Since their loss to Tony Blair's New Labour, the British Conservatives not only could not return to government, but could not even provide a workable opposition to the Blair government. What are the reasons for their failure? And what do they need to do to become an effective opposition and then a party of government?
While the top conservatives are still looking for a magic ‘leader’ who will ‘take them to victory’ or a magic set of ‘policies’ which will ‘woo the electorate’, they fail to understand that the really ‘winning’ policies and leaders do not appear from a desire to get elected, but from the “needs of the time” which bring forward leaders and policies which provide answers to the “needs of the time”.
To understand what the needs of the present time are the conservative leaders need to ask themselves the question: “Why did we lose the elections in 1997 to Tony Blair's New Labour?”, and to give an honest answer to that question.
It was not the ‘Tory policies’ that lost the elections in 1997. Tony Blair has continued with most of their policies.
It was not that ‘the country swung to the left’. Tony Blair went out of his way to ‘look, walk and talk like Maggie Thatcher’ to get elected. He had even got the compliment from some ‘Tory journalists’ for being “the best Tory we've ever had”.
Nor was it the few scandals involving some ‘top Tories’ that made the conservatives unelectable. There were scandals involving ‘top Tories’ in Thatcher times. But the Thatcher time scandals resulted in resignations of the persons involves, not in an electoral loss.
So, if not the ‘policies’ and not the ‘scandals’, then what was it that made the Tories unelectable?
It was the arrogance and inward dishonesty that kept emanating from every public appearance of the top Tory politicians at the time of the pre‐election campaign of 1997.
These emanations of arrogance and inward dishonesty from top Tory politicians were not limited to the time of the pre‐election campaign, they began in the last years of the John Major government. But at the time of the pre‐election campaign they reached their peak.
Here are just some pearls from public pronouncements of the ‘top Tories’ in the months that preceded the demise of the John Major government:
“We had to lie [in the ‘Arms to Iraq’ affair], because the fate of the government was at stake.”
JOURNALIST: “But, do not the normal standards of honesty apply at the government level?”
TOP TORY: (surprised at the ‘naivity’ of the question): “Of course, not!”
or the standard:
“We did it because it was ‘politically convenient’.”
“We did it because it was ‘socially acceptable’.”
And the ‘tricks of the trade’, like ‘stonewalling’, avoiding giving straight answers to ‘awkward’ questions, blaming their opponents for anything ‘bad’ that happened under their own government, and ascribing to themselves anything ‘good’.
They used all these tricks to ‘promote their own image’ and to ‘protect their own reputation’. But these tricks could achieve nothing but public disgust and eventual electoral defeat.
It is these clumsy ‘political tricks’ of the ‘top Tories’, that enabled Tony Blair to adopt the stance of a ‘Thatcher‐mould’ politician, who would govern the country more competently and honestly than the ‘slimy, sleazy Tories’ of the Major government. “He would not raise the level of taxes. He would keep the unions under control. He would put the ‘dole scroungers’ back to work. He would not go back to the politics of ‘Old Labour’. He would be just a more honest and competent conservative.”
This was not an easy message to sell by a Labour politician.
As one journalist noted at that time: “These people [Labor and Conservative politicians] are motivated by nothing but a desire to get elected. One has impression that no politician is worth voting for”.
But each day of the pre‐elections campaign of 1997 the ‘top Tories’ were revealing more and more their arrogance and inward dishonesty. So, in the end, even the traditional Conservative voters, became so disgusted with the Major government, that they decided to give Tony Blair a chance to be “the best Tory we've ever had”.
This was the past.
So, what is the position today?
Today the credibility of the Tony Blair government is almost as bad as that of John Major in 1997. And for the same reasons. Again the issue is not ‘policies’, but ‘politics’: arogant and dishonest manipulation of government powers for the purpose of self‐promotion.
But can today's ‘top Tories’ play the same trick as Tony Blair did in 1997?
They did try to adopt the posture of ‘the best Labour we've ever had’. But, out‐Labouring Tony Blair will not work. Tony Blair ‘ditched’ the ‘ideals’ of ‘Old Labour’, not because they were ‘Labour’, but because he understood that they were wrong. There are some people among traditional Labour voters who are nostalgic about the traditional ‘tax‐the‐rich’ Labour politics, but they will never ‘vote Tory’ — and ‘betray the working class’. Nor will these Socialist ideas appeal to any other section of the British public. So, ‘out‐Labouring Labour’ by the Tories will not achieve a ‘New Tories landslide’.
So, if ‘out‐Labouring Labour’ will not bring the ‘Tories’ into government, then what will?
They need to look at the real issues of the time.
But what were the real issues in 1997, and what are they today?
Incompetence and dishonesty in government.
And the only way these issues can be resolved is to review the whole issue of government from prime principles.
One needs to ask the questions:
Had the ‘top Tories’ provided answers to these questions, they would have earned the public respect and support they seek. Otherwise, their only hope of getting elected is totally in the hands of Tony Blair. Only, if Tony Blair succeeds to discredit himself to such level, that (1) anything would begin to look better than his government and (2) there will be no other alternatives to his government but the ‘Tories’, will the conservatives have a chance to be elected.