I dislike the term ‘Red Tories’. I can understand why some people might think it an appropriate label to apply to British Labour. It might readily be argued that they have brought it upon themselves. Nonetheless, I consider it a gross oversimplification of the kind that is invariably a hindrance to understanding.
Thinking in terms of such simplisms in relation to British Labour may be seen as part of a more general tendency that we might think of as ‘active apathy’. A shallow attitude that dismisses all politicians with phrases such as “they’re all the same”. An unconsidered rejection of politics which, through intellectual inadequacy or – one suspects more commonly – intellectual indolence, eschews the effort required to properly analyse and differentiate. Basically, it’s just easier to resort to some facile stereotype than it is to ponder the distinguishing features. Why bother thinking too deeply when there’s a handy caricature which presents all politicians as some permutation of a list of negative attributes that includes, but is not limited to, venality, dishonesty, deviousness, hypocrisy, duplicity, corruptibility, arrogance, deviancy and incompetence.
Bad as British politics may be, it would surely be a lot worse if politicians were as unexceptionally and unremittingly bad as this caricature suggests. And to whatever extent they are, just ask yourself who elects them? Having the privilege of democratic choice, don’t we get the politicians we deserve?
Similarly sloppy thinking lumps all political parties together as if there were no differences among them. Tending also to regard them as the problem. It has become almost fashionable to condemn the party system as either or both a symptom and the cause of the perceived failure of politics. This is to forget that, like trade unions in the realm of work and employment, political parties are the agencies by which ‘ordinary people’ act collectively in the sphere of public policy. If they have ceased to adequately fulfil this function, who is to blame?
If political parties have become the tools of narrow vested interests is that not because all too many of us have forsaken them? If we don’t lay claim to their power and harness it for our own purposes, have we any right to be indignant that others take advantage of our apathy? Having the privilege of democratic authority, do we not suffer the just consequences of neglecting the responsibility that goes with it?
Political parties are not all alike. To call British Labour ‘Red Tories’ is to trivialise the true awfulness of modern British Conservatism. Just as thoughtlessly referring to Scotland as a ‘one-party state’ trivialises the plight of those who suffer under the heel of genuinely totalitarian regimes.
The Tories have elevated heartlessness to the status of an ideology. A cold and cruel disregard for humanity has become an identifying characteristic and an imperative for any who aspire to a leadership role within the party, or to elected office under its banner. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is a party wholly in thrall to her example of using alienation, disaffection and inequity as instruments of policy.
For all its faults – and they are legion – British Labour cannot sensibly be said to be indistinguishable from the Tories. It might be more accurate to think of them as two aspects of the same flawed political system.
Aneurin Bevan famously labelled the Tories ‘vermin’. If he felt such language was appropriate seventy years ago, he would surely be rendered uncharacteristically speechless were he witness to what they have become. He might also be somewhat lost for words at the sight of his own party. But he would surely never stoop to calling even today’s Labour Party ‘Red Tories’.
This article first appeared in The Grist #Issue 9