He might not know it, but Matthew D’Ancona is – at least if you are a Labour supporter – one of the most dangerous men in Britain. That’s because, along with other journalists like Danny Finkelstein, Ian Birrell, and Peter Oborne, think-tankers-cum-bloggers like David Skelton, Ryan Shorthouse and Fiona Melville, the loaded Lord, Michael Ashcroft, and the much-misunderstood Tim Montgomerie – he’s determined to ensure that David Cameron doesn’t allow Ed Miliband to get away with his attempt to steal the one nation label from the Tories.
Worse, the above-named are determined to do this not simply because they’re convinced that letting go of the label without a fight would be a strategic mistake, but because they actually believe in one nation conservatism – or at least what is commonly understood by that term.
This is not the place for an argument about its real meaning. We could talk at length about how it half-originated in a novel by Disraeli, and about how it was later co-opted by Baldwin to help delegitimise the labour movement before being borrowed by people like Macleod and Powell, both of whom believed that the party could and should reconcile itself to the welfare state by insisting on it being means-tested rather than rooted in the universalism beloved of Labour’s left-wingers. We could show, too, given sufficient space, how ‘wets’ like Ian Gilmour hijacked the term to distinguish his brand of centrist conservatism from what he saw as the excessively harsh, economically damaging, and socially divisive version on offer from Margaret Thatcher.
It is quicker instead to quote from D’Ancona’s recent analysis of the lessons for British politics of Obama’s victory over Romney – an article whose last paragraph, in particular, sums up the continuing power (and, indeed, the poetry) that the one nation ideal still possesses for many Conservatives:
“Business has many lessons for government. But they are not co-terminous. There are grave limits to treating a nation as if it were a corporation, to reducing citizenship to consumerism, to celebrating only the private sector. Patriotism is as much about generosity to our fellow countrymen as it is about bashing Brussels. Public service creates wealth, too: the wealth of decency and compassion. The Conservative party – not Cameron, but the movement he leads – sometimes forgets this. Let Romney’s defeat waken them from their sleep.”
This, then, is the authentic voice of 21st century Toryism as opposed to the desiccated, laissez-faire liberalism that – implicitly or explicitly – now defines conservatism for far too many people within the party. It is pragmatic where they are ideological, sceptical where they are zealous, open-hearted where they are small-minded, moderate where they are extreme.
In other words, it is exactly like many of the voters that the party either needs to hold onto following the general election or else failed to win over in the first place – the very same voters that Ed Miliband is targeting with his raid.
No-one is saying that D’Ancona and co., by themselves, have the power to ensure that Miliband is unsuccessful. But they shouldn’t be underestimated. Contemporary parties are made up not just of what political scientists like to call the party on the ground, the party in central office and the party in public office – the grassroots, the professionals, and the MPs, MEPs and local councillors. A fourth and equally vital component is ‘the party in the media’ – the columnists (and now the bloggers, too) whose words can count just as much with the leadership as the pressure coming from the constituency associations, from CCHQ and from the parliamentary party.
As such, they stand at least a chance of making up for the fact that – institutionally speaking – there is little or nothing left of the Tory left, of reminding Cameron (along with his chief pollster Andrew Cooper) that shifting right is not the way to win an election.
The space available to Labour, then, depends at least in part on their success. That said, their willingness to press their case with Cameron may in part depend upon the extent to which Ed Miliband is able to prove that his commitment to one nation is more than simply rhetoric and is instead capable of breathing life into and pulling together an agenda that at the moment remains at best diffuse and at worse utterly incapable of coherent articulation.
One of the frequently-forgotten keys to Margaret Thatcher’s capture of Downing Street in 1979 was the way in which she, along with those around her, made a conscious effort to persuade those who are sometimes dismissed as ‘the chattering classes’ that the Conservatives had both a diagnosis and a prescription that, while contestable, at least deserved to be taken seriously. However indirectly, that view eventually filtered down to the man and woman in the street.
The chances of Miliband convincing any of the people I’ve just mentioned to ‘come out for Labour’ by the next election are vanishingly small. But he (particularly if the right wing of the Conservative party also does its worst) may be able to do something to shake their faith that there is no alternative. Because of the knock-on effect any such shaking of their faith may have on Cameron’s electoral strategy, that in itself, would be no small victory. There is therefore no time to waste.