The Institute of Government recently played host to a panel of Conservatives, more infamously/famously known (depending on which side of the fence you sit) as the Red Tories.
The Institute of Government recently played host to a panel of Conservatives, more infamously/famously known (depending on which side of the fence you sit) as the Red Tories. The evening was billed as an exploration of atypical Conservatism, one of social traditionalistic values married with a progressive state-present economic philosophy, more aligned with those across the benches in the House.
Refreshingly, the evening offered much in the way of showing that the 1922 committee members and the like were certainly in a coalition with a different type of Conservatism not only due to the presence of Lib Dems, but also within their own ranks.
Furthermore, it became evident to see that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition should now certainly be dubbed our first mutual executive.
Jonty Oliff-Cooper, associate at Progressive Conservatism at Demos and a proclaimed ‘one to watch’ in the Tory ranks greeted the audience with a claim that lay the foundation for the evening, stating:
“This is a natural time for the country to be Tory – this cannot be solved from the centre and this is where Labour lost it. They forgot about face-to-face interaction.”
The theme was very much how the Conservatives had successfully (within reason of course) distanced themselves from right wing economic evilness and taken advantage of what many had seen as a break down between the person, community and the State. Nick Boles, MP for Grantham and Stamford, celebrated Cameron’s “ability to perform Tomb Raider style politics – in order to get to Level 2, you first needed to complete Level 1”.
As a result of Cameron’s ability to in part distance himself from the faceless cold Tories of the 1980s and 90s, Boles posited that society could find solace via the reintroduction to “community” – or reading between the lines: the need to develop our beloved ‘Big Society’.
Building on Jonty’s and Nick’s claims of shrinking the state slowly and building the Big Society gradually, James Forsyth, political editor of the Spectator, also added the essential need for coalition to develop the ability to ride the inevitable negative wave of “our first free school failure, or GP misdiagnose in the NHS, as these events will be the real test as to whether the Big Society can be accepted long term”.
The anointed leader of Red Toryism, Phillip Blond – director of ResPublica, developed further the mutual idea within the Big Society and repackaged it as the development of “free association”, the non-state civic grouping capable of gathering together economic liberals and societal conservatives.
Blond went on to say:
“It is not the state or private, individualism or statism that is the problem – rather the coalition must realise that it is when power resides overwhelming in one of these spheres we see failures – whether they be market or state.”
Nicholas Boles then questioned the contradictory path of a “government-led development of the Big Society”, asking whether the government could build it without playing a contradictory fundamental role within that process, and went on to state that the coalition “certainly knows where it is about societal ideology, but they are not so sure on economics”. This can clearly be seen with George Osborne’s recent acknowledgment that the government would support industry where needed, but not pick particular winners, as was the case with the Sheffield Forge Masters – or so the government would proclaim.
When asked about the referendum next year on the alternative vote (AV), all the panelists seemed rather relaxed as to the outcome and questioned whether it would indeed pass. Forsyth suggesting the first past the post (FPTP) system was “part of Tory ideology, the idea that if you had 42 per cent support the others just didn’t matter; similarly, Boles dismissed the threat posed by the AV system suggesting “FPTP got me into the Commons and will keep me there hopefully”. When asked about the future of AV within the coalition, Forsyth predicted at least one senior Tory cabinet member will campaign on the yes side – when asked who, he declined to comment.
In concluding, the evening certainly highlighted that the idea of the Big Society focused firmly around developing “the mutualisation of society and institutions unlike anything ever seen before” as Philip Blond referred. What Oliff-Cooper referred to as an eBay model of democracy whereby one transaction is never more important than a participant’s wider reputation, is an interesting point of potential similarity with certain incoming and established Labour MPs.
Rachel Reeves and Yvette Cooper spoke eloquently at this year’s Progress Conference about “the absolute need for the development of mutuals in our society”, speaking specifically about finance but also wider scale civic society. Albeit the premise and goals surrounding banks and public services are different in complexity and orientation, it gives one thought to ponder as to whether developing mutuals could in fact be a positive way forward for our society and whether the government have this right to a certain degree.
However, and this is a big however, when the panelists were asked whether mutuals and the Big Society’s ability to address market failures and redistribution economics, this point no member could answer.
It seems logical to assume mutuals can play an important role over the coming years, but the Government’s attitude that decentralistaion and localism will solve all disparities seems flawed to the core. Let’s hope these more centre-right Tories have the ability to hold their peers accountable for addressing these failures directly, and not relaying on solely ebay politics to save the poorest during the austerity measures cuts.
In closing, Forsyth gave many Labour supporters motivation to continue the consolidated fight back, offering up:
“We [the coalition] can realign British politics in such a way with the Libs that this country will remain a Centre-Right institution for years to come and Labour can do nothing about it.”
Proof that mutuals also have a darker side.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.