Could he just be Labour's future?

The most important person at Labour's Manchester conference will be nowhere in sight. Like Thatcher

"In contriving any system of government . . . every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest." So wrote David Hume in 1742. He went on to admit that he was probably exaggerating, and that it was "strange, that a maxim should be true in politics which is false in fact". Surveying the wreckage from the recent power struggle at the apex of the government, it is hard not to think that, if anything, Hume understated his case. The leadership of the Labour Party - the ones who promised us that Things Can Only Get Better - has presided over an outbreak of knavery, name-calling and nastiness that has shaken even veteran Westminster players.

Raw, internecine battles are obviously bad for Labour. Women in particular are likely to be turned off by the sight of boys bickering. (It was striking that, at the height of the trouble, it was only women - Patricia Hewitt, Ruth Kelly and Harriet Harman - who tried to calm things down.)

But beneath these choppy surface waters lurk deeper, even more dangerous challenges. David Cameron is turning out to be a formidable politician, underestimated by most of his opponents. He is easily the most important political figure in Manchester this week - his shadow will loom fearfully over the Labour conference. There is no question who is making the political weather.

Labour is boosting him further. One of the most potent lines of attack against the Tory leader is his immaturity. But while Cam eron writes an article for the Financial Times on the need for a new relationship with India - where he is photographed - Tony Blair and Gordon Brown shout at each other. Cameron issues a carefully judged speech on foreign policy, bravely using the 9/11 anniversary to signal a shift away from a slavishly pro-US line: Blair accuses his Chancellor of "blackmail". It is quite an achievement for two men who jointly have two decades of experience in the highest offices in the land, and almost half a century of parliamentary service, to make a man who has been an MP for five years and leader for less than a year look statesmanlike, but they've managed it. The Camer on camp can't believe its luck. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Gut feel factor

As Labour has lost its grip on the electorate, its own shortcomings - intellectual as much as political - are being cruelly exposed. "Sheriff, this is no time to panic," says Buzz Light year to Woody in the film Toy Story. "This is the perfect time to panic!" comes the reply. "I'm lost, Andy is gone, they're gonna move to a new house in two days, and it's all your fault!" There is more than a whiff of panic in government circles right now: but it may be coming at a perfect time. Because Labour is in deep trouble. And not until the party realises the depth of its crisis - of which there is little sign so far - can any progress be made.

Voters opt for a candidate or party on the basis of how they feel about them, rather than what they think of them. Maybe they always have - but the narrowing of the ideological gap has made the "gut feel" factor even more important. In particular, as the work of George Lakoff in the United States demonstrates, voters want leaders who appear to share their values - those who seem to "get" the issues that concern them, even if the voters disagree with their specific policies. Politics is therefore an echo of deeper, social and cultural factors. Thatcherism rode on the back of a growing desire for individual agency and prosperity, fuelled by the failure of collective action to deliver. Blair, in turn, drew on a deep well of discontentment with the excesses of greed and the "me-me" culture of the free market.

Labour's values are (on a good day) seen to be about social justice, equality, fairness and the hope for a better future. All good stuff, and part of the reason for the past three general election victories. The question is how far Labour's politics are connecting with deeper cultural trends and whether - as seems ominously likely - Cameron does a better job of making this connection. The real prize in politics now is to be the leader or party that captures the virtues of the community, rather than the virtues of the market or the state.

Cameron is tapping into a growing unease about the state of our communities and the still-tattered state of our social fabric. He is making all the right noises about work/life balance, well-being, corporate power and the environment. People do not generally feel that their problem is poverty, or lack of individual freedom. Their problem is that, despite all our advances and advantages, neither market-driven growth nor state-funded public services seem to be delivering better communities and better lives.

Cameron also knows that he will face Brown, and he knows something about the areas where Brown, too, might wish to make his mark: environmental policy, gender equality, a humbler foreign policy, constitutional reform, local democracy and the sustenance of civic institutions. Cameron is therefore claiming these issues for himself, before Brown is let loose. Brown's new clothes are being stolen even before he has had a chance to wear them. It must be infuriating. The longer Brown is made to wait, the greater the danger that he will be playing "catch-up Cameron" until election day.

One day Brown will be Prime Minister: the Blairite "ultras" need to get over that. He should - and, I think, will - encour age a broad debate about the future. But an acrimonious battle over the succession between Blairites and Brownites will play perfectly into Cameron's hands. Charles Clarke, who can fairly claim to be an independent voice, having savaged both Blair and Brown, is right to be concerned about the Chancellor's closeted approach to politics, but wrong on other counts, especially his criticism of Brown as a ditherer: "You can't be cowed and worried," he said in a recent interview. "You can't have endless reviews. You have to act. The courage question is a big thing for Gordon."

Spirit of the age

The bigger challenge for Brown, and for Labour, is the renewal of ideas and a process of reconnection with what Victorians would have called the "spirit of the age". The new Labour project, while a brilliant political success, has been shown to lack intellectual dynamism. The "Third Way" sounds almost quaint now, a knick-knack from a more hopeful time. The very electoral strength of Blair has allowed Labour to duck hard questions; the disorientation caused by the scale of his 1997 victory brought the suspension of real debate within the party: why bother to do the hard graft of redefining social democracy when the political field is yours? Labour became the natural party of government, but only by default. The Conservatives had packed up and left town for a while, leaving a string of caretaker leaders who were not supported by the big beasts and big brains of the party.

The question that Labour finds it hardest to answer is this: what is the role of the state in the creation and maintenance of strong communities and a good society? Both Clarke and Cameron accuse Brown of being an old-fashioned statist, which is plain wrong. He is clear on where public provision is superior, such as in health, but just as concerned to promote enterprise - social or private - where he thinks these will work best. What he is lacking, however, is a co herent story about a government's overall role in meeting the population's felt need for better, stronger, safer communities: in short, a post-socialist political philosophy.

Cameron has moved into this space with his self-described "civic conservatism" and his insistence that "there is such a thing as society: it's just not the same thing as the state". His special adviser Danny Kruger recently suggested that "fraternity" - strong social ties, a sense of community - lies at the heart of the new Toryism. He accuses Labour of believing that equality is a precondition for fraternity, and old-style Tories of relying too heavily on the idea of individual liberty. (It is a sign of the times when Conservatives use the language of the French revolution so freely.)

The Conservatives are on to something important here. Many of the problems that make up the stuff of politics are beyond the reach of the market and the state. This is not to say that both do not play an important part in health gain, crime reduction, lower pollution or higher levels of education. But advances in these areas rest just as much in the hands of communities. Labour ministers have flirted with communitarianism and "social capital" from time to time, yet the attachment has rarely gone much beyond the appealing rhetoric. That is a pity, because this is the level at which much of the social and political action is.

Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, grandmasters of community studies, argue that "community governance" can have significant advantages over market contracts and state intervention alike, because of richer information and robust peer monitoring. "In contrast with states and markets," they write in the Economic Journal, "communities more effectively foster and utilise the incentives that people have traditionally deployed to regulate their common activity: trust, solidarity, reciprocity, reputation, personal pride, respect, vengeance and retribution, among others." Social norms act as a powerful glue in successful communities. But the state can't enforce social norms and the market can't price them. Cameron's view is that the role of governments is essentially advocatory, that symbolic policies and strong messages can "signal" the right direction to people. The Tories want to show people how to be good: Labour, by implication, wants to make them so.

Cameron is staking his claim on the fertile political ground of our sense of community. He senses that people know that labour-market mobility, giant supermarket chains, anonymous neighbourhoods and congealed roads are eroding well-being. And he correctly perceives that there are no simple state- or market-driven solutions. This ground should not be ceded easily to the right, however. The ingredients of successful communities do not, in fact, fit a binary left-right model, and they have a complex relationship with state action. On the one hand, greater income equality seems to promote what Bowles and Gintis dub "prosociality". On the other, home ownership does. And, most troubling for all liberals, ethnic diversity seems to reduce community cohesion. But this messy terrain is the battleground for much of the politics of the future.

How Labour can win

This is why the Cameronistas stress their commitment to localism, and why up-and-coming ministers do the same. On his blog, David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, points out that "all environmental issues end up being local". We'll have to wait for Ruth Kelly's local government white paper to see how far the top brass (for which, read "Brown") are convinced of the need to redistribute power. Labour has to create spaces for communities to organise themselves, in a neces sarily messy process that the Brazilian activist and Harvard professor Roberto Unger describes as "democratic experimentalism". As Unger puts it, the goal should be to widen the opportunities, to try out ways of associating with other people in every realm of our moral and practical existence.

To secure a fourth consecutive period in office, Labour has to win the battle of ideas, personify a fresh approach to politics and build a confident story about the role and limits of the state. And naturally, the party has to start winning the battle of the headlines, too.

From a purely party perspective, one momentum-gaining option would be for Blair to resign at the opening of the Conservative conference next month, wiping out the Tories' media coverage. After a high-energy, open-minded hundred days, Brown could call an election for 2007, before the Conservatives bottom out their policies. It's just a thought. Nobody in Labour is thinking this way. Then again, on the face of it, few of them are thinking at all.

Best of Dave

It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being.

Speech to the Google Zeitgeist Europe, 22 May 2006

The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC, it is because of them - and we Conservatives should say so clearly today.

Comment piece in the Observer, 27 August 2006

There's been a danger that the Conservative Party has been seen too much as just standing for whatever big business wants. I didn't go into politics to be the mouthpiece for big business.

Observer interview, 18 December 2005

What we need now is green growth. That means harnessing existing and developing technologies in energy and transport; it means putting a price on carbon emissions and ensuring that the polluter pays.

Article written for the Independent, 3 September 2006