Steve Richards: The Tories are learning from Blair

Thursday 21 August 2008 00:00 BST

Like an obedient pupil, the Conservatives seek to follow the New Labour rulebook for winning general elections. Yesterday, the shadow Chancellor George Osborne addressed the left-of-centre think-tank Demos on the theme of fairness. His counter-intuitive words and location took me back to the mid-1990s when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown headed for the CBI at every available opportunity to reassure audiences of traditional Tory voters that Labour was the party for business. Unexpected themes and locations were a common new Labour ploy in the mid-1990s. The Conservatives seek to pull off the same trick now.

Mr Osborne argued that the first characteristic of a fair society is one where people are properly rewarded for their effort and ability, claiming that the great victory for the right was to show that this is best achieved through free markets operating within the framework of the law. He defined the second characteristic of a fair society as one in which there is equality of opportunity. Once more, he asserted confidently that his party was winning the argument that progressive goals of reducing poverty and increasing mobility were best achieved by Conservative means.

With a concluding flourish, he declared that "fairness of equality of opportunity comes not from the state alone, but only from society and state working together", implying that he had hit upon a defining argument. In particular, he hailed local decision-making, choice and the way public services are delivered in Sweden.

Like many of Mr Blair's speeches from the mid-1990s, Mr Osborne's address was beautifully constructed and politically clever. The speech also falls apart after a moment's scrutiny.

Contrary to Mr Osborne's sweeping assertion, markets do not guarantee fairness. In order to make his point, the shadow Chancellor ignored the current raging debates about the huge rewards for failure in the private sector, and the crazy bonuses paid out to those in the City and beyond, both of which are widely regarded as "unfair". In addition, the market would not of its own volition have delivered a minimum wage or a thousand other measures that have enhanced fairness.

Mr Blair made intoxicating speeches in the mid-1990s that seemed to develop an argument when he was actually avoiding one. Mr Osborne follows a similar path. His claim that free markets within a legal framework have prevailed is true up to a point. But the debate relates to the nature of the legal framework, the degree to which the market should be regulated to produce fairer outcomes. Mr Osborne makes no comment on the pivotal balance between regulation and a laissez faire approach.

Rightly, the shadow Chancellor stressed the importance of equality of opportunity and cited some of his party's approaches to welfare reform and education as examples of right-wing means to bring about progressive ends. Once more, he is being disingenuous. There is a wide consensus on the need to get claimants off welfare and into work. Again, the debate relates to finding the effective means to bring this about, the subject of anguished policy-making.

In relation to education, the Conservatives' schools spokesman Michael Gove is sincere about targeting resources on poorer areas so there is a genuine choice for parents. But no one in the Conservative party has explained how it will pay for such a scheme – extremely expensive in the early years at least.

Mr Osborne did not come armed with his precise tax and spending commitments, a more revealing test of fairness. Instead, he cited Sweden, a country that willingly spends more on its schools and hospitals and has done for decades. The level of investment is not the only reason for the higher quality of public services, but without it the reforms would not have had the same impact.

Mr Osborne's overall theme is again a means of avoiding an argument rather than winning one. Everyone agrees that the key is for the state and society to work together. This is not an issue between parties. The more complex debate revolves around the precise size of the state and its role. Mr Osborne did not state how the relationship should be defined in order to achieve fairer outcomes. Instead, he pretended that the debate was between those who regard the state as the key and those who did not. This is a gross oversimplification.

Like some of his other senior colleagues, Mr Osborne has read the New Labour manuals assiduously and probably knows off by heart the speeches delivered by Blair and Brown en route to their 1997 landslide. They declared that the new divide in the mid-1990s was not between high and low taxation, but fair and unfair taxation. It sounded like a moment of definitive change. But what did they mean by fair and unfair tax? What did they regard as levels that were too high? An apparently defining argument hid a thousand more important debates.

Mr Blair opened the door to Mr Osborne in other ways too. Towards the end of his leadership, he argued Labour had become too obsessed about the means in politics rather than the ends. But it is the means that are the cause of the divide between parties. Mrs Thatcher argued that her policies produced fairer outcomes compared with Labour. The arguments were over the means. No party claims that it wants an unfair society. In suggesting that the means are unimportant Mr Blair gave the Conservatives the freedom to argue that their approach is progressive because they seek fair outcomes. Every politician in Britain seeks fairer outcomes.

One of the reasons why Mr Osborne's speech is politically clever also relates to Mr Blair. The ultra-Blairites will agree with every word, the vaguely defined means as well as the ends that no one would disagree about. Out of genuine conviction as much as pragmatism, the heirs to Blair, Cameron and Osborne, cause mayhem in the Labour Party. Whether revisiting the politics of the mid-1990s is a successful route to power is another matter.

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