Cameron’s doomed attempt to be a Labour moderniser

by John Woodcock

Has anyone noticed how David Cameron has been talking more about Labour “modernisers” in recent days?

On Marr yesterday, the prime minister insisted it had been appropriate to share a platform on AV with John Reid because he had been “an effective minister… a moderniser”.

And in PMQs last week, Cameron responded to my question about why NHS waiting times were going up by protesting that I was “meant to be a moderniser” – so why was I criticising his reform plans?

Apart from obviously being flattered that our country’s leader has taken the time to keep abreast of the political leanings of this Parliamentary newbie (he must be a secret Labour Uncut reader), there are a number of striking things about this.

The first is that it is only on hearing that term in 2011 does one realise how archaic it has become. It is like being transported back to a mid-nineties New Labour disco playing D:Ream. The debate over where the Labour party’s centre of gravity should lie is as important as ever, but it no longer resonates to describe it as a struggle between modernisers and the status quo. Such terminology harks back to a simpler age so masterfully defined and dominated by Messrs Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Campbell. A time when you were for good things and against bad things, out with the old and in with the new. This binary positioning within Labour circles followed through into our offers to the public: “forward not back”; “no reverse gear” on public service reform; “investment versus cuts” on the economy.

That Cameron indicates he believes so strongly that “moderniser” must therefore equal “good” points again to the oft-made charge that he has only the most superficial grasp of why New Labour worked as a political force that re-shaped the centre-left and changed the country.

But his raising it now surely points to the beginning of a more concerted attempt to define Labour as having vacated the centre-ground, stepped up as his own programme comes under greater fire. If only we had not given up on being New Labour, we would be with him on his drive to continue “modernising” the country, his argument will go.

There is partly a failure of Tory presentation here, amply exposed by the party’s own ineptitude. Undoubtedly, it is in part a misplaced faith in the persuasive power of a “change is always good” mantra which has led to the Conservative health reforms running into such trouble.

In the months and years ahead we must, of course, avoid opposition for the sake of it. The public will ultimately judge us harshly if we set ourselves against well-argued reforms that turn out to bring demonstrable improvements.

But, most importantly, we must continue to push back hard against Cameron’s attempt to create the sense that “It’s my way, or the highway” – the idea that Labour must accept all Tory reform or be branded as having walked away from the mainstream.

Ed Miliband’s emphasis today on the lack of a mandate for the changes that the Tories are attempting to force on the country, is apt and timely.

There are a number of reasons why the Conservatives’ early attempts at public service reform are failing. Largely of course, many of the changes are flawed and being implemented at too great a speed. But we should not under-estimate the importance of the public’s reaction against a programme that they did not vote for, were not warned about, and which does not seem in touch with their basic sense of fairness.

There will rightly continue to be debate over what the nature of Labour’s alternative should be: how best we can protect frontline public services and place the control of them more effectively in the hands of those who use them and pay for them through their taxes.

There will understandably be a level of interest in the colour of the wrapping for Labour’s new ideas – whether blue, purple or good old deep red.

And the prime minister may even succeed in clumsily levering terms like “moderniser” back into the political lexicon.

But one thing is certain: this bungled, half-baked Conservative programme clearly leaves space for Labour to reclaim its place as a bold reforming party bidding to re-define the centre-ground of British politics. That is the only place we should ever seek to be.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.

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3 Responses to “Cameron’s doomed attempt to be a Labour moderniser”

  1. iain ker says:

    Yawn. The ‘centre-ground’ – where every political party with ambitions for ‘power’ feels it has to place itself.

    ‘The centre-ground’ is nothing other than political-speak for

    ‘please, please, please vote for us and we’ll just carry on with things as they are in general, while making pointless and unneeded changes at the periphery to pretend at least to ourselves that we are governing’.

    Or perhaps you can tell me what the ‘centre-ground’ solution for the problem of having 5.25 million people on the dole is.


    Thought not.

  2. Tom Miller says:

    Would it be wholly anachronistic to suggest that what is modern is often a matter of political opinion?

  3. Robert says:

    Perhaps Tom you should ask New labour, Modern labour or New labour same thing really not old Labour not Labour.

    I have had my letter now for my new medical under Labours new WCA and ESA guidence.

    Ah yes modern labour

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