Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Cameron and rebranding his party

'Dave' Cameron, it seems will today map out the way forward for the Conservatives in a speech in London addressed to party activists. This will be an opportunity to draw together some of his rather incohate new ideas and to try and mould them into a coherent set of beliefs. He has already made a few pledges, the most crucial of which, to me is: 'The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich.' This gets to the heart of it. Lots of Labour supporters, like me, in the past have become embroiled in arguments with Tories, in pubs, at parties, who insist the government should take away constraints- rules, taxation, employment laws or whatever- so that business can proceed with greater despatch and more profits be made.

When the question was asked 'Yes, but what will happen to employees if this happens? Who will defend their interests?', the answer was often: 'Individuals alone have the responsibility for creating their own future prosperity.' In other words, they did not care too much if people had to become or stay poor for them to become or stay rich, that was not their problem. Conservatism provided a nice rationalisation of selfishness to make selfish people feel better about being selfish. I do not include in this generalisation the many Tory voters who hearkened back to the more inclusive approaches of Macmillan and even Heath.

It was this fundamental selfishness which defined the Conservatives for me, especially during the Thatcher era- and I hated it. It appears that over time, many hundreds of thousands of others did too and the 'natural party of government' was perceived by a majority of people rather in this fashion. The rightwing Policy Exchange report in September 2005 revealed 52 per cent of voters thinking Conservatives were 'stuck in the past'; 51 per cent who saw them as caring 'more about the well off than the have nots'; 44 per cent who thought them 'narrow-minded and bigoted' and 67 per cent who saw them as 'out of touch.' Tories had become a diminishing enclave of ageing, selfish mean- minded people and voters had acquired an image of them which was going to be hard to shift.

This is what 'Dave' is seeking to do with his charm offensive. The similarity between his strategy and that of the younger Blair is both flattering to New Labour and an indictment of how the Conservatives have behaved over the past decade or so. I see he is even using the device of the party plebiscite- his policy document will be published, circulated and voted on by party members. Blair did the same and, surprise indeed, won the kind of ringing endorsement which warmed the hearts of East European party bosses before their systems imploded. Will he succeed? I think he probably will. A large chunk of voters are fed up with Blair and Tories are fed up with being out of power. Just like Blair in the nineties, they will envisage doing just about anything to sieze back the levers of power.

Will the right frustrate him as they did Hague, IDS and Howard? Not this time. Cameron won a landslide victory and has a mandate to push his 'New Conservatism' through. Many commentators have argued that howls of rage from Tebbit, Melanie Phillips and the like are just what Dave needs. He needs to slay a few rightwing dragons to convince voters his party really has changed. Blair had his Clause Four debate- Cameron desperately needs a similar kind of highly visible victory over the forces of reaction within his own party.

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