Should the march of the Red Tories ever have been halted?

If only May had offered policies in line with her early rhetoric, people would have had something to vote for, rather than against.

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When summing up the election and what has happened to Theresa May, one of Nietzsche’s dictums returns to me again and again: the error most people make is that they make one brave move and then don’t make another. All the evidence in the Western world is that voters want transformative change – this is what the 2016 vote for Brexit showed. Instead, the Conservatives produced a raft of bleak manifesto policies and ran a repetitively idiotic campaign, exemplified by the slogan “strong and stable”. This makes May a tragic figure and Jeremy Corbyn an intelligent one, and it consigns real, and therefore truly brave, change to the outer rim of possibility.

The first ten pages of the manifesto were an elucidation of a new, post-liberal set of Conservative principles that marked perhaps the most radical and welcome shift in modern Conservatism that we have yet seen. It could hardly have been braver, yet the policies that followed were anything but. If they were big, they were penal and negative; if they were positive, they were small and unlikely to make any difference. They were written as if austerity were a permanent rather than a chosen condition.

So, voting Conservative wouldn’t really improve very much at all. I am convinced that a hero wrote the manifesto’s first pages and that an epigone of “Osborneconomics” decided to write the rest. If only May had been continuously brave and offered policies in line with her early rhetoric, people would have had something to vote for, rather than against.

In a society that is desperate for change, one longing for a return to an economy and a state that works, Labour’s manifesto was the more credible. It was both conventional and transformative, offering solutions to those who voted for and against Brexit. Corbyn eschewed ideology and built a coalition around the problems that people face. He wisely parked Brexit as an issue but managed to suggest to Leavers that Labour was indeed for leaving and to Remainers that he was seeking a soft Brexit. Labour captured a greater share of the educated, the young and the middle class, while retaining much of its working-class support.

By contrast, the Tories, in their pivot to working-class Leavers, increasingly lost their pro-European, middle-class constituency. In addition, May looked less a leader of a new One Nation Tory offer than somebody who would increase the penalties of austerity for her own supporters as well as offering more of the same for everyone else. In a way, austerity was George Osborne’s poisoned chalice to May; it had gone so deep into the Tory soul that it became – for a leader who ostensibly wanted to break from it – the unacknowledged core of her 2017 manifesto.

Reasons for May’s failure abound. Most are conventional – the poor campaign, facile slogans, presidential in focus but without a personality to suit – and not wrong for that. However, reasons for her prior popularity remain unexplored. Before the election, she had a huge poll lead. What was she doing right? And how did she lose it? To my mind, the current electoral reality is captured by one word: insecurity. The economic insecurity experienced by working-class people over the past generation or two is now being felt by the middle class. Brexit only compounds this and it naturally turns middle-class Remainers towards those politicians who might offer a softer landing.

Second, there is social insecurity, a deep anxiety felt by those who rely on the state and its services, which is basically most of us. The NHS is in systemic crisis. Across much of the country, outside London, state education is largely associated with failure and the squandering of opportunity. There is also the staggering lack of state investment that one feels viscerally in places such as the north of England. Finally, there is deep cultural insecurity for which fears about immigration are a poor proxy.

After she became Prime Minister, what Theresa May initially spoke to was her wish to correct this legacy of the New Labour and Cameron/Osborne years. Her early popularity was based on a promise to address with drive and focus, if not all, then at least some of these concerns. Unfortunately, she never did; the manifesto revealed that she never would. Cultural insecurity aside, Corbyn’s Labour spoke to most of this spectrum of concerns.

So where are we now? In some manner, we are back in the old oscillation between a Conservatism that can only govern for the market winners and punishes market losers, and a Labour that only has two answers: more money and the central state. Those of us who have long argued for a new offer that escapes this market/state fluctuation look to have been eclipsed once more by longer-term trends that seem impossible to break.

However, this type of alternative is no alternative at all. Labour’s only answer to insecurity is the hard dictates of the central state, which cannot but fail. Even funding the health service properly will not solve the fundamental problems of systemic mis-design that it faces. Conservatism, by contrast, has to speak at scale and breadth and with deep transformative ambition to the needs of the country as well as avoid the hard polarisations that Brexit will bring. It needs to recognise the scale and nature of the deep, endemic problems that the country faces and that austerity will never solve.

Read more: Ros Wynne-Jones on why the roar of the Glastonbury crowd is not enough for Corbyn

If the Tories are to deny state socialism the keys to Downing Street, they must speak to middle- as well as working-class insecurity. Neither Brexit libertarians nor liberal Conservatism can do this – a Red Toryism brave on policy as well as principle remains the sole answer to Corbyn’s agenda.

Phillip Blond is the director of ResPublica and the author of “Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it”

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania