Sunday 15 May 2022

The Tory Politics of the Civil Service Cull

Friday's BBC Breakfast's had Jacob Rees-Mogg on to explain why the government plans to axe 91,000 civil servant jobs. In an arrogance that typifies his entitled ignorance, he batted away questions about workloads and existing delays in discharging services by suggesting "technology" could be brought in to ease the burden and allow for a clear out. To try and downplay its significance, Rees-Mogg suggested we would only be returning to the civil service staffing levels of 2016 and implying that the bureaucracy has got overweening, wasteful and burdensome since. What he failed to mention was how this low point resulted from the gutting of the civil service by five solid years of cuts. This programme, loudly backed by Boris Johnson, would return the state's capacity to a low point of historical weakness.

Why are the Tories keen to do this? Rees-Mogg said the highest calling of a politician is to reduce the taxpayers' burden by ensuring money is spent wisely and efficiently. This, as we know, is premised on a political fiction - the UK state isn't dependent on the tax returns Rees-Mogg's hedge fund does so much to dodge, but that's by-the-by. However, as rationales go this argument is a pretty thin one. It might have stood up in the Thatcher years, and even during the deficit panic the Tories cultivated after the stock market crash, but in 2022 when the government have let billions slide in fraud and, it turns out, helped bung "taxpayers' money" to the failing Tory press? It leaves their we're-careful-with-your-money shtick wide open to attack. This dawned on the Tories as the day wore on, and by lunch time we'd gone from "efficiency" to "saving money to tackle the cost of living crisis". If in doubt, pull on the divide-and-rule lever.

Like most things Tory, the consequences for themselves haven't been thought through. If we are to take their levelling up rhetoric seriously and not with a pinch of salt, then Rees-Mogg's plans don't match up with what Michael Gove and, for that matter, Johnson are supposed to be working on. Central to their rebalancing strategy is moving civil service jobs out of Whitehall and distributing them around the country. In a back-handed acknowledgement of Keynesian multipliers, these jobs would redirect wage and salary spend away from the capital, rejuvenate battered local economies, and provide graduate opportunities outside London and the big cities. Cutting 20% of the civil service workforce somewhat undermines this ambition. But then what does Rees-Mogg, the beneficiary of a lifetime of indolence, know about practicalities? And there are the political consequences too. One can't imagine there are too many Tory-voting civil servants left, but attacking such a huge workforce with its families and dependents isn't smart electoral politics when the ageing Tory base are shrinking and swaying, and the parliamentary party are in a restive mood.

How to go about explaining this self-destructive policy stance? Just because, from our perspective, this appears to be an unforced error doesn't mean Tories see it in the same way. For Rees-Mogg, there are two considerations for pushing this. It raises his own profile as an "effective" minister among the party rank-and-file. If he's able to deliver the cuts, and after all it's much easier to destroy than build something, his future chances of the party leadership or a guarantee of senior posts after Johnson has gone are greater. Second, there's the comfort zone of substitutionist activity. As Brexit has netted no tangible benefits while blighting exports and living standards, rather than have to deal with the mess he campaigned for his pivoting to mass sackings is easier and consistent with his world view. For his pains, or rather the pains of tens of thousands of people due to lose their livelihoods, he'll bask in Tory praise for "tackling waste" which reinforces the first consideration. And no doubt spun as a front in their dreadful war on woke nonsense, it might help cohere some of the more backward sections of their base - but it's sure to put many more off.

This, however, is not enough when it comes to getting to the bottom of Rees-Mogg's cuts obsession and it cannot be separated from a longer-term Tory project aimed at reducing, for want of a better phrase, the state's social capacities. The Tory/LibDem coalition carried through a "classical" programme of austerity by slicing services to the bone and further consolidating neoliberal governance, but since the outbreak of Covid the Tories have shifted gear to something else: the dampening down of demands on government and state to try and shrink the popular political imaginary. What does this mean?

The consequences of Corbynism and the pandemic shifted the boundaries of politics - Corbynism broke decisively with the penny-pinching market fundamentalism of the Dave/Osborne years, and the Tories were forced to adapt to it. Theresa May's one nation rhetoric didn't form in a vacuum. Johnson co-opted this when he ousted May and, again rhetorically, married it to his Get Brexit Done programme to win over those Labour-leaning leave voters who weren't keen on Corbyn, and on Labour's second referendum pledge even less. Thus levelling up was born in the context of raised expectations. Then the pandemic hit and, in what you might describe as a smash and grab, after defeating Labour they adopted Corbyn's pandemic plan. All of a sudden the state had underwritten the wages of millions of people and were keeping business on life support. Since that very moment, the Tories have worked not just to depoliticise their responsibility for the horrors of the crisis, but slam shut the Overton window opened by the post-referendum and pandemic moments.

The Tories went about this by reimposing conditionalities on social security as soon as they were able. Homelessness, which was solved at a stroke, was allowed to return. Furlough was pared back, and significant holes in business support persisted throughout the moments of acute crisis. They stubbornly resisted extending the scope of free school meals during school holidays, progressively eased Covid precautions according to their political, not clinical, timetable. Have not stumped up anywhere near the promised funds for regenerating the English regions, and done nothing to ease the cost of living crisis - apart from a council tax rebate and compulsory loan that won't cover half of the fuel bill rises. The cumulative effect of all this, and an increasingly dominant trend in Tory statecraft, is of active abstentionism and abrogation of governmental responsibility. Rishi Sunak's refusal to do anything to address the crisis, typified by his absurd "computer says no" argument is consistent with their don't-expect-us-to-do-anything-about-it. And this is where Rees-Mogg's civil service plan fits in. It is a prospectus for degrading the state, and so if it can't do anything simple, like processing passport applications, enforcing food and environmental standards, or can't guarantee the receipt of social security support on time, the thinking is the public are more likely to blame state inefficiency than Tory malfeasance for its decrepitude and not expect future governments to do anything. Which, for the Tories, minimises the scope of political responsibility and accountability, and allows for more showboating, frivolous initiatives, and policy that reinforces the interests the party articulates and promotes.

During his rounds of interviews, Rees-Mogg argued his war on the civil service was not a return to austerity. This is certainly a factually accurate statement, and one the left and labour movement should take on board. It's worse than that.

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Anonymous said...

We all still seem to think that the Tory party is a political party looking to govern. It really doesn't look that way anymore though.

It's political belief in small government has morphed into a impractical philosophy of no government. Combined with a skewed dogmatic belief in individualism and there being no such thing as society, makes any kind of governmental action anathema to them. The rank and file seem to wish government to only be there to punish those they dislike and fear. They see our social systems, economics and environment falling apart but believe government is powerless to do anything. Everything is to complex and the human race to corrupt to do better.

They have become a nihilistic death cult watching the coming destruction but not lifting a finger to get out of the way. Simply imposing the rules that make them feel better on those lesser beings to make sure they can ride out the end times in personal comfort.

All the while the parliamentary party do whatever they like to grab as much material wealth as they can before it all falls apart. Enriching themselves and their friends, feathering the nest for a cushy consultation job after they leave parliament and straight up corruption.

They are left to asset strip our social institutions whilst the circus of parliamentary politics distracts the majority of the population. Kept looking at all of the distractions by a willing media staffed by the friends and family of those causing the destruction and who seem genuinely unable to spot the problem. Unfortunately neither can the head of the opposition.

I truly feel we are coming to a cliff edge. When we fall I hope we fall into something better without this asset stripping death cult.

Blissex said...

There is a simple point that does not require that much discussion: right-wingers want smaller state spending, and cutting civil service wages and jobs is a big way to achieve that. Also you can be sure that a lot of the cuts will fall on the HMRC inspectorate, so it will do less "persecution" of "wealth creators".

But there is a much bigger point that many "progressives" miss: why would right-wingers want smaller state spending? Is that "because freedom"?

It is because electorally it is popular with anybody who has above-average incomes, because of tax proportionality and progressivity:

* Taxes are designed to cover the cost of state services for an average working class family with a £50,000 income.

* The middle classes are often angry that a middle class family on £100,000 per year pays many times more for the same state services as a lower class family on £25,000 per year.

* The posturing wing of the "left" sing happily "soak the rich" and never explain to the middle classes that their above-average taxes also pay for insurance against becoming too poor to pay the full price of state services if their income falls below £50,000 per year.

Therefore the right-wing plan is to reduce the national government to handle only property-security services (military, police, courts) and devolve most other spending to local councils, so those with many "scroungers" in the "sinking north" don't get subsidized by "wealth creators" in the "booming south-east".

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Taxes don't pay for anything. Taxes serve three main purposes - to make the currency necessary (you have to pay in sterling) and thus give it value, to control the amount of money in circulation, and to influence behaviour. The government doesn't need taxes to spend, we need government spending to pay tax. It's spend then tax.

Once you understand this you realise that the type and amount of tax is entirely a political choice, rather than an "economic" one. Taxing income based on wages is strange, if you think about it, as it penalises labour. Tax should be on wealth, unearned income, property and non-essentials. There should be a carbon and environmental tax which makes environmentally damaging, carbon intensive goods more costly than alternatives - rather than the other way around, as at present. Tax should be used to redistribute, balance and influence. It should encourage the activities, goods and services that are positive or necessary for a healthy, happy, sustainable society, and discourage those that are inimical to it.

Income tax should be replaced with a universal basic income, and universal basic services. Private alternatives to these services, such as health, education and transport, should be taxed to discourage them. What we need, as Michael Sandel suggests in "The Tyranny of Merit", is equality of conditions, that cultivates cohesion and solidarity and a sense of community, rather than individualism and competition.