Turn Left at the next election

14 Nov 08
DAVID LIPSEY | Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential election was a personal triumph, but it was also a triumph for the centre-Left.

Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential election was a personal triumph, but it was also a triumph for the centre-Left.

This is not to suggest that Americans — still less the candidate — have suddenly turned into socialists. They clearly have not.

However, popular tolerance of the excesses of capitalism lasted only so long as Joe the Plumber and his ilk felt they were benefiting from them. The crash in share prices has brought a crash in acquiescence which in large measure explains the president-elect’s victory. Obama’s whirlwind activity preparing for power reflects a confidence that he has not just won an election but won the argument for change.

Such a change of popular mood is clearly discernible in Britain too. We are a less populist nation than the US, and the rumbles of the High Street against Threadneedle Street in Britain are correspondingly more muted than those of Main Street against Wall Street. Yet Gordon Brown would not be banging on about bank bonuses, nor Lord Mandelson demanding lower mortgage rates if they did not discern a shift in public mood.

Indeed, by their silences, the Tories are admitting as much too. Whether or not beneath their Cameroonian exterior they have really changed their views is beside the point. For this is clearly not the time to proclaim a pro-market creed. Even if Right-wingers such as Margaret Thatcher or Keith Joseph were leading the party today, they too would be watching their words. It is arguably time for the Conservatives to bring back a phrase that, when used by Edward Heath, once divided them: ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’. 

So far the opinion polls suggest that the public thinks well of the government’s handling of the crisis and Gordon Brown is a prime minister returned from the grave. But those same polls, despite Labour’s unexpected success in the Glenrothes by-election, are far from suggesting that Labour is going to win the next general election. As I have argued in this space before, the Tories are not a shoo-in for victory; but nevertheless a betting man would have to have them odds-on.

This raises a fascinating prospect. Are we about to see at one and the same time a shift of the public mood to the Left and a shift in the colour of Britain’s government to the Right?

This is not how things usually work. Clement Attlee won in 1945 because the troops wanted a more collectivist society. Churchill won in 1951 because the same people wanted less rationing. Famously, as policy adviser Bernard Donoughue recalls in the marvellous second volume of his Downing Street diaries, former prime minister Jim Callaghan perceived a shift in mood to the Right, represented by Margaret Thatcher, as he fought the 1979 election. That too blew itself out, with the return of Tony Blair (yes, he was to the Left of the Tories) to power in 1997.

In post-war British history, there is no clear example of a government of the Left being replaced by one of the Right when public opinion was shifting from Right to Left and vice versa. If the Tories do indeed win, therefore, we are going to see an experiment in the political life of a democracy without precedent.

The Conservatives in those circumstances will have three choices. The first will be to proceed to implement the party-favoured policies they always intended to implement, even where they run counter to the shift in public opinion. The hope will be that when those policies are in place, the public will come to perceive that they are right. The fear, however, is that the public, in no way wanting such policies, will come swiftly to regret its electoral decision. That way lies a one-term Tory government.

The second is to shift to the Left to a greater extent than Cameron, in pursuit of victory, already has. That might ensure the new government’s sustained popularity. But there are some risks involved too — including that of party unity. Tory activists want a Tory government because they want Tory policies. If they don’t get them, they will not be happy and seeds of dissent may be sown.

The third is a mixed strategy and, because it avoids both traps, the most likely one. A Tory government will not move sharply to the Right for fear of alienating the electorate. At the same time, it will make peace-offerings to the Right — perhaps a little further union-bashing here, perhaps more prisons there — though ensuring that these are not policies in the central battleground of handling the economy. But it will do everything in its power to get away from the Left-Right categorisation of policies. It will try to demonstrate that what it is bringing is not a new ideology but a more competent management of what is common ground between people of all political faiths.

Under either the second or third option one thing is clear: an incoming Tory government will end up more Left-wing on economic issues than the Labour government was between 1997 and early this autumn. It is an intriguing prospect.

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