Could He Just Be Labour's Future? the Most Important Person at Labour's Manchester Conference Will Be Nowhere in Sight. like Thatcher and Blair before Him, David Cameron Is Emerging as the Politician Most in Tune with His Time. Can Gordon Brown Catch Him?

By Reeves, Richard | New Statesman (1996), September 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

Could He Just Be Labour's Future? the Most Important Person at Labour's Manchester Conference Will Be Nowhere in Sight. like Thatcher and Blair before Him, David Cameron Is Emerging as the Politician Most in Tune with His Time. Can Gordon Brown Catch Him?


Reeves, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


"In contriving any system of government ... every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest." So wrote David Hume in 1742. He went on to admit that he was probably exaggerating, and that it was "strange, that a maxim should be true in politics which is false in fact". Surveying the wreckage from the recent power struggle at the apex of the government, it is hard not to think that, if anything, Hume understated his case. The leadership of the Labour Party--the ones who promised us that Things Can Only Get Better--has presided over an outbreak of knavery, name-calling and nastiness that has shaken even veteran Westminster players.

Raw, internecine battles are obviously bad for Labour. Women in particular are likely to be turned off by the sight of boys bickering. (It was striking that, at the height of the trouble, it was only women--Patricia Hewitt, Ruth Kelly and Harriet Harman--who tried to calm things down.)

But beneath these choppy surface waters lurk deeper, even more dangerous challenges. David Cameron is turning out to be a formidable politician, underestimated by most of his opponents. He is easily the most important political figure in Manchester this week--his shadow will loom fearfully over the Labour conference. There is no question who is making the political weather.

Labour is boosting him further. One of the most potent lines of attack against the Tory leader is his immaturity. But while Cameron writes an article for the Financial Times on the need for a new relationship with India--where he is photographed--Tony Blair and Gordon Brown shout at each other. Cameron issues a carefully judged speech on foreign policy, bravely using the 9/11 anniversary to signal a shift away from a slavishly pro-US line: Blair accuses his Chancellor of "blackmail". It is quite an achievement for two men who jointly have two decades of experience in the highest offices in the land, and almost half a century of parliamentary service, to make a man who has been an MP for five years and leader for less than a year look statesmanlike, but they've managed it. The Cameron camp can't believe its luck. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Gut feel factor

As Labour has lost its grip on the electorate, its own shortcomings--intellectual as much as political--are being cruelly exposed. "Sheriff, this is no time to panic," says Buzz Light-year to Woody in the film Toy Story. "This is the perfect time to panic!" comes the reply. "I'm lost, Andy is gone, they're gonna move to a new house in two days, and it's all your fault!" There is more than a whiff of panic in government circles right now: but it may be coming at a perfect time. Because Labour is in deep trouble. And not until the party realises the depth of its crisis--of which there is little sign so far--can any progress be made.

Voters opt for a candidate or party on the basis of how they feel about them, rather than what they think of them. Maybe they always have--but the narrowing of the ideological gap has made the "gut feel" factor even more important. In particular, as the work of George Lakoff in the United States demonstrates, voters want leaders who appear to share their values--those who seem to "get" the issues that concern them, even if the voters disagree with their specific policies. Politics is therefore an echo of deeper, social and cultural factors. Thatcherism rode on the back of a growing desire for individual agency and prosperity, fuelled by the failure of collective action to deliver. Blair, in turn, drew on a deep well of discontentment with the excesses of greed and the "me-me" culture of the free market.

Labour's values are (on a good day) seen to be about social justice, equality, fairness and the hope for a better future. All good stuff, and part of the reason for the past three general election victories. The question is how far Labour's politics are connecting with deeper cultural trends and whether--as seems ominously likely--Cameron does a better job of making this connection. …

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Could He Just Be Labour's Future? the Most Important Person at Labour's Manchester Conference Will Be Nowhere in Sight. like Thatcher and Blair before Him, David Cameron Is Emerging as the Politician Most in Tune with His Time. Can Gordon Brown Catch Him?
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