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Lessons from Labour’s conference for the Conservatives

September 28th, 2018

Leadership

Labour have, on balance, had a good conference, which should of course worry Conservatives like myself. Their leadership is now in full ascendancy – indeed many of the Corbynsceptic PLP stayed away.

Brexit was largely elided (of which more later), so the actual splits in evidence were merely between different degrees of Corbynism. On reselection, Momentum butted heads with the unions and came off slightly worse, for now. (Watch that space…)

And Corbyn himself is now much improved as a speaker – the first half of his speech was delivered very well, though he lost some energy during the second part. That all adds to the perception that he really could be Prime Minister one day, as does all the talk of a General Election.

The lesson here is simply that unity sells well. Now this might be a little time coming for the Conservatives, but putting on a show at our own conference wouldn’t hurt!

Ideas

Freed from the drudgery of actually negotiating a Brexit, Labour have been full of ideas, the most eyecatching of which was the proposal to force companies to give 10% of their equity to their workers, and then cap the dividends from that to only £500, with the rest going to the government as tax (sorry, “social dividend”).

To my mind this is the epitome of what’s wrong with Labour’s policymaking: it’s superficially attractive but it ignores all the situations where it can’t apply (e.g. foreign & private companies) and the knock-on effects it could have (e.g. de-listing, moving abroad, buybacks rather than dividends, reduction in startup investment). Most of all it also ignores the fact that private sector wages are usually determined in a free-market process and an anticipated £500pa bonus will simply ultimately come off the headline wage.

Labour’s wishlist of ideas is also hugely expensive and not properly costed. It might be a good idea to highlight this next time.

But these ideas are popular. Allister Heath’s headline in the Telegraph is spot on – “the terrifying truth is that Middle England is falling for Corbynomics”. We need to fight back with ideas of our own.

The next General Election

I don’t expect a General Election any time soon, but Labour are clearly planning for one whenever it comes. Their slick PPB shows that the leadership get it – the battleground seats will be predominately small towns.

A lot of the thinking behind this focus has been driven by the new think-tank the Centre for Towns, set up by Ian Warren (@electiondata on Twitter), Lisa Nandy MP and political science professor Will Jennings. The data and mapping on their site is excellent and there is plenty of food for thought for Conservatives there too.

However Labour’s PPB is ultimately a romantic call to turn back the clock (did anyone spot the pit head?) and – as Robert Smithson’s video shows – that ain’t happening. And in the age of the internet, High Streets won’t be coming back in the same form.

Populism

Corbyn and McDonnell’s left-wing populism explains why Labour has managed to dodge the pan-European crisis in social democracy: it is no longer a social democratic party (though it still has many MPs answering to that description).

Matthew Goodwin’s recent article on that crisis references YouGov’s July polling on issues that “most Britons feel unrepresented on”. The top 5 issues were as follows:

  1. The justice system not harsh enough
  2. Immigration restrictions should be tighter
  3. Britain should not militarily intervene in other countries
  4. Government should regulate big business more
  5. The benefits system is too generous

This – not a metropolitan anti-Brexit project – is the space YouGov identified for a hypothetical new party. Under FPTP it is more likely to be filled by shifts within our system.

Obviously neither party would wish to swallow these polling findings wholesale, but the key to a majority is to take this “unrepresented” group seriously. Goodwin hypothesises that the unexpected General Election result was as a consequence of Labour hitting some of these themes while the Conservatives missed them:

“Indeed, I have no doubt that one reason why Jeremy Corbyn did not suffer more working-class losses at the 2017 general election is precisely because he preached economic interventionism while at least recognising the need to respect the Brexit vote and reform freedom of movement. Had Corbyn instead called, à la Blair, to reverse the vote while making the case for open borders, then the result would likely have been very different, just as it would had Prime Minister May followed up her promise to tackle burning injustices with concrete action and a competent campaign.”

The answer here for the Conservatives is to blend our principles and understanding of what works with a recognition that competition and markets aren’t necessarily the same thing.

This doesn’t have to mean economic protectionism, but rather a focus on the consumer. For example, it’s easy to see from free-market principles that supermarket competition drives prices down – it only takes a few switched-on people to move to Aldi or Lidl to drive prices down everywhere, and for everyone.

But same isn’t true for energy markets or telephone contracts. The vast majority of the benefit of competition – and there has been plenty – is captured by the engaged: those willing and able to compare and switch whenever they can. Contracts are fundamentally different to purchases and our government needs to recognise that. Auto-switching and/or internal auctions, not caps, can be the answer.

And, to refer again to Robert’s video, jobs are a harder problem: in the information age people’s value to their company is more explicit than ever, which means the traditional career model isn’t coming back. The answer here has to be in education and training; a tighter immigration policy post-Brexit ought to increase investment in domestic training.

Brexit

The focus on the next election, and on those Leave-voting small towns, is why Labour are being so circumspect on Brexit, despite the wishes of Andrew Adonis, David Lammy, Keir Starmer and much of their membership. Adding another 3,000 votes to Keir’s majority in Holborn will not be much use if they can’t gain back Mansfield or defend Dudley.

There’s not that much value in me opining what the final deal will be, though I still think it’s likely that there will be one, probably fudged somewhere between Chequers and Canada. I wouldn’t be sitting too comfortably if I were the DUP – since the deal is quite likely to need some cross-party backing (or abstention) anyway, what’s finding another 10 votes?

The fact that negotiations have been difficult was always to be expected – in fact I’m a little surprised to have got this far without stronger rows or walkouts. The working of Article 50 has clearly favoured the EU, as it was always intended to: we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next couple of months.

A deal is important for the country but also for my Party. The radical nature of Brexit is a challenge to our traditional USP of, well, conservatism, and John McDonnell is clearly hoping that one radical shift may induce another. We therefore need to deliver a measure of continuity as we Leave.

The overall lesson for the Conservatives from Labour’s conference, and the themes they are espousing, is that the technical fact of our exit needs to be the start of a national renewal. GE2017 and Brexit have consumed May’s premiership, but we shouldn’t forget how popular her initial pitch was. The challenge is to deliver that whilst staying true to our party’s principles. Otherwise we risk delivering the country into the hands of the most left-wing Labour Party in living memory.

Aaron Bell

Aaron works in the betting industry and is a long-standing contributor to politicalbetting.com, posting under the username Tissue_Price. He stood for the Conservatives in Don Valley at the General Election last year.