Ed Miliband never got to Number Ten, but his words did. Theresa May’s talk of fighting “burning injustice” could have come from him. As Phil says, hers was “very much the kind of speech you'd expect Ed Miliband to have made if history turned out somewhat differently.” This poses the question: what should we make of this?
It might, of course, be that her words will prove as false as Thatcher’s when she entered Number 10 in 1979: “where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” This seems to be the view of Chuka Umunna. This, though, raises the question: why is she telling these particular lies?
Another possibility is that, even if she’s sincere, she won’t be able to walk the talk. Her talk of worker-directors, for example, won’t sit well with the Britannia Unchained crew who have called for fewer workers’ rights. With a slim majority, this matters.
However, I prefer the advice of Adam Barnett: let’s take her at her word. If she is sincere, her government will test whether moderate reforms really can improve the efficiency and justice of capitalism. Here, I have several doubts.
- Her aim of “setting people free to go as far as their talents will take them” runs into the many massive obstacles to true equality of opportunity: the tight link between good state schools and expensive housing; private education and tuition; the cultural capital and connections that richer kids often enjoy; and, perhaps, genetics. As James Bloodworth has said:
Genuine equality of opportunity would require a genuine radicalism – radicalism of a kind that British politicians are unwilling to countenance. (The Myth of Meritocracy, p127)
- Her desire to improve productivity runs into the fact that it is in fact very difficult for national policies to raise trend growth. She also faces some nasty headwinds. World trade growth has slowed, perhaps permanently – which is bad for both growth and productivity. And firms are still loath to invest – whether because of falling profit rates, a fear of future competition or a lack of monetizable projects.
- The desire “to create more well-paid jobs” runs into the fact that job polarization and the degradation of erstwhile “middle class” jobs means that good jobs are scarce. These problems might be exacerbated not just by future technical change, but by the fact that Brexit jeopardizes good jobs in finance and manufacturing.
- Her desire to reduce exploitation “by unscrupulous bosses” insufficiently recognizes the fact that this requires a massive increase in the bargaining power of the worst-off – something that can only be achieved by some mix of welfare reform (a citizens income), much fuller employment, stronger trades unions and a job guarantee.
Herein lies an opportunity for the left. We should ask of her Adam’s question: “yes, and?” We can point out the contrast between her fine ideals and the (probable) weakness of the policies used to achieve them. We should say that achieving her aims requires bolder measures.
Revolutions often happen when people’s expectations increase by more than objective reality. Ms May might – just might – have opened up such a gap.
My point here is that there is a coherent space to the left of May. There’s also – like it or not – space to the right, in the form of free market thinking. What’s not so clear is where this leaves the centre-left. Perhaps there are good reasons why Mr Umunna seems to be in denial about Ms May’s intentions.