Tory blues

Over the last nine years, it’s become a pretty standard rhetorical trick to compare the progress of the Conservative party with that of Labour’s years in wilderness during the 1980s. David Cameron bangs on endlessly about the party’s need to come to terms with the modern world, while pundits endlessly debate whether the party has yet had the “clause 4 moment” that will symbolize its break with the past. “Oh, I think Cameron was a mistake,” someone said to me the other day. “They’ve chosen a Blair when they needed a Kinnock.”

There is some truth in this comparison. Both parties took a rather regrettable detour to their own extremist flank; both fought a hopeless election campaign (1983; 2001) on policies which had the electorate backing nervously away; both went through a phase of picking leaders more for their comedy value than their leadership skills; and both seemed utterly stunned by the electorate’s refusal to take them seriously. Both were, essentially, at the mercy of a party membership who didn’t reflect the electorate and, worst of all, didn’t realise it.

You can see why such rhetoric – we’ll call it the Fague theory, after the leaders that got them into this mess – has proved popular. It charts a way forward for the Tory modernizers; it gives comfort to the left, who can convince themselves that the Conservatives can’t possibly win an election until they have suffered as Labour did; and it gives everyone else a framework for making sense of the whole thing.

I’m not sure it’s helpful any more, for one simple reason. Margaret Thatcher may have been widely loathed by 1988 – yet there was still a large minority who adored her and her ideas. But when did you last meet a really enthusiastic Blairite? Back then, everyone seemed to be on one side of the other. Today we’re pretty much all sick of the lot of them.

The comfort that the Fague theory gives might even dangerous. Do we really want a Labour government that doesn’t feel threatened by an unreformed Conservative party? Do we want a Tory leader that thinks symbolic sacrifices and Blair-esque spin matters more than a serious debate about what a modern Conservative party should look like?

A more accurate – and more depressing – comparison might be with the mess that is the current US Democratic party. The pundits say the party doesn’t have a consistent vision, and accuse it of failing to come to terms with the values of the modern America. As a result it’s failing to make progress, despite facing an administration whose arrogant incompetence is making them more unpopular by the day. The Dems lost the last election despite President Bush’s widespread unpopularity, simply because swing voters liked their guy even less.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the next time the country goes to the polls, there’s a systematic bias against them. To have a hope of a legislative majority, they need way more than a simple majority of votes.

…is any of this sounding familiar?

The causes of Britain’s electoral bias, and the aspects of modernity that the Conservatives are struggling to come to terms with, are very different. But the results are the same: even as the Blair government slides further into meltdown by the day, few people really seem convinced that the Tories will win the next election.

What these parallels mean for the life expectancy of the Labour government (or for the results of November’s midterms, come to that) is anybody’s guess. People far cleverer than me are going to make fools of themselves trying to predict that one.

But it does go some way to explain why everyone on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be so bloody angry at the moment. There’s no alternative government that discontent can rally behind; no optimism of the “at least we’ll soon be rid of this lot” variety, because we won’t and, anyway, the other lot are no better. As a result, comments along the lines of “they’re all the same anyway” seem to be everywhere. And with good reason: Labour was supposed to be whiter than white; the Republican landslide of 1994 was supposed to clean up Congress; yet we still got loans-for-peerages and Jack Abramoff.

But this cynicism isn’t healthy. If a government is to be kept from either arrogance or complacency, it needs to be afraid of the voters – and aware that they can be replaced. While opposition parties don’t present an alternative, governments are under less pressure not to screw up.

For all their faults, I want to see the Democrats get another crack at power. I don’t have any similar attachment to the Conservatives, but I’d still like the see the party’s renaissance. Maybe this week’s elections will finally give it the momentum in needs to persuade more than 34% of the electorate that it might be worth voting for. Despite my distrust of conservatism, there’s part of me that hopes so.

Because bad opposition makes for bad government. And I don’t know about you, but I am sick of bad government.

1 comment
  1. john b said:

    “But when did you last meet a really enthusiastic Blairite?”

    Have you managed to avoid encountering Neil Harding, then? Well done if so.