Anne McElvoy spots a new political type: the ‘Labrators’ who have more in common with Cameron than Brown, and may co-operate with a Tory government
The Labrators are coming: cross-bred symbols of shifting political times. Labour by background and allegiance, they empathise with many of the New Conservatives’ aims and obsessions. As for the political divide, they don’t so much straddle it, as just ignore it.
The only question is how far they’ll go, now that the party that dominated the landscape is a shrunken spectre of its former self. ‘The thing to watch,’ says one of the resigners from Cabinet last week, ‘is who will get involved with Project Cameron and who won’t cross that line.’
Commons floor-crossers have always been with us, treated with some distrust by both their parental and adoptive parties. But as the boundaries between the main parties’ ideologies narrow, fear of contamination by collusion is far less oppressive than it was.
Matthew Taylor, Tony Blair’s former policy chief who now runs the Royal Society of Arts, is a leading Labrator. ‘Speaking as a private individual, I support my party, like I support my football team,’ he says. ‘But I also care about good government. If you kind of know your party is going to lose, and someone else asks you to contribute ideas, I can’t see why not.’ These days, there are a lot more Labrators than Torylabs around, although there was a glut of the latter when Blair was at his height. Shades of that linger in the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove and Cameron’s senior strategist Steve Hilton, who are far more gushing about the Blair than many in his own ranks.
Already, the Conservatives have consulted Michael Barber, head of Mr Blair’s much-mocked ‘delivery unit’, and they admire Julian Le Grand, the Labour public service reform guru. I gather they’ve also spoken at length with serving civil servants about how to improve the daily business of government.
The upheavals of the past week have unleashed a lot more potential Labrators from captivity. Hazel Blears concedes she gets on ‘like a house on fire’ with Gove as they talk about how to increase local decision-making in education.
George Osborne spends considerable time talking to senior figures who have served Labour to work out what goes wrong between conceiving reforms and executing them. He prides himself on an ‘outreach programme’ which poached Sir David Freud, the City financier turned welfare reformer, from James Purnell’s department.
What’s in it for Labrators? The fight to remain relevant. Conservative thinking is still being roughed out in many areas. So if your interest is something long-term like social mobility, health ‘outcomes’ or refining the academies programme, it’s more realistic to find out what the Tories intend to do and try to influence it than to wait for Labour to resolve a long argument with itself in a back room.
Mr Purnell, now in the wilderness, is the figure New Tories identify with most. Mr Cameron says privately that if he could play fantasy Cabinet, he’d like him on board, together with the ex-health secretary Alan Milburn. But Labrators are a strange species. How far they’ll go with a new occupying power is as much about disposition as political alliance.
Richard Reeves, who heads the Demos think-tank, is a former adviser to Frank Field, himself an elder Labrator. Reeves believes we can distinguish between those who are attracted to politics for ‘the tribes and the triumphs’ rather than the ‘policy and the ideas’. The new Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, who was SDP in his youth, is a specially bred Libra-Labratory: a policy brain admired by all three parties.
However, many ‘right’-wingers in Labour like Mr Milburn are also fiercely loyal to their Labour origins. There’s a social ecology here too. Loyalties forged in early friendships are hard to break, even when the ideas and aversions which once bound them have fragmented.
I once suggested to Milburn that a party including himself, the Lib Dems’ David Laws and modernising Tories would be very attractive. ‘Not to me it wouldn’t,’ replied Mr Milburn, with all the force of his Tow Law roots.
Conversely, Jon ‘Joe Backbencher’ Cruddas and David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, are happy to engage with Conservatives in debate, if not yet in action. As for David Miliband, he ‘would rather shoot off his feet than sit down in a serious way with Tories for a conversation about the future of the big state. He just wrinkles his nose if you mention it,’ says a close friend. (Truly, this is Milibanese for ‘no’.)
Equally, Mr Cameron is more tribal by nature than Mr Osborne, who invites prominent Labour intelligentsia like Ruth Kelly and left-wing BBC broadcasters to dinner.
In terms of the policy and how to enact it effectively, there is a lively argument in the thinking parts of Labour about the size and activity of the state. One of the sundry problems with Mr Brown’s leadership is that this isn’t reflected in Number 10, a policy dead-zone these days.
Matthew Taylor suggests an amnesty under a new government. It ‘would agree not to trash the record of former ministers: but ask them what really stood in their way’. So a Tory team keen on de-centralising power might delve into what kept New Labour so keen on governing from the centre. ‘There are hidden obstacles and it’s better to know about them when you start,’ he says.
Conservatives could also show that they are less sectarian than the outgoing clan by coming up with new ways to use the best of the talents to have sprung out of New Labour. ‘We haven’t thought enough about it,’ concedes one senior member of the inner circle. Could he envisage a former opponent sitting as a cross-bencher in the Lords and serving as a Tory minister? ‘Not as things stand: but everything’s up for grabs now.’
It all depends on how serious Mr Cameron is about constitutional reforms — and how different he really intends his government to be. As they prepare for power, the Conservatives need to avoid their own tendency towards cliquishness. And though they’re too polite to say it, there’s sometimes a punitive aspect beyond the reluctance to deal across the lines: why trade with the vanquished?
It reminds one witness of the SDP collapsing into the arms of Labour. ‘There were two views: welcome them with open arms, or nail their arms to the table, the treacherous bastards.’ At the same time, they look at President Obama’s bipartisan cabinet as a sign of his sovereignty and breadth. You don’t need to delve into the muddle of PR to emulate this. Leaders should decide who they want alongside them, but they should also voir grand.
One of the worst aspects of the British political system is that it emphasises divides which barely exist. Nothing inspires the best brains with similar inclinations to work together, instead the system encourages the narcissism of small differences. If the best businesses search for synergies, why do politicians try to repel them?
So Dave — look beyond your own breed. Get a Labrator, or several. They’re so useful to have around.
Anne McElvoy is political columnist of the London Evening Standard.