Remember Cameron’s ‘hug a hoody’ speech or how about the slogan, ‘vote blue, go green’, or those famous images of Cameron hugging huskies or the election poster vowing to protect the NHS? Yes the one with the really shiny face. They all seem like distant memories now, destined to sink to the political equivalent of Davy Jones locker along with the remnants of the shattered ‘Big Society’.
And on the day of George Osborne’s budget it is looking increasingly clear the ‘nasty party’ are back. And the truth is they never really went away.
In 2002 when the now Home Secretary, Teresa May stood up at the Tory party conference and described her party as having a “nasty image”, it was met with dismay from the then Tory Chairman; Lord Tebbit, but in reality it signaled the start of the Conservatives realising they had a serious image problem to address. The previous two decades of Tory government oversaw several serious recessions, record unemployment the destruction of post war community values. Throw into this toxic mix, the mass privatisation of public services and nearly two decades of deterioration of the NHS.
The nickname ‘Thatcher the milk snatcher’ stuck and so did the image of sneering yuppies. All while a generation of new alternative comedians were relishing mocking the toxicity of the Tories. Fictional characters like Alan B’stard, a fictional greedy Conservative back bencher did nothing to help the toxic Tory image.
The New Labour years saw a slavish devotion to the free market and a neo-liberal foreign policy that Thatcher would have been proud of. After the Blair and Brown wars, the Labour government were tired and complacent and presented with a global financial crisis. This was the opportunity Hilton and co needed to bash Labour and return to power. Harnessing the brand building lessons pioneered by multinationals over the past 30 years, they set about re-branding their party.
All that was needed were a couple of choice photo shoots a new “green logo for the party” and young crop of Tory politicians supposedly untainted by the past of the party – even though Hilton and Cameron were part of the “brat pack”, the strategy team behind John Mayor’s surprise 1992 election victory.
Now at the start of 2012, Cameron’s “spin svengali” Steve Hilton, credited with the re-brand of the Tories, has quietly slipped off to the states. Whilst the Star Chamber embark on their latest cuts bonanza, slashing away at environmental regulation including nuggets such as, “Construction sites will no longer need plan how to manage their waste”.
Recently whilst reading the highly acclaimed book on the anti-corporation movement ‘No Logo’ by Naomi Klein, I took note of this passage, “When the brand image is the weapon, an unbranded company can get off the hook entirely”.
In my view this same theory can be applied to why the Tories, despite pushing through severe public sector cuts and a raft of hugely unpopular bills, NHS, tuition fees, free schools to name a few, remain in a relatively healthy position in the polls. The Tories were able to convince the general public they were a palatable alternative without ever really changing. Out went the ‘greenest government ever’ and ‘big society’ in came ‘Top down reorganisation of NHS’, ‘Sweetheart tax deals for big business’ and ‘cuts to disability living allowance’.
We on the left were never in any doubt about the Tories true intentions but it was the casual floating voter that was sold the biggest lie. It could be said that the country is still in economic shock. Cameron and Co and have pushed through radical free market reforms, closely following the teachings free market ideology guru Milton Freidman, who said that, “a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity.”
The theory goes after an election or coup the general public will be too disorganised and shocked to organise coherent opposition to economic policy. This government has a ideological zeal for mass privatisation, our forests were saved but now the NHS will slowly be privatised and Teresa May seems determined to make the Laurie and Fry sketch of a privatised police force a reality. Need I go on? Today Osborne’s budget has given subsidies to encourage oil drilling in Scotland, cut the 50p tax rate for the highest earners and slashed corporation tax and the above mentioned regulation protecting the environment.
Now readers I have a little test for you, go out and find someone who will admit to voting Tory at the last election, I know this may be tough. And ask them which policies they voted for? The chance is they won’t be able to name many and in here lays the problem for most floating voters. The Tory re-brand was only surface deep, now intoxicated by power the ‘nasty party’ are back.
As Ed Miliband said today in the commons after the budget announcement, they are the “same old Tories”. The re-brand was all PR sheen and very little substance, riding on the wave of a global financial crisis the Tories managed to scrap into government. Two terms the Tories were very keen on 18 months ago: “we’re all in this together” and “in the national interest” are rarely used nowadays. The problem for the opposition is that the voters they lost to the Tories at the last election, voted for a change. I don’t think those floating who voted Tory at the last election really knew what that change would mean. So far it looks like the destruction of our health service, fairness in society, the environment and less tax for business and the rich in society.