Bread and Roses

Submitted by on 9 August, 2002 - 8:30

by Nicole Ashford

Girl Power?
Theresa May has become chairman of the Conservative Party. None of this politically-correct "chair" or "chairwoman" business for her. She's going to modernise the party. In particular, she's going to enhance its appeal to women, ethnic minorities, gay people. And so on. (As far as I can tell, the whole thing's much more about Iain Duncan Smith not wanting David Davis using the party machine as the base for his leadership bid in three years. But the spin is that the Tories are now into girl power.)
I don't number very many Tories among my acquaintance. A total of two, in fact, although I think one of them isn't speaking to me. Of the two, one is a woman and the other is gay. They're both 30-something and have highly-paid jobs: one in the media, the other in PR.

Both of them are libertarians: Laura is libertarian through-and-through and in quite an ideologically thought-out way. Michael is libertarian on just about everything, but only so far as white people are concerned. On the question of immigration he is about as socially conservative as you can get without actually calling for repatriation.

These two are the kind of people Theresa May would dearly love to be party activists (provided, of course, Michael could refrain from using the word "nigger" in public). Unfortunately for her, Michael tore up his party card in a rare (once in a lifetime, I'd say) fit of principle over the leadership's opposition to the repeal of Section 28, and Laura is far too busy with her career to waste her time on a party that isn't going to get into power for another seven years at least. I'm not at all convinced that the appointment of Theresa May will propel them back into the party.

The Tories' trouble is that they have to walk a line between two groups of women supporters. There are the Mail-reading blue-rinse brigade, who at heart think a woman's place is in the home (unless she's Margaret Thatcher, in which case she should never have left 10 Downing Street). Then there are the young career women - like May and many of her colleagues before they switched to politics - with flashy City jobs, who'd frankly be driven mad by church socials, coffee mornings and the village fête committee. The leadership really want the second type to join - but the blue-rinsers won't select them as candidates.

It's easy for us on the left to sit back in amusement at the Tories' latest folly. They haven't a hope of getting back into government - not for a while - and they're a nice comedy sideshow. We shouldn't, though, forget who they are and what they did - a dangerously simple thing to do, especially for people like me, whose adult memories of Tory government are of Thatcher's downfall and the farcical Major years.

The Tories‚ decimation of the welfare state massively undermined a structure which had changed working-class women's lives dramatically over 40 years. The welfare state took some of the burden of caring away from women. Not always perfectly, and not always well, but free health care, nurseries, child benefit… all these things made a real difference. The Tory doctrine that "there is no such thing as society" cut away at that support. And Labour is continuing - in its plans for pensions, for example - to slice away at it.

The women who Theresa May wants to attract to the Conservative Party are women to whom these things don't matter. Women whose main concern is that the nanny's minimum wage shouldn't rise, that there should be a good selective school nearby so their kids don't mix with the riff-raff, that at work they should be able to profit and exploit just as well as men.

Women-friendly or not, the Tories are the same party they always were: the party of the rich, of the exploiters, of the ruling class.

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