The Tories Live in the Past, Labour’s Time is Now

As we head to my hometown for Labour conference this week, it is time for all of us to stop being so tolerant of our time in opposition.

Here’s why: Liz Truss thinks she is the new Margaret Thatcher, or at least, wants to dress up like her.  But 12 years of Tory politics-as-play-acting is more than enough.

Given the crisis that we face the past three months have been a disaster for Britain. There has been a vacuum where a rescue plan for our country should be.  The Conservative Party has been self-obsessed whilst we face a crisis of living standards in the winter, rising family poverty, grim growth prospects, price instability, a collapsing currency, public services struggling under staff shortages and rocketing demand, young people crushed under the weight of housing costs they cannot afford, whilst businesses are crying out for people to do the work of the million who have exited the labour market with ill health.  Britain is broken, whether or not Liz Truss likes the narrative.

The country survived the pandemic (though too many did not) only to find itself financially sick again. And the Tory play-acting on economic policy isn’t just leaving a vacuum. It is also doing active harm.

Populism – certainly in Britain – always involves a certain amount of dressing up.  Boris Johnson was like a nursery child prancing about in pretend uniforms, wrecking the place. Recall Nigel Farage’s carefully curated range of pinstripe suits for the town and Barbour jackets for the country. Does Liz Truss’ appreciation of a carefully curated yet over-the-top wardrobe signal that she too is full of pretence? Yes.

Take one crucial area – not discussed enough – in which Liz Truss has pointed to the direction she would take as leader of the Conservative party: childcare. She says that we must transfer tax allowances from an economically inactive partner to the working partner in order not to ‘penalise’ those who take time out to care for a child or an older loved one.  It’s a revealing policy solution: social conservatism masquerading as fiscal initiative.

The rising cost of childcare already means that main carers – almost universally women – face far too high an economic penalty for the temerity of wanting to keep working alongside parenthood.

Giving a woman’s tax allowance to her male partner would make the financial gradient between women and men even worse. A misogynist’s charter: ‘Stay at home, dear, you cost me money if you go out to work…’. Never mind the 1980s, it’s the 1950s Truss is hoping for.

This is a fundamental mistake on her part. Women joining the paid labour market doubles the potential pool of workers available.  What some see as a purely social phenomenon has also had an incredibly powerful economic effect.  We should be heading towards real full employment, everyone able to play their full role. Truss’ plan exacerbates one of the central problems in our economy today: staff shortages. How does providing people with another incentive to leave work help businesses grow, help employees gain skills and earn more, or help our economy innovate and become more productive?

The Tories are living in the past. And we are all expected to pay for their fantasies.

In their leadership election, the person who explained it best was Penny Mordaunt. Speaking of the Tory Government of which she has been a part, she said,

“If I can compare it to being in the Glastonbury audience, when Paul McCartney was playing his set, we indulged all those new tunes but the thing we really wanted was the good old stuff that we knew all the words to.”

The Good Old Stuff.  This is the worst form of fantasy, dress-up politics of all: nostalgia.

Hearing this, I thought of Liverpool’s Paul McCartney himself. And the Beatles generally. Far from permanently dwelling on their glory years, they were a band for just seven years.  They all went on to do new things. What’s more, back in 2008, Paul described some of his internal battles to push The Beatles towards out-there experimentation. Or as he said George Harrison put it: the ‘avant-garde a clue’. Of all of them, Paul was the futuristic Beatle.

But if past-Paul had listened to present-Penny, he would have still been wearing a collarless suit and singing Love Me Do in 1968. No Sargent Pepper would exist, no walruses, no octopus’ gardens, and certainly no submarines.  If the Beatles had stuck with their Good Old Stuff, they would have been permanently trotting out their massive early hits.  But they didn’t because they thought they had more creativity, more to learn, more to give.  That’s why Paul McCartney is a great artist: because he always wanted change.

And this is the ambition that all Labour activists must charge themselves with this week: the country wants change.  Labour’s mission is to provide it now.

Alison is a regular contributor to Progressive Britain, check out Vision, Not Nostalgia, About Work