Wanted from the Prime Minister: Social Capitalism

Boris Johnson did not just win the December election because of Brexit, although that was, of course, a core part of his success. There was another reason; he genuinely connected with working people – those on lower incomes, those doing tough jobs and those just about managing.

I saw this extraordinary affinity for myself when he visited my constituency of Harlow in October last year. At that time, I genuinely began to realise that we would win the general glection, though I never ever imagined the majority would be so high.

That link between the Prime Minister and working people is being sorely tested amid Coronavirus, not only because of recent events but also, as has been highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others, because coronavirus has been a disease of inequality.

Data from the Office for National Statistics found that men in low-skilled jobs are almost four times more likely to die from Coronavirus than professionals, with 21.4 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 5.6 among white-collar male workers. Meanwhile, women working as carers are twice as likely to die than those in professional and technical roles.

For our children, the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest report points to widening inequalities. Their research suggests that 64 per cent of secondary pupils in state schools from the richest households are being offered active help from schools, such as online teaching, compared with 47 per cent from the poorest fifth of families. Over the 34 days (at a minimum) that schools will be closed, students in the best-off families will have done more than seven full school days’ worth of extra learning time. They warn that if schools do not go back until September and current rates of home learning continue, the gap would double to 15 full school days.

Without wishing opprobrium on my head from esteemed ConservativeHome readers, when Emily Maitlis set this out on Newsnight a few weeks ago, she was right to do so. It is not something that can just be swept under the carpet and just wished away.

Of course, anyone can get this disease: the Prime Minister is an example of that. But the harsh truth is that if you are on a lower income, if you live in overcrowded conditions you are  at a greater risk of being afflicted with COVID-19, far greater than the so-called “professional classes”, safely ensconced at home, often with a garden.

It is the single parent families living in small studio/bedsits in permitted development housing who will have suffered enormously from the effects of this virus – even with the help of Universal Credit.  It is the families – of which one parent is self-employed or redundant – that are falling through the inevitable cracks of the Chancellor’s (albeit generous) furlough or Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. The small businesses, facing collapse because all of their customers have gone elsewhere.  The list goes on. Many thousands are likely to be made redundant, many more will be looking for work at a time when businesses will be cautious about spending and recruitment

As we come down from this Pandemic Everest, it is these groups that will need the Government’s support the most and will be looking to the Prime Minister – who they trusted last December – to do something real to make their lives better.

These people are not arch free-marketeers fighting to end an over mighty state. Their asks are quite simple: to cut the cost of living, protect the NHS, build affordable and quality housing, ensure that the streets are safe from crime and anti-social behaviour, to be able to send their children to a state school of their choice (ideally near whey live) and to have an offer of quality apprenticeships and good FE courses for their teenagers, without the overhanging debt  that comes with a university degree. They feel a sense of community and pride in their country.

The very first thing the Prime Minister needs to do, when we eventually get further down that mountain that he so describes, is to reaffirm this Government’s commitment to blue-collar voters. He should offer a number of guarantees on the cost of living, on education and skills and on housing, for a start. Johnson should not be afraid to use the two words “social capitalism” and state that his mission is to ensure genuine equal access to the ladder of opportunity.

Take the cost of living as just one example. If we come out the other side of Coronavirus and start hurting folk with fuel duty rises, self-employed taxes, income tax rises, more taxes on food and drink and the like, Conservatives will be giving a message that, far from being the party that cuts the cost of living, this is a Government that puts it up. So there should be a cost of living guarantee that says no one on lower incomes will see their costs rise from the Government. A triple lock on income tax, essential duties and VAT.

On top of the work that the Government has done since 2010 on raising the tax threshold for the lower paid, the National Living Wage and the fuel duty freeze, Conservatives must find ways and develop policies to ensure that the lower paid do not have to struggle in the way that they do at present.

What is needed after this pandemic is for the Prime Minister to place social capitalism first and foremost – building social capital and economic capital hand in hand.