Our Future in Their Hands: It Is a Myth That David Cameron and George Osborne Have No Ideas-From Elected Police Chiefs to Parents Setting Up "Free Schools", They Have Armed Their Party with Policies That Match Their Vision of a Smaller State

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), November 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

Our Future in Their Hands: It Is a Myth That David Cameron and George Osborne Have No Ideas-From Elected Police Chiefs to Parents Setting Up "Free Schools", They Have Armed Their Party with Policies That Match Their Vision of a Smaller State


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


How far has David Cameron followed the New Labour model in opposition? The comparison is often made between Cameron and Tony Blair, not least by the Conservative leader's closest colleagues, who quote from definitive accounts of how Labour secured power more than 12 years ago as if they were manuals on how to win elections under any circumstances.

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As the next campaign moves into view, we can make a considered comparison. By November 1996, New Labour's policies and themes were more or less in place for an election the following year. Presumably the same applies to the Conservatives now. Or perhaps not.

Let us begin with one very precise parallel between Blair and Cameron. Both sought to address their parties' vote-losing pasts directly. After Labour's fourth successive election defeat in 1992, polls suggested that few voters trusted the party to run the economy. Blair and his shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, therefore made economic stability the centre of all policy-making. They argued that stability and social justice went together, and one was not possible without the other. By the autumn of 1996, every policy announcement related to this single overwhelming theme.

Similarly, from the day Cameron was elected leader at the end of 2005 he tackled the fatal perception that the Conservatives were the "nasty party". In his acceptance speech he declared that "there is such a thing as society, but it is not the same as the state". The phrase, which seemed to be a direct challenge to the party's Thatcherite inheritance, was followed by several related ideas such as "social responsibility" and "the post-bureaucratic age". To the surprise of Cameron and his senior aides, his speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester in October, in which he attacked the excessive role of the state in people's lives, was seen as a swing to the right. The aides had cause for surprise. Cameron was making a case rooted on the right, but it was not a swing of any kind. He had been making the same argument for four years.

Outlining a vision is the easy bit. Linking policies to the oratory is more complicated. Blair was ruthless in making the connections with his overall theme. By the autumn of 1996, he and Brown had agreed that they would not change the rates of income tax and would stick with the Conservatives' spending plans for the first two years of a new Labour government, although they did not make the dramatic announcement until the following January. Already Brown had announced strict fiscal rules to bind his economic policies in ways that were aimed at reassuring the markets. Privately, he was also planning for the independence of the Bank of England.

At the same time, Labour's small incremental policies sent out a signal about more ambitious commitments to social justice, although they were imprecise about what form those long-term ambitions would take. The pledge to cut some classroom sizes was emblematic, a tiny policy to be paid for by ending the assisted places scheme, which gave a small number of pupils access to fee-paying public schools. The only specific tax increase was an almost universally popular one, a windfall tax on the privatised utilities that had made huge profits. A great deal of detailed work was carried out to make sure the proposal was credible.

Cameron has policies that match his vision of a smaller state, and they have evolved consistently. His "hug a hoodie" speech in July 2006 did not signal a march towards the centre-left. His arguments were based on Iain Duncan Smith's theme about the centrality of the family in addressing issues relating to poverty. From the beginning, Cameron argued that other institutions such as the family and the voluntary sector must take a bigger role.

It is a myth that Cameron has few policies. Wherever you turn, there are proposals aimed at shrinking the state and, in theory, transferring power to users of services. …

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Our Future in Their Hands: It Is a Myth That David Cameron and George Osborne Have No Ideas-From Elected Police Chiefs to Parents Setting Up "Free Schools", They Have Armed Their Party with Policies That Match Their Vision of a Smaller State
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