Friday 9 November 2012

Can Conservatives Win Again?

That's the question pundits are asking in the wake of Barack Obama's election win. Though there wasn't a great deal in it - 60m vs 57m, give or take a few hundred thousand here and there, it would appear everyone with an opinion is using this opportunity to write the obituary of American Conservatism. People are pointing to the Democrats winning the popular vote in five out of the last six contests, and the observation that the GOP and its increasingly deranged base are politically incapable of facing up to demographic change. Fold this in with several progressive outcomes to local referenda, can you really start speaking of a permanent and strengthening Democrat majority? Time will tell.

For Conservatives on this side of the water, there is some superficial consolation to be had. An election with a floundering incumbent, a faltering economy, and culminating in an outright victory have not been lost on those desperate for a sign, any sign, that oblivion does not await in 2015. But like the USA, there is something deeper going on.

Tory party membership since the war has looked like this:


Vote share has followed a broadly similar pattern. Since polling a staggering 49.7% under Anthony Eden in 1955, the Tory vote has shrunk back to 36.1% in 2010 - still not enough to win outright, despite Labour getting its second worst-ever result off the back of a deeply unpopular government.

The results from the second order European elections since their inception don't make comfortable reading either. Tory shares have been 51% (1979), 38.8% (1984), 35% (1989), 28% (1994), 36% (1999), 36% (2004), and 27.7% (2009).

A government mid-Parliament tends not to pay too much attention to what the polls say, but the Conservative Party are consistently falling behind among the under-59s (especially the 18-24s), and the regions outside of 'the south' (excluding London). The most recent YouGov poll is pretty indicative of the general trend.

Matters are not helped by the emergence of an electorally credible alternative to the Conservatives' right. However, despite UKIP's rapid rise in under 20 years, its base - if it can be called that - is ageing, and has marginal purchase amongst younger voters. And the right seem set to fragment even further with expelled UKIP MEP Nikki Sinclaire teaming up with the execrable "celebrity" Katie Hopkins to form 'We Demand a Referendum', a carbon copy of the late James Goldsmith's dismal Referendum Party. With a bit of luck, that should cost the Tories and UKIP a handful of MEPs in 2014.

Like their American brethren, it's not so much the Conservative's appalling record that's doing them in; they are at odds with long-term demographic and cultural trends. The political pendulum may still be to the right on welfare, economic policy, public spending, and immigration; but it has swung decisively to the left when it comes to rights for and attitudes toward women, minority ethnicities, and LGBT people. This politico-cultural shift is taking place on a global scale and it would take a massive amount of violence to throw it into reverse.

For a whole host of reasons the Tories have struggled to move with the times. Dave's pre-election liberal Toryism tried, but quickly, unseemly, that was consigned to an unmarked grave shortly after the LibDems gave them the leg up. Now, the Tories have to swim against an appalling record of incompetence and spitefulness, and cope with decline, fragmentation, and an ageing and diminishing base. Is it reasonable to write off the Tories? Could Dave be the last Conservative Prime Minister ... ever?

Tories might be interested in the recent history of the Canadian Conservative Party. Its immediate predecessor spectacularly collapsed in the 1993 federal elections from 158 seats (an absolute majority) to just two - probably the greatest electoral catastrophe ever to befall a governing party. And yet, 13 years later, the Tories were returned to power as a minority government and then went on to win an outright majority in 2011. How?

Canada has the highest per capita immigration rate in the world. Its population of 33 million welcomed over a quarter of a million new arrivals in 2010. In addition, just under 20% of Canadian citizens are what we in Britain would class BME, 4% of the total comprising of aboriginal peoples. The white majority themselves are split between groups identifying themselves as English, Scottish, German, Canadian and, of course, Quebecois. In 2005 Canada legalised gay marriage, and enjoys the sorts of liberties and freedoms as your average European social democratic state. Not ideal turf for Tories.

Canadian Conservatives have been forced to adapt. Looking at their 2011 Manifesto, despite the disparate components that make up Canada it is very clearly a one nation document, albeit updated and modernised for the 21st century. It is framed around the traditional Tory nostrums of lower taxes, but this is explicitly linked to plans for jobs and growth. Unlike their counterparts here, deficit reduction is tied to economic strategy. Demonisation of immigrants is absent, green issues are highly visible, unions are not singled out for a battering, and there are commitments to religious freedom. It's all very liberal and managerial and does not wear its ideology on its sleeve. These are the fluffy modern Tories sincere Cameroons can but dream of.

But it is more than just a question of programme. The tradition of North American exceptionalism extends to its politics. Unlike Western Europe, Canada has retained a substantial Liberal Party. Historically it has dominated the political scene, only being occasionally interrupted by interludes of Conservative rule. However, it would seem history is now catching up with Canadian politics. Founded in 1961 the New Democratic Party was born out of the labour movement and has started to occupy the left, social democratic political space the Liberals formerly claimed as theirs. The 21st Century particularly has seen them break through. In 2011 the NDP won 30.6% of the vote (up 12.5%) and increased their number of seats to 103 (up from 37!). The Liberals were pushed into a distant third place and the separatist Bloc Quebecois practically wiped out in their heartlands.

The Conservatives themselves have benefited from earlier seismic shifts in politics, that saw the 'traditional' Tory party, the Progressive Conservatives, merge with the Western-regional Reform Party. But that was a tremor compared to the 'Big One' of historic left-leaning political realignment, moving Canadian politics from a liberal/conservative to a "normal" conservative/social democratic axis. This reflects the growing strength of the labour movement, the patterns of inward immigration, and a consolidation of a liberal and tolerant culture. The Conservatives are creatures of the moment: faced with adapting or dying, they consolidated their forces and chose to adapt.

British (and American) Conservatives clearly need a Canadian-style makeover. But it is extremely unlikely. Demographic trends are roughly comparable, but the constitution of the respective political fields are different. Canada's politics has seen fragmentation grow over into realignment. British politics in general is slowly fraying (the First Past the Post system has kept a lid on it - for now), but one of the two main parties is not about to be replaced by an upstart challenger. Furthermore, because of its myriad links to the labour movement, immigrant communities, and social movements, Labour are weathering it better. The Tories however are locked in to their narrower constituency - move too much in a liberal one nation direction and you lose your base to UKIP as you win over swing voters. Stick with a core strategy, and the undecided voters go elsewhere. Gobbling up their Coalition partners may present a way out. It has, after all, happened before. Or, Micawber-like, something else might eventually turn up.

Demography is not destiny, and British Conservatism does face seemingly insurmountable odds. But, historically speaking, as the most successful political party the world has ever seen, its resilience should not be underestimated. Never ones to put principle before power, there is always an outside chance it could make the necessary changes to win again, however unlikely that looks now. Therefore it requires constant, unceasing vigilance and work from Labour, the labour movement, and progressive people to keep it in the predicament it finds itself.


Phil said...

Quick interchange from Facebook:

Ian McLaughlan: Fascinating reading. The conclusion I come to is that the Conservatives have lost the one quality that made them most successful: adapting with - or even ahead of - the times. If and when they rediscover that, they will pose a huge threat.

Me: Cheers mate. Glad to hear you're still keeping abreast of matters in Oz. And yes, you're right. But I don't think they can - they are trapped by their narrow and narrowing social base.

Ian McLaughlan: That's a symptom not a cause. The Conseratives have been very successful at reaching out beyond their base. That's why they've been so successful.

Me: In the past the Tories wereable to do that. But political strategies are always conditioned by the interests bearing down on them, and the supporters expected to deliver them. Dave's liberal make over of the Tories was never more than a cosmetic thing because going deeper would have caused serious damage to his party.

Span Ows said...

This is very interesting and in answer to the question: of course they can. However it's worth pointing out the results from the last election belie a little of what you say, it's the UK system that causes such strange results because in England for example, Conservatives did very well indeed (probably won't happen next time round unless the voters see through the 'media blackout' of any Coalition progress); getting back to 2010 taking England votes, Labour polled 1 million more than the Lib Dems. Conservatives polled 2.9 million more than Labour, a full 11.5%; it was the 70% of the seats available from Scotland that kept Labour anywhere near contention. Interestingly too, UKIP polled more than 3 times the Green vote but were seat-less (in fact even BNP polled more than double the Greens count but I realise it's a false analogy given the Greens 'all for one' tactic). Now we have a Coalition weakened by an apparently 'unConservative PM being decidedly unpopular, but not because they isn't doing all the things you say it should be doing as per its 'Canadian counterpart'

Phil said...

I think conservatism can, on paper, realign along the Canadian model and is probably its only hope for continued health over the course of this century. But before then a certain bloodletting has to occur - with a growing UKIP, a more twitchy right in the Tory party, and a diminishing core constituency it's going to be a very ugly business.