“The Tories denigrate the NHS because they want to
destroy it,” stormed Alan Milburn on just another day
of just another general election campaign.
The reality of course, is that both denigration and destruction
of public services are Milburn’s jobs and the Tories
are in no position to take them from him. In fact, arguably
the official opposition are arguably in a worse position
than they were in May 1997.
It was a new dawn, was it not? Well, no, not according to
most conventional understandings of the question but in one
way New Labour’s victory in 1997, particularly in terms
of it scale, did mark a seismic shift in the UK’s political
landscape – the New Labour monster had mutated into
the natural party of government.
When I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, the idea
that ‘the government’ would ever mean anyone
other than the Conservatives seemed vaguely fantastical and
ridiculous. Now the idea that the Tories could ever replace
new Labour in power must be equally unimaginable for the
current generation of young people – at least those
3.5% of young people who care either way.
The key difference of course, was that while Thatcher’s
Tories secured an ongoing grip on power by presenting a collection
of their own policies to the electorate and, thanks partly
to the iniquities of the first-past-the-post system, securing
a parliamentary majority to deliver them, new Labour’s
approach has been far less clear cut.
It’s a standard knee jerk reaction to say that new
Labour has spent the last eight years delivering Tory policies
but if you take this to mean that Tony Blair’s Labour
government has done exactly the same things that a Tory government
would, then it’s wrong.
For example, if Kenneth Clarke had stayed on as Chancellor
he probably would have spent far more between 1997 and 1999
than Gordon Brown did but that’s probably a bit of
a cheap jibe.
Taken over the government’s eight years in power,
public spending as proportion of GDP has risen significantly
under new Labour. Without turning myself into a snivelling
little ‘why you should vote Labour’ leaflet,
I would argue that this is a good thing. Also, possibly more
tellingly, new Labour won the debate - albeit a relatively
minor one – with the Tories over tax and spend. Gordon
Brown said he’d raise National Insurance to pump more
cash into the NHS, he did and no one seems to be unduly upset
Admittedly they started from a pretty low base but there
aren’t that many other countries in the developed world
where, in the last 15 years, governments have raised taxes
to spend more and not suffered any adverse electoral consequences.
This is obviously partly because not many have had the bottle
to do so but that doesn’t entirely destroy the point.
This is a problem for the Tories because, in the area where
they used to be able to win hands down – the line about
those scary socialists coming to take your hard-earned cash
and give it all to smelly scroungers and communist teachers – they’re
now not wanted.
Labour’s policy on paying for public services, while
it isn’t socialist or even social democratic is different
to the Tories policy and is more popular with the public.
On other issues the Tories are notionally far more in touch
with public opinion than new Labour. Immigration, for example,
where the Tories think it’s very, very, very bad, compared
to Labour’s very, very bad. Then there’s crime
where - in stark comparison to Labour’s tough approach
- the Tories offer an extremely tough approach but, if the
polls are to believed, this hasn’t been making a lot
of impact on people’s voting intentions.
The basic problem is that some Tory policies are fundamentally
out of step with what the electorate wants and, in other
policy areas, Labour is so in step with Tory policies that
the difference between the two isn’t enough to make
the public change their vote.
That said, there are some people who do care enough about ‘Tory
issues’ to switch parties but, unfortunately for Michael
Howard and whoever else is in the shadow cabinet these days,
these voters have a range of purer, more extreme alternatives
to choose from. So if you really, really, hate foreigners
you can vote for the BNP or if you really, really hate the
EU, you can choose between UKIP or the Kilroy roadshow.
The Liberal Democrats have, to some extent found their niche,
offering a range of often vague and sometimes contradictory
policies in a bid to capture the votes of pro-European Tories
who can’t bring themselves to vote Labour and traditional
Labour voters who can no longer bring themselves to vote
Surveying this political terrain, it’s difficult to
see what the Tories are for. There simply isn’t enough
space for a conventional centre-right party to position itself
between New Labour and the disparate but growing forces of
grumpy patriotism, orange-faced egotism and crypto-fascism
and win an electoral majority.
After the debacle of 2001, the Tories’ best hope of
offering a genuine alternative to both Blairism and the woolly
social democracy lite of the Lib Dems was to come up with
a programme that was both socially and economically liberal
- something broadly similar to the approach of the Democrats
in the US, although they’re allegedly starting from
In that year’s leadership election, Michael Portillo
offered to take his party down that route and, had they elected
him, would have provided at least enough of a contrast to
both Blairism and traditional Thatcherism to make things
vaguely interesting even if ultimately, he’d still
probably have led them to defeat in 2001.
The big problem with this was that the parliamentary Tory
party didn’t really want a socially liberal party and
Portillo didn’t even make it to the run-off. Of course,
the rank and file membership was probably even less keen
on a Portillo leadership than his parliamentary colleagues
but they never even got the chance to say so.
To an extent, you have to admire the Tories for sticking
to their principles. With two talented leaders on offer,
the liberal Portillo and the allegedly left-leaning (everything
is relative), pro-European Ken Clarke, they opted instead
for former Maastricht rebel Iain Duncan-Smith, someone who
shared many of their political opinions but had very little
to commend him to a career in frontline politics.
For a few crazy weeks, the fact that the hapless IDS consistently
gave the impression that he’d struggle to win a can
of beans in the community centre tombola, let alone a general
election didn’t seem to matter. The party of powermongering
pragmatism hadn’t elected their Michael Foot or even
their Tony Benn, they had somehow contrived to elect their
With hindsight, propelling Duncan Smith so far beyond his
station is by far the greatest act of cruelty that the Tories
have been able to perpetrate since they lost the reins of
power. The creation of the ‘The Quiet Man’ persona
was embarrassing but the appalling spectacle of the aggression
coached ‘Quiet Man turning up the volume’ was,
even for IDS’s strongest opponents, almost heartbreakingly
Not since the days that eunuchs and bearded women performed
before the Royal Court had the public been treated to a comparably
grotesque freak show and after that, it was a huge relief
to most of us when the parliamentary party committed the
necessary act of political euthanasia and finally voted to
deliver ‘The Quiet Man’ into a position of more
Michael Howard’s processional assumption of the leadership
has seen his party become more combative and considerably
less openly ridiculous. Unfortunately, and the opinion polls
so far bare this out, Howard has succeeded in making his
party even less interesting than it was under IDS.
They’ve launched some exciting plans for tax cuts,
only to discover that for ‘swing voters’ these
measures are either seen undesirable or impossible. They’ve
trotted out reactionary policies on immigration, only to
be comprehensively triangulated by New Labour’s own
points system and, they’ve followed that up with hand
outs to pensioners, perfectly suited to shoring up their
elderly core vote.
As in 2001, the only real trump card the Tories hold is
low turnout. If everyone under 50 stays in bed on election
day, they might win, otherwise they’ll lose by miles
(again) and it’s hard to say where they’ll go
Of course, the Tories have bounced back before. Robert Peel
created the modern Tory party from amidst the debris of the
Great Reform Act. Benjamin Disraeli had to do it all over
again after most of Peel’s supporters decided that
they were Liberals after all and he ultimately led the party
to power with a broadly progressive agenda. Then there was
Churchill, crushed in 1945 back in 1951.
The difficulty facing the modern Tories is that it’s
not their policies that have been defeated, it’s them.
Turbo-capitalism, though unpopular with many voters, has
a greater level of domination of the political landscape
than it ever had when the Tories were actually in government.
Socialists and social democrats have, so far, failed to
defeat Thatcherism at the ballot box but the Blairites have
succeeded in defeating the idea of Thatcherism delivered
by ugly elderly men, many of whom are unashamed of their
public school education.
For some Tories, as with the latest defector, Robert Jackson,
the only option is to actually give up and join the Labour
Party. Aside from that, the Tory leadership seems content
to plod on in an earnest fashion hoping that eventually the
wind will change and the country will want them back.
There’s a very slim chance that the Tories ultimate
salvation could turn out to be electoral reform but it’s
hard to see Labour ever countenancing a version of PR that
would be likely to lead to a Tory government.
In fact, if I was an aspiring Tory politician, I’d
probably stop aspiring to be a Tory politician and go off
and get a highly paid job in The City. What do you mean most
of them already have?