From the archive: The Tories’ own (in)security problem
The Conservative’s’ full-on attack on Jeremy Corbyn was unleashed over the weekend.
The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) September 13, 2015
Given its cynical tone, it’s perhaps less than surprising that the Tories’ onslaught has reportedly been ‘masterminded’ by George Osborne. It’s pretty nasty, American attack ad style stuff – though the accompanying video does look like it was made by someone who’s just mastered Windows Movie Maker and is pretty excited to discovered they can superimpose text (‘just like in real campaign ads’).
But with the Tory media amplifying the depiction of Corbyn as ‘dangerous hardliner’ – The Sun went with ‘Corbyn: Abolish the Army, New leader’s potty plan for world peace’, while the Mail on Sunday imagined ‘Prime Minister Corbyn… and the 1,000 days that destroyed Britain’ – it also stands a fair chance of working (Corbyn’s ascetic rejection of the basics of media management hasn’t helped either).
You can read an impressively detailed point-by-point takedown of the Tories’ attack by Jane Carnall here. But then, given that it’s a smear designed in part to cause outrage, the facts of the matter aren’t really the point.
Jonathan Jones somewhat patronisingly got the point in the Guardian: the attack might seem “rattled, bullying, charmless, ugly, and paranoid” and so inadvertently reassure Corbynites that it reinforces their man as a “maverick”, until that is:
“[Y]ou imagine yourself as another kind of viewer – not a confirmed supporter of the Labour party or member of the chattering and twittering classes, but someone who does not pay much attention to politics and yet has certain rather conventional values like patriotism as well as a natural fear of terrorism, and a feeling that Britain is probably not one of the worst countries on Earth – a working class person, perhaps, or a middle class person who is not on “the left”.”
If the attack doesn’t suggest that the Tories are ‘rattled’ by Corbyn – rather, they’re obviously delighted by the Labour’s new leader and are greedy to win the next general election as soon as possible (ideally this week if possible) – it could be taken to suggest another kind of Tory insecurity.
To echo Jonathan Jones’ thought experiment, imagine yourself as a leading Tory politician rather than as a blog-reading member of the chattering and twittering classes.
You quietly wonder sometimes how you ever manage to win an election.
After all, you represent – and are dependent on – corporate interests, hedge fund managers and rich landowners. Your job is to make them richer and more powerful. Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, was right on the money this week when she described the Conservative party as “the political wing of the City of London”. In her speech to the TUC, O’Grady said:
“If David Cameron was really battling for blue collar Britain, he’d be fighting for stronger rights. To stop bosses getting away with pitting worker against worker to undercut pay. The Conservative Party no longer represents the interests of industry in general – its main purpose is to serve just one, global finance.”
As a leading Tory, you recognise that it’s only because the Labour Party has (with a few intermittent exceptions) been pretty consistently crap at presenting itself as what it’s supposed to be – the party of the majority of working people – that you ever manage to get away with presenting your own party as somehow ‘speaking for the majority’.
As Zoe Williams noted this week: “The strategic choice of the Conservatives has always been to amp up the risks involved in thinking progressively.” With a weak opposition, the Tory playbook can work.
So you thank god that Labour is full of academics, think tankers, kinda Marxists and ‘would rather losers’, and has helpfully disaffected many of the actual people it’s meant to be representing (including by sneering at their ‘rather conventional values’). You recognise that Labour’s abstractions and self-absorption make it possible, with the help of some age old divide-and-rule (‘strivers’ vs ‘scroungers’, ‘swamping immigrants’ etc), the endless repetition of slogans (‘for hardworking families’), and some carefully timed and demographically targeted ‘giveaways’, to marshal just enough votes to win under our electoral system.
You pray that your luck keeps holding: that Labour doesn’t learn to talk to (and listen to) the mass of people who are practical and pragmatic rather than political, and that it doesn’t look for, you know, leadership qualities in its leaders. For the last ten years, you know you’ve been lucky.
The problem is, serving your paymasters requires you to increase the insecurity of some of the very ‘majority’ you need to win votes from. Hence the nearly two million unemployed, the increase in low paid and ‘flexible’ employment (which you are awkwardly forced to defend), the attack on collective bargaining and trade union rights, and the endless austerity (for the poor at least). And of course, today’s vote in Parliament to cut tax credits for working families and low paid workers.
The real concern of any leading Tory is then that they are committed to deepening the very insecurity that is driving voters to the political ‘fringes’, whether to the Corbynite left or the UKIP (or even further) right. Assisted by the traditional weaknesses of the Labour Party, British conservatives have usually been very canny in balancing the economics and politics of insecurity, and indeed exploiting insecurity for their own ends (some of their European counterparts haven’t always been as successful).
But as Robert Kuttner noted this week: “In Britain and elsewhere, a new electoral majority is not in the elusive center, but in leadership committed to actually addressing mass economic frustrations.” By definition, given their economic ideology and financial supporters, that can’t be the Conservatives.
What this means is that being a leading Tory is like walking a tightrope. A single slip could be fatal.
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