I turned a few heads this week by appearing at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Several Tory ‘representatives’ did double takes. Some were mildly rude; some were perfectly friendly. There were also plenty of Labour people who stopped to say hello, including, improbably, Sunder Katwala from the Fabian Society who looked like a fish out of water.
I had two distinct impressions of seeing the Tories up close. The first was that they were bursting with excitement at the prospect of getting back into Government. They’ve been told to hold the champagne, and tone down the triumphalism. But they can’t quite help themselves. Hubris hung in the air like incense. And as a Labour candidate in 1992 who lost by 500 votes, I know all about hubris. They seem convinced that they are on the way to Downing Street, but I am not so sure their confidence is shared by the electorate, especially in the current economic turbulence.
The second impression was that the Conservatives remain unreconstructed. Once you get past Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Lansley and few others, you can see the Hiltonisation of the party is skin-deep. The same nasty party lurks underneath, with its 80s attitudes, instincts and fashion sense. This is the Tories’ fatal misreading of New Labour. It was never a make-over job. It was a pretty tough and fundamental repositioning of policy, based on a rediscovery of our core values, and a reconnection to the ambitions of the majority of voters. If it was just about slick campaigning, Labour would have won in 1987, never mind 1992. Yet the Tories think it’s about backdrops, logos and taking your tie off. They think they can win with superficial spin, rather than substantive change.
In the fringe meeting, on ‘mending broken Britain’ the biggest support was for tearing up the Human Rights Act and for harsher prison regimes. If a vote was taken, I would have guessed that a sizeable chunk would have been in favour of hanging, or at the very least flogging. The guts of my remarks to the meeting was that we need fast, effective justice, with penalties that serve as both punishment and deterrent. We need better support for victims and witnesses. But we also need to tackle the social conditions and factors which create anti-social behaviour and crime. You can’t absolve people from the responsibility for their actions; everyone has a choice. But you can’t pretend that people’s circumstances don’t play a role.
The Tory grassroots instinctively want tougher penalties (although their MPs don’t vote for tough measures in the Commons). But they have nothing to say about early intervention into problem families, tackling gang culture, building more youth centres, doing more to support boxing, cadets and other distractions for urban young people, or creating more opportunities for volunteering. Indeed, if Osborne ever gets the chance for a first budget, the Tory cuts would fall hardest on the very programmes and schemes which help young people realise a better future for themselves. You don’t need a masters in sociology to understand that Tory cuts would lead to social chaos, just like last time.