As a teenager in London in the mid-90s, everyone I knew was anti-Tory. It was the fag-end of the John Major era, and amidst a sea of sex and corruption scandals the Tories had saved some of the most damaging measures for last, privatising the industries Thatcher hadn’t dared to: electricity, railway and prisons, and continually stigmatising single mothers, gays and lesbians and the ‘undeserving poor’. Though we were too young to remember the mass unemployment, miners strike and poll tax from the Thatcher years, the memories were fresh enough in the minds of our parents to impart to us a strongly anti-Tory outlook. The signs of public sector degradation were pretty apparent even to teenagers – parks and schools were all seriously run down after years of underfunding and libraries and sports centres were opening for fewer days each year. It was a mark of decency, of normality to oppose a tired, malicious government that was totally out of step with the growing trend towards social liberalism. To admit to being a conservative was a minor taboo – tantamount to admitting that you were well off and everyone’s else could go to hell. In our school mock election I think the Tories received about 8 votes out of 900 – and I suspect the affiliations of our parents were only slightly less one sided.
It’s not that everyone was pro-Labour – as early as 1994-95 Tony Blair was being accused of selling out, and Liberal Democrats were already gaining in popularity. The situation was simply this – there was broad body of people who knew that, above all, we had to get the Tories out – and while this wouldn’t in itself change the world, nothing could start to improve until we’d taken this basic first step. This culminated in the 1997 election, as the concerted effort deprived so many hated moralisers, privatisers and destroyers of public services of their seats. It was a victory of pragmatism over utopianism – with extensive tactical voting boosting the non-Conservative parties, and left wing voters backing a Labour leadership which they already knew had rejected socialist values. The priority was to kick out the Tories – everything else was secondary.
This anti-Tory instinct was forgotten during the 13 years of Labour rule, as Blair seemed invincible and the Conservatives unelectable, so many of us focussed on criticising the government’s failings. During that period I voted for a range of parties that seemed to be to Labour’s left, from the now defunct Socialist Alliance, to the now surging Greens to the now right-wing Liberal Democrats. It was safe to do so – there was no danger of the Tories winning under the successive leaderships of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. By the time of the Gordon Brown government from 2007 we deluded ourselves into thinking this was still the case – we could continue to kick Labour without fear – perhaps the fresh-faced Nick Clegg would win a large amount of seats and help push Labour to the left. We were lulled into a false sense of security by the new style of Tory leadership emanating from David Cameron – posing with huskies, hugging hoodies and pledging a centrist conservatism alongside an acceptance of contemporary social liberalism. In pre-crash 2006-7 it felt like a liberal Conservative government under Cameron wouldn’t be so drastically different from a right wing Labour government under Blair and Brown.
With our anti-Tory instincts rusty, alongside a younger generation who had grown up only knowing Labour governments, we sleep-walked into a Tory led administration. But while our attention had been on Labour’s failings, George Osbourne had spotted an opportunity to ditch the soft liberalism of the Tory modernisers in favour of a return to Thatcherism red in tooth and claw. He had successfully turned the focus of the political debate from how to rebuild the economy to a focus on the debt that had been incurred as a result of bailing out the banks. This allowed him, once in office, to launch an enormous programme of cuts to public spending and welfare, cutting the safety net from the poorest and the most vulnerable. The ‘nasty party’ was back with a vengeance.
This only occurred because we took our eye off the ball. Thinking that centre-left governments had become inevitable we failed to focus on the threat from the unreconstructed right. But the Tory threat is once again all too real, and if the Conservatives can win power again they will obliterate what is left of the welfare state, slash services for the poorest, bankrupt local councils and maintain only those public services which are useful to the upper-middle classes. Britain will become an ever more mean-spirited, hostile, inward looking country – pandering to xenophobia and anti-poor bigotry while the wealth of the super rich remain untouched. There are many ways by which we may, if we’re not careful, allow them to do this. By failing to vote. By voting for the Liberal Democrats, a party once to the left of Labour, but now determined to ally with the Conservatives in another hung parliament. By treating voting as an expression of ethical purity rather than tactics and voting Green in Labour-Tory marginals. By pompously declaring that we cannot bring ourselves to vote for Labour, however good our reasons may be. In the end it’s very simple. In every constituency, vote to make sure a Conservative or a Conservative ally cannot win. It’s the golden rule of British politics that we forget at our peril – whatever you do, keep the Tories out.