Three Labour reflections on Tory conference

by Atul Hatwal

It’s always an odd experience attending Tory conference (I was there to speak for the Migration Matters Trust at a fringe), particularly this year. As a Labour member it felt almost like Her Majesty’s Opposition had ceased to exist as a practical concern for the Tories.

Here are three reflections on how and why.

1.The protests have utterly toxified Labour’s relationship with the media

It’s not nice being spat at. Or being called scum. Nor seeing women being called whores and threatened with rape.

That’s the experience virtually everybody attending Tory conference had at the start of the week.

The people shouting and spitting weren’t necessarily Labour party members or supporters but the ideological comity between Labour’s leadership and the more extreme protesters is clear.

Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell is on the record as backing “insurrection” and “direct action” and there were plenty of Labour members and even parliamentary staffers on Twitter, eager to Corbsplain the abuse.

For the journalists, whose words and pictures will frame public views of the party, Tory conference indelibly connected the dots between Labour’s leadership and the nutters.

Beyond the horrendous nature of the experience for the journalists, it set a prism, one of extremism, through which most will now perceive – even sub-consciously – Labour politics.

It would be a miracle if this then didn’t shape their reporting.

2.The Tory leadership succession will dominate UK politics for the next few years

Theresa May’s speech was extraordinary. Set aside her cavalier disregard for the evidence on migration for a moment, the political strategy was just as striking.

Like Jeremy Corbyn last week, she wasn’t speaking to the country. She wasn’t even speaking to the hall. She was speaking to a group within the hall.

Whereas he talked to his supporters in Labour’s leadership election, she spoke exclusively to the right of the party who are critical to her hopes of succeeding David Cameron.

Over the past months, May has been squeezed in the leadership race by George Osborne as the establishment candidate and the media box office of Boris Johnson.

Under the Tories’ leadership rules, the MPs whittle the choice down to two, who will then be voted on by the party in the country.

May’s goal is to be one of the final two. Given Osborne is virtually assured a berth, her target is Boris Johnson.

Her excoriating attack on, essentially, her own record on migration over the past five years can have only one political purpose: paving the way for May to declare for Brexit.

She’ll say she tried to hit the net migration target but can’t while we’re still in the EU.

In the referendum campaign, she will be the biggest cabinet beast campaigning to leave the EU and clearly hopes the prominence that this gives her will seal a place in the final two, putting her in pole position with a deeply Eurosceptic party membership.

It’s a narrow and not particularly plausible path – she isn’t very popular among her parliamentary colleagues, she won’t be the only standard bearer from the right or indeed the only woman in the race. Her route into the final two is fraught to say the least.

But that she is prepared to bet everything on this strategy speaks volumes about the non-existent threat she sees from Labour, in holding her to account.

It’s likely to be the same for Boris Johnson and any others who think they might have a chance of making the final cut.

Labour faces being marginalised in a similar manner to the last parliament. Then, the content for political stories was generated by intra-coalition splits between the Tories and Lib Dems.

Now, it’s going to be the various Tory leadership campaigns that participate in the debate on how Britain should be governed while Labour is reduced to shouting angrily on the sidelines.

3.David Cameron is this year’s Ed Miliband

If Theresa May’s speech was reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn’s, David Cameron’s effort also seemed modelled on a Labour leader’s peroration. Remarkably, that leader was Ed Miliband.

The prime minister might have received largely glowing reviews this morning but it was actually a lot like Ed Miliband’s speech in 2012 when he spoke about One Nation Labour.

As with Miliband, David Cameron’s attempt to steal the opposition’s linguistic clothes has had a positive impact on journalists. Similar phrases – “audacious land grab” is one – peppered the write-ups of both speeches. But behind the scenes, as with Miliband, little else was in alignment with the words in terms of policy or personnel.

When Ed Miliband delivered his address I said at the time that it was a political sugar rush that would have minimal lasting impact. Same again from Cameron 2015.

Policies such as the tax credit cut, clang discordantly against Cameron’s centrist narrative. In parliament, the varied Eurosceptic factions are plotting to make his life a misery on the terms of the EU renegotiation.

Leadership hopefuls are watching for moments to demonstrate how they would be different. Theresa May’s speech was the first salvo in a barrage likely to come from her.

And now Labour has vacated the centre-ground, the last reason to stand firm against these pressures, is gone.

Like Ed Miliband in 2012, David Cameron has pitched himself as a centrist. But just as Miliband was dragged to the left, so David Cameron will be hauled to the right with messy compromises and U-turns, to maintain his 12 seat parliamentary majority.

Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral toxicity means that David Cameron will have little to lose from coddling the right, so he will.

Three years from now David Cameron’s speech will be seen as the apotheosis of his centrism. From here on in for the Tories, its a rightwards march.

The story of Manchester for the Tories was of a party easing into its role as both government and opposition.

Labour was virtually non-existent as a consideration, other than as the butt of jokes or the cause of furrowed brows worrying about the implications for British democracy of a government without little practical opposition.

This is why Tory conference was, if anything, even more depressing than Labour’s gathering last week. For the first time, the scale of our growing irrelevance to the mainstream of politicial discourse was gruesomely clear.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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15 Responses to “Three Labour reflections on Tory conference”

  1. Janice says:

    Interesting article, I agree on the first point, about the demonstrations outside impacting badly on Labour, and Corbyn turning up in Manchester on Monday night will have done nothing to help.

    On Cameron making a speech like Ed Miliband’s, I agree that the reality does not match the rhetoric, but Osborne’s budget after the election was a pre-corbyn budget, I can’t see Cameron and Osborne not responding to the opportunity to take as many voters from Labour as they can. Who wouldn’t? I think Cameron will win against the right, because the abandoned Labour voters are so visible and attracting them such an obvious strategy, I can’t see the Tory right winning the argument, but I might be wrong. But then, the reality does have to start to match the rhetoric.

  2. Madasafish says:

    I think Atul may be confused in an otherwise well written article.

    It’s possible to be socially liberal, economically conservative and also appeal to the centre ground.. See Tony Blair Mark1.

    I agree with Janice above..

    As for the protestors, they mirror some of the posters on LabourList.. political purity at any cost..

  3. Sean says:

    Thanks for the Blairite article Atwal. For your information, some people in the LP are socialists as opposed to supporters of Blairite Thatherism. If people did not struggle for a better world in the past, today we would still be with children working up chimneys and 16 hour working days. By the way, it does not take sputum or verbal abuse for the print and broadcasting capitalist media to be reactionary and rabidly anti-socialist. The coverage, for example by the BBC, has been absolutely disgraceful ab initio. The media has always opposed social progress and has always supported reaction as they did with Thatcher’s regime. No amount of fawn and toadyism to the News Controllers and Newspaper editors will change that.

  4. Bob says:

    Point 1: totally correct.

    Point 2: Teresa May and the Conservative are no longer shackled to the dead weight that was the Lib Dems.

    Point 3: Cameron will be demob happy but again he has cast the Lib Dems into obscurity for 5 years if not longer. he will want Osborne as his successor.

  5. Matt Moore says:

    Calling people whores and spitting at them is only reprehensible because its bad for Labour’s image?

  6. john P Reid says:

    sean also remember when the romans stopped slavery also it’s so much better to live in a mansion and lose on afar left manifesto, as it’s amoral victory

    yes the BBC is a tory broadcaster as it was during Thatchers time, and labour never gave the tory press any ammuniation acting stupid or anything. lol.

  7. Toby says:

    “Corbsplain” – love it!

  8. Joe Baxter says:

    Your first point is all cart before horse – the idea that the press were open to friendly relations with Labour and were persuaded otherwise because of the boorish behaviour of a tiny number of overexcited demonstrators among a demonstration of tens of thousands is laughable. It also doesn’t say much for the ability of the press to be or remain objective, although if that’s your meaning then on that we can agree.

  9. Care to make any predictions, Atul?

  10. Sean says:

    @john p reid

    I refer you to my most recent post on the thread below.

  11. Madasafish says:

    Matt Moore says:
    October 9, 2015 at 12:38 am
    Calling people whores and spitting at them is only reprehensible because its bad for Labour’s image?”

    John McDonnell made a speech 4 years ago endorsing spitting – into people’s food… just Google it.

    Say no more.

  12. Robin says:

    The behaviour by some people at the Tory conference was reprehensible and there is no excuse whoever did it. Just as there is no excuse for this type of behaviour and language at any time. The poster who said it was made worse by Corbyn attending a rally that evening is making a statement which may be true but also appears to put the blame on Jeremy Corbyn for attending the rally which he had been invited to long before the leadership battle. His presence may have given some extremist members of the media a reason to linki him to earlier incidents but he was not there when the spitting and verbal abuse took place. Nor was he there when Toryboy Colm got one of his friends to give him an egg shampoo so that the same extremist media members could shout and scream at the “evil Labour party throwing eggs at an innocent little Tory delegate while a Labour Party protest rally was creating mayhem.”
    Of course WE know that it was a TUC protest rally and WE know that it was one of the most peaceful rallies held under these conditions, the police praised those taking part. A tiny minority of incidents (serious as the spitting and verbal abuse was it was still only a very small number of such incidents) failed to mar an excellent anti-austerity rally with protesters from across the social divide and going far beyond just union members and Labour Party supporters.
    The evening rally which Jeremy Corbyn attended and addressed as an invited guest drew the same sort of numbers his leadership election rallies drew – thousands. The only disturbance they would have caused would have been the sound of the applause and cheers for the new figurehead of the left – a figurehead who is also a democratically elected leader and a champion of the poor, the starving, the homeless, the underpaid, the badly-treated workers and all those others who need a voice to make them heard.

  13. Dave Roberts. says:

    Nothing much to disagree with in the article Atul. There has been a seismic shift in attitudes over the last five years or so with Labour’s traditional base becoming smaller and shifting away from the skilled and semi skilled working classes to the professional middle and a more unstable younger section of society which might have been to university but now face both a precarious job market and a housing situation which is dire and getting worse.

    It is this last section which is continually on the move in terms of housing and the most likely to not be registered to vote and thereby unable to convert their anger into a ballot. The opposite is true of the Tories. Their support is stable, housed, employed and with assets in the form of property and jobs that sees Labour as a threat.

  14. Chris says:

    “When Ed Miliband delivered his address I said at the time that it was a political sugar rush that would have minimal lasting impact. Same again from Cameron 2015.”

    That can’t be right – Dan Hodges is saying its the tory equivalent of the Godesberg Program and clause 4 was a publicity stunt in comparison. You don’t think he’s spinning for the tories do you, Atul?

  15. Ringstone says:

    Although the speeches given by Miliband and Cameron may have had similar themes, the context is utterly different. Miliband was…well, Milliband. Cameron is a two time prime minister looking to cement his legacy both within and without the Tory Party, while burying the Labour Party in the process, before going at the time of his choosing. He has significantly different levers at his disposal and a different agenda. As for being pulled right, there’s no point trying to out UKIP UKIP even if he wanted to, there are millions of votes belonging to people that never realised they were Tory Scum (™Labour 2015) up for grabs now the Corbynistas feel they are no longer fit for the New Jerusalem.

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