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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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.