We must focus, says Damian Green, on using technology and transparency to boost the private and public sectors alike
Spending the summer watching the Labour Party drift helplessly away from the British people and towards the wilder shores of ideological purity has been a dangerous pastime for Conservatives. Like many holiday entertainments it was fun while it lasted but should not be confused with real life. The Conservative Party, and the Government which it now fully controls for the first time since the 1990s, will be judged on how it performs and whether it has the capacity to renew itself in office.
This means that the debate taking place in intellectual Tory circles about whether we can now afford to be more radical than we would otherwise have been is in practical terms irrelevant. Whether we are now in power for five years or fifteen we should treat each Parliament as one in which we need to get as much done as possible. We need to guard against complacency, to display an ability to govern effectively, and to show intellectual renewal.
The majority of the British people have accepted that austerity was necessary but they are now at the stage of wanting to see the fruits of their sacrifices. Taking a wider perspective, we need to win the argument that globalisation and free markets are the way to mass prosperity, and not just a way for a small elite to become incredibly rich. The key battle is to show that we can use Tory tools to spread prosperity. This will require us to be radical.
When Conservatives talk about being radical there is a tendency to assume that this means repeating the 1980s, and taking Thatcherism to realms it did not reach then. This would be a misreading of history. Thatcherism was the way to cope with the collapse in the 1970s of the social democratic settlement of the post-war world. It is not a doctrine to be applied religiously in all circumstances and at all times. A modern radical Tory approach will enable the spread of wealth and power beyond the elites (as Mrs Thatcher aimed at, to be fair) but will require new tools.
Where privatisation was once the weapon to enrich and empower millions of people, the modern equivalents are transparency and technology. Making the public sector more open both in terms of providing information and in terms of providing services online makes it more efficient and cheaper to run, but more importantly forces it to provide a better service. This applies across the board from buying a driving licence to enabling people to contact their local police.
This is a long and difficult process which we are already embarked on. Even more radical is to insist that private sector providers of essential services meet the same criteria of transparency and the use of technology to make their customers lives easier. In too many areas of our economy we no longer suffer from monopolies but equally pernicious oligarchies; a small number of big companies who sell us the services we need and who do so with a mass of confusing tariffs, deals, and contracts that mean millions of people paying over the odds.
Adam Smith warned against this kind of subtle conspiracy, and a radical Conservative Government would support ways to subvert the conspirators. Being Conservatives we do not want to do it simply by giving control to the state, because that will cause more problems than it solves. (I confess it as a sign of age, but those of us who can remember British Rail are astonished that a majority of the public want to bring it back.) Instead we should harness the power of the market and digital technology to empower the consumer through the mandatory provision of easily accessible information.
This is all theoretical so let me give practical examples. The insurance market has been transformed by price comparison websites. Anyone who believes that being a loyal customer for home or car insurance means that you get a better deal has their eyes opened by the provision of comparative information. A Conservative solution to the energy price issue would be to mandate something similar in the energy field. Allowing millions of people to know that they were able to obtain accurate and independent information about gas and electricity prices, thereby creating genuine competition, would be a great step forward. We should do the same for the telecoms industry, not just for price information but also for the provision of broadband.
These are a couple of practical examples of how we can use the power of properly competitive markets to solve the everyday problems which people are increasingly unwilling to tolerate. They have become accustomed to the private sector providing goods and services which were unimaginable ten years ago, and therefore have become intolerant of those parts of “the system” which seem unable to reach the same level of service.
Conservatives must be visibly on the side of those who expect excellent service not just from the state but also from those companies that have considerable power. It used to be said that loyalty was the secret weapon of the Tory Party. We clearly need a new secret weapon, and I propose a simple answer: competence.
We should provide a Government which recognises which problems grate most with the largest number of people, and is fearless in dealing with them. We should never forget that Tories can be captured by producer interests as well as Labour, and we should be vigilant in preventing this happening.
As well as energy prices, and broadband access, there is a huge discontent about housing provision, to take another practical example. We need to reclaim the mantle of the party of home ownership, and to do that we not only to build more houses but ensure that they are available for people to buy. Too many new houses and flats are immediately snapped up by buy-to-let landlords, and never become available for first-time buyers. I am delighted that we have taken the first steps towards removing the tax advantages for buy-to-let, but I suspect there is much further to go (and therefore more political courage required).
We need a fearlessly radical Government which will challenge vested interests not by imposing state power but by harnessing the increasing power of free markets in a digital world. This will enable us to provide improvements in the quality of life of millions of people, who will be able to enjoy the fruits of their hard work. This will be the best demonstration that Conservatives are on the side of the many not the few, and that our permanent values are more relevant than ever in today’s world.
Rt Hon Damian Green is Member of Parliament for Ashford.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 18/03/2016.