The Tory party abandoned conservatism long ago. Honing a consistent message around competence, decency and fairness could win over voters tired of Tory chaos, argues Stephen Bradley
At last summer’s Fabian conference, Owen Jones sketched out three transformational governments of modern politics. Two of these, the post-war settlement and Thatcher’s economic liberalisation are behind us. The third, Jones argued, is the socialist recalibration to come. Amid the despair and uncertainty of the current political landscape, there are hints that Jones’ third transformation may be on the way. The centre of gravity has shifted left, a trend confirmed by the Tories’ ersatz policies on housing and inequality.
The current Europe catastrophe shows that the Tory party has abandoned its desire to engage with reality and has consequently forfeited its will for power. It does not seem to have yet realised, for example, that in its recent deal with Europe, it has agreed to remain in the customs union and single market in all but name. Demanding that facts yield to slogans is an intoxicating but short-term strategy. When reality collides with fantasy, Toryism could well crumble. This is the great opportunity for Labour.
The harsh conditions in our society stem largely from the Tory party’s abandonment of conservatism and its ideologically rooted programme of ever more bizarre outsourcing and cartelisation of national life. There is a core of ‘conservative’, cautious sentiment in this country that is far removed from the off-shore spivs and flashy prophets for monetising everything from schools to probation services. This is the quiet conservatism that is consistently opposed to the privatisation successive governments have accelerated. We can speak to this ‘conservatism’, without sacrificing the radicalism of a Labour government that would transform and restore society.
Labour has done much hand wringing about what it is to be British. Clumsy attempts to build a national identity (patriotic but not too patriotic) are misguided. The soul of this country remains as distinct yet uncategorisable as ever, but we are the party who can speak to its most wholesome and honest attributes in a way that chimes with the mainstream. For us Britain is about fairness, being given a chance (second chances and more), removing unfair obstacles, paying your way and being looked after when the chips are down. We must have the confidence that this is our UK and that when this period of hysteria and cynicism ends, the good sense of the British consensus will pop up again, like one of those old roly-poly toys.
We need not lack confidence. Although we have spent less time in office than the Tories, so many of the civilised and now unquestioned attributes of our national life were delivered by Labour. Alongside the NHS and welfare state, we can proudly place gender and sexual equality, reproductive rights, ending capital punishment and smoking in public places. More than any other party, at our best we reflect the unshowy decency of this country.
We can offer a mixture of old and new. We must restore the welfare state. By the time we reach office, rebuilding will probably be much more costly than we have estimated. The pitiful state of NHS estates shows that this government literally refuses to fix the roof when there’s a leak while blaming us for the lack of sunshine.
Whole tracts of the UK economy have been hollowed out, along with the identity and pride that comes from meaningful labour. In the past we have sometimes seemed to alienate our base with the assumption that ‘aspiration’ is synonymous with becoming middle class. Investing in skills and high quality manufacturing but also rebalancing the economy in the long term can not be beyond us, however difficult it seems now.
New priorities should include protecting workers from the one-sided deals dictated by the gig economy, safeguarding the potential of every citizen through early years support and recognising that modern citizenship must include the right to participate in digital space, without forgoing all rights to privacy.
Our last manifesto, despite its hasty conception, was bold and impressive. Combined with the nous and passion of activists, not least those from Momentum, the manifesto was a crucial part of our resurgence. But our next offer, when we will no longer be the underdogs, will have to withstand greater scrutiny and will probably not benefit from the contrast with such frank misery as that contained within the Tories’ last manifesto.
As Andrew Harrop identified in his post-election analysis, satisfying sympathetic interests can consolidate Labour’s support, but policy that isn’t integrated and complementary can lead to unintended consequences like increasing child poverty. With optimism, we must combine plausibility, competence and numeracy. Voters who want to hope for a better future, but suspect us of offering unrealistic wish lists, can only be won over by a proven ability to prioritise, defend and scrupulously budget our plans. This will beget difficult choices, like whether free university education should really be prioritised over investment in early years and adequate health and social care funding.
Faced with a government unhinged by cynicism and ideology, voters crave a competent alternative to address the corrosive inequalities that even the Tories now acknowledge. To earn the mandate to reconstruct Britain, we need to combine the passionate protest of opposition with the discipline of preparing a consistent and plausible programme for government.