Tuesday 6 April 2010

Two cheers for David Willetts

Congratulations to David Willetts, who carried the house in The Economist website debate on the motion 'Has New Labour failed', prevailing by 62% to 38% in the final reckoning.

In his post-match commentary, Economist political editor Andrew Miller suggests mine was always an uphill battle. But perhaps that was less because of either the government's longevity in power or its record, as that Willetts could benefit from support from Conservatives and the right, from LibDems and some of the non-aligned, and from arguments from New Labour's left too.

So we fight on - and I would settle for 38% of the vote for Labour in the General Election on May 6th.

Andrew Miller also notes that the debate was better mannered than the election campaign is going to be. That's right - but next time I think I'd prefer to debate Chris Grayling instead of the two brains of Mr Willetts.

Here was the conciliatory-ish part of my closing pitch:

Mr Willetts came to bury New Labour; implicitly, he praises it. He offers a rather modest prospectus. He endorses the principles of New Labour and offers to subject the methods and outcomes to a "what works" test. That sounds rather New Labour! Mr Willetts's pragmatic conservative centrism would offer new eyes, and no doubt different centre-right instincts over policy choices, but might prove as much about policy continuity as change.

I can reciprocate with two cheers for Mr Willetts's rejection of a conservatism of repeal and reaction. He has long been the most evidence-based member of the Conservatives’ own frontbench

... Yet I fear that Mr Willetts's centrist conservatism would not prevail. It is one of only three main Tory responses to the New Labour legacy.

David Cameron also defines conservatism by the "progressive ends" it shares with New Labour, including reducing inequality and addressing climate change. (This is novel, but we shall not complain.) Yet Mr Cameron combines this with the Reaganite argument that government itself is the problem, so rejects Labour's means. Triangulating New Labour and Thatcherism, he offers to narrow the gap between rich and poor by calling time on redistribution. This risks being dizzyingly incoherent and would fail Mr Willetts's evidence test. As the commenter lolz noted from the floor: if big government is the cause of poverty and inequality, can Mr Cameron explain why western democracies like Sweden, which are more equal and economically successful, have larger states?

A vocal, well-organised challenge to Mr Cameron comes from the Tory right, which rejects any accommodation with New Labour and sees the centrist language as electoral expediency at best. Surveys show that Mr Cameron's parliamentary class of 2010 are mostly "modern Thatcherites", perhaps more socially liberal but much more interested in shrinking the state than narrowing inequalities. Candidates place reducing carbon emissions bottom of their list of priorities. And 72% of new Tory candidates want a "fundamental renegotiation" of Britain's EU membership to be a priority once they are in office.

You can read all three rounds of the debate here

My opening statement highlighting Labour's positive legacy is here.

Richard Reeves' guest contribution saw arguments on both sides, but endorsed my main argument that the record is easily understated, including by Labour's own supporters:

New Labour strove to prove that economic prosperity and social justice could go hand in hand; that Britain could be both richer and fairer. It is against this claim that the policy achievements of the last three Labour governments should be judged. And they don't do badly. Until the financial crisis, economic growth was strong. Just as importantly, the impact of Labour's reforms in tax and welfare was strongly redistributive, as recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrates. It is true that those at the very top—the newly named "super-rich"—have done disproportionately well in recent years, which strongly skews some inequality measures upwards. But Labour has a good record in terms of poverty reduction and inequality


Being "New Labour" means being in tune with mainstream opinion and working steadily, and technocratically, towards broadly shared goals, such as better public services for the majority, more support for the most disadvantaged and more tolerance towards diverse lifestyles. The reason the Conservatives are back in electoral contention is that they have recognised this as the critical, central terrain of British politics.

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