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