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”.
David Cameron and George Osborne are said to have made a case on behalf of Uber within Government, when they were respectively Prime Minister and Chancellor, arguing that Boris Johnson should go easier on restrictions to private car firms that would have damaged the company. If true, so they should have. Politicians should actively encourage businesses who are making the lives of ordinary people easier and better – in this case, the delivery of a car service that radically increases the number of people that can access and pay for such a service.
Those that work in politics overstate how much they can improve people’s lives through Government action. Central and local government deliver a small number of services that people enjoy: museums; parks; libraries; and leisure centres, for example. But, for the most part, they deliver services that people rely on but don’t exactly “enjoy”: hospitals, GP surgeries, the emergency services, roads etc. Ultimately, happiness derives from things outside the state’s control.
For many, happiness comes from consumer goods: attending events; going to pubs, bars and restaurants; buying good food and drink; listening and watching music, film and other media; holidays; and so on. To the extent they can, politicians should encourage businesses that deliver such goods to come to Britain or to grow rapidly if they’re already here or were created here.
Where there are businesses that have created a new market, or are dominant within that market, that might mean the de-facto promotion of that business. That can be an uncomfortable place for politicians to be – particularly under the media’s harsh gaze – but politicians that stand up for the interests of those that deliver popular services and goods will not ultimately be harmed and their reputations should be enhanced. Certainly those that intervene to make these goods and services more difficult for people to access risk a backlash.
With that in mind, politicians tempted by regulation should always keep two questions in mind: is the service being delivered making people’s lives better? And will those that use the service hate me more than they might otherwise do if I regulate it? These questions aren’t just applicable to revolutionary new web-based services; they also apply to goods like alcoholic drinks and convenience food. Regulating fun is a dangerous game.
As I wrote in last week’s piece, as the Government’s leading modernist, Osborne’s budgets did promote rapidly emerging markets – for example, the so-called sharing economy. This Government badly needs someone at a senior level that can and will do the same.
In these columns I have made many suggestions for government action that I think would appeal to ordinary voters (those just about managing) ranging from cheaper fuel to better childcare. But it’s useful to remind ourselves that most people aren’t political, don’t follow the news closely – and would be incredibly angry if all of a sudden politicians took action that took away their fun or stuck new taxes on it.