Monday, 12 October 2009

No policy in Cameron’s speech

David Cameron’s speech to Conservative Party Conference last week was notably light on detail and policy – but full of tough talk and aspirational dialogue.

He wants to be taken seriously as a potential Prime Minister and was keen to talk about Labour’s failures and “broken” Britain, which he contrasted with Tory “compassion” and his vision to “put Britain back on her feet”.

Mr Cameron’s speech was packed with emotive soundbytes but the frustrating lack of detailed policy suggests that perhaps his ideas to turn the country’s fortunes around are perhaps not quite as well developed as his populist rhetoric.

Mr Cameron said some positive things in his speech. For example, he expressed support for civil partnerships, the minimum wage and devolution – Labour achievements that the Tories have voted against and derided in the past. As if anxious to prove that the Tories have changed, he talked about “community”, “family” and “responsibility”. In an apparent move towards the Conservatism of the pre-Thatcher years, he seemed to promise a more caring, one-nation, Conservative Britain.

Like Churchill, Mr Cameron was keen to focus on his personality, urging people to back him even if they harboured doubts about his party. Unlike Churchill, Mr Cameron wasn’t quite so keen to talk about how he plans to actually deliver the promised changes.

On social mobility, he criticised Labour’s inaction in reducing inequality and said “I want every child to have the chances that I had... Birth [should never be] a barrier” Fine sentiment, with which I completely agree. How he’s going to make a positive contribution to ending such inequalities, however, he didn’t care to tell us. He spoke about the need for “communities to govern themselves”, for “families [to] come first” and for “children to grow up with security and love”. An obvious attempt to reach out to the voters of middle Britain – but how do the Conservatives plan to bring about this brave new Britain? Mr Cameron didn’t say.

In between attacks on Labour, Mr Cameron was keen to talk about responsibility (something he mentioned 29 times). He was in his element when talking about the need for economic responsibility, and promised a Conservative government would reverse “the steady erosion of responsibility” under Labour. “We [have to] face up to some big problems” said Mr Cameron. “The highest budget deficit since the war. The deepest recession since the war. Social breakdown; political disillusionment. Big problems for the next government to address.” Quite. But how he intends to address them is anyone’s guess. He didn’t want to say.

Another word Mr Cameron used a great deal was “broken”. If the Tories want to describe anything at the moment, it seems they have to call it “broken”. “Why is our society broken?” asked Mr Cameron. “Because government got too big, did too much and undermined responsibility” was his straight-to-the-point answer. I’m not convinced that society is actually as broken as Mr Cameron imagines, but even accepting this, it is hardly responsible to reduce complex questions of social policy to simple criticisms of government approach. Progressive social change requires more than a change of government. It certainly requires a bit more than a Tory leader patronisingly helping the feckless poor to be responsible.

I was pleased to hear talk of “stronger communities”, although there was no discussion as to how to actually make our communities stronger and more empowered. I was also interested to hear that Mr Cameron believed that it should be a priority to “get a grip on [the country’s] debt.” He explained that it was vital to do this “ in a way that brings the country together instead of driving it apart... The longer we wait for a credible plan, the bigger the bill for our children to pay.” What Mr Cameron didn’t manage to come up with was a credible plan.

He did suggest that new businesses and entrepreneurship should be encouraged, and proposed that the Bank of England should be handed back its regulation powers. But that seemed to be the sum of the Tories’ plan to “get Britain back on its feet.”

Mr Cameron referred to his party’s plans to reduce dependency on welfare. “If you really cannot work, we'll look after you. But if you can work, you should work and not live off the hard work of others” he said. While I don’t disagree with the need to prevent people falling into the “poverty trap” and becoming dependent on benefits, I find his use of such inflammatory language socially irresponsible. Very many people on benefits have no wish to be living off others and would welcome the opportunity to be free of welfare if only there were the opportunities to do so – I should know, I’ve lived on handouts and hated it.

There was talk of the Tories being “the party of the NHS” (but nothing on health policy). There was highly-charged talk about “a breakdown of morality” (but no mention of policy on justice). Mr Cameron talked of the need for the Tories to “lead the world in saving our planet”. But sadly no mention of any plans or environmental policies.

On the basis of their leader’s speech, the Tories are even more bankrupt of ideas than the tired Labour government. They seem happy to cynically manipulate public opinion with highly-charged and emotive language; happy to describe our communities as “broken” but less eager to actually tell us how they plan to turn things around. The Lib Dems’ Danny Alexander was critical of the "huge gulf between the sunny rhetoric of David Cameron and the grim reality of Tory policy". I can’t disagree.

“It’s your character, your temperament and your judgment that count so much more than your policies and your manifesto” said Mr Cameron, whose judgment was so clearly evident in the Tories’ refusal to support the government’s partial nationalisation of the banks. Cameron clearly recognises that Tory policies will not win him the election and prefers instead to rely on his personal character. Yet another victory for style over substance.

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