Is David Cameron a progressive? Discuss…

by Stephen Tall on January 23, 2009

There’s some coverage today of David Cameron’s speech to the left-of-centre Demos think-tank yesterday, in which he set out how the Tory party under his leadership would follow a progressive agenda. You can read the BBC report here, and the speech in full here.

I’ll pick up two points. The first is made by Mary Wakefield over at the Spectator’s Coffee House blog, in which she praises Tory education policy but warns Mr Cameron against appearing a one-trick pony:

… when education came up during the Q and A (after an hour of generalised and fairly soporific Burkean rhetoric) Cameron’s whole demeanor changed. He had actual, even workable, policies to communicate (courtesy of the excellent Gove) and he was suddenly charismatic, believable — even a little Obama-ish?

But having energised his audience, DC’s lack of anything concrete to say on any other subject became all too woefully apparent: no economic policy but sneering at Brown’s debt; nothing on Health but a fondness for the NHS…and the speed with which he scampered away from a question about foreign policy — progressive or otherwise– was embarrassing.

This strikes me as a real danger for the Tories. Indeed, if I were a [shudders] Labour party strategist [/shudders] this is one of the key considerations which would lead me to urge Gordon Brown to call an election for June 2009. The plain fact is that the Tories are not yet remotely ready for government (just as Mr Blair would have struggled – even more than he did – to present Labour as a government-in-waiting in spring 2006).

And if you look at the quality of the Lib Dem shadow cabinet members in key policy areas – folk like Chris Huhne, David Laws, Norman Lamb, Steve Webb – and compare it with their Tory counterparts, I know whose line-up I have more confidence in.

The second point is this: Mr Cameron regularly makes the point that his ‘progressive Tories’ will decentralise decision-making: “the modern Conservative approach is a belief that we achieve progressive aims through decentralising responsibility and power to individuals, communities and civic institutions” and “the bold steps we intend to take in decentralising responsibility and power” etc.

The words are good. The problem is (i) that’s not what the Tories did when they were in power in the 1980-90s, and (ii) it’s not what they’re actually promising to be about now.

Let’s take one example: the so-called ‘bin tax’, the proposal that local councils might charge residents for their rubbish by weight/volume. It doesn’t matter whether you think the idea is mad or brilliant. One thing is very clear to Lib Dems: it should be for local councils to decide what they do, in consultation with their local communities. Not the Tories – here’s what their new chairman Eric Pickles said last month:

A Conservative government would change Whitehall policy so that there is an expectation that councils should offer full weekly collections, reversing the Labour policy.

So there you have it: the Tory plan for decentralisation is that councils would be expected to follow Tory Whitehall policy, rather than Labour Whitehall policy.

It looks like Mr Cameron has a bit of a job on his hands persuading the rest of us that his party genuinely understands what it means to be progressive.