There are enough real and substantive changes that can be made to our society without dismissing the other side as beyond the pale
Tim Montgomerie has what seems like a fun role in our current public discourse. In attempting to cajole the centre-right into an agenda both electorally popular and socially just, he gets to play about with a malleable political ideology – conservatism – and bend it to the needs of the day.
And, as his new project (launched with Stephan Shakespeare) The Good Right illustrates, he’s pretty good at it. When the left descends into sub-Guardianese about right-wingers being ‘evil,’ promotes the more mindless reaches of identity politics, or defaults to calling the coalition all the names under the sun whilst fudging on its own solutions, being Tim Montgomerie looks kind of alright.
As Hopi Sen rightly noted, the left does have this slightly aggravating and certainly ‘persistent tendency to see our motivating principles as more noble, more pure, than that of our political opponents.’ And yet, if you’re reliant on the IFS declaring the other side is a few percentage points different to you on the big fiscal questions of the day, then the other side is probably not all that evil. Wrong, sure. Evil, no. As Mark Ferguson has pointed out, if right wingers are innately evil, why are so many of them rather nice?
To be honest, I’m quite partial to the more intellectually curious of such types, and some of this has made it into my work. One person reviewing the manuscript for what became my book One Nation Britain found it ‘good – though it reads like a love letter to Harold Macmillan.’ I took this is a compliment.
But there is this progressive tradition that runs through British politics from Lloyd George and the graduated income tax, via Macmillan’s calls for a minimum wage in the 1930s and actual delivery in office in the 1950s to the broad postwar agenda generally dominated by Labour. All parties contributed to this, as did Whitehall, local authority and private sector alike.
Yes, Thatcher broke this chain (albeit through the dastardly means of being democratically elected three times), but strains of small ‘c’ conservatism have been at the heart of most successful political movements in this country – not least the Labour Party, as Martin Pugh has argued in his recent history of the movement. For all its seemingly oxymoronic nomenclature, Blue Labour remains in essence a good thing.
Fundamentally, there are enough real and substantive changes that can be made to our society without dismissing the other side as beyond the pale. Cancelling the bedroom tax. Re-stimulating the quagmire of our housing market. Upping the minimum wage. Rebalancing our economy through shifting investment to the north of England. These are all tasks Labour are rightly prioritising.
The left doesn’t need Crosby style negativity on top: rather than what the Tories have got wrong, what will Labour get right? Admittedly this requires details above and beyond the Greens, but Labour is aspiring to form a government in eight weeks time. And, in any event, the Good Right notably goes big on all but the first of these anyway.
On one specific policy – making a shift from income to wealth taxation – Montgomerie and Shakespeare definitely have a point, albeit one usually propagated by that arch lefty Thomas Piketty. As Piketty shows, the story of the next hundred years will be returns on wealth exceeding those of earned income. A beefed up HMRC going after unearned returns on assets – principally via increased property and inheritance levies – should be territory the left is all over. Labour could have outflanked the right here.
But instead we’re back in prime minister Brown territory. Hide from a ‘death tax,’ back to a 50p top rate, and, to be fair, a dribble of wealth taxation through the much caveated mansion tax. These are not the worst policies: better than doing nothing, but they are slightly suggestive of Labour’s lack of imagination. If Myleene Klass can turn that water into wine and boost our economy then we’ll talk about tax relief, since she hasn’t earned it, actually, it’s the type of inherited asset Labour should be looking at. I jest, but only a bit.
In claiming Balls and Miliband learnt nothing from their time in the Treasury and were responsible for crashing the economy, David Cameron is of course being nakedly political. But other than borrowing TV debate era Clegg’s mansion tax, you could be forgiven for thinking both Eds are indeed trotting out the same tunes.
Certainly the media is definitely to blame for much of this default ‘us’ versus ‘them’ stuff. Journalists allowing politicians no time to think before leaping to the next question. Interviewers treating every question as if it hangs alone rather than being part of a pretty complex political tapestry. Inducing blind panic from a politician rather seems to be the goal of the inquisitor. Little wonder that our politicians resort to well worn clichés, insults, or selectively misleading stats. PMQs is the tip of the iceberg with modern politics, not the whole problem.
And so amidst the white noise, the Good Right should be praised for trying to make that side of the political spectrum actually think about its raison d’etre in the modern world. In a period of #longtermeconomicplan and ‘Red Ed’ stuff from the right, that’s no bad thing. But it should also be a call to arms for the left. Ed Miliband is often held up as a geeky wonk – if anything, a bit more consideration of what a future Miliband administration has as its topline goal might not have hurt. But we are where we are.
So much of the modern left combines pretty cringeworthy networking and engaging in ‘valuable conversations’ with the same fifteen members of the twitterati rather than actually taking a hard line on something substantial and sticking to your guns. In that sense, oddly, Labour remains more conservative than the Conservatives.
Let’s be clear: if Labour win they will naturally be buoyed and change will happen. But if they rest on their laurels in government, the Conservatives elect someone not typically Tory as leader, and a Good Right focused Conservative Party is able to draw ex-UKIPers back to the fold, 2020 may be a very different matter. The Good Right may arrive just too late to stop Miliband gaining power, but it might just tip him out of Number 10 in five years time.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.