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History shows why the Tories should be wary of branding Labour as 'socialist'

The party abandoned the practice in 1959 when some voters believed 'Labour' and 'Socialist' were different parties.

Conservative delegates next to a spoof Ed Miliband-themed pub at the party's conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Painting Ed Miliband as an unreconstructed socialist will get the Tory party nowhere warned legendary ad man and former Conservative party chairman Maurice Saatchi in the Mail on Sunday the other day.

According to Saatchi's analysis, we "went off socialism" in the 1980s because "it didn’t produce any money…it didn’t create wealth for its citizens." The pendulum duly swung the other way, with people embracing Thatcherite popular capitalism. "But now we have gone off that too," he says, because it "seems to produce too much worship of the golden calf. So now we don’t know what we like."

An astute surfer of the political zeitgeist, Saatchi’s warning is prescient when you consider that more than four out of five voters feel energy suppliers "maximise profits at the expense of customers".

Undeterred by such warnings, the Conservative frontbench can barely contain its glee at Ed Miliband disinterring the term 'socialism' to define his politics. Earlier this year at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron even referred to Miliband as a "champagne socialist", to predictable guffawing from his own side.

But this is not the first time the Tories have tried this tactic. Back in the 1950s they were at it, demonising socialism as part of a strategy dreamed up by one of Saatchi’s predecessors as party chairman, Lord Woolton.

A brilliant fundraiser and party organiser, Woolton increased Conservative membership from 1.2 million in 1947 to 2.1 million by June 1948 and was an early advocate of political rebranding, favouring renaming the Conservatives as the Union Party. The idea didn’t catch on, but as the great Conservative historian Robert Blake notes in his seminal work The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher:

…the next best thing to changing the name of one’s own party favourably is to change that of one’s opponents unfavourably. He [Woolton] declared henceforth in speech and writing Conservatives should never use the word 'Labour' with its suggestions of honest British toil, but always substitute 'Socialist' with its alien, doctrinaire overtones.

However, this audacious strategy contained a central flaw, one which David Cameron might do well to remember. As Blake points out:

This practice was dropped in 1959 when some voters were found who believed 'Labour' and 'Socialist' to be different parties.