Can the Tories become a workers party? Neil O Brien’s strange suggestion

Neil O Brien suggests that the Tories can become a workers party. The main plank of O Brien’s argument is that Cameron must resist lurching to the right, because the conservatives don’t have a majority, Labour are thrashing them in the polls, and the conservative vote is terrible in urban areas outside the south east – particularly among ethnic minority voters.

So this would be a purely strategic concession to the political reality that the conservative party does not do well with workers. O Brien cites precedent in Sweden as evidence that Cameron could push in this direction and succeed. He also claims that the political will exists for Cameron to do this. So will Cameron take his advice and change his party to cater to a demographic they despise? O Brien argues that signs already exist showing this possibility:

“It’s easy to forget how much Cameron has changed his party. Would previous leaders have backed gay marriage, introduced a bank levy, increased capital gains tax, carved low-wage workers out of the public-sector pay freeze, or introduced a pupil premium for poorer children?”

A pedant might add that amidst this deluge of progressive policies the coalition government has embarked on the biggest assault on the living standards of the working class since the Geddes axe nearly a century ago.  A dinosaur leftist living in the past might remind him of the comments made by Greg Barker, who boasted about making cuts ‘that Margaret Thatcher could only dream of’ (video below).

There’s going to be no war on joblessness from Cameron, as O Brien hopes. Only a war on the jobless. There’ll be no cracking down on private utilities, and certainly no ‘break with free-market orthodoxy’.  The coalition government have brought us close to a triple-dip-recession with their austerity programme and are suffering heavily in the polls. Their solution is the same as the doctors who prescribed bloodletting centuries ago – keep piling on the pain, against all evidence that what you’re doing isn’t working, and hope for the best. Osborne is cutting a further 10 billion from the welfare budget. The challenge to Cameron’s leadership is from Boris Johnson, from the right.

Moreover, this is simply not something the tory party will ever do. As Owen Jones heard from a tory grandee during his final year as an undergraduate:

“What you have to realize about the conservative party is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. The way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.”

At most it is capable of the tactical managerialism of Disraeli – the present government has no intention even of doing this.

O Brien’s argument is silly, but it can be accepted as serious because of the refusal of the Labour party to act in the interests of workers. Greg Barker defended his comments by pointing out that Alistair Darling had agreed that cuts harder than Thatcher’s would be necessary before the election – and this is a fair point as far as it goes. Miliband continues to promise cuts, even when it gets him booed and howled at on TUC demonstrations. With the internal democracy of the Labour party smashed, the failure of John Mcdonnell to mount a viable leadership challenge, and the tendency for the social democratic parties of Europe to line up behind austerity, not much hope can be held out for them in this respect.

With this in mind, we should build TUSC, which has the potential to be an actual party of the working class – and simultaneously build rank-and-file presence in the unions to pull off the general strike that the TUC is ‘considering’. The work is far from easy, but the success of Syriza and to an extent the Front Gauche shows the possibilities that are at our fingertips. If we get half the breakthrough that these organisations have we will have taken a huge step forward in Britain, and there will be no more absurd talk of the Tories as a workers party.


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