The 'modernisers' of British politics are in retreat
Since the summer reshuffle, a lot of discussion has been devoted to the right-ward shift of the Conservative party. As Stewart Wood writes, the Tories detoxification strategy seems like a “distant memory”.
But arguably the fading of the Cameron project is just one piece of a broader picture, which is the fall from grace of a sub-sect within the political class which once reigned supreme in all parties: the so-called ‘moderniser’.
It is rarely noted that inside the three three main parties sit a relatively small group of people – advisors, MPs, lobbyists mostly – who have far more in common with one another than their own respective party faithful. Their views are distinguished by a metropolitanism and social liberalism. They are intensely relaxed over gay marriage and women’s rights, but also the filthy rich and the City; supportive of public services but besotted with ‘reform’ defined by marketisation; mildly redistributionist but sharers of a faith that increased tax on higher incomes hits aspiration, that the British middle class starts at sixty-grand a year and the working class has been replaced by an underclass. An unswerving commitment to flexible labour markets is likely to make them uncomfortable with anxiety over immigration, while crime is usually addressed through depoliticized phrases like ‘social exclusion’ or ‘problem families’.
As Julian Astle perceptively notes, in one of the few articles written on them, this group will tend to give different emphasis to these views depending on their respective party’s historical weaknesses. Most importantly of all, though, they position and define themselves by a battle with their own more provincial party base.
And for years they won out. This is what came to capture the essence of ‘Blairism’ and many Blairites within the Labour party by the late 1990s. Success at the polls meant their agenda framed British political debate practically unchallenged. Despite ousting Blair himself, ultimately Brown and the people around him couldn’t carve out an alternative to a zeitgeist still going strong within the party and in media circles.
That Cameron came to pick up the Blairite playbook is well known by now; the huskies, the pledges on public spending and overseas aid, the commitment to gay rights and a more open approach to Europe – all key components of the Cameroon project. What is less appreciated is that in retrospect the ascendency of Clegg and co. at the top of the Liberal Democrats was just another variation on a theme, as he moved his party away from the ‘soft leftism’ of Charles Kennedy towards this more fashionable centre. Out went taxing income to better fund public services and opposition to marketisation, in came greater focus on taxing property and pollution, on free schools and on aridly defined ‘fairness’ within existing budgets. Both Cameron and Clegg kept red meat for their base, but their direction of travel became clear enough.
Now, though, it’s a very different story. The Cameron set are well and truly in retreat, ‘in office but not in power’ as the old saying goes. The resignation of Louise Mensch (a politician quietly liked by trendy triangulating types within the other two parties) and emigration of Steve Hilton comes as the Tories prioritise brutal spending cuts and slash tax for millionaires, all the while stalling on gay marriage and trashing any green credentials they once had. Clegg is more secure – the Lib Dems are less factional than commonly thought – but even he has had to tack back towards proposing higher taxes on the rich, and speculation persists that he’ll be ditched for the more leftish Tim Farron.
Meanwhile, the defeat of David Miliband, the departure of Alan Johnson for Ed Balls and the dominance of the likes of Tom Watson has drastically reduced the influence of Blairites or ‘Third Wayers’ over the direction of Labour. This is the real stupidity of the recent GMB motion to ban Progress. Their formal power within the party has never been weaker. The soft-left totally dominate strategy, policy and often selections. And if we can’t make the most of that ascendency, then we have only ourselves to blame, not nonsense conspiracies about plots or coups.
Indeed, there is an opportunity to forge a new consensus amid the rubble of the old one. The old modernising consensus has fallen from favour in all three parties mostly because its playbook was forged at a time when the basic questions of political economy were settled. In this respect, it was broadly in tune with public opinion. But the financial crash and the decline in living standards has incinerated most of those assumptions, and meant the old agenda satisfies neither party rank and file nor voters. Public opinion is much more volatile and harder to capture than before (increased anger at bankers, the rich and inequality but also – sadly – recipients of welfare). It is this which explains what Rafael Behr laments as “the hollow centre of British politics”.
As both Behr and Wood argue, the Tory right has sensed this gap too. They are pushing on with increasingly bold and frightening agenda to plug it. Unlike Brown, Ed Miliband has proved he can operate effectively outside the old ‘modernising’ formula – he has not pointlessly picked fights with his base nor felt the need to match Tory policy or indulge in huskie style stunts.
But there is still a sense of caution to him at times – he recognises the moment British politics finds itself in, but seems reticent to fully follow through on its implications. For the first time as leader, he and the people around him head into conference this week without any real threat, as a chunk of his critics find themselves in the wilderness or fighting their own internal battles. That space needs to be used to match bold critique with bold policy. There may never be a better chance.