Spinning across the spectrum

PROFILE: Daniel Finkelstein First Labour, then SDP, now Tory policy supremo. Where next, wonders John Rentoul
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The Independent Online
Daniel Finkelstein, new director of the Conservative Research Department, has always been hard to pin down for such an opinionated person. He joined the Labour Party at 16, defected to the SDP two years later and then, just before the 1992 election, he led a group of former SDP activists into the Conservative party under the banner "Social Democrats for Major". Next week, he celebrates his 33rd birthday on holiday with his wife in Botswana. In October, he joins Central Office in the key policy and Labour-bashing job of the next election campaign.

He remains hard to label. Some see his connections with Newt Gingrich's revitalised Republicans and his closeness to Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, as evidence that his trajectory across the spectrum of British politics has ended up on the right wing of the Conservative Party.

But it has not. For the moment, Finkelstein is firmly on the Tory left. His appointment is another sign of the Tory left's domination of the party after John Major's leadership victory last month. Finkelstein supports internal markets in the health, education and other public services, but as an alternative to wholesale privatisation. His admiration for Gingrich is more to do with the lessons for political communications of the "Contract with America" - the Republicans' simple manifesto - than massive tax and welfare cuts.

He comes from a high-achieving Jewish family in north London. His father, Ludwik, is professor of engineering at City University. His brother, Anthony, is an academic at Imperial College, and sister, Tamara, works for the Treasury. He joined the Labour Party while he was at University College School in Hampstead, but defected to the SDP soon after going to the London School of Economics to study industrial economics. There, he spoke against the "no platform for racists and fascists" policy of the National Union of Students, an anti-racist policy which veered into illiberality, associated with the shouting down of Tory Cabinet ministers.

He joined the SDP soon after it was formed. Delivering Labour leaflets for a local election, he found some SDP leaflets stuck in letterboxes. He retrieved them to throw away, but read them instead and signed up. It's a story told in David Owen's memoirs, which he helped to write. "He's always been extremely right-wing," says a friend from school, and at the LSE, he opposed the miners' strike, and supported the Falklands war and nuclear weapons.

In the SDP, his political skills were quickly recognised. He became Dr Owen's political adviser and stood for Parliament in Brent East against Ken Livingstone in 1987. After that election, the SDP merged with their Liberal partners to form the Liberal Democrats, but Dr Owen and his supporters broke away, insisting that social democracy was a distinct ideology.

This ideological distinctiveness did not survive the fall of Margaret Thatcher. Before the 1992 election, Finkelstein joined the Conservative party and Dr Owen endorsed John Major as prime minister, although not his party.

Finkelstein says: "I used to think you could be right-wing on the left." The event which changed his mind was a strike at VNU, the Dutch multinational publisher of trade magazines. As the editor of a business computer newspaper, Connexion, he was "very against the strike, went back to work and crossed the picket line". He says: "I realised that my instincts were different from left-liberal journalists - with whom I worked and whom I liked. In order to be 'on the left', you accept a number of vague policy statements which are lazy and unsubstantiated. For example, 'the Tories don't care about the NHS'."

Finkelstein's group of Social Democrats-turned-Tories were attacked by an older generation of anti-Owen former SDPers as careerists attracted to power and calculating - before Tony Blair became Labour leader - and that the Tory party was the best route to it. Finkelstein accepts that Blair is a social democrat, but by last year, Finkelstein no longer was. In any case, he says: "My criticism of Tony Blair is that, insofar as he wishes to push the Labour Party in the right direction, he will fail, because people don't join the Labour Party to do those things. Thus he will advance a minimum wage he doesn't really believe in, support the Social Chapter as long as it doesn't cost anything and mouth slogans about wanting to 'renationalise the NHS'."

However, the old guard of the SDP are right about one thing. Finkelstein would certainly like to be an MP. He was one of the convenors of a low- key seminar for centre-left Tories who wanted to be parliamentary candidates last September. The seminar, designed to counter a rival "high fliers' weekend" organised by the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group, was addressed by Cabinet ministers Stephen Dorrell and William Waldegrave.

Finkelstein, an informal adviser to Dorrell, plays a central role as the ideologist of the Tory left. He insists that he cannot be categorised in internal Tory politics, and it is true that he has followed Lord Owen in a late conversion to an ambiguous brand of Euro-scepticism. But the key test of the dividing line in the Tory party is one's attitude to the electoral middle ground. After the Tory leadership election, Finkelstein said: "The right has to decide whether it wants to tack to the mainstream or move trenchantly rightward, which may separate it from the electorate."

Supporters of Redwood and Michael Portillo take the opposite view, that the voters would respond to a clear-cut right-wing programme. One said of Michael Heseltine's elevation to Deputy Prime Minister with some satisfaction: "Now the SDP has taken over the Conservative Party. They will lead us to disaster at the next election, which we are going to lose anyway, and they will take all the blame for it. Then the right will take over."

But such ideological purists of the right are likely to find themselves outflanked by Finkelstein's flexibility and fresh-faced charm. The Diet Coke-drinking teetotaller would never admit it, but he probably felt a sneaking admiration for John Redwood's freshness, clarity and Euro-scepticism. His button-badge-collecting obsession with the revived American right will serve him well, whoever leads the Tories after the next election.