Reality versus rhetoric among conferring Conservatives

Reality versus rhetoric among conferring Conservatives

If the people of Britain really knew what had been going on in terms of corporate lobbying and wheeler-dealing behind the scenes at the Conservative Party conference, "they would be horrified".

Not the words of a left-wing commentator, but of Quentin Letts from the decidedly right-of-centre Daily Mail newspaper, speaking on BBC2 last night.

Indeed, of the 11,000 attenders at the recently concluded Tory jamboree in Manchester, which is effectively a cheerleaders' event with no democratic function, some 7,000 were lobbyists, commercial representatives or media. The rest were mainly there to smile on television, it seems.

The message from the platform has continued to emphasise that "we are all in this together", but the kind of luxury products being sold or promoted in the exhibition areas of the conference (a mere £10,625 for a 3 square metre pitch) are definitely for the few, not the many.

That multi-millionaire David Cameron and a stack of his cosseted advisers had to heed a last minute warning that lecturing people on credit might seem a bit insensitive when you are cutting their jobs, pay, pensions, social services, welfare, local authority provisions and more, indicates not that the modern Conservatives are "out of touch". Rather, it shows that, beneath the surface rhetoric of inclusion (which, like protecting aid to the world's poorest, makes many self-styled 'traditional' activists shudder), they actively believe that the real burden of a recession brought about by the wealthy - who are among their largest donors and supporters - should be paid for by those at the bottom of the pile.

Yet this is the same party whose leader has just told churches and faith groups to promote "moral responsibility". The disconnect between rhetoric and reality is remarkable.

The ill-informed assault on the Human Rights Act, the misinformation about migrants, the abandonment of environmental priorities in planning, the jingoistic militarism, the punitive stance on welfare, the denial of equal rights and dignity to disabled people, the massacring of civil legal aid for the most vulnerable - these and other measures and mantras sadly indicate that the "nasty party" has not gone away, however decent some of its individual members may be.

Indeed, the Conservative-shaped coalition government is currently leading a £85-100 billion five year economic assault on the public sphere which Margaret Thatcher could only have dreamed of, while simultaneously pulling the financial rug from under the very civil society organisations and actors who are supposed to implement the counterveiling 'Big Society' agenda.

Nor are these policies working economically. The Office for National Statistics reports that UK output fell by 7.1 per cent from its peak at the end of 2007 through to the second quarter of 2009, rather than the previously projected 6.4 per cent. GDP for the first and second quarters of 2011 has also been revised downwards.

The reality is that debt and recession are not reduced by taking wages out of the work economy, shrinking the public sector, deregulating, and slashing investment. Rather, they require a renewal of economic activity on a new and different basis, as outlined by the imaginative cross-party 'Green New Deal' agenda.

Meanwhile, Britain today is facing stunted economic conditions not seen since the mid-1970s. Tales of revival at this weeks' Conservative conference have proved as imaginary as the defining role assigned by the Home Secretary to a domestic cat in a recent immigration case.

In Scotland, Conservative leadership candidate Murdo Fraser has daringly pitched his campaign around the idea of a new, more humane, pro-devolution centre-right party to replace the busted flush which is Toryism north of the border, where the party picked up just 276,652 votes (13 per cent of the poll) at the last election, in a nation of 5 million - not least because of a rejection of the kind of fundamentalist free-marketeering about which he has been less forthcoming.

Ironically, Mr Fraser and his fellow MSP candidates for the Scottish Conservative leadership only have their seats because of a proportional electoral system their party opposes. The moral of that story may be that real change is only a threat to those who still hanker after yesterday, and a kind of 'old time religion' which wasn't actually that spiritual or meaningfully traditional in the first place. After Manchester, redemption still beckons.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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