Is the future Conservative?

New Labour has created a more individualised and wealthier society, but not a freer or more equal on

It is time for the left to take on the New Tories. This challenge cannot be separated from the need to address the problems facing post-New Labour social democracy. By critically engaging with Cameron's Conservatives the left can rethink its principles and renew itself.

The New Labour project is exhausted. Its promise of change in 1997 was greeted with optimism – ‘things can only get better’. A decade on, and that change has become associated with the turbulence of global capitalism – fear of immigration and economic insecurity. New Labour has created a more individualised and wealthier society, but not a freer or more equal one. In its neglect of its core working-class support it has lost its roots and ideological purpose. Despite its extraordinary electoral successes it has failed to build a lasting coalition for transformational change.

With the onset of a recession, Britain faces acute problems in creating a more equal and sustainable economy. Large areas of the country have lost their economic base. Both Conservative and New Labour governments, heavily influenced by economic liberalism, have driven this process of restructuring the economy and society further and deeper than other European countries.

Manufacturing industry has been neglected and overshadowed by the financial industries. Institutions in education, health and welfare have been depleted by privatisation, outsourcing and marketisation.

Centralised micro-management has left many public sector workers demoralised and their organisational cultures risk averse. This low synergy between individuals and public institutions is reproduced in the political sphere, where there is widespread popular disaffection from political parties and the formal institutions of representative democracy.

As Oliver Letwin argues: "The social revolution we now need to achieve is as great as the economic revolution that was required in the 1980s and 1990s."

David Cameron has made the theme of ‘Breakdown Britain’ central to his politics: ‘the greatest challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival’.

Labour’s response to this pro-social rhetoric has been dismissive. James Purnell has been one of its most vociferous critics: "What a strange rallying cry: stop the world, I want to get on. I can’t stress enough what an inadequate response to the modern world this is." But Purnell ignores New Labour’s own political crisis, claiming that ‘we have a vision of the good society that the Conservatives cannot match’. This is precisely what Labour does not have. It offers no coherent alternative.

In its reinvention in the 1990s New Labour jettisoned the language of ethical socialism, and so lost its capacity to match Cameron’s pro-social rhetoric and usurp his claim to value politics. It no longer knows how to talk about relationships, values, or even social justice. It doesn’t know how to talk about a culture of care and empathy, nor how to speak to people’s insecurities. Its silence over the super rich is matched only by the harsh language deployed against migrants or welfare recipients. It has become a politics without sympathy, unable to engage with everyday life. In contrast, Cameron’s ethical language of social life has resonated amongst many who in the past would never have considered voting for the economic liberalism of Thatcherism.

But how much has the Conservative Party changed? The New Conservatives have adroitly cultivated an aura of intellectual ferment and political renaissance. But the ferment remains shallow and narrowly defined. Old prejudices remain. Despite David Cameron’s early bold politics, the New Conservatives cannot find a way out of the orthodoxies of the 1990s. As an election approaches, the instinct is to retreat from the search for a new political paradigm. The New Conservatives have no coherent political economy with which to enact their pro-social politics and rhetoric of social justice.

Labour cannot easily exploit this contradiction because neoliberal economics has been its own blind faith. Nowhere is the government’s failure to counter the New Conservatives more abject than in the field of welfare reform where the Conservatives praise it for promoting one of their main electoral themes.

Similarly while Labour has rightly challenged the idea of a 'welfare society' with its proposed devolution of state functions, its own centralising instincts and micromanagement of people have allowed the Conservatives to strike a popular chord with their criticism of state control.

Despite its currently robust public face, the New Conservatism remains a tentative political project. Its current success has much to do with the political failure of Labour. In the 1990s New Labour incorporated economic liberalism into its politics and so redefined social democracy. It repositioned itself to the right, adopted a more populist authoritarian tone and defeated the Conservative Party of Thatcherism. But what was New Labour’s electoral strength then has now become its weakness. It has become both the party of the establishment and the party of insecurity. Security is the new progressive politics, trust in people the new political virtue. The New Conservatism lays claim to both and Labour offers no coherent alternative.

Whether or not the Conservatives win the next election, the future does not belong to the Conservative Party. Right now it belongs to a social democracy that is willing to bring liberal free market capitalism and corporate power back under control.

The debate is about how we secure this post-neo-liberal politics. The left needs to recover its ethical socialism and commitment to equality. It needs the political will to reject the easy option of marketisation and realise ideas for democratising public services and building an accountable, redistributive state. Power needs to be devolved to local government. There has to be a renewed argument for constitutional and electoral reform and the protection and extension of individual civil liberties. The conditions for trade unionism have to be improved and a new internationalism established. Perhaps most of all, and most difficult, the left needs an ecologically sustainable, pro-social political economy capable of generating both wealth and equitable development. The future is for the left to lose.

Is the Future Conservative can be downloaded at http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/conservative.pdf

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham. Jonathan Rutherford is Editor of Soundings and Professor of Cultural Studies at Middlesex.University