Thursday 11 September 2008

How should Labour attack the Tories?

A sophisticated Labour response to the New Tories is only gradually bubbling up through somewhat stagnant waters. For too long, Brown wearily repeated “shallow salesman” and “spin not substance” at the despatch box; for too long Labour have contented themselves with the un-scrutinised thought that all this cuddly “post-bureaucratic society” Tory talk is just a stalking-horse for Thatcherism. But the electorate just don’t buy that the Cameroons are unreconstructed Thatcherites. If the right couldn’t make stick the charge, in the 90s, that New Labour was merely a veil for the loony left, then why think that today’s electorate believe Labour’s equally knee-jerk analysis?

As reported in the Guardian today, Labour is divided over the way to attack the Tories. The stalking-horse-for-Thatcherism argument is well represented by a party briefing, which says that

The Tories hide [their ideology] with appealing talk of social responsibility, charitable action and 'nudging'. Behind that mask, though, lurks a hostility to active government that, in office, would result in a 'rolling back of the state' just as comprehensive - and damaging - as that undertaken by Mrs Thatcher.

Now, it’s beyond doubt that many Conservatives – from the back to the front benches – are hostile to government action. Cameron may yet emerge as Thatcher’s heir. But the Conservatives have moved – supporting Labour’s spending plans, eschewing immediate tax cuts, and so on – and Labour seem slow to meet them on their new ground. So their line of attack against the Tories falls short. What is missing is more scrutiny of actual Conservative policy, and a positive argument about a strong, active state.

Stephen Byers is on the right track, writing

For Labour to have a chance of winning the next election, the fightback has to start now. A key part of this must be a reasoned but hard-hitting attack on Cameron and what he would do if elected.

This should not be on the grounds that he is "a toff" or "a shallow salesman". This approach fails to recognise the attraction he has for many voters. Instead, we need to reveal the true instincts of Cameron and the inconsistencies at the heart of the modern Conservative party...

To achieve ... progressive goals requires a strong and active government that will take on those vested interests that stand in the way of change.


Cameron diagnoses our society as “post-bureaucratic” (incidentally, a diagnosis made by social theorists like Anthony Giddens more than a decade ago) and thinks this means that power must be devolved from the state to individuals, charities, and the private sector. The - perhaps unfashionable - argument in favour of the machinery of the state is here Labour’s to make: the state must step in to redistribute some wealth, notwithstanding what Cameron says; the state must step in to help people with their fuel bills, and so on.

Above all, Labour must realise that, as David Lammy has said, the Conservatives have “touched a nerve” with their political narrative. Merely dismissing that narrative as a charming disguise for Thatcherism is a feeble response.

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