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Death of a party

New Labour sucked the Tories blood, now Michael Howard is gently leading them to their graves argues David Floyd.

“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 about it.

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 Labour.

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 the left.

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 Jeremy Corbyn.

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 sad.

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 permanent silence.

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 from there.

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?