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Back to the future

Pete Smith sees lessons for Labour in the Cameron makeover of the Tories towards a more traditional pragmatism

David Cameron has hardly got his feet under the table as Conservative leader and already voices are being raised against him. Those from the Thatcherite wing of his own party criticise both his policies and his general approach. He is too centrist and non-ideological for their taste. They yearn after the apparent certainties of the Thatcher years – the once and future queen.

After three election defeats, there are elements in the party who follow the ‘one more heave’ view which provided such solace to those in the Labour Party after 1983 who believed that the gap with the Conservatives could be narrowed election on election. Now it is true that the Conservatives have narrowed the margin that Labour had over them after the massive Labour majority of 1997, but although pigeon steps can make for giant strides, it is a long process that is likely to outlive any particular party leader.

The Thatcherites, who deny their support and finance to the current Conservative leadership and who seem more tempted by the UK Independence Party, live in a world where all they need to do is keep repeating the same messages and it will come right in the end; just like the supporters of the Labour left, who believed in the 1980s that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the party. Classically Tony Benn described Labour’s 1983 election performance, an election in which he lost his own seat in the House of Commons, as not a defeat. It seems that the Conservative Party is as prone to what Max Weber once called the “ethic of ultimate ends” as the Labour Party. It is better to be right than to be in power. The product remains the same, even if the voters will not buy it.

After 1990, the post-Thatcher Conservatives under John Major tried to find a new identity or at least a new image. The trouble was that Major’s concept, partly borrowed from George Orwell, was “old maids biking to holy communion through the mists of the autumn morning”, warm beer and cricket on the green. This was an exercise in nostalgia. Even if such an England had ever existed, which is very doubtful, it did not exist by the 1990s. The Thatcher years undermined many of the institutions which had formed the bedrock of Conservative domination in the twentieth century. Local government had been a recruiting ground for Conservative activists, with many people joining the party not for ideological or political reasons, but in order to contribute to the local community.

That ethic of public service is now largely dead, thanks to the marketisation of local services. The old boys network of the City, with its rules of a gentleman’s club was turned into a giant casino, where profit and sharp practice ruled. The professions were almost uniformly Conservative, but the days when doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers and lawyers could be assumed to be largely Conservative supporters are long gone. The interesting feature of the Thatcher and Major governments was the way that the party haemorrhaged the backing of large sections of the middle classes, just as Labour lost support amongst many skilled manual workers during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Writers such as Ivor Crewe have focused on the processes of de-alignment, both partisan de-alignment, where political affiliation and allegiance is weaker than in the past, and class de-alignment, where a person’s class as determined by their occupation, became a less reliable guide to how they were likely to vote. What for a long period in the 1980s was seen as a problem for Labour has now turned out to be just as much or more of a problem for the Conservatives.

The problems of the Conservative Party are not just a result of the aftershock of Thatcherism, but reflect deep-seated changes in society. The rise of individualism has generated difficulties for all institutions including political parties. Changes in employment patterns mean that women no longer provide the almost inexhaustible supply of free labour for parties. Increased leisure opportunities compete for time and energy with parties and it is most likely that TV, the bowling alley and the multiplex are likely to win.

Sociologists, such as AH Halsey, have stressed the decline in deference. We are less respectful of those in authority and this has provided a particular problem for the Conservatives. Those institutions which underpinned custom and tradition and therefore the Conservatives as the natural party of government no longer have the same hold that they once did. This is certainly true of the Church of England and the monarchy, which were identified by Disraeli in the nineteenth century as two of the major pillars of conservatism.

The Major and Hague years could have been periods of consolidation and preparation, but the 1997 election was more or less lost almost five years earlier because of the government’s need to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The Conservative claim to be competent managers of the economy was holed below the waterline and the party flatlined in the polls from then on.

William Hague, who is not a stupid person, but someone who has spent too much time listening to recordings of Winston Churchill’s speeches, intermixed with the cheeky chappy persona of George Formby, wasted his chances by going down the route of ‘save the pound’. The average person in the saloon bar of the proverbial Dog and Duck is only in favour of the pound if they have enough of them.

As for Michael Howard, his 2005 campaign got sidetracked into arguments about immigration and asylum seekers, emotive issues, but not election winners when you are coming from so far behind. Although image isn’t everything, it does count for something, particularly when much of the press has turned against the party. To be blunt, Howard had all the manner and charm of an undertaker mixed with that of an absconding bookmaker.

David Cameron was elected party leader in a system introduced by William Hague, which meant that broadly the party members called the shots. This was a dramatic change from the way the party used to be, the rank and file as the humble sherpas lifting their mountaineering leaders into the major offices of state. If the old system of charmed elites had been used, then David Davies probably would have been elected and the party would be even further away from power. Cameron is, in many respects, an interesting figure: after all, he had a main role in drafting the Howard manifesto of 2005. He has now, by deed if not always in word, repudiated that manifesto.

Critics on the left and centre-left have tried to dismiss him as a lightweight, all style and no content, and there is some evidence that a substantial chunk of the electorate share this view. However, Labour bringing in the spin-meisters, Philip Gould and Alistair Campbell, seems to be admitting that the confidence that Cameron could be seen off without too much trouble is a front not reality. After all, the Labour parliamentary majority has been reduced at the last two elections on the basis of declining turnout and the alienation, not only of Labour’s core support, but that of many of the middle class, who supported the party for the first time in 1997.

Of course, some on the left and centre-left press have focused on the fact that Cameron is a toff, a product of public school and an up-market university, as though Tony Blair was one of the Bash Street Kids. Where do they think that Labour leaders have come from in the past?

Cameron has been nervous about committing the party to policies too soon. After all, there is no hurry since it is unlikely that there will be an election before 2009. He has been criticised for not producing his so-called ‘Clause Four moment’, when the leader redefines the party by making an iconic shift. Now it can be argued that Blair did not redefine his party by a change in Clause Four that replaced the public ownership of the means of production with the kind of mission statement which many companies, schools and colleges have, often little more than collections of warm words. The changes in the Labour Party were much more deep-seated and driven by a desperation to leave the wilderness years behind at almost any cost. I suspect that many Conservatives who voted for Cameron were motivated by similar concerns.

The Conservatives do not have a clear statement of aims and objectives which are set in stone, so no similar ploy to that of Blair could possibly be used. Historically that is the genius of the Conservatives, able to reinvent themselves, if they choose, in each generation. Actually, ideology has been out of place for most of the history of the party. That all changed with Margaret Thatcher. Shortly after election as party leader in 1975, she told a rather astonished Shadow Cabinet, “the Labour Party has an ideology, we must have one too”. This was out of keeping with the Tory tradition of pragmatism, flexibility, paternalism and being willing to borrow policies from opponents as and when it suits.

As early as 1983, David Owen set forth the idea that the newly founded Social Democratic Party should be, if not policy-free, it must is his term “travel light”, in terms of specific commitments. Owen was trying to model the SDP on American parties, which are often held together more by a vague ethos than by clearly defined policy positions. Cameron, by contrast, seems inspired by the Tory tradition: he is trying to modernise the party by taking it back to the future, back to its pragmatic and paternalistic roots.

There might be lessons here for Labour: if the party is to renew itself once the shabby and bankrupt project of New Labour has run into the sand, as no doubt it will, the most sensible lesson that Labour could learn from the current state of the parties is simply “David, teach us to be like you.”