Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Is political cross-dressing really here to stay?

"The era of tribal political leadership is over," said Tony Blair in his keynote speech to the Murdoch Corporation on Sunday. Not surprisingly it has already provoked some lively debate, not least on Labour Home.

I can see three very good reasons why he would say such a thing. First, because he believes it, though he is wrong about that. Second, because he would like to be able to claim that ridding the British Left of ideology is part of his precious legacy, though he is wrong about that too.

But the main reason he said it was simply an attempt to guarantee Labour's future relationship with Murdoch, reassuring him that socialism really isn't going to make a comeback under his successors and that the Labour Party is now just as apt to end up to the right of the Tories as to the left.

In his analysis of the Tories, and David Cameron at least, he is correct, as I have previously discussed. Where Blair falls down - not for the first time in his career - is in his understanding of the Labour Party.

For of course, the two beasts are not the same. There are plenty of people out there - as any brief visit to Iain Dale will confirm - who think that David Cameron is destroying the ideological base of the Conservative Party in much the way Blair destroyed Labour's.

They are wrong as it happens, because although belief in a right-wing ideology (low taxation, small government etc) is undoubtedly one of Conservatism's distinguishing characteristics, it has not, historically speaking, been the party's underlying raison d'etre.

At different times in its history, the "clothes" that most would nowadays associate with the Tory Party have regularly been worn by others, notably Gladstone's liberals in the 19th century and Joe Chamberlain's imperialists in the early 20th.

What the Conservative Party is really about - and this is why the Hague-IDS-Howard years were such a surprising aberration - is the pursuit and retention of power, allied to an underlying belief that, in a small-c conservative country, it is invariably the party best qualified to exercise it.

This has never been true of the Labour Party, in that the pursuit of power for its own sake has never been its underlying raison d'etre. As Harold Wilson said: "The Labour Party is a moral crusade, or it is nothing."

Let's face it, even Tony Blair has had to pay lip service to that, although his pre-1997 talk of governing in the interests of "the many not the few" now sound increasingly hollow.

Either way, such is the degree of anger felt by many Labour members at Mr Blair's abandonment of its historic principles that it is inconceivable that, under its next leader, the party will not seek to reconnect with those roots.

Whatever the Tories do, it is my belief that the Labour Party will remain the party of fairness, justice, tolerance, internationalism and all those old ideals - owing much more to Jesus than Marx - with which it has always been associated.

Update: Just spotted an excellent post by Shaphan - one of the most underrated political bloggers around - which highlights another aspect of Mr Blair's attitude to ideology, namely the way he pronounces the word.

In my view, his pronunciation of it to rhyme with idiocy as opposed to idealism has always been quite deliberate.

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vikki said...

Whose baby was the welfare state?Tory's? Why did the Conservatives fail to win the 1945 election? How did the Conservatives return to power? Could cross dressing be a factor.....?

jane said...

the party of internationalism is right, though most party members can't abide it - that is where the real gap between the leadership and the members is. and the Tories are about power, it is what they understand, so you are right there too - the problem now is that Labour members are yearning for a return to the good old days of opposition. Being in power means making sometimes unpopular decisions.

RedEye said...

This Labour Party member certainly doesn't - half a loaf is better than no loaf. There are plenty of policies with which I disagree, but almost all of them would be carried by a Conservative government, which wouldn't offer the policies I do like (such as doubling international aid, SureStart, the right to leave in a family emergency, and many others besides).

That's why I've always had such utter contempt for the Grassroots Alliance and Tribune, and the way in which Tribune (certainly two years ago) doesn't mention any of the government's achievements, and seems to believe that Tony Blair gets out of bed every morning wondering how he can make the lives of ordinary working people miserable. It's pathetic.

It's no coincidence that Seddon used to write for the Daily Mail, when both believe that middle-of-the-road Labour governments are illegitimate. The Right believes that they're illegitimate because it believes the Tories are born to rule, whereas the likes of Seddon believe they're illegitimate because to govern is to choose, and to choose involves some vile betrayal.

Praguetory said...

Forgive me for paraphrasing you but I think that your comments that the Conservative party's defining feature is the pursuit and retention of power is a bit rich. That's akin to saying that we are unprincipled. Maybe I'm struggling to be objective, but this doesn't ring true at all. I can't imagine anyone of my generation even pushing such a line. Maybe I am talking with too many like-minded people, but in a recent round table debate, 5 Brits of various views agreed that it would hard to be a Labour activist and be able to look yourself in the eye. Basically, can you back up your assertion a little more?(without going back to the 60s).

Paul Linford said...


No, not without going back to the 60s and way beyond, because the point I was trying to make was more in relation to the Conservative Party's role in a historical context. The recent (Thatcherite) history of the Conservative Party has in fact been deeply ideological, but, in the borad sweep of Conservative history, that was an aberration which DC is now seeking to put right.

By and large, I stand by the assertion that Toryism is essentially about the pursuit and retention of power. The Tories started out in the 18th century as the "king's party" and have continued, in one way or another, to be what in some countries would be termed the "National Party" and what here might be termed "the natural party of government." Ideologically, this has meant very many different positions being adopted along the way. At various times the Tory Party has been protectionist, at others in favour of free trade. It has been both imperialist and isolationist. On social policy, under Disraeli, it found itself to the left of the Liberals, under Gladstone. On economic management it has been, even in my lifetime, both corporatist and laissez-faire.

It doesn't mean the Tories are entirely without principle. But it does mean that, formidable political machine that it is, the Conservative Party always manages, in the end, to adapt itself to changing circumstances because it lacks the constraint of an underlying ideology. By contrast Labour does have an underlying ideology, and my argument is that it is absolutely bound to reassert itself once Blair goes.