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Are Conservative Strongholds At Risk Under May's Radical Agenda?

26/05/2017 12:08
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With just weeks to go before the country chooses its next government, in the suburbs of leafy Conservative Surrey, politics is the topic of the day. While we know that under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour would plan to scrap tuition fees, increase income tax for the highest 5% of earners and inject £6billion into the NHS, we now also know what Theresa May would do if she found her way back inside Number Ten. In a rejection of the Thatcherite ideas that helped to secure a Tory landslide in 1979, May is instead seeking to lead the Conservatives in a new direction, one that triumphs the centre ground while borrowing policies from the Left - a definitive contrast to the free market and individual freedom rhetoric that Thatcher once fought for.

The past Labour idea of introducing an energy "price cap", which came under Ed Miliband's watch during his reign as Leader of the Opposition, was rejected my David Cameron little more than two years ago. Under May's leadership, however, this has now become Conservative party policy. Similarly, back in the days of Miliband's Labour party, his plans to increase the minimum wage to £8 an hour received a negative response from Tories who claimed that such a policy would only lead to an increase in unemployment, given that skills and qualifications would take priority in terms of an individual's employability. Fast forward a couple of years and the plan to increase the national minimum wage even further is now on the Conservative agenda - May would like to see it raised to £9 an hour, which will be paid for via tax rises that will mark a 35-year high.

However, the Conservative manifesto of 2017 contains two policies that have caused considerable concern in the constituency of Runnymede and Weybridge - historically a safe Conservative seat. Scrapping free school meals while essentially pledging for a "dementia tax" - not, one suspects, a phrase that May intended to stick - has inevitably led to controversy and conversation amongst locals. Knowing more than a few old school friends who relied on free meals during secondary school, seeing such an important right bring taken away, does not sit well with many parents in Surrey (whether their child received the benefit or not). Indeed, when I mentioned the new policy to a friend this week, they thought I'd been mistaken. "That can't be right, surely?" they respond, before Googling it on their iPhone. If free meals are integral to the daily lives of some youngsters in Surrey - a constituency usually seen as middle-class Tory stronghold - how will the policy affect children in more deprived areas that rely daily on food banks in order to survive?

The other issue that lies within the Conservative agenda is May's plans to shake up the social-care system. Her proposal to ensure that no one should have to pay for care, and her pledge to protect the last remaining £100,000 of pensioners' assets appears reasonable, until one reads the small print: rising property prices are seen as a way to funding social care, which essentially means that the elderly should not expect taxpayers to contribute to the funding of their own personal care. U-turning on the specifics of the policy this week, May announced that there would be an overall cap on all costs that any individual would have to pay and insisted, "nothing has changed" - the proposal will remain party policy. Speaking to a family member who once took a year off work in order to care for their elderly parents, they reveal: "Although many illnesses will still be covered by the NHS, this is a big issue... Though I have to say, I'm still more upset about the policy to scrap school meals. How can I justify voting Conservative?"

Rachel, a 25-year old A&E nurse, is also skeptical of the Conservatives' new social care policy: "Most wards are full of patients that can't leave because there are no nursing home places or specialist permanent care for them, and this is what's causing the stacking at A&E with ambulances being turned away and operations being cancelled. It was the cuts that the Tories made to social care initially that put hospitals in this mess in the first place." Though she has always voted blue, she admits that she likes the rhetoric coming from the Liberal Democrats.

Although the Conservatives look set to achieve a 1979 style victory on June 8th, their controversial measures outlined this week will inevitable stay in the forefront of people's minds. Putting an end to free meals and reshaping the social care system are measures that hit home hard for thousands of individuals, and they simply too significant to be left ignored. However, if May is to win back Labour seats, which has clearly been her intention from day one of the campaign trail, she needs to be challenged by a strong Opposition, which, under Corbyn's narrative, she has yet to face.

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