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Talking Cameron and Obama with US Democrats. Progressive Convervatism? No, he can’t

Posted on 16 October 2009 | 10:10am

To a meeting of US Democrats Abroad last night, to be interviewed by Catherine Mayer of Time magazine, then by the audience.

Always interesting to get the take of politically minded foreigners on our domestic scene, and there was more evidence, admittedly from generally Labour-minded people, that the Tories are weaker than is generally assumed. More frustration too, particularly at the drinks do afterwards, that Labour was not doing more to attack those weaknesses, and exploit the government’s many strengths, on the record and on policy in particular.

An interesting question in the q and a from a man who asked if I had noticed that the Tories seemed to be modelling claims to be ‘progressive Conservatives’ on the Bush Republican Party’s trumpeting of  ‘compassionate Conservatism’.

Yes I had noticed. I remember once seeing Bill Clinton doing a brilliant speech on compassionate Conservatism. I don’t recall the exact words, but it was on the lines of ‘we’re really going to care when we lose you your job. When you can’t get health care, your pain is our pain.’

Progressive Conservatism is modelled in much the same way. In his conference speech, without a single thought through policy proposal to substantiate the claims, David Cameron said the Tories were the Party of the NHS and the Party of the poor. Such positions, if true, would indeed amount to progressive Conservatism. But they are not true. They are positioning statements backed up by nothing.

At two different events yesterday, I asked the audience what they thought of when I said the words Cameron and environment. The answers are nearly always the same – in this order … pictures with huskies at the Arctic, bike followed by car, wind turbine on house, new logo that is based on a tree. All image. But when you ask anyone for his policy on climate change – a progressive cause – nobody has a clue. Because he doesn’t have a clue. Because he doesn’t have a policy.

On Europe, how can it be progressive to forego relations with mainstream leaders of France and Germany in favour of his ragbag of racists and homophobes?

And on tax, at a time of recession, how can it be progressive to have as your number one commitment an inheritance tax cut for the 3000 wealthiest estates in the country? As I said last night, I remain genuinely perplexed as to why their commitment is so unshakeable when they must be aware through their polling of the potential political damage. I wonder if the explanation might be that the policy was the demand of some of his major donors.

So progressive he most certainly is not. His Conference speech showed that, with the loathing of government the key theme, commitment to social justice largely based on Labour policies his polling clearly showed to be too popular to undo.

Interesting too to get the take of Democrats Abroad on where Obama is politically these days. Catherine Mayer told me of a poll apparently showing that Hillary Clinton is now more popular than the President. She asked, based on my having travelled with TB as he went from stratospheric popularity to something closer to normal politics, what advice I would give about how to handle the journey.

Yet my sense is that Obama remains hugely popular by comparison with most leaders and politicians. Look at the pictures today of him being greeted by kids in New Orleans. Catherine asked the audience if she felt politics was more or less polarised than pre-election, and they clearly felt the answer was more. Part of the answer to that is that the Right tends to be noisier, nastier and more unscurpulous about claims it makes, and that is certainly the case in the US.

So the most important thing is to keep on keeping on with the policy agenda, and keep on explaining the values underpinning the decisions. He has a big basket of big issues to deal with – the global economy, his health reforms, climate change, Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process going through another very rocky phase, plenty more besides. In every decision he makes, there will be some who won’t like it. But there will be others who respond to clear and principled leadership. And when all is said and done, what he does is more important than what is said about it in a poll that will be long forgotten when the impact of what he does is felt.

  • Carla Mellor

    This is all so true, and I keep hearing and reading it from you, but apart from an occasional blow landing from Prezza, there is next to no attack on the Tories. I mean attack that results in political damage, and a reawakening of the scrutiny they should be under. I know it is difficult when the focus is all expenses etc, but it is not impossible. In my local party -West Midlands -there is lots of grassroots activity but in terms of overall campaigning we feel a lack of direction from the top. I agree with you it is still a fight to be won, but there is not much time and we need our ministers and MPs to show some bloody fight

  • Harriet P

    Obama is wonderful, and all the attacks born of right-wing anger at not being in power.

  • Malcolm Perks

    Afghanistan is Obama’s biggest challenge, and though the key challenges are military and political, a lot of this is about managing the communications on a global scale. I read your diaries and what the Americans need to do is apply some of the co-ordination lessons you implemented for Kosovo and after September 11.

  • Pearl

    Very much enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the varied political issues brought up at this event last evening. I was particularly interested in the discussion about the public’s view of David Cameron vs Gordon Brown and I’m glad you mentioned it in your blog. In a climate of empty celebs famous only for their exteriors, I’m curious how much weight those around Gordon Brown put on his public image. On one of his recent appearances he appeared to have Vaseline smudged across his teeth (that old pageant trick to remind contestants to keep smiling). As you’re someone whose job it is to understand public perceptions, I wonder how you feel about his people trying to put across this cartoon Brown image?

    I also find it interesting how protective David Cameron is about his public image to the point that he won’t join public network pages such as Twitter. After his infamous “too many twits might make a tw*t” comment, he only reinforces that he is completely rehearsed in everything he puts across to the public and couldn’t “tweet” because his real and unrehearsed opinions could damage him. Surely the public want a leader who can handle a crisis, not someone who has to refer to their “How to be a Good Prime Minister” manual in a crisis…

  • Em

    I understand the skepticism at the term progressive conservatism but the term can have substance. Here in Canada, before the Tories meshed with the Reform Party (very right wing with BNP tendencies) in the nineties, the Tories were called the Progressive Conservatives and it was a term which, at least here, had real meaning. It arched back to old British Toryism that seek and balance between individual and collective rights.

    Instead of appealing to a form of conservatism that refers to Bush, shouldn’t Cameron try to connect back to that older (if paternalistic and moralistic) from of British Tory tradition rather than look to Bush?

    Of course, no “kind” form of conservatism is conciliable with his policies and you are right to point this out.

  • Rich H

    Is there any chance you’d go back to the ‘old-job’?

  • J Palmer

    Growing up, my mother always said that compassionate Conservatism was like having fluffy cushions on the electric chair. Being progressive is directly at odds with being Conservative – the Tories must be having quite a idealogical war behind the scenes between moving forward and traditionalism. Either that, or as is probably the case, “Progressive Conservatism” is just a meaningless phrase to boost their image. Unfortunately, people and the press appear to be drinking up this PR exercise.