How the Tories are redefining the state’s relationship with its citizens

Social rights are becoming commodities only available to the wealthy


The Conservative government’s proposal to dilute Freedom of Information laws will make it difficult, if not impossible, for citizens to see the inner workings of the government. In the past, such laws enabled the exposure of the abuse of expense allowances, and government efforts to conceal the identity of bank fraudsters. Such disclosures are embarrassing for the political elite, who are now determined to prevent them.

The government is likely to turn to a neoliberal strategy of diluting collective rights by imposing costs on those requesting information. Such a strategy would disenfranchise ordinary people by monetising rights, ensuring that only the wealthy can exercise them.

The latest move amounts to a redefinition of the relationship between state and citizens which the post-WW2 consensus outlined. The emphasis then was on progressive change and collective social rights, resulting in the creation of the NHS and the provision of free education, universal pensions, unemployment benefits, and social rights.

In the 1970s the Labour government introduced a raft of laws, such as the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976, to curb discrimination and grant new employment rights. All these laws are now under attack as the neoliberal government seeks to redefine the relationship between the state and its citizens. Social rights are starting to be seen through the prism of markets and money.

Here are a few examples:

  • The inexorable rise in university fees means that many capable citizens are unable to access higher education. Thousands of graduates leave university with mountains of debt. Many will be unable to pay them, something which will blight their credit rating and ability to borrow money to buy a house or start a business. The latest government proposal is to scrap maintenance grants for lower income students, a development that will make it even harder for ordinary people to receive university education.
  • The collective rights to free dental treatment have disappeared. The NHS is being privatised by stealth and some are advocating charges for visits to the family doctor. The poor will soon have to rely on charities.
  • The notion of equality before the law is dissolving. The rich have always been able to hire lawyers to argue their cases, while the less well-off relied on legal-aid for access to the courts. That possibility has been eroded by cuts to legal-aid budgets, leaving poorer people invisible and voiceless.
  • Workers generate a nation’s wealth with their brain, brawn, sweat and blood, but neoliberals are not keen on their rights. Successive government have weakened trade unions and the current government is ready to impose further laws which will make it almost impossible for employees to withdraw their labour. Trade unions may well be criminalised by stealth. So how will employee grievances be addressed? Employees concerned about violation of their rights can appeal to tribunals if they are willing and able to spend £1,200 on the pursuit.

The relationship between the state and citizens should inform public policy debate. There is a fundamental difference between the neoliberal and progressive approaches to the rights of citizens. Progressive forces support collective rights which can be enjoyed by everyone, and where money and wealth do not create special privileges.

In contrast, neoliberals are intent on making rights a commodity that only the wealthy can afford. This is highly divisive and a recipe for social unrest. The Conservatives respond to these criticisms by saying that the government can’t afford to fund collective rights; but the state actively funds policies for the well-off.

For example, some £50 billion a year is given in tax relief on pension contributions. Only 12 per cent of the pension tax relief goes to those earning less than £30,000 , while 88 per cent – or £44 billion – goes to others. The wealthy also benefit disproportionately from tax breaks enjoyed by orchestras and corporations, part of a burgeoning corporate welfare programme which shows the direction of government priorities.

The erosion of collective rights is a deliberate neoliberal strategy to redefine the relationship between the state and citizen, and it must be contested.

Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex

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