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Theresa May offends liberal left and libertarian right – but neither of them is she seeking to please

Daniel Bentley, 5 October 2016

To some, Theresa May’s first Tory conference speech as prime minister looked like a confusing combination of the right-wing and the left-wing. Dragged to the right on immigration, dragged to the left on the economy, while staking her claim to a ‘new centre-ground’. Contradictory? Not really. This was a quite coherent response to what is going on in politics, which some call a crisis of liberalism but is really more of a crisis of hyper-liberalism. This is the creed that dictates that, for example, immigration is not just good but that it is impossible to have too much of it, and that markets are not just good but should be left to their own devices just as much as possible.

These are totemic of the twin pillars of economic and social liberalism that have in common the idea that the only role for the state is to withdraw. They are also positions that have been locked down by both Labour and the Conservatives over the past couple of decades and about which many – even most – voters feel uncomfortable. Although not, as Mrs May said, everyone: ‘If you’re well off and comfortable, Britain is a different country and these concerns are not your concerns. It’s easy to say that all you want from government is for it to get out of the way.’

The difference between Labour and the Conservatives within such a framework is merely the extent to which the proceeds should be redistributed to offset the inevitable inequalities that emerge. Mrs May served time on that approach today, her message being that the state can, and must, play a role in providing security and opportunity for everyone. It is better to optimise more equal market outcomes without the need for so much post-hoc redistribution.

The appeal to a ‘new centre-ground’ sounds familiar because it was used by Ed Miliband in his bid to introduce similarly interventionist policies on the economy (under the snappy title ‘predistribution’). He failed in that bid, of course, but then he repudiated only half of the settlement that has been angering voters, carrying on Labour’s total support for free movement of people (which he and string of former Labour frontbenchers have now given up on, notably). The immigration debate still has a long way to run, but it was always a gap in Miliband’s economic agenda that he ignored what his one-time muse Maurice Glasman calls ‘the commodification of labour’. Jeremy Corbyn continues to sidestep the subject even now.

Many on the liberal left have been repulsed by the Tories’ response to immigration, but Downing Street knows that they do not speak for the ordinary voter. Similarly, free market fundamentalists and business lobby groups on the right were angered by her quite explicit disavowal of small-state laissez-faire economics, but they are not who she is trying to please. The market would be made to ‘work for working people,’ she promised, while ‘the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot’.

Those who have been the staunchest advocates of open-door immigration and free-wheeling capitalism are not going to enjoy the May premiership, with its emphasis on ‘the bonds of family, community, citizenship’ and with her most telling riposte that ‘there is more to life than individualism and self-interest’. That message, the golden thread running through her speech, was aimed at both the libertarian right and the liberal left, the implication being that they have more in common than they sometimes realise. The implications for Labour of this policy combination could well be devastating.

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