By Chaminda Jayanetti
When Theresa May unveiled her vision for the Conservative Party earlier this month, it had an epochal air to it.
May criticised stateless corporations, denounced tax avoiders and Sir Philip Green, endorsed the role of government and pledged to serve "working class" people.
In recognising the role of the state, targeting the support of working class people rather than Middle England, and setting out the social obligations owed by businesses, May was rhetorically drawing four decades of neoliberalism to a close.
But was it only rhetoric? It's often forgotten that George W Bush originally ran for the White House as a "compassionate conservative" but it didn't quite work out like that. And unlike her historical predecessors, there is no intellectual godfather here – no Milton Friedman, no Keith Joseph to drive the narrative through.
The prime minister needs that outline of a new political economy, and fast – because the status quo is geared directly against her professed agenda. Six years of austerity have left low earners struggling, state institutions crumbling, and society divided.
They have also given rise to numerous policies which need to be reversed if May's rhetoric is to mean anything beyond the conference hall.
First, there is Universal Credit. The government's flagship welfare scheme is full of hidden nasties – self-employed people could lose out under the minimum income floor, cuts to the work allowance have already bitten, and then there's George Osborne's infamous tax credit cuts. Having been delayed rather than ditched, the Osborne cuts ought to be easy for May to consign permanently to the scrapheap.
Another easy option is doing away with in-work conditionality. Benefits conditionality is one of the scandals of our age, and extending it to people already in work – so they must try and find more work or lose their financial support – is a political and practical dead-end. The scheme is currently being trialled, with initial results due early next year. Inevitable headlines about part-time workers being punished will give an opening to call it off.
Then there is the benefit freeze. This artificial policy was cobbled together to meet Osborne's artificial welfare cuts in line with his artificial surplus target. The latter has been ditched so the rest can now follow. The policy was bad enough already – the expected rise in inflation will make it outright toxic as food and fuel prices start to rise.
Things are even trickier with housing where Tory policies such as "pay to stay", Right to Buy for housing association tenants, and forced sales of high value council homes, have all made things worse while claiming to make things better.
May's speech promised to use the "power of government to step in and repair the dysfunctional housing market". Homes would be built for both owners and renters, with the focus on affordability and security. That latter point is key – you cannot have stable communities, families, or households if people are living in fear of being priced out or evicted from their neighbourhood every year. Council housing must be built and tenants' rights strengthened – otherwise, who is May's government seeking to protect?
In her conference speech, May said she wanted a Britain where "every person has the opportunity to be all they want to be". Improving social mobility through education is key but experts are unanimous that her reheated grammar school policy is not the way to achieve it. The most valuable investment the government could make in education is in further and adult education, which present huge opportunities in skills development, and give a vital second chance for people who were alienated or just not thinking straight in their teenage years. It happens. It shouldn't result in a lifetime of economically-driven moral penitence.
Much of this requires a radical rethinking of fiscal policy. There is much talk of new capital spending on infrastructure, but much less focus on day-to-day revenue spending – economists recognise the value of the former but not the latter.
But revenue spending is crucial – for the NHS, for our collapsing councils and care services and for the welfare payments that are spent directly into local economies. Revenue spending redistributes, tackles inequality, and funds preventative services that avoid higher spending later on. Local authorities are struggling to balance their budgets as this decade of masochistic fiscal anorexia wears on. There can be no departure from the old order unless the prime minister recognises the economic and social need for higher revenue spending as well as glossy infrastructure investment.
There are two other broad policy goals May must focus on. The first is equalling the employee-employer relationship. Bosses find it too easy to dictate terms to workers. Staff must be empowered to claim a bigger share of the profits of growth if inequality is to fall. That means collective bargaining – be it through strengthened union rights, wage councils, or both. Staff representatives on company boards are no alternative to stronger pay claims, especially as living costs rise.
The other policy goal can be called the "Hartlepool question". What is the economic role of Britain's declining post-industrial satellite towns? Regeneration has so far focused on large cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds – but far less on the towns of the lower league football clubs. These are centres of alienation, and not without reason. There are no easy answers, but May's government has to find new local economic models that don't simply displace existing populations. The fact that these seats "always vote Labour" should be irrelevant.
Commentators are often guilty of accepting political rhetoric at face value while ignoring the reality behind it. The truth is May's new "Milibandism" will only amount to empty words unless she fleshes out a new political economy that abandons the foundational tenets of the old one that most of her party still hold to religiously.
If she treats this as a short-term electoral exercise, she will win headlines and plaudits and maybe even a snap election victory, but she will leave Britain's growing political, social and economic vacuum untouched. If May doesn't fill that vacuum then other more dangerous actors surely will.
Chaminda Jayanetti is a freelance journalist
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