Written by Helen Williams.
Theresa May’s manifesto for the Conservative and Unionist Party in the 2017 general election has faced a critical, if generally favourable, reception. One of the more remarkable evaluations is that it is a ‘Red Tory’ manifesto. An alternative to ‘Blue Labour’, a Red Tory manifesto blends social conservatism with economic policies tailored to workers.
To what extent does this resonate with the contents of Mrs May’s manifesto?
The rhetoric is certainly there: ‘working families’, ‘hardworking families’, and ‘ordinary, working families’ feature prominently in sections about the economy.
The language of ‘inequality of opportunity’ and the many versus the few could have come straight from the Labour manifesto. Compare:
- ‘A country that works not for the privileged few but for every one of us’.
- ‘Opportunity must belong to everyone and not just a few’.
- ‘Let’s build a Britain that works for the many, not the few’.
- ‘A fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just a privileged few’.
There are many overlaps with Labour proposals – to the extent that Mrs May has been accused of ‘stealing’ Labour policies, including Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto pledge to cap energy prices. In fact, this accusation was levelled very early in Mrs May’s premiership with a point-by-point analysis conducted by one of Miliband’s former speech writers, comparing Mrs May’s announced policy priorities with the 2015 Labour manifesto; and the policy priorities she announced early in her premiership are clearly reflected in the 2017 manifesto pledges.
The following are a selection of policy overlaps between the 2017 manifestos of Labour and the Conservatives:
- Greater punishment for mismanaging pension schemes (in response to the BHS debacle)
- Crack-down on tax evasion and avoidance
- Tackling excessive executive pay
- Employee representation through advisory councils
- Expansion of technical education for life-long learning
- Increased investment in research and development
- Maintained defence spending in line with NATO requirements
- Continued development aid commitments
- Business rates relief and review
- Crack-down on government contractors who don’t pay on time
- Expansion of ports
- Protection of North Sea jobs
- Direct regulation of energy prices
- Subsidies for rural transport, post offices, pharmacies, and village schools
- National infrastructure investment, including building HS2
- Continued free access to public museums and galleries
- Matched funding for farmers as they lose EU funding
And the list goes on…
So we return to the question: Is Theresa May really a Red Tory?
One of the key components of the Red Tory definition, according to its creator, Phillip Blond, is regulation of the markets. Here Mrs May unabashedly breaks from Thatcherite orthodoxy by her strong emphasis on market regulation: ‘We do not believe in untrammelled free markets’ (p. 9); and ‘Markets need rules and these rules need to be updated to reflect our changing economy’ (p. 16). Variants on the phrase ‘fair markets for consumers’ occur repeatedly.
Yet at the same time, there is heavy emphasis on free trade: ‘Capitalism and free markets remain the best way to deliver prosperity and economic security’ (p. 16); ‘We will be the world’s foremost champion of free trade’ (p. 38); ‘Open and free trade is key to international prosperity’ (p. 38). It is this emphasis that is difficult to square with the UK’s exit from the EU and market regulation. Commentators are almost universally pessimistic that any post-Brexit deal with the EU would be remotely as favourable as EU membership, with regards to free trade.
It is clear that Mrs May views Brexit as almost entirely about the regulation of immigration, given that any ‘new deep and special partnership with the EU’ (p. 15) would require adherence to EU regulations without representation in the EU parliament, Council or Commission – which negates sovereignty-based arguments in favour of Brexit. Mrs May’s dogmatic pursuit of net migration reduced to the tens of thousands is beginning to make British businesses vocally nervous.
This is why pursuit of higher migration controls in a globalised post-Brexit world is so difficult. Brexit has been justified to the ‘ordinary, working families’ as a way to ensure more jobs for British-born workers, increase investment in domestic services like the NHS, and protect small and medium-sized businesses, who are more likely to lose out in global markets. However, the UK is already facing rising food prices as a result of the pound’s significant drop since the EU Referendum in June 2016, and the UK currently benefits significantly from free trade across the EU energy markets. The loss of access to this would be likely to increase energy costs considerably. Given that these are two of the largest components of day-to-day household spending, it seems will take a stroke of blind luck to enable Mrs May to carry out her stated ‘Red Tory’ intentions of tackling inequality and making work pay.
Helen Williams is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Screencap/Youtube.