Nice guy Dave?

Since he became prime minister, Gordon Brown's standing in the polls has plummeted - but can that guy really be benefiting? James Turley looks at the Cameroons

It is a good time, it seems, to be a Tory. The Conservative Party is consistently obliterating Labour in the opinion polls.

Despite Gordon Brown’s ‘unifying’ speech at the latter party’s conference, it is difficult to shake the impression that little short of mass hypnosis of the entire nation can save the flagging prime minister. Should the smiles on Tory lips waver for a moment, it will only be because Brown’s predicament recalls uncomfortable memories of no-hoper former leader Iain Duncan Smith’s last days.

Then as now, a hypocritical show of unity at conference barely concealed blatant moves towards a palace coup. In the end, Duncan Smith fell to a vote of no confidence, and even those bitterly opposed to this bumbling reactionary felt an involuntary tug of pathos at their hearts.

That said, it is not immediately obvious that a Tory victory should follow. Indeed, the hatred towards the Conservative Party was - until recently, at least - so broad and deep that it seemed they could do nothing right. David Cameron has changed that - but how much?

Birth of a faction

It was under the tenure of IDS’s successor, Michael Howard, that Cameron first rose to prominence in his own right. He, and a loose group of young and photogenic allies, then called the ‘Notting Hill set’, became very close influences on Howard. The latter’s opening gambit - presumably at the behest of Cameron and co - was to take out a full-page advert in several newspapers, consisting of various statements beginning “I believe …”

His ‘beliefs’ at this time appeared to be down-the-line right-libertarian - this audacity was noted with interest, but largely derided by a public and commentariat still familiar with his hard-authoritarian history. This was a man whose maiden speech in parliament was, after all, to demand the reinstatement of the death penalty.

Howard’s campaign for the 2005 general election was characterised by, in one discourse, a weak, opportunistic lurch to the right and, in another, an atavistic resurgence of the ‘classic’ politics of this hard-Thatcherite ogre. He resumed gypsy-baiting and declared that, if there was a conflict between ‘political correctness’ and ‘common sense’, he was firmly on the side of the latter. He recycled his old hard lines on prison and drugs.

In short, Howard ended up playing to precisely the same gallery as his more openly populist predecessors, and his libertarian pose ended up barely lasting a few months.

A superficial look at this story, in the light of Cameron’s subsequent career as party leader, would produce a backstage narrative along these lines: Cameron and the Notting Hill set provoke Howard to shift away from nastiness, in the form of a libertarian pose; when it fails, Howard turns to more conventional Tory influences and more conventional Tory politics.

But the most interesting fact about this whole story is that Cameron did not fall from favour; in fact, it is far more likely that he instigated this shift to the hard right.

This brings us to the most well known thing about Cameron, the politician, but something which we must baldly state in order to bring out its full consequences - his political practice is about image. He maybe has no distinctive politics of his own; if he does, they are likely to be typical of an Eton-educated Tory: chauvinist, elitist, authoritarian.

He works not through positions, but positioning - making his policies look to the left, or to the right, or (most commonly) just ‘nicer’ than they actually are. Gordon Brown still talks in the jargon of high finance; Cameron’s language is the banality of the motivational speaker.

Everybody with any political awareness already knows this, of course. The left - and even the hard right of New Labour, in these humbling times - often ridicule Cameron for barely concealing beneath his PR mask a grotesque Thatcherite visage; The Guardian have nicknamed him ‘Call me Dave’. Indeed, if we compare the kind of platitudes beloved of Cameron with the two ‘phases’ of Howard’s leadership mentioned above, it is clear that he is closer to the gypsy-baiting dope alarmist.

His repeated references to the breakdown of families and The Family, of communities, of the need to fix the Broken Society are explicitly patriarchal, and implicitly tick every authoritarian box going. His veneration of the voluntary sector borrows the cheap prestige of charity for a very Thatcherite hatred of public-sector provision. His environmental ‘commitment’ goes no deeper than those of our comrade economists on the left, who have taken recently to haphazardly bolting on unreconstructed bits of official greenism to their sub-Keynesian programmatic constructions.

This is often taken - particularly by Labourites in dire need of a morale boost - to imply that Cameron is not really that serious an enemy anyway, and if we could only get our act together we could pull the scales off people’s eyes and reveal Cameron for the bumbling goon he is. This is wrong. Simply because Cameron is not pursuing hard policy does not make what he does a ‘nothing’, an insignificance.

What he is doing is actually far more profound - selling an ideology, demanding an identification with his views. Yes - society really is broken! Yes - the family really is under intolerable pressure!

These views are consummately unverifiable; almost any social phenomenon can be viewed through ‘broken society’ spectacles and come out looking like Cameron wants it to. It is rather similar, in a way, to the Spiked insistence on viewing everything (from Top gear to the credit crunch) through the matrix of its ‘culture of fear’.

Will people fall for it?

Cameron’s ideological offensive is an inspired move, and comparisons to Tony Blair’s early days are not unwarranted - although it has to be noted that Blair was far keener (and more successful) in slaughtering ‘sacred cows’ than Cameron - note the amazing reaction to his attempt to apologise for the Tories’ denigration of Nelson Mandela and support for apartheid, which revealed quite how far behind mainstream bourgeois politics large elements of his party remain.

In another conjuncture - indeed, it looked this way but a couple of years ago - Cameron’s spin-heavy ideological approach would have simply failed.

The credit crisis, however, has revealed that all Cameron’s rivals - with the partial exception of the British National Party - are ideologically impoverished. New Labour’s managerialist bent was tolerated in Middle England as long as the economy ticked over; now the Brownite technocrats seem pitched, as it were, somewhere between the bureaucracies of Kafka and Gogol - between incomprehensibility and absurdity. The Liberal Democrats appear still to be gripped in an identity crisis, which has dogged them almost their entire time as the third party.

The field is open, then, for Cameron’s Tories to wipe the floor with everyone. But it is not a foregone conclusion. Governments, it is said, lose elections, rather than oppositions winning them. It is possible that the political collapse of the Labour Party, combined with its systematic self-disembowelment in terms of the semi-democratic institutions that once allowed the rank and file and unions some input on policy, has already doomed it to failure at the polls - Brown or no Brown.

But it is also possible that this has not happened - and, either way, Cameron will have to fight a hard campaign. Whether he has the party truly behind him or not will be revealed largely on the campaign trail, as will the resilience of his ‘nice guy’ image. Cracks are already appearing - George Osborne refuses to be held to Labour’s spending plans, for instance, and the Tory leadership has vacillated rather than taken a firm line on the financial crisis.

That crisis, indeed, is the best and the worst thing that could have happened to Cameron. It is the best, as it has inevitably rocked the Labour administration; and the worst, as it is almost as likely to expose divisions in the Tory Party. The latter is, among other things, a machine for producing big-bourgeois hegemony over the petty bourgeoisie - such divisions are therefore inevitable, and sharpened by the division in class interests that a crisis entails.

It is unlikely, furthermore, that large swathes of working class people will switch to the Tories, as happened during the Thatcher years - simply because the character of the New Labour regime is widely considered to be rightwing and a continuation of Toryism. Depending on how Labour play their cards, they may yet claw back a few percent of the disaffected - not enough to save them, perhaps, but enough for a hung parliament.

At any rate, it is safe to say that whatever comes out of the next election will be bad for the working class.

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