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Home > Politics

Tory Modernisation: Like Synchronised Swimming For Cats

23 April 2006

Fun-loving Tory leader David Cameron serves as a warning to us all about the dangers of drugs. Who except someone in the grip of advanced cocaine psychosis could be deluded enough to think they can 'modernise' the Conservative Party? Many have tried, and the same number have failed. William Hague and Theresa May were/are both keen on modernising, and even Michael 'Fucking' Howard sometimes showed his caring, fluffy side by occasionally taking a whole day off from demonising immigrants.

The problem is that for the Tories, 'modernising' doesn't really mean embracing the latest in progressive political and social thought, it means dragging the party, kicking and screaming, away from its dismal past: the unhealthy fixation with Thatcher, the nostalgia for hanging and flogging, and the party's congenital fear of the unfamiliar, e.g. black people.

But every time an attempt is made to modernise the Tories, the yawning chasm between the current leadership and the constituency members is revealed. As soon as the Tories present themselves as shiny and modern and high-tech, some Thatcher fetishist or twinset-and-pearls harpie from the shires immediately undoes the good work, as in the case of the constituency party member who told Channel 4 News, in no uncertain terms, that her local party didn't want an ethnic minority candidate. (Pathetically, she later claimed she was quoted out of context, although how 'We don't want an ethnic minority candidate' can be miscontextualised isn't clear.)

Nonetheless, the Tory leadership seems genuinely committed to change this time. David Cameron is a new and relatively popular leader. Senior Tories like party chairperson Theresa May and Oliver Letwin support modernisation, while the likeable Francis Maude has gone as far as to say: 'Far too many Conservative MPs are like me: white, middle-class, English, based in the south- east - identikit Tories.'

Er, yeah, that's because they're *Tories*, Francis. And herein lies the problem. The Conservatives are not called the Conservatives for nothing. It's unfair to stereotype conservatives, but, fuck it, who cares? A typical Conservative supporter looks something like this:

For some unknown reason, they are often retired engineers. They believe in 'traditional' values, which range from rote-learning in schools to the death penalty. They would like to live in a country populated by self-supporting, hard-working individuals in traditional nuclear families, like in the Ladybird books. And while not all Tories are bigots, a large proportion do feel a certain unease with anything that can be construed as permissive or unnatural: gayness, sex before marriage, single mums, women who holiday on their own, etc. Their newspapers of choice tend to be The Times, The Telegraph or, of course, The Daily Mail.

Modernising these people is a challenge akin to creating a synchronised swimming team composed entirely of cats. However, Cameron seems to be serious about modernising, and in a way you've got to love him for it: he's a bit like Biggles, unswerving in his belief that insurmountable odds can be overcome with a bit of spunk and pluck.

Thus the New Tories are going full-tilt at a radical change in the composition of their parliamentary candidates. In particular they're calling for a 'significant proportion' of them to be ethnic minorities and disabled people. Exactly why minorities such as these should have any affinity with a party that has traditionally contained a terrifying number of closet racists, and has opposed exactly the sort of 'Brussels red tape' that has finally made it (more or less) compulsory to make buildings and services more accessible to disabled people isn't clear, but hey, it sounds like the right kind of thing to be doing.

The exact details of modernising the selection of candidates are too boring to relate, but the idea seems to be to open up the selection process, even getting non-Conservatives from the 'local community' involved. Exactly why non-Conservatives should give a toss about choosing the person they're not going to vote for is unclear, but it could be fun. If you're a non-Tory, why not get yourself down to the local constituency party and give your support to the biggest weirdo on the shortlist? 'So you believe firmly in a racially pure Aryan nation, Mr Smith? Well, you've certainly got my support as parliamentary candidate for the Brixton and Stockwell constituency!'

Meanwhile a group called Women2Win, led by Anne Jenkin, is trying to attract women. (Women2Win must be progressive - they've got a number in their name, just like 2 Live Crew and Fathers 4 Justice.) Not content with recruiting ladies, Women2Win is particularly keen on attracting non-traditional female Tories. Said Jenkin: 'Every time we find a teacher we are absolutely thrilled!'

Unfortunately, as this comment suggests, the Tories just aren't very good at modernising. When Jenkin says she is 'absolutely thrilled' to find that elusive beast the Tory teacher, she sounds like some amateur Victorian anthropologist just returned from discovering a lost tribe in the Dark Continent: 'And the lady savages walk around practically naked! You see, it's *normal* to them!'

She may not realise it, but the reason why Jenkin is thrilled by discovering Tory teachers is because there's been so much bad blood between teachers and previous Tory governments. It's not that teachers *just happen* not to vote Tory, it's that many of them remember the confrontations between the Tories and teachers' unions of the 1980s, and the thinly-veiled Tory hatred of the public sector which manifested itself as endless financial cuts. The Tories, quite simply, aren't trusted, and this view is shared by countless other public sector workers.

The other big problem for modernisers is that because a large part of Conservatism is about being traditional, it's a bit of a wrench for them to be modern. This lack of familiarity with things modern means that they seem to get it a bit wrong when they do try to modernise. Take the fact that they've called in Bob Geldof and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith to work on policy review groups.

Green policies may look like the way forward to David Cameron, who, we're sure, recycles diligently, but is this enthusiasm shared by traditional Tories? Probably not - and if politics is all about image, green issues still suffer from their association with Swampies and sandal-wearing Beardo-the-Weirdoes. Meanwhile Geldof is a loose cannon by any standards - didn't it occur to anyone at Conservative Central Office that having St Bob on side is a great PR exercise, but if Geldof decides he doesn't like Conservative plans, it's entirely likely he'll pop up on the News at 10 going 'IT'S ALL A FOCKIN' PUBLIC RELATIONS EXERCISE, THE FOCKIN' TORIES DON'T GIVE A FOCK ABOUT FOCKIN' AFRICA...'

(It's also worth noting that the Conservative party has traditionally been the party of business. Whatever Cameron may think, the interests of business *do* conflict with many modernising ideas. Businesses are not all ruthless rapists of Mother Earth, but many are wary of environmental regulations, for the simple reason that they cost money. Ditto other progressive ideas, like the minimum wage.)

This ineptitude manifests itself in other ways, namely gimmicks. One of the Tories' new ruses is being able to vote by text message to choose the candidate for mayor of London. Exactly when text messages became a cure-all panacea for every problem in the world isn't clear, but it's going to take a bit more to rejuvenate the Tories' fortunes than being able to text Conservative Central Office with the message 'i vOt 4 shagger norris! Lol : p'.

All in all, Tory modernisation looks as though it's going to be a painful process. But Cameron is probably right to realise there are two ways for the Conservatives to go in 2006: either back to hardline Thatcher-style politics, or a nicer, more modern stance. The danger is that the latter is a high-risk strategy: it runs the risk of alienating more supporters than it attracts. And many people realise that 'modernising' is one of those buzzwords that really means 'We're fucked', in which case there's even less reason to bother with the Tories.

It's usually hard to feel much sympathy for the Tories, but maybe Cameron and his beleaguered modernisers deserve some credit, if only for their plucky efforts to change the party from one you *definitely* wouldn't vote for, to one you *probably* wouldn't vote for.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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