Conservative politicians from across the different factions of the Party have been speaking up in recent weeks about the need to defend free market capitalism. The line of argument is quite simple: the former “battle of ideas” was assumed to be won; the liberal economic consensus that Margaret Thatcher championed and built in 11 years of Government and was accepted by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and all major politicians in recent years was the in-built consensus of all British political thought. Jeremy Corbyn, who used his leadership of the Labour Party to rally against the consensus, was to be crushed against Theresa May in June’s election.
But that didn’t happen. Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t carry the Conservative Party to their biggest victory in two decades nor did she even win a majority. Jeremy Corbyn and his socialist agenda appealed to a newly invigorated youth vote and carried his Labour Party to the best result since 2010, and the best popular vote share since the days of Tony Blair’s popularity. These young voters no longer remember the 1970s and the socialism that Thatcher defeated, and so the Tories, it is said, must once again make the case for free markets and the liberal consensus.
That is why Theresa May in her speech to the Conservative Party’s Conference in Manchester said that free markets are the “greatest agent of collective human progress ever created”. The Prime Minister is under pressure to be more economically liberal and to defend these free markets that so many Conservatives cherish, in the face of a resurgent Labour Party with what Tories see as an anti-free market and anti-business agenda.
Tory MPs refer to this as a desire to re-ignite the “battle of ideas” with the Labour Party. These MPs need to take a step back, however, and ask themselves what it is that makes Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism popular. Could it be that so many are using food banks, or that middle-class young professionals are increasingly having to turn to credit just to get through the month (51% of young women do so, along with 46% of young men)? Could it be that house prices are rising and the Government is seemingly doing very little help both renters and first-time buyers? Could it be that thousands wait on social housing waiting lists with little help?
Could it be that the free market economy that Conservative MPs want the Prime Minister to “defend” is failing so many people, while also giving the impression that it helps others and not those at the bottom, with ordinary working people’s pay barely rising with inflation whilst FTSE100 CEOs experience bloated pay packets?
Theresa May is correct in her defence of free market economics when she says they are the best agent of human progress. But the Prime Minister also understands and is correct in her analysis that they are not working for so many people. The issue for Conservatives is simply this: that they seem baron of any ideas of how to extend the benefits that help our society and economy progress forwards. That is why young people choose Jeremy Corbyn, not just because they can sing his name to the White Stripes and “Oh Theresa May” doesn’t quite fit – or because they don’t remember the 1970s and need a history from the Chancellor, a man with the personality of a greyscale spreadsheet.
If Jeremy Corbyn is to be defeated, it isn’t the leader that necessarily needs to change. Instead, a battle of ideas within the Conservative Party needs to begin, with various factions of the Party coming together with ideas of how to make the free market economy work better for people it currently does not work, seemingly, at all for. The Conservatives need to come up with solutions to a growing housing crisis, both with affordable, rented and social housing. They need to come up with ways to make the economy seem fairer with the disparity between rich and poor. MPs need to have ideas of how to solve the problem of Britain’s poor productivity and add a sense of value to the hard work of the poorest who keep getting no substantial pay rise.
Theresa May’s energy price cap was this week criticised for not being in the spirit of a defence of free markets, but it is one way that May sees to tackle rip-off energy markets and offer the “Just About Managing” something to show the Conservatives are helping them. If the “Battle of Ideas” had already begun, instead of constant bickering about the Conservative leadership and May’s personal position, more new and exciting ideas could have been announced by all cabinet ministers at this conference.
Jeremy Corbyn will win the next election if the Conservatives do not get their act together and find their soul again; what they stand for and what they offer people. They must have a “Battle of Ideas” of how to extend capitalism’s progress and benefits to the young and the struggling. If they do not, their “defence” of capitalism will fall on deaf ears, and the party will find itself on the opposition benches once again.