Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.
Over the last decade, Conservatives in government have focussed significant efforts on two priority areas. The first has been putting power in people’s hands – through referenda, by handing back power to cities and elected Mayors, and through Brexit. We’ve also most recently – and quite rightly – put a lot of energy into addressing the housing crisis – a major driver of quality of life and social mobility not just for today’s generation but also for the voters of tomorrow.
These are the right priorities to have had. In the age of the internet with all the freedom and convenience it brings, if people feel government is distant and unresponsive it will only fuel more discontent and frustration. And when there is no prospect of either owning a home or facing a life of rising and unaffordable rents, the young and families will vote with their feet.
But there is one bread and butter issue which will also define our electoral chances for the next decade and needs addressing, both today and in the coming post-Brexit era: the cost of living. And by this I don’t just mean what you see in the inflation figures, but actual felt costs people experience in their daily lives, particularly for those on low or no incomes.
This is an important issue firstly for social justice reasons. People shouldn’t have to be going to food banks in today’s Britain. As a country led by a Conservative government we have handed more responsibility to people to manage their lives and get into work, but at a time when life has become more volatile and savings more and more limited, many today are only a washing machine breakdown away from homelessness, or hunger or both.
This is also important for electoral reasons as well. Thatcher famously frequently asked herself what the mythical Essex man was thinking about her latest policies, at least most of the time. And politicians who do not know the price of bread can end up looking out of touch (at the time of writing, the lowest prices are currently 47p at Aldi and Lidl, 40p at Tesco). In other parts of the world, governments are always careful to keep food prices affordable, and many like Hong Kong do so using market-based methods.
So what should Conservatives do about this issue, and how can Brexit be an opportunity to help address it, whether we leave in a smooth or bumpy way? The answer in part lies in being the Party that opposes protectionism and which fights for consumer and small business interests over those who have too much power in the market in general, and over those who overly influence the supply of land in particular.
Like Peel in the era of the Corn Laws, facing off monopolistic agricultural landowners to protect the middle classes from a potential revolutionary uprising, we have to choose between being in a protectionist EU on the one hand, backing monopolists and globalism in effect, or creating Free Trade deals – and even bringing in unilateral free trade the first few years after Brexit – in order to secure lower prices for citizens and small businesses.
We should be – like Peel in his day versus the agri-barons, or Thatcher in hers versus the union barons – the champion of the underdog versus the corporatist barons of the EU-based oligarchy (to be clear, as a baron myself I have nothing against being one, as long as such barons’ powers are constrained). To be effective champions we are going to need to find modern day campaigners of the calibre of Cobden, who led the Anti-Corn Law League, to advocate for lower costs for ordinary citizens post Brexit.
Such a solution won’t just be good for consumers after Brexit but could well also allow us to make the Brexit transition itself smoother, even under a WTO, Global Trading, or No Deal scenario. If for example we kept tariffs as low as zero on most goods coming into the UK and temporarily accept most regulatory standards across the OECD it could help smooth the Irish Border issue until such time as our maxfac technologies are ready, whilst keeping prices low and even bring them lower still through the importing of products and food from outside the EU.
Across the UK, prices could fall on many day to day products by as much as eight per cent or more, which is a lot when you are barely scraping by on minimum wage in one or more jobs. And to help our export industries transition and compete we could harness some of the funds from being out of the EU to help them become more advanced, more automated, and more global in outlook, leveraging the many diaspora in Britain who come from overseas to study and work here, our outstanding research and development base and creative expertise.
Such an approach would not only lead to lower prices, but could spark a revolution in cross-border fintech and other blockchain-related solutions as we figure out how to use such technology for ourselves and help other places learn from our experiences. And it would accelerate the rebirth of our city regions and spur innovation in rural areas, weaning off our industries from low-skilled migrant labour over time and bringing in more automation in sectors that would be most affected, from construction to manufacturing, finance, and agriculture.
Of course, there are many who would oppose such an agenda, preferring to cling to the high cost, producer and corporatist solutions of the 20th Century which the EU currently offers. To win the argument would require a campaign which would ally the Conservative Party with the underdog and consumer groups, with global investors and funds to help modernise affected industries, and would require a public education effort to call Remain-leaning publications such as the FT and the Economist back to their free trade roots.
Such an approach could also spur policy Innovations as we look beyond our own continent, as well as within it, for new ideas on how to govern ourselves as a Freer Trading nation, importing and exporting ideas as much as goods and services. Ideas such as how to better regulate our monopolies the way the Canadians do their banks, requiring variable levels of capital reserves depending on how well corporates are governed and serve citizens and customers without causing systemic risk. Or ideas such as having visible prosecutors, like in the US, leading anti-trust cases to tackle monopolies.
Ultimately, our task as Conservatives is not to turn back the clock but to make capitalism popular again: a capitalism that works for people, and which makes their lives more affordable, which gives them hope for the future, and puts them in greater control. One that works in the regions and the North as it does for the South East, which encourages broader ownership not just of homes but of companies and of ideas. In Corbyn we face yet again the threat of socialist revolution. Let’s do what our forebears did so well to avert it, and help this country rediscover its industry and calling to be a bastion of Free Trade that puts more money and control into people’s hands, whatever their background.