Since becoming Conservative Party leader last December, David Cameron has changed the party’s logo, launched a new mission statement, rejected immediate tax cuts and pledged to defend the NHS. Comparisons have been made with Blair’s ‘re-branding’ of New Labour in the 1990s. With a rise in support for them and Labour in increasing difficulties the Conservatives are beginning to look electable again. However, these developments are no more the fruit of Cameron’s leadership than they were of Blair’s in the mid 1990s: they reflect the needs of British capitalism.
The management of the democratic process has been a central concern of the ruling class since the 19th century when the vote began to be extended to the working class. In Britain, the First World War saw the growth of state control and the consequent concentration of power in the hands of the executive. While the legislature continued to have an important role to play it did not exercise the same power as it had in the past and ceased to offer any scope for the working class to advance its interests. The betrayal by the unions and Labour with their support for the war and their integration into the state helped to consolidate this change. The British ruling class became adept at managing the process to defend its interests. In particular, it used the parties of the left and the right, with their alternation in power, to get the best result for British capitalism at elections. The left, with its origins in the working class movement, had a particularly important role to play in containing the class struggle.
At the end of the Second World War Labour’s landslide victory and the creation of the welfare state helped to fuel illusions in the working class that the war had not been in vain and so ensure there weren’t widespread struggles as there had been after the First World War. By the late 1970s the Labour government elected in 1974 was facing a rising tide of class struggle while British capitalism was mired in economic difficulties. The election of the Tory party under Thatcher in 1979 meant that Labour did not have to make the attacks deemed necessary to defend British capitalism and could pose as the worker’s champion in order to contain their anger and stifle any real challenge, thus allowing the Tories to get on with the work in hand. Throughout the 1980s Labour played its role well. It opposed all of the Thatcher cuts and privatisations as well as legislation against the so-called excesses of the unions. In foreign policy its support for unilateral nuclear disarmament gave it a radical edge while even its internal difficulties, with the battles between left and right, gave the impression that its members could make a real difference.
The replacement of the Tories by New Labour in 1997 was not linked to the class struggle but to difficulties within the Tory party. After the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989 the waves of class struggle that had continued during the 1980s came to an end and it was no longer so important for Labour to be in opposition to contain it. At the same time the Tories showed themselves unable to defend the more independent imperialist strategy required by the ruling class. This is what lay behind the removal of Thatcher and the subsequent problems with the ‘Euro-sceptics’. Labour’s return to electability, begun under Kinnock, notably with the battles against the Militant Tendency, was continued by John Smith and completed by Blair through set piece battles with the left and the occupation of ground previously held by the Tories, in particular on the management of the economy. The party became famed for its discipline and ability to control the news agenda.
Today much has changed, as we showed in WR 298 (“Labour Disarray: A capitalist party arranges its succession”). Blair is under pressure to go, in particular because the imperialist strategy he has followed since the bombing of the twin towers in 2001 is no longer supported by the dominant part of the ruling class. The slow development of the class struggle that has been taking place over the last couple of years also poses the longer-term possibility that Labour may need to return to opposition once again. This may also be affected by the increasing necessity to impose more direct cuts as it becomes harder to continue the management of the crisis in the way that Gordon Brown has done up to now. Whatever happens the ruling class needs to get its options ready.
Renewing the Conservative Party
Throughout the last decade and more the Tory party has looked completely unelectable. It has even seemed unable to fulfil much of its responsibility as an opposition, with the Liberal Democrats being called on to make good the shortfall. Under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith the party remained largely consumed by in-fighting and nostalgia for the past while its policies seemed to drift to the right, to xenophobia and little-Englandism. Its vote slumped and in parts of the country it was wiped off the map. In many ways this was not important as Labour was secure in power and was very effectively defending the bourgeoisie’s interests with both the economy, where it increased the exploitation of the working class and in imperialist strategy, where it adequately maintained the independent line.
The election of Michael Howard to the Tory leadership following the general election defeat of 2001, meant that a more serious and experienced politician was in charge. However, his very experience proved to be a weakness since he was linked to the past, with Thatcher’s attacks on the working class and the period of in-fighting in the party.
Since his election Cameron has made a virtue of being fresh on the scene. While paying lip service to Thatcher’s achievements he has deliberately distanced himself from several traditional policies, bluntly telling the party conference that the old policies were not coming back. He has laid claim to several Labour policies, even repeating their phrase about being “tough on the causes of crime” and echoing one of Blair’s best known slogans: “Tony Blair once explained his priority in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters. N.H.S.” The party’s website is currently running a campaign against Brown’s NHS cuts under a picture of Brown wielding an enormous pair of scissors. Cameron has sought to claim the green agenda, from putting a small wind-turbine on top of his house to proposing that the state takes the lead, including imposing taxes on polluters.
Significantly, Cameron has also sought to address some of the issues that concern the ruling class. First and foremost he has argued that he will take a more independent line from America, arguing in a speech given in the US on the anniversary of 9/11 “We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America”. He called for “a policy that moves beyond neo-conservatism” and declared “we will serve neither our own, nor America’s, nor the world’s interests if we are seen as America’s unconditional associate in every endeavour”. Secondly, he supported the criticism that has been made of Blair’s style of government: “For too long, the big political decisions in this country have been made in the wrong place. Not round the cabinet table, where they should be. But on the sofa in Tony Blair’s office. No notes are taken. No one knows who’s accountable. No one takes the blame when things go wrong. That arrogant style of government must come to an end. I will restore the proper processes of government. That means building a strong team, and leading them. I want to be prime minister of this country. Not a president.”
Cameron has taken on much of Blair’s mantle in order to move into the centre. But today Blair is widely mistrusted, being seen not just as ‘all spin and no substance’ but also, and more seriously, as a liar, and if Cameron mirrors Blair too closely he risks being touched by this mistrust too. His media background can be seen in the polish of his performances and the concern for image. The risk is that he will be seen as little more than image. Furthermore the Tory party still contains some of the divisions that have convulsed it for many years. Since the most recent party conference Cameron’s rating has gone down, but still compares well to Gordon Brown. The next general election can be as late as 2010. Much can happen between now and then and the bourgeoisie is taking steps to make sure its political apparatus is prepared for every contingency. North 26/10/06