LEADING ARTICLE: A triumph of conservatism

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The Independent Online
LAST week marked the high noon of British Conservatism, certainly its greatest triumph since 1931, perhaps the greatest triumph of what has been called "the Conservative century". How so? The Tories had lost the Staffordshire South East by-election on a 22 per cent swing, the fifth biggest swing from them to Labour in history. A recovery before the general election looks increasingly implausible. Across the Atlantic, Tony Blair is received by the Americans almost as if he were already Prime Minister.

But Mr Blair is no longer leading a party of the left, or even of the centre-left. To use his own words last week, Labour has become a party of the centre. This is the great Conservative triumph, and it goes beyond what even Margaret Thatcher could have hoped when she took office in 1979. For all Labour's opinion poll leads and by-election victories, the Conservatives have an unshakeable grip on the agenda: the language and philosophy of politics remain theirs, and theirs alone.

The truth of this observation can be demonstrated again and again. Even Labour's more traditionally leftist policies are coated in familiar Tory language. In New York last week, Mr Blair referred to his party's commitment to the European Social Chapter but reassured his audience that there would be no German-style social security system in Britain. (Germany, it should be noted, is not a country that has been governed from the left in recent years.) Further, Mr Blair said, his aim was to lift burdens on business, especially small business, and to encourage entrepreneurs, innovators and wealth creators. He does not propose radical changes in the taxation system - though there are numerous options around - but a reduction in the tax burden for the lower-paid without, by some miracle, any "punishment" of higher earners. Questions about money for public services projects, such as school buildings or new hospitals or improved transport, are answered, just as they are on the Tory side, by references to "joint initiatives" with the private sector. In education, too, Labour's language is almost entirely Tory language: choice, standards, and weeding out (of incompetent teachers) are the central concepts.

The point is not so much that Labour lacks distinctive policies - though they seem to become less distinctive by the day - as that it lacks a distinctive vocabulary. It is commonly remarked that Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street with few commitments. But people were well aware of her outlook and intentions, which had very little to do with St Francis of Assisi. It was commonly thought, for example, that she would "sort out the unions" and this struck a chord in the saloon bars of the day. It cannot be said that Mr Blair has created any comparable waves: people do not remark that "we just don't have enough stakeholds in this country" or "somebody should sort out that bloody constitution".

Thus, Labour now rests its case almost completely on the dangers of a fifth term of Tory government: more privatisation, more monkey-business with the NHS, more threats to the old age pension, more VAT on gas and electricity. Hardly any of the developments of the past 17 years will be reversed, not even those, such as rail privatisation, that will come into effect with the Government's last dying gasp. Labour promises to tinker on the edges, changing the mechanisms for subsidising rail, giving opted-out schools a new name. The Tories promise to press on with their own agenda: a grammar school in every town, competition in water supply. Some of these ideas may be absurd, but the language in which they are expressed has been so unchallenged for so long that Labour finds it hard to contest them with any conviction.

All this, no doubt, is sound politics. In the economic sphere, particularly, Mr Blair's caution should allow him to take office without a run on the pound or a collapse in business confidence, so ensuring that he becomes the first Labour prime minister who does not have to cope with an immediate financial crisis. And Mr Blair rightly calculates that the voters' loathing of the present government will probably be enough to see him into power, that bold policy initiatives cannot win him more votes and may even lose him a few. But when he enters Downing Street, speaking a language unrecognisable to any Labour frontbencher even a decade ago, he may pause to ask himself if he has any idea why he is there.