Leader: The Tories must walk progressive if they want to talk progressive

There is an alarming disconnect between the Conservatives' rhetoric and their policies

We are, at last, at the end of the party conference season, but also at the end of something more important: New Labour's social-democratic experiment. If the New Labour project was about anything, beyond the pure utilitarian objective of winning and then holding on to power, it was about attempting to use the means of the free market to broadly redistributive ends. Labour presented a clear dichotomy: market or state. Or, more precisely, the market was used to empower the state. There was very little in between. Civic society was squeezed while the surveillance state grew stronger and more menacing in its effects. Mutualism and co-operation became part of the lost vocabulary of the Labour Party lexicon. Localism was spurned. Civil liberties were disregarded. What we had instead was a series of state-driven, top-down, target-fixated social reforms, which affected everything from education to health. There was, at times, grotesque profligacy, as ruinous wars were launched and sustained, the City was indulged and some public employees, notably GPs, were paid absurdly inflated salaries.

Now, we have entered a new age of austerity and of greater fiscal responsibility. Our major parties are competing over the issue of public spending cuts; and the next government will inherit a budget deficit of 13.2 per cent of gross domestic product.

Nobody speaks of harnessing the proceeds of growth. But, from right and left, they do speak of the need for fairness and greater equality. We are, it seems, all progressives now. Here, for instance, is the shadow chancellor George Osborne, on the morning after his speech to the Manchester conference, defending the decision to retain the new 50p tax rate, which comes into effect from April next year for those earning more than £150,000: "We do need a more equal society. We need a fairer society, particularly in what we've got to go through in the next few years - which is a period of very difficult fiscal tightening. It's important for everyone to understand there aren't going to be exemptions from that."

The declaration that we need a more equal society is a principled, rather than merely a pragmatic, defence of progressive taxation. We welcome the Tories' new language of progress and fairness, and are prepared to believe that David Cameron is, at least, sincere in his aspirations, even if many of his MPs are not, remaining as they are unreconstructed reactionaries or doctrinaire neoliberals. In this sense, there is something of the compassionate high Tory about Cameron, in the Disraeli model, as Jonathan Derbyshire reminds us in his essay on the meaning of conservatism on page 30.

It is to be welcomed, too, that the Conservatives are now putting forward firm policy proposals rather than merely standing back to denounce, as they did last autumn, when they opposed the government's fiscal stimulus plan while offering nothing constructive in return.

Yet there is an alarming disconnect between the Conservatives' rhetoric of compassionate renewal and their policies on issues such as Europe, where the party remains rabidly Eurosceptic; on inheritance tax, where the commitment to scrap tax on estates worth less than £1m, a measure that would benefit only the 3,000 richest households and cost more than £3bn a year, remains in place when the public sector is being squeezed; on jobs, where the desire to target people on long-term Incapacity Benefit is resonant of the harsh Thatcherite 1980s, and where the party seems to have no coherent policy on getting people back to work.

If Cameron's Conservatives are to be considered true progressives, then there has to be genuine substance to match their rhetoric. "Broken Britain" demands no less.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush