Conservatism is beautifully simple. It flows from the belief that society is stronger and fairer when power lies with the many and not the few. It is about trusting institutions — the family, the community — while being sceptical about the grander claims of government. It is about believing that a man will spend the money he earns more wisely and justly than the state could ever do on his behalf. To be a conservative is, fundamentally, a vote of faith in mankind. But how can one distil all this into a soundbite?
David Cameron has struggled to answer this question. He watched uncomfortably as William Hague (briefly) and then Iain Duncan Smith tried to import ‘compassionate conservatism’ from the US Republican party. Since becoming leader in December 2005, Mr Cameron has used the label ‘social responsibility’, an idea which Steve Hilton, his brand strategist, had sold with much success to the corporate sector. Then came the idea of the ‘post-bureaucratic age’ — in itself the kind of unwieldy phrase you might expect a bureaucrat to use. But now, a form of words has been found which is successful insofar as it seems to drive the left into apoplexy: ‘progressive conservatism’.
Few Tories will have bothered to listen too closely to the speech George Osborne made on this subject on Tuesday. For them, it goes without saying that Conservative policies do most to help the poor and to promote social mobility — why else, after all, did Labour achieve so little with all that money in the last dozen years? As Churchill once put it: ‘We are for the ladder. Let all try their best to climb. They are for the queue. Let each wait his place until his turn comes.’ It is self-evident to Conservatives that the ladder is of far more use to the disadvantaged.
So, to Tory ears, the concept of ‘progressive conservatism’ does not sound especially arresting. For Labour and certain parts of the media, however, the idea is counter-intuitive and provocative. Those wicked Tories saying they care about the poor? To those on the left, the idea is little short of heresy. As a result, next month’s Labour party conference is peppered with fringe events addressing this supposedly new phenomenon. A former theology lecturer named Phillip Blond has given it the catchy name of ‘Red Toryism’ — and attracted so much interest that he has raised £1.5 million in a fortnight for a new think tank. This is, quite literally, where the money is.
Lord Mandelson is growing increasingly alarmed. He has popped up on television and penned an article for Wednesday’s Guardian accusing his former Corfu dining partner of ‘political cross-dressing’. Coming from the prince of political drag, this was quite a compliment. When Lord Mandelson said he was ‘seriously relaxed about people getting filthy rich’ he was trying on Tory clothes (enjoying it so much that he decided to keep many of them). As he knows better than most, cross-dressing is what political parties tend to do before a landslide victory.
Gordon Brown has long been infuriated by this. The Prime Minister is happy with Conservatives talking about efficiency and the ability of the market to allocate resources more effectively than the state. But he hates it when the Tories park their tanks on his red lawn, talking about the ‘broken society’, and considers it outright theft when men of the right like Mr Duncan Smith dare to speak of ‘social justice’. Never before has Labour faced such a sustained Tory assault on what it regards as its heartland issues. And given Labour’s appalling record on poverty, the governing party is ill-placed to defend itself from such an attack.
As Lord Mandelson will also know, the new Tory attack is far from insincere. The party has changed its language because it has changed its mission. The Thatcher government had to tame inflation and make Britain governable by restraining the unions. The generation of Tories about to be elected into government were driven into politics, in no small part, by a sense of outrage at the waste they saw all around them: Britain’s welfare ghettoes and social segregation. At Tory constituency fundraisers, a complaint about the broken society is now as sure to draw applause as a denunciation of Brussels.
But what will have most disturbed His Lordship — to the extent that he felt the need to attack Mr Osborne on television, in print and on radio within 24 hours of the shadow chancellor’s speech — is the potential embarrassment to Labour. When looking at this government’s record, it is hard to find anything that can be described as ‘progressive’. Unemployment now stands at 2.4 million with the pain felt most by the under-25s — and the boom years abjectly failed to tackle welfare dependency, sink schools or health inequality. Many Labour MPs, in addition to Labour voters, will be wondering if it is time to try a different approach.
Yet again, there is loose talk of a Labour party split. The group of orphaned Blairites represented at the think tank Demos — recently joined by James Purnell — is seen as a faction waiting to splinter off from the main party. But, insofar as one can accurately gauge opinion from the maudlin talk in the Westminster bars during the summer recess, there is more movement in the direction of a new liberal party led by Vince Cable. The only prediction that can be made with certainty is that Labour civil wars, when they break out, are always vicious, and usually lead to the ejection of high-quality political refugees.
There is an old saying that the left is always looking for traitors, while the right is always looking for converts. This is Mr Osborne’s strategy: targeting those either disenchanted with (or ostracised by) Mr Brown’s fractious, sinking Labour party. There is only one snag to the shadow chancellor’s strategy. He rightly talks about the need for reform. Yet the Tories’ welfare reform plans (such as they are) would not be cheaper (at least initially). The plan for Swedish-style independent schools, while genuinely radical, would not noticeably reduce the education budget.
For all Mr Osborne’s fine words, there is still a large hole where a radical cost-cutting plan should be. He is quite right to say that the Conservatives have a fiscal imperative to reform, and must be bolder than Labour ever managed to be. But, save for its education policy, the party still has precious few radical plans. Its health strategy consists of protecting the NHS hierarchy from budget cuts and — even worse — granting them operational independence from government. The Blairites, for all their failures, had a detailed programme for delivering choice in public services. The Tories have yet to produce anything as advanced.
Mr Osborne’s positioning is perfect. He has chosen the right trajectory, and is expressing the Tory mission in the right language. All he needs now are the policies.