Looking bad in Bournemouth
The Tories' problems reflect the state of British politics.
As their party conference opens in Bournemouth, the Tories have become the biggest joke in town. The events of the past week drum home the fall of the Conservative Party from being the ‘natural party of government’ to being unable to scrape together an opposition to New Labour.
The Tories’ ignominious demise is amusing. But there is also a serious side to the scenes that are playing out in front of us. For in many ways, the Tories’ torments are merely the problems of British politics writ large.
Nearly every new day brings a new Tory disgrace. Ex-Tory minister Edwina Currie has come out with scandalous revelations of a four-year affair with former prime minister, John Major. Tory Lord Jeffrey Archer has managed to get himself in trouble while in prison by publishing his ‘prison diaries’.
Polls show that the Conservative Party is in an even worse state than just before the 2001 general election. In March 2001, 20 percent of those polled agreed that ‘the Conservatives are ready for power’; now only 10 percent agree (1). Another recent survey placed the Conservatives neck and neck with the Liberal Democrats, both with 24 percent of the vote, compared to Labour’s 43 percent (2).
To have declined since the last general election is truly devastating for the Tory Party. It was a shock for them to get wiped out in the general election of 1997; to make no significant improvements in the election of 2001 was worse. And now, with a new leader, to be fighting the Liberal Democrats for second place – this is a historically unprecedented low. Their position is especially bad given that the Labour Party itself has been widely discredited, and lacks solid support, yet the Tories are unable to capitalise from its failings.
Instead of trying to pull their party together, Tory figures channel their energies into blaming each other. Former Tory cabinet ministers Kenneth Clarke, Stephen Norris, Michael Heseltine and Sir Malcolm Rifkind have all weighed in with their criticisms of Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership of the party. Duncan Smith replied by criticising the ‘voices from the past’ that ‘have come back and ruined all the work we have done in the run-up to this conference’.
New Labour need not say a word in criticism – the Tory Party seems to be unravelling of its volition.
The Conservative Party conference, at which Iain Duncan Smith pledged to set out the new agenda for the party, looks unlikely to improve matters. Rather than setting out a new political programme, Duncan Smith seems split between trying to recall the Tories’ former glory and trying to steal ideas off New Labour. So his mini-manifesto, ‘Leadership with a Purpose’, is said to be based on a similar document launched by Lady Thatcher in 1976 when she had also been Tory leader for just one year – and he presents his plans to reform public services as the ‘unfinished programme’ of the Thatcher era. Trying to conjure up the powers of the Iron Lady only shows his own weakness, and makes a mockery of his criticism of the ‘voices of the past’.
Attempts to provide a new modern direction for the Tory Party look like caricatures of New Labour. While New Labour has used the language of therapy to attempt to form new connections with the electorate, the Tories have started calling themselves the ‘party of the vulnerable’. In a crass attempt to show the Tories care, in May 2002 shadow secretary of state for work and pensions David Willetts was packed off to spend a night under the arches with homeless people (3).
The Tories’ new policy initiatives – such as a Lifetime Savings Account funded jointly by the state and by individuals that could be used for ‘life changing events’, or charging people for missed doctors’ appointments – sound exactly like the sort of thing routinely churned out by New Labour think-tanks, only they are even more piecemeal and batty.
But a glance around the political scene suggests that the Tories are not alone in their troubles. Yes, the Tory membership ageing and declining – but so too is that of the glossy and young-looking New Labour. All political parties, not just the Tories, are increasingly detached from the electorate and inspire more cynicism than they do enthusiasm.
And the leaks, betrayals and back-stabbing that have gripped the Tories can be seen in many other areas of public life today. Civil servants and New Labour politicians have given impressive displays of breaking rank in the recent crisis over A-level results (see Test of authority, by Jennie Bristow ), or the leaked spats between health secretary Alan Milburn and chancellor Gordon Brown over NHS funding (4). When they find themselves in a hot spot, Tories and Labour alike tend to panic and lash out at those around them, rather than trying to work things through.
These features have their roots in the malaise that has beset political life over the past decade. Parties today lack distinctive programmes that could conjure enthusiasm and commitment from the public. Their traditional social bases have been consistently eroded. There is no sense of party loyalty – only the politics of personality.
And all the parties lack ideas about how to get out of this mess. They try to win back public loyalty and interest with cheap stunts, designed to grab attention; or they try to close the gap with self-apology – shown in Tory chairman Teresa May’s speech at the party conference, when she worried aloud that ‘some people call us: the nasty party’ (5).
The Tories’ failure to provide an opposition means that New Labour’s similar though lesser malaise is never exposed. New Labour is allowed to make error after error, and serve up drivel for policies, yet still remain the colossus that dominates British politics.
So while I will shed no tears for the disgraced Tories, I cannot laugh too hard either. The Tories’ troubles are merely the geriatric version of the protracted illness of British political life.
Cruising for ideas, by Josie Appleton
spiked-issue: Election 2001
(1) ‘Rusty model, no longer roadworthy’, Daily Telegraph, 7 October 2002
(2) Troubled Tories prepare to meet, ITV News, 5 October 2002
(3) ‘Two brains’ Willetts finds his heart, BBC News, 14 May 2002
(4) Brown wins battle with Milburn over borrowing for foundation hospitals, Guardian, 8 October 2002
(5) ‘Nasty party’ warning to Tories, Guardian, 8 October 2002
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