Osborne: Tories carry torch of progressive politics

Press Association,David Hughes
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:24

The shadow chancellor George Osborne claimed today the Conservatives were the progressive and modernising force in British politics and warned Labour's policies would lead to cuts in frontline public services.

Mr Osborne said Gordon Brown was a "roadblock to reform" and called for sweeping changes to public services to prevent deep cuts as a result of ever-tighter budgets.

He highlighted measures such as the open primary system, which was used to select the Tory candidate in Totnes, and the greater use of technology to help citizens access official information as examples of the party's radical reforms.

In a keynote speech to the Demos think-tank, he also delivered a veiled rebuke to right-wingers in his own party who want to see the leadership abandon key parts of its reformist agenda in order to reduce public spending.

Mr Osborne said: "The torch of progressive politics has been passed to a new generation of politicians - and those politicians are Conservatives.

"By pursuing a course of illiberalism, centralisation, fiscal incontinence and opposition to meaningful public service reform, the current leadership of the Labour Party has abandoned the field of progressive politics.

"In its place, the modern Conservative Party is now the dominant progressive force in British politics.

"Whether it is pioneering open primaries to select our parliamentary candidates, or using new technology to give the public power through access to government information, or our commitment to a radical localisation of power, we are the ones setting the progressive pace in politics."

He warned that unless there was fundamental reform in health and education, budget constraints would mean real cuts in services.

"If we don't reform public services like health and education and make the money that is available go further, the alternative is deep cuts to the frontline services that we need to compete and deliver the dream of a fairer society.

"Frontline cuts not progressive reform - that is the course that the current Labour leadership offer."

On the NHS, Mr Osborne said the Tories would bring productivity gains through "diversity of provision" and payment by results.

Turning to education, Mr Osborne predicted that the "mini baby boom" in the UK, which has seen a 14% increase in the number of births between 2003 and 2008, would mean cuts of up to £800 in spending per pupil under Labour's current system.

"We have to face up to the consequences of what happens when a mini baby boom hits an unreformed education system at a time when money is tight.

"Without reforms to get more of the education budget to the front line and reforms to make that money go further once it gets there, there will be cuts in the classroom," he warned.

In an apparent reference to hardline Tories who have questioned whether the leadership should "roll back" its ambitions in response to deteriorating public finances, Mr Osborne said: "Some now say that the economic problems facing the country, and in particular the ballooning budget deficit, mean that the Conservative Party must put our interest in public service reform, localism and environmental improvement on the back burner.

"They say that the progressive priorities that motivated the Conservative Party in the first couple of years of David Cameron's leadership are luxuries that cannot be afforded in an age of austerity.

"I couldn't disagree more strongly. Indeed, I would argue that our commitment to fiscal responsibility in the face of mounting national debt is not at odds with progressive politics, but fundamentally aligned to it."

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said Mr Osborne's speech was "vacuous" and designed to cover up Conservative plans for "deep, wide and immediate cuts to public services".

He said: "The Conservatives can't get away from the fact they would cut £5 billion from public services right now. George Osborne needs to explain what is progressive about his priority for a £200,000 tax give-away to a few thousand of the richest estates.

"And why he's willing to cut public services to pay for his 'queue' of tax cuts for the highest earners.

"George Osborne can't claim the mantle of reform when the Tories want to drop guarantees for patients on NHS waiting times, oppose tough measures on welfare reform and would reverse all the recent progress on making GPs open at times to suit patients."

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson told BBC News: "I think my old friend George Osborne is involved in a bit of political cross-dressing here and I don't think it's going to fool anyone."

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's chief of staff Danny Alexander said: "It's not clear if George Osborne developed his understanding of the word progressive with his chums in the Bullingdon Club or on the deck of Oleg Deripaska's yacht, but it seems he has misunderstood the concept.

"A progressive party would not cut taxes for multi-millionaires, stand in the way of reforming Parliament or side with bigots, homophobes and climate change deniers in Europe."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments