Never let a serious crisis go to waste, was the advice of Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's former chief of staff, at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. His old boss may have struggled to embrace the wisdom, but it appears to have become a mantra for Conservatives gathered in Manchester this week.
So much for detoxification: the party that replaced its logo with a tree is now talking about watering down carbon emissions targets. Those traditional Tory bêtes noires – the unemployed and immigrants – are getting a renewed kicking in speeches. But it is in the proposed two-pronged assault on workers' rights that the Cameron Project becomes clear: to use a crisis unleashed by the banks to re-order society in the interests of the people at the top.
To begin with, George Osborne declared his intention to make it easier for bosses to sack workers – perversely, as a means of combating rising unemployment. The qualifying period for unfair dismissals will be increased from one year of employment to two; and workers who take their former employers to industrial tribunals will have to pay an initial deposit of £250, and another £1,000 if a hearing is granted. Osborne claims this will encourage companies to take workers on, but John Philpott, chief economic adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes it will simply "make employment less stable over the economic cycle".
Here is an attempt to scapegoat workers' rights for rising unemployment, rather than a lethal combination of government cuts and a lack of demand in the economy. Indeed, the only OECD country with a worse record on employment protection is the United States.
The second front being opened – perhaps predictably – is against the Tories' old trade union foes. Union reps in public services are given paid leave to represent workers: across the whole Civil Service, it accounts for just 0.2 per cent of staff time. But according to Francis Maude, it "has got way out of hand", so a crackdown beckons. In actual fact, union reps play a key role. A TUC report last year found that they saved billions in productivity gains and reducing working days lost to injury and illness. Their numbers have certainly increased, but largely because the last Conservative government abandoned national bargaining in the mid-1990s, leaving industrial relations issues in a tangled mess of departments and agencies.
Using the economic crisis as cover, the Tories are carrying on where Thatcherism left off: redistributing power from working people to their bosses. The last Conservative governments achieved it largely through anti-union laws, a clampdown on workers' rights, shifting the burden of tax from direct to indirect taxation, and mass unemployment. It was remarkably successful. Back in 1973, nearly two-thirds of national wealth went to workers' pay; today, it's just 53 per cent.
It is Labour's job to oppose these attacks, but its leadership remains paralysed by fear of getting slammed for being in the unions' pockets. Few politicians make the case that unions have any legitimate place in public life. They are "vested interests", not our biggest democratic movement, representing 7m nurses, supermarket checkout assistants, factory workers and others who keep the country ticking. The Tories – bankrolled by City firms and multimillionaires – can implement policies benefiting their backers without facing accusations of being their puppets.
I asked Neil Kinnock last year if the Conservatives were the class warriors of British politics. "No, because they've never had to engage in a class war," he answered. "Largely because we signed the peace treaty without realising that they hadn't." After this week, it's time to put those illusions to rest.
Owen Jones is author of 'Chavs: The
Demonisation of the Working Class'