Thursday, 11 October 2012

Cameron strikes some nice notes, but plays the wrong tune

Post for Shifting Grounds

Cameron strikes some nice notes, but plays the wrong tune

There’s no doubt that David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference yesterday was one of his better ones since becoming Prime Minister. In some ways it was his most Presidential, not just in the personal touches woven in throughout, but in his attempts to transcend national politics and sketch out a vision of a new frontier – in this case, the new global economy – and place Britain at the heart of it  (sometimes called a ‘moon shot’ in US politics). We are, he said, in a “global race” with new countries on the rise, “sink or swim. Do or decline”.

Cameron also had strong dividing lines on welfare and schools – two issues Labour has no settled position on, but will clearly need to have in the next few years.

But the speech had a fatal weakness. At its core was a diagnosis of a country full of budding businessmen and women and ‘can do’ creatives, being held back by a bloated state and unreformed public services. The solutions that flowed from this were predictable enough – hack back the state, reform welfare, get the deficit down, liberalise school provision. Growth will naturally follow.

But this fundamentally misreads British politics today. Most people won’t become ‘entrepreneurs’, and most don’t want to. They just want to get on, get a good job, earn decent money, provide for their family, and lead happy and fulfilling social lives. The biggest impediment to this in 2012 is not the welfare system or planning laws, but an enormous squeeze in living standards and an economy that only works for those at the top. Wages are stagnating, jobs hollowed out, yet utility bills, rents, train fares, tuition fees and mortgage deposits are all rising (this is the true face of ‘Britain on the rise’ under the Tories). And so are bankers’ bonuses and executive pay, all the while SMEs – a real engine of jobs – can’t get access to finance, and young couples can’t get on the property ladder.

Even those traditionally upwardly mobile parts of the population – at whom the speech was clearly aimed – are suffering from this squeeze. Polling for Southern Discomfort Again showed that between 41%-47% of floating voters in key middle class marginals say they are now not confident they have enough money to make ends meet. As Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows, a key feature of the ‘suspicious strivers’ group he identified is economic insecurity and precariousness.  The squeeze is also having obvious effects on demand and consumer confidence – without which all the “diplomatic showrooms” and ankle flashed to multinationals matters not one jot. Economically and electorally, post-crash Britain is defined more by strugglers than it is by strivers.

To this backdrop, a speech about the ‘global race’ in the new world economy, or unleashing a nation of Steve Jobs style entrepreneurs, is a little arid and far off. It’s not irrelevant, it’s just remote; a bit mid-1990s. On the real day-to-day challenges and anxiety facing people already in work, Cameron had little to say. Bank reform did not feature once in his speech, nor energy companies, or even the words ‘bills’ or ’wages’. The Prime Minister may have struck some nice notes along the way, but he played the wrong tune.

The truth is, most of the obstacles holding back prosperity in the UK and our place in the world come not from an unreformed public sector, but an unreformed private sector. That a Conservative Prime Minister, who came to political maturity in the age of neoliberalism, feels uncomfortable talking to that challenge is not surprising. But it ultimately leaves him unable to connect with the lives of people he needs to reach to win.

It is this divide that Labour needs to put the Tories on the other side of. The party needs to find a consistent line on welfare and schools, but it can’t allow the election be fought on this ground. They need to make 2015 an election about living standards and the squeezed middle; who wants an economy which puts money in the pockets of ordinary people, and who only looks out for the top 1%. Making banks and energy companies work for people, an active industrial strategy, even tax cuts at the bottom or middle paid in part by rises at the top – all, among others, have a role to play. On this divide, the Tories are extremely vulnerable – because they simply don’t grasp Britain’s living standards crisis to begin with. However eloquently delivered, David Cameron’s speech yesterday proved that.