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Friday, 9 October 2009

9 October 2009

Now that the party conferences are over for another year, let’s play Let’s Pretend.

Let’s pretend we’ve already had the general election – and let’s pretend that the Conservatives have won.

So David Cameron is in Downing Street. And let’s pretend that he invites a few EU leaders over for tea. There’ll be Nicolas Sarkozy from France, Angela Merkel from Germany, Silvio Berlusconi from Italy (well, if he’s still around by then), and maybe Donald Tusk from Poland and Fredrik Reinfeldt from Sweden as well.

What do they all have in common? They’re each and every one of them leaders of centre-right parties – and even if they were joined round the Downing Street dining room table by the leaders of Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria, they’d still all share the same basic political philosophy.

Europe is now an overwhelmingly centre-right place to be. Of the major EU countries, only Spain bucks the trend: there, the Socialists were comfortably re-elected last year even as the country was in the grip of a very nasty recession. (The left has also just regained power in Greece.)

So here’s the question: why, at a time when capitalism and free market economies are going through a major crisis, are left-of-centre parties being defeated again and again?

In the past, wouldn’t they have been leading the charge against an economic system that has brought so much turbulence and uncertainty – and often real financial hardship as well – to so many millions of lives?

Last week, at the Labour party conference in Brighton, I heard Gordon Brown talk about how Labour would look after ordinary, hard-working, middle class families. This week, I heard David Cameron talk about how the Tories’ top priority is to look after the poorest people in Britain.

And I was tempted to look for a mirror, because I found myself wondering if politics is now reversing itself. And if so, why? Might it be that one reason why left-of-centre parties aren’t doing better during the current crisis is that they’re no longer saying the sort of things they used to say? And that centre-right parties are saying what centre-left parties used to say?

Or do voters take the view that if you need someone to sort out a capitalist mess, you’d better get people who really understand capitalism to do it? Or was Francis Fukuyama really on to something when he suggested that the end of Communism in Europe meant the end of history?

Some political writers have been arguing for years now that the terms “right” and “left” no longer mean much. But there clearly are still real differences in how political parties look at the world: David Cameron says, as Ronald Reagan used to say, that Big Government is the Big Problem; Gordon Brown says that although he accepts that governments should never try to do what they can’t do, they should never fail to do what they need to do.

There have, of course, been major social and economic changes throughout Europe over the past 30 years. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in traditional heavy industries like steel-making, coal-mining and ship-building have gone, and with them has gone the central role of trades unions and their political party allies.

So I’m not surprised that the shape of politics has changed too. But I do think it’s interesting to look at our forthcoming election battle through a European prism. The UK is no stranger to bucking European trends, so I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that because the left is in retreat across much of the European continent, it will head in the same direction on this side of the Channel.

But in our game of Let’s Pretend, if David Cameron does find himself hosting that Downing Street tea party, he’ll know that – Lisbon Treaty or no Lisbon Treaty – he just may have been part of a political transition that extends well beyond our shores.

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