A party for the old and the scared

Come on, William. You don't even have to listen to the words. Just look at the pictures. There's George Dubbya, arriving triumphantly in Washington and posing for the cameras. Who's at his left side? Colin Powell (black). Who's there at his right? Condoleezza Rice (black and female). And when he made his second appointments? Al Gonzalez (Hispanic). It follows the Republicans' successful Philadelphia convention back in the summer, which again featured many black and female conservatives.

The message was unmistakable. It was not that Bush expected district-loads of African-Americans to defect from the Democrats - after all, they had decided that Bill Clinton was one of them. It was more that the Republicans realised that mainstream voters felt happier voting for a party of the right if they thought that it cared about the ghettos and the poor.

It is the same here. Middle England is a lot less racist than metropolitan London supposes. It, too, would feel happier with the Tories if they seemed to be a bit less male and white and middle-aged. Even if Middle England is doing well itself, it feels happier voting Tory if it thinks the Tories are not purely selfish, that there is at least a coating of concern for others.

Try this for an idea. Imagine William Hague - yes, even William Hague - weighing in on crime, but a Hague whose shadow home secretary was black, whose shadow chancellor was an Asian woman, whose shadow cabinet was as diverse as these islands. Wouldn't that William Hague be about ten points higher up in the polls than the one we've got? He would. Even the real Hague knows it. Why else did he don a baseball cap and head off to the Notting Hill Carnival when he first got the job?

So why is this Hague-led Tory party of blacks and women so laughable as an idea? Why did he throw away the baseball cap and swap it for a shaven head and macho suit? The answer is the secret of his limited success and certain failure: the Conservative Party itself. The Tories, now firmly under the control of the reactionary hardliners of the constituency parties, would not in a million years allow in aspiring black leaders or help them climb the ladder. And as for women, forget it. This is a party that has repelled nine out of every ten ambitious female candidates struggling for winnable seats.

It has become the old party, the white party, the frightened party, the Daily Mail party. Because this is a nation partly composed of old, white, frightened people who read the Daily Mail, the Tories are assured a certain minimum level of support - but only enough to keep Hague in the job of leader of the opposition.

I had thought he had bigger ambitions. I had always supposed he had learnt a few lessons from Tony Blair when he was in opposition - lessons such as the need to take on the extremists in your party, not ingratiate yourself with them. Michael Portillo understands this, though it's a rum old time when Michael Portillo, once the man most hated by the left, is seen as the great liberal within his own party.

Portillo at least tried to reach out and imagine what a younger, more diverse and tolerant Toryism might feel like. And look what has happened to him: he has almost self-destructed - or been destroyed, depending on which Tory faction you believe. But all this is private grief. The real story of the Tory party today is that it is not ready to become a party of government. It is merely a bickering oppositionist sect.

What does it mean for Labour? The easy answer is that - hey, it's Christmas; enjoy the holiday, in the sure knowledge that the election is in the bag. Easy, but wrong. For if the Tories are writing themselves out of the bigger picture, it merely means that on issues such as crime, Labour has to do the opposition's thinking for it, and criticise its own instincts.

Take street crime, and listen to this: "The House does not fully understand the 'yob culture'. Many factors have led to the yob mentality, and they are attitudinal as well as social. We should consider a scheme of national community service. I just think that we should look radically at what is going on in our society and come up with some radical solutions."

Some far-right backbencher, barking behind William Hague's shoulder? No. The speaker is Tony Banks, Labour MP for West Ham, and a man not known for his conservative outlook on life. Banks was mugged at knifepoint in October and relieved of £50. At the time of the crime, he admits, he wasn't thinking much of "the causes of crime": he was hoping for "a posse of police to come screaming down the road to give them all a good truncheoning".

That didn't happen because there never seem to be any truncheon-wielding policemen around our streets any more. Equally, it should be said, there were precious few around during the Conservatives' 19 years in office, and at long last, the drop in police recruitment is bottoming out. So William Hague's claim that voting in another Labour government will lead to more murders like that of Damilola Taylor is - in common with so many of his assertions - plainly wrong, as well as insensitive.

But the danger is that, with the thought of that sure-fire second term, Labour becomes too smug, and starts to imagine that the Tories' ineptitude means there is no wider constituency out there which is worried about crime, or highly critical of Labour's delivery of health, schools, urban policy and transport. Tony Banks's experience was, he found, shared by one-third of his constituents.

It was once said that the only good government is one which has been given a fright. William Hague isn't giving Labour one at the moment. But let's hope that it doesn't take more Labour MPs having a fright on the streets to realise, along with Tony Banks, that something radical needs to be done.