions are entirely in order.
“Nerve gas in Salisbury, drones in Syria: is there a moral difference?” asked Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, highlighting how a British citizen - and two years later, his wife and twelve year old son - were killed by an RAF drone for “orchestrating and inciting” terrorism, although none of them were ever tried. British hypocrisy is at its most acute when national security is invoked. The answer is to adopt a rules-based approach to these problems.
This is what Jeremy Corbyn attempted to do when he explained, to jeers from the Tory benches, the government’s obligations under the chemical weapons convention to make a formal request for evidence from the Russian government and ensure that high resolution trace analysis has been conducted on the nerve agent so as to establish where it was produced. Corbyn’s Labour critics should also note that international law is preferable to bluster from the likes of Boris Johnson and Defence Secretary Gavin “Russia should go away and shut up” Williamson.
The Tories have good reason to bluster if Russia is proven beyond doubt to be involved, given their past stance on these incidents. It was they who rejected calls from the widow of the assassinated Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko to pay back more than £820,000 donated by Russian-linked business since May came to power. Their past refusal to impose financial sanctions - a far more effective penalty than expelling a few diplomats - may have emboldened Putin’s regime.
John McDonnell’s proposal, which would sanction Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations and deny their access to the UK, is not just more focused - it’s also a socialist response to the more general problem of oligarchic capitalism, of whatever origin, and its links with terrorism and organised crime. The UK is the hub of the world’s largest tax haven network, a magnet for dark money in a land where these crimes usually go unpunished.
Not a single person has been prosecuted for tax evasion since May brought in new measures and claimed to be “leading the world” on this last year.
It would be interesting to explore the involvement of British companies, including arms companies, in helping Russia beat existing sanctions - companies elsewhere in Europe have certainly been implicated. Such awkward issues strike at the heart of Tory interests - which helps explain their frantic efforts to divert attention towards questioning Jeremy Corbyn’s patriotism. More fool those Labour MPs who fall for such tricks.