In an interview with the BBC shortly before Tory Party Conference opened, Theresa May told Andrew Marr: “As Conservatives, the arguments that we thought we’d had and won during the 1980s about the importance of free market economies — I think we thought there was a general consensus on that. And we now see that there wasn’t.”
She had in mind the surge of support for Labour’s left-wing manifesto and avowedly socialist leader that took away her parliamentary majority in June. But her remarks were also proved right by the findings of a survey by right-wing think tank Legatum, published 29 September, that a majority of the UK public are in favour of sweeping nationalisations of industry, a maximum wage, the abolition of zero-hours contracts. A majority have a more favourable opinion of socialism than of capitalism.
This loss of public confidence in capitalism seems to have infected the Tory Party conference. The party appears paralysed – not only by the scrabbling for a new leader, or the looming catastrophe of a Brexit process that no minister appears to understand – but paralysed politically, unable to confidently defend its current course or decisively plot a new one.
The major policies announced so far run from the feeble to the vindictive. The party’s baffled, embarrassed decision to offer to freeze tuition fees at their current level is wretched from every angle. The proposal in no way improves the functioning of an unworkable funding system – studies by the same IFS have indicated that as many as 70% of students will never finish paying off their loans — and politically it signals that the Tories realise how unpopular the policy is, but also that they have no idea of how to fundamentally change it. No informed observer can take the policy seriously on its own terms; and it is a major vindication of years of student and labour movement agitation for free education.
The Tories’ flagship proposal on housing is less of an apology and more of a sick joke: at a time when housing charity Shelter estimates that the current housing benefit freeze is threatening a million people with homelessness; and 76,000 families started this year in emergency temporary accommodation; the response announced at this conference was an additional £10bn for Help to Buy, a scheme to assist a limited number of reasonably solvent young families buy their houses. The proposal will do nothing to help the majority of housing crisis victims, and it geared to provide the Tories with political cover for refusing to build social housing while running down the social housing stock.
Amber Rudd was wheeled out to provide a macabre distraction, making a speech in which she evoked a series of gruesome baddies — internet terrorists, paedophiles and acid attackers — as a prelude to a tried-and-tested crowd-pleaser: eye-popping, spittle-flecked calls for impossibly draconian and invasive police powers. If promising 15 years’ jail time for viewing “online terrorist material” wasn’t theatrical enough, Rudd rounded up with the imperious declaration that she didn’t need to know how encrypted messaging systems like WhatsApp work in order claim for the police the right to snoop on them.
The Tory leadership struck its most confident note with its stern declaration that in spite of the universal criticism heaped upon Universal Credit, its roll out would continue. Implementing a revised benefits system that pays in arrears, thereby condemning claimants to taking on debt, falling into rent arrears, and facing hunger and eviction was considered essential to maintaining the PM’s prestige.
None of the foregoing provided an impressive backdrop for Chancellor Philip Hammond when he made his stab at a serious ideological defence of the free market.
Following a decade in which real wages have fallen (the worst performance in Europe by any other country except Greece); in a year in which Moody’s Investors Service has warned that people in the UK are spending their savings and racking up personal debts unseen since the 2008 crash; and when official figures indicate that child poverty has once again risen again to four million, with further increases forecast; for the Chancellor to make a speech claiming that the free market “frees people”, that the UK economy is “fundamentally strong”, or that the Conservatives “make a clear commitment to the next generation: that they will be better off than us; and that their children will be better off again than them” can hardly have inspired confidence, even among his own most determined supporters. To anyone outside the bubble, it sounds callous and self-deluding.
But the disarray of the Conservative Party, and even the widespread support for nationalisations and socialism over capitalism recorded by the Legatum poll, won’t deliver meaningful change by themselves.
Unless we build a determined opposition, bearing a confidence-inspiring alternative, the Tories can hold out until 2022, and have their measures “stick” after that.
A broad, general support for socialism is good: but to sweep the old order away, it must be organised into a political force, and defined and clarified into a real programme for breaking the power of the rich.