Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Tories' transparent agenda

As Budget Day looms, George Osborne has laid out plans to give taxpayers a detailed breakdown of how their taxes are spent in the name of transparency and accountability. According to Exchequer Secretary David Gauke, "We want to make tax more transparent and we want people to be more engaged with their own tax affairs".

Let's not kid ourselves that the initiative has anything to do with transparency or openness – it is instead about re-enforcing a neo-liberal assault on public spending.

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff – in his fascinating book Don’t Think of An Elephant – explores how conservatives consistently win political debates through their control and manipulation of language. Lakoff’s basic idea is “framing”, the idea that appropriate language can create a framework evoking a set of concepts supporting your point of view. Just as our natural reaction when someone says “don’t think of an elephant” is to think of an elephant, our natural reaction when someone says “look how much you’re spending in tax towards health” is to think we’re spending too much.

The mainstream media has neatly mimicked and echoed this discourse. BBC Breakfast News, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – with varying degrees of vitriol – have focused on specific fields – particularly welfare, health and education – where the government are making the most brutal cuts. The fact that the political and media establishment have focused on these areas – rather than, say, Defence spending – demonstrates the real target of this policy.

The "frame" for Osborne's idea is not about increasing accountability, engagement or transparency. The implication is that social spending – on health, education or welfare – is inherently wasteful. If people can physically see where their taxes go, they are more likely to support the Conservatives’ austerity measures.

Labour cannot oppose the move – based as it is on 'progressive' values such as openness and accountability – but it can change the field of debate in three ways:

Firstly, in terms of value for money. According to the Treasury, someone earning £25,000pa contributes £743.26 towards education. As someone who received free education until the age of 18, it seems like a bargain – especially when you consider any children I have are entitled to free education too. Under £1,000 for full medical cover on the NHS also looks like a snip – especially when you compare it to the cost of private health insurance.

Secondly, in terms of real transparency. Osborne’s proposal will show us which areas our taxes are going to, but it won’t show us who they are going to. Where is the breakdown of how public taxes are being used to subsidise big business? Whether it’s bailing banks out during the financial crisis; subsiding multinationals such as Tesco through Workfare; or bankrolling private companies like A4e in the Work Programme – the Left must shape the debate to show the real abuse of taxpayers’ money.   

And finally, how about publishing a register of how taxpayers benefit from public spending – from museums, galleries and libraries to parks, roads and hospitals? As the Con Dem attack on public institutions continues unabated, it might prove a valuable historical document.

1 comment:

johndwmacdonald.com said...

It is important to analyse the linguistics of modern media propaganda and the extent to which subliminal messages remain uncontested.

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