Conservative chairman Grant Shapps speaks at the party's conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories' claim to be the "Workers' Party" is just another cheap rebrand

Just as earlier iterations have faded fast, so too will this blue collar phase pass unnoticed and unloved.

"There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the President (Obama) no matter what....47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement....My job is not to worry about those people."

That was the moment when right-wing Republican, Mitt Romney, speaking at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in a hedge fund manager’s mansion, finally blew any chance he had of winning the White House in 2012. Telling half of America that he wasn’t interested in them or their vote wasn’t the smartest move, of course, but it was a revealing acknowledgement by Romney of how little appeal the austerian right has to blue collar workers in the US. Of course, there’s no straightforward read-across from American politics to our own, but there’s been more than a whiff of Romney-esque high-handedness in some recent comments here, and a hint of panic in yesterday’s risible re-launch of the Tories as the "Workers’ Party".

First there was the blundering reference by Tory peer, Lord Howell, to the "uninhabited and desolate" areas of the north east – fit only for fracking, it appears. Then the acknowledgement by working-class Tories’ poster-boy, John Major, that parts of Great Britain are now "no-go areas" for his Conservative successors. Finally, and most extraordinary, was the comment made after the Wythenshawe by-election by a senior Tory that they couldn’t possibly hope to win in Manchester as is it was "a safe Labour seat with the largest council estate in Europe."

Pause and think for a moment about just how telling – and how toxic – that sentiment is. Forget about Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the 47 per cent, what about the eight million British citizens living on estates that this Tory Party has apparently given up on? Perhaps, David Cameron, another close watcher of US politics, thinks it isn’t his job to worry about "those people".

Some in the Tories (perhaps the handful who didn’t go to Eton) are less sanguine, however. Robert Halfon, the Tory MP for Harlow, has long argued that blue collar needs to replace blue rinse in the hierarchy of Tory influence. And Mr Halfon has clearly been heard, because his standard has been picked up this week by no less than the chairman of his party. Grant Shapps, aka Michael Green, has announced that Compassionate Conservatism, Liberal Conservatism, and even Green Conservatism are all so last year, and that Blue Collar Conservatism is the only thing for a modern Tory to sport around town. Even more amusingly and implausibly, Mr Shapps (who patently knows a thing or two about branding), says the Tory Party is now the "Workers' Party" – "not defending privilege, but spreading it".

The problem for the Tories, of course, is no-one believes this tripe for a minute. No-one believes that a party which cut taxes for millionaires while millions struggle to pay their bills can ever be on the side of workers. And no-one will believe that a party which, time after time, stands up for crony capitalists and corporate, vested interests can ever truly work in the interests of working men and women – and of those seeking work or unable to work too. No, it is only One Nation Labour that can credibly reach out to all parts of Britain, standing up for people in all communities with a plan to tackle David Cameron’s cost-of-living- crisis.

That’s why the Tories barely scraped 15 per cent of the vote in Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election. That’s why of the 348 council seats in Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester, none is held by Conservatives. And why the north east boasts just two Tory MPs, Wales just eight out of 40, and Scotland just one (making them famously rarer than mating pairs of pandas). And those harsh electoral realities are the reason why most Tories don’t believe it either, with the leadership reportedly split about whether to make special appeal to the workers of the north and west or to cut them adrift as a Tory lost cause.

Little matter, as I suspect this latest rebrand will last no longer than any of its predecessors. Their uniting feature is that none of them are credible to those outside the Tory Party and none of them believed within it. And just as those earlier iterations have faded fast, to be replaced by the true face of David Cameron’s Tories, standing up only for a privileged few, so too will this blue collar phase pass unnoticed and unloved. Still, with a chairman as inventive as Mr Shapps, you know there’ll be another make over coming soon. Tea Party Tories has got a ring to it, Grant, and a ring of truth too.

Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle