Many Labour supporters found Theresa May’s keynote speech to the Tory conference disheartening for (at least) two reasons. The speech signalled a worrying lurch towards hard Brexit, but it also contained the ominous rumbling sound of tanks lining up to park themselves on Labour’s lawn. The prime minister went through a list of policy areas traditionally associated with Labour – industrial strategy, worker’s representation in the boardroom, investment in infrastructure, standing up to unacceptable business practices. The previous Conservative administration conducted the occasional raid into our territory, most notably making off with a watered-down version of the living wage, but the threat that May poses is of a different order.
I do not believe this is a moment for panic. If Labour can rise to the challenge of developing credible and popular alternative economic and industrial policy which answers the Tories point for point, then the fact that we will be fighting on our own ground turns a threat into an opportunity. For the task that Mrs May has set herself is not an easy one. There is an ingrained perception among many voters that the Tories are good at making money and good at saving it, but bad at investing it in public services or caring much about people who have not already ‘made it’ in life. Labour is seen as the diametric opposite. These crude caricatures sometimes bear little relationship to reality, but the perception can be stubbornly hard to change. So the prime minister faces quite a challenge to convince anyone that the Tories have suddenly abandoned all their wealthy friends and donors, and are now on the side of ‘ordinary working-class people’. Successfully engineering a wholesale change in a party’s image is something that has only been achieved once in modern times – by Tony Blair when he established Labour rather than the Tories, as the party of economic competence.
Unlike May, Blair had the advantage of an unanswerable mandate for change. This came firstly from a Labour party which had overwhelmingly backed him as leader in every section of the vote, and was then endorsed in the 1997 general election with the largest government majority in the post-war era. But as leader-by-default, May cannot claim the same level of backing from her party, and has no endorsement from the electorate at all. Many Tory activists in Birmingham must have been utterly bewildered as they heard phrases they had denounced as ‘Trotskyite’ when they had fallen from the lips of Ed Miliband 18 months earlier, turned into official Conservative party dogma. Unsurprisingly, the prime minister lacked the courage to antagonise them further by offering concrete proposals in her Birmingham speech and without the back-up of credible policies, her words remain unconvincing – for now.
Meanwhile, tilting the political agenda towards areas where Labour is naturally more trusted carries significant risk for Theresa May. At the last election, Miliband’s central insight about the impact of a rigged market and the need for a more responsible kind of capitalism, failed to make much headway with voters who were more worried about the immediate problem of the budget deficit. But with May now effectively declaring: ‘I agree with Ed’, Labour’s long-standing insistence that a completely laissez-faire approach to globalised capitalism simply does not work for the majority of British people, is both resoundingly endorsed and placed right at the centre of the political stage.
This is not a call for complacency on Labour’s part – it is a call to arms. We cannot hope to defend our traditional territory with meaningless protest slogans. Our response must combine solid policy with a compelling broad-based narrative behind it. In a collection of articles drawing on Miliband’s theme of ‘Responsible Capitalism’ published last year, Progress argued that while Miliband ‘got the essay question right, he got the politics wholly wrong’. We cannot afford for this to happen again.
So Labour’s policies to deal with irresponsible businesses should not come across as an ideologically motivated attempt to stifle enterprise or to deny entrepreneurs the just rewards of their efforts. Instead, they must be presented as the natural conclusions of a debate about the right relationship between business and society. Similarly, we must not allow plans to fund necessary infrastructure projects through government debt, to be painted as another example of Labour’s ‘fiscal incontinence’. John McDonnell rightly described his investment plans in terms of an eminently sensible business decision to borrow to invest. But his policies need to be backed up by some serious voices from the private sector and also by economists who are confident enough in Labour’s ability to develop coherent policy, to work with the leadership for more than a few months before quitting.
Meanwhile, Theresa’s tanks are on the move. Labour needs to be ready.
Christabel Cooper is a candidate in the general members’ section in the Progress strategy board elections. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.