Tory group Renewal: capitalism needs "emergency shock treatment"

The Conservative organisation is wise to warn that the party should not position itself as the defender of a market system that is not working for the low-paid.

One of the reasons that the Conservatives' attacks on Ed Miliband as a "socialist" and a "Marxist" have failed to succeed is that they have positioned themselves as the absolutist defenders of a market system that isn't working for the majority. For millions of workers, the link between higher growth and higher wages that existed for decades has been severed. GDP may finally be rising but median wages are still forecast to be below pre-recession levels in 2018 and no higher than they were in 2003. 

In these conditions, it is unsurprising that many are attracted by Miliband's radical solutions. As I've noted before, if the Labour leader is a socialist, so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a statutory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (putting them to the left of Miliband). 

If the Tories are to stand any chance of triumphing in 2015, they will need to offer answers to the failings of the market, rather than merely excuses. One group that understands this is Renewal, which seeks to broaden the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters. Founded last year and led by former Conservative candidate David Skelton (a frequent NS contributor) it is today launching a new piece of work entitled "Renewing Capitalism", which will look at "new ways to create a genuinely competitive economic environment in which the consumer and the low-paid are protected, competition is cherished and anti-competitive, monopolistic behaviour is cracked down on". It is also calling again for the introduction of policies such as a rise in the minimum wage, the building of one million homes and the creation of a new Secretary of State for consumer protection. At the same time, Policy Exchange, Skelton's alma mater, has launched "Popular Capitalism", which will look at ways of creating private sector jobs outside London and dealing with the challenges around low pay and housing shortages. 

Skelton said of Renewal's new project: "The Conservative Party needs to come to terms with the fact that many people, particularly the low paid, don't think that capitalism is working for them. We need to do more to show that capitalism can work for everybody in every part of the country. Being pro market isn't the same as being pro big business. Where there are instances of abuse – in either the public or the private sector – Conservatives should come down hard to protect the consumer."

Robert Halfon, its main parliamentary supporter, who recently argued in favour of a windfall tax on the energy companies on The Staggers, said: "It was a big mistake for the Conservative Party to oppose the minimum wage. We must right that wrong by at least increasing it in line with inflation.  We should not make the same mistake. We must move on to ensure that everyone, in the north and the south, on low wages as well as high, can benefit from the proceeds of growth. If we say that the Conservative Party is on the side of hard working people then we have to really mean it."

Renewal's programme offers a coherent response to what remains the Conservatives' greatest weakness: that they are viewed by most voters as "the party of the rich". But it is less clear to what extent the party leadership is prepared to embrace it. While it seems likely that there will now be a significant rise in the minimum wage next month, after Tory cabinet ministers threw their weight behind the idea, the Conservatives have yet to came close to outlining a plan to build houses on the scale required, preferring to focus on subsidising demand through Help to Buy. In the 12 months to September 2013, annual housing starts totalled just 117,110, while annual housing completions fell by 8% to 107,950, the lowest level of construction since the 1920s. 

More broadly, Renewal faces countervailing pressure from organisations such as the Free Enterprise Group whose vision of an even more deregulated economy (for instance through UK withdrawal from the Social Chapter) is at odds with its call for a more humane capitalism. Just 14 months away from the election, time is short for the Tories to detoxify their brand. The decision to cut the top rate of tax, to privatise large parts of the NHS and to demonise trade unionists have all added to the damage. But if Renewal's agenda becomes the party's, the long work of winning a hearing among voters who have shunned it for decades will begin. 

David Cameron speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.