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Theresa May’s brand of inequality

Theresa May’s brand of inequality

Many of us inequality nerds were caught off guard by Theresa May’s recent speeches on building a more inclusive country. For me, Theresa May is the woman who signed-off those awful ‘Go Home’ vans, wanted to scrap the Human Rights Act and has consistently made life more difficult for refugees and asylum seekers, not someone who champions social and economic justice. Her change of heart begs the question – has Theresa May been hiding her real politics all this time, fooling the Conservative party members and waiting until she got to the top to show her hand? Or, is this all empty rhetoric?

Everyone is jumping on the inequality bandwagon these days – from the former best friend of inequality, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to Nigel Farage. The recent Brexit vote, which many interpret as a working class revolt against the establishment, means that any astute politician knows that they need to appeal to this group directly. Theresa May is also capitalising on the chaos of the Labour Party to take the centre ground and broaden the electoral appeal of the Conservative Party. But this doesn’t mean she is genuine, and in any case inequality means different things to different people. So, in an attempt to uncover Theresa May’s definition of inequality and gauge if we’re likely to see greater equality under her stewardship, it is worth exploring what she has said and done, and her proposed policy plan.

What does Theresa May mean when she talks about inequality?

During her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May spoke about inequalities between rich and poor, Black and White racial groups, men and women, and also mentioned the working class, the young and those with mental health problems. She has spoken about income and housing, as well as tax and big business during leadership campaign speeches Her key line, which she referred to again in this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, is “a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us.”

All sounds good to me. Some have pointed to the irony of this rhetoric given Theresa May’s voting record, but luckily for her the general public has a short memory. But can Theresa May challenge all these inequalities at once? While her predecessor, David Cameron, made similar noises about racial inequalities and fair chances, he failed to make headway. This is because policy makers too often see inequality as an issue solely of social policy – welfare and education – rather than also economic policy – good job creation, affordable housing and fiscal policy. They also fail to see the importance of power – unless workers and the poorest have greater voice and tools by which to hold their bosses and the UK government to account, their concerns will continue to be secondary to those of the rich.

How does Theresa May suggest we address inequality?

This is where it gets interesting. This week, in PMQs, Theresa defended austerity – a set of policies that have disproportionately affected the poorest and women. She also referred to the higher employment rate and dodged the question on work conditions. May and her team must pay attention to the new research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies which shows that while more people are in work there are also more people on low pay. Getting people into work, they conclude, will not be enough to address poverty going forward, we must think also about pay and housing costs. May is yet to set a clear agenda for housing investment and a good jobs plan which would be vital to delivering a more inclusive economy.

But elsewhere May has offered more promising policy ideas. For instance, she promised a crackdown on corporate and personal tax allowance stating that, “tax is the price we pay for living in a civilised society. No individual or no business, however rich, has succeeded all on their own.” She has also made the right noises on tackling anti-competition among big utility and retail banks and on tackling executive pay through having workers on boards. On the flipside the Conservative government is cutting corporation tax, going for a ‘light touch’ regulatory environment post Brexit and have been strong advocates of the Trade Union Bill which will undermine the power of workers to stand up to bosses.

The words that worried me most in May’s maiden speech as PM were “we will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives.” That’s usually code for privatized services. Privatisation does not lead to more equality. In fact, it is equivalent to selling off collective wealth and putting it in the hands of ‘the privileged few.’

May has also signalled that her policies to alleviate inequality will be out of the ‘pull your socks up’ advice book, claiming that, "in the name of equality, Labour believe in holding people back" but Conservatives believe in people having the freedom "to go as far as their talents will take them".

Overall then the picture is mixed and she as a long way to go if her actions are to match her rhetoric. As minister for women and equalities, May was criticised by the Labour party for scrapping a legal requirement on public bodies to try to reduce class inequalities, claiming it “was as ridiculous as it was simplistic,” but if she’s serious about addressing inequality she will need to ensure that equality is embedded into all government does – the multiple drivers of inequality mean a piecemeal approach will not suffice.

Who could deliver Theresa May’s more inclusive society?

Looking at Theresa May’s cabinet there are a number of ‘typical’ Tories, those from elite backgrounds that haven’t made addressing inequality a large part of the political careers so far. Boris Johnson, for instance, wouldn’t even sign a pledge to address inequality while the Mayor of London. The likelihood of this team delivering real change for a group of people that they probably have minimal interaction with is questionable.

Tackling inequality will take courage, and even if Theresa May is serious she will have to stand up to her own party - which has generally facilitated the growth in inequality. She will also need to think about a broad policy agenda to address inequality. A few small tweaks here and there, especially given the impending economic slowdown that will inevitably hit the poorest hardest, will mean she will fail to deliver a more equal country. To start with, Theresa May must ensure we have a progressive exit from the EU – one that protects workers’ rights and includes UK government stimulus to diversify the economy and encourage good job creation. Given Class’s experience of working on these issues we should be expecting a call from Theresa’s team forthwith… but I won’t be holding my breath.

Overall, I would accept that Theresa has made some interesting announcements, particularly about cracking down on corporate tax and workers representation on corporate boards. Unfortunately, as for most of the right, ideology gets in the way. For as long as the Tories believe that the only thing holding people back is hard work, that cuts to in-work benefits give people the push they need, and Trade Unions are a thorn in their side, Theresa May’s government will be missing the mark with policies designed to tackle inequality.

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