Mark O’Brien https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0173.0058
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“If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.” (Theresa May; 13 July 2016)
Words are tricky things, and we can all agree that ‘talk is cheap’. It’s not what you say that counts, but what you do. But words can be seductive, and their artful use by the silver-tongued can lead us astray. This is an old warning; very old. In his play Protagoras, Plato has his eponymous character, a teacher of legal rhetoric, admonished for making persuasive, longwinded and crowd-pleasing speeches. Matthew (7:16) has Jesus telling his listeners to know ‘false prophets’ by their ‘fruits’, not their words (along with a warning about ‘ravenous wolves’ in ‘sheep’s clothing’!). In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell tells us that political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.
Words can twist the truth, of course. But more than this, words can be used to present the opposite of what is true; deliberately. But then that would be … lying; right?
It only works if we allow our attention to be directed away from the real matter at hand, and towards the speaker’s preferred focus of attention. A British general election isn’t a bad way to put this to the test.
On the 13 July 2016, Theresa May replaced David Cameron as the British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Government that had come to power in 2015. Following her constitutional visit to Buckingham Palace she gave a speech to the world’s media on the steps of 10 Downing Street.
In her speech, she highlighted some of the gross inequalities that stain British society, and made some good points as she did. She noted that someone who is born poor will die on average nine years earlier than others. She acknowledged the harsher treatment of black people than white people by the criminal justice system. She recognised the barriers of class to educational opportunity. She also pointed to the difficulties of achieving home ownership for the young. Her government, she said, would reach out to ordinary working class families who were ‘working around the clock’ to maintain job security and a stable home.
In saying this however, she was asking her listeners to forget something. Since 2010, she’d served in two governments that had ushered in the most extreme social and economic inequalities since the 1930s. As one of the longest ever serving Home Secretaries, May had been a part of the inner cabinet circle of the 2010-15 Coalition Government and the 2015-17 Conservative Government. Those governments had introduced draconian budget cuts across all areas of public spending, along with welfare reform measures that removed crucial support for the poorest in society.
So, Theresa May has a personal record that we can scrutinise; a kind of index by which to measure the veracity of what she says. While we are at it, we can also look at the other two main party leaders, Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) and Tim Farron (Liberal Democrat), to see how they stand up on the issues that affect the families May had in mind. Our measure will be the voting behaviours of the three leaders – the ‘fruit’ by which we can judge them.
Let’s look at two areas: welfare and benefits; and matters of taxation.
Firstly, welfare and benefits.
- May voted ten times for the ‘bedroom tax’ (that reduces housing benefit where the claimant has an ‘unused’ extra room) and never against it; Farron voted for it more than he voted against it; Corbyn voted against it consistently (fifteen times).
- May voted consistently against indexing benefits with rising prices (five times); Farron voted for it twice; Corbyn always voted to lift benefits in line with prices (five times).
- May voted every time against sustained higher benefits for those unable to work because of illness or disability; Farron also tended to vote against them; Corbyn always voted for them (fifteen times).
- May has always voted for reductions in welfare spending (36 times); Farron has voted for reductions more than he has voted against; Corbyn has always voted against reductions on welfare spending (47 times).
- May has consistently opposed government spending on job creation for the young, long-term unemployed, as has Farron; Corbyn has always voted for it.
Secondly, tax matters.
- May has always voted to increase VAT (which as a fixed percentage on consumer items affects the poor more than the rich); Farron has tended to vote for increases; Corbyn has tended to vote against increasing VAT.
- May has consistently voted against raising taxes for those earning more than £150,000; Farron has also always been against; Corbyn has always voted to increase them.
- May has never supported a bankers ‘bonus tax’; Farron has usually voted against it; Corbyn has usually voted for it.
- May has always opposed an annual ‘mansion tax’ on the most expensive homes; Farron has also always opposed it; Corbyn has always voted for it.
- May always votes to reduce the Corporation Tax; Farron normally votes to reduce it; Corbyn votes against reducing it (21 times).
This list is already too long for this short blog; but it could be longer. The pattern is the same whether we look at housing, education, health etc.; May doesn’t vote for families who are ‘just managing’ at all (nor does Farron). In fact, these families are only just about managing because of how she has voted and, as Home Secretary, because of how she has framed and influenced legislation.
So, the ‘just about managing’ families of Britain should beware. If ‘by their fruit’ is the measure, May, it would seem, is indeed a ‘ravenous wolf’.
 All the data on voting behaviour comes from https://www.theyworkforyou.com/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter