David Cameron cannot emulate Tony Blair, but he will change New Labourby Sunder Katwala / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
The emergence of David Cameron as Tory leader-elect (barring a big upset) offers both a credible electoral threat and a political opportunity for Labour’s next leader, Gordon Brown. You know you have embedded long-term political change when you convert your opponents. Both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher achieved this. But Blair/Brown are only part of the way there. The critique implied in Gordon Brown’s phrase the “progressive consensus” is that Labour has yet to win the big public arguments needed to forge a “new common sense” in British politics around left-of-centre values. The revival of the Tories could, paradoxically, speed that process.
A broken Tory party—stuck with its core vote in the polls ever since the 1992 ERM crisis—has been the central fact of recent British politics, enabling Tony Blair to dominate the centre unchallenged. His strategy has had two pillars.
The first has been that economic success and social justice can—and must—go together. This will remain the central tenet of Brown’s Labour, while the Tory mods under Cameron will seek centre-right language to make a similar claim. We can expect broad agreement on macroeconomics. The substantive disagreements will be over whether state action can enhance long-term productivity and growth, and how to use the proceeds of that growth. Blair and Brown want to refine an “enabling state”; the right tends to think globalisation makes it an unaffordable luxury.
The second pillar of the Blair strategy has been the “politics of the offside trap”—pushing rhetorically into Tory territory and delighting at how far the Conservatives seek “clear blue water” further right. This wins elections. But can it embed change? It never forces the Conservatives to engage with Labour’s core progressive concerns. And if the Tories do regain their mainstream appeal, this will no longer work.
Brown’s challenge is to disprove the thesis that this is as good as it gets for the centre-left; that the scope, limits and compromises of New Labour in its Blair-Brown phase, 1997 to 2006-07, mark the boundaries of what is possible for the social democratic agenda in an individualist, consumer society. Although Labour has shown it can govern and reform, there have been tight constraints on its ability to realign British politics. The progressive consensus argument claims that Labour can be both more radical in office and serious about retaining power; more than this, it suggests that an ageing government will inevitably be defeated…