DAN KITWOOD/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

May’s conservatism is blue not red: The battle over the new centre-ground is far from over

The Prime Minister's manifesto has taken ideas from Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour, but she can't escape the pull of neo-liberalism.

Is the Prime Minister best described as Red Theresa? Judging by May’s manifesto, she is more like a certain kind of blue. The blue of Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour.

In an age of anxiety and anger, ​May and her co-chief of staff Nick Timothy are trying to renew a more traditional conservatism that can combine greater economic justice with more social solidarity. 

The manifesto unveiled yesterday breaks not only with Thatcher’s settlement by stating that Conservatives "do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism". 

It also rejects Cameron’s version of progressive conservatism by dropping any talk of the Big Society and the emphasis on volunteering. Instead, May draws on Burkean thinking to argue that "true Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do; a respect for the local and national institutions that bind us together".

Many will dismiss all this as nothing but warm words but it is so far the clearest expression of May’s guiding philosophy. 

Both before and after becoming Prime Minister, May has resisted labels such as being "post-liberal" or "red Tory". What is clear though is that she is the first party leader to acknowledge the limits of liberalism. More rights and individual entitlements will not provide a proper balance between personal freedom and social cohesion.

That is why she is calling for a greater recognition of mutual duties: "We know that we all have obligations to one another, because that is what community and nation demand […] society is a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born."

But it is not just Burke that shapes May’s conservatism. Beveridge’s commitment to tackling the five giant evils gets an update too. The manifesto promises to correct a dysfunctional economy, deliver Brexit, heal social divisions, care for the elderly and harness the power of technology. 

In each instance, the response offered by the Conservatives borrows both from the language and from many policy ideas developed by Blue Labour – the Labour group around Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas who argue for a common good politics based around work, family, decency, community and country.

Far from merely copying Ed Miliband’s policy platform, May’s team have embraced Blue Labour’s emphasis on ordinary working families. Part of the problem with Miliband was that he only ever talked about the rich and the poor, which ignored the vast majority of people. The Conservatives are pitching for what they call the mainstream – people with Blue Labour values who choose a fairly traditional family structure, value their settled ways of life and are generally sceptical about the pace of change.

While specific policies undoubtedly matter, the point about the manifesto is how the party sees the country. And the Conservatives are redefining the centre-ground away from the elite consensus of the past four decades towards the British mainstream. That means rejecting both the socialist left of Corbyn and the libertarian right of Farage in favour of the ‘common good’. That includes the ‘just about managing’ who struggle to make ends meet and the precious bonds uniting the peoples of the four nations.

However, May’s communitarian Conservatism looks set to run into contradictions. Ever-more global free trade is likely to hurt the very workers that May claims to defend when she speaks of a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. The focus of the Tories’ industrial strategy on greater specialisation in cutting-edge high-tech sectors offers nothing to more traditional sectors and local supply chains in support of people and communities they live in.

What is missing is a Conservative challenge to the power of centralised finance in the City of London combined with the Blue Labour idea of establishing a network of sectoral and regional banks that can channel capital into the productive activities of small- and medium-sized enterprise.

There is an even deeper problem with May’s mantra of creating a Great Meritocracy, which is narrowly focused on trying to boost social mobility. By definition, higher social mobility involves both winners and losers, and the point about the Brexit vote is that the losers from globalisation want a new settlement that works for everyone. 

State support for upward mobility fails to recognise that most people will never "win", or never succeed very far in pure liberal, free-market terms. Arguably, a true Conservatism requires higher economic success and more social esteem for non-academic qualifications and employment, for example BTECs. 

Britain needs a wide range of high-level technical colleges that provide proper vocational training, as Blue Labour has argued. It also requires new hybrid institutions for engineering, law and finance where young people not only acquire some academic knowledge but also learn a trade and its ethos.

And why not create Royal Colleges for professions that will matter more going forward, especially carers but also cleaners and caterers? Amid all the talk about automation, the Tories are silent on these and other jobs that involve human qualities of compassion, patience, humour and adaptability, which machines will never possess.

Thus May’s vision is steeped in the blue traditions of Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour, but her conservatism is beset by a fundamental contradiction between global free trade and national solidarity. The Tories are the party of capital and the moneyed interest, and they seem committed to a purely buccaneering approach to Europe, which drags the country back in a neo-liberal direction.

The failure to build a strong settlement at home will weaken Britain’s ability to shape a new global economy that benefits those who are experiencing economic and cultural insecurity.

Herein lies Labour’s chance. If the party recovers the Blue Labour values of work, family, community, country and support for the poor, then it can once again become the force of national renewal. 

May has parked the Tory tanks on Labour’s lawn, but the battle over the new centre-ground is far from over.

Adrian Pabst is the co-author (with John Milbank) of “The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future” (Rowman & Littlefield).

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.