After Theresa May’s transformation of the Tory party, what’s left for the centre-left?

By Jeevan Jones / @JeevanJones


On 5th October in Birmingham’s ICC, you’d be forgiven for thinking something sounded familiar. It wasn’t Ed Miliband talking about “tackling unfairness and injustice and shifting the balance of Britain decisively in favour of ordinary working class people” or of “building an economy that’s fair, where everyone plays by the same rules”. Nor was it Ed Balls calling for more government investment and infrastructure spending. Talk of “challenging vested interests” and intervening in failing energy markets didn’t come from the former Labour leader either.

It was in fact Theresa May at her first Conservative party conference as prime minister. In an ambitious verbal landgrab, May appeared to adopt a lot of the language and economic policy that appeared in Labour’s 2015 manifesto as part of her pitch to what she called “the new centre ground of British politics”.
It remains to be seen whether May’s rhetoric will be put into practice, particularly as Brexit negotiations loom, and if her break from the past can weather her party’s infatuation with free markets. But if it does, it presents a challenge for how Labour’s centre-left can respond to a prime minister that has seemingly bought into their diagnosis and so brazenly pinched their economic policies.

Far from rolling over Labour’s centre-left should instead highlight where May’s programme falls flat and how it would go further. Here’s how that might look.

A genuine stakeholder economy is built on a radical redistribution of power throughout all parts of the economy. When May spoke about putting consumers and workers on company boards, Labour’s centre-left should push for even greater engagement, with elected rather than appointed directors. And why stop at companies when government agencies could also benefit from both employee and service user representation at their highest levels?

It was gratifying to see a change in fiscal policy as George Osborne’s targets were abandoned in favour of Ed Balls’ sensible distinction between current and capital spending. But while May talked about the need to “invest in the things that matter, the things with a long-term return” the government needs to back that up – and with much more than the £3 billion unveiled at conference. Just as Labour proposed in 2015, a National Investment Bank supported by a network of regional banks could help drive private and public investment into key infrastructure projects where they are needed most.

And a proper industrial strategy is more than simply renaming the business department. As May highlighted, the government needs to take a more hands-on approach – but it will also require radical devolution of both power and resources, giving councils and local enterprise partnerships the ability to improve skills, transport and economic development in their areas. Greater devolution to English counties as well as city regions would help, but at the same time central government has a responsibility to support the country’s most disadvantaged areas.

It was refreshing to hear May talking about “making markets work” particularly “where companies are exploiting the failures of the market in which they operate”. From energy to broadband to housing, May identified a key role for intervention, clearly at odds with her party’s typical free-market fanaticism. But even in those policy areas, Labour’s centre-left should ask what more needs to be done if consumers still don’t get a fair deal – for instance is there a role for microgeneration and community energy to counter the dominance of the ‘big six’ energy companies? If house-building targets aren’t met, what more can be done to not just stimulate supply but also manage demand? Labour’s past policies on land use and rents offer some solutions.

Finally, May’s use of language on tax as a duty and the “price we pay for living in a civilised society” was significant and reflected both a sense of shared endeavour and a growing frustration with a system where it feels like everyone doesn’t play by the same rules. But paying tax is only part of it – Labour’s centre-left should also talk about additional taxes on wealth and income, because to be truly serious about tackling unfairness and injustice then the last generation has to be prepared to pay their fair share to help provide opportunities for the next. And to take it further, reforms that reward contribution could start to engender both a sense of duty but also pride in paying your fair share.

While it doesn’t hurt to be flattered by Theresa May’s imitation, it’s important Labour’s centre-left avoids being flatlined by her transformed Tory party. In adopting our economic policies, she may think she’s found the new centre ground of British politics – and maybe she has – but it will still be up to Labour’s centre-left to be critical and push for bolder, more radical ways of achieving a genuine stakeholder economy every step of the way.

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