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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

This is a guest post by Ben

The Conservative Party has changed, hasn’t it?

It has a leader who, for the first time in many years, understands the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people and who has had the balls to firmly shut the right of his party up.

Compare Brown (or “one-eyed McBroon”, as Tory bloggers understandably call him during the odd bout of gently jovial high spirits brought on by the heady scent of victory) and Cameron – who seems the more likable guy? (Clue – it’s not the grizzled Stalinist-style commissar who exhorts the part faithful to ever greater efforts to over-fulfil the five year plan for tractor production.)

The Tories – a party in tune with the mood of the nation. Labour – a spent force with a dire leader, bereft of ideas to face the challenges of the coming economic cycle.

But, sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Evening Standard reminds us why.

Many of you will remember the brutal echoes of this rotten borough politics from the first time round. Enormously wealthy Tesco heiress Dame Shirley Porter, Tory Westminster City Council leader 1983-1991, decided to move some of the poorest people in Britain from their homes in marginal wards into asbestos-ridden blocks of flats in safe Labour wards which were unfit for human habitation iwith. This policy played a substantial role in her achievement of a magnificent landslide in the 1990 local elections, and was knighted by the Conservative government for her efforts. Who says governments can’t pick winners?

It is good to see that the Conservative Party also believes in traditional values in a modern setting, but are there really any parallels? Well, at least this time round there’s no suggestion that the up-and-coming leader of the radical out-riding Tory administration, seen as a test-bed for “controversial” social engineering policies and with the ear of the national party, but potentially threatened by Labour resurgence is actually indifferent to killing its electorate. Otherwise? Nah, no parallels at all.

It’s quite easy to be sardonic about this. Partly that’s because most of us live a comfortable life, and don’t have to worry about political changes in our local authority ripping apart our community and leading to us being effectively deported from the borough in which we live. But I think it’s also because those of us who are progressives find it difficult to understand or really believe that people are capable of the level of brutality, cruelty and callous indifference associated with this sort of social Darwinism. What do phrases such as “barracks for the poor”, it being “hard to get rid of people”, “council estate “ghettoes” and “masterplans” bring to mind? All from movers and shakers at the favoured Council of both David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Perhaps the latter could spend some of his “chicken feed” £250k from his side job on some plant pots for the estates?

The centre-left spent a lot of time in the 1990s thinking hard about the causes of social deprivation. It would be simplistic to suggest that individual behaviour, lack of responsibility and stable families and the like play no role in perpetuating poverty. But it would be not just bone-headed, but bitterly prejudiced, to suggest that people are largely in poverty through their own fault – that it just requires them to pull their socks up, have their communities ripped apart and have their lives picked up and dumped in another borough, another city, in order to sort them out.

Labour MP Andy Slaughter put it so: “Using the language of social cleansing, and with no respect for age, vulnerability or human rights, the Tories propose to destroy communities. This is social engineering on a grand scale and it is being recommended to David Cameron as the way forward in housing.” Hyperbolic as it might sound, I can’t find anything to fault in it.

The estates in question have had large amounts of funds spent on them through the Decent Homes programme – just another one of those quiet, unsung, government policies that have made people’s lives better over the last decade and more but which are ignored in favour of obsessive and trivial debates over “civil liberties” or who said what about WMD – they don’t need to be pulled down. For one thing, why would a council want to lose the capital investment? One reason would be if a council was ideologically committed to waging class war against its most vulnerable residents by demolishing their homes and raising rents for a two-bed council flat from £85 to £360 a week.

And that’s one of the interesting things. You can’t imagine this sort of crude, vicious, nasty 1980s politics coming from the other side of the fence any more. Labour grew up. Four crushing defeats made us face our internal enemies and inadequacies and grow into a One Nation party. Some of us though that the longest-lasting legacy of new Labour’s political dominance would be David Cameron, and the way in which he would transform the Conservative Party into a moderate, grown-up party too.

But it turns out we were wrong. Cameron may well be a decent and well-meaning man. But his party is not and hiding the maddest and evilest of its members from the media does not constitute a political reformation. It may seem an astounding conclusion, but they have learnt nothing in opposition.
Because Tories never change.