The Right,  UK Politics

Heir to Blair?

This is a guest post by Ben

If there is one thing you can say about Dave Cameron, it’s that he’s a good salesman. Trite, but true. He even said it himself at the Tory Spring Conference in Brighton.

And that’s not an entirely bad thing. It seems to me that to successfully connect with the electorate you need a compelling story about your “product”. Gordon Brown is a bully who is incapable of connecting properly with the electorate, and has (despite some impressive and firm handling of the economic crisis) lost the Labour Party critical support. That he has been unprepared to put the party first and fall on his sword is unforgivable. Almost as unforgivable as the fact that the party itself has spinelessly failed to recall that politics is more than a vanity project whereby Labour types congratulate themselves for being more loyal to their leaders than the snake-like Tories. At least snakes do in fact have a backbone. But I digress.

Call-me-Dave, on the other hand, seems, if a bit toffish, like a reasonably affable guy. But it’s how you use your image to sell your party. One long-running gambit on the part of the Cameroons has been that their man is a moderate non-ideological centrist – the heir to Blair who will return the nation to those halcyon days of Britpop and Cool Britannia after the dark interregnum of the brooding, manipulative and insincere Brown.

There are two things to say to this: the first is that ideology matters. The second is that too much of it may well be a bad thing. The major challenges of our time are economic. We have seen the economic debate return to centre stage after a two decade absence with unprecedented force. Labour has, both pragmatically and in line with its historic tendencies, instituted a Keynesian reflationary policy using the tools of demand management.

Many of us on the moderate wing of the party would have been somewhat surprised if you had told us at the time of the last election that we would be entering the next supporting a massive reflationary stimulus and major regulatory initiatives for the banking sector. But this volte face might best be considered a strength of flexibility – “what counts is what works”. Labour has amended its policy prescriptions to support working people in their jobs. When the time is right, the party will need to institute credible public spending cuts, but the taps need to be turned off at the right time, not when most economists are saying it would be fool-hardy to do so. Labour’s commitment to being an emancipatory platform for working people means that this recession has seen a slower and shallower rise in unemployment than any previous Tory recession. Dave should know that. He was around during the last one as an adviser to Norman Lamont.

The Tories, by contrast, would institute immediate and substantial spending cuts. When it comes to the hard economics, Dave sounds like he’s straight out of the 80s. There is nothing in Conservative history over the last few decades to suggest that they have the capacity to change the record on these sorts of questions.

Everything that Labour has done in the last decade and a half shows that it is a modern social democratic party. It has made its peace with the market. The battles of the 1980s were genuinely bruising, and that is because they had to be if the party was to emerge as a vehicle fit to carry the aspirations of working people rather than decline into irrelevance as a doctrinaire sect.

The Conservative Party has had no process of slow, painful reform. No fighting in the constituency parties, no mass expulsions, no soul-searching discussion about the relevance of its ideas to the twenty-first century. Just a makeover.

They say that the Conservative Party is the pragmatic, non-ideological party in British politics, but on the contrary we hear news reports that the Conservative Party has been encouraging its activists to train with the extremist Young Britons Foundation that wants to scrap the NHS.

A lot of people are taking another look at David Cameron, the Conservative Party and their “vote for change” slogan. Change can be a powerful concept. But it has to be married to a vision of reform. Are the Tories offering us more of the same they always did? The dramatic and precipitate changes in the polls in recent weeks as people start to focus on the struggle ahead would seem to suggest a lot of people are unconvinced by Dave’s threadbare narrative of moderate reform.

And now Dave’s wife has joined the ranks of the unconvinced. Ouch, Samantha. When even a chap’s wife can’t be sure if her husband is the real Blairite deal or a Thatcherite sleeper weeks before an election in which he wants to be given the keys to Number Ten, then one can’t help but think that the guy has some explaining to do. And fast.