To reshape Britain, May needs a coalition like Thatcher
Theresa May and her team believe that the EU referendum was a 1979 moment – when an old consensus collapsed. But for a new one to be born, the Prime Minister needs to create a connection with a winning coalition among the electorate – what Thatcher termed “our people”. This group voted for Thatcher, and she explicitly fought for them against an establishment that viewed them with indifference, if not outright distaste.
May’s people are almost the same as Thatcher’s. They are often not rich, work hard and believe in unfashionable concepts (in London circles) such as the nation state. But the Prime Minister and her team believe that the Thatcher revolution has left parts of the country behind, and want to return to help them.
Many policy experts and some Tories do not understand ordinary people and their desire for respect
The manifesto needs to avoid seeing people as part of a spreadsheet. Most people want to stand on their own two feet. They want a solid, well-paying job, a steady retirement, and to own their home. Almost paradoxically, they want Government to help them achieve self-reliance.
Take pensions. The average pensioner income is £14,000. Policy experts have in the past argued that the state pension should simply be linked to inflation, and the pension credit boosted to save money without raising poverty. But this completely fails to understand ordinary people. They don’t want to be reliant on top-up benefits. They feel they have paid into the system, and want to be treated with respect.
This is particularly true when pensioner incomes have been decimated by low interest rates. Anything more than moving the triple lock to a fairly easily explainable dual lock (inflation and wages), rather than linking to earnings or inflation alone, would anger this group. First, Government cripples their moderate private pensions; then it threatens to erode their basic pension, and makes them supplicants with complex and intrusive forms after years of paid contributions.
Similarly, many policy experts ignore the desire for home ownership (other than for themselves and their children). They do not grasp just how much ordinary people want strong middle income jobs for those without high levels of education, and see social mobility as not simply helping those at the bottom (e.g. those on free school meals), but also people who seek to move from the middle to the top.
Within the Conservative Party, May faces many who oppose her if she takes this course.. Matthew Parris once wrote. “If you want to win Cambridge you may have to let go of Clacton”. I suspect the Prime Minister is on course to win a three-figure majority and not win Cambridge – but none the less gain Clacton. But some within the party will look longingly at Cambridge and continue to deride Clacton. May needs to show she understands ordinary people in the face of parts of the Conservative party that do not.
The Manifesto must show that May backs this group
If Brexit gets difficult or the economy is in trouble, the Prime Minister must make hard choices. The coming manifesto must make it clear that her people will be protected and their views heard. This means viewing policy from their perspective. May must consciously pitch away from affluent Liberal Democrats – internationalists who see ordinary people as a group to be taxed to pay for a large and politically correct state. She should focus on Labour and UKIP voters attracted to her focus on the national interest and ordinary people.
This matters most of all because the composition of the party after June 8th will matter. Gaining Labour Midlands and Northern seats while losing some Southern remain bastions to the Liberal Democrats creates a more ‘May- friendly’ coalition than fewer new seats from Labour but keeping all existing ones. She needs to recognise this, and act accordingly.
Many who argue for flexibility do so because they want to force the Prime Minister to abandon her project. May must box herself and the Conservative Party in, so that when times are difficult she can face down those who argue for cuts that hit ordinary people to fund corporation tax cuts, or those who would solve skills shortages by simply importing cheap labour. She needs to back provincial savers over ever higher asset prices and cheap debt that benefits the City of London.
May’s philosophy will take time to emerge and must blend multiple Tory strands
Thatcher spoke to ordinary voters in a language they understood, and gave them policies that showed she backed them. She was not about slashing the state but about empowering people, including ordinary people, to run their own lives. Her vision was of a small but strong state that nurtured rather than stifled ordinary people, while crushing vested interests such as militant unions that held them back. The Prime Minister seems to oscillate between updating this vision and occasionally heavy-handed statism.
Part of the difference is that Thatcher had years in opposition, allies in the media and academia, two friendly think tanks and much more to help her. May is trying to reinvent domestic Conservatism whilst in power and negotiating the colossal challenge of Brexit. This is all being done with limited external intellectual support (though it is fair to say nine months on the Prime Minister and her team has not done much, unlike Thatcher, to try to nurture such support).
May is right that people feel self-reliance is turning into precariousness and that the establishment does not care. Yet much of the growth in the precariousness she argues against is as much a product of Government’s interventions as the free market – from the Bank of England’s cheap credit that inflates asset prices and boosts pay for mediocre executive performance to regulations that drive out small businesses or the difficulty of routes into the professions.
Number Ten needs to focus on elements of Carswell’s work Rebel or Raab’s Meritocrat’s Manifesto as much as the work of Centre for Cities think tank and Vince Cable’s agenda on shareholder pay. The Prime Minister and her team need an intellectual coalition on the right to compliment her political coalition.
May cannot and should not force her philosophy to emerge overnight. She and the Conservatives should therefore paint a broad-brush manifesto which backs her people – much of the coming campaign will be about not putting a foot wrong, given many are already strongly behind her. Some of the policies are going to have to come later – but she needs to signal that she is going to stand up for her people, and that she understands their need for security and their aspirations for a better life.