Tuesday, May 22, 2007

In with the new, but watch out for the old

Blair's first years as Labour leader were often about the burial of sacred cows, the rejection of shibboleths of the Labour Party, often symbolic notions rather than policy determinants, in order to clearly delineate New Labour from the party that had gone before. The whole notion of New Labour was predicated on the idea of creating a modern party in touch with modern society.
Cameron's mission for the Conservative party seems the same. At times he seems to have dared the traditionalists to rebel, such as promoting same sex marriages in his first conference speech as leader. However, largely the outward promotion of all things new has been in terms of style, logo and the shift towards environmentalism. However his attack on grammar schools as an idea seems to have become Cameron's clause 4. He argues it to be a principle not a policy, he virtually accused adherents of living in fantasy land and today he took his attack a step further. Talking on BBC Radio 4, he argued that sections of the party were: "clinging on to outdated mantras that bear no relation to the reality of life". "I'm determined to do what's right for my party and the country" he declared, and in declaring his position as leader: "I lead. I don't follow my party; I lead them." Strong stuff indeed, and as Nick Robinson notes goes to heart of a problem for the Conservative Party, who is it they represent and what advantages are they seeking by voting Conservative.

But a problem looms for Cameron. As with Blair many in the party may follow him as he promises an election victory, and if he can deliver that there will be a degree of acquiescence. But if the party moves too far from the principles members hold dear then he can expect rebellions. In discussing the process by which parties build themselves as an electable package, Jennifer Lees-Marshment argues an important stage is adjusting the policy package to suit internal opinion; Blair failed to do this and largely ran roughshod over party member's opinion if they did match the New Labour template of ideas. Cameron may do the same, and if he wins the next election, but without the thumping majority Blair gained in 1997 and 2001, will the party stay with him all the way? It is a big question, and thus selling changes as 'its what the people want, so trust me and I'll get you elected' is a highly risky strategy in the long term.

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