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Tory party struggles to recapture territory taken by New Labour
A FEW months ago there seemed to be a Tory revival. The Tories were ahead of Labour in the polls. They did relatively well in England in May's local elections (although they still have no councillors in some northern cities, remain out in the cold in Scotland and made only small gains in Wales). They were more 'trusted' than Labour on virtually every score, including on traditional Labour territory such as the NHS and education. Tory leader David Cameron was more 'trusted' than Labour's future leader, Gordon Brown. Yet now, senior Tories are carrying out a public spat and Cameron seems unable to contain it.
So PAULA MITCHELL asks, what has happened to the Tory revival?
THE TORIES are ripping themselves apart in public again. For the last few weeks, David Cameron, their new 'modernising' leader, has been under a barrage of criticism from his own party. Senior Tory figures, such as shadow home secretary David Davies and ex-leader and shadow foreign secretary William Hague, have weighed in to support him, but the critics won't go away.
One big factor is the 'Brown bounce'. Labour surged ahead in the polls, though the gap has narrowed over the last couple of weeks. Cameron hopes to ride this out, saying a bounce was to be expected. But the concern of those around him is that trailing in the polls might be long-term, and that Cameron is partly to blame.
A whopping 42% of Tory voters say they like the party but dislike Cameron. Only 22% of voters regard Cameron as a leader "in control of his party", in contrast to 62% for Gordon Brown; only 28% view him as "serious and trustworthy", against 49% for Brown.
The first big crisis for Cameron took place in May. Shadow education secretary David Willetts sparked a row by saying that grammar schools are a barrier to social mobility. This was not rooted in any belief in a top quality comprehensive education, but a recognition of the fact that New Labour's academies do the job of selection, but less openly.
But Cameron faced a grassroots rebellion and shadow Europe minister Graham Brady, a defender of selection, resigned. Cameron called his critics "delusional" if they expected new grammar schools, but then fudged on the issue, suggesting new grammar schools could be built in areas that already had them.
Problems continued with the high-profile defection to Labour of Quentin Davies MP. He wrote to Cameron: "Under your leadership the Conservative Party appears to me to have ceased to collectively believe in anything or to stand for anything... Although you have many positive qualities you have three - superficiality, unreliability and an apparent lack of any clear convictions - which in my view ought to exclude you from the position of national leadership."
THE EALING Southall by-election was an embarrassment, even before the result. Imposed candidate Tony Lit was meant to represent the new face of the Tories - young, Asian, dashing. But it then emerged that Mr Lit's company, Sunrise, had made a big donation to Labour, and he had smiling snaps taken with Tony Blair just days before his adoption as Tory candidate.
The Tories went on to come third in both the Ealing Southall and Sedgefield by-elections. Midway through a government's term it is common for governing parties to lose by-elections and Labour's vote was heavily down in both cases. But the Tories failed to gain. In Sedgefield, Blair's constituency, the Tories only got 14.6% of the vote.
Ealing Southall was particularly damaging, as Cameron proposed that the Tories could maybe win. Five Ealing councillors had defected to the Tories, Cameron visited the constituency five times and the ballot papers were marked "David Cameron's Conservatives". But the Tory vote only rose by 0.91%.
One senior Tory said that the by-election made the party "look so incredibly shallow". Ali Miraj, part of Cameron's leadership team, accused Cameron of ditching "substance" for "PR".
His comments may have been undermined by Cameron's allegation that this was sour grapes after pursuing a peerage, but they sum up some leading Tories' worries - that Cameron is full of grand gestures and photo-opportunities but no rigour or substance.
There was the famous image of him cycling to work to demonstrate his commitment to the environment, followed by his car carrying his briefcase. Or showing how the unspoilt wilderness of the Arctic must be protected, by sledging through the middle of it.
OTHERS CRITICISE not just the PR agenda, but also policy. Graham Brady suggests there needs to be a rebalance between issues such as the environment and "a grittier, more relevant message to people in an inner-city community who are worried about crime".
Former party chairman Lord Saatchi says there needs to be less "nicey-nicey" politics and more serious policy on the economy, "an expression of true Conservative ideology".
Cameron says he is unrepentant. One ally said that they will not retreat into their old "comfort zone" by highlighting immigration and law and order, though Cameron has still made some comments over the summer about immigration being "too high" and about Britain falling into "anarchy". Even William Hague has warned him not to give in to pressure to move to the right, as he himself did. But figures such as Anne Widdicombe suggested they should do just that.
More recently, former Tory deputy leader, Michael Ancram, raised the bogeyman of Margaret Thatcher and appealed for a return to "traditional" Tory policies, including tax cuts and a threat to pull out of the European Union.
This wrestling match between 'modernisers' and 'traditionalists' is not about great ideological differences. Both wings of the Tories are committed neo-liberal big business representatives. It is a question of finding where the party fits in a wholly new situation, created by the transformation of New Labour into a big business party, and the deep-rooted hatred of their own party by voters after years of the brutal policies they all support.
THE TORIES were the most successful capitalist party in the world. Throughout most of the last century the party was nurtured by British capitalism as its main political tool. It had a mass base in a layer of the middle classes and even in part of the upper layer of the working class. It was held together by the threat of 'communism' and the existence of mass working-class based organisations, the trade unions and the Labour Party. The Tory party machine was dominated by the so-called 'grandees', with a long-term view of their role as representatives of British capital.
But from the latter part of Margaret Thatcher's regime onwards, the Tories have been tearing themselves apart. It was Thatcher's task, in the 1980s, to institute neo-liberalism. This meant that since the end of the post-war economic boom, the preservation and expansion of big business profits required the dismantling of past working-class gains. It also meant the super-exploitation of workers.
A concerted driving down of wages and conditions required taking on the trade unions, through historic battles with the miners and then the printers.
Privatisation steadily opened up more and more of the public sector to private profit, while ever deeper cuts to public services reduced the 'social wage'. Workers had to work harder for longer, for less pay and pensions.
These policies were accompanied in the Thatcher years by a decimation of manufacturing industry and mass unemployment. The Tories became deeply unpopular. Towards the end of their reign they were split over Europe and rocked by scandal.
Thatcher was unceremoniously booted out after the sinking of her poll tax flagship by an unprecedented mass campaign of civil disobedience led by the Socialist Party's forerunner, Militant Labour. Her successor, John Major, subsequently complained of the "bastards" in his own government out to destabilise him at every turn.
The ruling class needs a party to represent itself, but one that is so hated and divided is not reliable. Even now, ten years on, amongst most working-class people hatred is still strong. Divisions over issues such as Europe have meant that the Tory party also no longer fully reflects the interests of much of British big business.
For now the ruling class has New Labour instead, as New Labour has become a big business party, carrying out neo-liberal policies ruthlessly. But ideally big business wants a 'second eleven', a reserve party that can take power when their favoured capitalist party is voted out. With the unpopularity of Tony Blair and New Labour policies, there has been an increasing risk for them that New Labour could lose a general election.
Brown has his small bounce now, but he will not retain it for long, particularly when the economy dips and he decides that more ferocious attacks on workers' living standards are necessary.
CAN THE Tories resurrect themselves enough to seriously challenge Labour?
They have tried over and again to re-launch themselves. They lurched between hapless, clumsy leaders. But then they appeared to have found their Tony Blair. David Cameron set out with aplomb to 'modernise' his party.
No matter that he was born into immense privilege with no idea at all how real people live, this upper-crust toff presented himself as young, handsome, dynamic and concerned about poverty and the environment. While an upright family man, he also aims to appeal to youth and be a 'man of the people'.
The Tories have recently promised to match Labour's level of public spending and Cameron has declared himself as the true successor to Blair on public service 'reform', suggesting that Brown would move the Labour Party to the left and leave the centre ground to the Tories. This is in the face of all evidence on Brown, including Brown's comments last week in praise of Margaret Thatcher!
Cameron says Blair was right on reform, but wrong to impose it from Whitehall. He voices the typical Tory idea of local budgets, competition, internal markets, private providers etc. He attempts to pose himself as in touch with the concerns of public-sector workers and launched a 'Stop Brown's NHS cuts' campaign, but at the same time he supports more privatisation.
Cameron also wants to show that the Tories are bursting with new ideas. He established major reviews in six policy areas, but most of the policies are still under construction. In an effort to beat New Labour on international development issues, he launched the Umubano Initiative - a programme of Tory MPs, councillors and activists working on 20 aid projects in Rwanda. This backfired somewhat, coming as it did in the middle of the worst floods for 50 years in his own constituency.
CAMERON HAS tried to balance a new 'modern' and 'cuddly' Tory image with the need to hang on to the party's traditional right-wing membership, which is not at all modern or cuddly. With Iain Duncan Smith's high-profile report on families, the Tories attempted to find some 'clear blue water' between themselves and New Labour by putting marriage and parenting at the heart of the battleground.
IDS identified five "giants" most likely to cause poverty: family breakdown; addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling; failed education; worklessness and associated dependency culture; and debt.
His solution is a crusade for marriage. But people's lives break down because of low pay, lack of decent jobs and training, lack of quality affordable childcare, high housing costs and an inadequate benefits system.
Services have been cut to the bone and privatised and housing estates left to rot. Of course the Tories cannot say this because they are just as responsible for these conditions as New Labour. So they revert to traditional territory and put the blame on the shoulders of unmarried couples and single parents. IDS's main proposal is therefore tax breaks amounting to £20 a week for married couples.
This is added to by proposals on education and discipline in schools. The 'modern' policy is for low-cost "pioneer schools" in disadvantaged areas (undoubtedly with private sponsorship). The traditional Tory side is the emphasis on discipline and individual responsibility, with a proposal for contracts between parents and schools, and for schools to be able to use voluntary sector bodies in place of state-run referral units.
To the left or right?
IT IS clear from these policy areas that the Tories are scraping around for something to call their own. Their traditional territory is largely occupied by New Labour. They can only go to the left or the right or be indistinguishable.
If they go to the left they risk alienating almost their entire membership and a big section of their traditional vote.
If they try to appease that by turning back to the right on law and order and immigration, they will be hard-pressed to find much to say, as Labour has adopted much of this territory too, for example, the proposal for a unified border force. But most importantly they would risk retreating into their 'nasty party' niche and would not appeal to wide enough numbers of the electorate to get elected.
Some have suggested in the media that Cameron could be a Neil Kinnock. Kinnock started the process of changing the Labour Party but never made it to power.
To make the fundamental change from Labour to New Labour required a much more thorough gouging out of the Labour Party than Cameron has attempted in his party, starting with the expulsions of the editorial board of the socialist's forerunner the Militant. It required a shutting down of democracy and an upfront struggle to smash the basic standpoint of the party - "the clause four moment" when the socialist clause was removed from its constitution.
Cameron needs his "clause four moment", commentators say. He will never truly have one. The removal of clause four symbolised the Labour Party's historic shift from being a workers' party to a big business party.
The Tories are not going to change which class they represent and become a new mass workers' party! Cameron could conceivably achieve a shift to stabilise his party as a 'modern' big business party, but he would have to quash his traditional right-wing membership, including a large number of his MPs, to do that.
If Brown calls a snap general election to take advantage of his bounce and before any serious decline in the economy, Cameron could lose the election and be ousted as leader. It is even possible he could be out before then and the merry-go-round will go on.
One possible outcome of the struggle in the Tory party is that it could split. If the Tories lose the next general election, the fourth in a row, some might conclude that the chances of them getting back to their former glory are over.
A section of traditionalists could seek to launch a right-wing populist formation, while the 'modernisers' could seek to work more closely with New Labour. Gordon Brown has already brought big business representatives into his government and has appointed Tory MPs as advisers, wooed the Lib Dems with offers of posts; a new grouping involving Tories is not impossible.
A break up of the previously most stable capitalist party in the world might seem unlikely, but it has happened to capitalist parties in other countries.
Throughout the world there is massive anger against the brutalities of the capitalist system with its super-exploitation and obscene disparities in wealth. While it may yet take a while, big class battles will inevitably develop in Britain. Under the pressure of mass seething anger and discontent, divisions, split-offs and break-ups are likely to develop in the main capitalist political parties.
In The Socialist 13 September 2007:
War and terrorism
Workplace news and events
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
International news and analysis
Socialist Party review