Sunday, 17 January 2010

Doubting Dave

It is sometimes argued that the only thing Dave Cameron cares about is getting the Conservatives back into office. There is no doubt that he does genuinely believe that the Conservatives would do a better job than Labour and some people might think that was not too difficult.

I always thought that one of the keys to understanding Tony Blair was his religious beliefs, caught so effectively in Private Eye's 'Vicar of St. Albions' series which also featured characters such as 'Mr Prescott from the working man's club.' Blair still makes the occasional appearance as head of an ecumenical organisation called DAFT.

In my view Blair was the most devoutly religious prime minister we have had since Gladstone. Sensitive biographers like Antony Seldon, surely one of our outstanding chroniclers of modern British politics, picked up on this. Students were always more sceptical, but I think that some of his behaviour on Iraq could be seen as a misconceived moral crusade.

Dave Cameron is a doubting high church Anglican, but I think that some of the ideas he really cherishes stem from his beliefs. Whether they make good policy is another question.

As a general narrative, Dave emphasises the 'broken Britain' thesis. I would agree with him when he says that people should not expect government to sort out all their problems and that local communities should do more for themselves. However, that is easier in some communities than others and often a lot depends on one or two dedicated individuals with leadership qualities who aren't available everywhere. And if Britain is broken - and I am not sure that I like such negative messages - I am not sure that government can put it back together again (although its actions can have positive or negative effects).

More specifically, Dave wants to support marriage and stable families. In his own life, he has experienced challenges in his family which would test most people. I am not sure I would have coped as well as he has if I had experienced similar circumstances, particularly if I was in public life.

The Conservatives want to use the tax system to support marriage. Personally, I can't see a lot of difference between a long-term stable partnership in which two people are married and one in which they are not. To be fair, Dave's definition of marriage includes civil partnerships and I am quite sure that he is not pursuing any kind of anti-gay agenda.

Some research has now come out under the aegis of the authoritative Institute of Fiscal Studies which suggests that the proposal to introduce a married couple's tax allowance would not achieve the party's goal of reducing child poverty. When I looked at this more closely, I found out that the research had actually been carried out by Gingerbread, the one-parent charity. They are a very reputable organisation but, quite legitimately, they have a particular view about family policy. (If you want to look at the study go here: Gingerbread .

Paradoxically, the two Conservative policies I have most reservations about - the marriage tax proposals and the inheritance tax changes - are ones that I (or my estate) would benefit from.

Of course, one can never base a voting decision on particular policies. One has to look at a party's programme in the round, its leaders, its likely competence in office compared to its opponents - and, last but not least, its local candidate. One could vote for a candidate who one would thought would make a good addition to his party's ranks while still having reservations about that party's policies.

What concerns me about the marriage tax proposal is that runs counter to Dave's avowed commitment to modernity. The inheritance tax proposals seem to me to buying into a Daily Mail agenda when the real beneficiaries will not be middle Britain folks whose houses have become worth a lot of money. There may be a case for raising the threshhold, but not as far as £1 million.

Of course, given the state of the public finances, neither policy may be put into effect all that quickly. But symbolism in politics is very important.

Having been somewhat critical of the Conservatives, I must say that Labour strategy seems to be at sixes and sevens or perhaps, to put it more charitably, it is an attempt to appeal to everyone that it is unlikely to succeed. The core vote strategy appears to have gone out of the window for now and an attempt is being made to portray Labour as the party of aspiration and 'middle Britain' which doesn't seem to be very credible to be given that so many 'new' Labour policies have been ditched.

Indeed, Mandy now seems to have come out in favour of an interventionist industrial policy which is surely an abandonment of new Labour's creed as outlined after the election by guru Giddens. But that is for another day.


Anonymous said...

Somewhat off-topic from the post, but in the event of a Conservative victory in the election, do you have a view on whether the Labour Party will have a change of leadership, and who would be best positioned to be leader?

It makes you wonder why someone would want to be leader of a political party at a particular point in time (for instance William Hague in 1997).

Wyn Grant said...

I think a lot depends on how badly Labour lose the election. If it is a hung Parliament, I would not be surprised if Gordon tried to stay on. If there is a contest, a lot depends on the peculiar dynamics of the Labour leadership contest. David Miliband is the Blairite candidate, but his reluctance to use the knife against Gordon has damaged him. I think is brother Ed is actually smarter and more politically savvy. I can see someone like Harriet Harman, who has trade union support but a middle class (well, aristocratic) persona coming through the middle. As for Hague, it clearly came too early for him. But I would not expect a 1997 scale defeat for Labour as the current opinion polls do not show a huge Conservative lead. Cameron is not seen as a saviour in the way that Blair was seen in 1997.

Rob said...

The New Stateman recently published an article saying they think it will be Ed Miliband. I don't think that would be a bad choice. At one time I would have said David but his handling of a very delicate situation during that speech a couple of years ago made me doubt him. If you can remember, Miliband tried to subtly present himself as a candidate leader but came off as being too young and inexperienced. Brown then came on and won the crowds by talking about the country's need for his experience in the recession. Nobody was sure whether Brown was talking in comparison to Miliband or Cameron, but I think it was both. However what's really disspointed me about David has been on foreign affairs. To give one example the British treatment of the Chagossians has been the worst human rights atrocity since the colonial era, and David should be pushing for their repatriation. Instead the situation is allowed to continue because the Chagossian home is deemed militarily useful. This is despite the fact that the people we took from their homes could easily be allowed to live on islands away from the military base. See or

You may be spot on Wyn. If Brown loses only narrowly then he may be tempted to stay on. This would be a mistake in my opinion. Brown is a good analyst, Treasurer, and right hand man. But to be a leader in a modern democracy requires not only the right decisions (which I'm not saying he's making) but inspiration and confidence building. Economists since Milton Friedman have proved how much confidence can effect the markets. I don't see why the Prime Minister should be excluded from the factors impacting on market confidence. Labour would be better looking for someone who can inspire that confidence. And despite the idiocy of the recent call for a secret ballot Hoon and Hewitt did at least have it right that the lack of democracy involved in Brown's election/appointment is a serious worry for voters, particularly those within the party.

Rob (

Wyn Grant said...

I would not disagree and I think Ed Miliband would be a good choice, probably the best one. Whether he could win is another matter.