Who’s the nasty party now?

by David Talbot

As Tory activists gathered in Bournemouth in October 2002, for what was regarded as a critical make-or-break conference for Iain Duncan Smith, few were thinking about his newly appointed chairwoman, Theresa May. But whilst Duncan Smith was wasting everyone’s time, meekly proclaiming himself “the quiet man” of politics, May delivered a speech to a stunned audience that would have profound ramifications for British politics.

In a particularly hard-hitting passage, May said it was time for the Conservatives to face up to the “uncomfortable truth” about the way they were perceived by the public as the “nasty party”. Her description of a party that had sunk into corruption, incestuous feuding and outright bigotry, was devastating precisely because it was accurate. If you didn’t dislike the Conservatives, you simply weren’t trying.

It left an indelible mark on the party. Cameron’s entire strategy, since his election as leader in 2005, could been summed up by self-conscious efforts at “decontamination”. Hence an acceptance of the critique from the left about the party, and total and absolute submission to their fundamental framing of the terms of British political debate. Cameron didn’t get to be leader of his party without grasping, from personal and political experience, that the 21st century Tories could never afford, whatever other battles they might be prepared to fight, to be seen as the nasty party. And Labour desperately wants to revive this sobriquet that Cameron spent years of his leadership escaping.

Jonathan Powell in The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World, weaves the maxims of the legendary Florentine civil servant to the proceedings he witnessed as Blair’s chief of staff in Downing Street from 1997-2007. It’s part of a surge of well-researched books relating to the disturbing saga of the politics at the top of the Labour party that was so unspeakably vicious that it interfered with the business of government.

Powell’s evaluation of Labour in government amounts to a devastating critique. Brown, in particular, is lucky that the full extent of his disloyalty has emerged only gradually and only after he ceased to be prime minister. If only Brown had supported Blair’s reform programme and waited patiently, he would have been able to succeed to the leadership smoothly and the Labour party would not have been damaged irreparably by the constant destabilisation. But his brief, benighted premiership was crowded with the lowest of politics. In short, it often seemed nasty: not a useful, stringent, purgatorial nastiness. Just plain nasty.

Many in Labour may take comfort in the belief that the Conservative party is still seen as being the nasty party. But it is no longer the case. The impression of Labour nastiness is stronger, and may matter more. Governments of the left sell themselves principally on their motive. On their avowed compassion, vision of social justice and morality. But Powell describes government where thuggery, bullying, threats and factions were the mainstay in the Labour arsenal.

Leaders seek office to change things through their ideology and beliefs. Yet they won’t be able to achieve any of their objectives unless they realise, as Machiavelli did, that there is such a thing as the art of government. Unless we accept and address the fact that Labour got this drastically wrong, the promise of a lasting legacy of bitterness and lost illusions is liable to haunt the party for many years to come.

David Talbot is a political consultant.


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5 Responses to “Who’s the nasty party now?”

  1. Nick says:

    Labour is the nasty party.

    The party that wants loan sharks to force children to inherit the parents debts.

    The party that wants other people to be forced to pay off the profligates credit card debts.

    Debt forgiveness after all is just for the third world.

    Debt forgiveness is not for the children of the UK.

  2. swatantra says:

    We can all agree that its the Lib Dems. The removal of Kennedy and Ming shows the Lib Dems are not averse to blood sports. And of course the way the Lib Dems campaign on the streets at a local level.
    But, Labour did build up a certain degree of arrogance and nastiness during its 13 years which those on the inside know all too well, and the reason was ineffective Opposition from the likes of Hague IDS and Howard, so when a credible Tory leader like Cameron came along it wasn’t able to adapt.
    The point is that all Oppositions have to be strong and on tip top form otherwise Democracy suffers.

  3. Ultra_Fox says:

    What a well-researched, objective and dispassionate account of the Labour Party – NOT!!

    The poison and the backbiting that beset Labour at the highest levels during its years in office did indeed come from Downing Street, but not from Gordon Brown.

    The previous party leader came to prominence as part of a careerist tendency that preferred witch-hunting and smearing internal opponents to the harder task of defeating the Tories. That tendency exploited the opportunities which arose from the untimely death of John Smith to impose its will on the party, destroying whatever radical instincts it still had in order to create a business-friendly alternative to a deeply discredited Tory government which Rupert Murdoch and his ilk could safely endorse. Hence the emergence of the parasitic, intellectually-dishonest and morally-bankrupt entity known as “New Labour”.

    While personality clashes emerged during the first term, the stability of the economy and the comatose nature of the Tory party, never comfortable in opposition, meant that these tensions had little consequence, though the signs of deep-seated political disengagement were already evident in the sharply-reduced turnout in 2001. However, the US coup in late 2000 which brought George W Bush into the White House would bring these tensions into the open and onto centre stage.

    The US Republican party is a motley collection of rednecks, fatcats and white-collar bandits whom no Labour member, let alone leader, should be seen dead endorsing. It is to the eternal shame of the Labour government that only two senior members (Robin Cook and Clare Short) possessed sufficient moral fibre to resist their leader’s call to join the US campaign for a middle-east crusade.

    Worse still, not only did Labour share the Republicans’ policy objectives, it also acquired its patterns of behaviour. Thus the smears and media briefings became increasingly shriller, culminating in the infamous “dossier” produced in Parliament as a pretext for the Iraq war. Meanwhile away from the public gaze, many ministers developed the same disdain for standards and etiquette that distinguished and ultimately disfigured their Tory predecessors. A time-bomb was set in motion which would the Daily Telegraph would gleefully detonate, to Labour’s detriment, several years later.

    Any pretence at “ethics”, whether in foreign policy or any other sphere of government was immediately torn to shreds. Eight years on, Labour’s attempt to recapture the moral high ground remains in the same state, for fear of reigniting internal tensions between the followers of the personality cult and the more enlightened wing of the party.

    But the Tories’ allegiance to their natural allies across the Atlantic ensured they were unable to exploit the divisions of a party for whom Iraq was and remains a faultline as deep as the EU for the Tories themselves. Labour was able to secure a historic third successive victory, but the purpose for which it attained power appeared to be forgotten. Only in the midst of the deepest global economic crisis in 70 years was that purpose recaptured. But once Labour’s prized reputation for economic prosperity had been dismantled, its political credibilty went the same way.

    The release of Alistair Darling’s memoirs is an attempt both to launch an inquest into the 2010 defeat and to secure a verdict favourable to the former Chancellor and his political mentors. This attempt deserves to fail.

    Darling is a natural-born technocrat who has built his entire political career by swimming with the prevailing political currents. He was therefore particularly vulnerable to the machinations of the mandarins who have held sway within the corridors of the Treasury for decades, only rarely being challenged by those with more gravitas than Darling (or the present chancellor for that matter) could ever hope to summon.

    His efforts to paint himself as a passive victim of threats, plots and bullying should also not stand up to scrutiny. Darling proved capable of responding in kind often with the assistance of sympathetic allies within the cabinet, whose very existence undermines the myth of prime ministerial omnipotence.

    The battles within the last government were well documented at the time. There is no need to revive them now. The new leadership of the party already face considerable challenges, on various fronts, to regain public trust on a sustainable challenge.

    Alistair Darling as an elder statesman and senior party figure, could have played a significant role in that process. However by choosing to publish a tendentious and self-serving account of his time in government, his opportunity to do so has been substantially weakened.

    He remains in the past, while the rest of us move on.

  4. AmberStar says:

    @ Ultra-Fox

    I am in awe of your comment. It articulates exactly my thoughts & feelings. And I can only add: For how long will yesterday’s men continue to put their own selfish needs ahead of the Party?
    8-)

  5. paul barker says:

    The last Labour Government sent innocent men to be tortured by Gaddafis thugs, I dont think “Nasty” even begins to describe Labour.

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