As the dust begins to settle, Conservatives have already started to look at why they lost their majority last week. One powerful narrative which has begun to take form is the argument that seven years of austerity have led to public sector workers being left behind while the economy continued to grow.
George Freeman MP, Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum, believes that the Labour surge was driven in part by “a massive vote by public service professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers, even the police) fed up at the prospect of indefinite austerity”. In an interview with Panorama, between losing his seat and becoming Downing Street’s new Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell recalled an encounter with a teacher in his constituency who said “you know I understand the need for a pay freeze for a few years to deal with the deficit but you're now asking for that to go on potentially for 10 or 11 years and that's too much.”
The election campaign brought these issues into sharp focus. In the past several months, the NHS suffered its worst winter crisis since 2004, the social care system reached a breaking point, and cuts to police numbers were blamed for the three recent terror attacks. This was not helped by a manifesto which promised to cut pensioner benefits and scrap free school lunches. Voters were not satisfied by the Conservatives’ miserly offer of prolonged austerity and economic competence.
Despite the fascinating ideas outlined in the manifesto’s introduction, there was no “retail offer” to compete with Labour, few policies for Conservative activists to brag about to voters. There were certainly mature, grown-up policies to help the country face the “five giant challenges” of our time. But it did not say how a Conservative government would make voters and their families better off. For all the gimmickry of the 2015 manifesto, it at least told voters clearly how they would benefit from a Conservative majority government.
As the Conservatives begin to rethink their approach towards austerity, it is important to remember that fiscal responsibility is a fundamental Tory principle. Abandoning this principle would be a major surrender to Jeremy Corbyn in the battle of ideas. The national debt stands at a staggering £1.9 trillion and 86% of GDP. This is a burden which millennials will have to help pay off for most of their adult lives. If Conservatives start to oppose all spending cuts, then it is hard to see how the government can keep borrowing and debt under control.
Instead, Conservatives should look at reconfiguring the deficit reduction programme so the burden does not fall disproportionately on hardworking people, especially public sector workers. This year, their wages were cut in real terms due to the pay freeze and creeping inflation. By 2020, average public sector pay could be £1,700 lower than in 2010. The economy might be growing, but this is clearly not being felt by everyone. As an opening move, the Conservatives could increase the cap on public sector pay. The burden of spending cuts needs to move away from the workers who keep our public services running.
In her first party conference speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May declared “we are the party of workers.” Last week’s election results proved that Conservatives still have their work cut out for them. Austerity is necessary, but it has to be implemented in a way which protects workers, the “just about managing”. If the Conservatives want to truly become a party of workers, then that must mean embracing public sector workers.