Theresa May is doing counter-populism right. The Tories have just released their manifesto for the June election, and it has every strength the Liberals’ depressing, slapstick excuse for a budget lacks. Some of it is positively Abbott-esque (in a good way): expanded maternity leave and ‘returnship’ for mothers going back to work, as well as training and child bereavement leave. At other points, it looks almost Chesterbellocian, as where it gives workers representation on company boards and makes them privy to the same information as shareholders. Again, to my mind, that’s not a terrible thing. Not by any means.
May, unlike virtually all of her contemporaries, understands the difference between being pro-worker and pro-government. Her idea of businesses’ ‘social responsibility’ isn’t confined to how much tax they pay or how much carbon they emit. It’s about how they treat their employees. It’s about fostering a sense of solidarity between the classes, and a sense of accountability to the community. That more than anything else is what makes May worthy of those comparisons to the Iron Lady. If she’s successful – and there’s every indication that she will be – she’ll achieve a Thatcher-tier revolution in conservative thinking.
Traditionally, Britain’s two major parties have acted like competing divorce attorneys, with each trying to get their client the best deal. If there can be no peace between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-Nots’, they may as well lawyer up and try to squeeze as much out of the other as possible. This was fraught for any number of reasons, not least of all the fact that Leftist parties’ tax-and-spend agendas are uniformly bad for blue-collar families. But Rightist parties never fully understood that a strong working class is good for business. ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ is Morality 102 (Morality 101: fruit is bad), and with good reason. No one flourishes when their neighbour stagnates – at least not for long. Sustainable economic growth is slow and shared more or less equally by all income groups.
Now, there are two ways to go about creating a more equitable society. The Economist, ever-unpredictable, recommends a regime of ‘moderate redistribution’. They should know better. That’s a Band-Aid solution. Skimming dough off the top and tossing it under the table only prolongs stagnation. The long-term interests of the working- and middle-classes are best served by their sharing in the production of wealth, not sponging off it.
That’s precisely what May’s doing. And there’s every indication she’ll succeed. Instead of burning down the marketplace – as disgruntled populists in the US and France have tried to do – they can stand alongside their employers and man the stall. And generous leave schemes will ensure workers never have to choose between their personal and financial wellbeing. That, too, will boost confidence in the economy. There’s nothing the stock markets like better.
Turnbull & Co. should watch events in Britain closely. While such an agenda would no doubt infuriate the party’s relentlessly pro-business elements (as it has the Conservatives’), the IPA isn’t nearly as popular as its swollen coffers would suggest. A May-style program of structural reforms – rather than this trainwreck of levy hikes, micromanagement, and excessive spending – would go a long way toward rebuilding Abbott’s 2013 majority.
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