There’s something remarkable about Theresa May’s speech yesterday: large chunks of it could have come from a Labour politician.
For example, she spoke of the “injustices” of people from poorer backgrounds having less chance of going to university or getting top jobs or even living a long life. She complained that many people in politics don’t appreciate "how hard life is for the working class"; of workers being “exploited by unscrupulous bosses”; of “irresponsible behaviour in big business” and of an “irrational, unhealthy and growing gap" between workers' and bosses' pay.
She went onto demand a “proper industrial strategy” to raise productivity – one that might block hostile takeovers; of the need to “give people more control of their lives”; of the need for workers on company boards; a “crack down on individual and corporate tax avoidance and evasion”; and restraints upon CEO pay.
If we add to all this her renunciation of austerity and (I presume) acceptance of rises in the national living wage, May is to the left of the position many Labour MPs had in 2015 – and perhaps still have. (I say perhaps because many anti-Corbynistas don’t seem much interested in policy.) It’s no surprise that her words have been welcomed by the Equality Trust.
All those lazy comparisons to Margaret Thatcher miss the point – that there seems a huge ideological gulf between the two.
Of course, this isn’t to claim her as a hard-core socialist. I fear a May premiership would see migrants and benefit claimants treated harshly. And her talk of “setting people free to go as far as their talents will take them” betokens a belief in the false god of meritocracy rather than in substantive equality. But then, all this might also be said of many on Labour’s right.
However, there remains a massive gap between May and leftists like me. Whilst I wholly endorse worker-directors and policies to give people more control, I regard them as stepping stones towards a post-capitalist economy. Ms May does not. She regards them as a means of saving capitalism from itself. As she says: “Better governance will help…companies to take better decisions, for their own long-term benefit and that of the economy overall.”
She recognizes that capitalism suffers from agency failures and that the role of the state is to correct these, so that the short-run greed and incompetence of individual capitalists does not jeopardize the system as a whole. If capitalism is to survive, it must satisfy at least minimal standards of efficiency and justice. Ms May fears that, left to itself, it might not achieve these. It’s for this reason that the Institute of Directors applauds her.
Of course, this raises many questions: is she sincere? Will worker-directors be any more than mere tokens? Can her programme really legitimize capitalism and so reduce popular discontent with “elites”? Can any feasible policies give capitalism back a dynamism it currently lacks?
Those are issues for another time.
There’s another point here. It’s that policies are not the product merely of the autonomous will of great leaders. Instead, they arise from impersonal economic trends. Given that inequality and stagnant living standards are creating dangerous levels of distrust and instability, some reforms of capitalism seem necessary under any government. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, “we are all interventionists now.”
Or perhaps the more appropriate phrase is: “there are no atheists in foxholes.”