Theresa May’s speech yesterday, more than any other prime minister’s speech I can remember, simply beggars belief.
She was able to look straight into the camera and give a speech that would just about be understandable if there was not such a chasm between the rhetoric and the reality of last six Tory years in office.
From her speech, we hear that the previous government had focussed too much on the interests of the wealthy few rather than working people. The previous government had been soft on tax avoidance and let business fat-cats get away with appalling business practices. The previous government had simply not been building enough houses or taking the much-needed decisions on infrastructure. And the previous government had allowed excessive immigration that worsened the lives of working people.
But we have to remind ourselves that she was involved in every single cabinet decision of that regime.
And while she may now take the language of the centre ground, we know the Tories do not have our values, compassion or vision of a different Britain.
She cannot simply write away the last six years as if she were no part of it. She was part of – indeed, central to – David Cameron’s government and she needs to take some responsibility for his legacy.
She has simply stood by, budget after budget, while working families have been hit. She never spoke out, never challenged or sought to change the direction of travel.
For Britain, it is deeply sad that much of what she says is true; for too long have the asset-rich grown wealthy from the years following the financial crisis and the asset-poor and savers are worse-off than ever.
We are not all benefiting from economic growth and we are becoming a more unequal society than ever before – financially, sectorally, regionally, generationally. But look also at the choices she has been part of making. The lowest housebuilding since the 1920s, over 700 Sure Start children centres gone – that vital early year’s investment that is a big driver for shared prosperity in the future. Just look at the rising levels of mental health amongst young people and the lack of services to support them – waits of six to nine months for an appointment with child and adolescent mental health services are now the norm. And the decimation of local government is set to have implications for years to come. My own council is seeing funding cuts of £130m over ten years of Tory government. While May calls for strong communities on the one hand, her choices before and now are making the opposite a reality.
This is not some strange phenomena that has crept up on us. For six years we in the Labour party have been calling on May and her colleagues to change course and make our economy work for all.
And on education, she needs to do much more than warm words to deliver what Britain needs. Over a third of children reach 16 without the equivalent of five good GCSEs. If your talents are to be all that matters in this new vision, why then is she overseeing cuts to education of over eight per cent per pupil funding by 2020? Will her new grammar schools help these third of children, or only a select few? And what, then, does this new vision of society offer to those children left behind?
And given her home secretary’s announcements only yesterday about registers of foreign nationals and limiting non-British workers, unity and social cohesion appears far from her agenda. Creating a society and social fabric based on ‘them and us’ and not ‘we together’ is a recipe for a divided Britain, not a united outward-looking Britain capable of facing the future and the world with pride and purpose
Over the next few months and on decisions in the autumn statement, May faces five key tests against which her direction of travel will be judged for the growth and security that Britain needs. Firstly, will she improve education and life chances for the many or the few? Secondly, will she change the rules to see more affordable homes become a reality for families across the country? Thirdly, will she back our public services like the NHS and our public sector workers? Fourthly, will her decisions following Brexit be based on the political agenda of her eurosceptic backbenchers or the needs of the British economy? And finally, will her policies unite or further divide the nation? After political and economic turmoil, we must guard against careless political language and the hate that comes in its wake. May must not get away with her warm words and shirking responsibility – we will be watching.
Seema Malhotra MP is member of parliament for Feltham and Heston. She tweets @SeemaMalhotra1