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Theresa May's Conservative manifesto buries dogmatic Thatcherism

The Prime Minister is more sceptical of the market and less hostile towards the state.

"Forward, together". The title of the Conservatives' election manifesto invites comparison with Margaret Thatcher. It was before these words that the Tories' great landslider spoke at her party's 1980 conference. But it is here that the similarities largely end. For Theresa May is the first Conservative leader to truly grapple with Thatcher's legacy.

The economic forces that the former prime minister unleashed – through privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts – had ambiguous and unintended consequences. While dealing a hammer blow from which the socialist left and the trade unions never recovered, they also undermined the ordered society that she revered. The speculative frenzies of the market, the decoupling of contribution and reward and the surge in private debt contradicted her values of responsibility, fidelity and thrift. Thatcher's ideological inheritors, many of them more doctrinaire than the Iron Lady herself, adopted a dogmatic faith in capitalism at odds with traditional Tory pragmatism.

May's mission is to rehabilitate this older strain of Conservative thinking. "We do not believe in untrammelled free markets," declares a section entitled "Our Principles". "We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous."

May's manifesto, authored by her fiercely loyal co-chief of staff Nick Timothy (along with Tory ministers George Freeman and Ben Gummer), proclaims a belief "not just in society" but "in the good that government can do". There are echoes of Beveridge ("five great challenges"), of Burke ("society is a contract between the generations") and of Blue Labour (whose founder Maurice Glasman recently met Timothy).

The ensuing policies do not seek to reverse Thatcherism (as Labour's manifesto does) but to correct it. The manifesto promises a "tarriff cap" on energy bills (which have continually risen under privatisation), "worker representation on company boards" (strengthening labour against capital), "a new generation of council housing" (neglected ever since Thatcher's Right to Buy) and a "modern industrial strategy" (legitimising the state as an economic actor).

Even in the case of Brexit, May is wrangling with another Thatcherite bequest. Despite her latter europhobia, it was the former prime minister who took the UK into the European single market, extending the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. As the EU expanded, the liberal imperative of growth clashed with the conservative imperative of order. Net migration from Europe now stands at 168,000, a level regarded by May as unsustainable. To this end, the manifesto recommits the UK to single market withdrawal (in order to limit free movement) and renews the aim of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.

Every prime minister since Thatcher has dwelt in her ideological shadow. The Brexit vote, one of the ruptures to which the UK is given roughly every 35 years (1906, 1945, 1979, 2016), constitutes a natural punctuation mark. Thatcher’s unintentionally liberal settlement could be supplanted by May’s harder-edged conservatism. Far more than David Cameron, who sought the middle way of “the big society”, she heralds the role of the state in promoting national greatness, maintaining social order and widening equality of opportunity.

Governments are frequently better judged by their actions than by their words. If, as the polls suggest, May's return to Downing Street is inevitable, the ensuing years will be defined by one task: Brexit. But the intention of her manifesto could not be clearer: to bury dogmatic Thatcherism.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.