The new Labour leader’s far-left politics mean the Conservatives no longer need to play Blairite games. The modernisers’ days are over
After the defeat of the national miners’ strike in 1985, Conservatives were told not to gloat. Willie Whitelaw rejected the advice. He said he was “gloating like hell”. Conservatives are gloating like hell now at the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Short of some catastrophe — nuclear war, incurable pestilence or the melting of both polar ice caps in the space of a week — Mr Corbyn will never be Prime Minister, and until his party changes direction there will probably never be another Labour government. On this point, the gloating should be general and unabashed. All Labour governments are bad. The worst precipitate economic meltdown. The best — among which must be counted Tony Blair’s — still overspend and overborrow, and, as with Iraq, pursue a spectacularly incompetent foreign policy. If there were never another Labour government, Britain would be better off.
Yet every silver lining comes with its cloud, in this case three clouds. Even sympathetic commentators openly worry about the effect on the Conservative party of a monopoly on government. The Conservatives are, as their history shows, by nature an arrogant, lazy and complacent crew. They respond well to a fearsome skipper who whips them into shape. They can sometimes rise to a national crisis. But, otherwise, they prefer perks and patronage to sustained activity. In these matters, David Cameron reflects his party’s instincts all too well. The latest shameless honours list was a taster of things to come. And that was before Corbyn.
A second cloud overshadows the bright, sunlit uplands of Tory triumph. The prospect of ceding power to Labour kept Conservative egos in check. The latest biography of David Cameron, by Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon, describes an intra-Bullingdon spat in which the Prime Minister tells Boris Johnson to “f***ing shut up” or they’ll lose the election. The discipline which that threat imposed will disappear once Labour is unelectable. It spells unquiet nights for the party leadership, since Mr Cameron has an overall majority of only 12.
This second cloud, however, is not un-lined. Parties certainly do need discipline. But they also need energy. Political energy is manifested in a constant flow of ideas, connected argument, collective enthusiasm, individual commitment, and, in the end, a high level of moral courage. Energy of this kind generates mass membership of the sort that the Conservative party had under Margaret Thatcher but which it lacks under Cameron.
A process of colonisation and sterilisation over the last ten years has occurred. This is essentially what the Tory modernisers wanted. Modernisation has not won an election. It failed to secure a majority for the Party in 2010. And the surprise success this year was the result of discarding its tiresome shibboleths and fighting an old-fashioned, negative and really quite nasty anti-socialist (and anti-Scottish) campaign. But modernisation inside the party, in the sense of uprooting old loyalties and importing socially liberal cosmopolitan values, has proceeded apace. The rise of UKIP was one result. The systematic exclusion of conservative-minded people from all positions of influence was another.
In consequence, the party has not just shrunk. It has lost its vigour. It has been hollowed out. Mental inertia prevails. The leadership is unchallenged, which it appreciates, but it is also unstimulated, which it will eventually regret. The ruling cabal of modernisers has no purpose except its own indefinite perpetuation. Given plenty of money from big business to purchase first-rate media managers, and faced with a single, credible, threatening enemy, the votes can still be found to win elections. But as a recognisable historic entity, with roots, instincts, principles, preferences — and, yes, prejudices, which are always inseparable from mass politics — the Conservative party today has lost its way.
The Corbyn phenomenon provides the backdrop to change all that. Argument among Conservatives will, henceforth, be possible. Dissent will no longer look like treachery. Life, even intellectual liveliness, can return. If that happens, the country as a whole will benefit.
A third cloud on the horizon, even darker than the second, spells rain on the leadership’s approach. George Osborne’s post-election strategy is to have the Conservatives straddle the centre ground of politics. Thus the Conservatives are now apparently the “party of the workers”. This is merely the latest in a series of inauthentic, left-looking slogans dreamt up by the party’s modernisers: “Vote Blue, go Green!”, “Sharing the Proceeds of Growth”, “The Big Society”. Like same-sex marriage, these were ways of reaching out to non-conservative constituencies, while ignoring and, on occasion, enraging the party’s traditional supporters.
The tactic continues. Perhaps it seemed a nice stroke to steal the Labour policy of the “living wage” and announce it as the Chancellor’s own. But, apart from the impact on particular firms and employees priced out of jobs — not to mention the further undermining of immigration control — this policy unlearns a lesson that Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph spent years attempting to instil. The “living wage” suggests that Government can and should determine the level of wages paid by private employers. Once that is accepted, why should a “living wage” not become a “decent wage”, or a “fair wage”, or “an equal wage for equal work”, or just a “high wage” at whatever level a politician wishes to propose?
One can argue about the balance of advantage of such an approach in the past. But in a political environment in which Corbyn leads an unelectable Labour party it makes no sense at all. Moreover, since upon that approach depend Osborne’s leadership hopes, this third cloud blown in by Corbyn’s victory is blackest for the Chancellor. It renders his strategy redundant and his leadership prospects doubtful.
The broader implications of the Corbyn leadership victory must also be taken into account. British politics will not remain the same. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s views are extreme, and that they can only ever muster minority support, does not mean that they will be without influence. Having a radical Leftist at the head of the Labour party will shift debate in the media, and opinion in the influential media class, leftwards too.
Corbyn’s own views have not much changed since 1983, when he appeared, wild-eyed and hirsute, on the national scene. But the world looks very different — above all, it is less threatening. In the early eighties, the West was engaged in perhaps the most dangerous phase of the Cold War. Trade union power was untamed. The threat of a return to high inflation frightened not just business bosses but Everyman.
Those memories have faded. Those particular dangers have disappeared or diminished. Vladimir Putin may be a nasty bit of goods, but his Russia is not the globally predatory Soviet Union. Britain should upgrade Trident, since nuclear proliferation is unstoppable. But, with even a Tory government slashing the defence budget, Corbyn’s plans for unilateral disarmament seem less far-fetched. It is the same with Corbynomics. Quantitative easing has so altered the terms of debate — and the inflation threat is now so discounted — that his plans to print money sound quite beguiling. And renationalisation of the railways is very popular.
Corbyn is wrong because socialism is wrong. The market alone, not the state, has the information to determine productive economic outcomes. The economic role of government is to provide a light but stable framework for enterprise to function. The trouble is that these basic principles, like other conservative principles, have not for years now been enunciated by the Conservative party. Indeed, the government, itself — as part of its strategy of tacking left — espouses an egalitarian rhetoric that implies a causal link between the free market and poverty.
Such failure of nerve by the Conservative party, resulting in reluctance to expound or defend conservative ideas, did not prevent its winning elections. But, confronted by Corbyn, it now leaves it vulnerable. The ragbag of Trotskyists, anarchists, union activists, poverty campaigners, Green obsessives, animal rights insurgents — potentially to be joined by the socialist SNP and Islamist radicals — lining up behind Corbyn are not to be underrated. When he promised in a recent article in The Times to “pursue [the Tories] at every turn and focus our energies on a massive growth in campaigning politics” he should be taken seriously. He can afford to be so nonchalant about his chances of residing in Downing Street because he intends to besiege it. What he ultimately offers is what the hard Left have always offered: revolution.
The question is, where does that leave the Conservative party? If anyone believes that a media-driven, frothy, soft-focused approach to Corbyn and his allies is adequate, they delude themselves. It will not be sufficient to call for the “moderates” to make their voices heard. Moderates generally practise their moderation moderately, shyly, timidly and opportunistically — and never more so than in the Labour party and the unions. The hard Left are past masters of entryism, and in this case they will be entering from the top. Unless Corbyn is ejected almost at once, it will take years of splits, purges, rows, and counter-purges before a different market-friendly, non-Marxist alternative emerges. The answer to revolution is always, in the end, counter-revolution. Offering it is the next Tory challenge. It must come, of course, by the use of ideas, not baton rounds — but counter-revolution, of any kind, is not for wimps.
The Conservative Party’s hold on office may look secure for years to come. But it is the hold on power that matters. Real power is not wielded by those who cherry-pick their opponents’ policies, or accept prevailing error as unchallengeable, or retreat before passionate illogicality. Real power is exercised by those who know who they are and what they want.
The Conservative party’s problem is that it does not know. Despite electoral success, the party has lost sight of its purpose. This is not, for the most part, the result of cultural trends, technical developments, philosophical dissonance or inter-generational disagreements — though these exist. It is principally the result of inadequate leadership. Within the Conservative party, as within other parties, different wings, currents and ideological groups have always had to co-habit. Some people, for example, are more socially conservative than others. Some believe that the operation of the market is enough to determine every large question. For some, the significance of nationhood is greater than everything else. Anyone who remembers the 1980s will also recall that there were different strands of opinion at work in those years. Some will remember, too, that even within Mrs Thatcher’s own ever-active and often over-active mind there were a host of conflicts and contradictions in play. But the basic identity of the party, like the essential core of its beliefs, was unquestioned. British conservatism is a philosophical outlook that simultaneously supports traditional institutions, endorses free-market economics and asserts the importance of the nation-state. Within that framework there can be vigorous argument. But abandon it, and there is merely the politics of false pretences.
David Cameron is on the record as deploring “tribal” politics. But the Conservative party, like the Labour party, is, in the end, a tribe. Some members of the tribe departed to join UKIP. But many more stayed quiet, sulking in their wigwams. Times could be about to change. Now it is the modernisers who might need to hang on to their scalps. As young, frequently new arrivals, and very full of themselves, they were always resented. Now they are expendable. They persuaded the party that it had to change, and it reluctantly did. But, if it wishes, it can afford to change again. It is clearly now possible for the Right to win elections, and do so without adopting Blairite disguise. For this new opportunity, traditional Tories should give thanks to Comrade Corbyn.