On Monday Michael Gove gave a speech in which he hammered Labour over their links with the Unite union and savaged their mischief-maker Charlie Wheelan. The attack on what is being called ‘Labour’s New Militant tendancy’ got a fair amount of media coverage. For me though, the really interesting bit of Gove’s speech was the level of empathy aimed at the ‘New Labour’ voter. I’ll quote a bit from the start:
“Once or twice in a generation, we have watershed elections – where the future direction of the country depends on the outcome. It happened in 1945 – when people chose to build a new Jerusalem on the rock of social solidarity rather than individual freedom.It happened in 1979 – when people decisively rejected the corporatist model that had dragged down the British economy and chose a new way based on free enterprise, low taxes and union reform. And it happened in 1997 – when people were inspired by a message that politics could be different; that wealth and fairness could go hand-in-hand.”
Stating the obvious two of these three watershed elections were Conservative defeats. What is interesting is that in Gove’s language there is no hint or suggestion that the public were wrong in ’45 or ’97 – just a calm acknowledgement of the choice they made and why they made it. In other words ’empathy’.
He then ratcheted up even more of this ’empathy’ – in a way that borders on outright worship for Blair as he drills down into the reasons for Labour’s appeal in ’97
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour leadership gradually came to realise that the changes of the Thatcher revolution were irreversible, because the British people did not want to reverse them. We did not want to go back to nationalised monopolies, class warfare, industrial strife and an economy defined by high inflation, higher interest rates and higher debt.
An increasingly classless Britain wanted a lifestyle which transcended class division – based on aspiration, freedom, opportunity – all found in the new market economy. Tony Blair understood this – and it is why he went to such great lengths, and fought some considerable battles, to change his party.
And he goes on. You can read the whole speech here and I recommend you do so. I know that many Conservatives will be deeply uncomfortable with a lot of what he says – such acknowledgement of any of Blair’s achievements will not sit well with many. Stick with him though – you can learn from the way Blair won the electorate over without admiring what he did with the power he won. Fundamentally, Blair managed to appeal to people’s core conservative values without being lumbered down by ‘nasty party’ baggage.
The Conservative Party have no divine right to reclaim the vote of those who left them in ’97. It is a two part equation; Labour have to lose them (check) then the Conservatives must win them back (still to play for). These folk still need to be convinced and the argument still has to be won. But winning any argument is always so much easier when you show empathy and understanding first rather than arrogantly asserting your own view point and expecting dissenters to follow. I like the language Gove has chosen in this speech. I hope to hear far more along these lines from the Tory front-bench in the run-up to May 6th. Game on.