Ben Houchen shows the Conservatives are still wedded to free markets
Just prior to viewing UnHerd’s interview with the freshly re-elected Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, I had (fun-loving guy that I am) been watching an old Channel 4 documentary filmed during the 1982 party conference season.
A contribution from a speaker at the Tory gathering was, looking back from this distance at least, quite astonishing. He called for the abolition of job centres, arguing that it was the duty of the jobless themselves — over three million of them at that point — to find work, with no assistance from the state. Perhaps he was riffing off the then employment secretary, Norman Tebbit’s, infamous comment the previous year about how his unemployed father had “got on his bike and looked for work”.
The contrast with the language coming from today’s Conservative Party couldn’t be more stark. No present-day Tory, whatever their private view, would dare stand up at the party’s annual conference and display such contempt towards the unemployed.
The messaging is now all about ‘jobs’, ‘levelling-up’ and using the power of the state to improve people’s lives. It goes a long way to explaining why the Conservatives have knocked so many chunks out of Labour’s red wall. They have understood that there exists in such places sizeable numbers of voters who are entirely approving of a healthy dose of economic interventionism. Coupled with the disdain felt by these voters for the identity politics and wokery that have captured the modern Left, the Tories have been handed an open goal.
Ben Houchen stormed home with 73% of the vote. In his UnHerd interview, he unsurprisingly waxed lyrical about the Tories’ new approach and how it is paying dividends electorally and economically in the north-east.
As always in politics, however, the reality may end up not matching the rhetoric. For all his talk of using the power of his office to intervene in the task of job-creation and his support for such concepts as public-private partnership, Houchen displayed some of the contradictions that still lurk beneath the surface in the Tory party. While he took the local airport into public ownership to save it from closure, he plainly cannot wait to flog it off again.
Neither could he hide his admiration for freeports — “the most free market policy this government has come up with … I think the whole of the UK should be a freeport” — or, for that matter, Milton Friedman, the inspiration for so much of the “rolling back the frontiers of the state” economic agenda pursued by Margaret Thatcher.
In truth, the Tories’ pinstriped, free trade fundamentalist wing never went away, and many among them will be distinctly uncomfortable with the party’s turn — ostensibly, at least — towards big government interventionism.
Where Houchen incontestably gets it right is on the question of the cultural divide that now exists between a “very insular, inward-looking, navel-gazing” Labour Party and its one-time core vote in areas like his. “There’s absolutely a huge disconnect with the Labour Party to areas like Teesside … They don’t understand why local people feel English or patriotic about the armed forces.” True enough. Though as Houchen himself accepts, these voters merely “lent” their votes to the Tories and “will very easily not vote for us again” if his party doesn’t fulfil its promises.
Whether or not the red wall turns blue for more than a few fleeting years will depend on whether Houchen and his colleagues are seen to have repaid the trust these voters placed in them.