While David Cameron has borrowed his ‘compassionate Conservative’ label from George Bush’s Republicans, the Tory leader is also seeking to copy Labour’s tactics between 1994 and 1997.
When I listen to Cameron, however, there’s something unconvincing about the content and delivery; like a foreign-language student repeating words learnt by rote off a CD. In 1994, no one doubted that Tony Blair had centre-left instincts. I’m not sure that’s true of Cameron.
It’s certainly not true of his party. It’s worth noting the odd choice of individuals that Cameron has made to lead his policy groups. Are Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood, Peter Lilley and Michael Forsyth really his idea of a centrist future? It’s as if Neil Kinnock had put George Galloway, Derek Hatton and Arthur Scargill in charge of the 1987 policy review. Cameron may come to regret having entrusted the task of burying Thatcherism to its political heirs.
This still leaves though the intriguing question of what Cameron himself believes. I believe that his instincts remain Thatcherite: the ghosts of the flat tax, the patients’ passport and a return to grammar schools are testament to that. But Cameron will try to hide these instincts. He will try to make saying he wants to tackle social injustice the test of whether he’s a new type of Tory, rather than having the policies to deliver that aspiration.
Our first response therefore must be to point out this inconsistency, that someone who is happy to change policies, to flip-flop from one position to another, is either lightweight or hiding right-wing views which he knows to be unelectable.
Second, we should not vacate the centre ground. That would ignore the history of the last Tory government, which reacted to a reinvigorated Labour party by trying to find clear blue water and heading off into the badlands of euro-scepticism and extremism. In 1994, that was music to our ears. We’d have been more worried if John Major had tried to return to the centrist approach of his early months as prime minister, because lack of differentiation can be much more of a problem for an opposition. An opposition without its own policies is basically relying entirely on the government of the day to fail.
After all, why vote Conservative if all they do is agree with Labour? So if Cameron does end up trimming, our task will be simple: to continue to convince the public that we have a vision for Britain, and the competence to implement it.
Competence is central to winning this argument. Cameron aims to paint us into the statist corner Labour inhabited in the 1980s. That is why it is so important for us to stay New Labour: so that he cannot accuse us of believing in big-state solutions for their own sake, and so that we can argue for the importance of a flexible, enabling state. We should remain firmly pragmatic about means, because we are so passionate about ends. If private providers can reduce the amount of people waiting in pain for an operation, it would be immoral not to use them. If choice and diversity in schools will raise standards and improve fairness, we should not shy away from them either.
Winning the argument for the proper role of the state is particularly important. We should remember that 1997 wasn’t just the rejection of Conservative personnel, it was also a rejection of their philosophy, in particular the idea that the solution to Britain’s problems was smaller and smaller government. That is why it is so odd that Cameron too cannot stop himself attacking the state.
That is one dividing line the new Tory leader seems stuck on. He regards the state as part of the problem; we regard it as a part of the solution. He sees voluntary groups as an alternative to public services; we see the two as partners. We believe that the state can do more than provide a basic safety net. We believe that a modernised state can empower individuals. We believe that, without such an enabling state, the promise of using the voluntary sector or social enterprise is a hollow and deceitful cover for an approach that has no real intention of tackling social injustice.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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