Perhaps it’s unwise to admit it, but one of the challenges during a budget speech is to stop your mind from wandering. Even an address of astonishing political audacity – as George Osborne’s was – has its longueurs, its moments when the stats are coming in such a blizzard, the borrowing projections merging with the annual growth percentages, that the brain, briefly blinded, looks elsewhere.
On Wednesday, mine wandered to Philadelphia. Not the city itself, but rather the Republican national convention held there in 2000. They gathered to anoint George W Bush as their nominee and laid on a spectacle that had one striking feature. Though only 4% of the delegates in the hall were black, one headline speaker after another was either African-American or from some other identifiable minority.
Primetime slots were given to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, obviously, but the three co-chairs also happened to be a black Oklahoman, a Latino Texan and a white single mother. They found room for a gay congressman, while music came from Harold Melvin and Chaka Khan (African-American) with a cameo from Jon Secada (Cuban).
The whole effect was so brazen, it was almost comic. (One reporter likened the extravaganza to the Black and White Minstrel Show.) But the political logic was clear. The Republicans didn’t expect huge swaths of black American voters to end their historic allegiance to the Democrats and join them. They knew their prospects among Latino and gay Americans were limited. But those groups were not the target audience.
What Bush wanted to do was reassure white, suburban, swing, or floating, voters – especially women – that the Republicans had lost their harsh edge. That they were no longer so mean-spirited that a vote for them made you a bad person. The diverse faces on show at Philadelphia were there to salve the consciences of white soccer moms hesitating before backing Bush.
Which might explain why the memory of it returned on Wednesday. For a similar dynamic was at work. Who was Osborne appealing to with his announcement of a “national living wage”? He knows that precious few of Britain’s lowest-paid workers are set to rally to the Tory banner any time soon.
No, the voters Osborne wanted to reach are those for whom the Conservative brand is still tainted, those who may be doing quite well themselves, but who still associate the Tories with selfishness and even a callous disregard for the poor. Osborne was making a long-term bid for those votes. He knows they already trust him to have a cool head. Now he wants them to believe he has a warm heart.
This calculus is not new. It underpinned the modernisation project on which Osborne and David Cameron embarked a decade ago. When 2005-era Cameron spoke of “compassionate Conservatism” it was not the poor he was wooing. He wanted the votes of those who care about the poor, or more accurately those who don’t like to think they’re the sort of person who doesn’t care.
If that sounds cynical, that’s only partly because – to quote the Resolution Foundation, the group name-checked by Osborne when he announced the policy – the “national living wage” is a misnomer. Now that tax credits are to be taken away, you couldn’t actually live on it. It’s simply a welcome boost to, and relabelling of, the regular minimum wage. With unassailable chutzpah, Osborne has co-opted a halo brand that is not his – the living wage – in the hope that some of its glow will shine on him.
There is a deeper reason for scepticism. Osborne’s generosity was very carefully rationed. His judgment on who should be helped was not based not so much on need as political value. At its most obvious, there was the now-familiar bias against the young, who don’t vote, in favour of the old, who do. But this is about more than just voting blocs. Running through the chancellor’s decisions was a judgment about who the public will deem deserving and who undeserving.
Privately, the prime minister says pensioners have to be protected because they cannot change their circumstances. Which implies that the 20-year-old who will continue to work on the existing, miserly minimum wage, and is soon to be denied housing benefit and the possibility of a maintenance grant for study, is master of all he surveys, and only in his current situation because he has chosen not to change it.
It’s not important whether Cameron or Osborne truly believe this. What matters is their assumption that the voters believe it. They are gambling that Britons have empathy for pensioners and underpaid over-25s, but little for the young, for those on incapacity benefit, or on a low income with more than two children and for those who work in the public sector – all of whom were hit hard by the budget.
The cynical person here is Osborne himself. He is making a judgment about the limits of sympathy the majority of the electorate have for those falling behind. He has seen the shift in public mores, from the Cathy Come Home era of half a century ago to the Benefits Street culture of today, in which the poor are just as likely to induce anger as compassion.
And what compassion there is, Osborne has learned not to take too seriously. He doubtless remembers those 80s opinion polls which for years showed Britons insisting they regarded mass unemployment – the issue then championed by Labour – as the prime challenge facing the country, only for those same voters to re-elect Margaret Thatcher again and again.
Osborne has surely concluded that you need to do just enough to show you care – and then you can get away with plenty. Witness the inheritance tax giveaway that will take nearly £1bn a year out of the public purse by 2020 and which hands the children of those with assets a big slab of untaxed, unearned income.
In the supermarket trolley of Osborne’s budget were stashed a variety of such luxury treats, but he concealed them by putting a conspicuously organic, free range item – his “living wage” plan – on top.
Labour should be watching and learning. It would be a mistake to conclude the British public is uncaring. But nor can Labour make its pitch to the electorate on empathy alone. Voting is not an act of charity, but of self-interest – even if that self-interest includes the kind of society you want to live in. Voters want to know they can trust you to run the economy – and if you can be kind to the less fortunate, the deserving ones at least, then that’s a very pleasant bonus. But it’s that way around – and George Osborne knows it.
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