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New Toryism: easy listening politics

David Cameron's 'big challenges' get some young Londoners humming along - but does that mean he's 'the future'?

Ben Walford

Topics Politics

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One photograph of David Cameron shows him riding a bike to work, looking every inch the youthful and handsome leader in waiting. The press lapped it up as they splashed it across every front page. The new Tory leader knows well the media narrative that greets him, and he revels in it. He chided Blair at their first Commons confrontation with the cheeky barb: ‘I want to talk about the future…you were the future once.’

Cameron is being hailed as the future, in contrast to Labour’s ‘yesterday’s men, with yesterday’s measures’. In The Times (London), Matthew Parris sees Cameron propelled by an ineluctable ‘force’: ‘As long as he “keeps it real”…the current of the 21st century will take him some way.’ (1) The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley quipped that Cameron need only jump on the saddle and he’s ‘bathed in feel-good coverage for being able to ride a bicycle and smile at the same time’ (2). A fawning article or two more may have people taunting: ‘Is that a notepad in your pocket, or are you just happy to see DC?’

In keeping with his future focus, Cameron has called engagement with young people ‘one of the biggest challenges we face’ (3). While some may be delirious about the incredible youth of a man nigh-on 40, I wondered whether the 20- to 30-year-olds he hopes to inspire were equally excited about ‘Dave’. So I went out and about to ask young London what they thought of him and his leadership of the Tory party.

I found a dissonance between media conceptions and public opinion. At a pedestrian crossing on Oxford Street was classical singer Elise Stringer, 25. Hers is a world untouched by the excitations of Westminster and overwrought editorials of Fleet Street. Elise was chatty enough to begin with, but excused herself from the conversation when the ‘p’ word came up: ‘I’m so sorry, I’m really not the person to ask about politics. You really shouldn’t waste your time on me.’

David Parrett, a 21-year-old film student, had heard of neither David Cameron nor his leadership rival David Davis. ‘I really don’t follow that sort of stuff’, he said between sips of coffee, ‘I really don’t care who runs this party or the other.’ The new Tory leader declared at a gathering of his followers that ‘Young people are completely turned off by Punch and Judy politics and cheap point scoring – [and] I just won’t play that game.’ For David and for many of the young people I spoke to the problem was more of a ‘turning-on’ to begin with, never mind a turning off.

Approximately a third of those I met were unaware even of the existence of one David Cameron. Indeed, they were often wilfully (and sometimes proudly) ignorant of current affairs. Adrian White, thumbing through the CDs at Oxford Street’s HMV, was one of them. One mention of the dreaded ‘p’ word had him rolling his eyes as though I had made a case for the artistic credibility of the Sugababes. ‘Anything else I would have given you an interview on’, he sighed. That David Cameron is promoted as the next big thing in British politics means little, apparently, if you couldn’t care for politics in the first place.

Those who did know of Cameron, however, were generally supportive of his insistence that the Conservative Party has to change. This is the plank on which Cameron successfully campaigned for the leadership, reaffirming at his victory speech that the party ‘[needs] to change in order to win. Now that I have won we will change’. In Borders bookshop was Amir Ali, who thought that the Conservative Party’s first priority was a face-lift along with a change of attitude. ‘I guess they could be more young and in-touch’, he said. ‘You always think that “Tory” equals white, middle-class men who go out on the [fox] hunt.’ Chris Walker, a 21-year-old nightclub worker, agreed. ‘I think it’s good if they bring the party up to date. They’re old fashioned and I don’t really like their approach.’ Good news, this, for Cameron: he’s promised that the Conservatives ‘will change the way we look…[and] change the scandalous under-representation of women’ (4).

Cameron has listed six ‘big challenges’ since becoming leader of the party, and these found resonance with some young Londoners. Sarah Holmes, an actress, had always voted Labour because of the social problems she thinks they try to combat. ‘But if Cameron can deal with social issues, like welfare and poverty too, I suppose I could vote for him instead.’ I told her that social justice was one of his six ‘big challenges’ and she nodded in measured approval. Twenty-six-year-old Dexter’s big concern was environmental preservation: ‘I’m really worried that we’re doing damage to the planet that we won’t be able to sort out later on.’ He, too, was pleased to hear that Cameron had taken on his pet issue as a ‘big challenge’.

There is a reason for this broad agreement, and it isn’t that young London has suddenly morphed into the blue rinse brigade. Cameron’s ‘big challenges’, and promises to modernise the Tory party, are uncontroversial inanities that everyone can assent to. Would we rather have an ‘old-fashioned’ Tory Party? Who wouldn’t like ‘to grow up in a country where the streets are safe, the public space isn’t filthy, where it isn’t a hassle to get around’? Which us would disagree that ‘a full-bodied economic policy not just a tax policy’ is necessary?

Issues such as concern for the environment and social justice are all too often poorly articulated and little thought through. These aren’t political positions that have been formulated, challenged and refined. Rather they seem to be stances that young people think they are supposed to have. This is ‘politics’ Live 8 and Michael Moore style. It requires only that one say the right things about issues like global poverty, George Bush and the environment. The thinnest of political commitments, it is more about adopting the right posture.

Young people I spoke to often wanted to improve things – somehow. David Cameron is passionately in favour of changing the Tory party – somehow. His commitment to incontrovertible ‘big challenges’ betrays the gap between posturing and politics.

So while he may not know it, Cameron is indeed dealing in the politics of today’s young – in all of its nebulous deficiency. He is, in this sorry sense, ‘the future’. This is the ‘newness’ we should take note of in David Cameron, not the sort the newspaper columnists rave about. Cameron’s favourite band are the tuneful Smiths. Political engagement will suffer for as long as politics makes for such easy listening.

Ben Walford is studying politics at Warwick University, and is currently an intern at spiked.

(1) ‘The Force is with David the Unruffled. The Tories’ hour has come’, Matthew Parris, The Times (London), 10 December 2005

(2) ‘Why Cameron rattles Gordon’s cage’, Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, 11 December 2005

(3) ‘Cameron promises end to “Punch and Judy” politics’, Scotsman, 6 December 2005

(4) In Full: Cameron’s victory speech, BBC News Online, 6 December 2005

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Topics Politics

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