Monday, June 12, 2006

Will David Cameron end up to the left of Tony Blair?

Published in: Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph, Saturday June 10, 2006. A slightly different version was also published in The Journal, Newcastle.

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We have become used in British politics to the spectacle of one party trying to steal the other one’s clothes, but rarely have we seen them both attempting to steal eachother’s at the same time.

Such was the case this week, though, as the new trend for political cross-dressing took hold.

In a speech on Tuesday, Tory leader David Cameron said the Tories had to stop making “knee jerk” attacks on public service workers, and recognize that private firms could learn from the public sector.

“Sometimes we have sounded a little hostile, as if our approach is: there are too many of you and you are not working hard enough,” he added.

Meanwhile, back at the Downing Street ranch….Tony Blair was busy warning public sector workers that investment in public services was at risk unless unless performance improved.

And in a rare outbreak of unanimity between Nos 10 and 11, Chancellor Gordon Brown weighed in by making clear that public sector pay rises would be limited to 2pc over the next three years to fight inflation.

All this came hard on the heels of the scapegoating of Home Office officials for the debacle over the deportation of foreign prisoners.

It provided an open goal for Mr Cameron who said: “When I hear ministers declaring that their departments are not fit for purpose, I wish they’d have the decency to admit that very often it’s their policies that are at fault.”

Furthermore, being nice to public sector workers was not all Mr Cameron was doing this week by way of demonstrating that his party has changed its spots.

In an interview with the New Statesman this week, he also outlined his desire for equality and stressed his commitment to a system of redistributive taxation.

In a sense, this is no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious, in that a progressive taxation system has operated under Tory and Labour governments alike for the past 100 years or more.

But the fact that Mr Cameron can utter the dreaded R-word when Mr Blair cannot bring himself to do so says a great deal about where we are in British politics today.

All of which begs a question that has been buzzing round in my head for some time but which I originally intended to wait until much nearer the next General Election before posing.

It is this. Is Britain better off being governed by a centre-right party that seeks to adopt an inclusive approach to voters of a left persuasion, than a centre-left party forever fretting about whether it can also appeal to the right?

In other words, could a David Cameron government, in practice, turn out to be further to the left than Tony Blair’s?

I don’t yet know the answer, but I suspect this may well become a defining issue for many existing Labour and Lib Dem voters as they consider where to place their support next time.

One political blogger made the interesting observation this week that Mr Cameron, if not his party, “seems to have double-thought his way into triangulating his policies to the left of Blair.”

Despite the somewhat mangled syntax, there is something in this.

Triangulation was the technique that New Labour used to position itself on the political centre ground between Old Labour and the New Right, and Mr Cameron now appears to be using the same approach,

In an overcrowded centre ground, it is perfectly possible that a Tory Party seeking to win over floating Labour voters will end up to the left of a Labour Party still seeking to hang onto Thatcher’s Children.

For my part, I still hope that the next election will offer a much clearer choice, and that Gordon Brown will succeed in leading the left in a new and less intellectually sterile direction than Blairism.

But as I have said before, my view as a commentator is that he is going to find that much harder to do now that the Tories have rejoined the real world.

It is very likely that Mr Brown or whoever else becomes leader will be forced to fight a “safety first” election, trotting out all the tired old Blairite clich├ęs for fear that anything else will frighten the horses.

And if that is the choice on offer, then I think David Cameron may well turn out to be someone worth voting for.

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