There are many reasons why Theresa May’s Conservatives managed to squander what seemed like an unassailable lead over Labour in the recent UK election. Certainly, personality played a role. Where Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn held pop-star type rallies in front of thousands of ecstatic young supporters, May met with pensioners in bowling alleys. She refused to debate her opponent on TV and had the charisma of a damp rag when she did appear in public. She was not helped either by the terror attacks in Manchester and London, which put her on the defensive due to police cuts she had presided over as Home Secretary in David Cameron’s government.
But the defining moment was the manifestos. In theirs, the Tories punished their core constituency, the elderly, by increasing their contribution to social care, and generally refused to give up on the unpopular austerity politics of the last seven years. Against an invigorated Corbyn, whose “fully costed” manifesto told 95% of voters that he would finance a multi-billion £ give-away by targeting the remaining 5% with new taxes, they had no chance. Young voters in particular flocked to Labour, ignorant of the economic illiteracy of Corbyn’s economics but given hope by the positive message he espoused.
But there is something deeper here. Theresa May’s Tories disowned free markets explicitly in the opening paragraphs of their manifesto, setting the tone for a brand of conservatism which has very little in common with its past, stretching back to Margaret Thatcher and beyond. They broadly came across as a party which agreed with most of the tenets of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme, but did not think it was economically viable. Theresa May fought the election as a social democrat who just couldn’t find the money for what she wanted to do, a negative message which was never going to resonate with voters. Against that, Corbyn told the electorate that not only would he do what May wanted, he would spend even more and he WAS smart enough to devise a plan for how to pay for it. It was an uneven match-up.
What the Conservatives could and should have done instead was to champion a positive message: the power of free market capitalism to create opportunity and prosperity. Aspiration must be encouraged; success celebrated. Those who prosper in a capitalist economy must be revered. Socialism in all its forms must be fought, and not just because the budgets don’t add up, but because their fundamental beliefs are debasing human potential, aspiration and achievement. The refusal to celebrate the virtues of capitalism and personal freedom over the past decades have now come back to haunt the Conservatives, and with them, everyone who doesn’t believe in the power of government to run our lives. The under-25s, of whom according to some surveys 80% supported Jeremy Corbyn, have never heard the arguments for capitalism. They also have no recollection of the 1970’s where far-left policies almost destroyed Britain, nor do they see the horrors of the Soviet Union as anything but a historical curiosity. No wonder they were easily swayed by the promised lands of Corbyn’s fairy-tale economics.
The outrage over the “dementia tax” – the change to elderly’s social care contributions – perfectly demonstrated how difficult it is to remove entitlements if you are not willing to take a principled stand against them. To change the welfare state, we must make bold arguments that there is a better alternative and argue against policies not just because they are unaffordable but because they are wrong. It is true that the left has a much easier time: Labour’s flagship policy was to bribe young voters with free tuition. But we cannot afford to let that discourage us. The stakes are too high.