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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.