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Change is more than just a word

Cameron’s strategic use of language suggests a Tory party that is modern and reformed, but scratch b

Long ago Bill Clinton told mesmerised delegates at a Labour conference that they must be seen as agents of change if they wanted to win again. He left the stage to ecstatic cheers without specifying what form the change should take. Perhaps David Cameron was taking notes. "Vote for change!" he proclaims whenever he can, as if the repetition of a single word can propel him into No 10. The rhetoric of "change" is the Conservatives' best hope in their otherwise ill-prepared and contradictory pitch to the electorate. Nearly always voters want change.

The ubiquity of the word obscures its convenient evasiveness. "Change" sounds both reassuring and urgent, like "modernisation" and "progressive", two other imprecise concepts that are deployed to disguise lack of clarity. Obviously, if the Conservatives were elected, there would be a change of prime minister and a new cabinet. Dave and Samantha would be in No 10. George Osborne would be in No 11. Already I can see the TV pictures of them moving in, perhaps to the soundtrack of David Bowie's "Changes". But beyond the change of personnel, I see no change from the Conservatives and hear only echoes from the past.

Tony's cronies

Implicitly Cameron and his closest allies admit as much. The admission is part of their confused identity. Early in his leadership, Cameron declared that he was the heir to Tony Blair. Osborne was also keen to claim Blair's agenda as his own. At a fringe meeting during the Conservative conference in 2008, Oliver Letwin told me that he regarded himself as a Blairite. Letwin is ready to unveil an 18-month legis­lative programme that will continue where Blair left off. The other member of the shadow cabinet close to Cameron, Michael Gove, never misses an opportunity to proclaim that he, too, is a Blairite.

Stop the Bowie soundtrack. Looking to the future, the Conservatives pay homage to the muddled past. Blair ruled for ten years in the previous era, the one before the financial markets crashed. How can this be change?

Cameron and his closest allies are broadly right. They are the heirs to Blair. By the end of his leadership, when Blair was no longer impeded by policies he had inherited from his Labour predecessors, he was much closer to parts of the Tory party. In his indiscriminate faith in markets and the private sector as instruments for delivering public services, his naive faith in "choice" without explaining how the surplus hospitals, schools and the rest were going to be paid for, and his support for President Bush's foreign policies, he was at one with Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Gove.

If Cameron wins, Blairism will continue, with its echo of Thatcherism. Cameron will be Blair without Brown and the civilised level of public investment, which will thrill much of the media and possibly those ultra-Blairites in the Labour Party who are busy leaving politics to make as much money as possible. It will also be very familiar.

The paraphernalia around the policy agenda will feel the same, too. Cameron will hold his monthly press conferences at No 10 with the same self-deprecating, good-humoured style that Blair once used so effectively. Halfway through, an assistant will bring him a mug of tea, which he will sip as he discusses an agenda that he will insist is "radical" and "progressive". The Cameroon/Blairite orthodoxy that shapes much of media thinking will continue to dominate triumphantly. The army of columnists who hailed Blair will salute Cameron. The Sun newspaper will claim vindication once more for having backed Dave as it endorsed Tony and Maggie before him. There will be no change.

But what if Labour were to win? There would be more changes than even Bowie could have coped with in his prime. The first major transformation would be in the media culture that has shaped politics for at least two decades. "It was the Sun wot lost it" does not have quite the swagger that accompanies proclamations of mighty influence. The columnists who believe they speak for Britain, when arguing from a Thatcherite/ultra-Blairite/Cameroon perspective, would have to think again.

Perhaps Cameron would press through real change in his party and challenge it in the internal battle that would erupt. So far, Cameron claims to have modernised his party, but there have been no battles. That is because the modernisation has been superficial, largely restricted to the selection of a few candidates more representative of contemporary Britain. His decision to call for public-spending cuts

at the height of the recession (a move not even advocated by President Bush's right-wing Republican administration in its dying days) and his approach to Europe show that, in policy terms, Cameron is at one with his unreformed party. Belatedly, tax cuts are forming part of
his armoury.

Next Labour

In contrast, an unexpected victory for Brown would signal a stride away from the past. After securing an election victory of his own, he would finally have escaped from the shadow of Blair. He would no longer be the non-elected Prime Minister. How would a newly authoritative Brown act? Possibly he would acquire the confidence to build on the principles that saved Britain from "falling off a cliff" during the economic crisis, as well as develop a more creative relationship between the state, the economy and public services.

At the very least, the younger generation - Balls, the Milibands, Alexander - more rooted than the depoliticised ultra-Blairites, would be given fuller voice. Brown is committed to holding a referendum on electoral reform, another big change. If the Conservatives won, the voting system would remain the same.

When Cameron calls for change, he'd better watch out. As paradoxical as it may sound, there would be a bigger break with the past if Labour unexpectedly won again. As Bowie recognised long ago, changes can take the most unlikely form.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD