On one level democratic politics will almost always be about preference and rarely about choice. No party leader is ever likely to campaign for a programme of providing poorer public services and incompetent government. All politicians espouse that what we all want are more and better paid jobs, good schools, a well funded NHS, safer streets, and a cleaner environment. In the run up to each general election we are told by party leaders - time and time again - that only their policies will help to create a more prosperous and secure Britain, that only they can lead our nation toward a brighter, safer future.
In many ways political cross-dressing has dominated British politics for the past decade. Ever since Tony Blair and Gordon Brown created new Labour’s big tent and then set about erecting it firmly on the campsite of the middle ground political commentators have been arguing that both ideologically and practically, little now divides the two main parties in Britain. In today’s media dominated campaigning it is very easy for core political messages to become blurred and understandable that the electorate is often left wondering as to what are the real differences between the major parties. The confusion is exacerbated when we are consistently told that new Labour is ‘Thatcherism with a human face’ and that David Cameron is the ‘heir to Blair’.
Not any more. Whether people like to admit it or not the truth is that under Gordon Brown Labour is beginning to articulate a very different view (in contrast to that of the Tory party) about how best we set about creating a fairer and safer Britain. A Labour party led by Gordon Brown wants to build a country that encourages shared responsibility and promotes shared opportunities for all, a country that will foster increased global cooperation, a country that will act alone only when it must. Brown’s first months as leader and Prime Minister have shown that he is determined to give people the tools and conditions to make the most of their lives – he and his government will continue to offer the hand-up and not just the hand-out.
In contrast, David Cameron’s Tory party (and particularly his parliamentary party) is increasingly becoming populated by the ‘right kind of people’, his people – ex-public school and from a background of immense privilege. Cameron’s Tory party is not obsessed by ideology, rather it is fundamentally pragmatic; it will act unilaterally when it can (for example on Europe) and cooperate when it has to (for example on trade or climate change). Under Cameron the Tories still believe that the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their political, their economic, and their social views. One bit of ideology that Cameron does subscribe to is the idea that social responsibility means the state doing less. Tories, instinctively, want to shrink the state, they want fewer civil servants and a revival of old fashioned ‘business philanthropy’ and charity-sector work to plug any future gaps in state provision. Gordon Brown sees the role of the state very differently. He proposes a state that is very much engaged in social affairs, a state that intervenes when it must but where encouragement and incentives are the norm.
Now that Brown is becoming more established at No 10 the battle lines for the next general election are slowly emerging - once defined they will offer the British people, for the first time in over a decade, a real choice about the future direction of Britain.