“Between swivel-eyed, small-state evangelism and defending the status quo” – Jonathan Todd plots a path

Rahm Emanuel never wastes a crisis and neither does the Tory-Lib Dem government. The Thatcherite ends which this government use crises to advance would be anathema to President Obama’s chief of staff. Idealists who cheered Obama’s election have been frustrated by subsequent pragmatism. David Cameron, in contrast, has been much more of an ideologue as Prime Minister than previously; though one more concerned with the low cunning of making his beliefs real than with their principles.

Such an ideologue in Downing Street is more frightening than anything Labour has to offer. After a generation of New Labour, the contemporary meaning of Labour’s values needs restatement. However, the candidates’ visions of the socialist uplands are less important than resisting a PM who threatens the achievements of not just the last Labour government, but every Labour government.

“Dripping wet” was how right-wingers described Cameron a few years ago. The Harold MacMillan picture in his office seemed, in opposition, to prefigure a one-nation PM. His detoxification project accepted that mistrust of Thatcherism was holding back Tory electoral success; an understanding that every other Tory leader since Thatcher either didn’t share or was too weak to act upon. He was, consequently, the first of these leaders to make a determined pitch for the centre ground.

When this didn’t secure a majority government Cameron faced crisis. Tories who never accepted the need for repositioning felt vindicated. This wouldn’t have happened with a more solidly Thatcherite leader like David Davis, they thought. But this crisis created various opportunities.

First, Liberal Democrat cohabitation achieved a detoxification more profound than any previous. “If he agrees with Nick, then Dave can’t be so bad, can he?” Second, in acquiescing Clegg made his party human shields in Cameron’s public spending Blitzkrieg.

Still, what we might loosely call the Davis faction has never been wholly won over. They continue to attack the leadership, while Simon Hughes and other left-leaning Liberal Democrats do so from a different perspective. Being attacked from right and left makes Cameron appear reasonable and a creature of the centre ground, as does being leader of a coalition, with its attendant compromises and trade-offs.

While Cameron’s solid approval ratings suggest he is taken to be a pretty straight kind of guy, the substance of these compromises can be questioned. Raising the income tax threshold was once a Tory right policy. It is now debatable, given recent polling, whether the Alternative Vote would be to the Tory’s electoral disadvantage, if, as Kevin Meagher doubts, the referendum is even won at all. Certainly, the Bill which Clegg will pilot to secure this referendum contains proposals distinctly to the Tories’ advantage, such as reducing the number of MPs and the boundary review.

Clegg is undoubtedly being taken for a ride, but, as Peter Hoskin notes, he has transformed his party in ways that indicate willingly so. The small-state zeal of this transformation meant Danny Alexander didn’t hold George Osborne to the more even-handed trajectories for deficit reduction that the Liberal Democrats and Labour had proposed. The office of budget responsibility has confirmed that Labour’s plan would eliminate the bulk of the structural deficit over this parliament – George Osborne’s stated objective before the election. Yet he is executing £40bn of additional cuts. It requires blind faith in the capacities of private enterprise, once ‘liberated’ from the ‘dead hand’ of the state, to believe this wise.

The NHS White Paper proclaimed liberation, but it requires similar faith to be convincing. What is proposed, in giving such power to GPs, as the SMF’s David Furness notes, is “like asking your waiter to manage a restaurant. They might know what you want to eat but they won’t necessarily be any good at ordering stock, designing a menu or controlling the chef.”

What kind of faith sustains such action? The kind of faith that rashly and incompetently decimates the successful building schools for the future programme to fund the untried experiment of ‘free schools’. A faith in doctrinal conviction over the lessons of experience. A faith that isn’t conservative but Thatcherite.

This is a dangerous psychosis, which we must resist. But, as we do, we must avoid excessive defence of an imperfect status quo or being unrealistic about public finances. Cameron has proposed a new dividing line: “Is this Labour’s great new tactic, to be left defending the bureaucracy of PCTs and SHAs and all the quangos and all the bureaucrats, all of whom are paid vast salaries and huge pensions? They back the bureaucracy. We back the NHS.” We can expect this line to be run alongside the long-established coalition claim that our economic vandalism made cuts unavoidable.

Pat McFadden has highlighted the nonsense of this claim. Ed Balls has impressively opposed Michael Gove. Andy Burnham is equally forceful in taking on Andrew Lansley.  We need to join up the departmental dots and craft a narrative that exposes Cameron’s government across the piece. Joined-up opposition, if you will.

The deficit crisis is real. However, as McFadden has shown, there is a Labour response between Thatcherism and denial. While the government wants us to think differently, there are no crises in education and health. Nonetheless, for us to simply defend the status quo makes it easier for Cameron to caricature us as big state dinosaurs.

There is a Labour response between swivel-eyed, small-state evangelism and defending the status quo. This would distinguish public service reform grounded in past results from reform grounded in blind faith. The former builds upon 13 years of Labour success, and some disappointments, and the later senselessly risks all of these successes. A candidate able to convincingly deliver this response would have a strong claim both on leadership and the centre ground of British politics; the territory that Labour needs to dominate to return to government.

Jonathan Todd is a consultant at Europe Economics and was a Parliamentary candidate at the 2010 election

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