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By Women in Westminster

When we Conservatives talk business down, it is a clear sign we have lost our way

When we Conservatives talk business down, it is a clear sign we have lost our way
6 min read

Our party cannot continue to talk businesses down, ignore their concerns or tell them to shut up. The Conservatives must fight to remain the party of business – or risk Jeremy Corbyn in Number Ten, warns Sam Gyimah

Capitalism is in the dock. Ten years on from the Global Financial Crisis, popular discontent with business still abounds. 

Politically, the crisis has been a field day for the far left around the world and it’s played a major role in the takeover of the Labour party by it’s hard left. 

For Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the crisis was a reckoning, a judgement on a failed system. They think capitalism’s goose is cooked, and they can’t wait to carve up the carcass. And they have put the country on notice that should they take power, they plan to dismantle free markets, reintroduce mandatory sectoral wage bargaining and Bennite Schemes for worker control.   

This Labour platform is not simply a return to the 1970s. Some of the plans and policies that Corbyn’s Labour most admire, like forced worker cooperatives, were too crazy even for the 1970s left. Swedish socialists rejected a version of McDonnell’s share expropriation scheme, the Meidner plan in 1971, which is why every right-thinking person should be worried indeed.

And yet the hard left has managed to assemble a cast of glitzy ambassadors from Stormzy to the Archbishop of Canterbury – and a grassroots operation, Momentum, to normalise and spread their extreme ideas far and wide. 

I will never forget an event I held at one of our universities in which I majored on why Corbyn was a “wrong ‘un”. At the end of the session, one young man approached me to say he agreed with me on Corbyn, which prompted me to smile thinking my speech had had it’s intended effect, only for him to add after a brief pause, McDonnell would be a far better PM. He then went on to add Labour is everywhere – online and offline!    

So to fight back we need to have a true renaissance on the right, with our thinkers, our musicians, our artists, and our politicians bursting forth with new ideas to make the case for open markets. Yes, we need to be honest about the failings of capitalism, while making the case that it’s the best system we’ve got. Attacking Labour and proclaiming our sound economic management is necessary but not sufficient. We need to make the case for increasing the size of the national cake, to move up the economic league table, so there is more to share. We need to make the case for reinvigorating capitalism!

But when I look at how we on the centre-right have reacted to the perceived failing of capitalism, I can’t help thinking we have lost our way. Disconcerted by a shift in the zeitgeist against business, and by the cumulative surprises of the financial crisis, the EU referendum and the 2017 general election, we appear to have become confused about how to handle business.  

Sometimes we appear to accept criticisms of capitalism at face value and feel the need to respond accordingly – a futile task. At other times, we seem to want to take on the mantle of Trumpian economic nationalism and protectionism. And sometimes we just reach for the old playbook, implying that if we simply deregulate and cut taxes, all will be fine.  At other times we try to do a combination of all of the above.

When we Conservatives veer between talking business down, ignoring voters’ concerns, and telling businesses to shut up – or worse – it is a clear sign we have lost our way. When it comes to our relationship with business, we must unscramble our compass if we are to stand any chance of defeating the hard left. And whichever side you are on in the Brexit debate, we need to realise that if we are not the party of business then we are nothing. So we need to find our way, and quickly.

And that should start with remembering what has made us successful in the past. Our remarkable electoral record over the last century has been in no small part down to our relationship with business. 

As times changed our electoral success was based on our ability to reinvigorate capitalism – not fix it – in order to match the challenge of the time.

Sensing a change in the economic prevailing wind between the wars, we offered Noel Skelton’s “property-owning democracy”; after the Second World War we were comfortable with consumerism and as the 70s rolled into the 80s, Margaret Thatcher grasped faster than anyone the dynamics of the entrepreneurial, post-industrial society that Britain was becoming.

We are at our best when we are pro-enterprise and pro-endeavour, and when we do this in a way that is clear that our motive is to make the world a better place and improve the lot of ordinary citizens.  

But if all voters hear from us is an echo of the left’s concerns, and singing from Labour’s hymn sheet, without an enthusiastic and full-throated endorsement of open markets, and without trumpeting our record, we will have only ourselves to blame when they turn away from capitalism.

To succeed we need to offer a compelling alternative vision that the next generation can buy into. We can’t out-Corbyn Corbyn, and if we try, we risk offering a pale imitation that leaves people yearning for the real thing.

With the focus on Article 50 and the process of Brexit the debate on capitalism might not dominate this party conference. But the opposition is already drawing the battle lines for their workers’ revolution, and without irony, proclaiming itself as the party of business.

If we want to be the party of the future, we need to unscramble our compass, find our way, and proclaim our plan. This battle is being fought now – and it is one we have to win, because Corbyn & co will change our country dramatically for the worse. 

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