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Tory Party: change the record

All of the wannabe leaders agree that the party needs to change - but into what, and why?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

One c-word is being used more than any other at the Tory Party conference in Blackpool this week. Not ‘conservatism’, though there have been tortured debates about what kind of conservatism the Conservatives should espouse, whether capital-C, small-C, compassionate, modern or traditional; and not the other c-word you might be tempted to use to describe a bunch of Tories at a seaside resort. No, the c-word they’re all spouting is ‘change’.

This year’s conference coincides with a party leadership contest that has barely got the membership fired up, never mind the rest of us. And those aspiring to be leader seem to be competing to see who can say the Tories need to change most vociferously and most often. David Cameron, the 38-year-old shadow education secretary, used the c-word 11 times in his speech, and even came up with a new slogan: ‘Changing our party to change the country.’ One-time frontrunner David Davis, the shadow home secretary, declared, ‘We need to agree on change – but we don’t need a collective nervous breakdown’ (those are the choices?). Party chairman Francis Maude spelled out even more starkly the choice facing the Conservatives when he said the party had to ‘change or die’ (1). (Ken Clarke was the only aspiring leader who didn’t mention the c-word, perhaps keen to live up to his media image as a bit of a traditionalist who likes a cigar and doesn’t suffer faddish thinking gladly.)

In their clamour to utter the c-word, the wannabe leaders overlook a couple of facts: first, the Tories have changed – quite dramatically – over the past 10 years, and it hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to their fortunes; and second, when you make a project of change – ‘to exchange or replace for another’ – you are supposed to have some idea of what you want to change into, and why. Not the Tories.

Change – at least as a word if not a discernible strategy – has been the key feature of Tory party conferences since the drubbing they received at the hands of New Labour in the 1997 General Election. It is now four (long) years since William Hague, leader of the party from 1997 to 2001, said it is ‘vital for leaders to listen and parties to change’. In 2002, then leader Iain Duncan Smith acknowledged that the Tories had caused ‘hurt and anger’ to many people and said the party had to ‘change to meet [new] challenges’. In the same year, then party chairwoman Teresa May famously said the Tories were seen as ‘the nasty party’ and said members had to do an ‘enormous amount to change a party which has suffered two landslide defeats’ (2).

The Tories have gone to great lengths to ditch their old nasty image. Consider current leader Michael Howard’s election campaign earlier this year. In March, as the parties were gearing up for the electoral fight, Howard deselected Howard Flight, MP in the Tory safe seat of Arundel and South Downs, after Flight suggested at a meeting of the Thatcherite group Conservative Way Forward that once in power the Tories would cut public spending by more than their election pronouncements had promised (3). Yet cutting tax and scaling back big government have long been Tory election promises; by kicking out Flight, Howard was trying to send a signal that the party had changed and was no longer as nasty as it used to be. It was striking that even before the whistle was blown for the start of electioneering, Howard was attacking members of his own party to show that it had ‘changed’ rather than taking on New Labour.

When they did try to play the ‘Tory card’ in the election – as when Howard tried to make a big issue of immigration – it blew up in their faces. After the election, senior Tory figures, including one of their biggest donors, Michael Spencer, accused the party of overplaying immigration and urged a new focus on ‘less negative issues’ (4). The end result of this desperate bid to become new, improved and no longer nasty is a kind of Tory Party in denial, which makes a great display of attacking its hurtful and anger-inducing past behaviour and policies but fails to replace them with anything else. This was summed up in their General Election poster that said, ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ (5) A party that had disavowed its past and shelved traditional policies was no longer able to say out loud what it stood for, instead relying on a peculiar kind of telepathy to reach the electorate.

None of these changes have impacted on the Tories’ fortunes, however. This year their vote remained at 32.3 per cent, up around half of one per cent on 2001, and vast swathes of the country – especially young people – indicated that they would vote anybody but Tory.

And what is the Tory Party going to change into? This party conference, more than any other, provides an opportunity for them to spell that out and argue the toss over it – but visions for the future are notable by their absence. As Mary Ann Sieghart says in today’s Times, where the party conference in Blackpool in 2003 was a spiteful and backbiting affair, largely because Duncan Smith was still leader but everyone knew he had ‘blown it and had to go’, at this year’s conference, ‘everyone has a licence, for once, to say what he or she thinks’. With the Tory leadership contest out in the open, no one has to ‘follow the party line on policy, for there is no party line’, says Sieghart, making for a ‘refreshing and liberating’ conference (6). Well, it could have been; except that even in this freer and more open atmosphere nobody has anything of substance to say.

Instead, the aspiring leaders repeat the word ‘change’ as a mantra, perhaps hoping that if they say it often enough then change will magically occur. Or they make ephemeral statements, like this from young pretender David Cameron: ‘We have got to change our culture so we look, feel, think and behave like a completely new organisation.’ (7) Cameron didn’t explain what issues or policies Tories should think or feel passionate about, or to what end their behaviour should be directed. Rather, his was a demand for rebranding, for a new non-nasty party that speaks more carefully and behaves less arrogantly: for new clothes for the fallen emperor.

It will take more than image consultation to reverse the Tories’ interminable decline and overcome its political exhaustion. What we see in Blackpool is not a party with an image crisis (though it does have that) but a party that is seriously adrift, and which no longer knows how to navigate or steer its way through the political landscape. It is divorcing itself from its past, but has no vision for the future – and thus finds itself caught up in endless discussions about how it should look and sound and feel in the present moment. This gives rise to lots of noise and fury at the conference, but to precious few insights or party political programmes. A party that was a supreme institution of power for most of the twentieth century now no longer knows what it is for, or even whether it needs to exist anymore: as Francis Maude said, the Tory Party has ‘no God-given right to survive’ – quite an admission from the chairman of a party that once assumed it had the God-given right to run pretty much the whole of British society, from government to the military to the Church. All the talk of change and a new look is less likely to magic up a New Tory Party than to further fragment and empty out the Old.

The new guard is effectively trying to do a New Labour. Cameron’s slogan ‘Changing our party to change the country’ is merely a clunkier version of ‘New Labour, New Britain’; there is even talk of rebranding the Conservative Party as the Modern Conservative Party, echoing Labour’s attachment of the word ‘New’ to its official title in the mid-1990s. But the Tories – however modern they declare themselves to be, and however Blairite their young aspiring leaders look – cannot repeat the trick of New Labour. In the Nineties, Labour transformed itself by ditching its historic Clause IV, its commitment to nationalisation and various other policies, and became a new political instrument staffed by new recruits drawn largely from the professional middle classes. It has since gone on to dominate the middle ground in British politics, though more by default than design: it has pretty much spread everywhere, filling the gaps left by the collapse of the old politics. What need is there for another New Labour-style party?

The Tories seem destined to drift aimlessly between their embarrassing past and a very uncertain future. Indeed, just about the only people who talk about the Tories as a serious political party these days are the Tories themselves and New Labourites, who conjure up the fanciful spectre of re-emerging Toryism as a way of scaring voters into giving their ballots to Blair and co.

Your instinct, like mine, might be to cheer the demise of the Tories, and revel in their dramatic collapse over the past decade. But the party’s substitution of managerialism and image-tweaking for big ideas or vision is a more extreme version of what has happened across the board in British politics. Those of us who really do believe in change – the process, not just the word – will have to do more than simply have a laugh at the Tories’ expense.

Read on:

Where have all the political parties gone?, by Mick Hume

(1) ‘Change or die’ Maude warns Tories, Scotsman, 3 ctober 2005

(2) ‘Nasty party’ warning to Tories, Michael White and Anne Perkins, Guardian, 8 October 2002

(3) Flight falls from grace, BBC News, 29 March 2005

(4) See Immigration isn’t the issue, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) Are you thinking what we’re thinking?, BBC News, 18 September 2005

(6) ‘A breath of fresh air in Blackpool’, Mary Ann Sieghart, The Times, 6 October 2005

(7) Speech to the Conservative conference 2005, David Cameron, Guardian, 4 October 2005

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Topics Politics

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