As a classical liberal, yesterday’s PMQs was, quite frankly, like watching a car crash in slow motion. There was a resigned horror that the sentiments being expressed were becoming increasingly destructive and would continue to do so unless a drastic change of course was undertaken – but it wasn’t, and David Cameron reinforced the fact that the Conservatives under his governance are not the party for libertarian-minded people. Miliband took on Cameron with greater vigour than last week – though not enough for me to argue he secured a win. His attacks on Cameron’s work programme, though apt in areas, were greatly undermined by his own party’s failure to use taxpayers’ money effectively when in government, and given he wasn’t vocal on anything else, meant he couldn’t come out on top.
I’m going to focus on a couple of the more pertinent arguments: Leveson and the press, the work and benefits row, and finally the economics raised, in order of what I would consider the overriding issues where Cameron’s performance needs to be judged.
Correctly, Cameron condemned the ‘failed practices’ of the media, stating that the status quo is ‘unacceptable’ – an uncontroversial view; who would argue that hacking into the voicemail accounts of individuals could be considered appropriate? Yet, every time that the Leveson report was brought up, Cameron uttered the words ‘regulation’ and ‘regulatory’. His commitment to the independent regulation of the press, before the expensive and time-consuming Leveson inquiry has even provided its outcome, should be concerning to most people. Arguably and in my view, justly, if the Leveson report comes out in favour of press regulation, we should resist it with all our might. As Conservative MP Philip Davies rightly said, free press is fundamental for a democracy. State regulation of one of the most important democratic tools is, in itself, an unacceptable outcome. Cameron explicitly conceded on this – calling free press ‘vital’ – so how can he so vociferously support a call for the very thing that would undermine the freedom of the press, and place restraints on their scope of activity? As Liam Fox commented: we ought to focus on redress and not restriction. We should make it possible for people of all walks of life to be able to access justice, so media outlets can be punished for illegal practices, rather than limiting what can be said. Cameron’s stance, and his belief that press regulation is the answer before even hearing what Leveson, the so-called ‘independent expert’ has to say, is the reason why he lost this entire debate as far as I’m concerned. Small state Conservative? No, Cameron’s populist nature shone through here, forsaking his party’s ideology in favour of wooing the public. Naturally, Miliband couldn’t make much of this given his party also are determined to restrict the press – a shocking state of affairs when neither of our two major parties supports one of the fundamental tenets of a functioning democracy.
Next up: work and benefits. Miliband really came into his own here, knocking Cameron with a really interesting statistic: despite Cameron’s work programme, launched to move some of the country’s most challenging unemployment cases into employment, long-term unemployment since its conception has gone up 96%. Twice Labour raised this, twice Cameron refused to comment – a sure sign of its accuracy if there ever was one. This would be pretty damaging if true; as Miliband reminded the House, Cameron called this the “biggest and boldest programme since the Great Depression”. Cameron did, however, have his own statistics to support his programme, the most interesting one being that the Conservative programme matches the previous Labour programme’s success statistics…but costs 20 times less. Now, that Labour wastes taxpayers’ money and have no concept of efficiency is no shock. What did surprise me though is how Cameron explained this – only 2% of the jobs given to people through Labour’s “Future Jobs Fund” were in the private sector. The private sector, whether you like it or not, provides a fantastic example of dynamic, cost efficient, business practices. As a standard policy, the government should be trying to get individuals the best experience possible (in the private sector) rather than inflating the image of their own success by “creating” jobs in the public sector for people to fill. That’s not employment. Cameron needed to make more of this – it’s a really important point to note that Labour spent taxpayers’ money not helping people find jobs, but directly employing them. Would the population condone this? I wouldn’t. Cameron’s statistics in favour of his own scheme were good – and he concluded (twice) with, “Labour is the party of something for nothing”, an incredibly appropriate tagline for the Labour party given that they also blocked the welfare cap that was debated this week. Some hard-working households earn £25,000, and yet the benefit cap was to limit total benefit receipt to £26,000 per individual – would Beveridge even recognise the modern welfare state in its current, corrupt, form?
Finally, the economics; I’ll keep this brief, I just thought some of it was interesting. Firstly, Cameron bragged about the fact that the rich paid more tax under their government than under Labour’s previous terms. This isn’t something they should be crowing about; they should be hanging their heads in shame that a socialist party generally had a lower tax rate than they currently do. To balance this, I was impressed that Cameron remained committed to cutting public funding on flood defences by 6% despite the recent floods, and to inflating the public budget for this (currently at £4bn) through partnerships and funding from the private sector – a sure way to get value for money, efficiency, and a greater chance of work being completed on time and within budget. Lastly, Cameron noted that petrol prices were 10p cheaper than they would be had Labour enacted their plans. Good, but not good enough, I would say – however, at least he wasn’t boasting about how green that made the Conservative party and pledging to increase it.
I’d give Miliband a B and Cameron a B+ if we’re scoring them on performance, but libertarians beware – if Cameron is committed to the kind of state-interference he espoused yesterday, he’s not our ally. For this, Cameron’s got himself a big, fat F.