Tories must face up to fact that it's themselves - not Labour - who are living in the past
At the start of the British Labour Party conference this week, I had drinks with a few Labour MPs who presumably felt they had been sufficiently damned by the Corbyn regime that they could risk supping with a class enemy.
They'd been at a few fringe meetings and were comparing notes about the new activists who seemed to have taken charge of their party. Given how much moderate Labour MPs have been persecuted by Corbynistas, they had braced themselves for a week of abuse. But the new activists they found in meetings were quite nice, even normal. Not Trots, not even political obsessives - just ordinary young people, genuinely inspired by Labour ideas.
For those of us trying to understand the Corbyn phenomenon, this might be the hardest part to swallow.
He might very well be a Marxist full of terrible ideas, and John McDonnell might be more dangerous still, but much of what they're talking about strikes most people as common sense. It suits Tories to think of Corbyn as a historical burp, a blast of foul air from the 1970s creating a temporary stink in Westminster. But in fact it's the Tories who have been stuck in the past - clinging to the Eighties, wrongly believing it to be the decade in which socialism was exposed and disproved. Socialism has turned out to be this year's surprise hit.
In his rather good (if a little long) conference speech, Jeremy Corbyn summed it up perfectly: his ideas, so long dismissed as being on the fringe of politics, are now mainstream. If you think this is laughable, you haven't been paying attention. The Legatum Institute, a free-market think tank, yesterday published research showing just how fast the ground is shifting: Corbyn's plans to nationalise the water, gas and electricity companies is backed by about three-quarters of the public.
Even among Conservative voters, two-thirds support his proposal to nationalise the railways. Corbyn (inset) himself doesn't propose nationalising the banks, but the Legatum research shows that half of the country would be happy if he did. So if anything, he's to the right of the mainstream in his timidity. On pretty much everything else, from regulation to executive pay, the public now tends to oppose free-market ideas.
This wasn't so when David Cameron became prime minister: then, people worried about Labour's over-spending and wanted government to slim down. But his progress was glacial, and public patience wore thin. Now, the mood is for more tax and more spending. And, perhaps, more Corbyn.
Such mood shifts often decide elections years before any vote is held. The IMF bail-out of 1976 destroyed Labour's economic message, clearing the way for the Thatcher reforms. The chaos of Black Wednesday eviscerated the Tories' reputation for competence, to Tony Blair's advantage. And now, yet again, we can see conservatives in a state of intellectual surrender. From university tuition fees to energy price caps, the party has been adopting a slew of bad Labour policies, seeming ashamed of its own. The last Tory manifesto seemed, in parts, to be a repudiation of Toryism.
There is a cynical logic in this: steal popular Labour ideas, move the party to the left, in hope of annexing some of the centre ground. It's the game the Tories have been playing for more than a decade, with mixed results. But the long-term effect is a Conservative Party that has forgotten how to explain, let alone sell, conservatism. A party that doesn't remember how to make the moral case for smaller government and lower taxation - and can't even win a majority against a Marxist Labour leader disowned by most of his MPs.
As the Conservatives found out in June, words like Marxist are losing their resonance. Talking about the IRA and the Winter of Discontent doesn't mean much to voters with no memory of either: you can't win a mandate for the 2020s by talking about the 1970s. This might explain why age, not social class, was the dividing line in this year's election. My mother-in-law, who passed away this week, fled Soviet-run Prague to live in the West: to her generation, there was nothing abstract about the competing ideas of socialism and the free market.
So how to make the choice real to those with no lived experience of it?
Indeed, the experience of the young is of a system that seems rigged against them. The problem wasn't just the crash, but the tools used to recover from it. Flooding billions of digitally created pounds into the economy, through quantitative easing certainly succeeded in raising asset prices. But we now end up with home ownership being a cruelly unattainable dream for the young. Unsurprisingly, capitalism is unpopular among those with no capital.
The Labour conference this week had the usual "never kissed a Tory" mugs, slogans like "make wealth history" on display, the obligatory "safe space" room and other socialist juvenilia. But the activists I met reminded me of the new, Scottish Nationalist recruits who seemed to come from nowhere three years ago. Cheerful, kindly, optimistic young people who had been inspired by political ideas, keen to improve their country through electoral politics. Rather than curse the demonic energy of the Corbynistas, I left Brighton wishing that my side could arouse half of their enthusiasm.
Theresa May might be starting to get this message. The anti-business tone of her manifesto was swapped for a spirited defence of the free market this week - recognition, perhaps, of just how bad things are. The Conservatives have not just lost their majority but are losing the argument - which means, sooner or later, losing power. (© Daily Telegraph London)