Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
The Conservative Party has not won a convincing victory since 1987. Coincidentally, this was the last time that it had a clear and forthright set of radical values principles underpinning its approach. The Cameron era was a partial rebirth, positive in such areas as education and welfare (though Universal Credit is being botched in implementation) – but it never quite added up to a fundamental shift. A theory of change underpinned it – more power to individuals and decentralisation to improve outcomes, but it never quite hung together.
The economy is not working for most people and has not been for some time
Cameron had partial successes, but he did not fix the economic and social malaise that is affecting the UK. A few still argue that if we just attacked Jeremy Corbyn more on economics, voters would have come to their senses. But other than in employment, people are not happy with the UK economy. Average wages are still below what they were in 2007 (see here for one of the most worrying graphs in modern politics). Home ownership continues to fall. Pensions and savings continue to be decimated by low interest rates. Those who praise the Osborne years must explain how strong the economy was in the first place, if a one per cent rise in inflation is enough to wipe out wage growth for most people. We did not fix the roof while the sun was shining and, eight years after the last recession, another storm will not be far away.
Corbyn is popular due to his radicalism…people are in an anti-establishment mood
Properly understood, Corbyn is popular because of, not despite, his radicalism. Sometimes sloppy centrist journalists assume that a less radical Labour leader would be more popular. But there is no evidence to support this view. By June 2017, when Corbyn had reached out in the election campaign via broadcast and a mass social media push, his ‘best PM’ ratings stood at 39 per cent. Since the election they have declined slightly, but are largely in the mid-thirties. By contrast, Ed Miliband’s ratings in the 2010-15 period were usually in the low 20s.
People are not in the mood for establishment politics. Corbyn promises reform and, while he throws electoral bones to almost every group, he does so while setting out a different vision of what Britain could be that addresses frustrations with the system. This pattern is holding true in developed countries, as existing parties are punished. Even the centrists who are winning are outsiders such as Trudeau, and Macron with his ‘En Marche’.
Without Brexit, Corbyn would already be in Downing Street and Brexit is necessarily radical
Corbyn’s election campaign was a reminder that a key part of politics is not allowing your opponent to define the territory. He simply ignored Brexit. He instead campaigned on austerity. For the 42 per cent of voters who opted for the Conservatives, Brexit was the number one issue, cited by 48 per cent of Tory voters as a reason to vote for the party. But for the 40 per cent of voters backing Labour, Brexit was issue number three, behind the NHS and spending cuts – cited by just eight per cent of those who voted. Had Brexit not existed to motivate the Tory vote, Corbyn’s campaign against austerity would have probably got him across the threshold of Downing Street.
Brexit, even of the soft variety, is a hugely radical move. Those who campaigned for Remain essentially comprise the British establishment. The rejection of their advice by a majority of their countrymen has dealt them a psychological blow that explains the bitterness and bile from some Remainers. We cannot stand for the establishment, even if we wanted to do so, without completely abandoning Brexit and destroying the Tory party.
The 2017 Manifesto was an establishment one bar Brexit, and May has continued that vein
The most interesting element of the 2017 Manifesto was that outside Brexit it was a fairly establishment document. Lots of vague arguments about the need to spread growth and attacks on the untrammelled free market but, outside Brexit and related issue of immigration holding down low skill wages, nothing in it threatened almost any existing power base, from big business to the civil service. There were hints of interesting points (e.g. parity between technical and academic education), but even these were not too fleshed out for fear of scaring the horses. Compared to the 1979 Manifesto, for example, it set out no clear direction of travel or reform to the current economic and social framework.
Even the ‘radical’ social care reforms were essentially a reflection of the views of the SW1 establishment – ignoring the crucial fact that for most people social care is like healthcare and, no matter how many IFS wealth decile graphs showing change is progressive are waved in their faces, they think it is unfair to charge people for what is effectively ill health. During recent weeks, we have had more Ed Miliband style ‘radicalism’: 5000 council homes a year, an energy price cap, a race audit. May this week will tell the major housebuilders that they need to build more. At times it seems as if she believes rhetoric alone can fix Britain’s fundamental malaise.
A reshuffle is needed to create space to ask: what is our new radical common ground?
Much of the debate on Tory solutions is rather depressing. The idea of a different income tax for the young has been mooted, more borrowing for council housing – and so on. Yet each offer is put forward as a bung toward different groups, with little underlying vision or strategic approach discernible.
We need to show that we understand people’s frustration, and that we will act to create a new settlement. Previous breaks with the establishment focused on what Keith Joseph termed the ‘common ground’. A common ground approach sets out a diagnosis that most people can understand and steps to resolve this that they support. Comparing the current hotch-potch of proposals with the rise of Thatcherism, Blairism, or the Atlee Government, when the public rejected the prevailing establishment worldview and politicians responded, shows we have a mountain to climb. We need to start trying to do so now, not in a few years’ time.
Post-reshuffle we must press the civil service into the cause of finding this common ground
A reshuffle should therefore be about trying to promote those who will try to create such a common ground approach. And in turn, they will need to press the civil service into the cause of radicalism – almost certainly involving a fight with parts of the civil service itself. May will need to back her team as they grapple with their departments and get to grips with the Whitehall machine (I recently spoke to a Minister who was having to waste inordinate amounts of time on simply moving a terrible junior member of his private office).
The machinery of government needs both to be better at grasping systemic change while also implementing the detail of reform, promoting new ideas and effective implementation, and sacking those who cannot shape up. We cannot slide into bland, ineffectual technocracy when this is the cause of the malaise and electoral revolt in the first place. We are going to have to try to reinvent ourselves in government – a near impossible task. A reshuffle must be the start of this process.