I’ve been trying to work out what’s going on in British politics and how to characterise the changes in direction within our two major parties (and why our third parties seem so marginal).
I’m concluding that what is going on is not a swing to the left or right but a battle for “populism”, the connection with the people who do not get (or want to get) involved in politics. Here are some thoughts I had while waiting for Theresa May to take the stage yesterday.
I have a friend who works for Theresa May, she’s told him that every policy he works on must be tested to see how it lands with people “just getting by”.
I asked him if he knew what she meant. He said he’d be thinking about the people who were in work but who nobody thought of. I remember Bernard Levin used to write a column in the Times where he talked of the “silent majority” – nobody heard from them, nobody thought of them but when it came to the big votes, they were the people who made a difference.
I reckon the silent majority and the people just getting by are much the same. David Cameron was good at helping people at the extremes of social welfare- the very rich and the very poor – but he was pretty rubbish at talking to and listening to the people just getting by.
As I’m writing this, I am waiting for Theresa May to deliver her barnstormer to the Tory Party Conference. Whether she’s good or rubbish, the crowd I’m looking out over, will treat her as their own. Almost every delegate I’ve spoken to has had a story to tell about her, she seems to be inside this party in a way that the Cameroons weren’t.
As I look over the little balcony, I watch the stewards ushering the more photogenic delegates into the prime photo- spots. Everything is meticulous in arrangement. The next 45 minutes feel like the last 45 minutes of a cup final (or a play-off final if your expectations are at my level). You sense that what happens will define much of what will happen over the next 12 months, by this speech will Theresa May’s way be known.
Much of what Theresa May was heresy to the Thatcherism that has gripped Conservative policy for the past forty years.
Here was a Conservative leader and Prime Minister talking openly about intervening , not against the unions (who were hardly mentioned) but against the Banks, tax-fiddling corporations and even in the management of the fiscal levers so recently handed to the Bank of England.
The immediate outputs will be an empowerment of Government departments and their Regulators to get tough. The first flowers of this new interventionism are already unfurling.
The Prime Minister has asked RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor to lead an independent review into how employment practices need to change in order to keep pace with modern business models
The Financial Conduct Authority has published proposed rules and guidance aimed at standardising the disclosure of the transaction costs incurred by pension investments.
Things have got to change
Whether you see this as a cynical move to steal votes from Labour, Liberal and UKIP; or whether you see this as a positive shift towards the agenda of the silent majority; amounts to the same thing.
What we are seeing in British politics is blatant populism and I am prepared to put up with being an “awkward liberal” squirming in my conference seat at the language and the attitude. Because it is better to feel awkward but to see the right things happening, than live in a happy “Guardian garden” of liberal pleasantries and see nothing being done.
I have not seen enough things change. I still see pensions ruled by an elite at the PLSA and the Investment Association. They and the fund managers and bankers who bankroll them have not been challenged in decades and they need to be. I do not expect the FCA consultation to be challenged by the IA- it will work on Government from the inside, via its effective lobby. Nor do I see the Taylor review to be publicly challenged by the groups who control employee benefits, though they will exert their lobby behind the scenes.
But I hope that the consultation from the FCA and the review led by Matthew Taylor will be allowed to listen to the voices of the million or so small businesses that find their voice through the FSB and the CBI and I hope that the FCA will listen to the voices of people like Chris Sier and Con Keating and David Pitt-Watson, who have championed transparency in costs and charges much longer than this blog or indeed the TTF.
A change will come
May’s way appears to be about hard work. Talking to people who work with her, I gather she is meticulous in detail and takes no short cuts. If we are to have Government Intervention (and I am sure we must) , it must be intervention based on fact and not on ideology.
Much of what happens in my sphere of interest (the provision of workplace pensions) needs reform. There are bad outcomes happening every day because of the bad practices detailed in these blogs. We need to see ruthless policy that stops bad things happening.
I am very comforted that – for all my awkwardness as a liberal – May’s way has a decent chance of success. The left are in arms about language and tone and I can understand why. May is stealing their ground. Farage is more open, he claims to be the architect of May’s Way; to some extent he is.
But UKIP’s policies are simply a visceral jab in the guts of liberal politics and May’s way is considerably more constructive. For all the rhetoric, the framework for delivering change is within the bounds of what we have, it is an attempt to change from within -not without.
For that reason, I am much more sure that change will happen- and soon – which is good- even if it being delivered by politicians who for 50 years I have been opposing.