May’s Attempt to Gaslight Voters Over Cuts is Falling Short

Watching Conservatives on the campaign trail, it’s hard not to feel like you’re being gaslighted. Time and again, Theresa May insists that she cares deeply about whatever public service she’s questioned on – the NHS, social care, education, policing, the armed forces – and that she’s spending record amounts on each. For voters who’ve seen all of these services being systematically deprived of funds, it’s enough to make you wonder if you’ve been living in an alternate reality.

The Tories’ claims about record funding are, of course, disingenuous. Spending on the NHS is higher than decades past because there’s a wider array of treatments and a higher number of patients (not to mention a higher amount being spent on private contracts). To spend less would be near-impossible. Likewise with education: the absolute number might rise but, proportionally speaking, the amount spent per child has dropped, with some schools requesting donations from parents just to cover teachers’ wages. May brags about investing in counter-terrorism police, but this doesn’t compensate for the 20,000 regular officers scrapped during her time in the Home Office.

These attempts to dupe voters over cuts is proving harder to sustain, though. Call it political nous or plain callousness, but David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith targeted their cuts at the weakest. They hit the unemployed, the disabled, the homeless; people that a comfortable-enough middle England rarely sees. However, as it becomes clear that austerity was never a temporary fix but rather the permanent modus operandi of a government unwilling to invest anything but the most frugal amount in public services, cuts are cutting deeper and impacting more and more people.

Theresa May initially benefited from being a fresh face. Voters tire of parties and governments, but May seemed poised to re-shape the same Tories that had been presiding since 2010 into something new. She spoke of standing up for the “just about managing”, and her popularity boomed. Those words have proven hollow. Austerity has persisted, and the proposed ‘Dementia Tax’ promises to broaden its scope so that even key Conservative voting blocs are hit. May’s occasional pledges count for little when she was part of the very government that first cut funds. 

 The Tories are increasingly being pushed onto the defence

Take domestic violence. Council budget cuts have caused the closure of 32 women’s refuges since 2011. Women’s Aid estimate that 155 women are turned away from refuges daily, while the Met Police recorded a 72% increase in reports of domestic violence from 2007/08 to 2014/15. May has pledged a “consultation” with the aim of new legislation, but it’s uncertain whether this will reverse the dramatic rise her party has overseen. Expecting voters to embrace her for such a trifling measure is like chopping somebody’s arm off, then expecting a round of applause for handing them a plaster.

In last Wednesday’s debate, Amber Rudd was met with a chorus of Labour, Green, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Lib Dem voices, all calling out the damage caused by cuts. Labour’s manifesto promises, in particular, highlight the Tories’ comparative frugality. And after seven years in power, Rudd’s “living within our means” retorts felt feebler than ever. Her claim that “work is the best route out of poverty” has little clout when people working multiple jobs languish in poverty; boasting of “rescuing the economy” achieves little when for most citizens the gains are meagre to non-existent.

Even when Cameron told blatant untruths, he had a knack for establishing a narrative. He set the economic agenda – “spending = dangerous, cutting = responsible” – which Labour were forced to counter. May and her team have no such knack. Wednesday’s debate illustrated this. The Tories are increasingly being pushed onto the defence.

Voters and opposition parties have a duty to continue applying this pressure.

In the film ‘Gaslight’, a nefarious husband makes his wife doubt her sanity by lying to her over things she knows to be true. During this campaign the Tories have attempted the same, trying to fool the electorate and downplay the impact of austerity through false figures and vacuous soundbites.

However if some of the polls are correct more people are, as in ‘Gaslight’, starting to wise up. This isn’t living within our means – it’s an extreme exercise in right-wing economics, which saps the state of funds to the detriment of citizens. Covering this up with a campaign of misinformation is an insult to those citizens, and to democracy itself. We can only hope it continues to fall short.

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