What if they actually believe it?

George Osborne has now claimed "fairness" as a core Tory value, the latest of a series of raids deep

There is no questioning the audacity of the new Conservative Party. Shadow cabinet ministers have spent the summer carrying out a series of daring raids behind enemy lines: Oliver Letwin has declared that his party has a "progressive vision for Britain's future"; Michael Gove has set the Tories' stall as the champions of equality; and now George Osborne has claimed that they are also the custodians of fairness. All recite the mantra that their goal is to achieve "progressive ends by conservative means".

There was a time when Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice seemed eccentrically out of place in the Conservative landscape: now it looks right at home. The Conservatives, in their efforts to demonstrate their newness, have systematically and ruthlessly plundered Labour's lexicon. If they can even half-plausibly claim to be a progressive party motivated by social justice, equality and fairness, what ground does Labour have left to fight on?

The tactical advantages that follow from hijacking progressive themes is obvious, and we can expect more of it. But listening to Osborne's speech, at Demos on Wednesday, a disturbing thought formed. What if they are serious? Tony Blair loved recounting the story of a conversation with a traditionalist Labour MP who said he was sorry Blair felt the need to adopt all these right-wing stances simply to win power. "No, it's much worse than that," Blair replied. "I actually believe it." Perhaps the Cameroons believe all this progressive stuff, too.

In his speech, Osborne certainly appeared genuinely angry about the unfairness of inflation-punctured pensions, lousy schools and disappearing NHS dental care. He insisted that he admired and shared the concerns of Labour MPs who wanted to tackle poverty and inequality - but went on to argue they had failed on their own terms: "There are 900,000 more people living in severe poverty than there were in 1997. The gap in infant mortality between the poorest and richest households has actually grown. Educational inequalities are expanding and social mobility is declining."

The new Conservative attack on Labour is not that Labour has the wrong aspirations, but that it has the wrong approach. Osborne cited Gordon Brown's phrase, "Only the state can guarantee fairness", as the perfect expression of a mindset that believes the state can deliver fairness from the centre by redistributing income and providing uniform public services.

For Osborne, the "narrow focus on redistribution" of successive Labour governments has missed the deeper causes of poverty - family breakdown, long-term unemployment and drug addiction. It is a little unfair. Through the various New Deals, Sure Start, neighbourhood renewal schemes, parenting classes, and so on, Labour has hardly ignored underlying causes - even if many of their efforts have been in vain.

It is certainly true that income inequality has risen, modestly, under Labour. But this is almost entirely because of runaway salaries at the top - Brown's much-derided tax credits have actually done a pretty good job of keeping the gap between the bottom and the middle from widening. And it is clear that without Labour's redistributive policies, the gap would have widened further: and what would the Tories have said then? It is a fact of political life that only the state has the power to alter the shape of income distribution.

Osborne's treatment of fairness suffers from the strengths and weaknesses of the new Conservatism. He is right to say that the state cannot produce fairness off the production line of tax, benefits and public services. It is indeed as much about the strength of families, the cohesion of communities and the responsibility of businesses. But these are social goods which cannot be legislated for. It may be that progressive goals are often best met in ways over which the state has little or no influence.

Similarly, when it comes to their attitude to markets, the new Conservatives are still finding their bearings. Osborne points out that a key ingredient of fairness is that people are rewarded for their effort and ability, and that free markets are usually the most effective mechanism for the achievement of this goal. True enough.

But he then goes on to argue that "the pursuit of self-interest without any constraints does not lead to the fair reward of effort". In other words, Greed is Not Good. Sometimes this means state intervention, to protect workers or prevent monopolies. But mostly the new Conservatives rely on what Osborne calls "robust social frameworks" to temper the excesses of capitalism.

"Where markets work well, they aren't just constrained by formal rules," he said, "but by institutions, social norms, self-regulation, and the character and personal responsibility of those who act within them." This is right. But the question immediately provoked is where and by whom these social norms, good character traits and responsible cultures are created. The Conservatives correctly assert that the state cannot create a good society - only society can do that.

The Conservatives are fighting their way, issue by issue, across the centre ground. And they provide an acute diagnosis of Labour's failings. But they have yet to show how they would make policy in government. Vladimir Lenin was perhaps not an obvious author to make it on to the summer reading list sent to Conservative MPs. But the question raised by his famous pamphlet ought to be keeping them awake: "What is to be done?"

Richard Reeves is the director of Demos

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.