I have written a piece for the Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists blog about what blue-collar Conservatives can learn from the American experience. You can find it here.
Donald Trump has been a truly disruptive ideological influence, both in America and abroad. The Labour party in Britain used a number of tricks from Trump’s populist playbook to great effect during the general election to keep working class voters in their coalition. The Democrats are now following their example with a populist economic message to set the stage for next year’s congressional midterm elections.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, announced his new policy agenda “A Better Deal” yesterday. It is aimed squarely at the working class voters who helped Trump flip Democratic strongholds across the rustbelt. This new policy agenda’s three main goals are to create high-wage jobs, lower living costs, and provide new skills for American workers. Alongside traditional Democratic policies such as the $1 trillion infrastructure plan touted by Hillary Clinton last year, there is the intention to increase the minimum wage to $15, strengthen antitrust regulators, and create a tax credit for employers who train workers without any qualifications.
Despite Trump’s support for some of these policies during the campaign, it is highly unlikely that any of these policies will be supported by Republicans in Congress. The GOP continues to be consumed by its efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, and wants to move on to cutting taxes. Instead of delivering real change for working class Americans, the Republicans look increasingly like they are governing in the interests of the wealthy elite. With an unproductive Congress and the Republicans’ ideological confusion, there is certainly an opening for the Democrats to find their voice and be more than the party of “#resistance”.
The problem is that the Democrats are also riven by ideological division. Clinton’s defeat was a humiliation for the Democratic centrists who have dominated the party since Bill Clinton’s New Democrats won the White House in 1992. Last year’s Democratic primaries showed there is a strong grassroots desire for radical change after Bernie Sanders came close to winning the nomination. Schumer’s new policy agenda is a first step towards the more progressive economic platform favoured by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, though it is still a far cry from their demands for single-payer healthcare and free college tuition.
America’s political climate has certainly made radical populist economics look more attractive given how many Americans now see capitalism as being "rigged". According to a poll by UnHerd and YouGov, 61% of Americans believe that most big businesses “have dodged taxes, damaged environment, bought special favours from politicians”, and 58% believe the poor “get poorer whilst rich get richer in capitalist economies”. This is a sentiment which extends to millennials struggling to own a home or start a family, as well as working class Americans who see their jobs disappear and opioids flood their streets.
A moderate move towards economic populism combined with vehement anti-Trumpism could help deliver results in next year’s midterms. But it will take a lot more to win back the White House in 2020. The primary race will be a fight for the Democrats’ soul. They could go for a charismatic moderate like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, or a progressive populist like Sanders or Warren. What is clear is that the Democrats will have to address the new political divide between globalism and anti-globalism in order to bring working class voters back into the fold and build a winning coalition.
Work is a fundamental element of Conservative thinking. A job is the best pathway out of poverty and towards prosperity. It can provide a purpose which defines us as an individual. As well as creating jobs, Conservatives have a proud history, which goes back to Lord Shaftesbury and Benjamin Disraeli, of ensuring robust protections for people in the workplace. In this spirit, Theresa May asked Matthew Taylor, the former head of Tony Blair’s Number 10 Policy Unit, to review current employment practices and law.
Yesterday’s launch of Taylor’s review was briefed as part of May’s leadership reboot. In this regard, May’s speech fell somewhat short. But as a Conservative case for work it was a well-worded statement. May described how a “good job can be a genuine vocation, providing intellectual and personal fulfilment, as well as economic security. With good work can come dignity and a sense of self-worth. It can promote good mental and physical health, and emotional well-being.” For the past seven years, the Conservative have had an impressive record of job creation. Now the time has come for similar progress to be made in the development of workers’ rights.
Technological innovation, as much as globalisation, is transforming the workplace. At the cutting edge of this change is the “gig economy”. New companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit have appeared which allow workers to easily take up freelance work and to be hired through apps and websites. It has provided opportunities for many workers as well as lower prices for consumers. But there is also a lack of security for workers as the legal line between gig economy jobs and the traditional definition of self-employed has become ill-defined. These new jobs also fail to provide sufficient pay and benefits for people to get started on the path towards forming families, owning a house, or planning their retirement.
Jeremy Corbyn and the hard-left have responded negatively to this development and believe in a heavily restricted labour market, unlike the liberal left in America. The challenge for Conservatives is to maintain the balance between flexibility and fairness which ensures British workers can easily find work without fear of being exploited. Taylor’s Good Work review goes some way to provide guidance on how this can be achieved. This is particularly important as the workplace in general becomes increasingly flexible and as people make more frequent career changes.
Taylor’s key recommendation is that gig economy workers should be legally classified as “dependent contractors”, separated from the traditional definition of self-employed. Not only would this allow the tax system to recognise the unique status of gig economy workers, as Philip Hammond tried to do when he proposed an ill-judged increase in NICs in his Spring Budget, it would also provide greater clarity in the law so employment tribunals can identify and punish cases of abuse. Gig economy workers who work full-time would also be able to enjoy access to the national minimum wage, sick pay, and holiday pay.
May placed workers’ rights at the heart of her new Conservatism. But the loss of her majority in a humiliating election result has placed these reforms in jeopardy. Instead of being able to confidently promise a bill to implement the Taylor review’s proposals, May asked other parties to “read this report, engage with the difficult issues it raises, come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country.” It is more likely that Corbyn’s Labour party will decide to play an obstructionist role in Parliament in order to weaken the government.
There will be some opposition from within the party to these reforms, but May’s desire to build a new Workers’ Party remains necessary and right if the Conservatives want to regain their majority. In a rapidly changing global marketplace, the Conservatives can only endure and thrive by becoming a champion of small businesses and workers, "the little guy", in an increasingly volatile new world.
As we approach Theresa May’s first anniversary as Prime Minister, we are confronted with a government losing its passion for reform. Brexit dominates the national conversation, but the economic and social problems which have fuelled the rise of populism will worsen if Toryism does not respond to them.
The greatest risk for the Conservatives is for them to become an uninspiring party of managerialism. The country does not need more technocrats at a time when voters feel frustrated with the political class and distressed by the upheaval of the twenty-first century. By retreating on the reforms of both May and Cameron, the Conservatives are becoming a party of Grey Toryism. The growing similarities with the 1990s when the party leader was infamously satirised in Spitting Image with grey skin, and the party went into a minority with support from Northern Irish MPs in its dying days, has not gone unnoticed.
Leadership rumours have also undermined the spirit of radical Toryism. Rather than asking questions and proposing solutions to help the party connect with working-class voters, the young, and public sector workers, many MPs seem more interested in gossiping about when May should leave office and who should replace her. The next Tory leader will certainly need a positive vision for the future of Conservatism, but the question of leadership should not define the party’s post-Brexit identity. There are major challenges which need to be addressed by a new radical Tory philosophy.
The meagre nature of the domestic legislation in the Queen’s Speech was inevitable given the new parliamentary arithmetic, but the government has been sliding towards managerialism for months now. During the election, May never proposed any truly imaginative and popular policies to live up to the philosophical vision in the manifesto. Even the ideas which inspired May’s communitarian conservatism were drowned out by the constant and unrelenting mantra of “strong and stable leadership”. The government is now suffering the consequences.
Social reform has been paralysed. Some progress might be made with reform of mental health and domestic abuse legislation, but we cannot expect anything as ambitious as the Coalition-era public services reforms. In fact, flagship Tory reforms are being watered-down. Michael Gove’s innovative and much-needed prison reforms have been ditched. Justine Greening might end funding for the future expansion of free schools. Damian Green has appeared reluctant to defend the tuition fees system.
Economic reform has also stalled. George Osborne succeeded in delivering cuts to income tax and corporation tax, a reduced deficit, and a steady flow of investment in infrastructure and skills. But the Cameron-led Conservative party never fully grasped the post-crash reality. The changing nature of work, the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, the unaccountability of global corporations, and growing inequality between the generations. Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers have been too busy making public interventions on why their departments should be exempt from fiscal restraint.
There is no lack of radical Tory thinkers and ideas. Conservatives should draw upon them to become a populist, rather than a managerialist force in British politics. Voters are attracted to parties with a clear vision. That is why the politicians across the political spectrum from Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron have prospered. Defending the status quo, or promising “strong and stable leadership”, simply will not do. It’s time for a rebirth of a radical Toryism which is prepared to win the twenty-first century.
People are losing faith in capitalism. Ten years on from the financial crisis, there is a continuing backlash which fuelled Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising electoral performance. In their anger and frustration with capitalism, ordinary people, especially the young, are starting to be attracted to socialism once again.
Many of the people who voted a few weeks ago weren’t even born when socialism drove Britain to the brink with financial bankruptcy, rampant inflation, and paralysing strikes. It is no longer good enough for Conservatives to point to a largely forgotten past to prove their point. They need to make the case for capitalism from first principles. This requires teacher-politicians who can say why capitalism is worth conserving. It just so happens that one of the party’s greatest teacher-politicians was also a populist who turned back the tide of socialism, namely Margaret Thatcher.
Much like Corbyn's candidacy in the Labour leadership election, Thatcher was not supposed to win the contest to succeed Ted Heath. As the middle-class daughter of a grocer, Thatcher was an outsider, excluded by the upper echelons of her party because of her gender. Thatcher’s victory has gone down in history as a “peasants revolt” due to her support from backbench MPs who defied the patrician elite which had traditionally run the party.
The economic philosophy Thatcher championed was also a rebellion against an establishment which insisted on clinging onto the failed policies of the post-war consensus. When she made the case for capitalism, Thatcher wasn’t speaking for the corporate interests. She was speaking for a free market populism, of how capitalism can empower the people as wealth creators and property owners. The genius of Thatcher was her ability to translate this capitalist message into the language of everyday struggles experienced by ordinary people.
For Thatcher, fiscal responsibility was a statement of how taxpayers should be trusted to run their own lives, and spend their own hard-earned money, free from interfering elites in Westminster. Cutting taxes and spending did not just boost economic growth and revenue, it was also moral. This argument was put in simple and effective terms which ordinary people across the country could understand. Thatcher believed “Everyone has to live on a budget, the government has to live within a budget, and our good housekeeping has made our economy sound and strong”.
Another enduring legacy of Thatcher’s free market populism was the “property-owning democracy”. Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy scheme and advert campaigns, such as “Tell Sid”, to promote the privatisation of utilities and industries. The result was a substantial increase in the number of homeowners and shareholders in Britain. Economic power would be transferred from the state to ordinary people. It was a seismic shift in the British economy which rewarded aspiration and provided opportunities in a way which socialism can never match.
The free-market revolution of the 1980s restored economic prosperity to the country after the decline and decay of the 1970s. But the fall of the Berlin Wall has ushered in an economy with fewer opportunities, and more problems for ordinary people. Multinational corporations easily avoid paying taxes and “too big to fail” banks are bailed out for crashing the economy. People are working longer hours for less money, less likely to own a home, and face a rising cost of living. The problem is cronyism, a capitalism which is undermined by the relationship between big business and big government.
Theresa May has acknowledged these problems during her tenure as Prime Minister, and attempted to use state interventionism to build her own brand of populism. But it failed to win a convincing victory against Corbyn’s socialism at the ballot box. As Conservatives reconsider their mission and their policies, it would be worthwhile to examine how Thatcher’s free market populism succeeded in restoring Britain’s prosperity and pride. It is the Conservative party's best chance of creating the next generation of capitalists.
The loss of her parliamentary majority has fundamentally changed Theresa May’s mission as Prime Minister. For the next two years, May will try to fight tooth and nail to fulfil Vote Leave's promise to take back control. Whether or not she makes it beyond this year’s party conference is a different matter, but May is determined to carry on.
May’s major Bills in her first (and almost certainly her last) Queen’s Speech are all related to Brexit. This was always going to be the case given the need to pass the Bills before March 2019 when Britain formally exits the EU. May is sticking by her Lancaster House speech. British sovereignty will return over trade, immigration, laws, territorial waters, agriculture, nuclear safeguards, and international sanctions. This is all in line with the government’s plan to leave the customs union and the single market.
Some tweaks have been made to May’s Brexit plan. The government’s tone on Brexit has softened as the Queen’s Speech made a commitment to “secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union” and “build the widest possible consensus on the country’s future outside the European Union.” Despite the toned down rhetoric, Brexiteers will loudly support May for fear of a leadership contest leading to a new “soft Brexit” Conservative leader or triggering an election in which Labour wins a majority.
This will be a two-year long legislative slugfest which exposes divisions across the two main parties over Brexit. Although both the Conservatives and Labour pledged to leave the single market and customs union in their manifestos, there will be resistance from the backbench MPs opposed to what they call a “hard Brexit”, including the Tory awkward squad led by Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, and at least 34 Labour MPs. The House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament also have the power to derail the Brexit Bills.
As a lifelong Eurosceptic, how far will Jeremy Corbyn go in collaborating with the Conservatives to implement Brexit? Since the election campaign ended, Corbyn and the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, have repeated their manifesto pledge to honour the Brexit result. Attempting to thwart Brexit, by for example blocking the Repeal Bill, could risk the wrath of their pro-Brexit working-class supporters who left UKIP for Labour two weeks ago.
Domestic policy in the Queen's Speech was an entirely different affair. For the past year, May has been crafting her analysis of how the failures of the political class led to the Brexit result and what can be done to correct these failings. The manifesto which addressed these problems and formed the basis of May’s mandate for change has now been shredded. With the loss of a majority, and the bandwidth being consumed by Brexit, this is unavoidable. Policies such as grammar schools, the so-called “dementia tax”, and cuts to pensioner benefits will not see the light of day.
But while the details of Mayism have been changed, the general direction of travel has not. Measures were announced to put an industrial startegy into action through technical education reform and infrastructure investment, inject fairness into markets such as energy and housing, tackle social problems related to domestic violence and mental health, and respond to the challenges of extremism and terrorism. These are all worthy, if unambitious, proposals to help improve the country and keep the flame of Mayism alive during and beyond the Brexit process.
Conservatism is at a crossroads. Instead of witnessing the beginning of a Tory renaissance under a Mayite revolution, Conservatives are questioning whether or not their party even has a future. The Spectator has declared this moment as “The dying of the right”. It is an existential crisis which May is not capable of resolving in light of her failed election gamble. But May could, perhaps successfully, steady the party through the Brexit process and be remembered as an honourable, albeit flawed, Prime Minister.
Theresa May came to power with a clear vision for modern Britain. The Conservatives appeared to have found a leader who recognised and understood the barriers to success for many in British society.
May and, her Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy’s agenda for economic and social reform would build “the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow”. It is a message of empowerment for everyone regardless of their class, age, gender, race or sexuality, and was a fundamental theme in the Conservative manifesto. But it was never included in the election campaign message. One of the many mistakes made. The party needed a positive message of aspiration and opportunity to inspire voters.
Speaking for those who are “just about managing” is also becoming an electoral necessity due to the changing nature of the Conservative party’s support. This year the Conservative party gained its highest level of C2DE (working-class) support since 1979 with an astonishing 12-point increase on its 2015 performance, and Labour leading by only four-points. Conservatives led among people with no qualifications by 17-points, whereas Labour had a 15-point lead with graduates.
There is also an interesting story to tell in the Midlands and the North of England. The Conservatives won five Labour strongholds which voted heavily for Leave; Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, North East Derbyshire, Stoke-on-Trent South, and Walsall North. Copeland was also held by the Conservatives, which they gained in a sensational by-election a few months ago. There were swings to the Conservatives across seats in the North East and the Midlands. To the surprise of many in last month’s local elections, the Conservatives won the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoralties.
British politics is still undergoing a realignment, and class is becoming less of an indicator of how people will vote. May and Timothy saw how the Conservatives are gaining working-class support and have an opportunity to flip seats which have been held by Labour for decades. But many working-class voters who had left Labour for UKIP decided to back Corbyn instead. Breaking through in Labour’s heartlands will require more hard work to be done by the Conservatives.
Today’s Queen’s Speech is rightly focused on the process of implementing Brexit, but it is still disappointing to see how many of May and Timothy’s policies have been discarded, especially the grammar schools policy. This should not stop Conservatives from continuing to explore Mayite ideas and policies. Rob Halfon has already set out his proposals for turning the Conservatives into a modern workers’ party, and his departure from government is disappointing at such a crucial time.
Instead of retreating to an ideological comfort zone, the Conservatives should learn from the best Mayism has to offer. That means saving May’s idea of a great meritocracy which spreads opportunity to working-class voters left behind by globalisation. If the Conservatives continue to be seen as the “party of the rich”, then the party will struggle to win a majority. The centre of gravity is shifting in British politics and the Conservatives must exploit it for maximum advantage. This means Mayism continues to be a vital and desirable idea.
Ever since the exit poll flashed on television screens across the country, speculation has been rife as to who will succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party. May now serves at the pleasure of the Cabinet and is stabilising the new minority government as Brexit negotiations begin. For now, Conservative ministers and MPs insist May will stay as leader for the long-run. But calls for a leadership election are growing in the centre-right press, especially after the clumsy response to the Grenfell Tower fire.
Even if May does remain in office to oversee the next two years of Brexit negotiations, there will be a constant stream of stories about who her successor will be, and there is already a clear field of candidates. Commentators understandably focus on the personality traits of politicians when judging their suitability for high office, but principles and ideology matter as well. Each candidate would mean different things for the future of Conservatism and Brexit at a moment when British politics is in flux.
Among the ground troops of the parliamentary Conservative party, there are two broad camps; the Tory right and the Tory mainstream. The Tory right has a serious and credible candidate with David Davis who has impressed many during his tenure as Brexit Secretary. Brexiteers trust him to implement the Brexit blueprint set out in May’s Lancaster House speech, more so than any of the other candidates. As a free-marketeer and civil libertarian, Davis would make the economic liberals and libertarians in the party very happy indeed. Davis’s humble background also makes him attractive as a Conservative in the Thatcherite tradition. The only risk is that Davis as leader could be interpreted by the electorate as a step back to the pre-Cameron era of the “nasty party”.
As for the Tory mainstream, the centrist wing of the party, there is a weaker and more fragmented field of candidates. Nicky Morgan and Jeremy Hunt are well known to harbour ambitions for the top job. They lack the seniority or support enjoyed by their rivals but could still throw their hats into the ring. Philip Hammond is the big beast in this camp who could stand for the leadership. This is very much the home of Tory Remainers who want to see a “soft Brexit” which puts jobs and growth before controls on immigration, and Hammond has consistently been their spokesman in the Cabinet. The risk of Hammond as leader would be a large-scale Brexit backlash from Leave voters in the next election.
Then there are the Tory modernisers, the officer class which ran the party under David Cameron. There is a divide within this camp over Brexit between the Osbornites and Borisites. George Osborne is no longer in Parliament but he still has an influential network of allies which he cultivated during his time as Chancellor. The most formidable of these allies is Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, who had a “good war” during the election campaign and has been a strong advocate for Tory Remainers in Cabinet. But Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, is attractive to many Tories as the populist who led the Vote Leave campaign to victory with a positive, liberal case for Brexit. Since his return to Cabinet, Michael Gove could become a kingmaker between Rudd and Boris. Despite their differences on Brexit, both candidates would return the party to the liberal Conservatism of the Cameron-era.
Noticeably, there is no faction of Mayites ready to back a candidate who shares May’s vision for a communitarian conservatism which charts a middle way between globalism and nationalism. May’s manifesto is being torn up and Nick Timothy’s ideas discredited because of the disappointing election result. There were certainly mistakes made in the manifesto and the election campaign, but there is much in Mayism which can help the Conservatives prosper in the future.
The next Conservative leader faces a difficult electoral challenge. He or she will have to reach out to the working-class Leavers, middle-class Remainers, public sector workers, and young people who fuelled the Labour surge. Falling back on old ideological templates will not help. Brexit has reshaped the political landscape and the Conservatives will have to adapt in order to survive. Conservatives cannot wait until a leadership election to discuss the party’s future. The conversation will have to start now and could very well decide whether the party has a future as a majority party.
“For myself, I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else.” – Sir Winston Churchill
Hope is an election winner. Politicians who promise a positive vision for the future are often election winners. Last week, Ruth Davidson led an extraordinary Tory revival in Scotland, and Jeremy Corbyn rallied an impressive youth vote. A couple of days ago, Emmanuel Macron won a stunning landslide in the first round of the French parliamentary election. Voters clearly do not just look to their leaders for competence. They look for optimism.
Conservatives sometimes fail to remember this lesson. Realism and pragmatism run deep in the party’s history, sometimes pessimism and fatalism have come through too often. The sober and grown-up approach taken by Theresa May failed to inspire and cost her majority as a result. In some ways, the Conservative campaign was downright off-putting. The constant negativity and sloganeering produced a dreary campaign by a party which did not offer hope.
This has not always been so. Sir Winston Churchill, the Conservative party’s greatest leader, was a bastion of hope during Britain’s darkest hour. Churchill’s memory does not just endure because of his achievements, but also because of his endless capacity to inspire. Margaret Thatcher also spoke to a country in crisis and promised to stop managed decline and restore national pride. The genius of Churchill and Thatcher can never be replicated, but that should not stop Conservatives from putting optimism at the heart of their party’s identity.
David Cameron tried to bring some optimism back to the Conservative party. In his 2006 party conference speech, Cameron famously said “Let optimism beat pessimism, let sunshine win the day.” It is easy for people to mock Cameron’s “hug a husky” and “hug a hoodie” moments during his efforts to make Conservatism more appealing. But what he was trying to do was important. Conservatism cannot endure if it cannot win hearts and minds, if people cannot be proud about the fact that they are Conservatives.
With morale in the Conservative party so low after hopes for a landslide victory were so dramatically dashed last week, the need for optimism cannot be overstated. The country stands at an historic turning point. Brexit promises tremendous opportunities for a more confident and independent Britain. The challenges presented by the party running a minority government remain real and serious, but they can be overcome.
Over the past year, the government established a plan for Brexit which would honour the Brexit result, namely to leave the single market and the customs union. But this plan needs to be sold not just to the British people, it also needs to be attractive to our European friends and allies. An excellent way to kick off Brexit negotiations on the right foot, and appeal to Remain voters, would be to unilaterally grant the right to stay for EU citizens in Britain. The government’s rhetoric should embrace Britain’s cultural links with European nations, and make it perfectly clear that to support Brexit is not to be anti-European.
Difficult times await Britain, but we need to keep believing in the best of our country and its people. It is time for the Conservatives to rediscover their optimism and push forward with a plan for Brexit which shows that our best days are still ahead of us.
I have written a piece for The American Conservative about what the UK general election result means for the future of Brexit and the Conservative Party. You can find it here.