It was acceptable in the 80s

Just as Progress was ushering in 2013 with its annual New Year New Labour party, ‘liberal, progressive’ Conservative organisation Bright Blue launched a booklet entitled Tory Modernisation 2.0: The Future of the Conservative Party. With contributions from figures ranging from cabinet ministers to Conservative Research Department alumni and thinktankers from Demos, Policy Exchange and Social Market Foundation, the publication attempts to reboot the party’s stalled modernisation programme. Journalist Matthew d’Ancona warns that ‘the Conservative party is in crisis – and does not know it’, that the ‘shelving of the modernisation campaign was the worst strategic error made by the Conservative party since the poll tax’, and that the Tory movement ‘has yet, truly and conclusively, to move beyond the 1980s’. Former party chair Francis Maude is more circumspect given his cabinet role but envisages modernisation as something that ‘never ends and never can end’, implying his agreement with the booklet’s core contention that David Cameron let the revolution run into the sand.

In terms of policy, the publication backs the familiar commitments to international aid, same-sex marriage and renewable energy, to the first two of which, at least, the prime minister is cleaving hard as proof of his moderniser credentials. But it also tries to build a bridge between the ultra-modernisers and the heirs to Margaret Thatcher in calling for policies to help people ‘get on’. In an interesting essay, former CRD director James O’Shaughnessy develops an observation made to him by Cameron – that only under Thatcher and Benjamin Disraeli have the Conservatives ever governed without Liberal support – to conclude that this was in part thanks to these prime ministers’ extension of new freedoms to growing aspirational classes.

If this is the magic ingredient, then what form would new freedoms today take? The answer: making it easier for people to build and extend their own homes, introducing cash funding for childcare, and a ‘version of Labour’s jobs guarantee … [as] … developed by James Purnell’. Strikingly, Labour has now adopted this last policy. But is there more the party can do on bread and butter issues? In this month’s Progress Tim Bale and Hopi Sen come to similar conclusions to O’Shaughnessy, Sen guessing that the Conservatives are incubating a ‘white van man political strategy’ for the 2015 general election, while Bale warns Labour to avoid focusing on ‘the narrative’ and more on ‘the glaring gap between stagnant salaries and relentlessly rising household bills.’ But O’Shaughnessy recognises that policies alone are not enough – the public must also trust in his own party’s motives. If it is the case, as polling suggests, that Labour’s motives are trusted but its plans for power remain opaque then both parties have equal but opposite tasks ahead of them. Acting practical rather than remaining conceptual will be the key to winning the right to govern in hardbitten pennywatching times.

The drift towards the theoretical is observable in both camps: reverence for institutions is a core tenet of Conservatism, even for the modernisers, as David Willetts’ observation in his Bright Blue chapter that ‘institutions … give us a sense of belonging’ proves. Notably, Ed Miliband echoes this in his preface to the recent Cooperative Councils Network pamphlet, Towards Cooperative Councils: Empowering People to Change their Lives, where he draws on blue Labour thinking to argue to ‘protect the institutions which express our common life as a nation’. But with trust in traditional institutions diminished, from parliament to the banks, the BBC and newspapers, including not a few ‘vested interests’, it may be that Alan Johnson is right this month to anticipate a ‘postwar’ feel to the next election where the public look forward, not back, seeking prospects for the future, not defences of the past. The pamphlet, a hefty contribution to the local government reform debate, was released the week before Andy Burnham announced Labour’s vision for health and Stephen Twigg spoke at Policy Exchange about finally sorting vocational education out. Foundations for 21st century reform are being laid; Labour must make sure they are well understood and contain visible, tangible change for voters if it is to beat the Tories at their own game.

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Photo: Eye Dropper

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