As the artificial mist from its post-conference grime party settles Labour’s proximity to power hasn’t seemed this real in ages. This is a remarkable turnaround for a party that only last year seemed utterly divided between the doldrums of the conference centre and the radical energy of the Momentum fringe events. How can the Tories under Maybot possibly compete?
Much depends on next week’s leader speech at the Conservative conference. As a weakened prime minister May is in no position to roll out radical new policies or deviate from the narrow path delineated by the challenges of Brexit. Yet this week we have begun to see signs that the May PR team has a game plan- and it just might do the trick. In a speech yesterday to mark the Bank of England’s 20 year independence from government May rebranded herself as saviour of Free Market Capitalism. As any economist will point out the celebration of the market in and of itself makes no real sense. Politically, however, it could be her masterstroke. In the battle of ideas much of dynamism in the past few months has been with Corbyn. The Conservatives’ previous appeals to the just about managing for whom the economy hasn’t delivered seemed only to bolster Labour’s more full-throated critique of the status quo.
By intervening in the Uber debate May has picked up on an issue of the free market that truly resonates with many in urban Britain, especially millennials. What is peculiar about May’s criticism of TfL’s decision to put the taxi app on notice is that she goes beyond even Uber’s CEO in defending their drivers. Where the young are drawn by the rebellious spirit and daring to dream of Corbyn’s Labour May has latched onto something tangible. If her party can build on this platform and outline a meaningful liberal argument for millennial voters Labour’s momentum (small m, if not big) could be damaged.
As the corporate comms world well knows any re-brand will fail if it is in slogan. It has to be meaningful. What should follow is a package of well promoted efforts to bolster start-ups and support innovation among the under 30s- both of which have slipped from the government’s priority list. The Conservatives cannot outcompete Labour on rent controls and tuition fees and still remain a coherent party of the right. But they could be the champion of the young entrepreneur, of the disruptive creative, of the metro liberal at ease with the transformation of battered workshops into cereal cafes and VR studios. The spectre of Brexit will be difficult to shake off but a promise to maintain and nurture the cosmopolitan energy of the UK could go some way to reassuring the worried liberals caught between the irrelevance of the Lib Dems and the radicalism of Labour.
To look at it cynically Labour’s better than expected performance in this year’s election has shown that politics is ultimately retail. You offer people what they want and they lap it up. May fought the election with abstract concepts that seemed more ridiculous with each reiteration. If she wants to be the upholder of the free market in contrast to comrade Corbyn she will need to identify precisely what this platform can offer in real terms. Otherwise that Uber will be waiting to take her out of Downing street.