The political genius of Tony Blair, and unquestionably the main reason that he won three successive British General Elections, was that he colonised the centre ground.Â The traditional rhetoric of British politics was always predicated on the ideological divide between â€œLeftâ€ (Labour) and â€œRightâ€ (Conservatives). In essence those on the left were socialists who believed in the welfare state, high public spending, a high level of public services, redistributive taxation, and equality of opportunity… Those of the right were believers in free enterprise capitalism, the rights of individuals to pay for better healthcare, education, and transportation (etc.) if they could afford it, low taxation and a much lesser involvement of the state in peoplesâ€™ lives.
What Tony Blair realised was that the socialist model, however morally defensible, was unelectable and that if he was to achieve power he had to persuade the public, or sufficient members of it, that they could trust that he was not really a socialist at all. It wasnâ€™t particularly personally difficult for Blair actually do to this as he never had been a socialist in the traditional Labour Party mould. Blair came from a comfortable middle class background, had been privately educated at one of Scotlandâ€™s best independent schools and he carried no ideological baggage. Blairâ€™s father had been an active Conservative in the North East of England â€“ his son certainly did not grow up in a â€œleft wingâ€ home. Rather more difficult had been Blairâ€™s need to move the Labour Party from its historic commitment to the new Jerusalem of a socialist Britain to a position firmly in the centre ground of politics â€“ in particular there was a need to abandon Clause 4 of the Party constitution which contained a commitment to the â€œcommon ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchangeâ€ â€“ a substantially nationalised economy in other words. But the realisation that if they wanted power then the socialist baggage had to be dispensed with led the Labour Party (rechristened â€œNew Labourâ€) to do just this under Blairâ€™s pragmatic and single-minded leadership.
When David Cameron was seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party he barely ever disguised his admiration for Tony Blair the politician. He thought that if the Conservatives were ever to regain power then he had to take a leaf from Blairâ€™s book and persuade the electorate that he too was a man of the centre.Â And, like Blair, he had to bring his party with him and get them, openly anyway, to discard some of their right-wing ideology. So, for example, the previous commitment to build more Grammar Schools (which are selective in their admission policy) was abandoned â€“ not without difficulty from many in the Party. Similarly Cameron had to declare his absolute commitment to the National Health Service and persuade the people that â€œfree at point of deliveryâ€ healthcare for all is safe in his hands.
In essence the political debate in Britain in recent times has moved from the Parties promising to â€œDo better thingsâ€ to one where they promise to â€œDo things betterâ€. The essential construct of Britain as a mixed economy with the private sector running most things and the public sector only providing the core services is not a point of debate between Party leaderships.Â Â Â The Conservatives position is not that they will substantially roll back the Sate, but that they will make public services more efficient â€“ basically that they will offer the same level of service but that it will cost much less.Â
As David Cameron developed his pragmatic and essentially Blairite recipe for attaining power his ambition was to capture sufficient of the electorate in the middle ground (those who are neither tribally and emotionally Labour nor, alternatively, Â similarly tribally Conservative)Â to win a General Election. He reasoned that he could bank on his core Tory voters – even though most of them probably thought that he was a bit of a â€œpink Toryâ€ for their tastes. On top of this if he could persuade sufficient of the floating voters, especially in the Labour held marginal constituencies that he would be a more efficient and able manager of the mixed economy than Labour then Number 10 was his. Recent events have, however, changed all this. In May the Conservatives won easily a by-election in Crewe and Nantwich – a traditional Labour constituency that was very far from a â€œmarginalâ€ and in June Labour was humiliated in the safe Conservative seat of Henley finishing fifth in the poll. In essence these results are not based on any â€œbalance of argumentsâ€ judgments by electors that the Tories will run things better than Labour. They are based on electors clearly feeling that Labour has had its day and, perhaps, that whatever the Conservatives say that they will do doesnâ€™t really matter â€“ itâ€™s time for a change.
The big question is whether Cameron, in his certainty that victory at the next General Election is assured, can start to articulate his and his partyâ€™s more ideologically right-wing values â€“ especially the need for a substantially reduced public sector and much lower taxation and public spending generally . In other words that he believes that it is not just his core supporters but also the middle ground that is assured for him – so there is no longer any need to compromise policy proposals in order to bring the floaters in.Â There will be plenty of voices in the Conservative Party encouraging Cameron to do just this. I doubt that he will, however, because he knows that the only sliver of hope for Gordon Brownâ€™s Labour is credibly to raise the spectre in the electoratesâ€™ eyes that, in particular, public services are at risk if the Tories get back to power as spending cuts bite.
The next General Election is unlikely to be about ideology or values, or even really about which party is more competent to efficiently run the country. The Tory election campaign will need to have only one slogan, â€œTime for a changeâ€, and only one visual symbol â€“ the sad image of a tired and dispirited Prime Minister whose time has run out.Â Â Â