Shape-shifting Tories have mastered the game in front of the crowd, as Labor fight against themselves | Owen Jones
Tto be a Tory is to be a shapeshifter. Conservatives are one of the most successful electoral forces in the world because they always try to strike a balance between the spirit of each era and the interests of the elites they are there to defend.
For the true blue base, this can be confusing, even aggravating. At the Conservative Party conference, some activists whispered Boris Johnson’s “socialism” to me. Such complaints have a historic pedigree: When Tories resigned themselves to Clement Attlee’s post-war consensus on nationalization, high taxes, and strong unions, Margaret Thatcher denounced her party’s acquiescence. She even accused her predecessor, Ted Heath, of having “proposed and almost implemented the most radical form of socialism ever envisaged by an elected British government”.
It has certainly been a dizzying race since: from the high Thatcherism of the shameless individualism of every man for himself, to the austerity of David Cameron, tinged pink with an equal marriage, to the strategic investment of Boris Johnson mixed with a cultural war waged from the ministerial intimidation chair. Some Thatcherite complaints about Johnson statism simply refer to desperate decisions most Western governments have been forced to implement due to an unprecedented public health emergency, such as state intervention to pay. the wages of private sector workers – but few care to claim a free market economy and pandemic mixing. However, it does not end there. For years, the Conservatives – and New Labor for that matter – have cut corporate taxes with the mantra that asking big companies to contribute less will actually increase tax revenues. That they repudiated this dogma by raising corporate taxes is a major victory for the left’s arguments, or at least it would be if the Labor Party of today were interested in the fight against the conservative dogma (spoiler: it is not).
The latest incarnation of the Tories understands that the electorate never warmed to the nostrums of the free market, that at best a sufficient number could not be convinced that these were necessary evils. Their so-called “red wall” voters – mostly older white homeowners – want assets to increase, have a contempt for progressive social norms, dislike immigration, but also have no love for the slash-and-burn economy. This is the perfect place the Johnsonian Tories seek to nurture. So while nurses who led Britain through its worst emergency since the war may experience a pay cut in real terms – 82% of healthcare workers opted for work in 2019, so their means of livelihoods can be sidelined – funds for troubled towns are earmarked for conservative constituencies, especially in former Labor strongholds.
While Thatcher mocked the class as a “communist concept,” today’s conservatives disguise themselves as the blue collar, base of the working class: but he is undermined by the facts. Labor led the working-age population in its 2019 election rout, especially among low-paid workers. No wonder, then, that the Tories are feeling so relaxed about slashing the increase in universal credit, emptying the pockets of poor and poorly paid households by £ 20 a week. The same persistent Conservative dogma underlies this vulgar act of class warfare: Conservative delegates told me, almost as if they were reading a script, that people are poor because they cannot properly manage their own. finances, or splash them on cigarettes, alcohol and gambling. The idea that poverty is the result of individual failures – a claim that clashes with the reality of record numbers of working poor households – remains anchored in the conservative soul.
Yet Labor often falls back into a comfort zone of denigrating the “same old Tories” when it happens to have nothing to say. Johnson’s speech at the conference yesterday was a classic public school speech in substance. Its sunny, upbeat highlands of Britain face a reality of rising prices, emptying supermarket shelves and queues at gas stations. But that very phrase spells out Johnson’s trap: he relishes dismissing opponents as miserable doomsday prophets, underscoring the need for Labor to articulate its own optimistic and confident view of what society could be like. Just as the Conservatives have dazzlingly reframed what should have been a crisis of conservative ideology – the 2008 financial crisis – into a crisis in public spending, today’s scenes of chaos on the forecourt of the stations- service are dishonestly presented as proof that medicine works, a painful readjustment to a high-wage economy. Aided and encouraged by a largely flexible media, any incarnation of Labor would find it difficult to dismantle this dishonesty without excuse, but the opposition does not even have the appearance of a story to offer as an alternative.
As Johnson tossed cultural war red meat at his following audience – mercilessly pillaging drug addicts, though he and various members of his cabinet have admitted to previously smoking or snorting illicit substances – the Tories’ view is clear: strike the ‘awake’, kick the migrants away, promise high wages and public funds if your community votes in the right direction.
His team knows that is enough to build a formidable electoral coalition. They are not troubled by Keir Starmer, whom Johnson casually dismissed as a “chameleon” presiding over a warring party, pointing to the hole the Opposition leader has dug by renouncing his leadership promises and using his conference to trigger an internal ruckus. As it turns out, there is no more classic chameleon than the Conservative Party itself, but at least they are moving out from picking up traces of the public mood and tailoring it to their partisan advantage.
Sadly, Labor leaders are more interested in settling internal faction scores than in dismantling Conservative deception and projecting an optimistic and coherent vision in its place. It remains a party that stands up for the well-to-do rather than, say, underpaid supermarket workers, orderlies or nurses: yet they have the arrogance of an unopposed government. That the Labor Party chose to give them this completely unnecessary trust is a voluntary decision of political self-destruction.