Far from merging in the middle, British politics stands on the brink of a historic divide.
It is said that Gordon Brown is always on the lookout for a political dividing line – that is, something that might put him on the winning side of an argument, with David Cameron on the other. This might take the form of an issue, such as the extended detention without trial of terrorist suspects; alternatively, there may be no policy content at all – merely a stunt of some sort, such as Gordon’s GOAT (government of all talents).
If you ask me, I’d say that the Prime Minister is no more convinced of Britain’s need for 56 day detention than he is of the Labour Party’s need for Quentin Davies – it’s just that he calculated that the fissures thus created would leave his opponents on the shakiest ground. Luckily for us, he’s the one that got rumbled, his high minded proclamations of a new kind of politics exposed as petty gamesmanship. And yet there is something to be said for his approach. What he almost understands, and various Tory strategists have utterly failed to grasp, is that success in politics is not about you moving to the middle ground – it’s about defining the dividing lines that put the middle ground where you want it to be.
For instance, for most of the 20th century the great divide in British politics was over state control of the economy. On one side of the line was the Left, in favour of state control; on the other side was the Right, in favour of free enterprise. Under Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative were able to highlight the growing economic opportunities offered by the market, making it increasingly clear as to which was the winning side.
This is something that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair understood when they started New Labour. However, they did a lot more than simply cross the old divide. They surveyed the new political territory they found themselves in and drew a new dividing line right across it. This was the divide between private gain and the common good, with themselves on the side of the latter. Where once there had only been Left and Right, there was now a Third Way – in favour of free enterprise and the common good.
There was nothing especially original about this formula, but it was Blair and Brown who succeeded in defining it clearly, marking out a political space much larger than the alternatives to the Left of the first divide or to the Right of the second. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party was torn between the die-hards who were determined to stand their ground, and modernisers intent on crossing the second divide to join New Labour on the middle ground.
The die-hards were always doomed to failure. A growing economy means that people are increasingly intolerant of public squalor in the midst of private affluence, and more able to afford a Government intent on progress. In the absence of a sustained economic reverse, I doubt that any party that concerns itself with private gain alone can ever win another election.
But that doesn’t mean the modernisers have got it right either. There’s no use putting yourself on the middle ground of British politics unless you can make it your own. Merely promising to make a better fist of your opponent’s policies will not win you votes – not unless they mess up big time.
So, how can the Conservative Party carve out a winning position? Well, you guessed it, we need to draw our own political dividing line – with ourselves on the right side of the argument and New Labour very much in the wrong. By this I don’t mean the tawdry wedge-issue politics that Messrs Brown and Balls find so diverting, I mean a fault line on the scale of the two great divides I’ve described already.
Yes, we must remain on the side of free enterprise and the common good, but within that territory we need a third great divide. In this respect, and with a more than a little help from Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron is beginning to make his mark. The line which he sketching out across the centre ground is between New Labour’s vision of the welfare state, the Conservative vision of a welfare society.
Over the last ten years New Labour has had the time to pursue its vision – and the money too, more than has ever been available to a British Government. Billions of pounds have been spent on getting people back into work; but worklessness remains ingrained and migrant labour is required to fill most new jobs. Billions of pounds have been spent on tackling educational failure; but independent studies show that little has been achieved and that mass illiteracy continues to entrench inequality. Billions of pounds have been spent on early years intervention projects like Sure Start; but the Government’s own research shows that the children of the poor have not been helped, while their families and communities disintegrate.
And yet up and down the country, individuals and organisations are
demonstrating that you can get the long-term unemployed into work; that
you can teach just about anyone to read; that you can support and
strengthen families to give every child the best possible start in
life. Even more importantly, the most enterprising of these endeavours
are demonstrating that these patterns of success can be replicated on a
transformational scale – if, that is, they are entrusted with the
freedom and resources to do so.
Sadly, it is not in Labour’s nature to relinquish control to a welfare society; the way is therefore open to the Conservative Party – as champions of free enterprise, the common good and the welfare society.
The question that remains is whether David Cameron will take this way forward, or draw back – leaving a hazy and indistinct dividing line between himself and Gordon Brown. It is still too early to tell, but I was greatly encouraged by his Manchester speech earlier this month. His idea that certain public services and assets could be mutualised was not only exciting in itself, but also as a sign of his ambition for the kind of reform that could make anything possible – including a realignment of British politics.