Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Compassionate noises and stealth conservatism

I’ve written before that Neal Lawson likes “to attack the government while gushing about David Cameron”, which you might think odd behaviour for someone apparently on the left, and that Lawson’s public statements “seem carefully designed to rubbish the government’s successes and reduce its popularity”.

He’s doing it again:

British politics is in a state of extraordinary flux. What is at stake is the emergence of the first truly post-Thatcherite political party. But what is breathtaking is that we don't yet know whether it will be Labour or Conservative.

He argues that “New Labour can best be defined as an attempt to humanise Thatcherism, not replace it” and that “the party never really believed in social justice, only employability”. I’m not sure how this is supposed to square with the introduction and regular increases to the minimum wage, or the increase in employer NI contributions to fund the NHS, or signing up to the EU Social Chapter – I’d recommend Lawson to listen to the wails about ‘red tape’ and ‘tax burdens’ from the likes of the CBI.

He says that “New Labour transferred the rules of the economy to public institutions, resulting in the commercialisation of public services”. Well, some aspects of user choice have been introduced into some public services, with predictably mixed results – and this has gone a lot less far than many advocates of that model would like to go. He doesn’t consider that choice within free-at-point-of-use public services is a very different beast from choice within a market driven by ability to pay.

He adds that this government’s view has been that “The market was not just more efficient, but provided a moral vision for rampant individualism in which democracy is replaced by consumerism.”

I’m not really sure what this sentence means, but I think ‘people democratically deciding not to vote for parties that don’t accept the principle of a not-too-regulated market economy’ would be more apt than ‘democracy is replaced by consumerism’.

Lawson charges New Labour with “neoliberalism”, the second-dirtiest word he knows (the dirtiest also begins with ‘neo’). Neoliberalism is “the ideological belief that markets are always preferable to the state or other social institutions. For the notion of the social demands a limit on the role of the market. There are places where profits should not and must not be secured.”

Strange, then that the state should have expanded so under New Labour. I do recommend dipping into the comment pages of the Telegraph, the Times or the Spectator for a corrective to the view that the government is basically a creature of the right.

But of course there must be limits to the role of the market (just as there must be limits to the role of the state – and the trade union, the family, the NGO…). Private markets can’t themselves deliver an equitable health system, say. But that doesn’t mean that competition and profit motives can’t possibly operate within the NHS. Do any nurses make any money from their work? Have two doctors never vied for a promotion?

Lawson goes on:

Strangely though, as the tide turns against New Labour it isn't ebbing back to raw neoliberalism. People can still taste the free-market medicine of the 1980s and don't want more. David Cameron knows this. In a speech shortly after becoming leader he said that "social justice means social responsibility: the idea that we're all in this together, that there is such a thing as society" - but went on to say: "It's just not the same thing as the state."

He notes, rightly, that there are “contradictions” between Cameron’s rhetoric and his broad policy approach, but despite this:

As only Nixon could go to China, could only Cameron attempt to save society, or will Labour take up the real political challenge? …
If the [Labour] party continues to refuse to seize the moment by defining the terms of this new collectivism then Cameron, in all his contradictions, will.

It’s in this last sentence that the defining flaw of Lawson’s politics is made clear. Cameron “will” what? Seize the moment or define a new collectivism? And is defining a matter of communicating an impression or implementing a policy agenda?

It doesn’t really matter. What Lawson really wants is to hear narratives that are passionate and earnest about the needs of society. Blair used to be wonderful at that. Now Cameron is moving onto that turf. It seems hardly to matter that, on all the (non-rhetorical) issues where Lawson finds Labour too right-wing, Cameron’s policies are farther to the right.

There is a certain sort of person: middle-class, well-educated, passably well-off, socially liberal, cosmopolitan and internationalist, distasteful of ‘excessive’ corporate greed, and emotionally if not intellectually concerned with the ‘fabric of society’. They loathed the last Tory government, voted Labour or possibly Lib Dem in 1997 and then grew to resent Blair. They find Brown deathly dull and impossible to relate to as a person.

They want a politics that allows them to feel that they’re expressing their social concern without having to make sacrifices, that the ills of the nation – whether they persist or even worsen – are not in their name. It’s the dislocation of values from outcomes.

I’m not saying that Lawson fits this description perfectly; he doesn’t. But articles like his are a small part of the conveyor belt that’s slowly drawing these people nearer towards voting for ‘compassionate’ conservatism.

Careful how you go.


Chris said...

Another good 'un.

I have a feeling that with the pressure group and think tank types - and Compass does seem to be particularly bad for this - a lot of what they write is driven by the desire for the illusion of influence. They make fairly nebulous public statements (often separate from their actual research and hard work) that can be interpreted in many ways because they're basically meaningless and then, when time passes and events unfold, can claim that they predicted - no, caused - them. Hence the reams of contradictory bollocks all the playas came out with when Brown took over. And, of course, that illusion of influence is what they need to pay the bills, so why not, at least it keeps them off the streets.

Also, I think you're right about 'dislocation of values from outcomes' but is there also a middle-class tendency to have good progressive values but in completely the wrong order of priority? That, for example, they support reducing poverty, they also support reformed drug laws, they understand completely that one has to compromise when in power and they absolutely won't vote for a party that refuses to make legalising cannabis its first duty in office.

Tom Freeman said...

Yeah, the illusion of influence I think accounts for a lot. The sad result of spending too much time in media-land.

And you have a fair point about the ordering of priorities. We do have 'values voters' over here just as they do in the US, except that ours are mainly middle-class secular liberals whereas theirs are mainly working-class conservative Christians.

Of course middle-class people still care (to a point) about things like poverty, but if a party doesn't respect these liberal values then nobody's going to listen to its plans for urban regeneration. One has to give Cameron (and particularly Theresa May and Francis Maude) some credit for grasping this.

Tom Freeman said...

And I agree about Compass too: their larger reports are far more interesting than their press releases and op-eds.