The Strange Leftward March of British politics

Peter Townsend
Dec 12, 2019 · 4 min read

With less than twenty-four hours until the polls close there is little agreement on the likely outcome to the 2019 election. While polls consistently suggest that there will be a small Conservative majority many commentators are predicting anything from a hung parliament to a 100 seat Conservative majority being proposed as possible outcomes.

While we cannot yet say with certainty who will emerge triumphant on Friday 13th December what we can say unequivocally based upon the manifestos of each of the major parties is that the next government of the United Kingdom will take a much ‘top-down’ approach than the any Conservative or Labour government since at least the 1970s.

Forty years of a shrinking state

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from 1979, the Conservative Party adopted the understanding that it was the role of the State to govern the country but not to directly manage every aspect of the economy. Mrs Thatcher believed that experienced business leaders would have a better understanding of how to profitably manage large corporations than government ministers and civil servants. In line with this understanding, she engaged in a policy of shrinking the UK State by progressively privatising various parts of the public sector or introducing competition into areas that were previously a State monopoly. Starting with small steps at British Aerospace and Cable & Wireless this policy would eventually see Jaguar, British Telecom, the remainder of Cable & Wireless and British Aerospace, Britoil and British Gas, British Steel, British Petroleum, Rolls Royce, British Airways, electricity and water utilities all enter private hands.

Under Prime Minister John Major from 1992-1997, the policy continued and British Coal, British Rail and the electricity generating companies Powergen and National Power were all privatised.

Despite previously being publicly opposed to privatisation the Labour Party under Tony Blair largely followed the same policy following their election victory in 1997. The introduction of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) saw private money enter the London Underground, the NHS and State-run schools. PFI and privatisation were aggressively continued throughout Labour’s time in office with action taken on both the Royal Mail and elements within the NHS.

Even when the economic crash of 2008 saw the government under Prime Minister Gordon Brown nationalise a string of failed banks it was made clear that the goal was to restore this banks to private ownership at the earliest opportunity. The over-riding lesson from both political parties was that private money was always the preferred option for investment rather than raising taxes and injecting increasing amounts of public money. The return of a Conservative-led government in 2010 simply saw these same policies further entrenched into the national psyche but now it seems as if the mood has changed.

Back to the 1970s?

It is no surprise that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has chosen to base much of his election campaign on the idea of increasing state control and an aggressive campaign of renationalisation yet what was less expected is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has chosen to abandon established Conservative policies and to embrace increased State spending on a scale not seen since the 1970s. Policies unveiled in the Conservative manifesto include increased spending across a range of sectors including education, health, and law enforcement. Where once these needs would have been seen as an opportunity for private funding to enter the system Johnson has chosen to revert to higher levels of State spending.

A broader base appeal

The reason for this change in tactics is not hard to discern. Johnson faces a challenge from a Labour Party which is more unashamedly radically socialist, and which can be viewed as having betrayed many of their traditional voters with their Brexit policy. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, he faces a challenge from the Liberal Democrats who hope to attract many former Conservatives with their hardline anti-Brexit policy. Johnson sees his best hope for a majority in moving into Labour territory and attracting their former voters with what are essentially traditional Labour policies. Whether this approach will work only polling day will reveal. However, the one result which is already apparent is that he has left a great many ‘right-leaning’ voters essentially homeless. They will reluctantly vote Conservative on Thursday, but only because for most of them there is nowhere else to go. Smaller parties such as UKIP and the Libertarian Party are standing in only a handful of seats so most people seeking a party promoting free-market economics and competition is going to be disappointed.

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