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August 02, 2008
David Miliband’s Guardian article has been hailed by some as exactly the sort of robust critique of the Tories that Labour has so conspicuously lacked recently. In truth, the piece marks an improvement on the lukewarm efforts of much of the cabinet while also confirming some of the persistent flaws of Labour’s lines of attack.
To date, Labour’s offensive against Cameron has focused on two arguments. The first seeks to portray Cameron as an unreconstructed Thatcherite who would slash and burn public services. Yet labelling Cameron a ‘Thatcherite’ doesn’t chime with people’s experience of a politician who has unequivocally embraced civil partnerships, repudiated Thatcher’s appalling description of Nelson Mandela as a ‘terrorist’ and who now tentatively supports the concept of relative poverty. On deregulation and the state Cameron’s views may well best be described as Thatcherite but this remains a more sophisticated form of conservatism, as demonstrated by the recurring maxim ‘there is such a thing as society-it’s just not the same as the state.’, and one that demands a more sophisticated rebuke. To most, ‘Thatcherite’ is an epithet redolent of the old battles of the poll tax and the miners’ strike, and one which doesn’t hold water in these ideologically hazy times.
The second damns Cameron and his party as essentially vacuous; opportunistic chancers who’ll say anything to get their mitts on those red boxes. In his response to Miliband’s piece, Denis MacShane regurgitated this line when he spoke of the “utter vacuity of current Tory policies and people.” That many of those who echo this claim simultaneously present Cameron as a Thatcherite ideologue is a feat of doublethink i had not thought possible. Let it never again be said that the Tories ‘don’t have any policies’, they do have policies, plenty of them, pernicious and reactionary ones at that. The perpetuation of the myth that they have none is a lazy activity in place of a centre-left critique.
The Conservatives now declare that they will promise no upfront tax cuts, the cause of sound money demands as much and in his more sober moments George Obsorne even concedes that taxes may have to go up. Yet it seems an exception could be made for some. Is it not the case that the Tories maintain their promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million? A decent Labour party would be hammering away on this point day and night. At a time of economic malaise with those with the least once again likely to suffer the most, why is Tory tax policy focused on lightening the load for a wealthy elite? But instead of mounting a robust defence of inheritance tax based on meritocracy and social justice, Labour’s magpie pre-budget report followed the politically humiliating path of promising to raise the threshold to £600,000. Thus, a potentially profitable line of attack is left on the sidelines by Miliband as by others.
The Tories have also pledged to unilaterally withdraw from the EU social chapter, the document that guarantees workers the right to a paid holiday, to paternity/maternity leave and that ensures part-time workers the same rights as the rest. For what purpose does Cameron propose to return to the days of John Major and pull out? Again, this is a question ministers should be asking day and night but aren’t.
Yet despite these omissions Miliband scores some direct hits where others flail and punch air. In a short burst he takes up the most persuasive criticism of the Tories: “They say they have adopted “progressive ends”- social justice, better public services and fighting climate change — but they insist on traditional Tory means of charity, deregulation and lower spending to deliver them. It doesn’t add up.”
By taking Cameron’s words on poverty and social deprivation sincerely, rather than merely denouncing him as a phoney, Labour can forge a practical critique that argues that while Cameron may will the ends, he must also, but does not, will the means. As the other Miliband, Ed, pointed out in his speech at this year’s Compass conference most of those who actually work in the voluntary sector don’t think they’re suitable for the tasks Cameron would thrust upon them.
Miliband is also right to argue that Cameron can’t pursue both an environmental and a Eurosceptic agenda. Nor with regards to Europe generally will this be any ordinary Tory government. It will stand as one of the ironies of political history that the party now the most viscerally Eurosceptic was also the party that first initiated and later confirmed our membership of the European project. Despite her bluster Thatcher signed the Single European Act and Major prevailed over ‘the bastards’ to sign Maastricht into law. One of the great political myths of our time is that the Tory party is constantly on the edge of collapsing into division and rancour over Europe. In reality, the party is now more united on the issue than at any time in the last fifty years. The Europhile Conservative is an increasingly endangered species and the passionate advocacy of Lord Hesletine and Ken Clarke (who may well soon trade his hush puppies in for slippers) only serves to remind us what a rare breed this is.
While there is generally little mileage in pro-Europeanism in British politics, there is a vague sense amongst the electorate that if we’re going to be ‘in’ the EU then we should be in a strong position to exercise influence. If Labour can argue that a Cameron government would alienate key allies and regress to the ignominy and isolation of the Major era then it just might be able to outfox the Tories on Europe.
For now Labour should swing out confidently against the Tories, ditching pantomime toff-bashing and homing in on the practical flaws of Conservative policy. Attack must be the best form of defence, for while Labour might not now be able to win the election, the Tories could still lose it.