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For the Conservatives, Worker Is Not a Collective Noun

18/03/2014 11:05 GMT | Updated 17/05/2014 10:59 BST

The Tory MP Jesse Norman's excellent biography of Edmund Burke, Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, is a great primer on the intellectual roots of British conservatism. Burke was sceptical of unaccountable authority, whether tyrannical monarchy or the unrestrained mob, and was alarmed by both the degeneration of the French revolution and the unrooted idealism of the American. He believed in freedom of the individual and that British institutions were the best guarantors of this.

It is disappointing that Burke's party now seem to have so utterly rejected his ideas. Where Burke was keen to be free of foreign alliances because the motives of more despotic regimes could not be trusted, modern Tories seek to secede from the most successful alliance of free democracies the world has ever seen. A complete remodelling of the state based on an ideological desire to limit government - despite a weak democratic mandate - would also seem to run counter to the Burkean impulse that Norman identifies as 'ordered liberty'.

There are attempts to rebrand the Conservatives as the Workers Party. As Norman details, Burke was one of the more able politicians ever to sit in the House of Commons, so no doubt on one hand he would applaud the political audacity and acumen that has Osborne's fingerprints all over it.

But it is also hard not to feel that he may be troubled by the ease with which the foundations of conservatism - patriotism, institutionalism and gradualism - give way so blithely under this Government to base populism. There is nothing wrong in itself, aside the audacity, with the Conservatives championing workers. The trouble is, where workers is used on the left as a collective noun, the Conservatives mean it in only the singular sense.

For the Left, the solidarity of workers was an opposing force to capital. If democracy was to work in the industrial era, the organising advantages of money, land and power had to be balanced by solidarity and a progressive movement originally rooted in cooperatives and Trade Unionism. This dynamic tension rebuilt a country after the Great Depression, fought and won a World War, and constructed an NHS and a welfare state so that a mass-consumer society could be constructed and securely return Conservative Governments in the second half of the twentieth century.

When the Conservatives now talk of workers, they don't mean it in the sense of labour organised as a counter-weight to capital, they mean it purely in terms of personal identity. People are either workers who create value, or shirkers who feed off the industry of others.

One of the great unremarked political changes of the last half century, at least on this side of the Atlantic, has been the birth and transformation of identity politics from something supported by liberals and scorned by conservatives in the 1960s, to its complete polar opposite today. The massive social changes of the last half-century - no less disruptive in Britain than America - actually succeeded spectacularly well, and in a relatively short period of time. Most women now enter the workforce. Homosexuality has gone in just two generations from a criminal act to marriage equality. Race relations, even given the panics of the War on Terror and immigration, are notably calm compared to the 1970s and 1980s.

These were huge victories for the progressive movement (a movement that included some in the Conservative Party.) But having won so completely it is almost as if identity politics has been shelved by the left, filed away under Jobs Well Done. No longer a party defined by class, Labour has surrendered identity politics to the Conservatives, a party founded (at least in modern times) on the belief that freedom of the individual was the defining feature of society rather than social group.

At its best, this leftist vision of a post-class, post-gender and post-racial society can deliver tremendous electoral coalitions based on the belief that Britain is generally at ease with itself. This is how Tony Blair won such thumping majorities in 1997 and 2001.

But it also explains the polar opposite too, why modern conservatives (both the Tory Party and UKIP) have managed to do so well in more fearful times. Because identity politics have been rejected so readily on the left - I would argue because they were not seen to need defending, rather than being actual electoral liabilities - this has created an opportunity for the right to capture the mantle of identity politics for its own and to define identity purely in terms of nationality and support for state intervention. You are British, or you are foreign. You are familiar, or you are exotic. You play by our rules, or by someone else's.

With no alternative identity causes to fight for, politics is reflected through the prisms of nationalism or work. Economic insecurity can be chalked up to immigration despite no real evidence that the two are related, let alone causal. Alternative narratives, like economic security being undermined by the weakening of collective bargaining rules, or equalities legislation being the basic guarantor of a massively-expanded (and secure) workforce, struggle to get a look in. It is one thing to blame the Tories and UKIP for cynically plugging away at the idea that the only identity that matters is national identity, but some of the blame lies on the left for surrendering the political space in the first place.

If Conservatives really do have the chutzpah to stick with being the party of work (and I would advocate a very strong and explicit push back against this idea), the logical move for Labour is to occupy the space vacated by the Conservatives on conserving (notice that word) institutions and the social contract more broadly. Being the party that saves the NHS. Being stewards of the environment. Being for the police and strong communities.

Most importantly, as opinion polls show, putting together the pieces of the cost of living and economic management, which means going further than just apologising for the financial crisis and acknowledging that it was giving in to very conservative notions about the productive power of deregulation that was Labour's ultimate failure.

Edmund Burke believed that institutions mattered more than identity. This idea created the most electorally successful political party in the democratic world. The post-Thatcher Conservative party has morphed into a strange Hayekian-Faragist hybrid, where the logic of fear of others is bound up with a refusal to countenance economic alternatives to modern crisis-producing, financialised capitalism. When the Conservative party return to the Burkean idea that work is the foundation, in a cultural and social sense, of ordered liberty and not just a social marker of whether you are one of us or one of them, perhaps Conservatism will become attractive enough to win elections again in its own right.