Torn Tories

Caught between trying to appear modern and trying to hold on to traditional values, no wonder the Tories are tearing themselves apart.

Sandy Starr

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‘You’d have to be a mug to vote for the Tories’, says ex-EastEnders star Ross Kemp in New Labour’s summary manifesto Your Family. He’s got a point – why would anybody want to vote Tory?

The Tories are disorganised, desperate and unelectable. The last boost in their popularity came with the fuel protests in 2000, and even that was motivated more by anti-Blair disaffection than by any passionate support for the Tories. The problems caused for New Labour by the foot-and-mouth crisis failed to improve the Tories’ poll ratings. And neither Prescott’s punch nor Blair’s badgering by Sharron Storer over hospital waiting lists could be turned to the Tories’ advantage – despite frantic press releasing from Conservative Central Office.

The problem for the Conservative Party is that it is torn between two irreconcilable needs: the need to keep in the game of modern politics, and the need to adhere to the party’s traditional values. The Tories fear that if they do not appeal to their core voters on traditional Tory issues, then they will be completely adrift. But they also know that if they just rely on their core issues, they will have no chance of competing with Blair for the centre vote. As a result of this tension, the Conservatives are desperately thrashing around for issues to make their own.

In attempting the modern touch, the Tories have failed dismally – just think of William Hague’s 14-pint gaffe or Michael Portillo’s awkward call for ‘inclusiveness’ of gays. And in attempting to hold on to traditional values, the Tories’ only ally has been nostalgia. It is telling that the Conservatives’ most recognisable figurehead remains Margaret Thatcher, even though her reign of prime ministerial terror ended over a decade ago.

The 2001 Conservative manifesto epitomises the party’s tensions. It opens with a claim to be ‘the most ambitious Conservative programme for a generation’, and concludes with a section entitled ‘Restoring faith in politics’. But the manifesto sandwiched between these bold words paints a picture of a party grasping for anything that could conceivably curry favour with the public.

The Tories try to strike a distinctive stance on issues such as immigration, complaining that ‘Britain has gained a reputation as a soft touch for bogus asylum seekers’, and proposing the establishment of ‘a new Removals Agency’ to address the problem. In polite society, this kind of tough talk has earned the Tories a reputation as racists. But when New Labour warns in its manifesto that ‘asylum should not be an alternative route to immigration’, it becomes clear that the main difference between the parties’ policies is that Labour can get away with this and the Tories cannot.

The Tories use the insult ‘politically correct’ as a convenient shorthand for everything they despise about New Labour, with statements in their manifesto like, ‘married couples do not fit into Labour’s politically correct agenda’. This crusade against political correctness might make some sense, if it really was a challenge to New Labour’s attempt to regulate our everyday language and behaviour. But the Tories want to ‘create an Office of Civil Society to champion families, voluntary organisations and faith communities’. They are clearly as keen as New Labour when it comes to wanting more input into our private lives.

Even on the traditional Tory issue of crime, the Conservatives find that their thunder has been stolen. Their statement that they will ‘increase the number of police officers on our streets’ has nothing to distinguish it from Labour’s promise of ‘6000 extra police recruits’, or the Liberal Democrats’ promise to ‘recruit 6000 extra police officers’.

On a number of issues the Tories have dressed up their views in New Labour language. The Conservative pledge to ‘overhaul the law so that it is on the side of the victim and not the criminal’ is a direct echo of New Labour’s promise to ‘introduce a victims’ bill of rights providing legal rights to compensation, support and information’, and the Liberal Democrats’ plan to ‘give victims, or their families, greater rights to be heard in court’.

So the Tories have to invent some difference between themselves and the other parties – as in the bizarre Conservative statement that ‘We will replace the failing New Deal with Britain Works’.

The daily contradiction between the Tories’ confident statements and the world that they inhabit makes their election campaign seem like a piece of existentialist theatre.

In spite of the bluster, a creeping desperation is evident in the Conservatives’ increasingly arbitrary choice of campaigning issues, such as inflation rises in national insurance charges, to name but one. Attempts to engage with the young and ‘apathetic’ will most likely be dropped in favour of a last-ditch drive for the core vote. The retreat back to hardline Tory supporters has already begun, as Margaret Thatcher is brought out of the mothballs by the Daily Mail to berate Blair and lend Hague some much-needed kudos.

New Labour also beefs up the differences between itself and the Tory Party – not least because without a sense of contest its credibility as an elected government is diminished. This has led to Labour’s rather surreal anti-Tory poster campaign (slogan: ‘Don’t go back’), as though Labour is doing the Conservatives a favour by dignifying them as contenders for government.

The Tories are imploding from within. Consider the Thatcher debacle. The Conservatives need Thatcher because she appeals to their core vote and their traditional base of support – but she also scuppers their attempts to engage with the contemporary political framework. When Thatcher said that she would never be prepared to ‘give up our own currency’ and join the Euro, she was just stating traditional Tory policy – but the fuss that followed her speech captured the Tories’ dilemma, highlighting the difficulty they have in appealing to both their traditional base of support and the dominant political mood.

And as the election goes on, this tension mounts. You only have to look at something like the Tories’ Willie Horton-style election broadcast, which effectively accused New Labour of being responsible for rape, to see how badly they can get it wrong. As the day of reckoning approaches, the Tories are likely to make even more desperate bids to consolidate the support of their traditional voters – and in the process distance themselves further from the political flow.

Few are mourning the collapse of the Conservative Party. Apart from sitting opposite Labour in the House of Commons over the past four years, the Conservatives have done nothing to earn the title of opposition. We need a rigorous critique of New Labour – and the Tories should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Read on:

No dreams – and little reality: Jennie Bristow on the Labour manifesto

Not-so-Liberal Democrats: Brendan O’Neill on the Liberal Democrat manifesto

Read the Conservative manifesto

Read the Labour manifesto

Read the Liberal Democrat manifesto

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