How the Tories wordgrabbed Progressive and sent Mandy Mental

August 12, 2009

Yesterday, unlike ‘Lord’ Mandelson, I saw George Osborne deliver his case for the Tories as the party of ‘Progressive Politics” at centre-left Demos think tank HQ. The hounhymns were confounded. Phil Collins – no, not the former drummer of progressive rock group Genesis but the former speechwriter for failed prog rock singer, Tony (Ugly Rumours) Blair – introduced Osborne’s speech as the latest attempt at Tory ‘wordgrab.’ He concluded by thanking Boy George and telling him that he’d be pleased to relay his advice on policy to the Labour war room. Later, on national TV news, a rattled ‘Lord’ Mandelson, snidely referring to Osborne as his ‘old friend,’ accused him of ‘political cross dressing’ and called the whole schtick a ’sick joke.’ Today, the ever-loyal Guardian published Mandelson’s ‘withering’ response as its lead story, but not the Osborne speech, together with a shrill, biased commentary from a Guardianista (middle) class warrior called Allegra Stratton. Outside wonkworld, nobody cares much about who ‘owns’ the right to be called ‘progressive,’ so why was Mandy so outraged? Surely political stereotype identity theft can’t bother an unelected peer, returning to run the country after a subsidised holiday as a guest of the Rothschilds – don’t worry, citizens, the Business Secretary didn’t talk business, he and his fellow guests apparently sat around talking about the ‘celebrities they knew.’ Besides, we all know that his week-long stay on the Russian oligarch’s yacht last year had absolutely nothing to do with Deripaska’s purchase, then dumping, of LDV Vans. He’s bigger than that, as his contempt for democratic process clearly demonstrates.

No, Mandy was pissed off because Boy George has had the temerity to come back from the dead. As the architect, with Blair, of the highly effective vote winning strategy of stealing the middle class centre from the Tories with pinkwashed versions of Thatcherite ideology, he has every reason to fear its use as a weapon of mass destruction against his own beleaguered, corrupt and morally bankrupt regime. It was doubly galling that the latest body blow was delivered by the whippersnapper to whom he gave a lesson in realpolitik in the Deripaska ‘Yachtgate’ incident (Thus passim) almost exactly a year ago. Many observers, including myself, saw Osborne as the weakest link in the Cameron front line. Yesterday he gave a credible account of himself and pulled off a tricky piece of wonky jiggerypokery with aplomb. Besides, the Tories are the stupid party. This was all too . . . .freaky, man . . . .

Demos, home of much of the New Labour “Third Way” malarky, deserves much of the credit for the New Tory legerdemain. Under its latest director, liberal Blairite Richard Reeves, it launched the Progressive Conservatism Project in January this year. Osborne’s ‘Third Way’ proposes a ‘progressive’ review of the role of government in the funding and delivery of education, healthcare and other costly social services. He argued that the choice facing the next UK government, faced with public sector spending of between 56-60% of GDP and rising, lies with cutting services and/or dramatically improving efficiencies. Labour claim they will not cut public spending, and neither will they reform their statist intervention in just about everything. The Tory solution involves identifying large savings by further privatisations, this time of the education sector, and proposing that alternative private sector or ’third sector’ social entrepreneurs will thus be able to maintain or improve existing standards, which have fallen under Labour despite huge financial outlay, at lower cost.

Osborne cited Bill Clinton, Jean Crétien and Paul Martin (Canadian Liberals) and Göran Persson (Sweden) as examples of left-leaning centrists whose reforms transformed public finance deficits, whilst (allegedly) improving the state provision of public services. He correctly pointed to the fact that Labour has tried (with mixed success) to introduce a mixed economy in the provision of state education through its Academy schools (favoured by Tory shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, also present yesterday). The New Tory wonks thus turned the tables on (Old) New Labour: if they criticise the part-privatisation/academy opt out choice in education, they stymie some of their own policy. Likewise if they object to private finance initiatives. Moreover, Clinton, Martin and the saintly Swedes were and are poster boys of liberal centrist Blairites. Were it not for Mandy’s pantomime hissiness, conspiracy theorists might conclude that the New Tories were natural inheritors of the Blair project and that they were in this thing together.

While it is hardly progressive for the Tories to advocate prising away the dead hand of the state and to advocate more privatisation, by Tory standards, it is progressive to do so under the banner of an ideological duty of care to society and preservation of the welfare state (in contrast to Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society’). Osborne is right about one thing: under Labour, state spending has recklessly ballooned out of control. We hear nothing about Gordon Brown’s celebrated ‘golden mean,’ whereby balanced expenditure would deliver prosperity allied to economic progress. But it would be truly progressive to question whether privatisation has indeed delivered real benefits to the population at large, as opposed to getting large items of capital expenditure off the treasury balance sheets. Thatcher and Reagan, whom Osborne cited as true progressives at the end of his speech, left legacies of huge budget deficits and social carnage in the form of institutionalised unemployment. Whoever inherits the record deficit left by Brown and his crossdressing puppetmaster will not only inherit a mountain of unemployment, but will also exacerbate the problem by taking a scythe to the bloated public sector. During Persson’s reforms Swedish unemployment soared to 16%, for example.

All of which leaves Demos wonks with plenty of work to do over the next few months. Make sure they aren’t passing your ideas over the fence, though, boy George.