The Tories are bending over backwards to be seen as a modern, progressive, mainstream party, even the “voice of liberal Britain”. When elected, David Cameron declared that his mission was “to change the face of the Conservative party” and that, it seems, is just what he has done. With newly selected candidates such as the green campaigner Zac Goldsmith and black youth charity organiser Shaun Bailey, and now the prospect of some Hollywood glamour at the Conservative conference – where the Republican governor and Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger is due to do a turn in October – the Tories have undergone extensive cosmetic surgery. Beneath the surface, however, it is unchanged.
Cameron is keen to distance himself from the party’s old guard but, like them, he has little to say on poverty, marginalisation, racism and the many other unpleasant words that describe the lives of minorities in Britain and confine them to the bottom of the social ladder, and much to say on national identity and cohesion, integration and multiculturalism, the right wing’s bete noire. True, he has had little to say on another Tory favourite, immigration, but it is worth remembering that he was the author of the party’s scandalous manifesto that firmly associated Michael Howard and his party with nastiness in the mind of the British electorate, with its talk of caps and quotas for refugees, and offshore asylum centres.
David Cameron insists that the Conservatives are no longer the party of the rich and “mouthpiece of big business”. And yet he promises to slash inheritance tax, even though it affects only the richest 6% in Britain, while pledging to cut taxes and corporate regulation. For Cameron, “prosperity, the creation of wealth and enterprise have to come first”.
The Conservatives share this reverence for the free market with the right in the US, and they are united, too, on foreign policy. Cameron is a champion of what he refers to as “humanitarian intervention and the spread of democracy and freedom”, in an echo of the neocon rhetoric used to justify military adventurism. Cameron’s objections to the occupation of Iraq relate to the fact that “not enough was done to plan for post-war Iraq”, rather than to the principle of military intervention itself. On Iran, Cameron pointedly does not “rule out the use of force”.
Another issue that places Cameron squarely in the neoconservative camp is his partisan cheerleading for Israel. Like the hawks in the Bush administration, he is a self-professed “very good friend and strong supporter of Israel”. In a recent interview he said of the separation wall, declared illegal by the international court of justice: “I can understand why they built [it]. I saw it for myself.” He boasted that while calls for a ceasefire in Lebanon were reverberating in every world capital – bar London and Washington – when war broke out last summer, he and his party had “strongly” opposed any such move. His reservations over Israel’s brutal assault, which left more than 1,000 people dead and 915,000 homeless, centred on its “bombing of the Christian parts of Beirut” – as if to suggest that other Lebanese areas were legitimate targets.
British voters disillusioned by New Labour should not forget the American experience of 2000, which showed that to move from Democrats to Republicans can be to plumb new depths of misery. The few votes that made the difference then came from the margins. Ironically, the Muslim minority rallied around Bush in 2000 in protest against Clinton’s secret-evidence law and pro-Israel policies in the Middle East, giving him more than 70% of its votes, against a mere 10% for Al Gore. Today, some of those voters find themselves inside the jails of the president they had helped bring to power.
Experience shows that parties of the centre-left, though they might veer towards the right, tend to remain more liberal, pluralistic and sensitive to the needs of minorities and underprivileged groups in society. Labour has been greatly weakened by the string of blunders and disasters into which Blair has dragged it. But Labour is not reducible to Blair, nor to the Blairites – it remains an umbrella of different forces, including trade unions, radicals, ethnic minorities, peace activists. It would be unthinkable, for example, to find such figures as Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, or Diane Abbott in the Conservative party. There, the choice is between grey and greyer, right and ultra right, Cameron and Tebbit.
But if Labour wants to avoid the Democrats’ fate at the hands of the neocons in 2000, it must make a real effort to reconnect with its disillusioned and alienated bases. It will have to clear up Blair’s mess and undertake a real change of policy. That is the only way it can keep Cameron and his clique out of 10 Downing Street.
First Published in The Guardian, Tuesday 10 April 2007