Yes, the Tories might well be worse than New Labour, but…
...mostly because it appears they could be even more full of New Labourite nonsense.
After a couple of years during which it has been casually assumed that David Cameron’s Conservatives are on a serene procession to Downing Street, more people are now asking the big question: can the Tories really win the coming UK General Election? The other, arguably bigger question, posed by current developments however is: how – and how far – would politics really change if they did?
It is becoming clear that the Tories have failed to live up to their publicity, as advertised by both their opponents and their supporters. They look like neither evil neo-Thatcherites nor liberating reformers. Instead, it now seems fair to say that Cameron’s Conservatives would indeed be even worse than New Labour – but largely because they appear even more New Labour than their opponents. Rather than boldness or brashness, Tory policy today seems characterised by cowardice and conformism.
I recently received a PR email from a big bookmaker excitedly announcing, ‘Hung parliament odds slashed as Labour fight back’ (the odds against nobody winning an overall majority of MPs at the election having been cut from 9-4 to 6-4). Exactly what Labour fightback might that be, then? The news has been full of nothing but more Labour crises, from the ‘bullygate’ nonsense to the split between prime minister Gordon Brown and chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling over the economy or the news that former cabinet minister James Purnell, until recently tipped as a future party leader, is quitting politics.
Yet despite all that, the bookies are right – the gap between the major parties has been closing in most recent opinion polls. What is striking is not the appearance of any Labour fightback, but the degree to which the Tories have apparently fallen backwards without even being hit. New Labour has scarcely landed a blow, yet the Conservatives are almost reeling around on the ropes.
Thus the latest polls show a Conservative lead cut to six or seven per cent. There has been no surge in support for Labour – one major poll puts them up one percentage point to a miserable 30 per cent, a ceiling Brown seems unable to break through in any meaningful way. The real movement was on the other side: a slip in Tory support from an already-inadequate 40 per cent to around 37 per cent.
These distinctly unspectacular ratings are in their way remarkable. The government remains bogged down in economic crisis, war in Afghanistan and civil war in the Cabinet. New Labour should be finished – indeed the one sure thing about the election is that the widely unpopular Brown cannot win a majority. Yet doubts are increasing about whether Cameron can win, either. The Conservatives remain clear odds-on favourites to win more seats than anybody else. But starting from a low base of fewer than 200 MPs, and with problems breaking through in key regions of the country, they are not going to win an overall majority with just 37 per cent of the vote. Wise conservative commentators have even begun suggesting that it might be no bad thing if Brown was left in government after the election, to face up to the mess he has made.
The Tories can lose ground without really doing anything, not because their policies are extreme or unpopular, but because they appear to stand for nothing of substance and lack the support of any solid constituency. Their opponents bang on about the Cameron leadership being packed with Bullingdon Club-type public-school prats (which, no doubt, it is), to suggest that they are still old-fashioned Tories. But in political terms they bear little resemblance to their forebears.
Even on the issue of the need for public-spending cuts, where they have tried to cultivate an image of resolute hard men, Cameron & Co look like pathetic shadows of Tories past. As Rob Killick points out on spiked, the differences between their short-term proposals to trim state spending and New Labour’s plans are minimal when set against the scale of Britain’s debts. Neither side has anything more positive to offer than an argument about the timing of spending cuts – and both appear to lack the nerve to do anything decisive on the economy.
On the other side, those who have invested hope in Cameron’s Conservatives as some sort of a new force to break the political mould and stand up for freedom and change are just as misguided as those want to brand them as neo-Thatcherites. If there are any principles in the Tories’ politics today, they seem too spineless to admit it or give voice to them.
Rather than swapping caricatures of what we imagine the Tories will be like, why not take a closer look at what they say they will do? There we can see they have absorbed all of the political crap of the Blair-Brown years, become part of the conformist consensus, and embarked on a mission to try to out-New Labour the government.
For instance, the Conservatives are always droning on about ‘Broken Britain’ and the need to deal with family breakdown. What they mean, however, is not a fantasy about returning to traditional family values. Instead they want to ‘defend’ the family by intervening in its affairs even more than New Labour has done. The Tories want more of the early-intervention policies – and to start that intervention even earlier – that have helped to undermine the role of parents and institutionalised a fatalist, deterministic view of child development.
A key development of the New Labour years, often criticised on spiked, has been the ascendancy of politicised Public Health policies over clinical heath care – ie, the move from treating sick individuals to trying to dictate a ‘healthy’ lifestyle for the entire population, whether we like it or not. What is the Tory alternative? They want to rename the Department of Health as… the Department of Public Health, hence making the politics of behaviour and attendant moral crusades against the sins of junk food, binge drinking or third-hand smoke even more central to the NHS.
On education, where many have harboured hopes that the Tories might sort out the mess made by New Labour’s target-obsessed politicised meddling, the Conservatives appear to have come up with an alternative that could make matters worse still. Echoing the empty New Labour mantra of parental ‘choice’, their plans to allow groups of middle-class parents and charities to set up their own schools at the fringes look like another form of playing gesture politics with the education system, and will do nothing to address the central problems in education.
As for the notion that the Tories are the party of traditional freedoms, it does not take much of a memory to recall that in opposition they have broadly gone along with every New Labour policy to undermine everyday liberties, from vetting adults who have contact with children to banning smoking in pubs. Even former shadow home secretary David Davis’ stand in favour of keeping terror suspects locked up without charge for a mere 28 days was a bit too liberal for the leadership. On everything from stop-and-search to integrating all government departments into a security state, the Conservatives now promise to go further than New Labour. The biggest concession Cameron appears to have made is to promise MPs a free vote on the redundant foxhunting ban. Tally-bloody-ho.
All in all, it seems reasonable to suggest that the Tories would be worse than New Labour, largely because they will be more so. But that does not mean the election is unimportant.
In the run-up to the 1997 general election, when Tony Blair was riding far higher in the polls than Cameron can dream of today, I recall we ran a front page of LM magazine that declared ‘Tony Blearggh – Why New Labour Will Be Even Worse Than the Tories’. That was considered a controversial view, with New Labour storming to power on a wave of anti-Tory anger. In today’s climate of deep cynicism about politics, however, the reaction to suggesting that the Conservatives are no better is more likely to be a resigned they’re-all-the-same shrug.
Yet, whatever the exact combination of results this year, the election will mark a change in political life, as elections often do. The General Election will catalyse and consolidate the change in the political culture of our society. This time it will not be a traditional shift from left to right or anything like that. Rather, the new government is likely to confirm the emergence of a new political class that is almost entirely divorced and isolated from the experience of those whom it claims the right to rule.
In a sense, for all his shortcomings, Brown is the last of a generation of ‘proper’ political leaders. Those coming through today tend to be from another world, the alien planets of investment banking and corporate consultancy and PR agencies and party staffers and Euro-crats, who stand for little more than themselves. The expenses crisis has, of course, become the most potent public symbol of the gap between the electorate and the politicians. But that pantomime is only a sideshow to the far deeper problem of a democracy where the people – demos – are treated as outsiders.
The election campaign and the intense focus on political matters it provides could be an opportunity to challenge this state of affairs, to start the hard arguments in our society for Politics with a capital P, freedom and progress. But there are unlikely to be any easy shortcuts, whether by dreaming that the Tories can shake things up for the better or by hanging on to New Labour’s tattered coat-tails because it must somehow be the lesser evil. They are all deserving of ruthless criticism. Because yes, as things stand, a Tory government will be worse than New Labour has been. But then, a new New Labour government would be worse than the current regime, too.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume argued that the Tories have changed, but not for the better. He also pointed out that the demise of New Labour did not amount to a Tory revival. Back in 2005, he argued that David Cameron was a non-Tory leading the Tory party. Rob Lyons reckoned Cameron’s Tories are the heirs to Blairism. Brendan O’Neill attacked the Tories’ ‘clean politics’ agenda. And after the Tories’ victory at the Crewe by-election last year, he called for positive politics. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.
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