Dead Men Left

Monday, August 28, 2006

Revisionist defeatism: the worse, the better

Presumably deliberately provocative:

If it did lose the next election, Labour could return in 2013-15 with a ministerial team that boasted a rare combination of youth, talent, maturity and experience. Barring a revival of Trotskyist entryism in the Labour party or a cleverly engineered Conservative economic boom, I cannot see the Tories being an appealing alternative in the longer term. There is little sign of a new intellectual ferment of the sort that carried Margaret Thatcher to power.

A period in opposition, far from being a disaster, will be the final test of the durability of Blair's historic transformation. In the past, Labour, turfed out of office, would normally lose several consecutive elections; if it won, it was by the slenderest of margins, as in the 1970s. To fulfil Blair's ambition that it should become the natural governing party of this century, it needs to show that it can bounce back quickly from defeat, as the Tories always did in the 20th century, and as Sweden's social democrats still do.

Given that New Labour's justification for itself is that it won elections, I cannot see how - once it loses an election - it can survive. Surveying Blair's likely legacy - the sad demise of the NHS, the resurgent racism, the disappearance of critical civil liberties, a new generation of nuclear power stations, economic injustice on a grand scale, and Iraq - finding the few voters impressed by the wreckage will be a hard task.

More to the point - and I say this having earlier indicated the Tories' decreptitude - it may yet be wide of the mark to claim the Tories lack "intellectual ferment". Whilst David Cameron is little more than a TV gimmick, and whilst the Tories' current, apparent lead seems more driven by Labour defections to the Lib Dems than their own popularity, there is a certain buzz developing around, for example, the happy-face Thatcherites at the Policy Exchange, and the sour, sinister neoconservative claque Cameron surrounds himself with.

It's nothing like on the scale of the intellectual assualt that preceded Thatcher, and nor is it quite so obviously tied to the Conservative Party. It accepts latter-day Blairite positions (boo to terrorists, yay for cappuccino) in a way Thatcher never tolerated any form of Old Labourism. But the flickerings of a revival are there nontheless. Whether it can produce a popular Conservatism beyond the party's declining and elderly base is a moot point. When national party politics has become, under New Labour, little more than the orderly management of decline, strange things start to happen.