Monday, November 27, 2006

Podcast - Can the Tories be the caring party?

Text version of podcast entitled "Can the Tories be the caring party?" which went live today.


LAST week, I wrote that Tory leader David Cameron’s lack of a clear policy agenda currently makes him a sitting target for Labour’s charge that he is all style and no substance.

Broadly speaking, the Cameron camp’s response to that charge has been to say “wait and see,” stressing that the provision of actual policies constitutes “Phase Two” of his plan to transform the party.

For the time being, the Tory leader is still in “Phase One,” which consists essentially of a repositioning exercise designed to convince the public that his party really has changed.

Sure enough, this week came possibly the biggest repositioning exercise so far – an attempt to persuade the voters that it is the Conservatives, not Labour, who care most about the least well-off.

In the broad sweep of history, this is not so outrageous as it may initially appear. It was, after all, Benjamin Disraeli who first drew attention to the “Two Nations” of rich and poor.

The term gave rise to the tradition of paternalistic or “One Nation” conservatism which has continued, in one guise or another, right up to the present day.

However that tradition became steadily marginalised after Margaret Thatcher seized control of the party in 1975, with the One Nation Tories witheringly dismissed by the Iron Lady as “wets.”

Concern for the poor as an aspect of Conservative thought more or less went out of window during the “Greedy 80s” as social and regional inequality re-emerged with a vengeance.

So Mr Cameron’s attempt to reverse all this represents perhaps the most decisive break so far with the party’s recent past.

In a headline-grabbing move, he adopted left-wing commentator Polly Toynbee’s image of society as a caravan moving across the desert in which the “stragglers” get left further and further behind.

In a sense, this is merely an artful piece of spin, a clever use of imagery designed to convey a positive impression rather than set out concrete policy objectives.

Judging by some of the reaction, you would think the Tories had signed up to Ms Toynbee’s entire redistributive taxation agenda, which is emphatically not the case.

Nevertheless, there is a serious point to all this, and that is to signify a change in the Tories’ definition of what poverty actually is.

The old image of welfare as a “safety net” ensuring that people did not fall below subsistence level assumed the idea of poverty as an absolute concept.

Ms Toynbee’s caravan image, by contrast, is about relative poverty, the idea that what matters is not whether you have enough to survive on but how far you are behind the rest of society.

It’s a crucially important distinction – not least because by accepting this new definition, the Tories are playing a pretty difficult ball into Labour’s court.

Why is that so? Well, quite simply, because throughout its period in power, New Labour has invariably adopted the old measure of absolute poverty.

When, for instance, the Government talks about having lifted 1m children “out of poverty,” it is claiming that it has lifted the incomes of those 1m children’s families above a certain, fixed level.

What the Government is not claiming, and could not claim, is that those 1m children are now less poor, in relation to the rest of society, than when it first came to power.

The same arguments could be applied to regional disparities, which are, after all, no more than a measure of the extent to which poverty is concentrated in particular regions.

In that context, a recent report by Cardiff academic Robert Huggins showing the North-South divide might actually have narrowed in the past year.

But what that report did not show was that the gap still remains considerably wider than it was when New Labour came to power in 1997.

If the Government has had a strategy for tackling the divide in recent years, it appeared to be based on the relocation of thousands of public sector jobs from London.

But this, too, has been laid bare by the revelation that any gains will be offset by the current civil service job losses, just as some of us had predicted all along.

What all this serves to highlight is that the Government has a lamentable record on the issue of equality, whether social or regional.

And if the Tories take their argument about relative poverty through to its logical conclusion, they will be able to ask some pretty hard questions of Labour come the next election.

Some will doubtless be repelled by this new move towards the centre ground, a tactic which Mrs Thatcher’s former PR guru Lord Saatchi this week claimed reduced politics to a “commodity market.”

“Voters always suspected that politicians would 'say anything to get elected'. Now they know it's true,” he said.

Perhaps. But other voters might well be impressed by the fact that the Tories now appear to be taking seriously an issue which New Labour has neglected for far too long.

I have posed the question before in this column whether Mr Cameron’s Tories might end up to the left of Labour, and this week’s events have again highlighted that possibility.

Could the next election really see the Tories as the party which pledges to do more for the poor while Labour defends its economic record on the basis of appealing to the better off?

That such a question could even be asked is a measure of what strange yet interesting political times we are living in.

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