The core value Labour espouses is a commitment to use government to help give people the power to shape their own lives. Not just for the few, but for all. It is a fundamentally progressive vision of the good society.
It is striking the extent to which this agenda continues to dominate important parts of political life. One reason the Conservative leadership are currently tied in policy knots is that they have felt it necessary to assert that they too seek progressive ends, contrary to the history of conservatism. Whereas New Labour was built on the application of our traditional values in new ways, the Tories are saying that they have got new values that will be applied in old ways, notably an assault on the legitimacy and purpose of government itself.
This is not a dry technocratic debate, but about how much hope we invest in the future. Progressives are optimists about change. Conservatives are fearful that change invariably means loss.
The right way to see how Britain is changing is not through the prism of decline, but through the prism of transition. Transition in the economy, society, politics, foreign policy. We should judge parties on whether they understand the challenges of the modern world, and whether they have a vision for how to meet them.
We know, in each area, that we have to chart a new course. The principle which applies to each area is that power needs to be vested in the people, but we do not reveal a powerful populace simply in the act of withdrawing the state. We make powerful people by providing a platform on which people can stand.
The big challenges of the modern world require an alliance of active government and active citizens. The argument of the Right is that this alliance should be based on a zero sum view of relationships between government and society. To roll society forward you need to roll government back. That’s not how I see it. The transitions we face as a country require three interlocking commitments from government to nurture a country of powerful people.
First, that it guarantees what markets and self help cannot provide. It’s bogus to say that when government takes on commitments it necessarily disempowers individuals. The right to be treated for all conditions within 18 weeks is a powerful tool in the hands of individuals precisely because it is accompanied by the commitment that if they are not helped by the NHS within those periods they can go to an alternative provider.
Second, the role of government is to provide a platform for markets and civil society. The fight against climate change is a good example. Carbon markets will not exist without a powerful role for government. And without carbon markets there will be no efficient reduction in carbon emissions. The plans for feed-in tariffs from April this year will enable citizens and communities to sell renewable energy back to the grid at guaranteed prices. Alongside this there will be incentives to make home energy insulation more affordable. This is not Government crowding out citizen initiative.
Third, government only works as an ally of powerful people when power is situated in the right place – starting locally. We need a more central role for local government, but also devolution to neighbourhoods. Britain was built by powerful city government, but we have got the balance wrong between universality and dynamism in the last fifty years. That is one reason I favour in the next Parliament a referendum that is not just about the Alternative Vote for the House of Commons, but also about local government, fixed term Parliaments, and the House of Lords. Call it a Reset Referendum.
The Tories’ problem is that their instinct is the oldest deception in politics: that government just hurts the little guy. David Cameron’s Hugo Young Lecture last year was intended as a corrective to his disastrous foray into policy substance at his party conference where he said that the state was always the problem and never the solution. As he sought to allay fears that he had used the economic crisis to show his true colours as a small state Reaganite, he still showed what he really thinks.
The kernel of his analysis of Britain today was this: “There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property”. It blamed government for all ills. And every single assertion that can be measured in his list was wrong. Divorce rates are falling. School achievement is rising. Volunteering is up. Crime is down. The Tory dystopia of modern Britain relies on a picture of what is actually happening in Britain that has as much basis in reality as Avatar does. They need to believe that 54% of children born in poor areas are teenage pregnancies for their politics to add up.
The Tories are split. Not right versus left, but head versus heart. Radicalism versus reassurance. The heart says cut government, attack Europe. The head says: watch out, don’t say that, the voters might hear. The result is that today’s Conservatism looks more and more like a toxic cocktail of Tory traditions. The government on offer from Davis Cameron would be as meritocratic as MacMillan, as compassionate as Thatcher, and as decisive as Major.
I recognise their difficulty, but while we promised evolution not revolution in the short term, we offered a platform for radical change in the medium to long term. 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 estates, a marriage tax allowance, immediate cuts in public spending, bring back fox hunting. But after that, the head gives the impression that it doesn’t know what to do other than press pause on reform or offer a £1 million internet prize for the best policy ideas. 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.
Labour is behind in the polls, but this is an exciting time to be on the centre-left of politics. The changes in our country require values of social justice, cooperation and internationalism if they are to benefit more people rather than fewer.
What Labour offers is the courage to continue reforming so that Britain can prosper from the transitions shaking the modern world. Progressive reform is Labour’s mantle, and we will not relinquish it.