Classic Tories – faking concern for the working class while keeping their own privileges

Theresa May tells Conservatives it's time to embrace a new centre groundITN

Despite the media treating it like a shiny new object, Theresa May's attempt to rebrand the Conservatives as the "workers' part" is nothing new. For three consecutive years now the Tories have insisted it is they, rather than Labour, who are actually in touch with 'ordinary hard-working people'.

In 2014, in a bid to shed their image as the party of trust funds and Bullingdon Club hijinks, Tory party chairman Grant Shapps declared "the Conservatives are the workers' party and we are on your side". A year later deputy chairman of the party Robert Halfron went further, preposterously suggesting that the party should change its name by political deed poll to the 'Workers' Party'.

Today, however, the rebranding effort gives off a veneer of being more serious, not least because the Brexit vote has driven home the message that the type of laissez-faire economics that have dominated western politics for 30-odd years are coming unstuck.

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Historically, working class Conservatism has at times been an attractive proposition for many people, as was demonstrated during the 1980s when a section of the working class was drawn to Margaret Thatcher's message of hard-headed patriotism abroad and acquisitiveness at home. Yet Thatcherite Conservatism came unstuck because the untrammelled market did not create the familial, remodelled Victorian value system that Thatcher revered. It was a contradiction in terms.

Thatcher wanted to create a society in the image of her frugal and Wesleyan Methodist father, Alf. In reality the ruthless, winner-takes-all capitalism she championed incubated a country that bore a greater resemblance to her dull-witted and vacuous son Mark. She championed a traditional society, yet the economic policies her government pursued laid the foundations for a fissiparous one.

To her disciples, Thatcher's greatest achievement was in the economic sphere; yet it was economics that ultimately undid Tory gains among the working class, with the mass unemployment of the 1980s and early 1990s leaving huge swathes of the country not only with no Tory MPs, but even without a single Tory councillor. For all the resurgent nostalgia about working class Toryism, even at the height of Thatcher's pomp in the 1980s six out of 10 skilled workers voted against her party.

The left is often accused (and with some justification) of making everything about economics. So for example, when a group of voters say they voted Brexit because they dislike the fact that their neighbours do not speak English, the left is apt to put this down, at root, to a lack of funding for public services or a wider grievance against austerity. It is the old explain-all of 'false consciousness' redistilled in fresh bottles: what working class voters say they are upset about is really code for what I am peeved about.

Yet the same accusation can be levelled at the Conservatives. As Thatcher's successors found out to their cost, reheated patriotism is not a cure-all for the ravages of the free market. A poor man may use his beloved flag as a table cloth, but he cannot actually eat it when he feels the pangs of hunger.

Unless the Tories really do plan to fiercely bang the drum of English nationalism (which, considering Amber Rudd's rapid abandonment of a policy that would have required companies to keep a record of the migrant workers, it would appear they don't) then at some point it will have to confront the actual ills of the world, rather than the imaginary bogeymen.

Margaret and Dennis Thatcher enter Number 10 after the Conservative's victory in 1979Getty

You can talk about 'cultural concerns' until the cows come home, but eventually flesh and blood workers (as opposed to Spiked caricatures of beer-swilling xenophobes) will latch on to the fact that you are not putting more money in their pockets. Indeed, with respect to how Britain behaves toward Europe in the months ahead, a resurgent English nationalism is likely to deplete those pockets even further.

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Working class Toryism invariably comes unstuck when the working class start asking for things, rather than passively accepting what they are given. According to the TUC, four in five of the jobs created between 2010 and 2013 were in low-paid industries, such as retail and social care. To some extent this is beyond the control of government. However,+ what the state can do is make life easier for the growing army of people who toil away in unrewarding jobs.

Apart from a modest rise in the minimum wage, over the past six years the Conservatives have done the opposite. In 2013 the party introduced tribunal fees, pricing many workers who are summarily dismissed out of any sort of justice. In the first six months after fees were introduced, claims fell by 55%. This is not, you suspect, a consequence of bosses suddenly feeling great affection for their workers, but rather because many people could no longer afford to bring a claim.

Moreover, in 2013 the TUC lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission over the Tories' failure to implement the Temporary Agency Workers Directive, a piece of EU legislation that entitles agency staff to the same pay as permanent staff after 12 weeks.

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There is no sign that Theresa May intends to reverse any of this. Indeed, as a consequence of the 'hard Brexit' her government is intent on pursuing, even this meagre protection will soon disappear, leaving agency workers who toil away in the warehouses of multi-billion pound companies like Sports Direct, ASOS and B&M Bargains with fewer rights than they have today.

Thus it seems likely that the latest chameleon-like attempt by the Conservatives to rebrand themselves as the party of the proletariat will fall flat for similar reasons that Thatcherism failed to win the loyalty of those who, as Karl Marx almost put it, 'have nothing to sell but their Labour power'. With the economy about to take a hit from Brexit, it will be the business interests loudly demanding a cut in 'red tape' (read 'workers' rights') who will have the ear of the Prime Minister before she does anything of substance for people who earn, rather than make their money.

As with David Cameron's vapid talk of the 'big society' (homelessness is up 55%), the Conservative Party will, as surely as night follows day, revert back to its default position, which is to defend the people who need it the least but who it was set up to defend: the already privileged.

Despite what the newspapers may say, the real enemies of working people are not foreign workers. It's those who are responsible for the current deterioration in the conditions of the typical English workplace – oddly enough, precisely the same people who are eager to tell you about their new-found enthusiasm for the English working class.


James Bloodworth is the author of The Myth of Meritocracy


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