Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Gloom and Optimism
I arrived at Birmingham a little gloomy (as highlighted in my last ConservativeHome column). Would Conservatives have the solutions needed to deal with the anxieties felt by the British people, as captured by Labour the week before? Of course, underlying Jeremy Corbyn’s successful rhetoric are a number of deep pits containing the poison of extremism, anti-semitism and piles of debt, with all their unfunded spending commitments.
Whilst Tories need to be honest about deep problems facing our country, the biggest problem with Corbyn is that he never seems to make hard choices. To the Corbynistas, everything is possible, and (taxpayers or borrowed) funds can always be found.
By the end of the conference, I was unexpectedly optimistic. The Prime Minister returned to her roots – becoming again the Theresa May we saw on the steps of Downing Street in 2016 – by pledging to deal with burning injustices. She announced affordable housing, and greater funds for the NHS, particularly for cancer treatment. The fuel duty freeze was another great announcement that will help motorists and businesses hugely with the cost of living.
Hopefully, this was a speech that signposts more to come. Will we see our Prime Minister wade through the Brexit fog with a serious domestic agenda that builds on what she said in Birmingham?
On another note, it was good to see the next generation of Conservatives shine at conference: Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and Damian Hinds, to name but a few.
Speaking of Workers Conservatism, one of my personal conference highlights eachyear is attending dinner with Tory Workers. Under the guidance of Spencer Pitfield, Nick Denys and Richard Short, they campaign hard for social justice and Workers’ Conservatism.
I was pleased to see the workers’ agenda being taken seriously at conference, with Tory Workers on the fringe and media. It is going from strength to strength, pushing a blue collar agenda that is getting a warmer and warmer reception across the Party.
If you want to join, please sign up at www.toryworkers.co.uk.
In the midst of the conference, I met with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to talk about their idea of a Brexit bonus for low income working families. The Prime Minister rightly highlighted in her speech that there are families who are struggling to make ends meet despite working hard. Increases to the income tax personal allowance have already taken the very lowest paid out of paying income tax all together.
If we are to continue helping the lowest paid, perhaps now we should be reforming Universal Credit by increasing the work allowance (the work allowance is the amount you can earn before help from UC starts to be reduced – so it’s a bit like a personal tax allowance).
Increasing the work allowances to their original level for families with children would encourage people into work and provide a much needed budget boost for 9.6 million parents and children, once Universal Credit is rolled out. Announcing this at the Budget would see the measure – that costs £2 billion – come in just one week after Brexit. That would be a Brexit dividend indeed.
Ted Conservatism is not enough….
I went to the Boris Johnson speech in Birmingham. He sometimes reminds me of Mr Ted Clubberlang from Ted the Movie [see above] – charismatic, engaging, big-hearted, humorous (sometimes shocking), and challenging the old order in unexpected ways. Without doubt, he makes a serious a case against Chequers. But it was not enough.
Although some of the old Tory tunes were there – a property owning democracy and tax cuts et al. I wanted better meat on the bones and, despite the movie stardust, I suspect many Conservatives did too. I thought that Boris should have used the opportunity to set out a serious vision in terms of social justice, education, skills, and real solutions to help broken communities. This would have been a conservatism for the twenty-first century. Perhaps that will come in the future.
Although Ted the Movie was a blockbuster in terms of success, it is not enough to take conservatism to the next stage. We need more.
…And neither is Deliveroo Conservatism
I have recently heard of this new and extraordinary phrase of the left – ‘luxury communism’. But, we should not fall down the trap of ‘luxury capitalism’ either.
Focusing on opening up Deliveroo/Uber free markets to increase choice is irrelevant to millions of people who are struggling to pay their bus or train fare, let alone using Uber. We must also not forget about these businesses’ work practices in terms of their employees.
Yes to free and fairer markets, but only in a way that really helps those who are just about managing, not those who are managing quite well enough already.