The Answer to the Trump Right and the Corbyn Left | Matthew Cowley
The Trump Right and the Corbyn Left are significantly different on paper, but both are symptoms of the same kind of political problems. Trump rails against free trade and immigration; Corbyn against big multinationals, foreign property investors, and the free movement of capital that enables tax evasion. Their target market is the kind of people that academic scholars call the ‘losers of globalisation’ – those who see the world changing around them but haven’t seen the advantages, those who have been told about the prosperity brought about by globalisation but haven’t gotten any better off, those who see an establishment talking about life getting better but feel like life has gotten worse.
The benefits of globalisation are well-documented, but too little has been done to spread the resultant prosperity. Prosperity has been centralised: the primary beneficiary in the UK has been London, with rural areas and our smaller towns and cities not feeling the benefits. The primary beneficiary of economic development in many cities has been the city centre, with those on the fringes largely ignored.
For conservatives to fight the rise of figures like Corbyn and Trump, we need to find ways to help those who have heard about the benefits of globalisation, but not seen them for themselves. Fortunately, we are best placed to provide long term, viable solutions to spread the benefits of a changing world to everyone in our society: Corbynism consists of dangerously short-termist policies – throwing unsustainable amounts of money at a broken system, at the expense of massive national debt which will force future generations to deal with worse problems with far less money to play with; Trumpism is largely empty rhetoric, designed more to win office than to solve anything; but Conservatism has the pragmatism and the ideological tools needed to help spread the benefits of globalisation – primarily through our commitment to the spread of opportunity for all.
When proposing any solution, it is important to remember our social contract with future generations not to impact their living standards at the expense of our own. While Corbynism is happy to spend tomorrow’s money today, leaving higher taxes, higher debt and increased austerity for future generations, we must ensure that we invest in sustainable, long-term projects.
A policy priority for spreading opportunity to all must be investing in our rural regions and regeneration of urban areas. Infrastructural investment in better roads, improving existing housing stock and building new houses, and investing in facilities for businesses will be an important long-term way to bring opportunity to everyone. We need to invest in job-creation by bringing businesses to areas with low levels of employment by building business parks on brownfield sites and encouraging long-term economic growth by providing long, cheap contracts for businesses to move into those areas and providing rates relief based on the number of employees a business takes on.
As well as bringing jobs to disadvantaged areas, we need to find ways to get people from those areas to jobs elsewhere. As well as investment in roads, an efficient and regular system of public transport is needed. That means regular buses in rural areas and an extension of existing bus routes in urban areas to make them accessible to everyone. Means-tested bus passes should also be considered, as a way to increase the accessibility of public transport.
To truly transform our society and bring opportunity for everyone, we also need to revolutionise our education system. The hysteresis in human capital from long term unemployment can leave people unable to find work. Implementing new free adult education programmes to enable people without work to gain new skills or trades that will make it easier for them to find work would help us to expand opportunity, and change the mindset that education is the exclusive preserve of young people. These adult education sessions should be held in areas with high unemployment, to ensure that they are accessible to those who would most benefit from them.
Reforms to other areas of education are important as well. Reducing the focus on grades and making it about learning will lessen the strains of our education system on mental health, and reducing the emphasis on exams would allow people to learn all the way through the year, rather than school being reduced to learning largely irrelevant facts for three quarters of a year and then spending a significant chunk of the year with a series of exercises that test recall ability more than actual knowledge. Children deserve choice too. An education system that allows them to choose between a focus on technical education, a focus on a more academic education, or a comprehensive focus on both is one where children can better reach their potential and will be less dissuaded from seeking knowledge. The current education system is a poor fit for many pupils, so giving them a chance to have a different style of education where they can learn about something they are interested in will enable more of our young people to fulfil their human potential.
While we’re on the subject of education, something needs to be done to continue to improve the accessibility of higher education for disadvantaged students. Maintenance grants should be reintroduced, so that the cost of higher education for these students is more in line with their counterparts, and the interest rate on our student loans should be held at inflation, to reduce the anxiety such a loan will cause. More work also needs to be done to reduce the myths that have been perpetuated around student loans. Students have become steadily more concerned about the impact that student debt will have on their lives – in part because of unhelpful scaremongering rhetoric from those who oppose tuition fees – when it is in reality no different to a means-tested tax with a 30-year period and an upper limit on how much it will cost you.
As Conservatives we are the party of home ownership, and so this is another area where we need to do more to help people. Encouraging the development of housing on brownfield sites and renovating and redeveloping run-down social housing would be an important long term investment in our country’s infrastructure. State-run housing is unfortunately incredibly inefficient and poorly maintained, and so we also need to come up with a way of balancing the need to house people with the knowledge that them owning the house will increase their standard of living and housing quality. Help to buy has already achieved a lot here, but another solution might be to simply hand over the home to its tenants (if they so desire) and then take payments towards it in the form of a means-tested tax. Those earning too little to pay the upkeep would receive housing benefit, while those who could afford it would pay towards the value of the house until they had contributed a certain amount. This would remove the up-front cost associated with getting onto the housing ladder and could be used to help both disadvantaged households and first-time buyers.
Finally, it is important that we consider how we can spread opportunity when taking advantage of Brexit. Being outside the European Union’s Customs Union means that we will have lots of opportunities to secure free trade deals and encourage foreign direct investment. This increased globalisation will benefit our country as a whole, but it is also important to ensure that it benefits rural areas and urban areas which have been left behind by globalisation thus far.
The Corbyn Left and the Trump Right are ultimately two symptoms of a wider societal problem that conservatives are well-placed to solve. In an increasingly globalised world, too many people have heard about the benefits of globalisation without feeling any of them. Populism, whether from the left or the right, has empty rhetoric and short termist solutions; conservatism has the unique combination of pragmatism and commitment to equality of opportunity that is needed to spread the benefits of globalisation to all. It is not that communities which have been left behind cannot catch up, it is simply that they haven’t been given the tools to respond to the rapid societal changes that have occurred. We need a radical commitment to expanding opportunity to improve our society.