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Saturday, 8 May 2010

Why the Conservative Party lost yesterday?

In the 1980s and for some of the 1990s the UK experienced what is what like to be governed by a right-wing, free-market, Conservative Party. Although the British people took too long to realise it, by 1997, the population had moved to the left and Tony Blair was elected to power. To the dismay of those on the left, Blair continued many of the policies developed under Margaret Thatcher. Despite his many failings he was able to win two more elections. The reasons for this was that the British electorate had moved to the left and in our absurd first-past-the-post system, we had to put up with a right of centre New Labour Party governing the country.

The Conservative Party tried three different leaders but they were unable to come close to removing Tony Blair from power. A combination of Thatcher and Blair had created a desire for a more liberal and equal society. To be fair to Blair, his government did create a society that was more tolerant towards minorities. Attitudes towards the gay community definitely improved during this period. The more extreme kinds of racism and sexism also became more unacceptable in society.

After its third defeat in a row, David Cameron came up with a new strategy. He concluded that the electorate had indeed moved to the left and that unless it changed the Tories would never gain power. On the surface, most Conservative MPs, accepted this argument and he was allowed to develop policies that reflected the UK’s more liberal society. The chairman of the party admitted that in the past, the Tory Party had been in reality the “Nasty Party”. However, that was the past and the new Conservative Party was going to be a “liberal” party.

Of course, the wealthy elite in the UK were not interested in bankrolling this new party. After all, they were getting what they wanted by funding New Labour (PFI and government contracts, honours and places in the House of Lords, low-taxes on high-earners, tax evasion loopholes, etc.). However, all this changed when the public opinion polls showed that the New Labour government had become unpopular as a result of the mismanagement of the economy and its disastrous policy on Iraq and Afghanistan. Money now began flowing into the Conservative Party. Much of this came from multimillionaires like Lord Ashcroft who were based in tax-havens and feared that New Labour might close these loopholes. The Christian Right were also busy providing money to Cameron’s new Conservative Party. They had previously been willing to fund Tony Blair’s New Labour Party and his disastrous Academy schools programme. As John Gray has pointed out: “There can be little doubt that Christian fundamentalism has become a growing force in the (Conservative) party, and the strand of thinking that is emerging has much in common with the theo-conservatism that has divided and paralysed the Republicans in the US.”

David Cameron public views were not shared by most active members of the Conservative Party. For example, a recent poll showed that 94% of Conservative Party candidates in the General Election disagreed with his policy of not cutting overseas aid. When questioned about this he said that the policy shows that the party under his leadership had changed from its more illiberal past. However, the poll shows that this is window-dressing and that the party has not really changed at all.

Cameron had another problem. After the defeat of Alec Douglas Home (the former 14th Earl of Home) by Harold Wilson in 1964 it was argued that Britain would never again have a prime minister who had a public school education. The Conservative Party seemed to agree with this assessment and they had a succession of “grammar school” leaders until they elected the Eton educated David Cameron to the post. Would Cameron become the 19th Eton educated prime-minister in our history? As has happened in the past, Cameron immediately surrounded himself with his schoolmates as advisers and members of his shadow cabinet, including George Osborne, the shadow chancellor. This move is reflected in the fact that in yesterday’s election, 17 men educated at Eton became Conservative MPs (up from 14 in 2001). A total of 43% of the winning candidates were educated privately. Is it possible for this privileged elite to understand what it is like for the vast majority of people to have their public services or pension benefits cut? When George Osborne says “we are all in this together”, we know that is not the case.

With Britain having one of its most unpopular prime ministers in his history and undergoing its worse financial crisis since the 1930s, it was expected the Cameron’s move to the centre would pay dividends in yesterday’s election. However, he failed to gain an overall victory, winning only 36% of the vote. What yesterday’s election showed is that the UK now has a “left of centre” majority. As long as the Labour Party can elect a moderately reasonable leader, it could remain in power for the foreseeable future.

Cameron has offered Clegg a deal in order to gain power. If this deal is accepted, Clegg will split the Liberal Democrats is such a way that the party will disintegrate. Instead, he should do a deal with the Labour Party in order to establish a grand coalition that would include the Scottish Nationalists, the Welsh Nationalists and Caroline Lucas, our first Green MP. This would have to be done under the leadership of someone other than Gordon Brown. The new prime minister should then announce a referendum of parliamentary reform that would take place within 6 months. This should be combined with a promise of legislation that would enforce the decision of the referendum within 12 months. This would keep the coalition together until the next election could take place. Meanwhile, Cameron would be ousted as leader and the Conservative Party would become a party of the extreme-right, destined to be in permanent opposition.

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