There are five roads the Tories must avoid: Fortress Britain, Libertarian Paradise, Thatcherism Revisited, Local Everything and Scepticism Rediscovered. Success lies in a partial emulation of New Labourby Tim Hames / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Almost four years ago I wrote on these pages about the future of the Tory party as it seemed set for a second crushing defeat at the 2001 election. The article asserted that the emerging alliance between the libertarian right and the “one nation” left was the most interesting development in Tory politics since 1997, and that Michael Portillo, then shadow chancellor, personified the emergence of a “new centre.” The piece concluded by asking: “To whom else but Portillo can the Tories turn?”
Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard turned out to be the unexpected answers. Yet as the 2005 campaign approaches, the party appears to be no nearer, and possibly even further, from returning to office than then. After my lamentable efforts at prophecy last time, it is charitable of the editor to allow me a second stab at the subject.
My argument here will be made from a different perspective. Four years ago, I was still rather proud that Polly Toynbee had once described me in print as a “Conservative theorist.” I might consult my lawyers if she did the same today. I could not stomach, and would not vote for, the political formula that William Hague offered in 2001. I find the 2005 version no more palatable. There will be those in Tory circles, therefore, who see no virtue in a thesis made from this quarter. I would reply that as a lot of people once backed the Tories but no longer do, and as there is no route back to No 10 unless such voters can be induced to return, my case might have merit. If nothing else, my thoughts are offered for old times’ sake.
To start negatively, the Tory party needs to appreciate what roads should not be taken. There are five blueprints in circulation that are best avoided, and I will deal with them briefly. They are: Fortress Britain, Libertarian Paradise, Thatcherism Revisited, Local Everything and Scepticism Rediscovered.
Fortress Britain would see the Tories adopt an even more vigorously nationalist stance on such issues as Europe, asylum and immigration, combined with an unreconstructed conservatism on social and cultural matters. In theory, there is a market for such ideas, but it relies on the improbable project of detaching a vast swathe of working-class support from Labour without matching the economic inducements for sticking with the left that Labour continues to offer. In reality, the result would be a yet larger defection of middle-class voters from the Tories—this is implicit in various British Social Attitudes surveys undertaken in the past few years.
There are some Tories who favour a more sophisticated twist on this approach. They contend that “after Blair,” the Labour party will shift towards the Guardian on matters of international terrorism and national security, allowing the Tories to paint a “dark skies” scenario on these questions and mobilise their historic credentials on such matters—much as the Republicans seemed to have done in the US. This, too, seems to me to be a very far-fetched notion.
The Libertarian Paradise is a blueprint that I myself once endorsed. Aspects of it could and should certainly be salvaged. The full package, nonetheless, is deeply inadvisable. It would require the Tories to press for a drastic reduction in the size of the state in economic terms and advocate a much more laissez-faire approach to how individuals conduct their lifestyles. This has a satisfying philosophical purity to it. But the sad truth is that the constituency for undiluted freedom in a modern democracy is not all that it might be. I admire many continental liberal parties, such as the Free Democrats in Germany. It should also be noted how few votes they secure.
An alternative would be simply to return to the formula of the 1980s. Thatcherism Revisited contends that the tunes written back then still work, but that the Tories have not found anyone capable of emulating Margaret Thatcher in belting out the words loudly and confidently enough to appeal to a mass audience. So much is so wrong with this notion that one barely knows where to start. Thatcherism addressed a Britain in which economic crisis was endemic (and in which the Tories were still the economic competence party); a country which belonged to a European Community that was little more than a trading association, and which functioned in a world whose structure was defined by the cold war. Attempting to recreate the politics of this period is mad. Yet it is a depressing reflection on current Tory discussions that this is the option with which most party members identify. It is time to move on.
A more voguish concept is Local Everything. Long passionately promoted by Simon Jenkins, among others, this lobby would disband the state as a large-scale army and return to a world of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons.” Schools, hospitals and crime prevention would all be drastically decentralised. I was also enticed by this fashion at one stage in the late 1990s. I now wonder where all the valiant heroes who would transform social services if only they were offered the chance would come from. I fear that it would prove less “little platoons” than Dad’s Army. It is possible that the electorate might be persuaded to back the plan once, but 20 minutes later it would be clamouring to reverse it. The public is completely at sea on this matter. Opinion polls demonstrate that localism is popular in principle, but not when it delivers highly diverse outcomes, usually described as a “postcode lottery.” But what would be the point of localism if it did not result in different, innately “unequal,” or at a minimum “non-equal,” results? Besides, if there is any freehold to this dubious minefield, the Liberal Dem-ocrats already own it.
Finally, there is Scepticism Revisited. A good book by Keiron O’Hara, After Blair: Conservatism beyond Thatcher, has recently attracted attention by insisting that the Tories should return to their pre-Thatcherite roots and articulate a deep scepticism of intellectualism and social engineering. The party should become the bastion of gradualism and the guardian of that most noble place—the “community.” I do not think that this is a practical proposition. The pace of the modern world does, I concede, create a possible “coalition of the wailing,” but it would be destined for disappointment. It would descend into sticking-plaster protectionism, the British version of Chiracism. This is not meant as a compliment.
Conservatives should instead draw from a different lesson of their history. In the past, Tory recoveries have largely occurred when the party has been willing to look seriously at what its victorious opponents have been doing and why it is working. The source of salvation is thus clear. It has to come from a partial emulation of New Labour.
To state this is instantly to invite derision. My colleague on the Times, Matthew Parris, for example, recently took the Tory party to task for what he viewed as the dire instincts of the current leadership. These people, he fumed, “want to be like New Labour, they want to talk like New Labour and they want to win like New Labour. They want to party with New Labour and sleep with New Labour.” His last point has the charm of making the Blunkett/Spectator business appear more rational, but Matthew is hostile to the enterprise. “The highest levels of the Conservative party,” he almost spat at the poor readers, “are becoming a failed subculture of Blairism.”
For me, the key word in that sentence is “failed.” I fundamentally disagree with Matthew in that I do think the Tories should crave to be like New Labour. The trouble is that they are not very good at this endeavour because they do not understand New Labour. They have swallowed their own propaganda—and that of the old left—and have concluded that the essence of New Labour is the application of modern presentational methods to politics. They really think that Tony Blair is the second wizard of Oz. That is why they are a “failed” subculture of Blairism.
The Tory party needs to appreciate that New Labour works because behind the alteration in style there is an enormous change in substance. They also need to grasp how fundamental were the forces that created the conditions for New Labour: the end of the cold war, the radical shift in the social attitudes of the affluent (often with mass higher education as the catalyst), and the most underestimated factor, the death of inflation as a political issue and with it the old “zero sum” class politics.
What, then, is the essence of the New Labour idea that confronts the Conservatives? It has three parts. The first is that there is no necessary contradiction between economic efficiency (steady and benign growth) and social reform (“social justice” in Labour-speak). The second is that the record of the Labour government between 1997 and 2005 provides practical weight to this claim. The third is that by combining market methods with some state activism, this progress can be sustained and extended on a measured, if not revolutionary, basis indefinitely.
Put like that, it is surely obvious that the Tories have to play on the same pitch as New Labour. What part of “economic efficiency with social reform” is any political party in Britain going to mobilise 40 per cent plus of the voters to oppose? How will the Tories demonstrate that these are inherently incompatible objectives when the evidence in front of the eyes of the electorate is that they are not? Are there any policy matters that Tories think they could exploit which would outflank personal prosperity and collective progress in the minds of most ordinary citizens? A Conservative alternative has to explicitly accept the ends of the New Labour programme and base its objections on the means alone.
For that to become a political reality, the Tories have to make three changes. But they are not easy ones for most parliamentarians to heed, never mind the Conservative party activists.
First, they must recognise that the condition of the public services is the established battleground of British politics. There is no point in aspiring to move the policy fight to different territory. Furthermore, this is a contest over the quality of public services as public services, not a competition as to who can conceive of novel schemes to privatise them, or allow the relatively rich to escape from them.
There are some within Tory circles who would insist that this might have been true for 1997 and 2001 but is now less convincing. They would highlight the fact that when voters are asked in polls which issues they consider to be the most important, the proportions identifying education and health have been falling over the past two or three years. Public services might be becoming passé.
This is to misread these statistics. The numbers telling pollsters that the most important issues facing the country are inflation, unemployment or interest rates are very low indeed. Does that mean that the economy and perceptions of competence in economic management will be inconsequential in the 2005 election? Of course not. In terms of what matters to voters, these are crucial questions, on which the Labour party is now seen as much more plausible than its chief rivals. If the public services are being mentioned less in opinion surveys, it is probably because there is a grudging recognition that the huge sums of money spent since 2000 have had an impact. If the Tories are not deemed capable of at least maintaining and, better, building on the advance that has been made, then they will not be viable contenders for office.
Second, the Conservative party needs to come out from behind the wrong side of the barricades on social and cultural controversies. An association with sexism, racism and homophobia does not do much to entice the professional class electorate back to the Tories. They do not pass the dinner party test. Unconditional surrender in all these realms is the only logical outcome. This is more true for the economic status of women than any other dimension—after all, there are many more working women in Britain than either male members of ethnic minorities or homosexuals. The lamentable failure of the party to select remotely adequate numbers of female parliamentary candidates highlights an institutional indifference to the whole realm of equality of opportunity. It is symbolism that has become substance.
Finally, the Tories need to embrace a new discourse. There is only one antidote to the corrosive levels of cynicism currently felt about politics and politicians, and that is unrelenting candour. The distortion and hyperbole that are the nitrogen and oxygen of the Westminster atmosphere have become pure poison outside of it. The biggest change that the Tories could make to their public image would be to become the market leader in a different sort of language. This course has been preached by only one Tory MP since 1997: Nick Gibb. The response of many of his colleagues has been to treat him as if he were training for the priesthood, not a parliamentarian. They are wrong.
Nor is this terra incognita. There are models from the US to duplicate. A recast Conservative party could be the combination of Rudy Giuliani on public services, Arnold Schwarzenegger on social values and John McCain on straight talking.
Armed with such a critique, the Conservatives could enter New Labour’s “big tent” and be in a position to argue that the sleeping bags and some of the furniture should be rearranged in a more effective manner. They could make a lucid case that the tax and regulatory regime of Gordon Brown has begun to approach the level where it might inflict serious damage on his economic stewardship. They could plausibly pursue an anti-poverty crusade of their own based on the contention that, for instance, boosting the incomes of the poor directly via tax cuts is preferable to a bewilderingly complicated network of tax credits. The Tories could agree that the state is part of the solution, not the problem, in the public services, that the creation of pseudo-markets has been a vast detour, and that the real need is to create management structures within the public sector that enjoy the autonomy, creativity and flexibility of the best of the private sector.
These themes could then be fleshed out further. A different form of Tory party could indeed advance the cause of personal liberty on matters ranging from fox-hunting to the right to smoke in public places without looking like the hapless stooge of the Countryside Alliance or the tobacco industry. It could, and should, be tough on crime, but, emboldened by the zeal to tell it how it is, could move away from “our police are wonderful” to “our police are terrible and the struggle to reduce crime starts with a root-and-branch overhaul of them.” It could respond to the poor job that the government has done in implementing often overdue constitutional reforms with the logical conclusion that only a full-blown written constitution can now provide the necessary framework. It could move on from the frequently neanderthal reflex of being “Eurosceptic” to being “Eurodubious,” a more astute position to take in an EU of 25 states in which it should be easier for a fleet-footed British government to build up fruitful alliances.
Why would anyone vote for this package? At a minimum, unlike the Tory manifestos of 2001 and 2005, it would not seem like a threat to large numbers of voters. The Tories would be offering constructive criticism of the manner in which a Labour government had sought economic efficiency with social reform and would be offering an alternative based on more and better of both, not less and worse of each. When the inevitable boredom or disillusion struck, the country could switch horses without the fear that the new colt would bolt. Conservatives would be relevant. Yet better than that, there would be a positive case for them. There is a respectable body of evidence behind all of the themes listed above. It is possible that New Labour, a malleable beast, might beat the Tories to them. It is equally possible that most of this space will remain open.
This is the how, what and why. The outstanding issue is who. Selling a new Conservatism to Britain as a whole might be surprisingly straightforward. Retailing it to the Tories themselves is far harder. It may mean enduring a couple of years of lower opinion poll ratings after the ultra-right has stalked off in protest, before the professional classes, in particular, decide that the party is reliable enough again to invite into the sitting room.
There has been much chatter in the House of Commons about “skipping a generation.” This is usually code for handing the baton to David Cameron (born 1966) or George Osborne (born 1971). I think this would be madness and I suspect that the two of them have deduced this as well. Both these MPs are undoubtedly intelligent, but are untested and utterly unknown beyond a small Tory fraternity. They would risk the fate endured by William Hague, only worse: Hague had at least spent two years as a cabinet minister before having the leadership thrust prematurely on him. It also has to be asked, unfair as it is, whether the Tory party can be saved by two men born to privilege and educated at Eton College and St Paul’s School respectively. It is not exactly what the marketing department would recommend.
I think the Tories would be better off with a leadership team a decade older than these two, but around ten years younger than the cabal of David Davis, Tim Yeo, Michael Ancram and Malcolm Rifkind, who may be the first to offer themselves in a leadership ballot. The combination of characters best suited to recognise the changes that need to be adopted and convince others of their urgency comes, by an odd coincidence of birthdates, from the class of 1956. It would consist of Andrew Lansley, now shadow health secretary, as leader; Damian Green, ex-shadow secretary of state for education, as his deputy, empowered to oversee the policy review; David Willetts, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, in the pivotal slot of shadow chancellor; Theresa May, the ex-party chairman, looking after home affairs; with Oliver Letwin, today shadow chancellor, at foreign affairs (if he holds his seat).
Lansley is an adept media performer and knows the small intestines of the Tory party well, but his single greatest virtue is that he has changed his mind. He was a key figure behind the 2001 Tory election effort, and, to his credit, realised how badly it had misfired. The contrast with his co-conspirator in that enterprise, the comically partisan Tim Collins, the shadow secretary of state for education, could not be starker. (On a similar basis, it would make sense for Lansley to pick John Bercow, another man who has switched positions, to head central office.) Green is the de facto head of the one-nation branch of the parliamentary party, and is a shrewd soul, at home with the media. Willetts has the mind to move beyond conventional Conservative thinking on economics. May passes the “human being” requirement on television. She would bring fresh thinking to home affairs and a liberal instinct. Foreign policy under Michael Howard has become farcical, with the Tories apparently hostile to the EU and the Bush White House simultaneously, and obsessed instead with such matters as Zimbabwe and the status of Gibraltar. Letwin has the intelligence to build a new approach.
If these five—admittedly not especially famous—could seize firm control of the party and steer it towards the waters I have identified, then the Tory obituary notices could yet prove to be premature. If not, and if the party membership again decides that it is the rest of the electorate that needs to change, not them, then there is the underestimated possibility that the Liberal Democrats might yet sideline the official opposition. In the next parliament, they too should have five figures—Mark Oaten, David Laws, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, and Ed Davey—who could take their party into almost exactly the same spot as the Tories need to seize.