Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Slow Death of the Tory Party

After months of tedious Labour infighting, the moment for its long hoped-for eclipse by Tory party divisions has finally arrived. So-called blue-on-blue action is doing a good job of exposing Tory idiocy on all sides of the referendum debate. Ministers - particularly those on the leave side - are wonderfully showing up their stupidity. And last but not least the bumbling, amiable mask Boris Johnson has hidden behind for too long has slipped and the face of an unprincipled chancer is daily in the press and politics programmes.

Unfortunately, I don't believe this will be enough to rip the Tory party apart, even if matters get pretty fierce and it falls to playground name-calling. Thankfully, there are other shenanigans afoot that might put the long-term health of the party Conservatives in jeopardy.

Last week, the Telegraph commented on "secret plans" by Dave to reorganise the party. Under these measures, he was hoping to wind up nine out of ten local Tory associations and centralise the membership in sub-regional blocks. Association chairs will have less local clout, giving up powers to CCHQ, and campaigning was to be concentrated in a staff of full-timers appointed by and beholden to the centre. The reasons why are pretty obvious. For one, Dave knows some of the parliamentary party are going along with Leave because of pressure from the "mad, swivel-eyed loons" in the constituency associations. And, as we know, that's where real political sovereignty lies in the Westminster system. Secondly, mindful of what happened to the Labour Party, it's plausible to them for the party elite to try and prevent the same thing from occurring - not that it will ever see a Corbyn-style surge. Specifically, and more immediately, there is the thwarting of Johnson's ambitions and shoring up the fort for Osborne.

Alas, there's been a partial row back on the plans. Associations under 200 members will be merged with their neighbour(s) and it will go ahead where there is a desire for it to happen. In reality, a large number of associations operate in this way already, particularly in urban areas where some are down to single digits. It's also worth noting here a chunk of the membership is entirely fictitious. If you're a member of your local association boozer, and there are a surprising few knocking about, you're classified as a party member too. Yet despite the step back it still represents a power grab by central office. Marginalising them and directing activism from the centre has the added benefit - from their point of view - of making the full-time apparatus more influential and important to those wanting to make their way up the greasy pole.

I welcome these reforms and hope the Tory party board don't water them down further. The problem with the Tories is they are locked in a death spiral. The membership keeps falling and precious few activists are coming through. This can be offset by money, by gerrymanders, by friendly media, and by engineering situations more favourable to their politics. But they cannot fight shy of this forever. Dave must hope that a more disciplined outfit will prove attractive to Blair-esque small business, middle class, and professional people who'd find the unreconstructed rightwingery of the associations a massive turn off. Sadly for him, it's groundless.

As we know from the experience of the Labour Party under Blair and Brown, one driver of the diminishing membership was the ever more remote relationship between leading MPs and the members. Unless you were doggedly Labour, and/or had the political understanding that participating in the party and working for its electoral victory is always preferable to the alternative, there was very little to incentivise paying over the subs, attending the meetings, and doing party work. Whatever you might think of Jeremy Corbyn, his election has reversed that trend and all the crude insults and calls for deselection for truculent MPs are expressions of a support reasserting itself after feeling neglected. Dave's proposals promise to send his party in the other direction. With the influence of associations curbed, and with it the patronage senior lay committees can dole out, unless one is either a careerist or a super hardcore Tory why would you join a party that takes your money and gives precious little back? To head Johnson off at the pass, the Tories' famous short-termism and decadence sees Dave forward a plan that can hasten their decline. Good.

There is, however, a cloud to this silver lining. The Tory party isn't some free floating signifier without a referent. It is the collective expression of a section of British business and their allies and exists to pursue their interests while pretending to govern for everyone. It also has a wider constituency of millions who will always passively support them come election time. The problem is if the Tories die, those interests and those votes will find expression in some way. It could be through a Blair mk II Labour Party (stranger things have happened), a rejuvenated but rightward-facing Liberal Democrats, or via a recomposition of the right into something even less pleasant than the Tories and its ugly UKIP offspring. Whatever happens, when defeat eventually comes for the Conservatives we need to have a movement and a Labour Party strong and astute enough to ensure that however long their current period of government goes on for, it will be their last.


Mat said...

I think your last paragraph is the most meaningful one - the Conservative Party does not need to be a mass membership party, it simply needs to be a power-broker network that can leverage resources to win elections. More than any other UK party, the US model could work perfectly well for them, there's no reason other than tradition even for local councilors or candidates to be paid up members of the party really - party discipline is a funny thing for them, they are capable of being less disciplined and whipped than Labour, while being willing to unite behind strong or popular leaders locally or nationally.

asquith said...


There weren't many of them tho