Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is committed to the overthrow of capitalism. This is not just what the party’s enemies say: it is what John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, explicitly confirmed in a television interview on Sunday. The outcome of any genuine attempt to suppress market exchange is shortages, inflation and cuts in living standards.
Yet that may be the policy of the next government unless the Conservatives can regain the trust of voters. The stakes are that high, and there are only flickering indications that the Tories are reflecting deeply on the mountainous task ahead. That ember needs to burn far more brightly.
Thus far the party has been considering ways to boost its membership base which, numbering 124,000, is less than a quarter of Labour’s. Options under discussion include providing shopping discount cards as a reward for membership. Fringe benefits will be of scant value unless the party can address a lack of ideological cohesion and substance. It is to be hoped that the launch yesterday in London of a new centre-right think tank called Onward will provide fresh ideas. Speaking at the event, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, urged the party to strive to attract a more diverse section of British society and promote a reforming policy agenda.
If these aims are to be realised, the Tories will have to abandon a destructive stress on proving its commitment to Brexit. In council elections this month it managed to slightly outperform expectations owing particularly to the collapse of Ukip’s vote. That result is liable to reinforce the temptation to appeal to its activists and the segment of the electorate that is most set on a hard Brexit.
That would be a mistake. This base of support, focused on Europe and immigration, is not wide enough to construct a winning coalition on a national scale. On the contrary, the Tories have damaged themselves through the Windrush fiasco. They failed to foresee that creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants would rebound on people who have legitimately lived in Britain for decades.
Theresa May and her colleagues have to present a credible proposition to voters who do not instinctively think of themselves as having Conservative views, and to two groups in particular. First, moderate Labour voters who are repelled by the party’s extremism need to be persuaded that the Tories will address the social concerns that led to the Brexit vote. These issues prominently include the starkly unequal returns since the financial crisis of people who hold assets and those who depend on wages from employment.
Second, the Tories need the support of more young voters who do not see that they have a sufficiently big stake in the market economy. A lack of affordability in housing has simply not been addressed except by a self-defeating boost to demand in the form of the Help to Buy scheme. The younger generation of workers face the unenviable prospect of living indefinitely in rental accommodation and working for many years longer to support a rapidly ageing population.
Labour in its current state is an extremist party but not necessarily an unelectable one. To win office again, the Tories have to banish the perceptions that they are uncomfortable with modern Britain, have no ideas beyond attacking Mr Corbyn and talk only to themselves rather than to the voters.