ConservativeHome was early to report that Theresa May sees her domestic policy mission “not so much as social justice or even social mobility as social reform”. And, sure enough, the first meeting of a Cabinet sub-committee on social reform met yesterday.
Downing Street said yesterday that the committee is focused “on making Britain better for everyone, not just the privileged few”, and the Prime Minister herself said that “at the same time as helping the most vulnerable, we must pursue social reform in a much broader sense to help make life easier for the majority of people in this country who just about manage”.
These statements and the social reform ideal itself raise important questions for the new Government.
Will May’s social reform be targetted at “ordinary working people”, or aimed at everyone?
Number Ten is very clear that while the Government still intends to pursue social justice (fairness for all) and social mobility (helping people to move up the ladder from poverty to wealth), its energies will be concentrated on social reform (making the lives of ordinary working people a bit better). I apologise for these very rough shorthand definitions, but they may help to make the point that the three things are not the same.
The last are “the majority of people who just about manage”. But these are not “everyone”. Some people manage very well; others don’t manage at all. To point this out isn’t textual nit-picking. It is, rather, to pick up tensions in the programme that her team and May herself have outlined.
Or, to put it another way, social reform seems to mean still helping “the very poor and fighting injustices based on gender, race and sexuality”, but none the less adopting “a relentless focus on governing in the interests of ordinary, working people”. I am quoting verbatim from her co-Chief of Staff and our former columnist, Nick Timothy.
May’s commitment to fighting modern slavery is not, in this narrower sense, social reform: most working people are not caught up in modern slavery. Nor has the vast audit of public services on race disparities that she has commissioned much to do with this particular idea of social reform: it is, rather, aimed at furthering social justice.
The Prime Minister would doubtless argue that righting the wrongs of Hillsborough, or stopping abuses of stop and search, or exposing historical child abuse, are other ways of fighting “burning injustices”, as she puts it. But for most ordinary working people none of these are experienced directly.
To govern is to choose. Of course one can pursue social justice and social reform at the same time. None the less, there are only so many hours in the day and so much energy to deploy. If this is not “relentlessly focused”, the boat risks ending up, as Lynton Crosby would say, with barnacles all over it.
If May’s social reform is targetted at “ordinary working people”, what will it feel like?
That’s the way Mark Wallace put the question to me recently. In other words, in what ways will these people feel that their lives are a bit better come 2020? To answer it one has to probe the sacred texts of Maydom – namely, her two campaign launch speeches (see here and here), her address to this site’s conference in 2013 and, as supporting evidence, Timothy’s columns.
Put aside for a moment her intention of, say, improving productivity, establishing a “proper industrial strategy” or ensuring “more Treasury-backed project bonds for new infrastructure projects”. All these have long or medium-term term benefits, or may do in the case of the industrial strategy (which requires more definition).
But none of them are felt directly by ordinary working people. What might be? Downing Street has briefed that social reform will address “job insecurity, mortgage payments and school choices.” So it would be reasonable for those people to feel more secure at work, to have lower mortage payments, and more school choice by 2020.
May has also stressed more housebuilding. “Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising. Young people will find it even harder to afford their own home, ” she said in that second launch speech. So these voters can presumably expect to see housebuilding rates rise: Sajid Javid’s priority at CLG.
“I want to see an energy policy that emphasises the reliability of supply and lower costs for users,” she has also said. That sounds a lot like smaller gas and electricity bills each month, at least by the time the next general election comes around.
Here’s a final quote: “Yes, some have found themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration,” she also said. So those ordinary working people will feel cheated if there is not less of it come 2020 (and the lower net migration that she did not deliver as Home Secretary).
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Lower energy bills, new homes, more (and better schools), less low-skilled migration: all that would certainly be a social reform programme that ordinary working people could feel – all delivered against the backdrop, she has implied, of higher interest rates and less quantitative easing: in other words, a more conventional economic model.
May is having an easy run at the moment. She is a novelty – as Prime Minister, at any rate. Labour is vanishing into the seventh circle of its own hell. Her internal enemies are sacked and scattered. Crunch choices on how to manage Brexit have yet to be made.
But none of this will last forever, or even for all that long. The mood will turn. She will have to explain in more detail what a May Government will deliver, and untangle the knots in her own draft programme. Party Conference will be the time to turn to all this in earnest.