What, me? Worry?

There are times when you can almost feel sorry for the Tories, writes Michael Malkin

A spectre is haunting the Winter Gardens this week, the spectre of Maggie. Remember the glory days: when three landslide victories made the ‘natural party of government’ seem totally unassailable; when a rudderless and bitterly divided Labour Party, led into the trenches first by Hampstead’s answer to Wurzel Gummidge and then by a Welsh clown from the old school of left-posing class traitors seemed bent only on self-destruction? Now it is the Tories who are on the rack and Blackpool has the air of one of those ghastly suburban crematoria where family ties or the demands of friendship mean that we have to gather from time to time - awkward, embarrassed and longing for the end of the meaningless obsequies.

Has the grim reaper taken his predictable toll of the blue rinses and the retired colonels (average age of party members is in the late 60s) or is it that they are so demoralised that they would rather stay at home, dead-head their dahlias and shoot partridges? Always a bad sign when the platform expands to fill the empty space available and when the PR people resolutely refuse to tell you how many delegates are actually attending.

But in this wonderful capitalist society of ours there are certain material truths that cannot be hidden. Where were the big corporate stalls, the companies that once thronged round Maggie - the big clothing and food retailers, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, the privatised monopolists, not to mention the arms dealers and suppliers of gas, water cannons and coshes to various dictatorial regimes around the world, who collectively contributed millions of pounds to ‘their’ party? This was once their natural home. But this year it is hard to find a single FTSE-100 company that bothered to turn up in Blackpool.

Before conference even started, the knives were out for Iain Duncan Smith. The attempt (from within the party) to smear IDS with peculation (illicitly paying expenses to his wife Betsy) was risible and achieved its opposite. Ranks were closed, because everyone knows that, whatever his other faults, this man is ramrod-straight. Nonetheless, it shows the depths of despair and frustration to which influential layers of the party’s senior membership have sunk - as does the decision by Max Hastings, on the eve of conference, to write that IDS has less leadership potential than a dog. But maybe Hastings was still smarting because he was passed over to take on the top editorial job in the Telegraph group.

Even the leader columns of The Daily Telegraph itself (Monday’s was ominously subheaded ‘His last chance’) have failed to evince anything more than polite approval for some of the policy initiatives announced this week. The paper understandably condemns the gross disloyalty being currently displayed by lower-deck members of the parliamentary party, but refrains from any concrete endorsement of the captain and his fellow officers at the bridge. It seems to be a question of ‘wait and see’.

On the same day the Telegraph published the results of a poll which must have made dismal reading in the shires. Of Tory voters, only seven percent considered IDS to be providing strong and effective leadership. Nearly a third of Tories thought he was weak and ineffective and almost two thirds could not say what their own party stood for. When it came to which sections of the population the Tories were deemed closest to, the list was unsurprising: the rich, professional and business people and people who live in the country. The only comfort was that, despite (or perhaps because of) Blair’s warmongering, and certainly despite Blunkett’s ultra-rightwing approach at the home office, the Conservative Party is still regarded as more trustworthy on defence and on law and order.

Is it policies or purses that determine the outcome of elections? If the former, then, on their conference offerings so far, the Tories have a lot to worry about.

Even before the show started, we were treated to a comedy turn in which IDS and his shadow chancellor, Michael Howard, contradicted one another in separate fascinating semantic discourses about the difference between ‘intending’ to cut taxes and ‘planning’ to do so. In a curious way it reminded you of the surreal debate around Saddam Hussein’s WMD ‘programmes’. The air of unreality was palpable. If the Tories cannot get their ducks in a row when it comes to proffering even a few tentative electoral bribes, then they really are in trouble.

Or take the NHS. It is no good for them to moan that Blair has stolen their ideas (foundation hospitals, etc). The best they can come up with is subsidised queue-jumping. If you need a replacement hip operation and have five thousand quid in your bank account, then go private and get it done next week. The state (ie, other taxpayers) will then give you three grand back as a reward for supporting private medicine. Of course, if you do not happen to have the money in the first place, then bugger you.

Similarly on pensions: of course the idea of restoring the link between pensions and average earnings (rather than the rate of inflation) is something that large sections of the left have demanded since Thatcher cut it in 1980 - not that IDS is proposing to backdate the link. But how is this populist, but relatively expensive policy to be funded? By cracking down on asylum-seekers. Why not steal a little of the BNP’s thunder while you’re about reshaping pensions policy? Hague tried beating the jingoistic drum and made a fool of himself, but in the absence of anything more promising, better give it another go.

Does any or all of this mean that we are observing the death throes of the Conservative Party? Will the Lib Dems become the main party of opposition? This writer personally doubts it.

Many of the Tories’ problems are of their own making and much blood will need to be shed before matters are resolved, but the party’s fundamental problem is that it is no longer the obvious and natural party of the ruling class.

What does capital need from any government in our bourgeois ‘democratic’ society? Cheap money (low interest rates) to invest in accumulation; an exchange rate that sustains export profitability; low levels of corporate taxation designed to secure the maximum amount of profit from the surplus value extracted from the workforce; and a regime which emasculates the trade unions. This should sound familiar. Once it was called Thatcherism, now New Labour - presided over, incidentally, not just by her brightest acolyte, Tony Blair, but also by that great ‘socialist’ known as Gordon Brown.

What sections does the Conservative Party currently represent? Even among the big bourgeoisie there are still those determinedly insular forces that see the party as a safe harbour from the impact of the euro, though they are in a conscious minority; lower down the food chain there are countless small and petty bourgeois strata which feel similarly threatened. And then there are the farmers and other bourgeois and petty bourgeois countryside dwellers. They will be Tories to the day they die.

To see the historically most bitter and determined enemies of the working class stewing in their own juice at this moment is a real pleasure, but no grounds for any complacency on our part. For us, it is self-evident that the Tories - or, for that matter, Blair’s New Labour neo-Thatcherites - have nothing whatever to offer our class.

That is what makes it so crucially important to present a real and viable socialist and democratic alternative to these twin enemies of all that we stand for. Life itself demands that we should do everything in our power now to unite in one party of the working class.