Sunday 8 October 2023

Forecasting the Future of the Tories

As politics turns its eyes to Liverpool and what's happening at this week's Labour Party conference, let us take the opportunity to peer into a crystal ball and imagine a time several years from now. Keir Starmer has been Prime Minister for a few years, and the professional politics watchers are happy the grown ups are in charge. But all is not rosy. The minimal programme outlined in the election manifesto hasn't addressed the country's pressing problems, and in some instances they're getting worse. Who benefits from this politically? Channelling his inner Mystic Meg, Owen Jones's write up of Tory conference offers this prospectus:
Labour triumphs at the next election, but wins by default and with no enthusiasm for Starmerism in the tank from the start. Unlike 1997, the new administration rules a country defined by turmoil and decline, but offers no transformative policies to answer our multiple and overlapping crises. Disillusionment sets in, while the Tories complete their metamorphosis into loud, proud, brash rightwing populism, hoovering up votes from the disaffected. In the general election of 2029, a new model Tory party – flushed with British Trumpism – stages a stunning comeback.
This scenario is exceedingly unlikely to happen.

One of the reasons why I wrote the book was because the left don't take the Tories seriously enough. This is not saying our movement doesn't mobilise against their attacks or fails to criticise what they're doing. The Conservative Party is treated as a fact of political life. They're our opponents, they're what we're against, they're the preferred party of British (and international) capital, and that's all we need to know. But it's not treated as an object of analysis. How does it get away with presenting the minority bourgeois interest as the universal interest? How does it win? What are the dynamics of its support base, the factions within the party, and their organic linkages to capital? And where are the Tories going? Because these questions aren't thought about enough, the left and the labour movement constantly hobble themselves when it comes to understanding its enemy. Far too often, the left trail centrist tropes explaining why the Tories do what they do. They're out of touch. They're incompetent. They're driven by ideology. They are uniquely bad people. What's missing is understanding the Tories in terms of interests. And because this is absent from most ways of thinking about the Tories, the left often finds itself in the paralysing detour of ascribing them magical properties.

Consider Labour's timidity. Putting aside how it has more to do with the interests Starmer and co are trying to court than anything else, plenty are happy to accept right wing positioning as showing a necessary abundance of caution. Why? Because the Tories have an unerring ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The scars of 1992 run deep. Therefore Labour must subscribe to political Trappism up until the manifesto is pushed out, and even then it can't say anything substantial. This is because promising better things or suggesting we might improve society somewhat is like a full moon to swathes of would-be Labour supporters. They undergo lycanthropic change when they reach the ballot box and put their cross next to the Tory candidate. This is understandable, but it is a complete nonsense founded on the myths grown up around Tory triumphs past. The job of the left is to analyse, not surrender to this ideology. We have to investigate Tory support, the whys, the wheres, and the who, and consider its ups and downs. In other words, we have to be materialists.

Which brings us back to the near future. Consider the state of the Tories at the moment. They've lost support among all segments of the population, befitting the generalised nature of the cost of living crisis. Exacerbated by Liz Truss's reckless tax cutting spree for the rich and Rishi Sunak's subsequent refusal to do much about it, even mainstream journalists don't find it hard to understand why the Tories are odds on for an electoral drubbing. This is particularly exacerbated among working age people, and especially everyone under 40. Tory policy has made enemies of the young, the conservatising effects of age are in the process of breaking down, and having boxed themselves into over-reliance on older and retired people, this is the sense in which we can talk about the Tories' long-term decline. Their awful mix of anti-environmental tosh and scapegoating strategies are only driving deeper the wedge between themselves and the layers of younger voters they need to win over.

Most of that would be uncontentious on the left. Now consider where the Tories are heading after the next election. Considering how much of the membership rejected Sunak's briefcase Toryism last year, and the how far the party has swung to the right since then chances are the next Conservative leader isn't going to be someone who can affect moderation, like Penny Mordaunt. It will be a horror who's either right wing, like the execrable Suella Braverman or Kemi Badenoch, or some meat puppet whose strings are pulled firmly by the right. The point is the Tories will lurch right. Again, not because a group huddle in the political wilderness is comforting, but because going back to fundamentals is useful for consolidating broken and battered supporters after a shattering defeat. And thanks to the flirtations with anti-ULEZ vandalism and 15 minute city conspiracy theories, the possibility of getting even more right wing cannot be ruled out. Bearing all this in mind, instead of making wild assumptions about the Tories being able to make a come back from such a position, it's our job to analyse its likelihood.

When we look at the right wing conspiracy movements - the 15 minute cities, the anti-vax/Covid-denialist people, the WEF/Great Reset stuff and the rest, their mobilisations aren't overly young, and they map on to the classic template of what petit bourgeois social movements look like. Hyper-individualist, ideologically eclectic, implicitly (if not explicitly) authoritarian. Even now, at a moment of acute social crisis for millions of people, they're given a wide berth by almost everyone with half a brain. Even if the Tories do embrace more of this support, it's unlikely to translate into millions of votes for them. Second, if their war on woke is alienating (mainly younger) people now, why would that be any different if Keir Starmer is screwing things up? What the anticipation of a quick Tory turn around overlooks is the problem of memory. "I'm not voting Labour because Gordon Brown sold the gold" wasn't an uncommon refrain heard on the doors in 2019. Negative partisanship rests on real or imagined sins committed by the parties in the past, and can be quite potent. To suppose after these 13 years and everything the Tories have done to younger people that they would turn to an even more right wing Tory party because of Starmer's uselessness is difficult to accept. The conditions that erased a chunk of Labour support among retired people no longer apply. This is why the first period of the next Labour government will present historic electoral opportunities for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

The only way the Tories could win an election in 2029 is if Starmer makes a complete hash of everything, if millions of instinctively hostile Tory voters lose their memories, if the Tories make big promises to fix things and are perceived as serious about it, and have demonstrably detoxified themselves and abandoned their war on woke rubbish. This simply is not going to happen. But that doesn't mean there won't be dangers coming from the Tories and the right. When they were locked out of office after 1997, the right took to the streets. Because Starmer's project is as authoritarian as it is managerial, it's the ideal opponent for the right wing conspiracy theories/movements. There's no reason to believe that the Tories wouldn't carry on flirting with and mainstreaming these idiocies further. This means more poisoning of politics, the possibility of violence. And just as Tony Blair and New Labour pandered to the racism of the Tory right, UKIP, and the BNP in the 00s, the plastic "social conservatism" of Starmerism could easily do the same.

Obviously, nothing in politics sits still. Which is why predicting the future is a mug's game. But, as with all social relationships and tensions between them, they're not random noise. They have direction and flow, which is determined by the struggles that constitute them. Hence forecasting the long-term decline of the Tories has proved itself. The arguments made for it were the right call when everyone else was saying that Boris Johnson was going to be in power for a decade. Things can change, but it behoves us to keep the Tories under constant analytical scrutiny. We have to assess their stratagems and strategies and think through the class political implications of them, and what their roots are. The Tories are not supernatural. There is nothing mysterious about how they've dominated British politics more than any other party. And, as a thorough analysis of the party, its strategy, and its support shows, the chances of this supremacy continuing are next to nil.


Duncan said...

Great analysis. I was hoping for some comment responding to Owen's position (in which I have sometimes thought could be a plausable scenario).
I think a Tory revival could further be curtailed if Starmer enacts the policy on extending votes to EU citizens and 16-17 year olds (not very happy hunting grounds for future Tory votes!). Many thanks Phil.

Anonymous said...

An excellent response, and very useful, but you may have overlooked something yourself:

The whole point of prophecying disaster is to be wrong.

With a platform the size of the Graun at his disposal, Jones is pretty much obliged to make bogus predictions. The point isn't for him to actually be correct, you see - it's that a lot of people might read his predictions, and might possibly then change their behaviour as a result. The idea behind the Tory far right revival story is that it's a spectre which can breathe down the necks of enthusiastic Starmer supporters and possibly even Starmer's own apparat; whispering to them that they will never get the votes of society's rightmost deplorables, so they had better not get too comfortable taking the leftmost parts of their voter coalition for granted. If it works, then the Starmer government might not be as bad as it currently looks like being.

The only alternative concrete future history of UK politics which is on offer - your own analysis of a new dawn for the Lib Dems and Greens - has too many of its own problems to be a rallying cry just yet. For a start, if memory matters, and the Tory brand is a leper, then the Lib Dems have got a 2010 problem. And for their part, the Greens are just seen as too nice (and too anti-science, for those with long memories). Nobody can yet believe that they will get the big dirty money and international-espionage realpolitik support that's required to actually take control of a country hosting as much illiquid plutocratic wealth within its borders as the UK does. What we should probably look for is a serious entryist assault on the Greens, already in progress no doubt, to turn them into what the global plutocracy regards as an outfit fit to rule...