by Jonathan Todd
My two visits to Policy Exchange bookend the Tory modernisation project. Early in David Cameron’s leadership, I heard Daniel Finkelstein and Siôn Simon debate what this endeavour might learn from Labour’s own modernisation. Nick Boles, then director of the think-tank, dressed in suit jacket and vest, gave Simon some cheese as thanks for passing into centre-right territory.
Simon came not to praise Cameron’s efforts and Boles recently buried them. So hopeless is the Tory modernisers task that Boles, Cameron’s planning minister, now claims it cannot be accomplished within their own party. A more hospitable adjunct is required.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently had Tory modernisers heeded the insight that Simon gave them. He argued, essentially, that Tory modernisers were taking the wrong lessons from Labour modernisers. The Tories saw Alastair Campbell and thought that modernisation meant slick communication. Actually, it requires much more. What Campbell himself has called “heavy lifting”. Thinking through how traditional values can be applied in a contemporary context.
The values are the end, their policy application is the means, the heavy lifting builds new means to achieve timeless ends. This approach updated the revisionisms of earlier Labour pioneers, like Tony Crosland and Hugh Gaitskell. Cameron’s only fixed end, however, was to become prime minister. His lack of an animating purpose has left him seeming inauthentic and his administration bereft of ballast, easily knocked off its stride.
My second visit to Policy Exchange was this week to hear Matthew D’Ancona discuss his history of this administration. He spoke of Andy Coulson offering his resignation to Cameron and this being rebuffed, to Coulson’s surprise. Coulson remained due to Cameron’s enduring admiration for his spin doctor. As ever, communication skills were most highly valued by the prime minister.
The Autumn Statement presents a communications challenge to him. His government needs to use it to change a conversation about the cost of living that Labour is winning. D’Ancona bemoans the “poor public diplomacy” of the government, the absence of a “teacher politician” able to tell a convincing story about where they are taking the country and why.
Cameron is a teacher always blaming his black board. When his real problem is that he doesn’t know what subject he is teaching. At the start of class, he told us to hug a husky and now he wants to get “rid of the green crap”. The pupils are not listening because they realise that teacher’s an opportunistic salesman.
Ed Miliband, meanwhile, is not so much a teacher as a preacher. From the marrow of his bones, he is certain of his lodestar, as he refers to his father. Where Cameron wears his values lightly, Miliband is steeped in them.
Cameron and Miliband both have supporters who are what Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times describes as rationalists, convinced that their man will be prime minister come May 2015. Such analysts believe that “the swing voter is a brother of homo economicus, coldly appraising each party’s manifesto for compatibility with their own interests”. In contrast, political impressionists think that “they respond to the general aroma emitted by a party”.
Cameron’s rationalists point to poll leads on welfare, immigration and economic management. Miliband’s to the same on the cost of living, public services and “being on the side of people like me”. They both think these leads prove inevitable victory.
Cameron and Miliband’s internal critics tend to be more impressionistic. In Cameron’s case, they worry that the salesman seems heartless, while in Miliband’s, they aren’t so much concerned about the preacher lacking heart as competence. If politics is the contest that impressionists believe, it’s a toss-up who will win this clash of unconvincing impressions.
More rationally, we might assess the weight that voters attach to the various issues on which the parties trade polling leads and deduce the likely outcome accordingly. A homo economicus method for what rationalists see as a homo economicus world. This is all dismal science next to the impression of both parties having dodgy aromas.
Which begs the question: Are they both poorly led or is something happening to the pupils beyond the control of the salesman, the preacher or anyone else?
To a greater extent than previously, the pupils do not wish to be so. What they lack in deference, they make up for with networks. What this can or should make them, other than pupils, remains unclear, though. What is more apparent is that they want the salesman to have a heart and the preacher to be able to make good his heart’s intentions. The pupils may no longer be pupils but they still want teachers.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut