BY SCOTT CRESSWELL
Prime Minister Boris Johnson pictured recently on a visit to a care home to promote his social care plan.
After eleven long years in power, the Conservatives have moved their eyes to social care. First under David Cameron, then Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson, promises about social care were mentioned and seemingly prioritised. As we all know, Cameron became overly obsessed with Europe, while May’s rocky premiership was dominated by nothing but. With Brexit now behind us (until its inevitable return), Boris Johnson is now focusing on delivering his “levelling up” scheme.
Social care has been in crisis in this country for decades. Governments have attempted to change the social care system for the better, but usually with very little success. It’s ironic that it’s a Conservative administration that has passed a vote to change the system, especially since it explicitly requires higher taxation.
It brings up a historic discussion that has occurred for generations: what does the Conservative Party stand for? Before 1975, it was a more liberal party that focused on One-Nation Conservatism, devised by Disraeli in the late nineteenth century. After 1975 and the election of Margaret Thatcher, first as leader and then Prime Minister four years later, it embraced monetarism and, until now, explicitly continued to do so. Even David Cameron, who sold himself as a centrist and was regarded as so, was a hard-line Thatcherite with core beliefs such as low taxation, low public spending, and privatisation. However, with the red wall now blue, is this a new era of Conservatism?
I remember the gloomy morning of 13th December 2019. The Tories romped home with a safe majority. Constituencies, once unthinkable that they would turn blue, did so. Bolsover. Sedgefield. Bishop Auckland. Great Grimsby. These are all areas that believed Johnson’s message of levelling up because, partly due to Brexit, but also because they felt incredibly detached with Westminster. However, something I noticed on that same day was numerous social media posts from a Labour advocacy group named Blue Labour. I remember many angry lefties disregarding them entirely, with some calling the group Blairite (the worst word you could refer to anyone in this depressing age of Labour’s history). Blue Labour certainly isn’t New Labour. In fact, it’s what, and I have to bite my tongue as I write this, Old Labour.
Blue Labour was only formed in 2009, but it completely rejects the economics of Thatcherism that were continued broadly by Blair and Brown. It sells itself as “a challenge to the liberal consensus of the capitalist order” that rejects neo-liberalism in favour of socialism that focuses on workers’ control of industry. More crucially, the group is socially conservative in its attitude towards immigration, making it strongly Eurosceptic. In short, it’s a conservative socialist faction.
Why is this rather small, yet notable group important? Rather rarely, the Tory-supporting press was very vocal in its opposition to Johnson’s plan. Even the Telegraph, renowned for its unwavering support of Conservative governments, is strongly against. Allister Heath, writing for the newspaper, boomed with a headline of “Real Tories will never forgive Boris for turning his party into Blue Labour”. It’s true that hard-line Thatcherites like John Redwood will certainly not be quiet in their disgust of Johnson’s betrayal of neo-liberalism, but Johnson’s language and policies when it comes to social care echo what northern ex-Labour voters believe in.
Neil Kinnock, Labour leader from 1983 to 1992, was arguably Labour’s first socially liberal leader. Beforehand, Prime Ministers, especially James Callaghan, were considered socially conservative. Callaghan arose in the very deprived Portsmouth of the 1910s and 1920s. Although a socialist, he was an unwavering monarchist and wasn’t known for his comfort over Roy Jenkins’s liberal reforms during the 1964-1970 Labour government. Many of the Labour giants such as Callaghan, Wilson, Attlee, and even Gaitskell, were broadly socially conservative. Cameron admitted to selling himself as the heir to Blair, but Johnson would never admit to calling himself the heir to Callaghan.
With their language, Johnson’s Conservatives have placed themselves in the territory of Old Labour, or more accurately Blue Labour. Of course, you’d never consider the Tories to be socialists, Boris Johnson, with his education at Eton among other things, is undoubtedly a Tory. However, his and the party’s language appeal hugely to those older voters who, until 2019, always put their cross next to the red rose on the ballot paper. For Keir Starmer, this is hugely worrying as Johnson’s pledge on social care would make it harder for him to win back those red wall voters. However, even the Prime Minister himself has his problems. Not only does he have his own blue wall to worry about in the South, but he faces a cabinet mainly comprised of turbo-charged Thatcherites (Rishi Sunak is a key example). Although seemingly united now, the Conservatives may quickly turn on their leader, as they have done to nearly every single one of them previously. For now, it’s down to Boris Johnson to deliver and if he does so, then perhaps a fifth consecutive Tory victory wouldn’t be such a shock as Britain heads down the path of a one-party state…
Image - Flickr (Number 10)