For many voters at the next election, the Major government will be a faint memory and the name ‘Thatcher’ will be more closely associated with reality TV shows. So when voters hear David Cameron’s ‘compassionate Conservative’ message, ‘compassion’ will be a word they understand – but the word ‘Conservative’ will be more of an enigma.
Pinning Cameron down in the coming weeks and months will not be especially easy, as he makes policy the same way many of us choose lottery numbers. After each weekly draw he scrabbles for a pen to construct another combination that might be more successful than the ticket that didn’t work in the previous news-cycle. Not surprisingly, the public are beginning to think he is a politician who ‘will do anything to win’ and ‘doesn’t know what he believes’.
Cameron is gambling on a method of two parts. Part one is to fiercely construct a brand for himself as ‘a different kind of Conservative’. Part two is a calculated effort to redefine the Labour government in the minds of the public as a statist Leviathan, out of touch with the aspirations of modern Britain.
Therefore, the first task for Labour is to steadily expose each and every line item in Cameron’s new ledger as ‘new gloss on old philosophy’, as Ed Miliband put it at a recent Progress event. This gloss was last employed, of course, by George W Bush.
Like Cameron, Bush tried to distance himself from the Reagan legacy and promote the nice idea that he was not the same but a break in the Republican tradition. Bush was also keen to share the proceeds of growth with the American people – but mostly with the top 10 per cent rather than the bottom 60 per cent of families who arguably needed it most.
They both claim that tax cuts deliver growth. Instead, tax cuts in the US have delivered soaring trade and federal budget deficits, and a rise in unemployment of nearly two million people since 2001. For the first time in over a decade poverty is on the increase in America; and, with federal and state budgets overstretched and under funded, the safety net is fraying.
But Labour’s second and more important task is to set out our positive agenda for Britain – we must be clear that Cameron will attempt to redefine us as the ‘big state’ alternative, to try and convince the public in 2009 that there is a ‘Tory-shaped’ problem holding Britain back. We can already see the attack forming around civil liberties, ‘centralisation’, public spending and ‘regulation’.
At every point we need to highlight the Labour agenda of fairness and freedom – an agenda which not only underlines our values as a party, but speaks of our ambition for empowering individuals and communities, equipping them to get the most out of life in 21st century Britain. And in setting out this agenda we have to constantly test the Tories – test them to follow us, or explain to the British public why not.
You don’t have to look far to see the tests for the Tories. Will they commit to our levels of funding? Will they match our commitment to target health inequalities set out in our neighbourhood renewal strategy? Or will they seek to remove the word ‘inequality’ from the face of anything we do, just as they tried during the committee stage of the childcare bill?
If they want to abolish targets in the NHS, will they abolish our goal to reduce waiting times to just 18 weeks? Will they abolish the national service frameworks which have done so much to tackle age discrimination in the provision of health and social service care? The Tories say they are serious about public health. But the strength of David Cameron’s commitment appears to be a plea to WH Smith’s not to sell chocolate oranges at the checkout.
It was Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS, who said, on the penultimate page of In Place of Fear, that ‘progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms.’ With a new Tory leader in place, a new electoral landscape, and a different Britain in part shaped by Labour’s progressive values in two terms of office, the terms of politics are changing. We will have to renew with them – but this time in office.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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