What’s so bad about nasty parties

New Labour started the attack on 'yah boo' politics - now the Tories are playing catch-up.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

‘You know what some people call us – the nasty party.’ (1)

So Conservative party chairman Theresa May ensured that her speech, delivered to the Bournemouth conference on 7 October 2002, would grab a few headlines. No doubt it has lost her more than a few friends among the Tory faithful – fancy having remained true to the party all those years, only to have your own chairman call you names! But so far as most people go, in today’s world of playground politics, ‘nasty party’ probably sums it up.

But the real focus of May’s attack was not the failings of her own party, but the cut and thrust of political debate. As such, her remarks chime well with the times – and with the founding principles of New Labour.

One of the most popular criticisms of New Labour made during the Blair party’s inception and its 1997 election victory, was that it had stolen Tory policies and ideas. New Labour ditched its commitment to nationalisation, embraced the business community, prioritised crime as an issue and Blair expressed a grudging admiration for Margaret Thatcher. What more proof was needed that the slogan New Labour – New Britain really meant New Labour – Middle England, and that the secret of Tony Blair’s success lay in providing a sexier model for William Hague’s baseball cap?

Of course, it never really was like this. New Labour was not about a representation of traditional right-wing policies – it was about a reformulation of politics. The party’s success was down to its ability to transcend the ideologies of left and right, and create a new political discourse based on management and therapy. New Labour may have started by making some Tory issues its own, but it soon became clear that something new was happening – and since then, the Tories have been playing catch-up all the way.

Theresa May attacks ‘yah boo’ politics – by which she means confrontational political debate. But avoiding confrontation and debate has long been a hallmark of New Labour. This is shown by Blair’s disdain for parliament, and for Prime Minister’s Question Time in particular, and New Labour’s preference for press briefings and informal meetings. New Labour is much more at ease with a focus group than a Commons debate, and with non-governmental organisations than with the institutions of government. It is obsessed with consultation and consensus-building.

Insofar as there is any ‘yah boo’ politics today, New Labour has managed to drive confrontation out of political debate, leaving room only for petty insults and nit-picking. Politics has become about management, and political debate about the most effective way of getting on with the job. There may be more than a touch of expediency to May’s attack on confrontation – so pathetic have the Tories been as an opposition that they have fitted well into the role of carping shareholders.

More women and ethnic minorities in parliament is another of May’s big ideas. Who pioneered the notion of women-only shortlists and ethnic-minority shortlists, and who made a big deal out of the number of women elected in 1997? New Labour. The Blair party also provided the justification for its desire to feminise politics – a way of getting away from confrontation and ‘yah boo’ politics.

‘I want us to be the party that represents the whole of Britain and not merely some mythical place called “Middle England”’, said May, in another deliberate slight to the Tories’ core voters (2). Who deliberately severed its links with its grass roots, in order to give itself wider appeal? New Labour.

May slams elitism and talks about her ‘passionate belief’ in meritocracy. Who has made ‘anti-elitism’ its mantra, in discussions of everything from politics to education to the NHS? New Labour. This year’s Conservative Party wants to put public services first. Who wants to ‘Put schools and hospitals first?’. New Labour. There’s really no need to go on.

It is not surprising that the Tory Party, bereft of any ideas of its own, should start nicking New Labour’s language and policies. But there’s more to it than that. As some commentators have pointed out, this banal scrambling over the same issues represents the narrow focus of politics today.

Having accepted that there are no grand ideologies on which to base a political programme, all the parties have lowered their sights to finding waysto manage society, and connect with people. Unable to provide any competing ideas for people to think about, they operate on the basis of how they think people feel.

This year’s Tory Party wants to take care of ‘vulnerable people’. Watching them do it is good for a laugh. Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin unveiled his new policies to tackle youth crime, through the creation of new centres around the UK which Letwin described as a cross between ‘touchy feely’ centres and boot camps (3). In essence, this seems to mean locking up young people with a therapist to shadow them – surely enough to put any tearaway off a life of crime.

Youth crime seems like a winner for the ‘party of the vulnerable’ – appealing to both victims of crime and those who shed tears for the cycles of deprivation and abuse that supposedly turn 10-year-olds to carjacking. (‘Crime victimises whole communities’, said Letwin, especially society’s most vulnerable people (4).) But this proposal is merely a clumsy rehash of New Labour’s determined efforts to bring therapy into the heart of its crime policy.

Asked if he was going soft on crime, Letwin said: ‘I just absolutely refuse to believe the British public wants to hear ludicrous rhetoric about being tough on crime and tough on the cause of crime’ – a reference to one of New Labour’s pet slogans (5). Does he not realise that ‘tough on the cause of crime’ was absolutely about the model of therapeutic politics – encapsulating the notion that people need counselling and monitoring early on to stop them turning into criminals?

Letwin’s young offenders would serve their time, plus another year of concentrated rehabilitation – including being offered courses in offending behaviour, anger management, drug and alcohol abuse, health, parenting and citizenship (6). Just like going back to one of Estelle Morris’ schools, then, or having a baby in one of Alan Milburn’s hospitals.

Letwin’s ‘radical new approach’ (7) to dealing with hard drugs is both ludicrous, and straight out of New Labour. The notion that drug addicts can undergo medical supervision and treatment in place of criminal convictions is well established in the trend towards therapeutic politics – and this already sometimes happens in practice. Letwin then had to admit that his particular proposal would allow for the problem quickly raised by drug charities – that it could lead to the police following identified addicts who refused treatment, in order to find evidence to prosecute them (8).

When it comes to seeing a role for medicine and counselling in dealing with any kind of social problem, New Labour has been there, done that, bought the ribbon. How else did it get its strategy of social inclusion off the ground?

What the Tories bring out more clearly, in their hamfisted attempts to play the therapy game, is how degraded this attempt to connect with people is. Through discussing a charity based in Redditch, Theresa May painted a picture of the ideal Conservative party member (in contrast to the nasty, snobbish, hypocritical moraliser that makes up the core membership).

The ‘Step Out Drop In’ charity, she said, ‘provides young people who need it with support and encouragement to help them improve their lives’ (9). This means giving homeless kids with drug problems a bath and somewhere to wash their clothes, and providing ‘support and training for them before they attend interviews, so that they can find a job and support themselves’. ‘I am proud’, said May, ‘that two of the charity’s trustees are local Conservative councillors’.

Is this kind of charity-work-cum-careers advice really the best politicians can do, in their attempts to forge a relationship with their electorate? Is this pseudo-priesthood the only thing we can expect from today’s political leaders? Politicians might assume that they can run the show by not getting people to think, only encouraging them to empathise. But the growing cynicism and detachment that the electorate is expressing to all parties indicates something rather different.

New Labour does not need popular enthusiasm or public legitimacy to retain its position of power. In the short term, it benefits from the lack of anybody else worth voting for. But in order to retain a sense of purpose and direction, it needs some kind of opposition. That’s why, the more the Tory Party exposes itself as a joke, the more the political class experiences a twinge of discomfort.

Left unchallenged, the UK’s original party of the Third Way exhibits a tendency to implode – tearing itself apart, issuing Virgin Trains-style apologies for its mistakes, and relying on a former US president to give its own conference a spark of life. And that’s after only five years.

Fortunately, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has the solution. Congratulating New Labour on the way it is ‘tugging the Tories over towards liberalism, even social democracy’, she imagines a ‘future battleground’ of politics that could be ‘more progressive, between centre and centre-left’ (10). If the Tories succeed in their apparent transformation, this might make them ‘more electable and more dangerous to Labour’. But, Toynbee continues: ‘[S]ince they – or some New Conservative party – will win power some day, better by far they should be reformed into European-style, mildly rightwing parties, such as the Spanish or German Christian Democrats, not as brutal Bushian neo-conservatives.’

There you have New Labour’s New Job – creating an opposition in its own image, to play the role of friendly critic in the Big Tent of consensus politics. And what we have to look forward to is the kind of banal, illegitimate, coalition-style governments that exist on the Continent. Great. Give me ‘nasty’ politics of debate and confrontation any day.

Read on:

Looking bad in Bournemouth, by Josie Appleton

Back to Blackpool, by Brendan O’Neill

The Prime Minister has nothing to fear in Blackpool this week but Blair himself ,Mick Hume, The Times, 30 September 2002

(1) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, Theresa May, 7 October 2002

(2) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, Theresa May, 7 October 2002

(3) ‘Tories target youth crime “vortex”‘, BBC News, 9 October 2002

(4) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, Oliver Letwin, 9 October 2002

(5) ‘Tories target youth crime “vortex”‘, BBC News, 9 October 2002

(6) ‘Tories target youth crime “vortex”‘, BBC News, 9 October 2002

(7) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, Oliver Letwin, 9 October 2002

(8) Liberal Letwin disarms Tories, Alan Travis, Guardian, 10 October 2002

(9) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, Theresa May, 7 October 2002

(10) Even in drag, the Tories will be out of power for years, Polly Toynbee, Guardian, 9 October 2002

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Topics Politics


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