You’re All In This Together

Scared? You Will Be.

Scared? You Will Be.

This week, the Tories partied like it was 1984. I couldn’t have been the only one to be surprised by just how blue the conference was. Not just in terms of its austere outlook – only Eric Pickles’s Dickensian face seemed to manage much in the way of a smile – but, of course, also in terms of policy. There was even a moment when Theresa May was asked on live television how an incoming Tory government would deal with public sector strikes, in the Post Office or elsewhere. Her answer did not put much distance between her party and the Nasty one of old.

What to make of this gamble? Deborah Orr’s response was typically mixed – a sort of liberalista’s certainty that the Tories could only sound reasonable by stealing Labour’s policies, but an inherited conviction that they were also the same old selfish Toffs as always. The conference was notable for how much in dialogue it was with Labour’s of the previous week, and herein lied the confusion: the Tories have for years seemed to live on a different plant to the rest of us, but now, in addressing the same problems and issues Labour have identified, they have both moved back towards respectability and, naturally, assimilated the Labour years into their philosophy. Cameron, in his speech on Thursday, said that not everything Labour had done was bad, that his party would keep the minimum wage, devolution and civil partnerships. (Quite how Cameron’s love of gay rights sits with his European partners it is hard to tell.)

This should not confuse true left-wingers (naturally, Guardianistas often don’t count). The Conservatives are talking about the same issues but applying an entirely different emphasis. They believe, too – and a ComRes poll seems to support their view – that the public are ready for that emphasis: public spending cuts, a freeze in civil servant pay, a renewed distrust of the state, and, this built up by month’s of clever Tory campaigning, a basic assumption that things must get worse. As Janet Daley keeps saying, if you know that, you will sensibly choose the people who believe in taking an axe to the state.

The Tories’ week has been defined by the assumption that Labour are too sick and exhausted to manage anything like a counter-narrative to all this. If they could, the gamble would be far more risky – people are not, after all, embracing Tory policy so much as rejecting Labour personality. In an interview in today’s Telegraph, Gordon Brown begins to grasp his counter-argument: “[The Tories] are pessimists; they’re for an age of austerity, they’re for cutting the help, therefore allowing unemployment to continue to rise. […] Do people want a party that has a strategy for getting out of the recession, or do they want a party that’s so pessimistic about Britain, they tell you in advance they’re giving you an age of austerity?”

Brown’s credibility, in part thanks to the Tories’ success in pushing the terms of the debate onto dire economic ground, is currently low when it comes to making these sorts of arguments. If he can keep pushing them, though, and find a way to frame the Tories’s big gamble as selfish and counter-productive, he may still have a chance. In the meantime, Cameron will keep being ‘honest’ – for which you can from hereon in read ‘Tory’.

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3 thoughts on “You’re All In This Together

  1. Pingback: A Quiet Weekend « @Number 71
  2. Hey Dan

    The conference season has been interesting this year (Interesting rather than exciting like you might expect the last conference before an election to be). I couldn’t help but feel terribly disappointed with the Labour conference.I know with the position that labour is in right now it might sound stupid to have high expectations for anything they do but… I don’t know… I really did feel there was a chance for a proper fight back! And I certainly felt let down. Browns speech was ridiculous. The content of that speech convinced me that neither he or his advisers have any clue as too why labour fallen out of favour with the public. Why was he going on a spending spree now? Why did he think now was the time deliver a new labour, boom years list of schemes? He essesntially gave the tories their whole ‘we are the brutally honest’ narrative that they plugged all last week. The Tories, in my opinion, have played the conference season rather well ( Europe and Chris Gayling gaffs aside) they have already started the move to the right which I said they’d be able to make in a previous comment. George Osbourne gave a good performance on question time(with a little help from hislop) and I didn’t hear much complaint from the audience even with the tough message. Anyway we’ll see how the Election year plays out and if Labour find’s it narrative( I thought they had until Browns speech last week).

  3. Hi, Catho – good to see you back!

    Yes, I think you’re spot on when you say the Labour conference made the error of setting the honesty bar very low. The Tories can paint themselves as giving it to the electorate straight because Labour made little effort to appear anything but ‘business as usual’. They have been painted into a corner, though: were they to have suddenly said, ‘Actually, everything’s changed!’ they would have been singing from the Tories’ hymn book. It was lose-lose in many ways, but you’re right that they could have still played their hand better.

    What next? As well the optimism/pessimism message in that interview above, and poking holes in Osborne’s honesty as that story in Saturday’s Guardian which we link to today, Milliband made play in the Observer yesterday of the Tories’ dodgy friends. (Right-wing thinker Nile Gardener’s defense, though, is the obvious one.)

    The route is to question the Tories’ credibility, and come up with some believable narrative of your own. I’m still unconvinced that voters really want the Tories; it’s advantage Cameron, but you can also save those points. You just have to be very good. Labour maybe aren’t anymore.

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