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”.
Conservative strategists believe they’re on the brink of an electoral breakthrough in the industrial Midlands and North: that they’re going to be most competitive at the next election in seats where longstanding Labour voters are fed up with Corbyn’s ambivalence on the EU and his metropolitan obsessions.
Three things will enable the Tories to break through in these constituencies: implementing Brexit, thereby reducing immigration; showing the Party can improve healthcare; and offering these areas a positive future through an attractive economic policy.
On the upside, other than the Government’s accommodation on a big Brussels pay-off, the Conservatives have given voters confidence that “leave means leave”. But on healthcare, despite the pledge for more money for the NHS in the Budget, the Party will still be in deficit massively to Labour without further intervention. And on the third, this is what the industrial strategy White Paper was supposed to deliver. So did it?
First things first: the launch spin was excellent. Government White Papers on technical subjects are hard to sell. Lining up big firms to essentially endorse the strategy – with meaningful announcements about jobs and investment – gave the document news value. These endorsements are incredibly difficult to pull off in the first place, and to align them with the announcement means the BEIS and Number Ten comms teams deserve serious credit.
Looking through the document, it’s doubtful there’ll be many opportunities to squeeze more campaigning days out of it before the next election. The Government did announce a £1.7 billion fund to improve transport links within cities outside London – but this is likely to only play out over the long term, with most of the credit going to local mayors rather than the Tories nationally. Furthermore, raising R&D spending, improving technical education, and backing particular sectors for future growth offer only medium-term opportunities for campaigning.
Other announcements like promoting AI or creating a new “Industrial Strategy Council” offer little by way of campaigning opportunities. If anything, promoting AI needs particularly careful handling and could backfire. AI offers huge opportunities for the economy, but what excites one constituency with its promises of technological advances, worries another with its threat of worker replacement.
It’s hard to express disappointment that the Government is looking at long-term challenges. Governments do precious little of that. But with the polls showing that the next election could return a Labour Government, it’s nonetheless concerning there weren’t more announcements that could make a more immediate impact on local economies – or indeed on local news agendas.
So what of the long-term substance? It’s the Government’s role to provide the conditions for economic growth – and the Conservatives’ commitment to greater spending on infrastructure and technical education are to be welcomed. But your overall confidence in this White Paper to deliver ultimately rests on your belief in the Government to intervene to create the conditions for a positive economy. For, as Mark pointed out on this site yesterday evening, this document is very interventionist – with its sector deals and its new institutions.
Gone is the Conservative certainty of reducing taxes to promote businesses’ own investment and growth. Personally speaking, and as someone that now wrestles with the realities of trying to grow a business, that feels like a backward step. It’s hard to see how government intervention can encourage businesses to grow more effectively than allowing them to keep more of their own money would do.
While the Government should be promoting industries that will benefit the country in the future, like AI, it would surely be better to focus on the overall climate that will enable businesses to achieve great things themselves: yes, improving the technical ability of school leavers, and yes improving infrastructure. But also easing access to international talent; ensuring a light regulatory framework on our world-beating higher education system, and introducing tax breaks for those that want to invest in local areas that need it.
There are fewer and fewer genuine free marketeers in the Conservative Party at all levels – from officials at Downing Street to volunteers on the High Street – and this document reflects that.