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David Cameron: We are the champions of progressive ideals

Why has the 10p tax fiasco done such terrible damage to Gordon Brown's reputation? It is not just the sheer incompetence of a Budget unravelling months after the event. It's not even the morally repugnant cynicism of hurting the poor for the sake of a cheap headline. No, the real political importance lies in what it reveals about Labour's record. It shines an unforgiving light on the Prime Minister, and reveals uncomfortable truths about his party's position on poverty and social justice.

A painful reality is dawning on Labour MPs: in its longest unbroken period in office, Labour has done little to advance progressive ideals. A government that promised social justice and economic efficiency has in fact delivered neither, to the dismay of the Labour Party. Instead, it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today.

This is not just happening by default, because the centre-left experiment that began in 1994 has failed. Neither is it because we have made social justice and environmentalism priorities for the modern Conservative Party. It is happening because of history – because social, technological and economic change means that in the 21st century progressive ends can only be met through conservative means.

Take the fight against poverty. We can see that in the 20th century, the methods of the centre-left – principally income redistribution and social programmes run by the state – had considerable success in relieving poverty. It would be churlish to pretend otherwise. But those methods have now run their course. The returns from big state intervention are not just diminishing, they are disappearing.

So in the 21st century, the progressive end – making British poverty history – is best achieved by conservative means. This involves addressing the causes of poverty and not just the symptoms, and it displays our instinctive understanding of how people and communities work.

No more thinking that the central state shifting money around can provide the long-term solution to poverty. It is now widely accepted that it is the cycle of family breakdown, worklessness, crime, drug and alcohol abuse that traps people in deprivation. So our plans focus on long-term action to enable people, families and communities to lift themselves up and make the most of their lives. This, surely, must be the aim of any government.

We will start to tackle the problem of children growing up in chaotic and unstable home environments by making Britain more family-friendly. That includes paying couples to live together rather than apart, and more help for parents in the crucial early years, through reforms such as a massively expanded health visitor service and flexible parental leave. We're developing plans for radical welfare reform to help people move from long-term poverty to long-term employment.

In all these areas, instead of using the old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control, we will use the modern mechanisms of civil society – whether it's businesses that can really help get people trained and ready for work, social enterprises that get people permanently off drugs, or charities and community groups that can give couples the support they need when relationships come under pressure. For us it's about the whole public realm, not just the public sector.

Take another key progressive aim: environmental sustainability. Here too it is conservative approaches – markets and incentives for dynamic industrial change, rather than centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation, that are driving the intellectual agenda. This conservative green revolution is led by a new generation of politicians from a conservative tradition, from Governor Schwarz-enegger and John McCain in America to Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy in Europe.

But perhaps the most striking evidence of the centre-left's retreat from the progressive cause can be seen in the most fundamental progressive ideal of all: equal opportunity and social mobility. Of course it is true that in the past, in the 20th century, the left and the centre-left did a huge amount to bust apart privilege and create genuine opportunity for people from any background to get on in life. But today, we see a Labour government content to preside over failing schools in our most deprived communities. We see a Labour Prime Minister so consumed with political point-scoring and internal feuds that he is prepared to sabotage the – albeit timid – moves towards school reform made by his predecessor, and which we backed at the time.

Our plans for radical school reform, bringing the best education to the poorest children by opening up the state system to new providers, show we are not prepared to let ideology, dogma or vested interests stop children gaining the best start in life. This is another example of why we are the true progressives now.

When you consider the huge challenges our country faces, the Labour Party with its outdated approach is the road-block to progress. Take its timidity in the face of the environmental challenge. Or its rigid attachment to the state as the only method of fighting poverty. Gordon Brown's Government has neither the means, the modern philosophy nor, as we saw with his 10p tax attack on low-paid workers, the will to deliver a progressive agenda.

If you care about poverty, if you care about inequality, if you care about the environment – forget about the Labour Party. It has forgotten about you. If you count yourself a progressive, a true progressive, only we can achieve real change.

David Cameron is leader of the Conservative Party