The general thrust of the left’s reaction to the Tories since the hurried departure of David Cameron has been to focus upon the gap between Theresa May’s rhetorical flourishes concerning the problems faced by working class people and the brutal reality of her government’s actions. The suggestion has been that despite a dramatic change of management at Number 10 the Tories are still engaged in ‘business as usual’. Consequently, our fight must continue to be against cuts, against austerity, against the vicious anti-working class traditions of the ‘Nasty Party’, now led, surprisingly, by the country’s second woman prime minister.
The traditionalist approach of many on the left was revealed most dramatically in Parliamentary exchanges at the end of October about the battle between striking miners and the police at Orgreave thirty-two years ago. The refusal of the new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to support a public inquiry into policing and miscarriages of justice during the Miners Strike provided a wonderful opportunity for Labour MPs to reveal the passionate extent of their hatred of the Tories and everything they stand for. All the old enmities were on display as one socialist tribune after another was able to reveal their abiding commitment to justice for all in the Manichaean struggle between good and evil. Like leopards, the Tories cannot change their spots; they have always been against the working class and always will be.
There is an element of truth in this response, but it is a blunt answer to a complicated reality. It distracts from engagement with shifts in the Government’s economic policies necessitated by Brexit, and by the incipient constitutional and social crisis provoked by the vote to leave the European Union. Above all, it does nothing to address the painful truth that millions of working class people have always voted Tory, or why millions continue to do so.
It is certainly true that cuts to local council budgets, straightened circumstances in spending on social care, on the NHS, and welfare, continue to wreak havoc in the lives of millions of working class people. It is equally certain that the brutality and squalor of life at the bottom of the heap, with its occasional expressions of individual and communal solidarity, depicted by Ken Loach in I, Daniel Blake, speak to a particular truth. But, it is not the whole story. While around a third of the population are materially embattled most of these millions are not on welfare, do not believe that the determination of need should always trump the contributions made by hardworking folk, and are not persuaded that immigration has no impact upon low wages, the availability of good schools, doctors’ appointments, or affordable housing.
Since becoming Prime Minister Theresa May has been speaking to this wider public, to those millions who voted to leave the European Union, to those who want the government to crack down on tax evasion, to reduce immigration, and to play a more active role in shaping economic development. During her speech to the Tory Party Conference in Birmingham this year she used the phrase “working class” no less than seven times. This was essentially an extended reprise of her comments made in Downing Street on taking office. It is more than a sound bite, more than a rhetorical device; it is in fact a serious response to the simmering social resentment revealed in the referendum result.
It is exceedingly rare for a Tory minister to use the word “class” let alone the phrase “working class”. It has long been their view that such concepts are the preserve of the ‘hard left’ and consequently, can make no contribution to understanding the warp and weft of social conditions in Britain. However, with Brexit and Theresa May’s emergence as Prime Minister something clearly has changed. The Tory leadership appears to understand that things cannot go on as before, that the trajectory of government policy must be changed if stable social arrangements are to be maintained, and the active consent of the majority of the population is to be secured for free trade and private enterprise. This is why she said of the Brexit vote that:
“[. . .] the roots of the revolution run deep. Because it wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary working class families. [Applause]
“[. . .] So change has got to come. Because if we don’t respond – if we don’t take this opportunity to deliver the change people want – resentments will grow. Divisions will become entrenched. And that would be a disaster for Britain.”
The fears underlying this radical shift in tone have also led to explicit acknowledgement by the Tories that discrimination against black youth and the denial of decent education and training to poor white communities cannot be allowed to stand. They have not forgotten the shocking riots of 2011, and for those who have, the Brexit vote has functioned as a sharp reminder that social resentment can take many forms, and very rapidly get out of hand.
“This is why Philip Hammond [the Chancellor] and Greg Clark [Minister for business, energy, and industrial strategy] are working on a new industrial strategy to address those long-term structural challenges and get Britain firing on all cylinders again. It is not about picking winners, propping up failing industries, or bringing old companies back from the dead. It’s about identifying the industries that are of strategic value to our economy and supporting and promoting them through policies on trade, tax, infrastructure, skills, training, and research and development.”
Mrs May continued:
“[. . .] we will identify the sectors of the economy – financial services, yes, but life sciences, tech, aerospace, car manufacturing, the creative industries and many others – that are of strategic importance to our economy, and do everything we can to encourage, develop and support them.”
So Theresa May’s government is in favour of more state intervention not simply to correct market failure, but to use state power to promote the development of companies and industries of key significance to improving productivity, raising wages, and providing more and better employment.
This is, in all essentials, the same strategy as that advocated by Mariana Mazzucato in her 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Pubic vs Private Sector Myths. It is the same strategy as that is being planned by Labour’s John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn – the state must intervene to provide desperately needed infrastructure improvements, and actively facilitate the development of new materials, technologies, products, and services. The state must engage in more than the correction of market failure, it must on the contrary use its dynamic capacity and enormous resources to stimulate the economy through helping to manage the transition of good ideas, great experiments, and raw prototypes, from the drawing board to successful enterprises capable of making profits and being successful in the marketplace.
There is, of course, nothing new or socialistic about any of this. From Otto von Bismarck to the Meiji Oligarchy, on to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from Clement Atlee to Harold McMillan and on to Harold Wilson, capitalist politicians and governments in a wide variety of circumstances have understood the importance of deploying state power in order to stimulate innovation and economic development. At times this is merely a direct response to economic and social crisis at others it is resorted to in order to improve the chances of domestic producers and industries against foreign competition.
In July this year the Financial Times supported what it called a “decisive shift in the economic philosophy of the Conservative government towards a more egalitarian and interventionist approach” by advocating more borrowing:
“At current rates, borrowing to invest in high-quality projects is not just an opportunity but an obligation.”
The FT took this view because of its belief that the British economy is in dire straights. Output per worker is more or less the same as it was seven years ago. Although we have low unemployment, many jobs are of very poor quality and there are big differences in the depth and range of economic activity, region by region, city by city.
For Theresa May both pressures – impending social crisis and enhanced foreign competition – are at work. However, unlike Labour’s Front Bench her plans have to be rather more circumspect and relatively modest precisely because she is in power and has to continue to deal directly with the current account deficit, with the difficulties presented by fiscal policy, with securing adequate levels of foreign investment, and with the instability provoked by rapid changes in exchange rates.
Theresa May’s government is not pursuing ‘business as usual’. On the contrary it is dealing with an incipient constitutional crisis regarding the status of the referendum result vis-à-vis Parliamentary scrutiny in both the Commons and the Lords. Clearly, she is determined to trigger Article 50 by the end of March regardless of the opposition being mounted by Remainers in the courts or at Westminister. It is not clear yet whether this might have to involve a general election early in the New Year or whether the Prime Minister can weather the Parliamentary storm without going to the country. However, regardless of what happens she will be able, with some credibility, to argue that she is responding to the popular will.
By contrast Jeremy Corbyn’s rather limp defence of Parliamentary scrutiny is not likely to play well with the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union, because when all is said and done the behavior of judges and MPs in delaying the Brexit process will be seen as little more than an attempt to frustrate the will of the people clearly expressed on June 23rd.
So it is difficult to see what is distinctive in the position of the left, of Momentum, and the Labour Front Bench, with regard to fundamental economic policy or the political struggle around the implementation of our departure from the European Union. In essence the Shadow Chancellor is advocating nothing more than active state intervention to stimulate improvements in productivity, growth in manufacturing industry, and in research and development – the policy actually being pursued by Tory ministers, Philip Hammond and Greg Clark. Similarly, the Labour Party appears to be marching in lock step with Nick Clegg and Nicola Sturgeon in attempting to find ways of remaining in the European Union’s single market. Neither in economic policy nor in responding to Brexit does the Labour Party have a distinctive or coherent policy – it is merely trailing behind other radically contradictory forces.
Meanwhile, the poverty of Labour Party thinking and the paucity of its policies appear to be going unnoticed and unremarked in most left wing circles. Momentum, rather than attempting to chart a new course, is preoccupied with organizational matters, and with attempting to mobilize the Labour Party’s million or so members, supporters, and stalwart voters, around venerable positions and old slogans, yet remains incapable of stirring the interest of the population at large.