Tory resurgence and the left

Eddie Ford on the re-branding of the 'nasty party'

David Cameron's rebranding of the Tories continues apace. No longer the "nasty party" of bigots and xenophobes, the 'New' Conservative Party is, of course, forward-thinking, anti-racist and inclusive. And a necessary part of this repositioning requires the 'greening' and - in some respects - 'redding' of the Tory Party.

So over recent weeks, to equal amounts of approval and disapproval, Cameron has promised to introduce a whole raft of green taxes - many of which will fall on businesses and the employers, as well as the general public.

Therefore we had his pledge to ensure higher fares for 'unnecessary' flights - airlines would be taxed according to the amount of carbon emissions per journey and the number of passengers on board. This proposal caused a flurry of outrage amongst the rightwing press about "clobbering" ordinary holidaymakers.

Then Cameron told a Tory green business summit in the City that he intended to "lead the way on green taxation" - which requires the overhauling the tax and fiscal system in order to "tax the bad and reward the good". Warming to his theme, Cameron went on to call for "sector-specific action" to ensure that "every part of our economy is making its proper contribution to the green revolution we need" - stressing that "we need to understand the proper role for regulatory and tax changes".

Other Tory taxes on business, according to Cameron, include a carbon tax - which will replace the climate change levy. Furthermore, he strongly hinted that tougher regulation - or taxes - would be imposed on business when it comes to areas like chemical pollution and landfill. Tory policy on carbon emissions, said Cameron, would be complemented by a "second front" to protect the natural environment, with measures to tackle issues such as river pollution, the recycling of building materials, and so on. Sounding tough, almost messianic, Cameron affirmed that a Tory government would "not be afraid to take action to ensure that, as a society, we respect the earth's natural limits".

Unsurprisingly, Cameron's proposals - or threats - did not go down too well with some.

The Institute of Directors complained that Cameron's plans would end up "just loading more tax on employers", and warned that businesses "must not be made a scapegoat for climate change". The British Chambers of Commerce made similar noises, arguing - or pleading - that any government action on carbon emissions should not fall disproportionately on the poor old bosses, seeing how the domestic sector purportedly accounts for some 28% of all UK carbon emissions. Neither was the Confederation of British Industry best pleased. And in Tory blogland, alarm bells were loudly ring at the dreadful thought of a Tory leader - a Tory leader, of all things! - endorsing higher taxes and increased regulation on businesses.

To further ram home the green credentials of the Tories, on March 16 the Richmond-upon-Thames Tory association duly chose the well known environmentalist and editor of The Ecologist, Zac Goldsmith - son of the revolting billionaire, Sir James Goldsmith - as their election candidate. Facing a daunting 4,000 Liberal Democratic majority, this might have been a not unwise selection.

But the focus group-driventerraforming of the Tory Party does not end there, of course. At his closing speech to the party's spring conference, Cameron boldly declared the Conservatives are now "the party of the NHS" - in fact, said Cameron, the NHS was his "passion", his "priority". Rather than Labour, it is the Tories who are on the side of hard-worked nurses and doctors. He promised to cut red tape, put a stop to the never ending and "pointless reorganisations", and to sack the management consultants who have turned the NHS into a "pen-pushers' paradise". Indeed, claimed Cameron, Labour's infatuation with Soviet-style target-setting had turned the NHS into a "vast, inhuman machine" and that only his 'new' Tory Party could restore staff morale and improve patient care.

But not only are today's Tories loudly pro-green and pro-NHS: they are also the friends of the poor and dispossessed - both in the UK and abroad. Hence last April the Tory leadership underscored its commitment to "compassionate Conservatism" by signing up to Labour's target of ending child poverty by 2020. In the pages of The Guardian - traditionally the bugbear of any true blue Tory -

Oliver Letwin, the party's policy chief, wrote that the acid test for Conservative policies was the effect they had on the "least advantaged", and even confessed that the Tories must "share responsibility for the deprivation passed from one generation to another" - as successive governments have failed to end the cycle. This has led to a situation, continued Letwin, where since 1997 "real incomes of the very poorest have fallen" (April 11 2006).

As for 'third world' poverty and debt, the Conservatives have long since said that they will work toward the UN target for developed countries of spending 0.7% of their national income on aid, hoping to achieve that aim by 2013. Additionally, the Tories have pledged support for Gordon Brown's International Finance Facility - a mechanism for doubling international aid contributions immediately, or "frontloading". In theory, this should enable the world's poorest countries to meet the 'Millennium Development Goals' of halving poverty, putting every child in education and reducing infant mortality by 2015. On top of all that, the Tories say they welcome current bilateral debt relief efforts, and support the 100% cancellation of debts to multilateral institutions such as the World Bank - maintaining that the International Monetary Fund could fund the cancellation of all these debts through the sale or revaluation of its gold reserves.

All in all then, Cameron's 'new' Tory Party is tangibly assuming an on-message, liberal look - something that might have been thought to be nigh on impossible just a few years ago. And Cameron's mission to reinvigorate the Tories seems to be bearing some success. For instance, on the environmental front, a YouGov survey revealed that, when asked who was the "greener" out of Brown and Cameron, 21% plumped for the Tory leader - while only 7% went for Brown. The good news for Cameron does not end there either. The same YouGov survey, carried out among nearly 1,900 voters on March 18-19, showed that the Tories have a six-point lead over Labour - that is, 38% as against 32%. That lead actually increases to 10 points, 41% to 31%, when people are asked how they would vote if Brown were prime minister, facing Cameron across the despatch box.

Taking all the evidence into account, the possibility of a Tory victory at the general election is not a fanciful one - especially when you consider that Blair's Iraq war becomes more and more unpopular, and bitterly resented, by the day. So plenty of potential electoral ammunition just sitting there for the Tories on that issue alone, without a doubt. And if Rupert Murdoch's The Sun was to jump ship come the next general election (definitely not an impossibility), then the Tories' could find themselves back in government - or at least within a sniff of it.

Obviously, this poses the question of how the left should react to the changing political landscape - where the Tories are coming across as more "compassionate", or progressive, than the tired and worn-out Labour government. Of course, not so long ago for the vast majority of the left - most classically the Socialist Workers Party - it was obligatory to urge the working class to vote Labour - albeit "critically", of course. Or, as the old SWP slogan went, 'Vote Labour - but build the socialist alternative'.

Indeed, back in those seemingly far off days, splitting the anti-Tory vote was almost the ultimate crime - you might 'let the Tories in'. Indeed, this journalist remembers one goggle-eyed SWP member rushing up to him during the 1992 general election, ranting on about "third period Stalinism" - all because the CPGB had dared to field a candidate in Brent East against Ken Livingstone.

And, of course, we were shrilly - if not a little bit hysterically - informed during the 1997 general election that socialists had a god-given duty to vote the Labour Party into government. Apparently, having Tony Blair in No10 would engender in the working class a "fructification of hope", which in turn would quickly lead to a seething "crisis of expectations" that would inevitably sweep the masses into the ready arms of socialists - or so the Trotskyist theory went. When this exciting scenario did not materialise, it certainly caused another crisis - this time amongst the left, not the ruling class. Accordingly, and in a relatively rapid period of time, the left gravitated away from untheorised auto-Labourism to today's equally untheorised auto-anti-Labourism.

Given the possibility of a close general election - the first genuinely close one for a decade - surely it is a straightforward fact that standing Respect candidates, for instance, will help to split the vote and 'let the Tories in'? What is more, with the Conservatives likely to threaten in constituencies that have come to be regarded as safe Labour seats, won't there be a distinct possibility that smaller left parties will be squeezed? This is not an unimportant consideration for the electoralist SWP, which has argued that Respect should only stand in those constituencies where it is likely to achieve a reasonable result.