A centrist political economy for Britain: Part 1

The fabled ‘centre ground’ of British politics is more malleable than people realise, which means that a radical agenda for the country’s political economy does not involve left-of-centre politicians vacating it

Matthew Bishop
Matthew Bishop

A train ticket from London to Manchester should not cost £296. The owner of a private firm which depends exclusively on the taxpayer for contracts, and does a worse job than the public sector equivalent, should not receive £8.6 million in dividends. The Chancellor of the Exchequer should not have sold a nationalised bank to the private sector at a £400 million loss. A handful of oligopolistic supermarkets should not control the country’s food supply, destroying high streets and squeezing the livelihoods of farmers in the process. Britain’s strategic capacity to access energy should not be controlled by a group of similarly oligopolistic ‘private’ firms, many of which are, in fact, actually state-owned (just not by the British state). BBC executives should not enjoy six-figure bonuses or near million-pound severance pay-offs funded by the compulsory license fee. The former head of HMRC, who himself has come under scrutiny for a number of controversial ‘sweetheart deals’ allegedly favouring corporate interests over the taxpayer, should not be allowed to take up a lucrative job working for a firm which advises others how to go about avoiding tax.

Are any of these statements particularly controversial? If we could travel back to the Britain of the 1950s or 1960s, would any of them not sound simply like common sense, even (or especially) to Conservative politicians? And are they any less reasonable today?

The point I am making here is three-fold.

First, a major problem with the UK’s contemporary political economy is that it is characterised by widespread rent-seeking. There is very little that is entrepreneurial about the kind of profiteering at the taxpayer’s expense embodied by firms like A4E, Amazon, Starbucks or Virgin, or the shadowy companies looming over the soon-to-be dismembered National Health Service.

Second, the protestations of supposedly ‘business-friendly’ politicians who support this order are anything but friendly to business or a liberal economy; they are in favour of rigged, not free, markets.

Third, the stitching up of the UK economy by the powerful is not, I would suggest, something which most moderate, centrist voters are actually in favour of. As Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker reported recently on these pages, people are overwhelmingly disgusted by the behaviour of the British elite, but remain unsure as to how they should articulate these feelings.

If these three assertions carry some truth, then it plausibly follows that it is much of the modern Tory party, wherein many of its most vocal members now occupy the wilder fringes of neoliberal fundamentalism, which has strayed furthest from the political centre ground.

They are, of course, joined in this desolate place by the über-Blairites, for whom events since 2008 have only served to confirm, rather than call into question, their bleak worldview. This is something which has been illustrated clearly by Tony Blair’s recent, but still rare, forays into domestic political debates, warning Ed Miliband that, even during the crisis, ‘the centre has not shifted to the left’.

Unfortunately, too many in the broader Labour Party have also been infected with a similarly skewed understanding of what constitutes centrist politics. Witness, for example, Independent columnist Owen Jones skilfully challenge the aping by Labour MPs of Conservative attacks on those unfortunate enough to have lost their jobs.

But, if the ‘centre ground’ is not where the Blairites and hard-right Tories think it is, where can we find it?

To begin to answer this question, we have to remember that the Thatcherite agenda was far from uniformly popular and remains heavily contested, even today. The Conservatives have not won a majority since 1992, and in 2010 roughly 60% of votes were cast for parties ostensibly to ‘the left’ of Cameron and co.

Moreover, my hunch is that they would have enjoyed even less support than the meagre third that they obtained in 2010 had they come clean about their plans for the NHS, tuition fees, the Royal Mail, and the fact that George Osborne, who asked to be judged on his success in ‘getting the deficit down’, would miss his own austerity targets by borrowing a colossal £245 billion more than planned.

Similarly, the Blairite agenda has never been one with genuinely enthusiastic support of an enduring kind. Despite some apparent claims to the contrary, Blair himself was not an election miracle worker. The late John Smith would have won a decent majority in 1997 had he lived. Blair’s mode of depoliticised, triangulated politics also saw a haemorrhaging of support between the first landslide and the election of 2005, where Labour polled just a fraction more than the Tories did in 2010.

This may be an unfashionable view, but to my mind the centre ground of UK politics actually is somewhere to the left of where both the more rabid Tories and the Blairites choose to situate themselves.

I consequently find it hard to believe that there doesn’t exist a significant number of right-of-centre voters (let’s call them ‘small-c conservatives’) who genuinely believe in free markets along with well-funded provision of public services run for the benefit of all, and who are therefore just as horrified as those on the left about the abuse of power, venality and rent-seeking which together characterise the contemporary UK economy.

As The Guardian’s John Harris has recently asked, what has happened to the ‘late unlamented One Nation Tory?’ There are in fact plenty of them hiding away, as the establishment of the new ‘Renewal’ group suggests. However, they remain vulnerable to the hegemony of the Conservative hard right.

Similarly, Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Labour’ idea has been hinting in much the same direction; but, on recent evidence, it has been advanced in too timid and defensive a fashion.

For the British political leader who can find the right language to inspire and unite those disaffected on the real left and right of the UK’s political centre ground, there is potentially an enormous prize to be seized, characterised by a huge electoral dividend and mandate for reshaping the country’s political economy. But this requires visionary, brave and radical political leadership, something which, at present, still appears to be in rather short supply.