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James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. 

It’s easy to make a case for regulatory change, since there’s always a problem demanding “something must be done”. In this climate, where the simplicity of creating temporary lobby groups online meets insatiable media demands for human interest stories, it’s hard for those of us sceptical about state power to argue the status quo is better than the alternative. Political debate is becoming ever more emotional. So how should free marketeers, and indeed businesses on the wrong end of a regulatory threat, respond effectively?

This is a particularly relevant question now. There have been recent interventions in the media in which senior figures from the Conservative Party and what you might call the wider Conservative family have made the case for major state interference in the economy and society for the public good.

The highest profile intervention has come from Jeremy Hunt, who suggested the Government is considering intervening to impose age restrictions on social media platforms and to reduce screen time. In a separate intervention, Camilla Cavendish, the former head of Number Ten’s Policy Unit, originally recruited as a Conservative peer (but now unaffiliated), has written that, “In trying to ward off obesity, we are fighting our addiction to sugar. And we are up against an industry that risks rapidly becoming the 21st-Century equivalent of Big Tobacco”. She called for health warnings to be put on the packaging of food with a high sugar content.

As I’ve written before, in some ways it’s extraordinary the Party should be having these conversations at all. Twenty years ago, when I first started working in politics, it was instinctively pro-business and pro-market and the libertarian wing of the party was small but influential. These days, it’s extremely common to hear Conservatives criticise large businesses and their working practices, to pile regulatory demands on businesses over social issues, and to raise explicitly the prospect of narrowly-drawn taxes and regulations designed to reduce their profits in the name of social action. The pro-business and free market wings of the Party are in retreat ,and there seem to be practically no libertarians at all. There is therefore little corresponding pressure against the likes of Hunt and Cavendish. The only outside pressure comes from think tanks, who, as this site’s editor suggested last week, are being reinvigorated with new money, people and ideas.

So what can those Conservatives sceptical of the power of the state do? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, they should engage forcefully on the evidence, and come up with practical alternatives. To date, many small-state Conservatives have been so dismissive about the principle of state engagement that they’ve left the battlefield to those that believe in state intervention to frame the terms of the debate, to establish apparently irrefutable evidence, and to come up with policy ideas for public trial. Small-state Conservatives have therefore occasionally found themselves fighting practical ideas with philosophical arguments. They need to get intensely practical – by obsessing about data and by coming up with their own policy ideas that can be trialled, as I’ve suggested before. Related to this, small-state Conservatives need to find a regional voice: they tend to talk at the national level rather than develop an authentic small-state vision for the regions. They need to explain why Yorkshire people would be better off without additional taxes and regulation, rather than talking at the abstract, national level.

Second, small-state Conservatives must rediscover the interests of the consumer. The businesses that politicians demand be regulated are often those that ordinary people use most often and rely on. Politicians often talk as if they’re saving the public from hostile and unpopular businesses, when the reality is the opposite. The truth is that people have access to a much greater choice of high quality, affordable goods than ever before – and they don’t want to see that choice curtailed. This point is obvious, but it’s rare to hear Conservatives unambiguously defend and promote the benefits of free markets on people’s everyday lives.

Third, related to this, small-state Conservatives should be better at engaging working class voters on social issues. Working class voters are often the least enthusiastic about social intervention. This is surely for two reasons: because higher taxes really hurt those that scrape to get by each week; and because they’re the most sceptical about the power of politicians to change anything for the better. Traditional working class voters might not seem likely allies to some free-marketeers, but on social issues many of their interests and cultural views align strongly.

(Disclosure notice: My agency, Public First, has worked and currently works for a variety of firms in the tech and food and drink sectors).

79 comments for: James Frayne: To contest big state ideas, small state conservatives need to get to grips with the detail

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