May 08, 2005

What the Tories would need to do to win the next election

It isn't impossible for them, but the task is much more difficult than many are recognising.

The extent to which the formerly self-proclaimed 'natural party of government' has sunk can be gleaned by the fact that they are treating their results on Thursday - when they scored less seats than Michael Foot managed for Labour in the legendarily catastrophic 1983 election - as a partial recovery. In fact, the Conservative vote increased hardly at all. The few 'triumphs' they scraped can be attributed to Labour supporters going AWOL, not to an increase in their vote.


Perhaps for his own reasons, Michael Portillo was withering in the Sunday Times today about the Tories' chances in 2009. Portillo has identified reasons for Tory failure that are structural, not merely contingent. The party is caught in some terrible compulsion to repeat. 'On past form the party will eventually elect a rightwinger. He will flirt briefly with moving the party to the centre before getting scared that he might lose core voters and reverting to Daily Mail-style issues.' The lessons will not be learned: 'since the party’s vote haul is still flatlining from one election to the next, there are good grounds for modernisers to argue that fighting on right-wing issues such as immigration has been tried repeatedly and fails every time... Once more, electoral disaster will not shock the party into change. Party spokesmen’s initial reactions to the Tories’ third electoral humiliation were highly complacent.' Portillo's disillusioned column today is perhaps his most clear and succinct statement of why he is waving goodbye to the conversative party. The party as he sees it is structurally set on a long, slow, course towards death at its own hand, destined to perish, quietly and unmourned, amongst the cucumber sandwiches when the last arhritic 'activist' drifts into the grave. As long as it panders to its core vote - the aged and the ageing privet hedge nazis of the shires - it will remain unattractive to the young and the urban. But Portillo clearly realised four years ago that the Conservatives do not see this as enough of a problem to ever elect a moderniser like himself.

The lesson that Labour learned after 1983 - that it must move 'beyond the pleasure principle', give up on what provides it easy satisfactions - will, it seems, be much harder for the Tories to assimilate. That's partly because the level of complacency in the Party is much greater; or, to put it another way, the level of urgency is much lesser. For all its intransigent conservatism, the Labour Party of 1983 was enmeshed in a mass movement fired by a monstrous energy, albeit an energy that was too often prone to self-immolation. Blair has made the parliamentary party less dependent upon those unpredictable energies by detaching it from its traditional core support, and, more importantly, being seen to have done it. As the Economist put it on Friday, 'His mission was to steal the party from its previous owners, and have it understood that that was what he had done.' This ought to have been the beginnings of a process of renewal. Instead, it became the be-all and end-all of the New Labour project. Which is why the notion of an 'unremittingly New Labour' third term floated in the media this weekend - albeit only to dismiss the possibility of it happening - is senseless. What would that amount to? As the Economist rightly observed, 'There is no such thing as Blairism—and if there were, the term would far more likely denote spin and other dark political arts than policy.'

Was there ever was an opportunity for New Labour to be genuinely 'new' (rather than, as it turned out, 'Not Old')? The question is now moot, since the one-eyed will-to-win of Blair's inner circle was so hostile to all aspects of the old party that it proved unable to evolve beyond a paranoid pragmatism that was initially understandable but ultimately corrosively destructive - not only to the party, but to parliamentary democracy in Britain, and to the nation's political and intellectual culture more generally. Old Labour's entrenchment in commitments that were plainly in no-one's interests - such as the attachment to corrupt Unions whose bloody-mindlessness led to in-fighting amongst the working class and a raging inflation that meant workers' wages became worth less and less and the quasi-fascist rooting in 'organic communities' with ossified labour and gender relations frozen somewhere around 1903 - had to be abandoned, left to rot with the unburied bodies and uncollected trash of 1978. On the other hand, the party's commitment to the concept of class, never mind the working class and to the concept of the public (as opposed to the private) had to be retained if the party were to be anything but another sign that global capital's moronic domination of not only our working lives, but our dreams too, was total. Yet retaining, defending and revivifying these concepts would have required intellectual vigour, but this was another of the old Party's virtues sacrificed early on to Powerpoint pragmatism.

Part of the Tories' problem is that they have failed to identify the real nature of the discontent with New Labour. What the country has wearied of is not only what the Economist called the 'party's remorseless, pathological, high-pressure salesmanship'. It is the extension of this 'salesmanship' to all areas of life. Blairite initiatives force managers and workers into becoming Little Blairs, hustling and huckstering, working to gerrymander statistics in a bid to 'meet targets', not out of any commitment or sense of the innate value of what you are doing. That's because, once again, New Labour is an expression of global capital, which is destructive not only of specific values, but of the very concept of anything possessing a value that is not ephemeral or micro-specific.

The stupid 'internal market' reforms due to be foisted upon the NHS - but which, the Economist worries, may have to be put on ice due to the reduced Labour majority - are typical of New Labour's blundering ideological indebtedness to Capital. These 'reforms', which will mean that hospitals are funded by number of patients rather than by 'block', would make the NHS the same sort of mess that Further Education now is. Old Labour's blanket hostility to markets was misguided and misplaced - markets long preceded capital, and as Manuel De Landa and Braudel have argued, capitalism is best defined as an anti-market - but New Labour's enthusiasm for quasi-marketization is one more example of its
commitment to worst of all worlds non-solutions. In public education and health, there is no pricing, therefore no market mechanism can apply. What you are left with, then, is not the public acting directly on their public services through their 'pattern of consumption', as ideologues like the Economist's nameless writers would have us believe, but a complex, centralized bureaucracy which allocates funding on the basis of spurious measurables, and deprofessionalizes and infantilises the people who work on the front-line, making them increasingly subservient to statistical machineries that are constitutively insensitive to local priorities and variations.


The irony of New Labour's managerialism is that it has led to the destruction of effective management. The Labour way - top-down management by memo in the service of idiot PR initiatives in which no-one, not the people producing them, nor those at whom they are aimed, believes; elevating the anti-ethical principle of putting the defence of your own position to the status of the only axiom by which you act - is increasingly the only way, in public services at least. The idea that management should be about the development of impersonal systems that allow workers to work more effectively has withered away with the supposedly outdated concept of the public as an ontological entity that cannot be reduced to an aggregation of individuals (or individuals and their famileeeeeees). That's why New Labour's investment in public services has, and will never, yield any positive results.

New Labour's legacy is a country in which most teenagers are engaging in one form of nihilism or another - if they haven't already given up and sold out their future to the empty dreams of capitalist careerism, they are cutting or starving themselves, or else terrorising others; and where those who are older are coralled into a ceaseless busy-ness without worthwhile object, after which they slink back to burrows that are increasingly well-provided with all manner of consumer diversions, but in which they feel like tourists; where the only thing likely to be found in public space is vomit.


For any remotely competent opposition, Labour ought, then, to have been an easy target this election. And the only wrong note Portillo struck in his Sunday Times piece was his claim that New Labour would be an even more formidable proposition under Brown. If Blair's best days are now definitely behind him, so are Brown's. The day of greatest triumph for an instinctively resentful man like Brown will almost certainly turn out to be last Thursday. Once his alleged 'enemy' and rival is removed from power and Brown assumes it, all his current appeal - which consists solely in 'not being Blair' - will evaporate, and the man will be seen for what he is, an apparition memorably summoned by Simon Jenkins a few months back. 'On any blink test, Brown's face, clothes, office, lifestyle and friends suggest a man temperamentally unsuited to public politics. He is averse to man-management, foreigners, the countryside, Londoners, the arts and good living, not to mention compromise, forgiveness and hail-fellow-well-met.' Brown is to Blair what Heseltine was to Thatcher: attractive to bad-faith party sympathisers hostile to the leadership, but without any broader appeal. Anyone who has fallen for the Brownite spin that he is to the left of Blair should remember that it was Brown, not Blair, who intransigently insisted on pushing through the predictably catastrophic Private Finance Initiative for the London Underground.

The Tories will not be able to exploit this weakness if they don't move away from their core support. The usual term for such a detachment from the party faithful is 'embracing the middle ground'. But this implies that there is blandly invariant space that parties simply have to occupy in order to be successful. In fact, successful parties produce such spaces rather than simply pander to them. Blair bought in his middle ground readymade for him, by Thatcherism. That is yet another reason for the peculiarly sterile quality of Blair's regime; it is 'political' only in the venal, derogatory sense of Machieavelian intrigue, not in the sense of producing any sort of systematic philosophy. Its so-called 'radicalism' is Thatcher's radicalism. But it must be remembered that this radicalism was won by risking alienating old school Tory supporters in the shires, who only countenanced Maggie because she won them elections.

If the standard view about New Labour is that it has triumphed by stealing Thatcherite clothes from the Tories, then the most effective strategy the Conservative party could adopt is to steal 'progressivist' (I HATE that term) clothes from Labour. It ought to be easy to argue that egalitarian social goals are best pursued by crushing bureaucracy, by taking power away from know-all Islington lawyers and restoring control of people's working lives to them.

But don't hold your breath.

Posted by mark at May 8, 2005 08:44 PM | TrackBack