David Miliband, who has his own campaign blog, which I referred to last week, had an eye-catching line in his speech at Labour HQ dismantling the Tories’ “big society” rhetoric yesterday, when he said:
The words may be John F Kennedy but the policies are pure George W Bush.
Yet Miliband is about much more than one-liners. In fact, if you join the dots, his latest speech was part of a series of powerful attacks on the Tory party that show the Foreign Secretary has been paying close attention to his Conservative opponents over recent months.
The New Labour moderniser has apparently come firmly to the view that the Conservatives have not, in fact, put in changes equivalent to the ones that began in his own party with Neil Kinnock’s 1985 expulsion of Militant and continued under Tony Blair, who symbolically abolished Clause Four.
Yesterday, Miliband rallied the Labour faithful, saying:
The Tory head and the Tory heart are at odds. The head tells them that the world has changed, that they have been rejected at three elections because they were seen as the Nasty Party. The heart tells them something different: that government is always the problem not the solution, that Europe is a threat not an opportunity, that the environment is an add-on at best and a distraction at worst.
When you peel away the rhetoric of the Big Society, what do you find? The message is about self-service, not government at your service; on your bike, not by your side. They say they’re empowering you. The truth is they are abandoning you. Why else would they block commitments to 1:1 tuition in schools, offer gambles not guarantees for those needing cancer treatment, retrenchment not reform when it comes to public services?
Their manifesto says they oppose big government but that they support the NHS, the biggest employer in the world; they can believe either but not both.
It’s not the Big Society but the Big Gamble.
The major Tory attacks from Miliband began at last year’s party conference, when he delighted activists by saying, among other things, that the party’s positioning in Europe made him “sick”.
New Labour said the values never change but that the means need to be updated. The Tories want it the other way around. They say the values have changed, but, miraculously, the policies should stay the same
I recognise the Tory difficulty. We faced it after 1994. You need to reassure people you are not a risk; and you need to offer change. But while we promised evolution not revolution in the short term, like sticking to Tory spending limits, we offered a platform for radical change in the medium to long term, from the minimum wage to school investment.
Cameron’s got himself facing the other way round. The heart insisted on radical change in the short term — cuts in inheritance tax for the richest states, a marriage tax allowance, immediate cuts in public spending, bring back fox-hunting. But after that, the head gives the impression that it really doesn’t know what to do, other than press pause on reform, offer a £1m internet prize for the best policy ideas, and then go off and play with the Wii.
They have managed the unique feat of being so determined to advertise pragmatism that they have completely obliterated any medium-term vision to their politics, while cleaving to short-term commitments that leave the impression they are ideological zealots. It’s the precise opposite of the New Labour approach in the 1990s.
The result is that today’s Conservatism looks more and more like a toxic cocktail of Tory traditions. The government on offer from David Cameron would be as meritocratic as Macmillan, as compassionate as Thatcher, and as decisive as Major.
There is a distinct theme here. The Foreign Secretary, who described Cameron’s “camera on, camera off” approach to politics in front of millions on BBC1’s Question Time last week, is emerging as a considerable force against a Conservative Party he well understands.