Steve Richards: Cameron is just more of the past

A break with the past is more likely if Labour's younger generation, less scarred by defeat in the 1980s, can form a relationship of sorts with the Lib Dems and introduce electoral reform
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There is a clear pattern to the defensive, timid, fractious New Labour era that draws to a close on Thursday whatever the result. On the few occasions when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dared to challenge orthodoxy and use the power of government to bring about change they were successful policy-makers. When fearful caution prevailed they failed to make any policy at all.

Their support for the light regulatory regime for the financial markets is the most famous example of their fearful inactivity. There are plenty of others. During the very first Labour cabinet in 1997 Blair told his new ministers the Government was not going to intervene in the privatisation of the railways. It would seem like "old Labour" to do so, he explained.

As fares soared and trains became more unreliable and unsafe the government was forced to act. When it did trains began to improve. But quite a lot of the time New Labour wanted others to acquire responsibility for delivery of public services, the private sector and the voluntary sector, or to do as little as possible to disturb the order that had prevailed in the 1980s and 1990s.

When it broke away from caution and used the power of government change followed. The smoking ban in public places, implemented after much agonising, will probably do more to improve the quality of life than any other measure. Over time it will save the NHS a fortune as well.

As far as the NHS is concerned the Government made the biggest leap when it finally dared to address the low level of investment, an act of political will and courage from Gordon Brown in particular as it involved openly putting the case for a tax rise.

I agree with the Conservatives that too much of the additional cash has been wasted but, if you are able to see a GP quickly or visit a day centre for treatment or have an operation without waiting for 18 months, there is a connection between Brown's act of political will and the more civilised service that followed.

Another example applies to London. The introduction of the Oyster Card has made travelling around the capital much easier than it used to be when stressed-out commuters queued for a lifetime to get a ticket for unreliable Tubes and buses. Now there are more buses too. They have not come out of the blue. The decision to establish a London Mayor made these innovations possible. Without that additional layer of government, with clear lines of accountability, there would have been no innovation.

I reflect on the immediate past because it provides a guide to the future. This election campaign has been fought and discussed as if the leaders were taking part in The X Factor in which the winner gets the chance to run a supermarket. The arguments have been free of values and the talk around them has been about performance in the televised debates. Yet there is an important ideological divide and it is about the role of government.

My worry about David Cameron's "big society" and smaller state is that we will get the worst of New Labour and none of the better bits. For example, if the Conservatives had been in power over the past few years we would have had the light regulation of the banks, but we would not have got the nationalisation of Northern Rock and possibly not the necessarily interventionist package that saved the banking system from total collapse.

The Conservatives were opposed to the introduction of a London Mayor at the time and, although they fully support the idea now, I fear their instinct would be to work on the assumption a travellers' co-operative could organise an Oyster Card and run more buses. Railtrack would still exist on the grounds that the state should keep out of the railways.

All of this would have happened not out of malevolent incompetence but because the Conservatives tend to be instinctively hostile to government activity: "Oh, there's nothing we can do about that." It is a passivity that stifled New Labour too often as well.

There are some interesting ideas in Cameron's ''big society". Let's have more co-operatives. Let the voluntary sector do more (although it expects to be paid for additional responsibilities). Let's address the waste and greed in the public sector. The Conservatives are on to something in their plans to make spending more transparent and in their proposals to cap the pay of senior managers, some of them earning huge sums in non- jobs.

Yet this is all relatively small beer compared with what government can achieve, at national and local level if it wishes to do so. It has the power to regulate, no longer a despised concept after the bankers. It has the means to invest. In the new era where Britain can no longer rely on financial markets for its wealth, it has the strength to support innovative industry as other governments do around the world from Germany to Japan.

Cameron's "big society" is fine but his attitude towards government is still based too much on the assumptions of the 1980s and 1990s. As a result there would be more continuity than change if he were elected. Brown gave away powers to set interest rates. George Osborne plans to cede power in relation to public spending to a new quango. Like Blair and Brown, Cameron is a pragmatic constitutional reformer rather than a radical one. There will be continued ambiguity over Europe. A duopoly would rule at the top, Cameron and Osborne rather than Blair and Brown. The Sun newspaper would remain the cheerleader of the winning regime.

A break with the past is more likely if Labour's younger generation, less scarred by defeat in the 1980s, can form a relationship of sorts with the Lib Dems and introduce electoral reform. I am not sure how such a position is reached. Obviously a hung parliament is an essential pre-condition and then a leap into the unknown, but better that than more familiar echoes from the recent past.