On the face of it, the call from Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, for more stringent regulation of the gambling industry is a typical Labour solution to a problem: more government intervention, more taxes and more money for the NHS. In a speech given at a Demos, the centre-left think-tank on 18 June 2019, Watson outlined his vision for a stronger regulatory system for the gambling industry. The tripartite structure he proposes involves the Gambling Commission taking responsibility for operators, a newly-created Gambling Ombudsman protecting consumers and an NHS programme coordinating research, education and treatment relating to gambling addiction. The new regulatory framework is to be funded either by a levy on gambling operators set at one percent of the industry’s gross gambling yield, or a system which draws a certain amount from the industry in response to a needs-based assessment; it is expected the measures will raise more than £100 million.
There are undoubtedly problems with the way some gambling firms operate, and an ombudsman working alongside the NHS could be the best way to protect and help vulnerable gamblers. However, there is a strategic element to Labour’s latest policy announcement. On the economy, Labour’s message is the current system is rigged in favour of a select few and does not adequately work for the ordinary man or woman in the street. Over the last 18 months, the party has chosen to focus its policy proposals on areas that reinforce their headline message on the economy: cracking down on outsourcing in the wake of the Carillion fiasco; promising to nationalise water companies after it emerged they had been loaded with debt and avoided tax while bills increased; and a commitment to better regulation of the gambling industry following revelations that some bookmakers had exploited vulnerable customers.
This is a smart play by Labour. It illustrates the party’s message with concrete examples and demonstrates the inability of what they see as the ‘neoliberal hegemony’ to work in the interest of regular people. Even better, it leaves the Conservative’s in an ideological check-mate. They can either oppose Labour’s arguments, or they can agree somewhat and present a diluted, ‘Labour-lite’ policy. If the Tories choose the former approach, they end up looking like shills for big business, playing into Labour’s hands; if they choose the latter, they run the risk of appearing as a pale imitation of Labour, allowing Corbyn to push the message that voters might as well vote for the real thing.
Many of Theresa May’s difficulties as a Prime Minister were caused by Labour’s strategic positioning on the economy. Theresa May, never a natural defender of the market, was always going to be drawn down the interventionist path. Notable examples of May’s willingness to eschew the market include the introduction of an energy price cap, and her attacks on executive pay and ‘corporate greed’. Brexit largely obscured the divisions May’s policy approach caused within the parliamentary party on these issues. However, when her position started to look untenable, ministers like Liz Truss began banging the drum for a more a more traditional Conservative policy programme: lower taxes and less regulation. This mood has been reflected throughout the Tory leadership race, with many of the candidates promising tax cuts and a more liberal approach to the economy. Rory Stewart’s elimination from the contest perhaps represented the final rejection of May’s policy approach.
While Labour’s strategy of highlighting the excesses of capitalism is a strong one, a Conservative leader better able and more willing to defend the virtues of the market will more easily avoid the trap that Theresa May fell into. Nevertheless, the debate on the economy and capitalism itself, ahead of the next general election is set to be the most polarised in a generation. Labour’s vision will have to extend beyond pointing out what is broken and offer a positive message about how they would reform the current economic model, and the Conservative’s will have to demonstrate how a freer, less regulated economy will work in the interests of the least well off.