Josh O’Connor is a former musician and teacher now working in executive search, and a Conservative activist in South East London.
On 9th January 2017, Theresa May delivered a speech setting out her vision for the shared society. Government would take a more active role in helping those on low and middle incomes to share post-Brexit economic opportunities. It felt like the start of a radical social agenda, tackling some of the most urgent injustices eroding social unity. Despite May’s change in approach from David Cameron’s One Nation Conservatism, it was a continuation of the much-overlooked and successful Conservative social policy agenda of the last six and a half years.
Despite the yells from the Left, the Conservatives are, and have been for some time, the party of social justice. Under David Cameron it felt as if the social policy agenda was just getting started. The all out assault on poverty was rolled out, gay marriage legalised and academies were improving education in the most deprived areas. Welfare reform lead to incredible rises in employment, and tax cuts meant working people had more money in their back pocket at the end of the month. Cutting some employment regulations incentivised small businesses to create far more jobs than people imagine – another example of how fewer, not more, regulations help people get into work.
The Prime Minister sees the societal challenges facing the country through a wider lens than her predecessor. Social justice must include those just above the welfare threshold, not just those at the bottom. Everyday injustices are faced by ordinary working class families, aka JAMs, defined by Policy Exchange as around half of all households in Britain. These families are often still effected by the likes of youth unemployment, family breakdown, debt, mental health and lack of housing, usually attributed to those on welfare. She has highlighted the disproportionate social problems in seaside towns leading to the lack of educational attainment among the white working class. There are greater inequalities facing ethnic minorities, who are far more likely to be stopped and searched, expelled from school and out of work. Her solution is for government to play a more active role in solving these challenges faced by broad swathes of the country.
However, by mid-2017 it seems the pursuit for social justice enacted by Cameron and articulated by May has been drowned out. Whilst banging on about Brexit is entirely necessary, it seems there’s room for little else. It’s as if the country exists in the hypothetical, of maybes and what ifs, currently on hold, paused until an agreement is made, detached from its own future.
Yet working people up and down the country look for more than a safe return from Brussels. They are far more interested in improving their own living standards than in the European Court of Human Rights. The fate of EU negotiations may be a cause for concern, but parents are equally nervous about the facilities in their child’s local school and the quality of teaching. A single mother cares less about the single market, and more about the cost of childcare. It is not politics which occupies the minds of the public, but how their lives and communities can be improved. Have we become so distracted by Brexit that we’ve overlooked what matters to people most?
If the polls are to believed, thankfully there’s only one outcome to this election. However, once we leave the EU, those in poverty will still have shorter life spans than the rich and the JAMs will still be just about managing. We must show the electorate that regardless of the focus of this election and upcoming negotiations, we haven’t forgotten about them.
As usual, stumbling Jeremy Corbyn blames all of society’s problems on “Tory cuts”. This privileged man seems more interested in the teaching and medical unions than the pupils or patients themselves, more concerned about the notion of competition in schools than the best education for a child, and more interested in taxing healthcare recruitment companies than adequate emergency treatment. His gestural policies would plunge future generations into more and more debt. I see little justice in his world.
It’s not just Labour who Conservatives can steal further support from on a social justice platform. Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats are focusing their limited operation entirely on Europe, and UKIP are a spent force. We must keep making the case for a nuanced method of tackling societal problems in this country, beyond Labour’s flawed solution of a bulging state, and other voter grabbing empty promises from parties with no chance of power.
May can garner even more support from the electorate by addressing societal issues normally monopolised by the Left and engage beyond the narrow issue of the EU break-up. The young, undecided and politically inactive will move increasingly to the Tories if we can show that social justice is still on the agenda.
Brexit is the most important political event of a generation, and May quite rightly called a general election to see it through. A Brexit Britain will become an outward looking and prosperous nation, but one which must also move forward with its own domestic, radical social agenda.