Time to hear May’s stop-corbyn strategy
‘People know the old way of running things isn’t working,” Jeremy Corbyn told his party faithful in Liverpool. “When we meet this time next year, let it be as a Labour government,” he told his annual party conference, “investing in Britain after years of austerity and neglect, bringing our country together after a decade of division”.
Some dismiss Corbyn’s Labour as a dysfunctional ragbag of proto-marxists and Blairite hangers-on. An opposition even more split than the Tories over Brexit. But with opinion polls neckand-neck, and Theresa May on the ropes, party activists are starting to scent blood.
Having ditched its historic clause IV public ownership pledge in 1995, Labour has come full circle. Shadow Chancellor John Mcdonnell made the party’s most radical pitch for decades, pushing aggressive renationalisation and the return of sweeping trade union powers.
Under Labour, all listed companies will transfer a 10th of their equity to state control, with dividends split between employees and (mostly) the government. A third of board seats are to be reserved for workers. While Blair won three victories by shifting to the centre, Corbynites think discontent with “the system” is so entrenched Labour can prevail from the far Left.
Tories gathering in Birmingham this weekend derisively snort at Corbyn. The man is a joke, the argument goes – he couldn’t possibly win power. But for a few thousand votes, though, across half-a-dozen marginal seats in the last election, Corbyn would now be prime minister. Since then, as May has struggled, the Labour leader has, if anything, gained popularity.
We could see an election before Christmas, or not before 2022. Whenever it happens, the Tories are only going to win, and prevent Corbyn taking over, if they acknowledge British capitalism needs fixing. While proposing credible ways to do that, May must, above all, present a credible and compelling vision of a post-brexit economy. This conference is the time and place to start.
The Tories’ pitch should revolve, to a considerable extent, around regional policy. While central London is the EU’S richest locality, Britain is home to nine of Northern Europe’s 10 poorest. Freed from EU rules, and with “cohesion fund” resources returning from Brussels, there is scope after Brexit to tackle our gaping regional divide.
Transport should play a transformative role. The Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine must evolve from clever slogans to policy platforms driving investment, above all from the private sector.
We need new bridges, toll roads and enhanced rail links beyond the South East – prioritising the trans-pennine HS3 rail project. Economically and in terms of national political cohesion, it is vital to connect our northern cities, creating an alternative UK growth centre – even if that means scrapping the white elephant that is HS2.
Outside the EU, low-tax “free ports” and “enterprise zones” can be established, bringing energy and investment to depressed coastal areas and inner cities. The planning should have started weeks after the June 2016 referendum – but must begin now.
May should champion a national infrastructure fund, channelling billions of pounds into transport, communications and energy infrastructure. It should be seeded by central government – borrowing specifically and locking in low interest rates – with an emphasis on private cash. Tweaked regulations could channel Britain’s vast institutional pension and life assurance savings into infrastructure bonds, matching long-term income streams with long-term liabilities.
As one of two top domestic priorities, May should announce a decisive shift of skills and vocational training to the heart of policy. UK firms have under-invested in local staff
over many years, in part due to EU “freedom of movement”. Britain must become a high-wage, highproductivity economy – and, above all, that means skills. Our tax, training and education policies should be aligned to meet clear goals, overseen by a minister for skills and training.
Building on the role our universities play in regional growth, we need stronger links between academia and industry. US universities are the only global challenger to British higher education, yet are far more successful in transferring business ideas from campus to commerce.
Tuition fees should be waived, on a means-tested basis, for those taking key economic subjects – particularly science, engineering and maths. University numbers are too high and vocational training numbers too low, trends that should both be reversed. The second domestic priority is to ensure more homes are built. While this means additional planning permissions, the immediate need is to ensure large builders implement those already granted. The “garden cities” movement should be revived, with local authorities setting up “new town companies” – so limiting development on greenbelt and other sensitive sites.
Our housing shortage is causing such economic and social damage that only radical action will raise long-term building rates. Every UK economic recovery over the last century has been linked to a sharp rise in residential construction – except that since 2008, the slowest, most subdued in history. That is not a coincidence.
Addressing one of the main concerns behind the Brexit vote, May must explain how Britain will return to managed immigration. The new system should be business friendly and humane, providing adequate skilled and unskilled labour. But it must also demonstrate the elected UK Government is now in charge.
As we leave the EU, Britain needs a domestic economic policy based on high growth and investment, underpinned by low and simple taxation. Helping us see beyond the tortured politics of the Brexit process, May must articulate the upsides once we’re out – including cheaper food, lower tariffs on goods from the 85pc of the global economy beyond the bloc, and more trade with world’s fastestgrowing economies.
The appetite for nationalisation, and less capitalism, is growing, with Corbyn claiming to “represent the new common sense of our time”. Ten years only from the financial collapse, amid corporate scandals and polarising wealth inequality, UK capitalism clearly does face a crisis of confidence.
Ministers aren’t displaying the grit needed to face down vested interests, rein in excess and ensure punters do not always feel ripped off. The answer to bad capitalism isn’t less capitalism, but good capitalism. The Tories must make that distinction – and fast.
‘May must, above all, present a credible and compelling vision of a post-brexit economy’