James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Well away from where the bulk of the electorate and the media are focused, there’s a group of people that have been watching the election campaign with growing discomfort: the free market right within the Conservative Party. Until recently, such was their influence within the party that pretty much every candidate felt the need to define themselves as a Thatcherite, and to pledge belief in low taxes, light regulation and a small state.
How times change. Not only did the Conservatives’ manifesto introduce new rights for workers, commit to further raising a generous minimum wage and even raise the prospect of increasing personal taxes (by refusing to rule them out), but the document explicitly said that the free market right was wrong: “We must reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and libertarian right…” It’s hard to know how much worse the manifesto could have been for them.
Electorally speaking, Theresa May’s strategy makes total sense. This partly explains why there’s been so little public opposition from Conservatives. But only partly: it also reflects the extraordinary weakness of the free market right in Britain. We’re leaving the EU and this ought to be their moment – a time to campaign for Britain to become the antithesis of the sluggish, corporatist European economy. Instead, they’re forced to watch as Theresa May looks set to secure a big win off policies they’ve spent years campaigning against.
So what, if anything, can be done?
Most importantly, they need to engage hard in the Brexit process. At present, the Conservatives are heading into talks as Christian Democrats. Philip Hammond even reportedly raised the prospect of lower taxes and lighter regulation as a possible nuclear weapon of last resort in the talks. Free marketeers need to show such an approach is not a nuclear option but the only option.
They need to come up with detailed, specific, workable policies to guide the Brexit talks and to ensure Britain secures the right deal. What should Britain’s approach to financial services regulation, for example? That would be a good place to start. This is no time for six page principles-based position papers: they need to generate actual policies that can be implemented.
There are two other policy areas free marketeers need to offer detailed alternative policies: the industrial strategy; and everyday life for the lower middle class (those “just about managing”). Brexit talks will dominate politics in this Parliament, but the Government will be desperate to make gains on domestic policy. The industrial strategy and life for the lower middle class will be a likely focus. Free marketeers can’t hope to secure meaningful political support by saying that May’s economics are wrong – they need to say what they’d do instead.
Generating ideas is obviously key. But ideas have greater power when there’s evidence behind them. Just as the education reform movement can point to massive successes from innovative Free Schools and Academies, the free market movement needs to create and sell evidence of market-based success across Britain. Devolution offers them their chance: just as the Manhattan Institute made intellectual and political gains in the US by running public policy trials in urban areas, so British institutions should be looking to do the same.
Finally, they need to cultivate a set of credible political spokespeople. While it’s possible to influence from the outside, the movement needs powerful political insiders to make the free market case in the Conservative Party. Perhaps complacent that the Party was stuffed with Thatcherites, the movement hasn’t been good at cultivating politicians and servicing them with the ideas and briefings they need. This must change.
Because free marketeers generally don’t believe in the state’s ability to deliver, they’re reluctant to engage in day to day political policy debate. Other than saying, “the state should stay out of things”, they haven’t had much to say. This must change, too. Those that believe in free markets need to engage in the detail of policymaking – setting out how they’d do things better. If they don’t, they’ll be made irrelevant by the growing number of people within the Conservative Party that believe in the idea of a competent state – one that works better because it’s managed by better people.