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Tory Party re-branding comedy

AS A POLITICAL force Britain’s Tory Party has rarely been weaker. Consistently well below New Labour in the opinion polls, recently the main role the Tories have been playing is as a comedy sideshow in the media, distracting attention from the real political debates in Britain.

Can the Tories recover? The ‘modernisers’, with whom Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith appeared to side at their recent conference, are looking for a ‘defining issue’ they can use to stake their claim to the party in the same way as Blair did when he won the battle to delete the Labour Party’s socialist clause four from its constitution.

But in fact this search shows how little even the more far-sighted and flexible Tories understand the roots of their own crisis. Blair fought successfully to complete the transformation of Labour into a centre-right party representing the interests of big business. The scrapping of clause four was a powerful symbol of the huge ideological shift between Labour and ‘New Labour’.

There is no major ideological difference, however, between the different wings of the Tory Party. The arguments between the ‘modernisers’ and the ‘traditionalists’ are a struggle between pragmatic and cynical career politicians who will do or say anything to get back into power, and the unwillingness of many Tory activists and MPs to give up their pet prejudices in order to do so.

There is no substantial ideological difference between the Tory Party and New Labour either. New Labour’s success in stealing and re-packaging Thatcherism is the real root cause of the Tories’ crisis. The unpleasant truth for the Tories is that New Labour is much better at implementing the Tories’ policies than the Tory Party themselves.

This situation has created the current crisis in the Tory Party. Membership is down from 1.5 million in 1975 to around 300,000 today. The average age of Tory Party members is 67 (two thirds of Tory Party member are retired) and half the membership think that the party has no clear direction, according to a recent survey (The Guardian, 7 October). Last year the Tories attracted their lowest vote for decades (8.4 million). There is a clear prospect that Iain Duncan Smith could be challenged as party leader if the Tories lose more than 100 council seats in the local elections next May.

At the recent Tory Party conference, Duncan Smith and members of the Tory shadow cabinet unveiled their plan for a new ‘compassionate Conservatism’. Oliver Letwin, shadow home secretary, attacked his Labour counter-part David Blunkett for "giving ground to the extremists" and "fanning the flames" of far-right politicians with his stance on asylum: "he is playing with fire… how do you explain the fact that at the last election we [the Tories] had the strongest language on asylum in this generation and very strong language on Europe and we were annihilated". Letwin added: "We are not going to talk that way. We are not going to demonise asylum-seekers" (The Guardian, 10 October).

David Willetts, Tory shadow secretary for work and pensions, announced that "we are concentrating our attention on how we can best help vulnerable people… the Tory war on lone parents is over… too often [lone parents] are struggling in a hostile environment. When they are not being ignored, they are being blamed" (Financial Times, 10 October). At the same time, though, he threw a crust to the Tory old guard by emphasising that he thought the evidence that children did better when brought up by their two parents in a stable marriage was ‘overwhelming’.

Ironically, while Duncan Smith and his shadow cabinet were trying to establish their new credentials as campaigners for social justice, the Tory leader was also pledging to continue the ‘unfinished Thatcher revolution’ that consistently attacked single parents, asylum-seekers, the welfare state and everything else that the Tories now ‘care’ about so deeply.

The Tory leader is desperately trying to hold his party together. The ‘modernisers’ hope to achieve a symbolic sacrifice – whether this is the feverishly-discussed idea of expelling the former Thatcher cabinet member, Norman Tebbit, or disciplinary action against a slightly lower-profile Tory supporter (such as Jim Davidson, the ‘comedian’, who joked at a Tory fund-raising dinner that he hoped the East European waiters had not had too far to walk from the Channel tunnel). But this type of ‘defining issue’, while it wouldn’t have the impact of the scrapping of clause four, would risk a split in the Tory Party. If the ‘modernisers’ – the ones prepared to say anything to get closer to power – are to succeed in their attempts to ‘re-brand’ then a split may be necessary. But at the moment they still appear to be clinging to the idea that they can recreate the Tory Party of the past and this ties them to the ‘traditionalists’.

The core Tory vote is still solid, which gives them an advantage in the increasing number of elections where turnout is low. This was the secret of their ‘successes’ in the 1999 Euro elections and again in this year’s local elections, when they recorded a higher national share of the vote than the Labour Party.

In some areas Tory candidates have got good election results by rejecting traditional Tory ideas and running an unashamedly populist campaign, like Stephen Norris in the 2000 election for the London mayor. His campaign openly criticised ‘party politics’, cashing in on the cynicism towards the main three parties, praised the multicultural nature of London, and supported gay rights. In the current fragmented political scene, where traditional voter allegiances are breaking down, this type of campaign can gain an echo.

The Tories have shown some glimmers of a new populist approach that could tap some of the discontent against New Labour. Their attack on Labour’s proposal to limit council tenants’ ‘right to buy’ their homes in London and the South East, for example, were effectively done. Labour, who have been forcing through the selling off of remaining council housing stocks to housing associations and trying to introduce ‘market rents’ into social housing have suddenly found a form of privatisation they oppose: one where working class people can buy their homes at affordable prices, instead of public funds being used to subsidise the profits of private companies.

While the Tories’ plans (to open up the right to buy for more housing association tenants) are not any kind of solution to the housing crisis, these type of criticisms can strike a chord with a layer. The Tories succeeded for a few moments in posing as the champions of ordinary people in a way that they haven’t managed for a long time.

Even anti-corporate rhetoric has made a brief appearance, though tinged with nationalism. In an article in The Spectator John Hayes, Tory shadow agriculture minister, attacked "soulless and rootless big businesses [which] demonstrate little loyalty to local producers and only the minimum necessary commitment to consumers. The ubiquity fostered by multinationals is an aesthetic disaster" (12 October).

But is the Tory Party nationally capable of adapting into a new populist opposition to New Labour? The chances are very slim. Most of the Tory activists are too attached to their outdated world-view to connect to the discontent many people feel under New Labour, particularly among younger voters of whom only 18% are prepared to vote Tory.

Most of the 25 new policies unveiled with much fuss at Tory Party conference are open attempts to subsidise the private sector in health and education at the expense of public services. The idea of government ‘contributions’ towards the cost of private operations, for example, only serves as a reminder of the Tories’ privatisation policies. The class hatred felt towards the Tories is still an extremely strong obstacle to their recovery and these policies won’t help.

There are two likely directions in which the Tory Party could develop: the populist (socially liberal but economically pro-capitalist) approach outlined above; or by moving further right and appealing to ‘Little Englander’ nationalism, racism and other reactionary moods, competing with the far-right for votes. But unless they split it will be virtually impossible for one wing within the Tory Party to silence the other. Until the Tories resign themselves to their reduced importance within the establishment in Britain and split, the suppressed civil war within their party is likely to continue to tear them to bits in public.

Naomi Byron


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