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 by the accumulated grievances of the voters unless it can provide a new “mission.”
Brown needs to show that the politics of the new centre need not be defined only by the economic and public-service issues that defined the centre ground over the last ten years. Other issues—demographic change, the environment, devolving power locally, restoring trust to politics, integration and Britishness—will form the content for a renewed battle between left and right over the next decade. If Labour is to make the political weather, Brown will need to emulate Labour’s relative success on public services by making its argument about inequality more public. Then the Tory modernisers can be challenged on their own credentials as meritocrats—with social mobility stalling, do they accept that equal opportunity depends on sustained policy interventions to break down unequal life chances?
The aim of narrowing inequalities has underpinned much of the government’s domestic policy and been pursued through quiet redistribution. The “bully pulpit” of power works best in framing public debates if governments focus on the one big “condition of Britain” debate they want. For Thatcher, it was the need to roll back the overweening state and set the individual free. New Labour won the argument for investment and reform in its first two terms. But if Labour’s fundamental critique of British society is that life chances are too unequal and should be less so, it has not told the public this. Instead, the post-election focus on the need to restore respect to society has risked descending into “something must be done” initiativitis.
Cameron needs to win credibility on public services and public spending to be in the game at all. His difficulty is that admitting defeat is not enough. His argument that the Conservatives can have some of their cake and eat the rest, dividing “the dividends of future growth” between spending more and cutting tax, is pretty much what Oliver Letwin said in the last campaign. Even pledges to match Labour’s spending may not be enough if they are driven by electoral constraints (“we’d love to slash the state but the voters won’t buy it”), rather than conviction. Labour had the same problem coming to terms with the role of the market.
This could be the great faultline in Cameron’s New Conservative party. For 30 years, the right’s big idea has been: less state. The flat tax flirtation shows that this is still where the right’s intellectual energy is. It remains the agenda which most animates the think tanks of the right and Cameron’s frontbench brains like George Osborne and Letwin. Cameron accurately diagnoses the problem, telling his party of the “need to change our attitude to public services” so that “spending on things like education and transport is a positive good, not a necessary evil.” Yet his observation that “I don’t think anyone wakes up and thinks ‘Gosh, I wish the state was smaller today than it was yesterday'” is ambiguous. This implies that the issue is presentation. The strategy may be to tell the public that he is agnostic about the size of the state—it is quality of services that matters—while signalling to his own party that, without repeating William Hague’s moral case for the smaller state, he shares the same long-term goals.
Despite the characterisation of Cameron as a “Tory Blair,” there are crucial differences between his progress and Labour’s escape from the wilderness in the 1980s and 1990s. While New Labour successfully projected itself as a year zero project, this contained a large element of myth. Crucially, Labour’s renewal involved an electoral strategy, an intellectual rethinking, a party reform agenda and changes in personnel which all headed in the same direction, before the new leader came along to pull it together.
The symbolic Clause IV moment was a political masterstroke. But Labour’s modernisers had already won a series of political battles over the previous decade to make it possible. The expulsion of Militant and the introduction of “one member one vote” under Neil Kinnock and John Smith; the creation of a new electoral strategy to appeal to southern swing voters—as in Giles Radice’s “Southern Discomfort” Fabian pamphlets—these went hand in glove with the intellectual and policy renewal of the party’s agenda for social justice led by David Miliband and Patricia Hewitt at the IPPR. An emerging generation of Labour politicians and advisers shared an analysis of what needed to change—and a vastly increased number of women candidates reinforced the cultural shift. To say that the public face came last is not to underestimate Blair’s achievements. He shifted gear on all of these fronts, replacing a “how much change is necessary to win” mentality with a “breakout strategy” rewarded by the scale of Labour’s two landslides.
By contrast, the Tory modernisers start with a fresh face and not much else: the ideas, party reform, cultural shift and change in people will come later. But creating something both popular and coherent will be hard. The party’s moderate tradition—the Europhile Tory wets—has all but died out. So we are left with Cameron, the great hope of the modernisers, a man schooled by Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. His generation formed their allegiances in the Thatcher years and tend to robust Euroscepticism. Will the electoral strategy—the “urban discomfort” analysis which the Tories need in order to win in the cities—chime with the direction of intellectual and policy debate as it did for New Labour? It seems doubtful. Many Thatcher-era think tanks focus on reliving past glories. C Change and Policy Exchange are seeking to put together a coherent modernising approach, but, on social policy, Civitas’s advocacy of social conservatism outweighs anything from the liberal right. New “next generation” think tanks, such as Reform (formally cross-party but whose heart clearly beats on the right) focus on the “less state” agenda. The right knows it must make concessions to the electorate—but does not believe that it got much wrong last time around.
If Cameron is serious about a new centre-ground Toryism, his mission must be to replace the Thatcherite “slash the state” right as a governing force. The alternative is to seek gentler language to rehabilitate an updated form of Thatcherism. Either path means internal conflict. The party is split down the middle: 108 MPs voted for Liam Fox or David Davis; 45 per cent of Tory members want a move to the centre; 48 per cent want “clear blue water.”
For now, political fashion and a media desperate for a contest favours fresh-faced David Cameron. The Tory modernisers know they will soon face a post-euphoria moment as the scale of their task becomes apparent. One prominent Cameron supporter tells me that the modernisers need to have an eight-year strategy—with the hope of “lucking out” at half-time. If Cameron needs the full eight years to establish the Tory equivalent of New Labour, that should give Brown the time to discover whether a progressive consensus is really possible in Britain.