The Conservative Party Fiddles While Momentum Aggressively Courts Tory Voters

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Momentum and other leftist groups supportive of Jeremy Corbyn are using new tactics to aggressively court Tory voters. Meanwhile, lacking a compelling vision of its own, the rootless and enfeebled Conservative Party has no response

We may be in the depths of summer silly season, but it is rapidly becoming evident that the forces of the Left are using their time productively while complacent Conservatives sun themselves on generally undeserved vacations.

This week in particular there has been a flurry of activity from the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party, with Owen Jones launching a “decapitation strategy” targeted at vulnerable (and in some cases very high profile) Tory ministers and MPs defending greatly reduced majorities. At the same time, the grassroots campaign group Momentum is trialling new voter outreach tactics lifted from the Bernie Sanders campaign, aimed at getting dissatisfied voters unimpressed with the performance of Theresa May’s government to give socialism a second look.

Emma Bean at LabourList crows:

Owen Jones is joining forces with pro-Corbyn campaigning group Momentum in a push to seize the seats of several current and former Tory cabinet ministers.

The new Unseat campaign will target Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Phillip Davies, all of whom saw their majorities slashed in the general election. Another MP, Stephen Crabb, who has been linked to an organisation which claims that homosexuality and bisexuality can be “cured”, will also face Momentum’s efforts on the doorstep.

The group seeks to create a series of “Portillo moments”, a reference to the unseating of the Tory defence secretary in the 1997 Labour landslide victory.

The Hastings seat of Rudd, the home secretary, was held by Labour as recently as 2010.

While Momentum are currently so swaggeringly confident in their shiny new US-style voter outreach strategy that they bragged about it to the New Statesman:

Momentum’s approach to canvassing, inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, attempts to create a deeper engagement between the activists and the members of the public they are speaking to. The message at the training session was ambitious – even the staunchest Tory can be convinced to vote for Labour.

Momentum’s approach to canvassing, inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, attempts to create a deeper engagement between the activists and the members of the public they are speaking to. The message at the training session was ambitious – even the staunchest Tory can be convinced to vote for Labour.

Canterbury’s swing to Labour this summer is a case in point. A previous Tory stronghold, the constituency swung to Labour by more than nine percentage points, and was won by Labour’s Rosie Duffield with 45 per cent of the vote.

One workshop attendee who canvassed in Canterbury believes this swing was because Momentum “went to every house” and that even those who seemed hostile to Momentum “still wanted to talk politics with them”.

After the result of the snap election, with Theresa May’s plans for Tory domination in tatters, Momentum announced plans to continue to campaign as though there was another snap election on the horizon. Activists and canvassers have descended on  Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat as recently as three weeks after the snap election, supported by notable Labour party figures such as Sir Keir Starmer MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry. While May has clung onto power over the summer break, the continued political turbulence adds a sense of urgency to the training session.

Ambition. A sense of urgency. Most Conservatives have probably forgotten how those sensations feel. Apparently at the end of one Momentum activist training session in Euston, all of the attendees were added to a Slack group so that they could better coordinate through the instant messaging app – even the older Momentum members who were a bit dubious about technology. What we have here is a hard left socialist group given strategic rocket boosters through the accumulated lessons of the Howard Dean and Barack Obama campaigns.

Meanwhile, what do the Tories have to show for themselves? How has the party which carries the torch (or should that be the tree) for conservative politics been spending its downtime this summer?

One might have thought that having guided her party to such catastrophic near-defeat, Theresa May would be keen to make amends by cancelling any holiday plans and visibly knuckling down, devoting every spare moment to damage control, overseeing Brexit negotiations and coming up with a conservative strategy that doesn’t involve cross-dressing in Labour’s hand-me-down clothes.

But no – the prime minister has been off hiking in Italy, where the only headline she generated in the domestic press occurred when she led guests at her five-star hotel in a rousing rendition of the British national anthem.

Disaster is staring the Conservatives in the face, but they are either too busy sipping limoncello in Italy (the prime minister), plotting their pathetic and utterly indistinguishable future leadership bids (the MPs) or having Jacob Rees-Mogg’s face tattooed onto their left buttocks (the activists) to notice the peril. The shock general election result in June should have been a wake-up call, but instead the Tories have immediately lapsed back into complacency, apparently content to be in a minority government propped up by the DUP with Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-Left Labour Party breathing down their necks.

If British conservatism (and the UK’s political system) were healthy right now, as opposed to being on life support, then this summer would have seen a wellspring of new ideas bubbling up from all quarters – promising backbench MPs, radical think tanks, grassroots conservative movements unwilling to allow the captain who already crashed the ship once to continue to set the course. But conservatism, like our political system as a whole, is not healthy, and we have seen no such ideas, no such developments.

The Conservative Party still cannot decide what it wants to be. “But wait for the party conference!”, I hear you shout. Don’t get your hopes up. Do you really think that anything positive, anything remotely useful in the small government conservative mould is going to emerge out of the Tory autumn conference in Manchester? This conference will be devoted to two things: trying to shore up Theresa May’s failed premiership, and providing a platform for a lot of chest-thumping idiocy about Brexit. There will be no bold new vision for British conservatism in the 21st century because there are no bold new thinkers. There are barely any thinkers at all, and what few there are remain consigned to the backbenches (Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly) while mediocrities continue to hog the limelight.

And what of the Conservative Party’s hopeless performance with the youth vote? Has any action been taken to learn the lessons from the 2016 general election, or counter-strategies developed to rebut Jeremy Corbyn’s ludicrous false promises? Does any action look likely to be taken?

Immediately after the general election disaster I wrote:

In some ways, Jeremy Corbyn seems like a most implausible politician to court the youth vote – an old, grey haired career politician with absolutely zero interest in doing anything fashionable, sartorially or politically. But my god, he is an authentic conviction politician. And if your average voter hates overgroomed, telegenic bland politico-bots then young people clearly hate them even more. Canned soundbites don’t work on social media-savvy young people, if they work on anyone. And yet the Conservatives went into battle – largely thanks to the “genius” Lynton Crosby – with an arsenal made up almost exclusively of glib, canned soundbites in place of anything remotely authentic.

Not that authenticity alone is enough. Right wing politics are clearly hugely toxic to many young people, who would sooner die than consider voting Conservative, let alone admitting any conservative leanings to their social circle. The Tories are too closely associated with grey, uninspiring “austerity”, even though austerity is largely a myth. The Tory brand, fair or unfair, is still toxic to many people. And the parties of the left have perfectly tapped into the consumerist politics of Me Me Me by promising to firehose endless sums of money into the gaping, insatiable mouth of Britain’s public services.

It seems painfully apparent to me that we need a prominent, national vessel for the development and promotion conservative policies (and personalities) separate from the Conservative Party, which simply can no longer be trusted to make the case for its own worldview.

And as I emphasised in another piece, the same point applies to policy:

Theresa May’s team seemingly forgot that people don’t become more conservative as they get older automatically or without some prompting, and that if the Tories continually screw somebody over through their formative years, young adulthood and early middle age then they won’t magically become Tory voters when they get their first grey hair. People become more conservative as they get older because historically, sensible government policy has allowed them to become greater and greater stakeholders in society, largely through property and equity ownership. Cut off millions of young people from this ladder to prosperity and security, and the conveyor belt which gradually moves people from political Left to Right as they age will come grinding to a halt.

And on strategy:

We particularly need to work closely with conservative organisations in the United States, which face a similar uphill struggle in overcoming a historic disinterest in the youth vote but which are now starting to have some success, generated in part by their opposition to the illiberal Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics sweeping American university campuses, with its disregard for freedom of speech and toxic obsession with the politics of victimhood.

We should be sharing best practice back and forth with American conservative organisations as to how to build strong redoubts for conservatism in overwhelmingly leftist places, so that conservatism isn’t washed away altogether. Frankly, British conservatism is in such a parlous state that we need their help. And then, once things have stabilised, we can look to reclaim some of the ground we have lost among young voters.

It looks like Momentum and the Left took this idea and ran with it, and are already benefiting from adopting their new strategy. What a pity that the message has been so roundly ignored by its actual intended audience.

Conservatism decline and a slide toward irrelevance is not inevitable, but preventing it will take hard work and a capacity for self-criticism. We all dropped the ball in 2016; we all need to do better. But it is no good pushing harder in precisely the same direction, or shouting the same slogans even louder than before. “Strong and stable” doesn’t work when much of the population is dissatisfied and wants change. And at a time when many voters responded warmly to Jeremy Corbyn’s conviction politics of the Left, confounding all expectations, the Conservatives must regrow some convictions of their own.

Yet a plurality of Tories either don’t care about the crisis we face, or are simply deny its existence. They think that slapping a new coat of paint on the same rusty old banger will convince voters already tiring of seven years of Conservative government that they are buying a shiny new Tesla rather than a wobbly old Reliant Robbin. They bizarrely think that Moggmentum is the cure, or simply sticking with a failed prime minister who should never have ascended to the top job in the first place.

No, no, no. The Conservative Party needs to stop squabbling about personalities and which interchangeable Cabinet nonentity is best placed to succeed Theresa May, and decide what it actually stands for. And any conservative groups, think tanks and private individuals with an ounce of vision and charisma need to step up and push the party in the right direction, just as John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss did with their Stepping Stones Report in 1977, planting the seed of the Thatcherite recovery.

The Tories cannot make an informed decision about who should be their next leader without first deciding what kind of party they want to be – a limp and apologetic outfit which grovels and apologises for its limited principles, trying to make itself look as much like the Labour Party as possible, or a virile and ambitious party with transformative instincts, belief in individual liberty and the zeal to roll back the administrative state.

The Conservative Party conference opens in Manchester on Sunday 1st October. And rather than painting a false picture of unity, let’s actually have it out once and for all. And if a few unremarkable political careers end up getting caught up in the crossfire, so much the better. We need to clean house in terms of leadership, but more importantly in terms of ideology and basic principles.

At present, Theresa May and her rootless Tories are effectively in office but not in power. And if they do not take swift and dramatic action in the face of a resurgent leftist movement, the power could also slip away sooner than they think.

 

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‘Compassionate Conservatism’ Plays Into The Left’s Hands

If any more evidence were needed (and at this point it really shouldn’t be) that embracing “compassionate conservatism” is not the answer to the Tories’ problems, then a new piece by Abi Wilkinson mocking their efforts at rebranding should make things clear.

Wilkinson writes in Total Politics:

Since the recent general election, there has been a noticeable upswing in the number of Conservatives fretting about inequality, material hardship and issues with the current economic system.

[..] At some level, it’s gratifying to see an increased willingness amongst right-wingers to admit that things are not currently alright. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be frustrated that these conversations are only happening now – when the left is in resurgence and appears a viable political force. If they’re capable of seeing these issues, why didn’t they say something sooner? Why have they been happy to cheerlead governments that have overseen massive increases in homelessness and child poverty, underfunding of public services, the erosion of employment rights and growing income inequality?

The biggest issue with this sudden surge of compassionate conservatism, however, is the failure to identify real solutions to the stated problems.

The moment that conservatives start waffling on about compassion is the moment that we start fighting on Labour’s terrain and lose the war. The parties of the Left have already convinced a huge swathe of the electorate that compassionate conservatism is an oxymoron:

Any time that conservatives try to frame their pitch to the electorate in terms of compassion or any of the other paternalistic buzzwords used by the Left, voters will simply ask why they should pick the Tories when Labour is offering the full-fat version of socialism.

If anything, conservatives should attack the Left’s lazy, self-serving definition of compassion, which largely consists of assuming that half the population belongs to a perpetual victim class in need of constant nourishment, assistance and succour from the state; that parking people on welfare and forgetting about them is somehow a sign of love and solidarity; that tearing down the wealthy through punitive taxation will do anything to improve the material circumstances of the poor; that interfering with free markets, the greatest engine of wealth creation available, will somehow protect consumers.

The term “virtue-signalling” is becoming quite overused (not least on this blog), but it really does apply to much left-wing policy-making, where what matters most is to be seen to be taking action against some social injustice or inequity rather than coming up with sustainable policies to attack those problems in the long-term. We need to start making this point more forcefully, pointing out that it is in fact evil to do what feels good and conscience-soothing today if it only perpetuates or exacerbates a problem further down the road (see the Left’s sanctimonious outrage when it was proposed that migrant boats heading to Europe be stopped and sent back – by thwarting this policy, hundreds if not thousands more people have drowned, just so that leftists could look compassionate on Twitter).

For too long, conservatives have been content to portray themselves as rational and dispassionate administrators of the machinery of state, making difficult but necessary decisions in the name of fiscal rectitude (not that this rhetoric ever carried through into action – see the persistent budget deficit and rising national debt). And in so doing, the Right has repeatedly ceded the language of morality, of right and wrong, to the parties of the Left, who are only too happy to run with it and paint themselves as having a monopoly on virtue.

This approach won’t cut it any more. To halt the advance of Jeremy Corbyn, a party leader who actually has principles (however misguided and odious some of them may be) and the courage to defend his beliefs in public, conservatives need to start talking in the same self-assured language of right and wrong. Pointing out the unworkability of socialist policies is insufficient – we need to make the moral case for why cranking up the size of the state and making more people dependent on the government is bad for everybody. We need to become more comfortable speaking in the language of good vs evil – which people understand and respond to – rather than the dry, technical language of financial feasibility.

But more than anything, we conservatives must stop apologising for our belief in smaller government and individual liberty. Our stance should not be that Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left policies would be wonderful if only the magic money tree actually existed. Rather, we should make the case that even if we could afford to implement the Labour manifesto it would have negative impacts on incentives to work, invest and be self-reliant. We have to fight fire with fire.

That’s not to say that the conservatives should not come up with compelling policies to offset the negative consequences of globalisation and automation, some of the most pressing medium term issues we face – of course we should. But we should also explain that the Left’s perpetual fallback of waving their magic wand and creating an expensive new government programme to solve every issue is the wrong way to go – that if we are actually to bind ourselves more closely together as a nation we need to reinvigorate civil society rather than continually undermining it with big government.

Will it be difficult to change our messaging? Absolutely. But as Theresa May can attest, our current method of engaging the electorate isn’t exactly delivering great returns (yes, you can argue that the Tories received their highest vote share in many years, but this doesn’t really matter when conservatives are effectively fighting against a coalition of all the parties of the Left and can’t muster a Commons majority on 42% of the vote).

Chasing after the Labour Party on a race to the Left will not work. If voters want socialism, they’ll choose the real thing. And waffling on about compassionate conservatism will only evoke scorn from commentators like Abi Wilkinson, and provide an easy opening for the Left to virtue-signal all over again.

If the Tories want to actually be in power rather than merely in office, a new approach is required. One which involves more courage and less appeasement.

 

My longer essay on why embracing compassionate conservatism will not make the Tories more popular is here.

 

 

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Peter Hitchens Demands A Real Conservative Alternative To Jeremy Corbyn

Margaret Thatcher hologram

The current cast of characters jockeying to replace Theresa May are almost as underwhelming as the prime minister herself. British conservatives of all shades need to have a full and open debate about how best to move the Conservative Party and the country forward, and then find a future leader with the charisma to take on Jeremy Corbyn in the battle for hearts and minds

Exactly two years ago, I wrote a rather despairing piece asking “Where is the Conservative Party’s Jeremy Corbyn?” Now Peter Hitchens is rightly asking the same question, having long ago despaired at the direction of the Conservative Party and its accommodation with Blairite, centrist managerialism.

Back in August 2015 I wrote:

I want a standard bearer for the Right who actually makes me feel excited, not resigned, when I enter the polling booth. I don’t necessarily expect that person to be elected by a landslide on the first attempt, and to immediately implement their entire agenda in full. But neither do I expect – as presently happens – all of the soul-sapping compromising and watering-down of core principle to take place before the candidate even gets their name on the ballot paper.

Jeremy Corbyn has not done all of his compromising upfront – he is proud of his beliefs, and does not seek to apologise for them. And he doesn’t talk and answer questions as though he is responding to the twitches of a focus group’s instant polling dial. That’s why he is surging in the polls. That’s why previously dejected Labour activists who support Corbyn are suddenly walking a little taller again. That, I think, is why Owen Jones is walking round with such an infuriatingly wide smile on his face at the moment.

It cannot remain this way if we are to be successful in advancing the cause of smaller government and greater individual freedom and autonomy. We cannot allow the Left to monopolise inspiration and ambition, however far-fetched, while we conservatives occupy and embody the dull, managerial, technocratic and remote politics of austerity.

And conservatives will never win a real mandate for change so long as we are content to be the party of last resort, the failsafe option voters pick when all of the other choices are too wacky or offensive to contemplate.

I concluded by asking:

If David Cameron’s Conservative Party was voted out of office today, what will future historians and political commentators say about this government fifty years from now? What will be the Cameron / Osborne legacy? What edifices of stone, statute and policy will remain standing as testament to their time in office? Try to picture it clearly.

Are you happy with what you see?

Substitute Theresa May’s name for David Cameron’s, and pose the same question to yourself. Is the answer any clearer or more satisfactory than it was two years ago?

Clearly not. And now Peter Hitchens has arrived at the same conclusion, writing in the Mail on Sunday:

If (like me) you have attended any of Mr Corbyn’s overflowing campaign meetings, you will have seen the hunger – among the under-30s and the over-50s especially – for principled, grown-up politics instead of public relations pap.

Mr Corbyn reminds mature people of the days when the big parties really differed. He impresses the young because he doesn’t patronise them, and obviously believes what he says. This desire for real politics isn’t just confined to the Left. Ken Livingstone is right to call Mr Corbyn Labour’s Nigel Farage. Ukip appeals to a similar impulse.

Millions are weary of being smarmed and lied to by people who actually are not that competent or impressive, and who have been picked because they look good on TV rather than because they have ideas or character.

Indeed, ideas or character are a disadvantage. Anything resembling a clear opinion is seized upon by the media’s inquisitors, and turned in to a ‘gaffe’ or an outrage.

Actually, I dislike many of Mr Corbyn’s opinions – his belief in egalitarianism and high taxation, his enthusiasm for comprehensive schools, his readiness to talk to terrorists and his support for the EU. Oddly enough, these are all policies he shares with the Tory Party.

But I like the honest way he states them, compared with the Tories’ slippery pretence of being what they’re not.

I have indeed attended one of Jeremy Corbyn’s massive rallies, in which the Labour leader (then fighting to cling on to leadership of the party in the face of a challenge from the hapless Owen Smith) managed to pack out the vast Kilburn State theatre in North London with excited and motivated activists of every age. It was quite a remarkable sight to behold, with energy levels more like those you would see in a hard-fought US presidential primary than a dour Labour Party leadership contest.

Contrast this with the pathetically phony photo opportunities orchestrated by Theresa May’s hapless 2017 general election campaign, with a small huddle of telegenic young activists, clearly bussed in from London, holding up professionally printed placards in front of the Tory campaign bus while the prime minister grated her way through that godawful “strong and stable” stump speech. There was no authentic grassroots enthusiasm for May or her policies, to the extent that CCHQ was terrified to allow the prime minister to get into any kind of unscripted interaction with the public, let alone a televised debate.

Theresa May - conservatives - campaign rally crowd

 

There may well be an appropriate time for dull managerialism and “steady as she goes” leadership, but Britain in 2017 is not it. Obviously Brexit must be handled with skill and sensitivity (not that the government has shown either of these attributes), but in every other respect Britain requires radical solutions to deep-seated problems rather than Theresa May’s brand of denial and incompetence. Whether it’s low productivity, education, the housing crisis, a failing nationalised healthcare system, dangerously pared-down national defence or a society fractured by toxic identity politics, this is a time for bold and unapologetically conservative solutions. But instead we have a weak prime minister at the head of an incoherent government, terrified of proclaiming conservative principles and desperate to move closer to the Labour Party on nearly every issue.

Hitchens goes on to describe what he sees as the ideal future Conservative leader:

My hope, most unlikely to be realised, is that a patriotic, conservative and Christian equivalent of Mr Corbyn will emerge to take him on, and will demonstrate, by his or her strength of conviction, that there is an even greater demand for that cause than there is for old-fashioned leftism. In any case, I think any thoughtful British person should be at least a little pleased to see the PR men and the special advisers and the backstairs-crawlers of British politics so wonderfully wrong-footed by a bearded old bicyclist.

Patriotic and conservative would be a good start, but I don’t think that this is specific enough. Theresa May, for example, ticks all three of Peter Hitchens’ boxes (one can make a valid argument that May represents a serious thread of conservative thought) yet is completely and utterly unequal to the role of prime minister, ideologically and temperamentally.

And as far as being Christian is concerned, Theresa May is a practicing Christian and famously the daughter of a vicar, and yet she has shown no real impulse to halt the suppression of legitimate religious expression where it comes into conflict with the free speech-averse forces of social justice and identity politics, for example. What, then, is the point of cheerleading for a Christian prime minister when they fail to defend religious freedom when in office? I would much rather have a prime minister who is secular-liberal when it comes to religion, eager to separate church (and faith) from state as far as possible while simultaneously protecting the right of British citizens to worship freely.

When it comes to choosing the ideal future Conservative prime minister, I maintain that the Tories could do far worse than select somebody who fits the profile I set out shortly before the disastrous general election back in June:

Ex armed forces (of either gender), mid to senior rank, with an illustrious overseas deployment history. Someone who exudes unapologetic patriotism yet never lapses into cheap jingoism, and whose commitment to defence, national security and veterans affairs is beyond question.

Followed up by a successful later career, possibly in the third sector or the arts but better still in the private sector, having founded a stonking great big corporation that also gives back to the community by employing ex-offenders or partnering with charities to do meaningful work in society.

A solid and consistent record (at least dating to the start of the EU referendum campaign) on Brexit, able to tell a compelling story about how Brexit – properly done – can be good for our democracy and at least neutral on the economic front.

A person who believes that until somebody comes up with a viable alternative to (or augmentation of) the democratic nation state, this institution remains the best method yet devised of ordering human affairs, and that consequently we should not needlessly undermine and vandalise it by vesting power in antidemocratic supranational organisations or pretending that we can sidle our way into a post-patriotic world by stealth rather than with the consent of the people.

Somebody who will not bargain away our civil liberties chasing the chimera of absolute security from terrorists and madmen – particularly while refusing to face down radical Islamism as an ideology to be confronted and defeated – but who will also stand up to expansionist, nonsensical definitions of human rights and an identity politics / political correctness agenda that values hurt feelings more than freedom of expression.

Somebody with the articulateness, gravitas, sincerity and quickness of thought capable of doing the near impossible in 2017: single-handedly turning the tide away from the vapid, broken politics of me, me, me. Somebody willing to ask – as John F. Kennedy once did – not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. Somebody who dares to call us to a higher purpose than merely living in a country with “good public services”, deifying “Our NHS” and having the goddamn trains run on time.

Somebody who chooses for us to go to the moon (or rather its current day equivalent in terms of spectacular human achievement) “and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” (John F Kennedy).

Doubtless my idea of the ideal conservative prime minister and Peter Hitchens’ conception will differ somewhat – Hitchens is more socially conservative than I, while I see myself as more of a conservatarian with pragmatic, tempered libertarian instincts.

But these differences of opinion only make it all the more important that we have a full and open debate about the future of conservatism, and what kind of leader would be best placed to move the conservative movement and the country forward. And far better that this conversation first take place in the abstract, as a discussion of principles and ideology, so it does not immediately descend into personality-based infighting and jockeying for position among Theresa May’s likely successors.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is also vitally important that conservatives (I deliberately speak of small-C conservatives rather than the often toxic and inept Conservative Party) find a way to re-engage with a youth vote that the Tories have been shamefully quick to write off and cede to the parties of the Left. This abandonment of the youth vote is absolutely untenable going forward, and is yet another reason why the next Tory leader needs to have sufficient charisma and authenticity to cut through anti-conservative prejudices among young people that have often been baked into their consciences since they first became politically aware.

Until the Conservatives figure out who and what they actually want to be, both Peter Hitchens and I are likely to remain underwhelmed and disappointed. An urgent reckoning needs to take place in order to answer this question: Has seven years of Cameron/Osborne/May-style accommodation with centrist Blairism delivered any real tangible improvement to the trajectory of Britain, or are we largely treading water? And if the latter, is the solution to move even further to the left, as Theresa May and her political spirit animal Nick Timothy seem to want, or is it wiser and better to bring real conservative values to bear on 21st century problems?

As far as I am concerned, the choice is self-evidently clear. The Tories can stubbornly cling to their current philosophy and hope at best to remain in office but not in power for a few more years as they desperately scamper after the Labour Party in their march to the hard left, or they can renew themselves, stop apologising for their conservatism and start enacting it instead.

But in the meantime, let’s start the debate.

 

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Carnage

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Abandon all hope?

Rudyard Kipling once wrote:

“If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken
And stoop and build ’em up with worn out tools…”

Well, I can’t quite say that I have given my life to the causes for which this blog stands – particularly as I only started blogging after the 2010 general election, and my views on some issues have matured and evolved over that time – but I have been doing this for over five years now, sometimes publishing multiple times a day, and I think that I hold my own when it comes to putting my time, money and effort into being an engaged citizen.

And so I think I certainly know what Kipling was driving at when he alluded to the disappointment of seeing a long-cherished and hard-sought goal turn to dust in one’s hand the moment it is finally reached. That feeling pervades politics right now, at least for pro-Brexit, pro-nation state conservatarians such as myself.

2016-2017 has been a period of one step forward, two steps back in many regards. The British people voted for Brexit and freedom from that decaying, antidemocratic political conglomerate known as the European Union, but they did so on the back of a tawdry and deceitful campaign led by proud ignoramuses who wore their lack of a Brexit plan as a badge of honour – and now the hubris of the Westminster Brexit aristocracy threatens to ruin the entire endeavour.

Meanwhile, the Coke Zero Conservative Party managed by a whisper to keep Jeremy Corbyn’s marauding socialists out of office, but only at the expense of turning themselves into a limp, centre-left version of the Labour Party themselves. And now conservatives face the dual indignities of being accused of being heartless haters of the poor and persecutors of the weak despite having ceded most of the intellectual arguments to the Left, and being completely unable to move the needle of British politics in a remotely satisfactorily right-wing direction.

If I’m going to be accused of callously taking a jackhammer to the welfare state I at least want to see a little bit of rubble as my reward. But there is no rubble, only the stench of craven capitulation to the leftist forces of perpetual dependency.

And things are little better across the Atlantic. Whatever pleasure one may have otherwise taken from the humbling of Hillary Clinton in her second presidential campaign – and there were many reasons to want to see a borderline corrupt establishment candidate in hoc to global elites punished at the ballot box – any such joy quickly turned to ashes when faced with the alternative of President Donald J. Trump, who vastly matches and exceeds Clinton’s flaws in every conceivable way.

The real tragedy of the Trump presidency – at least in my view, as I previously discussed on this blog – is that even those few policies and initiatives of the Trump administration which are positive and laudable are actively being rendered toxic and untenable by their association with a man so patently unfit to serve in the highest civilian office.

As with Brexit and the limping British conservative government, I fear that the Trump presidency will shift the Overton window of American politics further and further to the Left the longer it persists – either because Trump himself embraces many protectionist and left-wing ideas, because the Republican Party’s brand is being tarnished through their utter inability to transition from a party of strident protest to a party of responsible government, or because the American Left has been driven to such blind, seething fury at Trump’s personal flaws that any daft socialist or redistributive policy starts to seem appealing to people simply because it is a rebuke to the president.

Almost across the board, applying the normal metrics, this should be a time for celebration. But instead, each victory appears increasingly Pyrrhic. To defend Brexit now is to open oneself to ceaseless mockery and hatred by a cast of bien-pensant know-nothings who think that taking their opinions from the Guardian website makes them high-information voters when in fact they are some of the very, very lowest in the land.

And now even those of us who had nothing to do with the major Brexit campaigns – the increasingly ridiculous Leave.EU or the establishment Vote Leave – are accused of unleashing a tide of hatred and xenophobia, and of “dividing the country”. Of course, our accusers didn’t mind when the country was equally divided prior to the referendum, because the people who disagreed with them were not given a proper voice in power. Only when the machinery of state finally swung into action on behalf of the majority did these pant-wetting histrionics about “divisiveness” begin.

And that is to say nothing of the fact that our political class are mismanaging Brexit to such a jaw-droppingly colossal extent that many Remainers are effectively being proved correct, a fact which they do not hesitate to crow about on television, in the newspapers and in social media. Of course, this is why Brexit needed to happen in the first place – our ability to self-govern has atrophied over decades of relentless integration with a remote and unaccountable supranational government in Brussels.

Bringing power back closer to the people and undoing 40 years of political integration was always going to be an Hurculean, traumatic process (not a singular event), but even if the most dire Brexit predictions come true it is surely better to go through the painful correction rather than simply throw our hands up in the air, admit that we are not able to govern ourselves adequately as a people, and submit permanently to remote technocracy.

But it is increasingly clear that the promise of Brexit will not be realised, at least not by the current crop of politicians, or realistically within at least a couple of decades. Brexit was always going to be a process, not an event. And Brexit itself was never the thing that would deliver the beneficial payload in terms of bringing power and accountability closer to the British people. Brexit merely makes these things remotely possible, by extricating us from treaties and frameworks which give us no opt-out or right of reservation if a particular policy, regulation or initiative is against our national interest.

But our political class are so superficial and intellectually uncurious, and the quality of our political discourse so weak, that this richer conversation has played out only on the independent blogosphere, while prestige news outlets, journalists and politicians present Brexit as a zero-sum game in which – depending on their perspective – either buccaneering Britain defeats the evil continentals, or the Virtuous Europeans give us the “punishment beating” we were so richly warned about during the referendum.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Effectively overruling the establishment’s carefully laid out plan for our lives was always going to generate a huge backlash, from powerful and well-connected people with the ability to make traditional grassroots anti-establishment backlashes look like a cake sale at the Women’s Institute. Perhaps we forgot this fact because we Brexiteers and defenders of nation state democracy were so used to being part of a backlash ourselves – the backlash against the establishment – that we didn’t give enough credence to the fact that globalists, disinterested “citizens of the world” and other assorted types are equally as invested in their worldview as we are in ours, and in a far stronger position to defend it from attack.

And now that they have experienced repudiation at the ballot box, the establishment’s ability to turn howls of outrage into a full-on filibuster of democratically-made decisions is stronger than many of us planned for. We have Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and the like jabbering away like idiots, totally unmoored from reality, tarnishing the dream of Brexit with every garbled statement. Meanwhile, they – the pro-EU establishment – still control the bulk of the machinery of state, dominate Parliament, the worlds of art, science and commerce. And they would rather see Britain fail so that they can scream an hysterical “I told you so!” at the 52% than muck in and help to amplify the voices of sane Brexiteers (they happy few) who understand what they are talking about.

Neither is the concept of the nation state faring much better in America, where Donald Trump’s presidency has caused American leftists to increasingly embrace a position in which no illegal immigrant should face deportation, or even the slightest hindrance as they attempt to subvert the law and settle in the United States without permission. Never mind that a nation which cannot control its own borders can hardly still count itself a nation – to even question the idea of mass amnesty, sanctuary cities and a fully open door is to be racist towards “undocumented” people, for whom our hearts should brim over with sympathy, while hardening against America’s native-born huddled masses.

But to support the nation state, or its greatest expression through Western Civilization, is becoming increasingly gauche and passe for many in the political elite. Donald Trump recently visited Warsaw and made what was actually a rather decent speech (obviously not of his own creation) about defending Western values from military, terrorism and cultural threats. But of course Donald Trump was the worst possible person to make such a speech, and so now even more hearts will be turned against the idea of taking pride in liberal Western values. The president of the United States actively sets back the causes which he (or the people in his administration who pull the strings) seek to promote, purely by virtue of his ignorance and inestimably deficient personality.

One Australian news anchor put it rather well, remarking that “there’s a tendency among some hopeful souls to confuse the speeches written for Trump with the thoughts of the man himself”. A dangerous tendency indeed. Even when Trump says something broadly positive – such as about supporting the nation state and defending Western values – one cannot rejoice, first because the man who delivers the words renders them toxic and consequently less likely to happen, but also because there will likely be no attempted follow-through anyway. These are just words put into his mouth by a speechwriter or an administration ideologue like Steve Bannon.

The Trump-Bannon or Trump-Miller partnerships are not remotely like that between John F. Kennedy and his brilliant speechwriter Ted Sorensen, where the wise counsellor Sorensen merely refined JFK’s own fairly sophisticated thoughts and words. No, the incumbent of the Oval Office is a shallow, egotistical and unlettered man who just wants to be seen to be winning, and who can be manipulated into doing pretty much anything so long as it makes for a good TV visual.

That’s why one can’t even rejoice when Trump says something vaguely encouraging in a speech – because at the best of times, Trump is effectively little more than a sock puppet for the cleverer, more manipulative people jostling for influence within his administration.

The future of conservatism also presently hangs in the balance, on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, the Republican Party – having sold their soul to Donald Trump – seems determined to prove that they cannot be trusted as a responsible party of government. If you want angry tri-cornered hatted protests about freedom and liberty, the GOP is probably still just about the party for you. But if you expect mature governance and the diligent application of conservative policies in government then look elsewhere.

Eight years of whining about the evils of ObamaCare and the Republicans have no realistic plan for repeal. All of their proposals get dreadful scores from the Congressional Budget Office because they are forecasted to simultaneously throw people back onto the uninsured scrapheap while simultaneously costing more money. “Repeal and replace” is rapidly becoming the Republican Party’s version of Vote Leave’s “£350 million for the NHS” pledge. And if the GOP cannot deliver some kind of conservative reform that meaningfully benefits people’s lives by the time of the 2018 midterms, they will be punished far worse than Theresa May’s limp Tories.

Speaking of which, British conservatism is in complete and utter crisis. As I have extensively written on this blog over several years now, failing to robustly defend small-government conservative values comes with a price attached. And now we know what that price is – Jeremy Corbyn on the verge of entering 10 Downing Street as prime minister, all because Theresa May’s cowardly and incompetent election campaign failed to make a bold and compelling case for conservative solutions.

But truthfully this is not all Theresa May’s fault. The rot goes deep, even back beyond the Cameron and Osborne years. If you do not defend conservative principles as an inherently good thing rather than a necessary virtue, eventually you will lose. And for years now the British public has been fed a poisonous diet of the idea that the only “good” conservatism is that sop to the Left known as “compassionate conservatism”, while any attempt to preach the virtues of self-reliance, individualism and civil society over the state is seen as somehow evil.

Then look at the remorseless advances made by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, who have broken free from the university campus and started to inflict their dogmatic regressive illiberalism across whole swathes of society. At one point I attempted to document daily occurrences of overreach and infringement on civil liberties by the social justice brigade – my “Tales from the Safe Space” series – but by about the sixtieth entry it started getting a little bit repetitive basically issuing the same dire warning week after week.

If the warning was heard, it certainly has not been heeded. Political leaders, corporations, media outlets, journalists, commentators and virtue-signalling private citizens have all been falling over themselves to jump on the social justice bandwagon.

Even once-venerable institutions like America’s Southern Poverty Law Centre would rather spend their time hounding brave reformist Muslims and ex-Muslims who speak out against extremism, accusing people like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali of being Islamophobic extremists themselves, than stick to their core mission of shining a spotlight on genuine racism and discrimination, particularly in the Islamic world. The ACLU has additionally given itself over completely to punishing anybody who doesn’t buy into radical new gender theory, while the UK’s Liberty organisation has long favoured leftist agitation over the single-minded defence of true civil liberties.

In short, there is little to celebrate and even less to give cause for hope. Having snatched power, those few forces which could have potentially been an agent for change have instead been stymied by their own incompetence, while the forces of the globalist Left fortify themselves in temporary opposition.

I wish it were otherwise, but at present I do not see how. Compare these two extracts from the Obama second inaugural speech in 2013 and Trump’s first (and hopefully last) inaugural in 2017. First the Obama:

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. (Applause.) An economic recovery has begun. (Applause.) America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together. (Applause.)

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. (Applause.) We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own. (Applause.)

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.

And then the Trump:

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Everyone is listening to you now.

You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.

Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.

These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

The two speeches are truly not that different, in basic message if not in style. Or at least, the difference lies in what is not said rather than in what is said.

Both make the same essential (and valid) point – that there is an “American Carnage” or Western Carnage in progress. But while former President Obama did little to arrest this trend and is now happy to go off yachting with Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen in his retirement, current President Trump would rather rage against his critics at 5AM on Twitter than do anything about it.

And waiting eagerly in the wings, like hungry jackals, are the same cast of incompetent, self-serving clowns who gave us Donald Trump and Theresa May in the first place.

For conservatives and supporters of the nation state as the greatest bulwark against threats to our liberty, optimism is vanishingly hard to find in politics right now. And there it is.

 

Apologies for the recent lack of blogging, due to health issues. Hopefully normal service will commence soon.

 

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Why Theresa May Needs To Go Now

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Every day that Theresa May remains in office is another day that the Conservative Party is idling in neutral, failing to retool and re-energise itself to take on Jeremy Corbyn’s marauding socialists

Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Evening Standard, explains quite comprehensively why there is only downside and no upside to keeping Theresa May in 10 Downing Street a moment longer than it will take the Conservatives to organise a leadership contest to replace her.

Montgomerie writes:

Tory MPs, returning in a shell-shocked daze to Westminster for this week’s low-fat, low-content Queen’s Speech, must quickly recognise that Theresa May is as finished as Mrs Clinton. Every day she remains in charge is a wasted day. Every day the country inches closer to an election for which Jeremy Corbyn will have added more activists to his impressive turnout machine. Equally, the Conservatives will have one less day to rebuild their own offering and operation.

Mrs May’s flat-footed response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was not just further proof she’s not that good at politics. It was another moment of not rising to the occasion as a leader with vision would do. The horrific burning alive of largely poor and marginalised people was — like 2008’s crash — another reminder of unjustifiable vulnerabilities at the bottom of society and inadequate responsibility from those at the top.

Yes. This blog has noted the number of commentators who leapt to the prime minister’s defence in terms of her out-of-step public response to the horrific Grenfell Tower fire last week. A significant minority seem to have convinced themselves that the prime minister’s excessive reserve terror at the thought of interaction with the public is somehow an admirable thing, the epitome of British stoicism, rather than further dismal evidence of Theresa May’s inability to lead.

These claims dismiss critics of Theresa May as reactionaries who just want to see the prime minister emote for the cameras and hug a few of the survivors, but this dismissive attitude completely misses the point. I don’t think anybody in Britain had any great desire to see the prime minister weeping with the Grenfell Tower victims on the evening news bulletins. They did, however, expect her to show up, even if it was politically awkward, just as American political leaders show solidarity with disaster victims in the United States and French political leaders in the aftermath of terror atrocities in France. This is not an unreasonable, irrational demand. It is Leadership 101, and Theresa May has been failing the test in manifold ways since well before the general election.

Montgomerie continues:

The most fitting memorial to those who perished [in the Grenfell Tower fire] is not to comfort the bereaved as all half-decent societies would. The best way of honouring the dead would be to deliver the scale of house-building that Conservative PMs such as Churchill and Macmillan championed but which an ideologically rigid Thatcherite dogma has since discouraged. For good measure, a government building more homes in the South would also significantly expand infrastructure in the North. The everyday so-called current government spending still needs trimming but leaving the next generation with inadequate roads, railways and broadband is just as irresponsible as leaving them up to their necks in debt.

I’d put believing that Elvis Presley is still alive on equal par with the claim that Mrs May could launch this agenda or something similar. Despite the words she uttered in Downing Street after first becoming PM she has done nothing of consequence for communities suffering most from the multigeddon of globalisation, open borders, automation and the collapse of the working-class family.

Rather than overhauling a threadbare party machine that helped lose a 20 per cent opinion poll lead, she has reappointed her Tory chairman. Those thinking the days of treating her Cabinet with disdain are over should look at her careless loss of two of the Brexit department’s four key ministers last weekend, a week before today’s starting gun for talks.

Also true. While this blog has focused on the need for conservatives to start transmitting a positive, optimistic message and defence of their worldview if they want to stand a chance of competing with the parties of the Left for the youth vote, good messaging alone is not enough. And while acts of pandering and voter bribery – such as matching Labour’s pledge for free university tuition – are rightfully unacceptable to conservatives, it should not be impossible for the Tories to recognise that their current housing policy (or lack thereof) is a punch in the gut to any young person not fortunate enough to inherit from their parents or be helped onto the housing ladder by them. Planning laws need to be urgently reviewed and liberalised. The Left wants to build council houses for all, so that everybody is dependent on the state for one more thing. Conservatives should counter with a bold proposal to expand the supply of private housing for rent and purchase.

Montgomerie is also right to criticise the party machine. CCHQ has presided over the near-total gutting of the party in recent years, from the winding up of the terminally dysfunctional Conservative Future youth movement to the neutering of the constituency associations and the megalomaniacal insistence of central control over candidate selection so as to ensure the continuance of the current system of patronage and nepotism which gave us such wonderful “rising stars” as Ben Gummer. Theresa May is not responsible for the party machine that she inherited when she became prime minister last year, but neither has she shown the slightest interest in revamping the party and opening it up to outside talent. The necessary change will not come so long as she remains leader.

Montgomerie’s conclusion is also strong:

A new PM and a contest necessary to establish who it should be will not be good for the nation’s immediate peace of mind or for business sentiment, but there are no easy options from where we are. What Britain does have is a two- to three-month window before September’s German elections. After that, Brexit negotiations will be fast and furious.

The Tories need a contest thorough enough to identify a team as much as a leader, and an agenda for social renewal as much as for Brexit. With both established, there is a real chance of stopping the momentum building behind Jeremy Corbyn — and it must be stopped. His views on tax, state power and defence would enfeeble this country.

We must not underestimate Corbyn. Voters who yearn for change may well roll the dice if forced to choose between Corbyn and “the same old Tories”. If, after all, people can convince themselves that the moon landings were staged, they may even believe Corbyn is equipped for Britain’s highest office.

There is never a good time to instigate a divisive, ugly leadership election campaign between general elections, but far better that Conservatives bite the bullet now than wait until a year into Brexit negotiations before swapping out the leader of the country. It’s bad enough to have to consider changing horses at the water’s edge of Brexit negotiations; changing horses mid-stream would only undermine the British negotiating position further.

And as Tim Montgomerie rightly says, a leadership contest is needed to identify not just a leader but also a team and a set of values – not just relating to Brexit – around which the party can coalesce and campaign. The 2017 general election campaign was a miserable affair in which Tories – led from the top by Theresa May – refused to make a bold, positive affirmation of free markets or other traditional conservative standards, instead portraying “austerity” and limits on the state as a necessary evil rather than as a potentially good thing in and of themselves.

The Tories were tricked into fighting on Labour’s turf (arguing about inequality) when they should instead have proudly made the case that conservative policies expand the pie for all while Jeremy Corbyn’s focus on equality of outcome promises only more equal slices of a rapidly diminishing national pie. Conservatives essentially went to fight in this general election only to discover that their leader had broken their best ideological weapon in advance of the battle. No wonder they lost ground against Jeremy Corbyn’s uplifting (if loopy and fiscally nonsensical) vision for Britain.

And then there is the elusive, undefinable sense of momentum. Whatever momentum Theresa May had when she took over from David Cameron, she has now squandered it all. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is on the march. Through her inept leadership and hopelessly prosecuted general election campaign, Theresa May literally gave 1970s style socialism a foothold back in our national politics, and raised the real risk that Corbyn could enter 10 Downing Street as prime minister if her shaky minority government were to fall. Prior to the election her aura of strength and stability was severely knocked by the multiple terror attacks on British soil, some of which exposed failings for which she was directly accountable as Home Secretary.

And now the Grenfell Tower disaster response has revealed the prime minister to be a shrunken, fearful and traumatised figure, clinging on day by day while colleagues openly worry about her mental state of mind. Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan between them have assumed the role of national Consoler-in-Chief, while Theresa May skulks in Downing Street and only meets with the survivors and bereaved relatives under duress. This might be partly excusable if she had organised a first-class disaster response plan a la Gordon Brown, but she didn’t. Instead there were days of chaos and confusion before Whitehall finally took over the response from Kensington & Chelsea council.

Rightly or wrongly – and the vast majority of criticism directed at Theresa may has been fully justified – the impression is of a prime minister in over her head, unable to regain her political footing and behaving in an entirely reactive way rather than giving the country the proactive leadership that it needs. There is no coming back from such a self-inflicted calamity. There is no PR job that can be done to repair the damage. And if Theresa May is hanging on in some desperate bid to burnish her legacy with a smattering of minor accomplishments before her inevitable removal then she is not only deluding herself but also putting herself before the Conservative Party, and party before the country.

So let’s bring on the contest. Let 48 Tory MPs submit their letters to the 1922 Committee and formally trigger a leadership challenge, forcing the prime minister’s resignation. There is no reason for us to continue to “bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of”. The undiscover’d country could hardly be any worse.

 

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