David Skelton is Director of Renewal, a campaign group dedicated to broadening the appeal of the Conservative Party.
As Conservatives, we all agree that the free market is, by some way, the best way of building prosperity, creating jobs and delivering growth. Almost every innovation that has transformed our lives for the better and increased prosperity has been down to the dynamic power of capitalism. We’re right to lionise the hard work and risk-taking of the entrepreneur and the small business owner that helps to create the wealth that creates jobs and helps to fund our public services.
As people who believe strongly in the benefits of capitalism and the free market, we need to ensure that it works for everybody, and is seen as working for everybody, at every part of the income scale and in every part of the country.
And we need to face up that not everybody feels that they are getting the benefits of capitalism at the moment. The low paid worker juggling several jobs and still struggling to make ends meet; the 1.8 million households still waiting in the social housing queue; and the person in the deindustrialised town still struggling with high unemployment are still not likely to feel that the system is delivering for them. As strong supporters of the free market we have to make sure that it does.
We have to show how capitalism and conservatism can work for everybody. It’s both the right thing to do and will help us to broaden our appeal and show that we’re the party for everybody in society. That’s why Renewal have launched a new phase of work, called ‘Renewing Capitalism’ – dedicated to showing how the benefits of the free market can be spread to everybody in society.
Since we launched in July, we’ve been consistently pushing for a rise in the Minimum Wage, cushioned by a cut in tax on business. Wages haven’t kept up with prices for the past decade and the minimum wage has reduced in value, once prices are taken into account, by £1000 since 2008. Boosting the minimum wage would show that the Government understands the pressures that the low paid are still facing, as well as the social consequences of low pay. It would ensure that the benefits of growth reach everybody in society, genuinely help to ‘make work pay’ and, given the state pays millions to top up low pay with tax credits, would reduce the benefit bill. A properly enforced and higher minimum wage could also help to tackle the perception that immigration is resulting in undercutting of wages.
We must stand up for the low paid and the consumer
But an increased Minimum Wage is only the start. The Conservatives need to show that they’re not always prepared to give business a free pass and they have to show that they’re prepared to stand up for consumers when they’re ripped off. We should stand up against the sharpest practices of some big business, such as the rip offs from energy companies regarding non direct debit payments identified by Rob Halfon here on Conservative Home on Saturday, the reduction in the size of food packaging but increase in food prices identified by Laura Sandys, the extortionate bank fees or the high bill rises and sky high director salaries in the monopolistic water market. As Rob puts it, “as Conservatives we should not be shy of exposing Corporates when they are plainly ripping off the consumer.”
As Conservatives, we should remember that we’ve always been most concerned when too much unaccountable power is concentrated in too few hands. That’s why we should be gravely concerned with monopolies and oligopolies abusing their market position – something which isn’t in the interests of workers, consumers or the economy as a whole. Reducing competition reduces the innovation that flows from it – we should be doing all that we can to promote and foster competition. We should be following the noble example of Teddy Roosevelt and be prepared to tackle monopolies on behalf of the consumer. We should always remember that capitalism and big business aren’t the same thing.
Extending the benefits of the free market to every part of the country
We also need to remember that there are certain parts of the country that didn’t benefit from the prosperity of the 1980s or the 2000s. As a party, we have to acknowledge that some towns are still suffering the social consequences of the deindustrialisation of the 1980s, creating an environment in which some voters remain unwilling to listen to the Conservative message. The highest levels of ‘worklessness’ and residual unemployment are largely in towns that once depended on heavy industry. We have to show people living in those towns that the free market can work for them.
And we also need to get the message across that Labour patently failed to address these issues during 13 years in power, when the North-South divide was widened and fundamental economic issues weren’t addressed. Conservatives have to show the ambition for these towns and cities that Labour didn’t – aiming to create a dynamic private-sector led economy, with a vision revolved around empowering the great Northern cities and devolving real power from London to the cities. Strong cities, with aspirational civic leadership and first class transport links and digital connectivity will be crucial to creating dynamic economies outside of the South East. Renewing our cities will be a fundamental part of renewing capitalism.
A bold vision that would broaden our party’s appeal
All Conservatives should be determined to show that capitalism can work to benefit everybody in society. It’s absolutely right that we look to make the UK the best place in the world to set up a company or to run a business, with low corporation tax and the reduction of unnecessary red tape. But we should also expect big business to treat their workers well and treat consumers with respect.
We shouldn’t be afraid of identifying and looking to remedy market failure, whether it’s in housing, banking or the privatised utilities. We should be aggressively standing up for competition and against monopoly, standing up for the consumer when they’re being ripped off and being associated with an ambitious renaissance for parts of the country that haven’t shared in prosperity in recent decades. This will be a bold vision that could strike a chord with voters throughout the country. Showing through action as well as words that capitalism and conservatism can bring real benefits to everybody in society would be the best possible way of improving people’s lives and broadening our appeal as a party.