The Tory manifesto, released today, is a deadly weapon with which Theresa May will attempt to colonise the centre ground for a generation. It is an incredibly Machiavellian work, the craftsmanship of which the architects of New Labour would have been proud. For that reason, it is therefore unsurprising that I have seen declarations today from a number of Labour centrists who find themselves seduced and transfixed by Mrs May’s siren call. But she is leading them towards the rocks.
The words in the photo above this text form the salient piece of political messaging in the entire Tory manifesto, aimed at reaching out both to the centre-left and centre-right and in, so doing, giving the Tories ownership of the best part of the centre ground for years to come. It is these words that have seemingly sent some Labour centrists swooning. They are hollow words, of course, but let’s look at the purpose of them first.
“We believe not in untrammelled free markets”. This is an implicit rejection of Thatcherism and an embrace of the parts of the country Mrs Thatcher brutally cast aside. “We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.” This is the language of Social Democrats and is brilliantly worded to capture the politicised and unpoliticised alike. “We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.” Daringly borrowing from Kinnock, this is designed to summon up the image of a Tony Benn-inspired dogmatist in the form of Jeremy Corbyn.
“We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals.” Shifting away from Labour’s lawn, the text now reaches out to the ‘small c conservative’ voters who usually decide elections, whilst once again juxtaposing the Tories with an apparently “irresponsible” Labour. “That is what community and nation demands.” Tipping back towards Blue Labour language now – that meeting with Lord Glasman must have gone well.
“We understand that nobody, however powerful, has succeeded alone and that we all therefore have a debt to others.” Perhaps the most cleverly worded line of all, here the manifesto (ridiculously) attempts to position the Tories on the side of the powerless, whilst once again hitting on a key word designed to make you dismiss Labour – debt.
Great political messaging, undoubtedly. Potentially era-defining, too? The argument goes that Theresa May may end up as a paradigm-shifting PM because she is a One Nation Conservative and not a Thatcherite. She is the vicar’s daughter from provincial England, the antithesis of Cameron and Osborne’s smooth, snake-oil ‘centrism.’ She is a Red Tory and she will re-balance our economy in favour of the many, not the few. That’s the theory, and it’s nonsense.
How can it be that so many Labour centrists who are rightly critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but who have so far remained loyal to the Labour Party, are willing to be swayed by one woman, one individual, one leader? Theresa May will not last a full parliamentary term. Brexit or an economic crash, or both, will break her. As she closes in on her 65th birthday, the Tories will replace her. It is not the leaders of parties who matter most of all, but the underlying character of the party. Nobody is bigger than the club – just ask Tony Blair.
Labour may be driving you mad right now. It’s driving me mad too. But the natural tendency of the Conservative Party is nothing to do with the mealy-mouthed words in this document. They are, after all, just words. Only the centre-left can put into practice the values cynically and calculatedly espoused in the Tory manifesto. It is only because Labour has vacated the centre ground that the Tories are able to make such grandiose claims, but the moment the centre-left regains its senses, the Tories will be forced back onto their natural turf.
Make no mistake – Theresa May is attempting to re-invent the centre ground, but she is not doing so in the true interests of Britain. She is trying to remould Britain in the past tense, when what is needed is a bold, radical vision for our country as it enters a ferociously challenging new era of economic and political uncertainty.
Only Britain’s progressives can provide that leadership, and Labour centrists who have had their heads turned today would do well to remember that parties’ characters are permanent, their leadership temporary.