If anything encapsulates just how out of touch those at the top of the Conservative Party are it is their bizarre use of language, in particular the bandying about of “Trotskyite”, which this week was once again used indiscriminately in connection with the Workfare scheme. Defaming political enemies is as old as the disreputable business of politics itself, but over the past year or so it has been possible to detect a concerted and probably co-ordinated attempt by the Conservatives to label non-conformists as extremists and ideologues. But it is a tactic built on sand and it has already begun to fail.
Michael Gove was one of the first big hitters to test it out when last month he attacked the opponents of his academy schools programme in Haringey as “Trots”. These Trots, i.e. parents, had the temerity to want to stay under the control of the local authority and were branded “bigoted” and “enemies of promise” for their trouble. George Osborne uses the emotive phrase “deficit deniers” to damn opponents of his austerity measures and Baroness Warsi talks of “militant secularism” as if Richard Dawkins has been desecrating cemeteries and setting fire to mosques.
Then Andrew Lansley described his critics as “politicised”. The health secretary had the nerve to accuse the vast majority of doctors and nurses in Britain of being against his proposed changes to the NHS solely for political reasons – as if what he wants to do is in no way political. This was the first sign that this idea was about to unravel. Portraying militants as “loony” in the 1980s was relatively easy, because that’s exactly how they seemed to the majority of voters. To try something similar now is illogical because when you accuse doctors who earn over £100,000 a year of being “politicised” – and therefore left-wing wreckers – it just sounds ridiculous.
The Conservatives have a fine record of portraying themselves as the party of common sense, as if they are not even involved in “politics” at all. They have also, traditionally, been skilled at defaming their rivals in order to scare floating voters. But that was when the enemies were identifiable as something, or someone, different from the middle-income conservatively minded masses. Now they are using those same labels to discredit pillars of the establishment – the very people those conservative-minded masses respect – and even the previously untouchable nurses are in the firing line. Readers of the Daily Mail are used to believing what the paper reports, but eventually even they will find descriptions of the Royal College of Nursing as a training camp for radical extremists a little odd.
There is no need to be as disingenuous as the right about ideology. Of course many opponents of Conservative policy object as a matter of principle. But there are just as many who point out pitfalls and inconsistencies through practical arguments. The government’s case is always that the market – even in the NHS – will drive down costs. Critics can point out the rising price of dentistry, the railways, utility bills . the list goes on and on. They also might suggest that under the private companies set to take over NHS services money will fly out of the country – mainly to the US or through off-shore tax-avoidance schemes – money that in a public organisation would only ever have been redistributed internally. They may be arguments tinged with ideology, but they are also evidence-based. Under the Conservatives we seem to be entering a period where arguments are proffered without recourse to facts, a characteristic already found among the majority of the Republican Party in America (who, of course, have been using the word “liberal” in much the same way as “Trotskyite” for years).
Now we are witnessing the humiliating dismemberment of Workfare. Chris Grayling began by accusing its critics of being “job snobs”. This hard-line approach has, predictably, turned out to be folly, because even those who don’t think the scheme is a terrible idea for the people who have to endure it can see that it is providing free labour at taxpayers’ expense for huge companies that already make billions of pounds in profit. The public know Workfare would drive down wages and undermine employees on just above the minimum wage. The Conservatives would be unwise to alienate these voters – but yet they can’t help themselves.
During Prime Ministers’ Questions a week ago Priti Patel, the MP for Witham, described those against Workfare as “the militant hard left”. The prime minister was suitably encouraging in his response. But again the lesson was not learned. Even as the Workfare ship was foundering Cameron and Grayling again used the “T” word to describe the opponents of a scheme that has managed to embarrass the previously unembarrassable Tesco.
As far as I was aware Marxists have been around for over one hundred years and in that time have never once blocked a Conservative bill – and yet suddenly they have been identified as a credible threat to the government’s entire legislative programme and fabric of our society. If the people the Conservatives accused of being Trotskyites – about half the population – actually were, then Gove and his friends would have been put up against a wall and shot long ago and the royal family would be awaiting their fate in “the house of special purpose”. Happily that is mere fantasy, but so are the dreams of the Conservative PR men who came up with this silly and counterproductive political tic.
If you are going to insult your critics at least come up with a label people can recognise. Most voters under 40 would not have a clue who Trotsky was or what he stood for, even less understand why the Tories are dredging him out of the A Level history syllabus and using him to stigmatise the BMA and head teachers, those well-known trouble makers and advocates if permanent revolution.
This appropriation of “Trotskyite” can only have come from spin doctors whose sheltered view of society reflects the leadership of the party as a whole. There would almost be something quaint about this tactical balls-up were it not for the insight it gives us to the cynical and disingenuous attitude of the Conservatives towards the public sector and of their barely concealed contempt for anyone who tries to resist the atomisation of society. This lazy use of language has not discredited their critics, but has instead exposed themselves as the real ideologues – the precise opposite of what they hoped to achieve.