‘Mayism’, whether it left you in admiration or despair, at least seemed like an identifiable philosophy. It was concerned with social justice, but it wasn’t socialist: it was better described as post-liberal. Mayism was sceptical of free markets, which were prey to ‘selfish individualism’ (as the manifesto put it), but it didn’t see big government as the answer. It preferred to spread economic power, by clamping down on corporate malpractice and giving new rights to workers. And the symbol of this – until yesterday when the Tories pretty much dropped the proposal – was the idea of putting workers on company boards.
To be exact, the idea has not been entirely dropped. It has just been re-envisioned as one of three options – and the other two (assign a non-executive director to represent employees; or, create an employee advisory council) are significantly more wishy-washy. What’s more, companies don’t even have to choose one of the three, if they can think of a good reason not to: the new rule will be on a ‘comply or explain’ basis, meaning that shareholders retain the final say. The TUC, which ten months ago declared itself ‘ready to work with Theresa May to make workers on boards a reality’, now says the weakened proposal is ‘deeply disappointing’.
Perhaps the Tories have good reasons for the climbdown. There is a decent debate over whether the policy would work in Britain. But symbolically, the abandonment of the idea is a major retreat. When May first announced the policy, it was seen as the essence of the new post-liberal Toryism. ‘An unprecedented move by any Prime Minister, whether Labour or Conservative,’ said Blue Labour pioneer Lord Glasman. It showed that the Tories thought there was an imbalance of power between owners and workers, and that they would take drastic steps to correct that inequality.
Politically, it also suggested that social justice might mean something other than the Hugo Chavez fan club launching a massive programme of state spending. It might mean imaginative thinking about how different classes and different parts of society can work together. That was the importance of this flagship policy, which has now been towed away into a quiet harbour.
There is a pattern here. Every few years, the Tories announce that they have left behind Thatcherism, that they are radical social critics who would fight poverty and inequality far more determinedly than Labour ever could. David Cameron came to power promising ‘Red Toryism’, another post-liberal project which was supposed to move beyond the big government/free market dichotomy. Those involved with the Red Toryism project will now tell you that Cameron’s team never seemed to get it. But at the time, Cameron’s bold words – he lamented the ‘two worlds’ of rich and poor and promised that the state would ‘remake society’ by actively empowering individuals and communities – looked like a new start.
After Red Toryism faded out, it was followed by ‘blue collar conservatism’, which to its leading figure Robert Halfon meant ‘not being afraid to appropriate the language of the left or build alliances with trade unions, pressure groups and the Big Society’. But the brand seems to have gone the same way as Red Toryism, and Halfon has been sacked from the Cabinet.
Theresa May’s manifesto was in the same tradition, and May seems to really believe in it. But its quintessential policy proposal couldn’t survive. The main architect of Mayism, her former chief of staff Nick Timothy, has also had to walk the plank. He is now writing articles that denounce ‘free-market fundamentalists’ and make the case for a post-liberal Toryism. It’s a good case and he makes it eloquently. It just seems to wither away the closer it gets to actual policy.