Friday, June 06, 2008

Cameron vs Blair

Spiked Online, the successor to Living Marxism, provides what might be called a predictably contrarian view on modern politics. It's usually a pretty good read, and has the added bonus of driving traditional lefties frothingly insane. There's nothing quite so guaranteed to enrage a lefty as what he sees as treasonous criticism - witness responses to Nick Cohen or Oliver Kamm for example. That being said, their post-modern 'plague on both your houses', 'politics is dead' motif risks simplifying positions for the sake of a good argument.
I think a case in point is this article on the Tories. Entitled 'The Fortinbras Factor' (which, incidentally is a truly excellent line) it has as its premise that Cameron's Conservative Party deliberately stand as nothing more than a 'Not-Labour Party' and that despite scaremongering on the left about the threatened return of ‘real’ Toryism, Cameron’s strategy looks less like a Thatcherite revival than a brand of – if you can imagine anything so featherweight – Blairism-lite.
The argument is that the Conservatives are not fighting for a distinctive Tory agenda. They are not fighting for anything. They are simply waiting for New Labour to implode completely, and hoping that if they don’t do anything much they won’t upset too many voters in the meantime.
This is, of course, an entirely acceptable ploy in opposition. Very few Governments-in-waiting spend their time mapping out to the electorate the difficult and unpopular decisions they would make in Government. Those that do, whether it was Michael Foot's nationalisation plans for High Street banks, and the FTSE 100, or John Smith's Shadow Budget, tend to lose elections. Comparisons are therefore made with the last youthful leader of the opposition - Tony Blair.
It's important to remember here that what made Blair exciting and different was his symbolic ditching of aspects of the Labour Party that made it unelectable - Clause 4 is the most famous one, but you can also take the rejection of income tax rises, or the abandonment of unilateral nuclear disarmament, or the rowing back from the promise to repeal the Tory ban on secondary picketing. You can argue that these were central parts of the Labour identity, and that their removal from the policy platform marked the beginning of the hollowing out of Labour, but even if you do, you should also acknowledge that they decontaminated the Labour brand - a process made complete by the literal re-branding as 'New Labour'.
Critics complain that Cameron has not done nearly so much - and has focused instead on an insubstantial impressionistic detox of the Tory image, designed to make them sound 'nicer'. Blair, it is stated, did real policy heavy lifting, Cameron has had his picture taken with a husky. To me, however, this ignores the essential difference between the Labour in 1995 and the Tories in 2005. The big problem Labour had was that it was still regarded as in some ways dangerously left-wing. People were worried about a relapse to Bennite socialism. The memories of the unions' excesses were fresh. People didn't want to pay more income tax. Blair's moves were designed to assuage these tangible and identifiable fears.
With the Tories, however, the problem was different. You would be hard pressed to find a particular Tory idea that people didn't like (the nearest you would get was 'banging on about Europe' - and even that was about the impression it gave rather than the substance of the debate). Instead there was an indeterminate ick factor about them - the Bridget Jones 'Labour are for helping people and Nelson Mandela, while the Tories are having affairs' thing. What needed to be addressed was therefore not so much the concrete policies - what there was of them - but more this ick factor. This, it seems to me, is what Cameron has done. The 'shy Tory' syndrome seems to have vanished; the Tories pass the dinner party test again.
Both Cameron and Blair, therefore, acted to change what it was about their respective parties that caused them to lose elections. In the case of the Labour Party that was policy; in the case of the Tories that was public image. It could be argued that, rather than it being Blair who carried out the harder job, the task Cameron faced was more difficult - addressing vague and contradictory emotions rather than identifiable policy issues. As opposition leaders they are directly comparable - the next step awaits...

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