Theresa May’s hasty attempt to refute Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speechshows how far Labour has set her on the back foot. She needs to defend capitalism? Nothing Corbyn or John McDonnell said this week suggested they were about to cast a shroud of Soviet-era command-and-control over the economy, as if queuing for bread and rationed state coupons beckoned. Of course, May couldn’t resist referencing Venezuela. When the old red-scare, demon-eyes tactics re-emerge from Conservative HQ, you know they’re panicking.
A free market is indeed a fine thing: she called it “the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created”. But no free market thrives without government intervention and a mixed economy of private and state-run functions. Enterprise flourishes only within the constraints of regulation strong enough to create a level playing field for fair competition.
A social democratic mixed economy recognises that only a synergy between state and enterprise prospers: Germany, Scandinavia and plenty more countries succeed far better than us, socially and economically, while we suffered decades of the crude Tory all-or-nothing binary divide.
The failed privatisation of utilities that Labour would bring back under state ownership has been a scandal for so long that even the Tories worry at the public fury over the energy cartels. Even the FT blasts away at the monopolistic cabals of energy and water. Last week’s FT leader started “There are few better examples of a natural monopoly than water.” Twenty-four years after privatisation, “it has failed”, the paper said. “This rent-seeking enterprise” has indulged in “regulatory gaming” and risks “being swept back into public hands.”
No Marxists these: just serious analysts of where the worst privatisations have skimmed fortunes from consumers, failed investors and run rings round enfeebled regulators.
Labour has pinpointed these very particular dysfunctions of out-of-control capitalism: in truth, Labour has more chance of saving capitalism from devouring itself than anything May has done – or anything she proposed in today’s string of platitudes as she stood in a Bank of England that was, after all, nationalised by Labour.
Though she said she needed to be “honest about where the free market is currently not working”, actual truths were thin on the ground. Some of her assertions this morning were plain breathtaking for their disconnection with current reality. “The government’s industrial strategy is promoting growth across the UK.” No, it’s not. The gap between the south-east and the rest is widening, not narrowing. She has no industrial strategy worth the name.
She said she doesn’t underestimate the “scale of sacrifice made by ordinary people” – but if so, why is she taking another £10bn out of working-age benefits for those same people while cutting corporation tax by even more?
Flexible working is a fine thing, she says, suggesting some of the modest recommendations by the Taylor report might “see it works of everyone”. But which ones, and how much? Then, in from the outer realms of unreality, she claimed the free market and “our successful management of the economy is what has made it possible to invest in our schools and hospitals”. Which, if any, words in that sentence can she sincerely believe? Surely not the “success” of her economy, with GDP falling behind the EU, national debt soaring, productivity lower since records begun, living standards fallen further than since the 1750s.
As for the NHS, it faces its first ever real cut per capita, while schools are forced to shed teachers and teaching assistants. Fake facts have gone mainstream. Her leopardskin kitten heels have left the ground.
As an attempt to refute Labour’s plans to breath life into a Keynesian growth of investment and public services rebirth, this was a nonstarter. By her conference speech next week in Manchester, she will have to think again. Though in her current plight, it’s hard to imagine what she can possibly say.
Mark Carney introduced May’s speech this morning with a stern warning: “The biggest determinants of the UK’s prosperity will be the county’s new relationship with the EU.” And nothing could drop as a more untimely bombshell on the Tory Brexit fantasists than the news the US will impose a 219% tariff on Northern Ireland’s Bombardier products.
On Northern Ireland , the crux of the worst Brexit dilemma: Boris, Gove, Fox and Farage all ooze enthusiasm for their imaginary special relationship with the US, but even they may blench at this. Do they recall Trump’s tweet that there would be “A major trade deal with the UK. Could be very big and exciting. The EU is very protectionist with the US. STOP!”? So who’s the protectionist now – and who seriously thinks US trade will fill the gap left by our trade with the EU?
Pity poor Theresa May’s benighted conference speech writer: what on earth can she say next week, if this is the best she can do today?