If the new Prime Minister wants to move Left, why not hold her to it?
‘The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The Middle Class was quite prepared.’
– Hilaire Belloc, Lord Lundy (1907)
How do you solve a problem like Theresa? The newly crowned Prime Minister has her table set out as neatly as Belloc’s Lord Lundy, from a drooling press to an AWOL opposition, and a party and country desperate for leadership.
And unlike Lundy (read: Boris Johnson), she’s unlikely to fall to pieces at the first sign of trouble.
As if recent weeks had been too snoreful, May has chosen to run as a Tory reformer, stealing Leftish clothes to denounce inequality and the boss class.
Chris Dillow puts it well:
“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.”
Of course, this form of triangulation by the current government is nothing new. Cameron’s Tories have borrowed Labour’s clothes before, grabbing policies and rhetoric they previously denounced as ‘anti-business’ or ‘the politics of envy’. (Abolishing nom-dom status, anyone?)
And as always, in reality the policies fall short of their promise – Osborne’s National Living Wage, upon which no-one can actually live, being a good example.
One response to this three-card trick has been to fold one’s arms and sneer, pointing out the hypocrisy of Tories acting like they care about the poor, and holding up the government’s record in office as an example the the gulf between its words and actions.
But what if the Left simultaneously took a different approach?
Why not take the new Prime Minister at her word, assume she really does want to bring about greater social justice, and hold her to every promise?
When Bill Clinton was elected US president in 1992 having moved the Democratic Party to the Right, (the original modern triangulation), the Republicans were able to get more of their agenda through congress than under any conservative president, from welfare reform to draconian criminal justice laws to massive deregulation, (with a legacy Clinton’s wife is now campaigning to redress).
However, this didn’t stop the GOP from trashing Clinton daily and seeking to win elections nationwide. (In this they were very successful, at least in part because Clinton ensured ‘the Middle Class was quite prepared’.)
What if the Left in Britain were to go beyond pointing and yelling ‘Tory’, (which after all, is not even an insult to Tories), and instead used the ‘Yes, and’ formulation?
What if we made our criticism constructive, to ensure, for example, ‘workers on company boards’ really happens, and is at least as progressive as co-determination in Germany?
Why not have our own criteria against which to measure the government’s proposals, and forensically approach Theresa May’s programme not to take it apart but to build something closer to what we actually want? In other words, why not call her bluff?
Conservatives are smart. That’s why they’re in government. They adapt and evolve and shape-shift to the needs of the moment.
As Observer columnist Nick Cohen has noted, simply calling them the ‘same old Tories’ is not an accurate critique, and doesn’t have the force some of us imagine with the public, who have voted for ‘Tory scum’ in major elections over the last six years.
If Theresa May wants to be a centre-Left Prime Minister, why not roll up our sleeves and make sure she is one – at least until we replace her in office?
Adam Barnett is staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.