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Westlake Legal Group > Jeremy Corbyn MP

James Frayne: What impact will the Independent Group have on the Conservative Party?

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

What impact will the Independent Group’s launch have on the Conservative Party? Not unreasonably, analyists and commentators are only just beginning to get round to the question. But Conservative strategists will already be thinking about potential effects. Since it’s extremely difficult to test voter attitudes towards a hypothetical scenario such as a formal new party launch, in turn it’s extremely difficult now to predict the impact. But testing voter attitudes benefits from having a set of political hypotheses to test in the first place. So what should those hypotheses be?

Let’s consider the short-term and then the long-term. Thinking about the next few months first, we should assume there’s likely to be a hit to Jeremy Corbyn’s poll ratings and Labour’s performance in top-line national voting intention ratings. The early reporting around the group has been framed negatively: that Luciana Berger and Labour colleagues are leaving the Party because of the leadership’s inability and unwillingness to deal with racism within its ranks – and because the leadership has been unwilling to fight back on Brexit. The positive vision that Berger and others have has naturally been drowned out in the immediate aftermath of their announcement.

As I’ve written on these pages before, Corbyn’s personal ratings have been poor for a long time. Swing voters think he is incompetent and lacking in intelligence and leadership qualities. However, to date, he hasn’t been seen as a “bad” person; furthermore, voters have generally drawn a distinction between the Labour leadership (Corbyn and John McDonnell) and the wider Labour Party. Labour’s fundamental brand – of sticking up for the poor – remains strong.

It is possible that Berger and others’ presentation of the Party leadership and the wider Party as immoral will make those cultural attacks that the Conservatives have been making in recent years stick. By that, I mean the Conservatives’ allegations that Corbyn is dangerous rather than stupid. This shift in the public mood from thinking Corbyn is incompetent to unpleasant could drag his ratings down further and for longer; it’s too early to say.

It’s possible that some Conservative MPs will be tempted away if no deal looks possible. But on balance it seems more likely that the Government would do pretty much anything to avoid this; it’s therefore currently hard to imagine a mass exodus of Conservative Remainers. The Independent Group is therefore probably a Labour-ish Party for the foreseeable future. (The danger for the Conservatives looks to be primarily on the Right, but that’s for another day).

Again these are all hypotheses for testing, but, with that in mind, the launch of the new group looks therefore likely to be a major short-term positive for the Conservatives. Not only are Corbyn and Labour’s ratings likely to go down but, in practice, the initiative makes voters’ defections from the Conservative Party at least somewhat less likely. It surely also makes it less likely that Conservative Remainers – who are by their nature self-consciously internationalist – will defect to a Labour Party that has been so badly tainted with the brush of racism.

And, again, certainly in the short-term, these voters will not be able to turn to a new Party that has no meaningful infrastructure. Finally, it is worth pointing out the obvious: that these MPs will split the left-leaning vote in any elections that come up soon. But all this is about the short-term; things could change quickly.

The longer-term is obviously more difficult to predict. But, again, let’s think through a hypothesis. Let us assume four things: firstly, that there’s some sort of deal with the EU; secondly, that the Group becomes a Party and develops a positive, centrist vision somewhere between the governing philosophies of Gordon Brown and the 2005-2010 version of David Cameron; thirdly, that the new Party develops, Macron-style, a rudimentary campaigning vehicle that can see it compete nationally; and, fourthly, that at least a few Conservative MPs leave the Party to join it. All of these things seem reasonable to assume, even if we acknowledge that launching a new party formally is logistically very difficult.

The big question is: would such a party take votes away from the Conservatives? In any vaguely similar space to the one they’re staking out, the Independent Party would be attractive, theoretically, to around a third of voters: these are the International Free Traders (around 10 per cent of the electorate) and the Social Democrats (around 25 per cent) that I wrote about here recently.

Because of this, and because of their launch politicians, it would make more sense for such a party to veer somewhat left rather than somewhat right; there look to be more votes from it here. That means ramping up issues like public service reform, poverty, welfare and dealing with capitalist excess. (While they’ll obsess about Europe in the short-term, they can’t build a party on that stance – given that things might all be over by the middle of the year; they’ll need a more durable focus.)

With such a platform, they will find it easy enough to attract MPs like Allen, who aren’t policy-oriented and who travel light ideologically, but would presumably struggle to attract more mainstream Conservatives. And this left-leaning stance would make it more difficult to attract the business-minded Remain voters of the South of England to back this party. Wall Street Journal Conservatives – to use an Americanism – would think twice about a left-leaning party.

But while their campaigning platform will surely lean left, that doesn’t mean that the Independent Party would only eat into Labour’s vote. After all, many of those that we might call Social Democrats voted for David Cameron in 2010 and 2015 (much less so for Theresa May in 2017). In fact, we should assume that an Independent Party, if it commits itself to a capitalist economy of sorts (with a commitment to ethical business etc) looks highly attractive to those younger, urban, professional voters that shifted from Blair to Cameron as the Labour Party shifted to the hard-left under Ed Miliband. This narrows the Conservatives’ pathway to a majority. But it’s hard not to conclude that an Independent Party’s campaigning won’t disproportionately affect electoral life for the Labour Party.

There is a giant caveat to this point – one that won’t surprise occasional readers of this column. This is that the Conservatives are somewhat more insulated from the Independent Party if they continue to embrace a conservatism that appeals primarily to working class and lower middle class voters. In such a scenario, the Conservatives continue to hollow out Labour’s working class base while solidifying its lead amongst lower middle class swing voters. As this is happening, the Independent Party starts to attract middle class voters that have recently shifted from the Conservatives to Labour. If the Conservatives junk this strategy, they risk losing their attraction to provincial working class and lower middle class voters and end up in a war they might not be able to win for these Social Democrats.

Two final points on the Independent Group. Firstly, the name is great; it plays to the public’s desire for change and to the idea that people should put country ahead of party. Secondly, they can’t, however,  credibly claim to be changing politics given they’re fronted by people that look and sound like they’ve spent their entire existence focusing on Westminster politics. Macron smashed his way into power in France by being different; at this point in time the Independent Group looks simply like a nicer version of the people you usually get offered during elections.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Yes, our system favours the established parties. But it is not invulnerable to change. This could be the start of a breakthrough.

When you leave a political party to which you have remained faithful for the whole of your adult life, and set out to form a new grouping, you have no idea what is going to happen.

Many observers of the departure of seven MPs from the Labour Party say that because the Social Democratic Party, founded in March 1981, failed to win the 1983 general election, the new grouping must be doomed to failure.

And it is certainly true that under our electoral system, new parties find it very difficult to establish themselves. The last to do so at Westminster is Labour, its rise assisted by the split from 1916 in the Liberals.

But that is not quite the end of the argument. In recent years, UKIP has failed to establish itself as a party of government, but it did force the Conservatives to promise a referendum on EU membership. The No vote in that referendum has destabilised both main parties, and may well have created the conditions for a major realignment.

And whether or not such a realignment takes place, the SDP deserves a subtler verdict than outright failure. Labour survived because it adopted many of the SDP’s policies. The 1983 Labour manifesto was from the point of view of the SDP intolerable, but the 1997 manifesto on which Tony Blair led Labour (rebranded as “New Labour”) back into power was in many respects a tribute to the SDP.

The success of Jeremy Corbyn and his friends can in turn be seen as a kind of belated revenge by the Labour Left on Blair. After decades of being marginalised, the Left has seized control of the party.

Its domination has led to the present rebellion. The seven MPs who lead it – Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith and Gavin Shuker – are evidently not such heavyweight figures as the Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – who founded the SDP.

But a rebellion of this kind can benefit from being underestimated. The unremarkable nature of the seven MPs may lead Corbyn and his friends to tell each other that no change of course is needed.

And a movement of this kind does not only depend on its leaders. One might even say that the SDP was hindered by having too many leaders.

What matters even more is the volume and enthusiasm of the followers. The creation of the SDP revealed the existence of a large number of people who were totally fed up with the existing parties, but were prepared to throw themselves body and soul into a new movement.

When Rodgers was wondering in the summer of 1980 whether to break with Labour, he records in his memoir, Fourth Among Equals, that

“David Marquand…urged me to make the break even if only three or four MPs were to follow. By staying, I might, he said, be able to keep the Labour Party from total self-destruction but I would not save it. The most I could achieve was ‘a ten-year (or 20-year) labour of Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the boulder up the hill only to see it roll down again’. It was a convincing image given the legitimate left’s continued tolerance of the wreckers, and the lack of stomach for the fight of Hattersley and others like him.”

In January 1981, when Rodgers, along with Jenkins, Williams and Owen, signed the Limehouse Declaration, in which they declared their intention to “rally all those who are committed to the values, principles and policies of social democracy”, and added that “the realignment of British politics must now be faced”, they could not tell what would happen:

“We knew that eight or nine other MPs would immediately join us and believed that we would soon get 100 names from amongst the great and the good to endorse our Council for Social Democracy. But otherwise we were in the dark about the response we would provoke, expecting to build steadily over a period of months to the launch of a new party. But the publicity given to the Limehouse Declaration brought a snowstorm of letters, which became an avalanche when the names of the first signatories to our Declaration for Social Democracy appeared in The Guardian on 5th February. I had letters from old school friends, former civil servants and, more predictably, men and women who had supported the Campaign for Democratic Socialism 20 years before. Instead of having to recruit, like Garibaldi, a thousand political irregulars with whom to start our bold campaign, we found that we had placed ourselves in the leadership of an army already formed and waiting…we decided to bring forward the launch to 26th March.”

Such things are inherently unpredictable. So are the changes and chances which may be offered in by-elections. When the Warrington by-election came up, Jenkins stood for the SDP, and astonished almost everyone by finishing in a strong second place, with 42 per cent of the vote.

Had Williams been the SDP candidate in Warrington, she might well have won, and become the new party’s leader, with a wider appeal than Jenkins. She was instead returned to Parliament at the Crosby by-election in November 1981, with Jenkins following at Glasgow Hillhead in March 1982.

Those were famous victories, which few would have predicted when the Limehouse Declaration was signed. Disappointment followed when at the general election of 1983, the SDP gained 25.4 per cent of the vote, but only 23 seats, while Labour, with 27.6 per cent, had 209 seats.

But although the obvious lesson of this is that the first-past-the-post electoral system favours the established parties, that law should not be regarded as immutable.

There comes a tipping point, not quite attained by the SDP in 1983, at which an insurgent party finds that first-past-the-post works in its favour. In the 2015 general election in Scotland, the SNP won 56 seats, compared to six in 2010, while Labour won a single seat, compared to 41 in 2010.

Our politics can be astonishingly volatile. If Corbyn and his advisers treat what happened yesterday as insignificant, it is all the more likely to turn out to be the start of something big.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

‘The Independent Group’ is stage one of a plan for a new party – but will it work?

After all the speculation, it’s finally happened – seven Labour MPs have quit the Labour Party and are setting up on their own, as “The Independent Group”. Or TIG for short, presumably. (If they don’t borrow “the wonderful thing about TIGgers, is TIGgers are wonderful things…” from Winnie the Pooh then they’ll be missing a trick.)

A few thoughts on the news:

  • Why now? If the question needs to be asked, you have an issue. Remember when Theresa May launched the snap election on the grounds that some people were out to stop Brexit – it was true, but there was no clear reason why that had suddenly become so pressing it required drastic action when it didn’t earlier. Each of the seven MPs has their own answer, some more persuasive than others. Luciana Berger has strong, recent cause to believe that a Labour Party riven with anti-semitism is now beyond rescuing. But many of the assorted other reasons – that Corbyn would be a bad Prime Minister, that he intends to accept Brexit, or that many of his followers act like a bullying mob – are hardly new. Expect Labour, fairly or otherwise, to exploit this gap by suggesting other reasons, particularly the possibility of imminent deselections.
  • Will there now be seven ‘people’s votes’? Chuka Umunna and his colleagues seem to have accepted that if you cannot reform an organisation from within then you ought to leave it, which is slightly at odds with their shared view on the EU. But more pressingly, Labour HQ is apparently calling on them to hold by-elections under their new branding, a sort of ‘people’s vote’, if you will. The Carswell Doctrine, that MPs who defect to other parties ought to hold by-elections, is a good one, that this site supports. The seven seem less than keen, presumably for the same reason that Labour is enthusiastic about the prospect, and it seems that one benefit of sitting as independents rather than as a new party is that it might offer some wriggle room to argue they’ve left one party rather than joined another.
  • Will they be ‘independents’ forever? It seems more likely that this is an interim position than the MPs’ endgame. Angela Smith at one point referred to “the other parties” then corrected herself to “the main political parties”, Umunna cast the move as the first step of a project which seeks supporters and intends to “create an alternative”, and as a group they now have a website and a statement of values. The SDP, remember, began with the Limehouse Declaration and the formation of the Council for Social Democracy, and only became a new party two months later.
  • It must become a party in time if it is to have a future. While sitting as independents – even as a group of independents, with meetings and so on – might offer an excuse to try to wriggle past the expectation of a by-election, and might provide limited armour against accusations of organised betrayal, it is a dead-end position in the longer term. Today’s press conference did not simply talk of withdrawing support for Labour, it was filled with mentions of wanting something better, offering an alternative, addressing Britain’s problems and so on, and it came with the hashtag #ChangePolitics. Most of the MPs involved seem interested in continuing their political careers. None of that can happen without infrastructure, money, supporters and everything required to try to stand for re-election and thereby create some kind of future. Umunna spoke unconvincingly of inviting the people to suggest to him and his colleagues what form a movement would take, but without a party they are essentially in a political twilight zone. They surely know it.
  • The current vagueness is intended to aid recruitment. It’s currently all very bland – an independents group, a simple black on white brand which resembles Cards Against Humanity more than anything else, and a broad brush statement of values that would fit with various self-described centrists. That isn’t accidental, and reinforces that this is a temporary stage in a longer-term plan. Keep it simple, keep it straightforward and as uncontroversial as possible, and you maximise the chance that you might be able to pick up more MPs – either from Labour, or from the Conservatives. This was tricky for the SDP (which eventually secured one Conservative defector) but the seven ex-Labour MPs appear to be hoping that Brexit in particular will deliver them some formerly blue colleagues.
  • Is there a leader? Officially, there are no responsibilities or roles yet, as the group has yet to hold its first meeting. However, it was notable that the speeches were wrapped up by Umunna, who went beyond his colleagues’ repertoires of personal back story and reason for quitting, to deliver a speech that covered the group’s mission, its intentions and an appeal to join it. So he definitely isn’t the leader, but he just delivers all the messages that you might deliver if you were, well, the leader. He’s probably the leader.
  • The “new politics” sounds a lot like the old politics. The Not-Leader’s speech was particularly heavy on references to “the old parties”, “the same old politics”, “the old-fashioned politics”, “leaving the old tribal politics behind” and so on. We get the message, and there are plenty of reasons for decent people on the centre left to be deeply uncomfortable about the state of the Labour Party. But what’s peculiar is how dated the supposedly modern bits of Umunna’s pitch sounded – it was an old-fashioned Blairite speech, all polish and Third Way vagueness. The cultish tribalism around Corbyn is, of course, a new phenomenon, not some old tradition of British politics that has become threadbare – I do wonder if this particular pitch, delivered by a very Blair-like politician, will really resonate all that well.
  • Meanwhile, the Corbynite eternal revolution will intensify. Non-Corbynite Labour people I’ve spoken to today are less than chuffed about this news – it not only deprives them of allies, but it hands their opponents a stick with which to beat them. Even more than before, all internal dissent will be treated as a sign of forthcoming betrayal. The leadership’s allies are already celebrating the benefits of getting rid of people they dislike, and talking darkly of which names might be next on their little list. The seven MPs raise a series of important questions for the Labour Party, but none of them will receive any serious consideration – indeed, asking them at all might now become an unforgivable act of disloyalty.
  • What next? The first question will be if any more Labour MPs join them – is this the extent of the group, are there sympathisers who weren’t in on the plan but will now back it, or are there sleepers who will be unveiled over the coming days, as the Tory opponents of Chequers did last summer? Might some of the former Labour MPs sitting as independents already – particularly John Woodcock and Ivan Lewis – join up? Then, are there Conservative MPs willing to jump ship in a similar fashion? There’s also the consideration of how this might influence possible deselection battles within the Tory grassroots – if MPs have a place to go, might they be more relaxed about alienating their grassroots, or if this project fails might it serve as a cautionary tale, encouraging other MPs to cling tight to nurse for fear of finding something worse?
  • Beware the polls. Finally, a note of caution. Everybody but everybody will be gagging to see what kind of impact this development has on the opinion polls. Will it split Labour’s vote? Will it produce the centrist rebellion which some have been confidently predicting for several decades? Might the seven mimic the SDP and become a second party in polling terms? The pressure on pollsters to explore these questions will be intense. However, I can’t see how it is currently possible to test in any meaningful way. There is no party to list in the polls, no brand nor platform to assess. You can’t realistically add “The Independents Group” into the voting intention questions, and broad brush tests of “would you support a centrist party” don’t really get through the fact that everyone’s idea of the centre is different and we still don’t know much about this vaunted “alternative”. There will no doubt be big headlines in the next few days about the polling success or failure of this new venture, but they don’t mean anything.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Chloe Westley: The twisted ideology that upends reason – and presents terror backers as innocent victims

Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Postmodern thought, which is infecting public discourse and is perhaps most prevalent within educational institutions, dictates that there are no individuals, only collective groups which we all belong to. Postmodern thinkers are obsessed with power, and with separating humans even from these groups into further sub-groups, and pitting those sub groups against each other – as the dominant and the submissive, the oppressor and the oppressed.

It’s this rejection of individual responsibility, and obsession with sub-group dominance hierarchies, which leads to the defence of Shamima Begum. There are those who say she cannot be held fully accountable because of the young age at which she joined ISIS, or plead mercy because she is pregnant. If she repented her actions, or displayed even the slightest hint of regret for her treachery, then perhaps I would have more sympathy for these arguments.

But what is really at the heart of her defence is a willingness to infer victimhood on any enemy of the West. If you listen closely to those on the far left, especially in academia, you will find a deep resentment of western societies, and a perverse forgiveness and understanding of her enemies.

The postmodern worldview holds that individuals are not responsible for their actions, but are either victims or villains based on their sub-group category. This world view positions Begum as a victim of evil western imperialism, since she was born into a particular group which has been oppressed, and cannot be held accountable for the decisions she has made. This line of thinking led Jean-François Lyotard, a postmodernist philosopher, to conclude that “Saddam Hussein (was) a product of Western departments of state and big companies”.

In order to understand how someone could draw such a ridiculous conclusion, we need to understand exactly how and why postmodern philosophy came about. During the latter half of the 20th century, it became strikingly obvious to the intellectual community that by any rational measure, communism had failed. Stephen Hicks hypothesises that left-wing academics had two choices: either to accept that communism had failed, or to construct a new way of measuring reality which would allow for communism to work. They chose the latter.

Communist apologists were presented with an overwhelming amount of evidence which rendered their political philosophy a crime against humanity. The collapse of the Soviet Union and revelations of the horrors of its death camps were enough to persuade many that communism had failed.

Left-wing academics had to give Marxism a makeover. Evidence and logic proved that socialist and communist societies have failed – but what if we simply reject logic and reason? Postmodern thinkers started to claim that everyone’s experience of the world is subjective, and that our knowledge is based on a group identity, which we cannot escape from. By rejecting reason, rejecting evidence, and dismissing the truth as subjective, postmodernist thinkers could dismiss the evidence against socialism and communism.

Furthermore, this commitment to collective group identities allowed for a new Marxist power struggle. They argue that some group identities are oppressed, and should rise up against their oppressors. Instead of the working class vs the  bourgeois, postmodern thought pitches race against race, gender against gender, and so on.

Thousands of words could be written about how postmodernists have given communist ideas a makeover, and I’ll be discussing this in more detail at an event in London this evening. For the purpose of this article, it is enough to say that their worldview which is based on group identity allows them to blame everything – even joining a terrorist group like ISIS – on the West.

Postmodernists and the far left are united in their hatred of Western civilisation. During the 2017 election, Jeremy Corbyn blamed the terrorist attacks such as the Manchester bombing on British foreign policy. Andrew Murray, a friend of Len McCluskey’s and advisor to the Labour Party, blamed the formation of ISIS on Western imperialism. The far left side with Britain’s enemies because they view them as victims, not as individuals responsible for their own actions.

Last week’s reaction to the story about Begum was a perfect example of this philosophy in action. Begum, a young girl who joins a terrorist group which has burnt alive pilots, beheaded journalists and thrown gay people off buildings, is apparently a victim. However, if you’re a straight white male who has sent some questionable tweets a few years ago, you are the villain, and there can be no understanding or forgiveness.

I’m sickened by this postmodern morality, and so every person reading this article should be. This worldview doesn’t allow for the fair judgement of human beings, based on the content of their character. Rather, it forgives the wrongs of individuals belonging to ‘oppressed’ groups, and blames all the world problems on the ‘oppressors’, i.e. the West. There are those who criticise British and American foreign policy, and in many cases rightly so, but it is only the extreme left which go so far as to infer victimhood on our enemies.

Our modern society has been founded on enlightenment ideals: a respect for knowledge and science, and a respect for the individual. Societies that respect these rights of the individual to produce, and buy and sell what they choose, far outperform societies which do don’t. That is why so many who take up arms against the West are quite keen to return to Britain to enjoy far superior living standards.

So the next time you hear someone attack western societies as oppressive or responsible for all the evils in the world, understand that, for many, this is based on an intense resentment that the capitalist west disproved socialist and communist theory. Postmodern philosophy is an intellectually bankrupt attempt to re-write history and position the societies which promote individual freedom and democracy as the ‘bad guys’.

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Fabio Conti: A plea for Conservative unity in these fractious times – and how we must plan for the challenges of the future

Fabio Conti is a GP in West London and a former Ealing councillor.  He contested Ealing Southall in the 2017 general election.

We are at a moment in which the tone of our national discourse has become so corrosive that, at times, it appears to be wearing through the very fabric that holds our nation together. The febrile nature of political debate, especially on social media, hasn’t been helped by the choice of language by some of our MPs, who have at times appeared to use increasing hyperbole in order to further their own agenda. There is division at every level of society – from within political parties to within families. This raises the question of how our nation can be brought together once we move beyond this chapter in our collective history.

Looking at our own Party, we’ve seen MPs, members and supporters express everything, during recent months, from unhappiness to despair at what others in the Party are saying and doing. People from all parts of it are feeling frustrated – and, at times, intolerant about the actions of others. It seems that we are often forgetting the common thread of values that unite all of us: opportunity; believing that not just government but people should be given the power to make decisions about their own lives; free enterprise and sound money, and the belief that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get on in life. As we encounter some of the most testing times in our Party’s history, we should remember the values we share, and realise there is often more that binds us together than draws us apart.

At this challenging time, it is vital that members who feel disillusioned with the Party do not turn their backs on it. We need to debate ideas, and work together to renew and define ourselves beyond Brexit with a positive vision for the future of our country, rooted in our uniting common values.

If we do not, the appealing proposition to a weary electorate of Jeremy Corbyn’s easy answers to complex challenges will hand him the keys to Number Ten whenever the next election comes. It is our duty to prevent what this would inflict on our country from happening.

When speaking to people on the doorstep, or talking to colleagues or friends, it is rarely Brexit that people raise. It is concerns about the NHS; their local school; the difficulties faced by social care, or the rise in violent crime. Additionally, there are too many people in our country who feel that they have been left behind. For some, this may have been a driving force to voting Leave in 2016. Looking beyond Brexit, we need to tackle the barriers of poor mental health, generational unemployment and inequality of opportunity. When in our country today just five elite schools send more pupils to Oxbridge than two-thirds of all state secondaries, and one in four prisoners and 70 per cent of sex workers grew up in care, it shows that we have a lot work to do to improve life chances and unlock opportunity for all.

Tacking these issues could be the uniting mission that can help bring our party and the country back together. We need to set our country on a new course, healing the divisions of the last few years – and move on to dealing with the big domestic issues of our day.

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Nick Hargrave: The capitalism of the future demands a bigger role for the state

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street Special adviser where he worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.

Philip Hammond’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference last October is unlikely to be remembered as a rhetorical classic. But it contains within it an important insight for the political fortunes of the Conservative Party and the long-term prosperity of our country.

Speaking to a less than packed hall, the Chancellor of the Exchequer told delegates that Conservatives of the future must:

“Harness the power of the market economy, taking a model which has evolved continuously down the ages, so that the capitalism of the twenty-first century looks nothing remotely like that of the nineteenth – and adapt it once again to speak to the values of a new generation.”

Hammond was speaking to a truth that Conservatives sometimes forget. Capitalism is not a static construct held in aspic. It is an economic system which flexes to meet the challenges of its time – and in doing so renews its mandate from one generation to the next.

This flexible conception of capitalism has been seen in the differing approaches of Conservative governments since the Second World War.

In the 1950s and 1960s, after a landslide defeat in 1945, our party accepted a greater role for state involvement in the running of the economy; spurred on by a gradual realisation that the laissez-faire approach of the 1930s had been an opportunity lost.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Margaret Thatcher burst onto the scene with an articulation of capitalism that was more libertarian and evangelical about the merits of free enterprise – in keeping with its time and a reaction to the drift and decline inherent in state involvement going too far.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the pendulum swing the other way, and voters demand a gentler articulation of the harder-edged approach of the 1980s – with support for a minimum wage, windfall taxes and more investment in the public realm. On this occasion, our party failed to meet this challenge, clinging doggedly to our post event conception of Thatcherism, and paid an electoral price.

The lesson of history is clear. When Conservatives adapt to generational calls for change on our political economy they prosper and own the terms of debate; more than capable of beating a Labour Party whose competence is usually doubted. When they fail to acknowledge the call for change they lose – and only regain power after a period of painful reflection.

If the events of the past couple of years have taught us anything, it is time for Conservative politicians to once again come up with a coherent answer for how capitalism can renew its generational mandate. Specifically, how it can materially improve the British people’s living standards in an economy that is undergoing a technological transformation; one that is increasingly global, that’s conducted online, that’s moving at pace to automation – and which is increasingly flexible in its conception of the nature of work.

It’s this transformation which is fuelling the rise of identity politics in our country – which for all its short-term attractions is unlikely to end well. It’s fuelling divisions between the upwardly mobile and the educated in our vibrant urban centres who are benefitting from this change – and the many in our towns and communities who feel left behind. Between a younger generation which is finding it hard to amass capital – and an older generation who have assets that have appreciated over the years.  It’s why a lot of public and private polling out there indicates that people feel the country is moving in the wrong direction domestically. And it’s why the main thing keeping the current Conservative voting coalition together is the illusory tiger of a Brexit which can never meet the hype – and one suspects will eventually end in disappointment.

So what’s the real answer for Conservatives in how we reinvigorate capitalism in a way that is relevant for the 2020s and beyond – and in the process renew our own mandate to govern? This could be the subject of several more articles, but here are a few core thoughts as follows:

  • First, in politics you must get the tone and definition right before you get into the policy weeds. The platform must feel upbeat, inclusive, and focussed on the guiding prism of a better future for us all to share. Optimism is infectious. This is where I think in hindsight Theresa May got the balance wrong during the period 2016-17.  The framing of the ‘privileged few’ may have been tactically popular, but it was caricatured and created expectations of a reckoning with business that was self-defeating and ceded political space to Jeremy Corbyn. It’s much easier to have difficult conversations with businesses about their responsibilities in the modern economy if you have an overall macro-message that is supportive. 70 per cent carrot and 30 per cent stick feels about right.
  • Second, I think we are going to have come to terms with a more muscular and high spending state over the next 20 years. Critically, that spending and guiding hand must be prioritised on investment in the future rather than pumping cash hand over fist into resource spending. In Treasury, speak this means more ambitious capital programmes than currently on R&D and science, digital infrastructure and transport. Always remember that the jobs, wealth and economic security of 25 years’ time will come from ideas that we cannot even conceive of yet.
  • Third, people have to feel confident they are benefitting from the system. Rather than using Labour language of ‘fixing a broken market’, focus instead on the positive articulation of what a muscular state can do to promote the holding of capital. Spend much, much more on state-backed programmes to build houses, remodel the corporate tax system with the strategic goal of incentivising employee share ownership – and turbocharge the somewhat limp National Retraining Scheme into a massive endeavour for all people in industries at risk of automation.
  • Fourth, we need to be able to pay for this and remain fiscally credible. There is no perfect way to do this but a shift towards wealth over income taxes is broadly the right way to go. This is hard but inevitable. Most realistically this can only come from a new leader at the height of their political powers.
  • Fifth, there is the question of how we maintain our political definition with Labour. I would strongly suggest we do not fall back into an ideological debate about libertarianism versus socialism (if put like that, Britain over the next 20 years is going to go for the latter). Focus instead on the values and language of economic competence and strong leadership, brought to life in the programme above, and the rest flows from there. With the current Labour frontbench this task is inordinately easier than if we were up against a centre-left leadership.
  • Finally, whatever you do – don’t countenance a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It will detract focus from this generationally important task – and will lead to many more years of austerity. This cannot be emphasised enough.

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Iain Dale: Were it not for Churchill, McDonnell might be speaking German. And so could the rest of us.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

I don’t know how many of you watched Liam Halligan’s Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 on Monday night, but he raised some real questions about the future of the HS2 project.

It’s cost the taxpayer £4.2 billion so far, but from this year the spending is ratcheting up, and that amount will apparently be spent each year. HS2 now employs 17 – yes, 17 – different PR companies to persuade us that a) HS2 is needed and b) it’s value for money.

As someone who thinks visionary transport projects are much needed in this country ,I think the jury is out on both counts. It’s rumoured that Theresa May wanted to can the scheme on her first day as Prime Minister, but was persuaded not to.

Were it cancelled now, it would be a humiliation for a Government which could do without any further humiliation, and there would be hell to pay for wasting more than £4 billion on a white elephant.

But sometimes you have to do the right thing and seal a political wound. I wonder whether we are at that point, or at least very near it.

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So John McDonnell thinks Winston Churchill is a villain. Good luck in explaining that to working class communities up and down the country, who see know nation’s war leader for what he is and was.

An absolute hero – without whom McDonnell and the rest of us might well be speaking German.

What is it about the Left who love to laud real villains like Chavez, Maduro and the like, yet delight in trying to denigrate the reputation of people who achieved things for this country that they couldn’t even dream of doing in a month of Sundays?

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It amuses met to see Labour supporters on Twitter trying to maintain the myth that Labour is constantly ahead in the opinion polls. The last three polls that I have seen showed a five to seven point Conservative lead. The last poll I saw a Labour lead of more than a couple of points was weeks ago. Even a poll of polls shows a Tory lead of 1.5 points, and that was before the last two Ipsos/MORI and Kantar polls showing seven and five point leads.

Given the shambolic state of the Government, it is incredible that, in what is now effectively a two party system, Labour isn’t way ahead. Yet those Labour supporters are so deluded they daren’t even ask the question as to why that is. They cling to the mantra that they started the last election 24 points behind and on polling day nearly won – nearly being 50 seats behind. This hubristic view that lightning is bound to strike twice may well be their undoing. It deserves to be.

Another polling mystery is why the Liberal Democrats still can’t get much more than ten. They are the only party with a distinctive Brexit message, and they ought to be cleaning up the Remain vote, given Jeremy Corbyn’s clear determination to avoid a second referendum. But they’re not.

Is it down to Vince Cable’s less than charismatic leadership? Is it the fact that their part in the coalition busted their support on the Left? Is it the hangover from the tuition fees debacle? A combination of all three, probably. I expect Cable to stand down in the summer. The leadership contest is likely to be between Jo Swinson, Layla Moran and Ed Davey.

I interviewed Moran for an hour on my show on Tuesday evening, and was hugely impressed. She may be inexperienced, but she comes across incredibly well and has the kind of charisma that a third party requires. She didn’t avoid answering some tough questions very directly. She’s certainly not an Orange Booker, but she is the sort of LibDem who might well appeal to people on the left of the Conservative Party. The Tories would do well not to underestimate her.

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Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May bores for Brexit, and has hopes of dividing and ruling

The Prime Minister’s demeanour, during her frequent statements to the House on Brexit, is that of a teacher who refuses to make her lessons any less repetitive.

Some of us cannot help feeling a reluctant admiration for Theresa May’s pedagogical methods. Her willingness, despite signs of restiveness in the Brexit Studies class, to stick to tried and tested clichés commands our involuntary respect.

If she has said it once that if you do not want no deal you must vote for her deal, she has said it a million times. That is how rote learning works. Here is a leader who is prepared to bore for Brexit.

And yet behind her impermeable facade of double negatives, change can be detected, and even an understanding that she needs to make what she is offering less repugnant.

So today she told Jeremy Corbyn, “I welcome his willingness to sit down and talk with me.” And she went on to suggest that she and the Leader of the Opposition are united in their determination “not to allow any lowering of standards in workers’ rights” when we leave the EU.

Corbyn leant over to consult Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary. Perhaps he wished for advice on how to deal with this implausible claim, or perhaps he just wanted to check what Labour policy is.

May meanwhile suggested that under the Conservatives, “the UK has a proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights”.

This led to an outbreak of hilarity among the Opposition. Chi Onwurah, sitting on the bench behind Corbyn, laughed with particular delight. May had said something so absurd – that the Conservatives are the workers’ friend – it was impossible for Labour not to burst out laughing.

The Prime Minister proceeded to say, less humorously, that “we now need some time” to complete the Brexit negotiations, and “we now all need to hold our nerve”.

Corbyn said he had only received the prior copy of her statement to which he is entitled as he left his office: “I can only assume she entrusted it to the Transport Secretary to deliver.”

That joke went down well. Corbyn proceeded to accuse her of “more excuses and more delays” while she runs down the clock, “plays chicken with people’s livelihoods”, engages in “the pretence of working with Parliament”, and claims to care about workers’ rights, although for many Conservatives, “ripping up workers’ rights is what Brexit is all about.”

Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, was ruder. He said the Prime Minister’s deal is “a fraud”, and “a catastrophe for Scotland”, and called on her to “put an end to this economic madness” under which the Scots are being “dragged out of the EU against our will”.

As May began, in a somewhat patronising tone, to correct these assertions, Blackford could be heard shouting “that’s not true”, and then “liar”. The Speaker, John Bercow, made him withdraw the word.

Vince Cable, for the Liberal Democrats, said that after reaching out to the trade unions and to Corbyn, May was “no doubt better informed on how Trotsky might have dealt with the Brexit crisis”.

So the Opposition are divided into Trotskyites and anti-Trotskyites. For May, this is promising. She has no need to plunge an ice pick into the back of Corbyn’s head. She can just hope to separate some of his MPs from him by indicating that she is in a better position than he is to produce economic benefits for the workers in their constituencies.

On her own benches, she got mixed reviews. Ken Clarke said we could do a better trade deal with Japan by remaining in the EU, and Anna Soubry accused her of “kicking the can down the road yet again”.

But Owen Paterson thought what she had said was “really encouraging”, and Sir Nicholas Soames declared: “Can I reassure the Prime Minister that I’m holding my nerve like anything.”

So the Prime Minister can still hope to bore her way through to an implausible victory. She remains, one might say, the only game in town, which is exactly what she set out to demonstrate when she stood up today.

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