Just before the last General Election Theresa May made a series of major speeches about how determined she was to deal with unfair zero hours contracts. Her friends in the press printed a whole series of articles about how this showed that it was the Conservatives who cared about workers’ rights.
When you read the small print it became clear that what she had committed her party to was to conduct a review into zero hours contracts. She kept her word to the letter. A review was conducted. It discovered that nothing much needed to be done and the pathetic change that emerged from it was that workers on zero hours contracts will get the right to ask their boss to put them on a proper long term reliable one. Weak as dishwater doesn’t even begin to cover it. Cynical betrayal does. If your employer is ruthless enough to put you on a zero hours contract in order to cut costs by denying you all meaningful employment rights including sick pay then I wouldn’t recommend going into their office and asking nicely if you can have a better contract. Asking nicely is already legal and already a very risky thing to do. Zero hours contracts continue to expand and continue to be hugely unequal.
After years of crushingly horrible actions like this the Conservatives are desperately worried that they are going to get a pounding in the local elections in May. The current bunch of dithering incompetents who occupy the offices of state in Britain are scared stiff that a big defeat will open up all the huge cracks in the unity of their party that they have been working so hard to try and cover up.
They are therefore trying very hard to detoxify their brand before the May elections. That is why a three year pay deal for the NHS has been announced that makes it look as if the pay freeze and the long years of austerity are over. The fact that the deal doesn’t even exceed the current rate of inflation for large numbers of NHS employees is not being heavily spun. The love that the Tories have for the NHS is.
Indeed the love of the Conservatives for every part of our nation’s collective socialist NHS system is so strong that they are thinking of reforming the finances of the NHS. To me this sounds incredibly like the promises around zero hours contracts. It is entirely possible that this time the promise is sincere and what they mean to do is to create a specific NHS income tax to properly fund a service that is under massive strain from an aging population. It is just possible that the Conservatives have finally understood that the public don’t want to see large sections of it privatised and the whole service so badly underfunded that it is straining to cope. They may well have decided that it would be wonderful politics to outflank Labour and genuinely fix it with proper taxation driven finance.
But remember those elections. David Cameron promised us an end to top down re-organisations of the NHS. He then launched the biggest top down unhelpful reform of it in history and that is one of the prime reasons the service is reeling under the pressure of so many managers spending so much time on responding to an endless stream of changes caused ultimately by government interference.
It is every bit as possible that as soon as the next General Election is safely negotiated we will get a very different type of reform of NHS finances. One that privatises even more of the service and demands even more stupid “efficiency” savings.
When it comes to the environment it is also wise to retain a degree of cynicism about the fine statements coming out of this government. Michael Gove is without question massively preferable to some the other Ministers the Conservatives have made ‘responsible’ for the environment. At least he says some of the right things and, much better, is actually doing some of them. It is genuinely helpful that he extended the ban on neonicitinoid use in the UK because those chemicals really are doing massive damage to insect life and will persist in the soil and rivers for decades. It is also genuinely helpful that he has committed himself to introduce a deposit return scheme on disposable drink packages and the like.
Good common-sense measures like this are massively preferable to the sheer stupidity of the climate change denying speeches that came from some of his recent predecessors who claimed to be ‘responsible’ for the environment. The truth is, however, that Gove is going for relatively easy things to do that come with a lot of helpful publicity and not a lot of cost. Since the Chinese have refused to take any more of our rubbish shipments and there simply aren’t enough tips or incinerators available to deal with the consequent accumulations of our wasteful production and consumption methods no government could actually avoid taking serious and rapid action.
Any genuine benefits from implementing these simple and necessary measures are being utterly dwarfed by policies that have the exact opposite impact on the environment. The supposedly greenest government ever is trying to bribe and bully local councils to accept fracking. Whilst they have stripped the power of planning committees to ban fracking they have acted in exactly the opposite direction when it comes to wind farms. It only takes one objector and the windfarm application has to be turned down regardless of any merits it might have. In other words they have effectively banned onshore wind farms.
Then we have the risk to the environment that comes with Brexit. All these wonderful new free trade deals come at a price. It is inconceivable that the USA would sign a trade deal with the UK that would exclude their farmers. No US politician could risk doing that and Donald Trump isn’t exactly known for his understanding attitude to trade deals that help other nations. So we are going to get US food imported to the UK with much lower tariffs and with no conditions attached beyond a bit of window dressing. US farmers operate on a massively bigger industrial scale than UK farmers. They use more antibiotics. They battery farm cattle. Famously they also have to wash their chickens in chlorine in order to deal with the diseases they acquire in over crowded conditions.
So UK farmers are going to get the choice of massively cutting their costs or going out of business under the pressure of competition from the US and New Zealand. Expect lower animal welfare standards. Expect heavier use of chemicals. Expect more destruction of hedgerows. Expect abandoned hill farms.
Any good that Gove is achieving from his positive environmental policies will be massively exceeded by the harm he is doing by advocating Brexit. There is no green Brexit however right he may be about the fact that it is certainly very easy to design better schemes of agricultural subsidy than the Common Agricultural Policy.
All of which entitles us to ask why Gove has suddenly become such a vocal advocate for the environment. Could it just possibly be that he recognises that he has become a touch unpopular after he lost his desperate self-interested bid to become Prime Minister? Could it be that he sees a few easy and cheap environmental actions as being a great way to restore some of that popularity? Could it just possibly be that losing an election for the leadership has forced him to take a different stance for a while?
If you wish then in May there will be an excellent chance to express your confidence and trust in the honesty and sincerity with which the Conservatives can be relied upon to look after our public services and our environment. Alternatively you can let them know how completely you are fed up with their cynicism by voting Green. Now that’s what I call a land of opportunity. A real opportunity to get rid of this seriously untrustworthy government!