Whoever wins, it won’t be a Tory
The Conservative Party's leadership election has been marked by one concession after another to New Labour's agenda of the centre ground.
The Toriezzzz’ leadership election – dead men walking in a ‘race’ to see who will lead this dying party towards the graveyard.
The, err, ‘peculiarities’ of the UK Tory Party membership make it difficult for outsiders like us to be sure what the result of the contest between Kenneth Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith will be. But either way, we can already be pretty certain of the outcome of the next UK general election, at least as far as the Tories are concerned.
As we have argued elsewhere on spiked, the amount of media attention being paid to what is essentially an irrelevant Tory poll reflects an unhealthy attachment to the past, and an unwillingness to face up to how far things have changed since the days when the Conservatives were the ruling party of British capitalism (1). The Tories remain in deep denial of the extent of the crisis they face after another electoral humiliation. They are kidding themselves that a new leader and a better PR image can turn things around – just as they did when they elected William Hague after the 1997 election rout.
I hesitate to join the list of journalists wasting their breath and their computer keyboards analysing the Tory election. After all, to whom does any of this matter in the real world, as opposed to on faraway Planet Tory? Yet there is something significant about the Conservative shenanigans, which highlights a political trend that is evident across the board.
The Tory leadership contest reveals the empty character of what passes for politics today. It is a jockeying for position between personal cliques in which no principle is indispensable and no compromise too great. It confirms that, like New Labour before them, the Tories have ceased to be a political party in any real sense. They stand for nothing except their own survival (and they don’t even seem able to stick together on that little issue).
There has been no distinctive political theme of the Tory contest. Instead it has been marked by one concession after another to New Labour’s agenda of the centre ground. Iain Duncan Smith, supposedly the champion of true Thatcherite ideology, has in fact spent the campaign explaining what he is not: I am not a racist, I am not right wing, I am not a homophobe, etc. To many that sounds like saying, ‘I am not really a Tory’.
For his part, Kenneth Clarke has often sounded like the official New Labour candidate for Conservative leader, pushing Duncan Smith to deny one traditional Tory prejudice after another. Yet Clarke, too, has made important compromises of his own, promising to avoid making a stand within the Tory Party on Europe, the issue that is supposed to define his stance most clearly.
The collapse of Conservatism is graphically illustrated by the flip-flop of somebody like Andrew Lansley MP, a member of William Hague’s shadow cabinet. In 1995, he suggested that playing the race card would be the best way to beat the new Labour Party leader Tony Blair, since the immigration issue had ‘played particularly well’ for the Tories before and had ‘more potential to hurt’. In the current leadership campaign, by contrast, the same Lansley has complained to the UK Daily Telegraph that the Tories are guilty of ‘endemic racism’ and need to learn to respect other cultures if they are to win elections.
The spinelessness evident in Tory ranks is not simply caused by weak characters in the Conservative Party (although there certainly appears to be no shortage of them). It is a dominant trait of the new politics across the developed world, where compromise is the norm and nobody seems willing or able to hold the line on anything.
Even where a conflict seems clear-cut today, such as that between the anti-capitalist protesters and the suits of the World Bank hiding behind the barbed wire, a closer look will reveal that they share a surprising amount of common ground. Former US President Bill Clinton had a point when he said that the Seattle protesters should be inside the conference hall arguing their case (2).
The barren centre ground where the political charade is played out in the UK today is the natural terrain of New Labour. That is why, whoever wins the Tory contest, Blair will not be the loser. It is also why talk of the Liberal Democrats challenging the Tories as the natural party of opposition may not be entirely far-fetched.
Some politicians and commentators who hated the Tories when they were in power can now be heard worrying about the party’s problems, insisting that we need a proper Tory Party to make democratic politics work. Why? What we need is surely something to shake the moribund political system and put some meaning back into democracy by offering people a choice.
The drawn-out death throes of the old Tory Party symbolise the demise of politics as we once knew it. Now we need to start anew, with the kind of critical thinking that can begin to create a new agenda for social change – one that is uncompromising in its defence of the principle of progress.
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