The Conservative Party conference is in full flow, so what is someone like me doing writing about it? I am an MP from a rival party and cannot pretend to be the least bit impartial. So, you might ask, what’s the point?
For all the claims by the far left of the Labour party that centre-left social democrats like me are Tories in disguise, they’d realise pretty quickly that our values and views on how we organise society are certainly not “conservative” if they bothered to look at what we stand for.
Our two-party system is born out of our unfair, anachronistic first-past-the-post electoral system. For it to deliver good government and a healthy democracy, we need both parties to be strong, vibrant and capable of competently holding each other to account. So, as democrats, we all have an interest in both the main parties fulfilling these constitutional functions.
At the start of the 2015 parliament, when Labour was clearly performing poorly as an opposition, one of most senior members of the current cabinet (then in a more junior cabinet role) told me he took no joy in watching what was happening to us because poor opposition makes the sitting government lazy, complacent and prone to make mistakes.
The same applies the other way around, too, which is why the appalling state of the governing party is not a cause for celebration, not least because all communities – regardless of how they vote – will suffer from the damage they are doing. And, before people say “But what about your own party?”, regular readers of this column will know that I have not been shy in coming forward about my own party’s flaws. So I will try to be as objective as possible here.
Organisationally the Conservative Party is in a parlous state. It is hard to compare the memberships of political parties as they are not legally obliged to publish data. Yet, according to research compiled by the independent House of Commons Library, it had more individual members than any other party up to the mid-1990s, when it had about 400,000 members.
Today it has less than a third of that number – 124,000 members compared to Labour’s 540,000 and the SNP’s 125,500. That makes Theresa May’s team the third party by membership in UK politics in 2018.
Not only is it smaller but her party’s membership does not come close to looking like modern Britain. Women account for nearly half of Labour party members and less than 30 per cent of the Conservatives, whose members are substantially older than the average Brit.
In our system, each party is supposed to operate as a coalition, taking in most of the traditions of political thought on their side of the political spectrum – with the Conservatives achieving a good balance between the different views and interests spanning the ideological right. But due to the small size of the membership, the present-day party is ripe for entryism by the extreme right of British politics. According to numerous Tory MPs I speak to, this is already happening and is in the process of destroying the delicate balance there was in their party. Indeed, if the likes of Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve, Nicky Morgan, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry sought to get on the approved list of Conservative candidates today, party sources tell me they doubt they would make it.
Past members of the Conservative Party who left to join Ukip are rejoining the party in their droves, and former members of Ukip are making a straight switch to the party. A good example is the former Ukip leadership contender Steven Woolfe MEP who has joined the Tories, claiming that “people like Jacob Rees-Mogg have more in common with ourselves.”
Conservative Party chair Brandon Lewis appears to be welcoming the influx with open arms. He told Tory MPs that “[in Great Yarmouth] I have a number of ex-Ukip councillors who joined late last year and are superb members and activists.”
The hard-right Leave.EU, which was responsible for the notorious anti-immigrant “Breaking Point” poster during the 2016 EU referendum, has been encouraging its supporters to join the Tories to influence the forthcoming leadership contest and deselect moderate Tory MPs. It seems to be working.
And this should come as no surprise: extremism is fashionable in today’s Conservative party. Brandon Lewis pens articles and issues press releases lambasting the Labour party for antisemitism in its ranks, but ignores the rampant Islamophobia in his own party. As one of his predecessors, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has said, “Criticism of antisemitism in the Labour party isn’t credible as long as we’ve failed to root out hatred in our own backyard.”
Exhibit A: Boris Johnson. Philip Hammond can go to town slagging off Johnson – who has, of course, likened Muslim women wearing burqas to “letterboxes” – in newspapers all he likes, but the blond one is the person the ConservativeHome poll out today suggests the Tory party faithful want as their next leader by a wide margin.
Historically Labour has been stereotyped as having a big heart but is falsely depicted as not always running government competently; while the Conservatives are said to have no heart but at least run things competently and efficiently. The present-day Tory party has been working overtime to illustrate that they are both heartless and hopeless, particularly in their handling of Brexit. And at conference, there also does not appear to be any discernible domestic agenda on show.
Whatever criticisms people may have of the Labour Party, at least it has an agenda and a sense of direction. Conservative cabinet ministers have had similar agency and purpose before. Take Michael Heseltine in the 1980s. As environment secretary, he was an evangelist for urban regeneration for places such as Liverpool (he was awarded freedom of the city by the Labour council there in 2012).
The Thatcher government he served in was busy destroying other communities.
As education secretary in the same period, Ken Baker established the national curriculum and later went on to promote the spread of university technical colleges. I abhorred what their government was doing but Heseltine and Baker had an agenda. Not one current Conservative cabinet minister can say the same now, other than positioning themselves to succeed Theresa May.
Jeremy Hunt – who voted Remain and called for a People’s Vote on the final deal immediately after the result – provided the latest example of the cabinet seeking votes in the next leadership contest in his Conservative Party conference speech yesterday. He declared he would now vote Leave and accused the EU of behaving like the Soviet Union.
The Latvian ambassador to the UK, Baiba Braze, tweeted the following scathing response: “Soviets killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned 100 thousands of Latvia’s inhabitants after the illegal occupation in 1940, and ruined lives of 3 generations, while the EU has brought prosperity, equality, growth, respect.” One senior Conservative MP told me after that this nonsense from Hunt was “a moral and political embarrassment.”
To the extent any of the cabinet have so far left a legacy, it is a pretty appalling one. Step forward transport secretary Chris Grayling, whose performance matches that of Southern Trains: a complete joke. This is the judgement of government ministers I talk to in their more indiscrete moments. In many respects, this is arguably the least impressive cabinet since the days of Heseltine and Baker: low-energy and low-calibre.
Above all, the Tories like to claim that they run a steady ship economically and like to style themselves as being the party of business. But what have they got to show for this? They have decimated many public services in the name of reducing the country’s national debt, but have borrowed more in the past eight years than the Labour party did in 13 years in office.
They will point to the record high rates of employment in their defence but willfully ignore the fact that more people are working in insecure work and on zero-hours contracts than ever before, and more than half of people in poverty are in working households.
Their relations with business are at an all-time low, so much so that their well-respected universities minister Sam Gyimah says they have “have lost [their] way” and now veer between “talking business down” and “ignoring the concerns of voters.” The most recent example of this is Brexit secretary Dominic Raabaccusing firms of using Brexit as an excuse for poor results.
The upshot of all of this: very often, self-confessed Tory voters stop me – a Labour MP – in the street and on public transport, expressing their disgust for the party they have always voted for, declaring that they will not vote for them so long as all of this continues. They say they feel politically homeless. I hear this time and time again. I write the above without mentioning all their specific policy failures and outlining the full horror of what they are doing to those in need in every community.
It would be easy to argue – as you would expect – that this all illustrates the need for a change in government. Some might argue that it illustrates the need for an even stronger opposition. Both points are valid. It also illustrates the need for more competition and choice in politics, and for us to ditch the ridiculous voting system that reinforces this lamentable state of affairs.
If we had a fairer, more democratic electoral system – a system of proportional representation – the Tories would face more of an electoral threat for letting down the nation, and perhaps there would be a greater chance of them providing the quality of government the British people deserve and expect to see. For now, though, this disgraceful shambles will stumble on and on with no end in sight.