“You cannot ask men to stand on their own two feet if you give them no ground to stand on.” Those were the words of the former Conservative chancellor Iain Macleod, who is now mostly forgotten. They represent a challenge for today’s Tories as they gather for their conference in Manchester – how to ensure that more people are standing on secure economic ground.
Too many are locked out from prosperity. There are the young people starting their lives with heavy debts; those in their thirties and forties shut out from the housing market and paying extortionate levels of rent for poor housing; the people living in towns that have stagnated since deindustrialisation; and the workers who see their bosses’ incomes rising while their own wages continue to decline (for the longest period since the Great Reform Act of 1832).
Many Tories have misread or misunderstood the outcome of the 2017 general election as well as that of the EU referendum. The election wasn’t “proof” that people want more “conviction politics”, and the referendum wasn’t a vote for deregulation or a smaller state. Both were the result of a growing belief that people have no stake in the economy. The Brexit vote owed much to the feeling that the market only works for a few. It shouldn’t be answered with solutions that make it work for even fewer.
Both results demonstrated that the Conservatives must offer more than doctrinaire Thatcherism, particularly the crude caricature that has developed since 1990 – the idea that the market is always the answer and that all government should do is get out of the way. Recent polls showing the Tories’ trailing Labour by around 50 points among younger voters reflect problems of style and substance, as do repeated polls showing that the Tories are viewed as the “party of the rich”. This requires bold, counter-intuitive thinking, not outmoded dogma.
The Tories’ mission should be to fashion a programme of economic empowerment. Conservative politicians in recent years have flirted with this notion. Theresa May spoke early in her premiership of tackling “burning injustice” and achieved record opinion poll ratings. The downturn in Tory support coincided with her reversion to a more orthodox message in the election campaign. David Cameron also explored something similar with the National Living Wage (currently £7.50 an hour) and talk of being “the workers’ party”. However, such advances were hindered by cuts to in-work benefits and anti-trade union rhetoric.
An economically empowering agenda should cover housing, wages and regeneration, along with a fairer deal for university students. The housing crisis is severe. The proportion of 25-to-34-year-olds who are owner-occupiers has fallen from 54 per cent to 34 per cent in a decade.
Ever more working households are stuck in poor-quality, expensive, private rented accommodation. In the same period, the housing benefit bill has significantly increased, with the state, in effect, subsidising irresponsible landlords. If the housing crisis is to be solved, the government will have to play a substantial role. This should include a new generation of genuinely affordable, low-rent homes, with a fast-track to home ownership.
A reformed Toryism could address the growing disparity between capital and labour and encourage firms to empower their workers with shares and board representation. But that shouldn’t obscure the need for higher wages. The minimum wage should be increased when possible, and companies above a certain size should be expected to report on how they are moving towards paying the voluntary living wage (£8.45 in the UK and £9.75 in London).
Economic disempowerment is greatest in areas still suffering from deindustrialisation, and any programme to address the problem must concentrate on improving life chances in these communities. There were 49 areas with coalfields in England and 48 voted for Brexit. These communities legitimately feel neglected.
The disengagement felt by the young is caused not only by university tuition fees, but also by their diminished prospects of a secure job. A fairer deal for young people would include reducing tuition fees and concentrating the greatest attention on those from poorer backgrounds. Local and national employers should engage more effectively with universities to help improve employment outcomes. Young people pursuing vocational skills must be given better financial support, too.
The Conservatives have a defining choice. They can ignore the electorate’s warnings, or they can embark on a bold, empowering project of economic reform. And the Tories have an advantage: oppositions have rhetoric but a government can act. They have the power to provide millions of new affordable homes, better wages, more secure jobs and stronger communities.
David Skelton is the founder of Renewal, a campaign group created to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working-class and ethnic minority voters