Forget the Delivery - May’s Policies Are Weak and Wobbly
There is a reasonable consensus that Theresa May's speech today was an epic disaster. Many will be focused on the prankster giving the prime minister a P45 and May struggling to deliver her lines through coughs, but it's also worth taking a moment to think about the policy content of her speech. Unfortunately for May, her policy announcements also get a thumbs down.
May made big statements about tackling 'burning injustices' when she first came to power in 2016, as well as promises to give working people more voice. But during her premiership the dial has moved in the other direction - more poverty, wages falling in real terms and less worker voice. This inability to deliver is perhaps best illustrated by what happened to her proposals for workers on boards.
Some of May’s first proposals were promising, including the introduction of workers on boards to tackle the excesses of big business and give workers a say in their workplaces, but from then on her ambition started to falter. First, we were told that workers on boards would remain voluntary, and then we were offered a selection of watered-down options in the Conservative manifesto. A disappointing end for an idea that our research shows could have helped to redress the imbalance of power between workers and their bosses. Given her failures on this one simple idea, why would anyone believe the PM’s announcements today?
As well as collective amnesia about their record, I think there are some in the Conservative party who are hoping we’re not paying attention to the impact of their policies. I spoke at a fringe organised by Bright Blue on Sunday and was shocked when the Conservative MP and Under-Secretary of State for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, Guy Opperman, wouldn't even admit that poverty has got worse under the Conservatives. This government will never be able to tackle poverty if they won’t admit there’s a problem.
There was also some policy plagiarism going on. Last week, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Labour would change the organ donor register to require people to ‘opt-out’ and massively increase the rate of organ donation. Today Theresa May announced the Conservative government would do the exact same thing.
In some areas, the Conservatives copied Labour’s rhetoric without following through with equally strong policy proposals. As Jeremy Corbyn did last week, the PM acknowledged that the housing market is broken. However, while Labour announced a number of bold policies to tackle this – including a promise to build a million homes, half being council housing, and to give residents a vote on regeneration projects – the Conservatives announced an extension of Help to Buy (despite evidence this policy further inflates out of control house prices), and vaguely promised more protections for tenants.
On the biggest issue of the day, Brexit, we heard nothing new and no detail from the PM’s speech today. While the statement that EU nationals are welcome in the UK was a positive thing, this should have been made clear many months ago, when instead May repeatedly refused to guarantee the rights of EU nationals.
This week, the European Parliament voted that not enough progress has been made in Brexit talks to move on to talking about trade or a future relationship – a symbolic vote, yes, but MEPs will have the power to veto the final Brexit deal. With progress not looking good, we would have hoped to hear more from the PM today on how the government plans to get past the apparent deadlock in negotiations.
At Conservative party conference I was struck by how often Corbyn's name was mentioned, and how his speech was clearly setting the agenda in Manchester. Conservatives copying Labour policies won’t go unnoticed – it’s a sign that Labour’s getting it right.
So what were the fresh ideas on tackling May's 'burning injustices'? While we could welcome a review of the Mental Health Act, the real crisis in mental health is funding - and there was no new money announced today. May also reminded us that one of her first acts as PM was a new racial disparity audit to investigate how a person's race affects treatment by public services, but Conservative budgets and austerity measures have had the biggest negative impact on women of colour.
Once you study the words between the coughing and P45 stunt, you find very little to celebrate. As well as poor delivery, the speech lacked clarity of vision, new ideas and genuine passion for challenging inequality in the UK.