Saturday 25 June 2022

Staring into the Abyss

The Conservative Party was braced for a loss in Wakefield. There were questions whether the Liberal Democrats could pull off a win in Tiverton. But comprehensive defeats in both, followed by the unanticipated resignation of Tory chair Oliver Dowden was the icing on the cake. If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you. And that sets the tone for a weekend of panic, recrimination, and despair among Conservative ranks. If the Wakefield swing was repeated on a national scale, the party would be reduced to 230-odd MPs and be out. If Tiverton is the strength of anti-Tory feeling at a general election, the welcome doom of the Tories are upon us: they would limp back into the Commons with 26 seats. Michael Howard, now with something of the fright about him, put the blame of the disaster at Boris Johnson's feet. Others prefer to cry foul, such as Attorney General Suella Braverman who wailed about a Lab/Lib pact that laid the Tories low. Forgetting how, in the last five years, the Tories have been in de facto coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party and their below stairs agreement with the Brexit Party in 2019 netted them an extra 20 seats.

Howard is right that the Johnson effect is proving a drag on the Tories. How PartyGate has played out and his shameless avoidance of accountability can only but damage the party further each day he spends in office. But the refusal to be seen to be doing anything about the cost of living crisis, of talking about plans and strategies to deliver on the priorities of the British people but then not delivering is getting noted all over the place. Everyone apart from the wealthy are taking hits to incomes thanks to price rises, and even the Tory base have to wait until next April before they can bank their above-inflation increase to pensions. There might be some truth that Tory voters abstained - by-elections always report lower turnouts than general elections, after all. But the problem Johnson has got, just as we saw in the local election results, is older people - among whom the Tories enjoy a peerless advantage - are more likely to turnout for second order elections (i.e. contests that aren't general elections), and so significant shifts among in these elections suggest the actual picture is grimmer when you take into account the fact Tory support tends to be lower among working age people.

Can things get worse for the Tories? Of course. The low key electoral pact between Labour and the LibDems should get the Tories fretting and sweating. Since last June's Chesham and Amersham result, vote switching on the part of anti-Tory voters has not only been crucial for LibDem by-election victories, they have taken on a sharper (some might say more ruthless) character. His esteemed holiness John Curtice is right to say in Wakefield and Tiverton, voters were less motivated by a positive case for Labour or the LibDems and were looking for who was best placed to give the Conservatives a kicking. The question is whether it can remain as potent in a general election. Past tactical voting campaigns are a mixed bag. If you listen to the Labour right, this was the sole reason for the party's unexpected success in 2017. In 2019, the plethora of remain-supporting tactical voting websites - often dispensing (purposely) duff advice - only helped consolidate the splits among the opposition parties - while, as we saw, the Tories benefited from its settlement with Nigel Farage. On the last outing, it's arguable tactical voting efforts on both sides weren't decisive as regards the result, but helped ensure Johnson did better than might otherwise have been the case.

There are three reasons why the Tories should be worried now. The first is a significant slice of the electorate have come to the conclusion about who best to vote for when it comes to seeing off Tory campaigns. Again, bear in mind there has been no media coming from Labour or the LibDems about who to vote for. Indeed, both maintain the fiction that the best way of beating Johnson is by voting for them. In other words, voters are acting independently of party direction. And they are doing so because of the second reason: the actions of the Tories themselves. Johnson stands exposed as a Prime Minister solely interested in the trappings of office. His programme, such as it is, is entirely negative. When it's not trying to gut the state's capacity to do things and therefore redraw permissible politics with a narrow horizon, the Tories are solely concerned with picking fights they think they can reap political profits from. Taken in conjunction with Tory failures and PartyGate they're helping solidify a tactically savvy, anti-Tory vote. Third, even if Johnson's services are dispensed of how likely will the current policy train switch tracks? Jeremy Hunt has said he'd do exactly the same as Johnson on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Penny Mordaunt or Liz Truss aren't going to abandon wedge politics. And even in the unlikely event of a soft makeover, people have memories.

None of this is pre-ordained, of course. But it is likely. And the Tory task becomes even hard if Labour breaks the habit of the last two years and hits upon attacks lines and a positive programme that resonates. Its role, as well as the LibDems, is to lean into this anti-Toryism and encourage it. The prize isn't just office, but a blow from which the Tory party may never recover.

Image Credit


Alan Story said...

Tactical voting without winning PR means we will need to keep on tactical vote til????

Tactical voting is an obscene spin-off of FPTP voting. I liken it to forced marriage.


Joe Armitage, a pro-First-Past- the-Post supporter and Daily Telegraph political analyst, summed up their worries in a 24 June tweet:

“With the Conservatives set to lose the next election, it might be better for the long-term future of Britain to have a Labour majority. A Labour-led coalition seriously risks a permanent switch to proportional representation and the UK becoming as irrelevant as Norway.”

Duncan said...

Excellent post as always. The results show that progressives need to support groups like Compass in navigating and organising the anti-Tory majority in the country (and to secure fair votes through PR).

SimonD said...

Yes, the problem will be that although PR is in the best interests of the country and Labour supporters overall (as well as being fairer) it is not in the interests of a lot of plp members or the leadership. Depending on the numbers I expect a 'largest party' Labour post election will prefer staggering along as a minority government rather than any coalition which forces them to introduce PR. I think that even though the recent change of heart amongst some unions about PR may mean a conference vote in favour this Autumn. As we know, Starmer regards conference votes as being for the little people.

Alan said...

Here's a little problem for you, Phil.
A letter appeared in the local rag for the Black Country conurbation - prime red wall territory - slagging off the Labour Party for its connection with the unions. Standard anti-union boilerplate, invoking the ghost of the late Derek Robinson, with the pejorative soubriquet "Red Robbo", union "bosses", "holding the country to ransom", blah, blah, blah.
The author was NOT a Tory, but the Lib Dem candidate for the solidly Tory ward of Aldridge South Central in Walsall. Labour has been represented in the same ward (although perhaps not in the same election) by left-wing NEC member Mish Rahman.
I can't envisage Mish standing aside for this person. I've been a unionist since the day I started work, and am now a retired member of the UCU. I wouldn't vote for the Lib Dems while I have a hole in my arse. Any ideas?