The left should weep not cheer at the decline of Compassionate Conservatism

It is fatal to think that the worse the Tories look, the better Labour appears.

A final nail has been bashed into the coffin of Compassionate Conservatism this week and the left should weep, not cheer.

Those receiving benefits, desperate burglars, Europeans, teaching unions, pregnant women and more are now in the sites of a vindictive Britannia that is being unchained before our eyes. In sorrow not anger we should morn the passing of what could have been - a decisive shift in British politics with the rebirth of a caring Tory Party that has turned into a fading dawn. Why and how can this be the case?

The real job of politics is to shift the centre of gravity in your direction for the longest possible period of time. To do this means not just changing your party but your opponents so that when you lose, and you will, nothing really changes. Thatcher realized this when claimed her ultimate triumph was not changing the Tory party but changing Labour. Blimey did she succeed.

The possibility of a one-nation, compassionate Conservatism taking root under Cameron's early leadership was a distinct and tantalizing possibility. Going green, hugging hoodies and the whole big society opened up space that was to the left of the arid spot New Labour finally landed on. A strong connection could have been made to the Disraeli and Macmillan strain of Conservatism that had been lost under the Thatcherite storm. After all, it was a Tory minister that founded our post war system of secondary education, it was a Tory government that built more council houses than any Labour government and under the Tories the NHS used to be safe. Of course it was a paternalistic politics born of an old class system - but a system that recognized obligation, duty, respect and tolerance. Cameron appeared to be of this ilk and not of the dry, utilitarian brand of market fundamentalists that took hold of the party after 1975.

That compassionate Conservatism failed to re-root itself is of course Cameron's fault. He didn't do the work politically or organizationally to dig in. Or perhaps he never really meant it? The crash didn't help either - giving Osborne an easy target with which to attack the state and to have a very lop-sided view of being "all in it together". But the forces outside of the Tory ranks acting against the back-sliding to compassionless Conservatism where too weak to act as an effective countervailing force.  Labour, the unions and wider civil society simply haven't been up to the job.   Too little of the New Labour legacy has survived because it was hardly ever based on principled argument and popular support and was therefore incapable of defining a lasting moral consensus once Labour was turfed out. Devolution stands but little else.

I come from a working class family. I didn't really know any Tories until I was an adult. It confounded my youthful prejudices to find out they could be kind and caring. But such traits find little echo in their party today. Cameron promised but failed to deliver. What happens to these people now - who speaks for them? And what about Ferdinand Mount, Ken Clarke, Peter Oborne and the Red Tory Philip Blond? These people have been adding a richness to the political debate and policy that no longer has a home. Where do they go and what has the country lost?

Some in Labour's ranks will cheer. The lines become clearer for them, a simple world of black and white, good and bad. The worse the Tories get the better Labour looks. Such a view is fatal. It either opens up the threat of Labour marching to the right again to eat up the space being vacated by the return of the great moving right show, or it polarises politics and the whole adversarial system that has done such damage to Britain. Can those who are cheering be so sure the centre of gravity, because of these preference shaping right wing Tories, won't shift even further right?   

The point at which our country was at its most equal was an era in the 1950s called Butskellism, named after the consensus between the hugely influential and decent Tory RA Butler and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.  Compassionate Conservatism is not an oxymoron but it's taken another big hit. We should hope it recovers. The NHS being safe in the Tories hands is a good thing. It means poor people don't suffer unnecessarily. The left has to understand its victory comes is when it converts the Tories again to a humane form of politics.

PS The debacle of the West Coast Mainline franchise is yet another example of free market failure being turned into an attack on the state. In echoes of the banking crisis, that was the result of too little not too much state intervention, the right argue that civil service 'failure' merely shows how daft it would be to let the state ever run the railways again. You have to admire their brass neck.  The reality is that in our warped world we have private sector consultants paid £650k a year to shaft civil servants paid just £65k in the battle of who wins the franchise contract war. I wonder? The former are incentivized to make as much profit as possible while later are incentivized by what's in the public interest. The sooner the railways are run by and for the public the better. Where is Labour's brass neck?

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage