Magazine article The Spectator

Dave Has Some Special New Labour Friends

Magazine article The Spectator

Dave Has Some Special New Labour Friends

Article excerpt

Anne McElvoy spots a new political type: the 'Labrators' who have more in common with Cameron than Brown, and may co-operate with a Tory government

The Labrators are coming: crossbred symbols of shifting political times. Labour by background and allegiance, they empathise with many of the New Conservatives' aims and obsessions. As for the political divide, they don't so much straddle it, as just ignore it.

The only question is how far they'll go, now that the party that dominated the landscape is a shrunken spectre of its former self.

'The thing to watch, ' says one of the resigners from Cabinet last week, 'is who will get involved with Project Cameron and who won't cross that line.'

Commons floor-crossers have always been with us, treated with some distrust by both their parental and adoptive parties. But as the boundaries between the main parties' ideologies narrow, fear of contamination by collusion is far less oppressive than it was.

Matthew Taylor, Tony Blair's former policy chief who now runs the Royal Society of Arts, is a leading Labrator. 'Speaking as a private individual, I support my party, like I support my football team, ' he says. 'But I also care about good government. If you kind of know your party is going to lose, and someone else asks you to contribute ideas, I can't see why not.' These days, there are a lot more Labrators than Torylabs around, although there was a glut of the latter when Blair was at his height. Shades of that linger in the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove and Cameron's senior strategist Steve Hilton, who are far more gushing about the Blair than many in his own ranks.

Already, the Conservatives have consulted Michael Barber, head of Mr Blair's muchmocked 'delivery unit', and they admire Julian Le Grand, the Labour public service reform guru. I gather they've also spoken at length with serving civil servants about how to improve the daily business of government.

The upheavals of the past week have unleashed a lot more potential Labrators from captivity. Hazel Blears concedes she gets on 'like a house on fire' with Gove as they talk about how to increase local decision-making in education.

George Osborne spends considerable time talking to senior figures who have served Labour to work out what goes wrong between conceiving reforms and executing them. He prides himself on an 'outreach programme' which poached Sir David Freud, the City financier turned welfare reformer, from James Purnell's department.

What's in it for Labrators? The fight to remain relevant. Conservative thinking is still being roughed out in many areas. So if your interest is something long-term like social mobility, health 'outcomes' or refining the academies programme, it's more realistic to find out what the Tories intend to do and try to influence it than to wait for Labour to resolve a long argument with itself in a back room.

Mr Purnell, now in the wilderness, is the figure New Tories identify with most. Mr Cameron says privately that if he could play fantasy Cabinet, he'd like him on board, together with the ex-health secretary Alan Milburn. But Labrators are a strange species. How far they'll go with a new occupying power is as much about disposition as political alliance.

Richard Reeves, who heads the Demos think-tank, is a former adviser to Frank Field, himself an elder Labrator. Reeves believes we can distinguish between those who are attracted to politics for 'the tribes and the triumphs' rather than the 'policy and the ideas'.

The new Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, who was SDP in his youth, is a specially bred Libra-Labratory: a policy brain admired by all three parties. …

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