Af the government announced a tax hike to pay for social care last week, political scientist Matthew Goodwin called it “a new era in British politics”. Already hugely popular Conservatives were stealing the opposition’s playbook. “This is what leaning on the left on the economy and leaning on the right on culture looks like,” he said.
And he wasn’t the only one. When Boris Johnson said the responsibility for paying for social care should lie with those with the broadest shoulders, Mirror political editor Pippa Crear, commented: “Close your eyes and it could be a Labor PM speaking. I think that will make many Conservative members uncomfortable. And the anxious Labor.
We have been here before. For more than a decade of Conservative rule, every time the government announces that it is going to intervene in the economy, we can trust the media to announce breathlessly that the Conservatives are parking their tanks on the lawn of Labor. The viewer asked if anyone “noticed Tory tanks rolling across the Labor Lawns” when George Osborne defended the minimum wage in 2014. And in 2017, when Theresa May proposed a policy to reduce labor bills. energy, The Times headlined its article: “May Parks Tanks on Labor Lawn.
The underlying rationale here is the idea that having a laissez-faire state is on the right and having an interventionist state is on the left. So every time the Conservative Party steps into the economy or spends money on utilities, it has to do something left – and Labor should feel the heat.
The logic of “interventionist state = left” was at the base of much of Tony Blair’s strategy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the winter of discontent and a string of conservative victories, New Labor felt that rejecting left-wing orthodoxy in order to “”[move] ahead of where Thatcher left off, ”as Peter Mandelson put it, would signal voters that he was ready to rule.
Philip Gould, a senior party official, believed New Labor should reject its 1970s iteration, which oversaw “public spending, strikes, and uncontrollable taxes.” So the tax increases went out the window, and the militant tendency – a Trotskyist subgroup of the party – was outlawed.
Almost a quarter of a century after the landslide victory for New Labor, Keir Starmer is taking hold of the old Blairite playbook. This is in its regrettable observation that “the conservatives can no longer claim to be the party of low taxes” after the increase in national insurance announced last week, and in the party’s decision to outlaw the Marxist group Socialist Appeal. Don’t scare the public by suggesting that you will overspend, the top Labors seem to think to themselves, and excommunicate the left so they know you are serious.
But the Blairite playbook won’t work against a Tory party that apparently ditched the rules of 1990s politics in favor of splashing money. And to understand why, we need to rethink what conservatism means, and what the Conservative Party’s real goal is.
In his 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind, political theorist Corey Robin argues that conservatism is first and foremost an exercise in preserving hierarchy, and more specifically resistance – or reaction – to attempts to redistribute wealth and wealth more broadly. power from the left. Robin believes that conservatives are prepared to employ almost any strategy that protects traditional holders of power in society, and that so-called conservative shibboleths such as limited government and individual liberty are just “under.” -products’ of this ultimate goal.
This means that a Conservative government will happily ignore the principles it claims to uphold in favor of its larger project – as long as the actions it takes do not limit elites or hold ordinary people too accountable. Robin writes that “the curator privileged freedom for the higher orders and the constraint for the lower orders”.
Indeed, a few years earlier his point had been made concrete by Guardian columnist Owen Jones when he wrote: The party, he explained, was a “coalition of privileged interests.” Its main objective is to defend this privilege. And the way he wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough to other people. “
When you think of conservatism in this way, the activities of the Conservative Party over the past two years make more sense. The leave scheme does not become an act of socialism, but of self-preservation. The same is true of the meager increase in universal credit – perhaps that is why it was suppressed at the very first opportunity.
You can even see Robin’s argument in the fact that the government introduced the Coronavirus Act, which allows police to detain anyone they deem “potentially contagious,” even though Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak themselves. they themselves ignored the obligation to self-isolate (they later backed down following public outrage).
The increase in national insurance will be spent on the provision of care – but will be disproportionately paid for by low incomes. Rather than concluding that the Conservatives’ drive to expand the state is proof that they are turning to the left, we should ask ourselves how state power is exercised by the current government – and in the best interests of the government. from whom. A true left-wing government would not put the cost of social care on the backs of the poorest workers in the country.
If Labor is to forge its own identity, it must do the one thing the Conservatives are constitutively incapable of doing: create a genuine redistribution of wealth and power agenda, and present it to the public in a clear and credible manner. This is what Keir Starmer promised to do when he ran for Labor.
A true redistribution of wealth and power has the added benefit of being popular. I was part of the Labor Together commission gathered to understand why Labor lost in 2019, and our research revealed that the Labor voting coalition was ready to put aside cultural differences to vote for an agenda for economic transformation. As a trade union party and the traditional representative of the working class in parliament, Labor here has the institutional capacity to outrun the conservatives.
But in order to do that, Labor must accept that the Blairite manual is obsolete. And he must realize that if his offering to the public is egalitarian rhetoric combined with tinkering around the edges and satisfying the establishment, then he will find – in fact – Tory tanks parked on his lawn. Because that is the approach the Conservatives have taken – and they are already in government.