Shapeshifting Tories have mastered playing to the crowd, while Labour fights itself

To be a Tory is to be a shapeshifter. The Conservatives are one of the world’s most successful electoral forces because they are always attempting to strike a balance between the spirit of each age and the interests of the elites they exist to champion.

For the true blue grassroots, this can be discombobulating, aggravating even. At the Tory party conference, some activists muttered to me about the “socialism” of Boris Johnson. Such complaints have a historical pedigree: when the Conservatives resigned themselves to Clement Attlee’s postwar consensus of nationalisation, high taxes and strong trade 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 contemplated by an elected British government”.

It’s certainly been a dizzying ride ever since: from the high Thatcherism of unabashed beggar-thy-neighbour individualism, to David Cameron’s austerity, pinkwashed with equal marriage, to Boris Johnson’s strategic investment blended with a culture war waged from the ministerial bully pulpit. Some Thatcherite complaints about Johnsonian statism simply refer to desperate decisions most western governments were forced to implement because of an unprecedented public health emergency, like the state stepping in to pay the wages of private sector workers – but few bother to pretend free market economics and a pandemic mix. Yet it doesn’t end there. For years, the Tories – and New Labour for that matter – slashed corporation tax with the mantra that asking big business to contribute less will actually increase tax revenues. That they have repudiated this dogma by increasing corporation tax is a major win for the left’s arguments, or at least it would be if today’s Labour party was interested in fighting Tory dogma (spoiler: it is not).

The latest incarnation of the Tories understand that the electorate never warmed to free market nostrums, that at best sufficient numbers could only be convinced they were necessary evils. Their so-called “red wall” voters – predominantly older white homeowners – want assets to rise, have a disdain for progressive social norms, dislike immigration, but have no love for slash-and-burn economics either. This is the sweet spot Johnsonian Tories seek to nurture. So while the nurses who carried Britain through its worst emergency since the war may suffer a real terms pay cut – 82% of healthcare workers opted for Labour in 2019, hence their livelihoods can be sidelined – funds for struggling towns are earmarked for Tory constituencies, not least in former Labour fortresses.

While Thatcher sneered at class as a “Communist concept”, today’s Tories cosplay as a blue collar, working-class base: but it is undermined by the facts. Labour led among the working age population in its 2019 electoral rout, particularly among low-paid workers. No wonder, then, the Tories feel so relaxed about slashing the universal credit uplift, emptying the pockets of the low paid and poor households of £20 a week. The same persistent Tory dogma underpins this vulgar act of class war: Tory delegates told me, almost as if they were reading from a script, that people are poor because they couldn’t manage their own finances properly, or they splash it on cigarettes, booze and gambling. The idea that poverty is the consequence of individual failings – a claim that collides with the reality of record numbers of poor working households – remains hardwired into the Tory soul.

Yet Labour often retreats into a comfort zone of bashing the “same old Tories” when it finds itself lacking anything to say. Johnson’s speech to conference yesterday was classic public school japes over substance. His optimistic sunny uplands of Britain schtick jars with a reality of rising prices, emptying supermarket shelves and queues outside petrol stations. But that very sentence spells out the Johnsonian trap: he relishes dismissing opponents as miserablist doomsayers, underlining the need for Labour to spell out its own hopeful, confident vision of what society could be. Just as the Tories dazzlingly reframed what should have been a crisis of Tory ideology – the 2008 financial crisis – as a crisis of public spending, today’s scenes of petrol station forecourt chaos are dishonestly spun as proof the medicine is working, a painful readjustment to a high-wage economy. Aided and abetted by a largely pliant media, any incarnation of Labour would struggle to dismantle this unapologetic dishonesty, but the opposition does not even have the semblance of a story to offer as an alternative.

As Johnson tossed culture war red meat to his audience of followers – mercilessly pillorying drug users, despite both he and various members of his cabinet having admitted to previously smoking or snorting illicit substances – the Tory vision is clear: bash the “woke”, kick out migrants, promise high wages and funds from the public purse if your community votes the right way.

His team knows this is sufficient to build a formidable electoral coalition. They are untroubled by Keir Starmer, who Johnson casually dismissed as a “chameleon” presiding over a party at war, highlighting the hole the opposition leader has dug for himself by abandoning his leadership pledges and using his conference to ignite an internal ruckus. As it happens, there is no more classic chameleon than the Conservative party itself, but at least they shift on the basis of picking up traces of public mood and adapting it to their partisan advantage.

Alas, Labour’s leaders are more interested in settling internal factional scores than disassembling Tory deceit and projecting an optimistic, coherent vision in its place. This remains a party championing the well-to-do over, say, the underpaid supermarket worker, care worker, or nurse: yet they have the cockiness of a government lacking an opposition. That Labour has chosen to give them this entirely needless confidence is a voluntary decision of political self-destruction.

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