Abi Wilkinson: I'm not buying this sudden surge of compassionate Conservatism
Having left Number 10, Nick Timothy is now expressing his concerns about wages stagnating.
Since the recent general election, there has been a noticeable upswing in the number of Conservatives fretting about inequality, material hardship and issues with the current economic system.
Arguments the left have been making for years suddenly seem to have gained widespread currency. Last weekend, the Times published a column by Matthew Parris arguing that vast inequality risks destroying the public consensus in support of capitalism. Since then, in the same newspaper, Iain Martin has suggested that “a decade after the start of the financial crisis capitalists still have no convincing rebuttal to the fairytales of the left”.
And Theresa May's former chief of staff has been highlighting data showing that ordinary people have been missing out on pay rises in recent years. This week, Timothy shared a graph on Twitter showing wages stagnating over the past decade. As if we're supposed to just forget his party has been in power for all that time.
At some level, it’s gratifying to see an increased willingness amongst right-wingers to admit that things are not currently alright. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be frustrated that these conversations are only happening now – when the left is in resurgence and appears a viable political force. If they’re capable of seeing these issues, why didn’t they say something sooner? Why have they been happy to cheerlead governments that have overseen massive increases in homelessness and child poverty, underfunding of public services, the erosion of employment rights and growing income inequality?
The biggest issue with this sudden surge of compassionate conservatism, however, is the failure to identify real solutions to the stated problems. Parris is concerned that the “the much-needed Thatcher economic reforms of the 1980s” might be reversed. It seems unlikely he’d countenance the suggestion those reforms are a central cause of many of our current issues.
Iain Martin focuses on the role of cheap credit in the 2007-08 financial crash. He appears to make contradictory claims: acknowledging the harm that’s caused when financiers are allowed to run amok and the state actively enables unsustainable practices, before retreating into the libertarian comfort zone of anti-regulation rhetoric. The fact that some government interventions have been unhelpful is not a convincing argument against intervention full stop.
Unsurprisingly for someone of his ideological perspective, Martin suggests that the ills of capitalism as it currently exists can be solved by breaking up corporate giants like Google and Facebook – on the grounds that concentrated power is dangerous, and monopolies and oligopolies prevent markets functioning properly. Though this argument does have some merit, it barely seems to engage with the leftwing critiques it’s attempting to rebut.
Research suggests a growing number of people are not merely concerned that capitalism is failing to function properly; they see issues with leaving everything to the private sector even when it’s working as it should. There’s majority support for the public ownership of health, education, trains, buses, postal services and utility companies, and also fairly widespread enthusiasm for nationalising banks. Perhaps, if a decade after the start of the financial crisis avowed free marketeers still have no convincing rebuttal to these arguments, it’s because the left has some solid points.
Privatising public services necessarily prompts a race to the bottom. When contractors bid against each other to offer services at the lowest price, something has to give: either the standard of delivery, the wages and conditions of workers, or both. The Thatcherite reforms that Parris is keen to protect also had other negative effects. The neutering of trade unions was intended to weaken labour in relation to capital – it was inevitable that employment conditions would worsen as a consequence. Selling off social housing without replenishing it inevitably enlarged the private rental market, and tenants now suffer spiralling rents and increased insecurity.
These hardship faced by many ordinary people isn’t something that can be solved with a few minor tweaks, it’s an intrinsic aspect of the economic approach people like Martin and Parris advocate. Despite massive differences between the countries, some Conservatives are trying to argue that a leftwards shift would result in political and economic collapse similar to that which has occurred in Venezuela. In reality, the Nordic states are a much better point of comparison. More mixed economies and comprehensive welfare states lead them to outperform the UK on nearly all measures of public wellbeing.
If we’re genuinely going to fix the problems that “compassionate Conservatives” profess to care about, it will require exactly the sort of comparatively radical changes they refuse to accept.
Picture by Press Association.