Steve Richards: The battle between Brown and Cameron will be fought over the role of the state

Cameron has populist themes, but incoherent policies; Brown the policies but not the themes
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The Independent Online

In the semi-darkness of Tony Blair's long farewell the outlines of the next political battleground are clear. Indeed, the conflict was defined within minutes of David Cameron's becoming the Conservatives' new leader.

In his victory speech he delivered for the first time the now familiar sound bite: "There is such a thing as society, but it is not the same as the state." In a single sentence, Cameron appeared to establish a gaping distance from Margaret Thatcher, who stated there was no such thing as society. At the same time the words allowed him to be a small-state Tory, by implying that society could flourish without active government.

Now Gordon Brown moves on to the philosophical battle-ground. He does so, tentatively, knowing that whenever he puts the case for a modern relationship between individuals, local communities and government he will be accused of being an old-fashioned "statist". The accusation is crudely simplistic in relation to Brown, New Labour's co-architect, and a figure that is about to embark upon a public spending round that will be extremely tight. Still, the accusation is made by the Conservatives - for obvious reasons - and by some of Brown's New Labour colleagues who have moved so far to the right that any defence of government activity is seen as dangerously left-wing.

In an important speech in Glasgow last week, Brown sought to frame the battleground by taking the individual as his starting point. This will be the key to winning the argument: which party has the ideas that allow individuals to flourish? In most European countries, a modest defence of limited government activity is not necessary. The argument is accepted across the political spectrum. In Britain it stands out.

Brown cited Sure Start and the development of new children's centres as examples of a modern partnership. "We see how individual potential is best realised in a working partnership involving responsible citizens and empowered community groups, supported by responsive and empowering government." He pointed to a visit to the Broadwater Farm estate where "local mothers were not only building a children's centre, but from the centre they were rebuilding their whole community".

Here was the connecting argument: "Sure Start and children's centres could not have happened without the investment and co-ordinating role of local and national government ... so the way forward to encourage individual potential is not a divorce between community action and government ... but a partnership."

The speech was studded with words that reassure rather than threaten "Partnership, empowerment, individual potential ..." Brown was not making the case for some form of drab uniformity imposed from above. Instead, he sought to point out that diversity and initiatives from individuals can sometimes be achieved only with the support of government. Brown would counter Cameron by arguing that there is such a thing as society and the state has an empowering role to play.

At this early stage in the battle, Cameron has the easier task. In Britain, the argument for a modern enabling state is rarely heard, even though Labour has been in power for nearly a decade. Therefore the term "state" still conjures up stiflingly negative thoughts: "Waste ... tax ... bossiness...". Yet Cameron's defining sound bite, in which society is not the same as the state, leads the Tories in contradictory directions.

During the Conservatives' conference, I highlighted the flaws in Cameron's assertion that Jamie Oliver had done more for school dinners than the state. Cameron ignored the fact that the state had provided the additional cash to meet Jamie Oliver's demands and it was the withdrawal of the state that had led to the original decline in standards. Even the wealthy Oliver could not have acted alone to rectify the situation. He acted in partnership with the state that had the cash to invest in school dinners and the power to insist on higher standards.

Since then, a more important gap has surfaced. Last week, the Conservatives announced they would devolve decision-making powers in the NHS, giving more responsibility to doctors and health workers at a local level and allowing some hospitals wider financial freedoms. At the same time, they attacked Brown for the "cuts" that are being implemented now in some hospitals.

But some of the cuts are the consequences of local factors. Presumably, a Conservative government would argue that the cuts were not a responsibility for ministers. Yet now they attack the ministers. In delivering services, the Conservatives claim they would let go of the strings, but condemn the current Government for not pulling them harder.

Even the mighty right-wing newspapers are confused, turning to the state when things go wrong. When there is a train crash or high crime rates I do not read headlines screaming: "Society is to blame!" Always it is ministers who are called to account. If Cameron becomes Prime Minister he will not be able to declare very often: "This is nothing to do with government. It is a matter for society." Similarly, if someone in need of help tried to phone "society", he or she would get no reply.

But Brown has only started to make the case for a modern relationship between government, communities and individuals. In his speech, he cited initiatives that empowered those from poorer backgrounds. He will need to range more widely and show also how more affluent voters benefit from active government, partly because they suffer if large numbers are disconnected, in terms of higher crime, bigger welfare bills and the rest.

More directly, affluent drivers stuck in a never-ending traffic jam do not curse "society". Instead, they fume about the lack of decent public transport or the deregulation that means roadworks pop up chaotically. The wealthy driver bemoans the lack of state activity too.

Brown must get the language right and make the message accessible as a precondition to winning the argument about tax, spending, the role of government in relation to green issues, and the other issues that will dominate the next election. That is why last week's speech was significant. He was starting to make an important move. Thatcher's genius was to communicate accessibly what she was trying to do. "My father never spent more than he earned," was her argument for monetarism. Such statements were nonsense, but brilliantly engaging nonsense.

In the current semi-darkness, Cameron has populist themes but incoherent policies. Brown has a coherent set of policies, but searches for more populist tunes. When the light shines more brightly, will it be easier to find accessible language that matches thought through policies or the other way around? The answer will determine the outcome of the next election.