If Labour wants to win, it needs to promise the change Conservatives won’t deliver

一种fter the government announced a tax rise to pay for social care 上个星期, the political scientist Matthew Goodwin called it “a new era in British politics”. The already phenomenally popular Tories were stealing from the opposition playbook. “This is what leaning left on the economy and leaning right on culture looks like,“ 他说.

And he wasn’t the only one. When Boris Johnson said that the responsibility for paying for social care should fall on those with the broadest shoulders, the Mirror’s political editor, Pippa Crear, commented: “Close your eyes and it could be a Labour PM talking. Suspect that will make many Tory MPs feel uncomfortable. And Labour ones anxious.”

We’ve been here before. In more than a decade now of Tory rule, whenever the government announces it’s going to intervene in the economy, the media can be relied upon to breathlessly announce that the Tories are parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn. The Spectator asked if anyone “noticed Tory tanks rolling on to Labour’s lawn” when George Osborne championed the minimum wage in 2014. And in 2017 when Theresa May put forward a policy to cut energy bills, the Times headlined its story: “May parks tanks on Labour’s lawn.”

The underlying rationale here is the idea that having a laissez-faire state is rightwing, and having an interventionist state is leftwing. So whenever the Tory party intervenes in the economy, or spends money on public services, it must be doing something leftwing – and the 劳动 party ought to feel the heat.

The “interventionist state = leftwing” rationale underpinned a lot of Tony Blair’s strategy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the winter of discontent and a string of Conservative victories, New Labour felt that rejecting leftwing orthodoxy in order to “[移动] forward from where Thatcher left off”, as Peter Mandelson put it, would signal to voters that it was ready to govern.

Philip Gould, a senior party figure, believed that New Labour needed to reject its 1970s iteration, which oversaw “out-of-control public spending, strikes and taxes”. Thus, tax increases were out of the window, and Militant Tendency – a Trotskyist subgroup of the party – was proscribed.

Nearly a quarter of a century after New Labour’s landslide victory, Keir Starmer is reaching for the old Blairite playbook. It’s there in his rueful observation that “the Conservatives can no longer claim to be the party of low tax” after the national insurance rise announced last week, and in the party’s decision to proscribe the Marxist grouplet Socialist Appeal. Don’t scare the public by suggesting you’ll spend too much, Labour’s top brass seem to be telling themselves, and excommunicate the left so they know you’re serious.

But the Blairite playbook won’t work against a Conservative party that has apparently abandoned the rules of 1990s politics in favour of splashing the cash. And to understand why, we must rethink what conservatism means, and what the purpose of the Conservative party actually is.

In his 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind, the political theorist Corey Robin argues that conservatism is primarily an exercise in the preservation of hierarchy, and specifically the resistance – or reaction – to attempts to redistribute wealth and power more widely by the left. Robin believes conservatives are willing to employ almost any strategy that protects the traditional holders of power in society, and that so-called conservative shibboleths such as limited government and individual liberty are merely “byproducts” of this ultimate goal.

This means a conservative government will happily ignore the principles it claims to hold in favour of its larger project – as long as the actions it takes ultimately don’t limit elites, or empower ordinary people too much. Robin writes that “the conservative has favoured liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders”.

Indeed some years earlier his argument was brought to life by the Guardian columnist Owen Jones, 什么时候 he wrote: “When I was at university, a one-time very senior Tory figure put it succinctly at an off-the-record gathering: the Conservative party, he explained, was a ‘coalition of privileged interests’. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.”

When you think of conservatism this way, the Conservative party’s activities over the past two years make more sense. The furlough scheme becomes not an act of socialism, but of self-preservation. The same is true of the measly universal credit uplift – which is perhaps why it was taken away at the very first opportunity.

You can even see Robin’s argument in the fact that the government has introduced the Coronavirus Act, which allows the police to detain anyone they deem “potentially infectious”, even as 鲍里斯·约翰逊(Boris Johnson) and Rishi Sunak themselves ignored the requirement to self-isolate (they later backtracked as a result of public outrage).

The increase in national insurance will be spent on care provision – but will be disproportionately paid by low earners. Rather than concluding that the Conservatives’ willingness to enlarge the state is evidence that they’re moving to the left, we should ask how the power of the state is being wielded by the current government – and in whose interests. An actual leftwing government wouldn’t put the cost of social care on the backs of the country’s poorest working people.

If the Labour party wants to carve out an identity of its own, it needs to do the one thing the Conservatives are constitutively unable to: create a programme for the authentic redistribution of wealth and power, and present it to the public in a clear and credible way. This was in fact what Keir Starmer promised to do when he ran for leader of the Labour party.

An actual redistribution of wealth and power has the additional advantage of being popular. I was part of the Labour Together commission assembled to understand why Labour lost in 2019, 和 our research found that Labour’s voting coalition was willing to put cultural differences aside to vote for a programme of economic transformation. As the party of trade unions and the traditional representative of working-class people in parliament, Labour has the institutional capacity to outflank the Conservatives here.

But to do this the Labour party needs to accept that the Blairite playbook is out of date. And it needs to realise that if its offer to the public is egalitarian rhetoric combined with tinkering at the edges and keeping the establishment happy, then it will – in fact – find Conservative tanks parked on its lawn. Because that’s the approach the Tories have taken – and they’re already in government.

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