The left should weep not cheer at the decline of Compassionate Conservatism

It is fatal to think that the worse the Tories look, the better Labour appears.

A final nail has been bashed into the coffin of Compassionate Conservatism this week and the left should weep, not cheer.

Those receiving benefits, desperate burglars, Europeans, teaching unions, pregnant women and more are now in the sites of a vindictive Britannia that is being unchained before our eyes. In sorrow not anger we should morn the passing of what could have been - a decisive shift in British politics with the rebirth of a caring Tory Party that has turned into a fading dawn. Why and how can this be the case?

The real job of politics is to shift the centre of gravity in your direction for the longest possible period of time. To do this means not just changing your party but your opponents so that when you lose, and you will, nothing really changes. Thatcher realized this when claimed her ultimate triumph was not changing the Tory party but changing Labour. Blimey did she succeed.

The possibility of a one-nation, compassionate Conservatism taking root under Cameron's early leadership was a distinct and tantalizing possibility. Going green, hugging hoodies and the whole big society opened up space that was to the left of the arid spot New Labour finally landed on. A strong connection could have been made to the Disraeli and Macmillan strain of Conservatism that had been lost under the Thatcherite storm. After all, it was a Tory minister that founded our post war system of secondary education, it was a Tory government that built more council houses than any Labour government and under the Tories the NHS used to be safe. Of course it was a paternalistic politics born of an old class system - but a system that recognized obligation, duty, respect and tolerance. Cameron appeared to be of this ilk and not of the dry, utilitarian brand of market fundamentalists that took hold of the party after 1975.

That compassionate Conservatism failed to re-root itself is of course Cameron's fault. He didn't do the work politically or organizationally to dig in. Or perhaps he never really meant it? The crash didn't help either - giving Osborne an easy target with which to attack the state and to have a very lop-sided view of being "all in it together". But the forces outside of the Tory ranks acting against the back-sliding to compassionless Conservatism where too weak to act as an effective countervailing force.  Labour, the unions and wider civil society simply haven't been up to the job.   Too little of the New Labour legacy has survived because it was hardly ever based on principled argument and popular support and was therefore incapable of defining a lasting moral consensus once Labour was turfed out. Devolution stands but little else.

I come from a working class family. I didn't really know any Tories until I was an adult. It confounded my youthful prejudices to find out they could be kind and caring. But such traits find little echo in their party today. Cameron promised but failed to deliver. What happens to these people now - who speaks for them? And what about Ferdinand Mount, Ken Clarke, Peter Oborne and the Red Tory Philip Blond? These people have been adding a richness to the political debate and policy that no longer has a home. Where do they go and what has the country lost?

Some in Labour's ranks will cheer. The lines become clearer for them, a simple world of black and white, good and bad. The worse the Tories get the better Labour looks. Such a view is fatal. It either opens up the threat of Labour marching to the right again to eat up the space being vacated by the return of the great moving right show, or it polarises politics and the whole adversarial system that has done such damage to Britain. Can those who are cheering be so sure the centre of gravity, because of these preference shaping right wing Tories, won't shift even further right?   

The point at which our country was at its most equal was an era in the 1950s called Butskellism, named after the consensus between the hugely influential and decent Tory RA Butler and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.  Compassionate Conservatism is not an oxymoron but it's taken another big hit. We should hope it recovers. The NHS being safe in the Tories hands is a good thing. It means poor people don't suffer unnecessarily. The left has to understand its victory comes is when it converts the Tories again to a humane form of politics.

PS The debacle of the West Coast Mainline franchise is yet another example of free market failure being turned into an attack on the state. In echoes of the banking crisis, that was the result of too little not too much state intervention, the right argue that civil service 'failure' merely shows how daft it would be to let the state ever run the railways again. You have to admire their brass neck.  The reality is that in our warped world we have private sector consultants paid £650k a year to shaft civil servants paid just £65k in the battle of who wins the franchise contract war. I wonder? The former are incentivized to make as much profit as possible while later are incentivized by what's in the public interest. The sooner the railways are run by and for the public the better. Where is Labour's brass neck?

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser