Tory Party: Cameron's weather vane politics

Submitted by Matthew on 5 March, 2010 - 8:16 Author: Jack Yates

Swindon councillor Lynden Stowe isn’t the only Tory politician who risks being confused with right-wing extremists. Stowe, a near perfect doppelganger of British National Party leader Nick Griffin, was accosted by police officers at the Conservative’s pre—election conference in Birmingham recently when fellow delegates mistook him for the fascist leader. No such vigorous action was taken to bring David Cameron to account for his spurious commitment to cut immigration by 75%.

Indeed Cameron’s patently racist, opportunistic and thankfully impossible promise to close the borders was welcomed by the Tory rank-and-file. The Tory base has taken up Cameron’s immigration baiting comments and made them their own.

A recent leaflet entitled Illegal Immigration: Enough was circulated by Conservatives in Romford. Among the Daily Mail—with—teeth dross one can expect from the average such leaflet, the Romford Tories detail Cameron’s comments, pointing out his blaming of immigrants for problems in public services: “Cameron said that he was focused on the pressure on our public services, including health, education, housing and prisons, created by the new immigrant arrivals.” Other headlines on the leaflet call for a new border police to keep out immigrants, resurrect the “British jobs” slogan, and promise to reverse human rights legislation. The content is indistinguishable from leaflets circulated by UKIP and the BNP.

Added to this, a recent poll on the ConservativeHome website records that 84% of 2,352 Tory members surveyed wanted immigration to be the primary election issue. How do such extreme and reactionary views fit with the new, cuddly, “made-over” Tory Party? The fit is quite comfortable.

Within all bourgeois political parties, there’s a three—fold tension between the leadership, rank—and—file and the sections of society they aim to represent. At times, these tensions are exposed for all to see. At others, they’re subterranean. The early years and final stages of Thatcher’s reign demonstrate this clearly.

Initially unpopular with the Tory back—benches and the country—at—large but fulfilling the impulses of the financial warriors at the head of the economy, Thatcher swung the country behind her and quelled unrest within her own party by harnessing popular, reactionary sentiment. She exploited the Falklands war (1982) to whip up and exploit jingoism and nationalist sentiment. This move kept her in power when she looked most vulnerable. During the final weeks and months in office — unpopular within her own party and without, politically exhausted and incapable of fighting back — those who served loyally from the early 1980s moved forcefully against her.

Cameron faces similar (but for the time being low-profile) problems.

A party divided?

Groupings and factions within the Labour Party have, at one point or another, played a prominent role. Sometimes dramatised by leading personalities, at others sensationalised by the right—wing press, the fight for working—class representation and socialist politics is well known. The fight to diminish trade union influence and crush socialist organisation within the party is just as familiar. That the fights and factions within the Tory Party are less high—profile does not mean they are unimportant.

No fewer than 10 groups – some “organisationally independent” – lobby and seek influence within the Conservative Party. From the extreme-right Freedom Association to the “One Nation” Tory Reform Group, each enjoys different levels of support and significance. Each represents a significant strand of “Conservative” opinion and ideology. The divisions are most prominent over Europe.

For instance, the Freedom Association (TFA) is chaired by Roger Helmer, the arch—Eurosceptic Tory MEP. Although TFA has no formal organisational links with the Conservative Party proper, they are bound by a thousand threads. As well as being opposed to European integration to the point of outright nationalism, TFA is viciously anti—union and anti—working class. Members oppose any form of the welfare state — up to and including free public health care — and hold reactionary positions on almost every social issue. The Freedom Association’s “Better Off Out” anti—EU campaign enjoys the support of 17 Tory peers, 15 MPs, seven MEPs and 20 local councillors.

The Cornerstone Group is another despicable Tory faction. A “broad” grouping that includes “‘One Nation”‘ Tories and Thatcherites alike, Cornerstone emphasises the importance of religious values in “British culture”. The group, which has 30 supporters in Parliament, was described by Tory front—bencher Alan Duncan as the “Taliban Tendency”.

Contrast these two unpleasant outfits with the marginally less unpleasant Tory Reform Group, chaired by Ken Clarke. The TRG, which campaigned against support for apartheid South Africa against mainstream Tory sentiment, believes “‘that elections are won and lost in the centre ground and that the Tory Party is at its best when it is firmly in the centre.”‘ TRG has been a source of inspiration for Cameron, who is quoted at length on their website.

Compare the differing attitudes of past Labour leaders to Cameron’s tolerance and acceptance of his factions and some, if not all, of their ideas. Where right—wing Labour leaders waged open war against their critics and competitors to the left — and still do — Cameron seeks reconciliation and synthesis. Where publications such as Socialist Organiser, the predecessor of Solidarity, were banned and our supporters expelled from the Labour Party, extreme right—wingers enjoy Cameron’s grace and favour. What’s going on?

A survey conducted for Total Politics magazine found an interesting division in support for the various Tory Party factions and “Cameronism” itself within the parliamentary party and prospective candidates. They found that 38% of Tories identified as “One Nation” moderates, 26% as Thatcherite, 6% gave support to the Cornerstone Group and 12% labeled themselves “Cameronites”.

In seats where the Tories have a chance of winning, these figures shifted somewhat. 43% of MPs and candidates in these areas identified as Cameronites. What is the significance of these figures? The across—the—board figures show that David Cameron and his politics enjoy very marginal general support. That these figures were collected in the run—up to an election is of some significance: wouldn’t a loyal group of MPs seeking to win governmental power throw themselves behind the “leader”? Cameron and Cameronism enjoys only limited support from leading Tories — a fact Cameron must be aware of. The “respectable” reactionaries who pollute the Tory benches are not happy.

Further down the Tory food chain, things are not as harmonious as Cameron would wish them to be.

In 2009 Conservative Party membership stood at 290,000 organised into local, constituency based Associations. In theory, these Associations select parliamentary candidates. They represent the back—bone of British conservatism (with a small and large “c”) and they are not uniformly content with their leader, in much the same way as Tory MPs are not. In a number of instances, including the case noted in the first part of this article, local Tory Associations have either prevented or severely hampered the attempts of Central Office to impose preferred candidates. They object to the media friendly, more ethnically and gender diverse set of prospective MPs Cameron favours. Why do the bigoted, little—Englanders of the party rank—and—file object?

As far as the Tory Party is concerned, Cameron and his policies are an ephemeral artifact of this particular election. He represents neither the party as a whole nor a viable future — save some calamity that befalls the majority of Tories —for Conservatism. Cameronism represents an attempt to reconcile all wings of the Tory Party, perceived public opinion, and the wishes of British capitalism. It’s a public relations exercise to win an election. As such, Cameronism is subject not only to personality consultants and PR gurus but the shifting whims of public opinion.

Weather-vane politics

“Triangulation”, the political methodology employed in Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the White House and refined by New Labour, aims to elevate candidates above the traditional party divisions. The process involves adopting some, if not all, of your opponents’ policies and taking credit for them.

Cameron has sought to adopt significant areas of New Labour policy — just as Blair and company wrapped themselves in Tory garb from the mid—90s onward — and present them as his own. In so doing, he has the obvious advantage of not being Gordon Brown or, indeed, Tony Blair. But Cameron’s triangulations are slightly more complex. Whereas Blair built on the legacy of previous Labour leaders, marginalising the left and trade union influence (shifting significantly to the right before “triangulating”) Cameron has a more difficult geometrical problem to fathom.

Not only must he work hard to convince voters that he cares about public services and “society” — traditional Labour tropes, whatever the realities of Labour government — but also reconcile his own party’s extreme right—wing. The matter is made all the more complex by the palpable disintegration of right—wing sentiment into a number of political formations outside of the Tory ranks.

The growth in support for UKIP and the BNP is a threat to Tory and Labour alike. We can see the extent to which Labour has responded in policies and individual comments like Brown’s “British jobs for British workers”. But the Tories will feel the disaggregation all the more strongly. Unlike Labour, they have significant organised factions who share most — if not all — of publicly stated UKIP and BNP policy. These factions put direct pressure on Cameron from within his own ranks.

These competing pressures and above all, the pressure of attempting to win an election, mean that Cameron and his cuddly conservatism remain without political substance. Whatever Cameron the man thinks and feels, he and his party are naturally susceptible to significant right—wing tendencies, all the more so given the realities of modern Britain. As such Cameronism, can be little more than a sort of weather-vane politics. The question, then, is how long will it be before the right—wing storm hits us all?