Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
Will the former Conservative and Labour Members of the Independent Group find it easy to come to a consistent policy platform? And will that platform be ‘centre left’ or ‘centre centre’? My answers, in turn, are “yes”, and “there is no longer a meaningful distinction in Westminster between these two”.
To explain why, it’s important to look at the wider policy background. There’s not been much of policy discussion within the Conservative Party recently. It’s wholly unclear what its domestic agenda would be at the next general election. Brexit dominates.
That will have to change. Anyone who campaigned in the 2017 general election discovered – to their cost – that many voters cared less about Brexit than the Conservative Party did. Doorstep conversations were often focused on the NHS and school funding – where the Conservatives were repeatedly crushed.
People in Westminster are often process, politics, and personality geeks – but the public care more about issues. Miserably, Brexit has whittled the number of domestic policy discussions to almost zero. The environment has become a major policy focus because at least, under Michael Gove, the Conservatives have something – anything – to say (even if that anything now appears to include a strong support for protectionism and tariffs).
Vote Leave, of course, recognised all this. Their arguments focused on the concrete: NHS funding, immigration control. Ideas that would have a direct impact on voters.
So if the Independent Group are to survive – and grow – they will need to make a differentiated case to the electorate on issues that they care about. One of their challenges, in my view, is that the space open for them is not as wide as many think.
While Theresa May talks like a traditional Conservative, domestically her government is increasingly indivisible from one that would be run by a Soft Left (not even necessarily Blairite) Prime Minister. She may have talked about citizens of nowhere, and Gavin Williamson may engage in occasional sabre-rattling, but all the substance points in the opposite direction.
The Conservative Government has become increasingly paternalist (with bans created or looming on public health issues such as sugar; on environmental issues like plastic and ivory; and on activities like social media). Ministers no longer focus on market-based reforms of public services in health or education (many of the interventions made by, for example, Justine Greening on education were completely indistinguishable from those that Gordon Brown and Ed Balls might have made back in their day). The Tories’ commitment to fiscal conservatism remains greater than Labour, but the dividing line is increasingly narrow.
Policies that were once derided when floated by Ed Miliband – such as the energy price cap – are now pushed by the Conservatives. The toughest area of government reductions that can be felt by voters – welfare – is being softened by Amber Rudd and the toughest area of government restriction – immigration – is being softened by Sajid Javid. It is only because Jeremy Corbyn is so extreme (and because all we ever discuss is Brexit) that there remains much distance between the Government and the Opposition. Between TIG and the government? It’s not very obvious.
Let’s take an article written by Chuka Umunna in 2011 in which he makes an appeal for “One Nation Labour” and which includes the two following passages:
“there is no disagreement on the need to address the deficit – despite coalition claims to the contrary. Where the disputed terrain lies is around the speed and depth of reduction and what that means for growth and jobs. “
“What I call “bad capitalism” – unrestrained capital, highly speculative, obsessed with the short term, dismissive of the ties that bind – acts as a barrier to this notion of the good society; whereas “good capitalism” – one that is entrepreneurial and productive with good democratic corporate governance – can smooth the path to a better tomorrow.”
Both of these reflect current government policy.
Now let’s take the Conservative defectors. They themselves sit on the soft left, One Nation wing of the Conservative Party. All three of the Conservative leavers are critical of grammar schools, and are likely to support a liberal immigration policy. Allen has been a long standing critic of the rollout of welfare reforms. Sarah Wollaston has argued for a long time for much more NHS funding. Soubry is the one who may be most uncomfortable in a centre-left party – she is clearly a supporter of almost everything the Coalition government did, including “austerity”, and she has been an active Conservative for a very long time.
Fundamentally, I don’t think that merging with former Labour members will be a challenge. They will all agree that more money should be spent by the state (including redistribution). They will share a widescale support for state interventionism. There will be mutual antagonism towards some traditional ‘Tory’ policies.
This isn’t a terrible platform for public support (other than on immigration). It’s certainly not very inspiring if, like me, you still feel public services could do with quite a lot of improvement. But its biggest problem is that it won’t be very different from the Conservatives’.
I began this article saying that policy matters. It does – to peoples’ lives and therefore what voters want to know about. The irony seems to me that, actually, the TIG won’t have much new and different to say from the current government (though they might say it in a better way with different sounding people). It is the traditional right, now criticised for driving out Conservatives over Brexit, that has no place in the current domestic policy debate.