David Cameron and George Osborne speak together at the construction company Skanska on April 22, 2014 in Rickmansworth. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories want to buy Britain, but they're losing the campaigning battle

While the the Tories are increasingly reliant on a small pool of mega rich donors, Labour is rebuilding itself as a movement. 

The Tories want to buy their way to power. Today’s revelations over the lobbyists and wealthy elite David Cameron and his ministers dine with and the recent boasts of a £30m Tory war chest underline how out of touch the Tories are. They think that big money means having the "big mo", but in fact this reveals a party without a movement increasingly reliant on a small pool of mega rich donors.

Analysis of Conservative Party donations in Q1 2014 shows that half of the Tories' money came from donors who attended private dinners with David Cameron and other senior ministers. These financiers, hedge fund managers and bankers gave a total of £3.2m. Since Electoral Commission records began, donors associated with the hedge fund industry have given a total of over £43m to the Conservatives.

And what have they got in return? George Osborne’s 2013 Budget abolished stamp duty reserve tax on funds, an effective £145m giveaway to hedge funds, not to mention that the top one per cent of earners have been given a £3bn tax break, worth an average of £100,000 for those earning over £1m. Instead of the families up and down the country suffering a crisis in their living standards, David Cameron is standing up for those he wants to fund his re-election attempt. But while the Conservatives' many millions pay for glossy mailings, they cannot mask their campaigning crisis. 

Under David Cameron, the Tories have hollowed out. Memberships has halved and if it continues to decline at the current rate the Tories are set to see its membership fall below 100,000 by the general election. This will be news to those who noticed the Tories' gleeful reaction to the Newark by-election (which wiped almost 9,000 off the Conservative majority). Mark Wallace gushed: "This by-election was ultimately won by the brute force of a massive activist turnout." Grant Shapps boasted, "When I presented 'Team 2015'…[Cameron] stood up afterwards and said 'this is the best things I've seen from CCHQ in thirty years.'"

A look at the most recent statements of accounts from Conservative Local Associations in target seats, however, tells a story of haemorrhaging membership in the most important electoral seats. Seventy eight per cent of Tory Associations in target seats for which data is available saw falling membership income 2012-13.  Membership subscriptions in these seats which will determine the outcome in 2015 saw a year-on-year drop of 21 per cent - a total of £144,000. This trend is also clear in Conservative cabinet ministers' associations, where there was a 10 per cent fall in membership subscriptions - 168 members even fled David Cameron's backyard of Whitney.

Comments from Association's 2013 accounts reveal that the Tories' on-the-ground machine is troubled by an ageing and disgruntled membership. Mid Dorset and North Poole Association accounts state, "The main reason for loss of support continues to be partly due to old age and death." Croydon Association lamented, "It has been a disappointing year for membership with the declining trend of previous years continuing." Iain Duncan Smith's Chingford and Woodford Green Association moaned that "membership continues to be challenging", while Cambridge Association said, "This has been a year of hard work with no political reward".   

The Conservative Party is becoming a shell.  We know that in 2012 the total income total of £747,000 from membership fees equated to just 3 per cent of the Conservative Party's total income – compared to the Labour Party which received 40 per cent of its income from membership fees and affiliated membership.

Compare this to Labour's energy at local levels. We know that local factors and candidates’ community campaigning activity can make all the difference, which is why Labour has knocked on over 7 million doors across the country this year. We have selected candidates from diverse backgrounds early. We have more trained community organisers than ever before helping deliver face-to-face, doorstep-by-doorstep campaigning. Whereas at the last election the ratio of Labour staff in Westminster and the regions was 2:1 it is now parity, reflecting a rebalancing towards local campaigning. And we have made big reforms to open up our party to make us more rooted in communities and workplaces across the country.

The result is that in the key marginal seats held by the Tories and Lib Dems which had local elections this year, Labour topped the poll in the vast majority, including in key marginal target seats such as Amber Valley, Cannock Chase, Crawley, Harlow, Lincoln and South Swindon. We gained a further 109 council seats from the Tories and Lib Dems in the key marginals. Labour has the campaigning edge because our cost of living message resonates with the reality of people's lives, we have adapted our campaigning to digital communications and, vitally, our activist base is larger and more dynamic than our opponents'.

David Cameron wants to spend his way to victory in 2015.  Labour has another weapon: hardworking people's knowledge that while the Tories increasingly rely on a few, the many are being overlooked, which will spur our growing numbers of activists every day from now until polling day. 

Jon Ashworth is Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South. 

Warner Brothers
Show Hide image

Nigel Farage's love for Dunkirk shows how Brexiteers learned the wrong lessons from WWII

Film has given Britain a dangerously skewed perspective on World War II

For months now it’s been hard to avoid the publicity for what seems like an epidemic of new World War Two films for 2017. June brought us Churchill (starring Brian Cox), which concerns Operation Overlord and the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. A month later, in July we were pushed back four years, to Dunkirk, with Christopher Nolan’s film of the evacuation of Allied troops from French soil in the summer of 1940. April had already brought Their Finest, a comedy about making a - let us not let the irony go unacknowledged -  stirring film about the evacuation of Dunkirk in the event’s more or less immediate aftermath and November will bring us Darkest Hour, some events in which will predate all three earlier films, as Gary Oldman’s Churchill struggles through the earliest days of his war premiership.

This glut is peculiar. There are no significant round anniversaries to commemorate (e.g. Dunkirk is 77 years ago, the Normandy landings 73). More, we’re meant to be in the middle of a series of commemorations of the horror and waste of the Great War of 1914-18, but that seems to have slipped away from us in the political turmoil that’s engulfed this country since 2014. Instead, it’s to the Second World War we return yet again. To modern Britain’s founding myth.

It’s a coincidence, of course, that these films should come along together, and at a seemingly odd time. They were developed separately, and films takes so long to conceive and produce that no one could have anticipated them arriving together, let alone arriving in a toxic Brexit Britain where they seem like literally the least useful things for anyone in the UK to watch right now. As works that will inevitably, whatever their own creative intentions and merits, be hi-jacked by a press and political culture that is determined to gloss its opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union, and its appalling mishandling of the process of exit with garbled references to, the conflict the films portray.

This is an impression that is not exactly dismissed by Nigel Farage posting to twitter of an image of himself standing next to the poster for Dunkirk, along with a statement in which he encourages all young people to see the film. For what reason, we’re entitled to wonder, does he make this encouragement? Does he admire the sound design? Or the aerial photography? Or is he just a big fan of Mark Rylance and Harry Styles? Or perhaps he is, inevitably, indulging in a behaviour that some might call "nostalgic"? Of pining for the past. Except, of course, nostalgia requires an element of pain. The suffix "algia" the same as employed when referring to chronic conditions. For Farage and his ilk there is no pain in this behaviour, just the most extraordinarily banal comfort.

Farage is asking us and asking the young who voted against his chosen cause by an overwhelming majority, and who are are sickened by where he and his ilk have brought us - to share in his indulgence. To enjoy, as he does, those fatuous analogies between the UK’s isolation between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour with its imminent failures in European politics. To see that "escaping from Europe with nothing is at least better than not escaping at all". Or to believe, once again, in a "plucky little Britain, standing up against the might of a wicked mainland European tyranny, its back against the wall".

All this, confused, indeed nonsensical, as it is, is being invoked, as surely as the anti-EU right have always invoked Churchill. This is despite his own family recognising him, as the EU itself does, as the fervent pro-European he was. Indeed, he was one of the founding fathers of the whole post-war pan-European enterprise.

What Farage and his behaviour demonstrates, yet again, is that British culture, in many ways, learned not merely the wrong lessons from the war against Hitler, but exactly the wrong lessons. It’s a lesson that found its most enduring, poisonous expression in Margaret Thatcher’s breathtaking assertion that the European Union was a "third attempt" by Germany to take over the world.

In contrast to the rush of war films in cinemas, television has recently given us glimpses into theoretical worlds where Nazism did succeed in conquering the planet, in Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle and BBC One’s SS-GB. There are lessons too, in these alternative histories, proper lessons that we have collectively failed to learn from the real one. Which is that fascism or authoritarianism are not diseases to which anglophone countries are somehow miraculously immune due to [insert misunderstood historical fetish of choice].

The Man in the High Castle, particularly in its more subtle first series, goes out of its way to show Americans that their lack of experience of collaboration with Nazi occupation is a result of circumstance, even luck. Not because collaboration is a peculiarly European tendency. SS-GB also worked hard to demonstrate the helplessness of occupation, and how that leads to the sheer ordinariness of collaboration. Both show the understanding that while fascism from the outside is funny accents and funny uniforms, fascism from the inside is your neighbours informing on you and the absence of the rule of law.

That experience of occupation, of subsequent complicity, and humiliation, felt by many other other European nations, is absent in Britain. Farage’s fellow Leaver Liam Fox, without anything resembling self-awareness, asserted that "the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history". Fox’s remark summed up, again seemingly unintentionally, the oafishness of the principle Brexiteers. A group who exemplify a culture that boils a vast and unimaginably complex conflict down to the title sequence of Dad’s Army - an animation in which a Union Flag is forced off the European continent by a trio of Nazi triangles, and after returning home bobs around defiantly. A group who, in a strange and witless inversion, have fantasised themselves into a position where they see the Britain’s membership of the European Union as the occupation the country once avoided.

This is the UK’s postponed tragedy. At a timethat European countries experienced national humiliations which fundamentally reconfigured their understandings of their place in the world, the UK got yet another excuse to shout about how much better it was than everyone else.

I’m a child of the very late Seventies. I grew up in a world where (British) boys’ comics were dominated by war stories rather than science fiction or superheroes, where literally everyone knew several people who had fought in World War Two - and almost everyone someone who could remember World War One. That war was the ever-present past. I am, as a friend who teaches history neatly phrased it "Of the last post-war generation." After me, the generations are post-post-war. They are free. The moral clarity of the war against Hitler has, in the end, been a curse on British culture - a distorting mirror in which we can always see ourselves as heroes. 

But, not, of course, all other generations. The war generation collectively (I make no claim that there were not exceptions) understood what the war was. Which meant they understood that the European Union was, and is, its antonym, not an extension of it. Unlike their children and the eldest of their grandchildren, they had real experience of the conflict, they hadn’t just grown up surrounded by films about how great Britain was during it.

The Prime Minister who, or so he thought, had secured Britain’s European destiny had also, as he related in his autobiography, seen the devastation wrought by that conflict, including by shells he himself had given the order to be fired. Like Helmut Kohl, whose worshipped, conscripted older brother died pointlessly fighting for Hitler, and Francois Mitterrand, himself captured during the fall of France, his experience was real and lived, not second hand.

This can be seen even in the voting in 2016 referendum. That the young principally voted Remain and the old voted Leave has been often noted. But if you break that over-65 vote up further, there’s a substantial flip to back towards Remain amongst the oldest voters, the survivors of the survivors of World War Two. After all, someone who is 65 today was born nearly a decade after the war ended. It was their parents’ war, not their own. A war that has been appropriated, and for purposes of which those who fought in it would, collectively, not approve.

Let’s return to Dad’s Army, after all, BBC Two does often enough. Don’t Panic! The Dad’s Army Story (2000) a cheerful history of the sitcom great written and presented by Victoria Wood contains a telling juxtaposition of interviewees. The series' surprising continued popularity is discussed and Wendy Richard (born 1943) expresses a nostalgia for the war years, and how people banded together during them. This is a sentiment which Clive Dunn (born 1920) bluntly dismisses. “Like most people I had a foul war,” he says, and disgust and horror briefly pass across his face.

It’s the difference between those who remember war, and those who only remember war films.