The Tory left is in crisis - but no one in the party cares

Where are the successors to one nation giants like Michael Heseltine, George Young and Chris Patten?

As George Osborne announced huge cuts to benefits for the mentally ill and the disabled, Andrew Mitchell clung embarrassingly to power before resigning, and Iain Duncan Smith courted controversy with proposals to slash benefits for families of more than two children, we witnessed the Conservative Party unleash its pre-general election rallying cries. And yet, as party direction sharpened, giants of the Tory "one nation" tradition rose to remind us of an alternative Conservative vision. George Young arrived honourably back into cabinet, while Chris Patten brushed Maria Miller’s criticism of the BBC aside as ably as he once swept voters into his party’s fold. This week, Michael Heseltine went so far as to suggest that there is economic and civic potential in the regions and that it should be backed by a decentralised state entrepreneurialism. Are we witnessing a renewal of the Tory left or its last hurrah?

George Young, for example, was once Conservative minister for inner cities and, for 23 years, the MP for the ethnically diverse urban seat of Ealing Acton. He once served in the cabinet of Lambeth Council.  A Heseltine ally, in government he had a powerful sense of the need for policy to address poverty as much as unleash economic growth. His generation of Tories was as familiar with the great conurbations of our country as the modern Conservative Party has become unfamiliar with them. Indeed, among this cohort of parliamentarians was Virginia Bottomley who, as a qualified social worker, is the last Conservative frontbencher to have had a professional career in the caring or voluntary sectors. A Conservative government with social workers on its frontbench now seems utterly alien from the occasional summertime volunteering that passes as "a commitment to social action" for the party’s present parliamentary selection process. Like Young, Heseltine and Patten, Bottomley is a supporter of the moderate Tory Reform Group, the classic one nation ginger group.

But in the wider ministerial ranks, only Foreign Office minister Alastair Burt stands trenchantly in the tradition from which Young, Bottomley, Patten and Heseltine emerged.  Among younger Tories, perhaps only Swindon’s high church Robert Buckland MP and Richard Chalk, a former party CEO and sometime head of Ken Clarke’s leadership campaign, come close.  

Meanwhile, the very English "one nation" idea that state power can be used to back growth and build social inclusion is simply "Gaullist" according to Osborne devotee and FT journalist Janan Ganesh, "paternalistic" to some ministers and, in the view of the BBC’s Nick Robinson,  "not acceptable" to "Thatcher’s children", who now hold sway under Cameron. But "small tent" parties struggle to collect voters who have seen their neighbours break as factories close and community health provision evaporates. The centralising zeal of Duncan Smith’s apostles provokes mirth among  elected councillors of even his own party. There is hardly a Conservative local government leader that does not think they could get youngsters back into work faster than any scheme invented by the DWP or BIS in London. Tacking away to the right, Duncan Smith, Osborne and those like them , leave open huge swathes of popular opinion in marginal seats that are not affiliated  to any party but instinctively sense that more could be done, even at a time of fiscal rectitude, as things get tough.

For while Young, Heseltine and Patten remind us of a Conservative Party that was strong in the cities, in Scotland, among the rich and the poor they have lived an average of more than 70 years each. Despite their recent prominence, the fragments of their convictions are now unravelling as a new generation of Conservatives steps forward  beyond Cameron. While this sharpens the Conservative strategy in the run up to the next election, it perhaps explains why even the Prime Minister is now under so much pressure from within.  And why a young Labour leader has been so easily able to park his political tanks all over  the lawns of  the Tory one nation tradition. This is not, then, a moment of renewal  for the Tory left. It is in crisis, and no one in its own party cares.

Francis Davis served as a policy advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government under both Labour and the coalition government. He is a fellow at ResPublica and previously taught at Oxford and Cambridge.

Michael Heseltine, who published his government-commissioned review of growth policy yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.