Sunday 19 May 2013

The Death Agony of British Toryism

Whether Andrew Feldman really called Tory party activists "mad, swivel-eyed loons" matters not. For the repugnant and reactionary in the increasingly depleted Tory associations, it sums up the contempt they feel Dithering Dave and his increasingly dysfunctional leadership has for the troops. The hard right hyperbole around Dave's supposed social democratic agenda is politically illiterate, but condenses a frustration that the PM just isn't interested in what the dying grass roots have to say about Europe and equal marriage.

I think it was Engels who said political parties more or less express the interests of classes and fractions of classes. This remains the case today, though in the British context it has meant Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems (and in Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru respectively) are coalitions of interests disciplined by the first-past-the-post electoral system's high threshold of representation. In the more proportional systems that exist on the continent, where the bar for entry is set much lower, the tendency to fragmentation is more pronounced. But the seismic demographic shifts ushered in under the post-war boom and accelerated by 30-odd years of the neoliberal settlement has fundamentally changed the way political parties are constituted and nourished by the constituencies they represent.

Plenty has been written on the crisis of the labour movement, how political defeat and the restructuring of the British economy dispersed "traditional" working class communities conditioned the subsequent decline of our movement is a well-worn one. Even the view that New Labour was the consequence of this diminution of power and influence is largely uncontroversial. But despite the economic tumult and 13 years of government, the labour movement and the Labour Party remain intact. The alliance between organised labour and the progressive middle class (as represented by constellations of think tanks, socialist societies, pressure groups) is still there. Both still act as transmission belts and articulators of interests between the base and the Parliamentary Labour Party and apparat. It is by no means smooth or without conflict, but has otherwise ever been the case?

The situation with the Tories has proven rather different. Though consistently possessing a larger formal membership than its Labour opponents until quite recently, their decline has been much sharper and shows no sign of slowing. The social change neoliberalism has wrought on the British body politic has affected them just as profoundly, if not more so. 

Many Tories do look back to the 1980s and Thatcher as their golden age but it was under her that party membership declined approximately by half - from a million to circa 500,000. Part of this was due to her pugnaciousness - as many Tories were alarmed at her confrontational style as those today despairing over Dave's embrace of equal marriage. But also as her government attacked public industries and, by extension, the business dependent on them in the manufacturing supply change a section of capital was alienated from the natural party of business - a situation compounded by the privileged relationship cultivated by Thatcher between the party and finance. Similarly, the break up and dispersal of traditional communities affected the Tory associations in the same way. It's hard to believe now that Tory trade unionism was a key input into the agglomeration of interests the party represented. Wedded to monetarist dogma, Thatcherism had little problem with the growth of big business - even though they were oblivious to the impacts the market was having on its membership backbone in small and medium enterprise. Matters didn't improve under John Major. In fact, the eruption of civil war over Europe (a distinctly second order political issue) coincided with this comprehensive gutting of the Conservative social base. And as New Labour positioned itself as the natural party of business from Blair to the onset of the economic crisis and the Tories were consumed by another round of bloodletting, so the decline was compounded until the situation was temporarily stabilised under Dave's leadership in 2005.

The big problem for the Tories is that while their party was stripped to the bone, unlike Labour there were no means to bring it back to health. The SME constituency remains small-c conservative in outlook, but has not come back in anywhere near approaching sufficient numbers. The properly centre right MacMillan Tories of old, the so-called "wets" didn't either. Nor was there a revival of collapsed Tory associations in the towns and cities. Even that milieu of young graduate careerists avoided the Tories, preferring in the main to go to Labour. Dave's greenwashing, embrace of the gay community, and NHS love-in helped sway some swing voters appalled at the mounting incompetencies of Brown's government but did not and could not arrest the shrinkage of the party. And once in power, well, we know the rest.

I really cannot see how the Tories can extricate themselves from the death spiral. The stupid empiricism of your Peter Bones, Nadine Dorrieses, Jacob Rees-Moggs and, yes, Nigel Farages has fooled a section of the Tory right into thinking that banging on about Europe is the recipe for electoral success. But it really isn't. For all their media-fuelled success, UKIP as an organisation has only around 25,000 members - far, far short of the vast quantities of party volunteers lost by the Tories these last 10 years alone. Also, the more the Tories try to out-UKIP UKIP, the greater their disconnect from the British public at large, the more the party apparatus withers and the more slovenly the electoral performance. A Canadian-style recomposition is probably the only way out, and as Andrew Rawnsley notes a formal split in the Tories is starting to become a likely prospect. But with the party dipping below 130,000 members and falling, AND an utterly toxic brand synonymous with incompetence, disloyalty and outright nastiness; which bald men would want to fight over this rusty comb?


Boffy said...


I don't think the Tories ever were the "natural party of business". Marx's analysis of parties and class fractions in "The Eighteenth Brumaire" is the classic text on these relations.

The natural party of business in the 19th century was the Liberals. The Tories the representative of landed property and the aristocracy of finance. The Liberals represented the alliance between big industrial capital and the workers. The rise of the Labour Party really only reflected the more significant electoral weight of workers in that alliance, not a fundamental change of the class alliance beneath it, or the bourgeois ideology of reformism.

In fact, this is what "Social democracy" is, not so much an ideology as a form of bourgeois democracy. The Tories have only been able to constitute majorities sin the last century when they themselves conformed with the underlying principles of that - support of the welfare state etc.

Neo-Liberalism is really a myth. It was still within that social-democratic framework, but right-shifted to reflect the more dominant position of money capital. Thatcher's reforms strengthened the TU bureaucracy against the rank and file, and she did not attempt to dismantle the Welfare State. In fact, the size of the state expanded.

The more the Tories moved away from that ground the more they lost ground, and now they will have difficulty recapturing it, especially given the demise of the Liberals, and the splitting of the Right by UKIP.

Speedy said...

The bald man who presumably covets all those votes to the right?

I presume you are spot on about the Tory Party, but surely the big story is Labour's failure - in the latest poll they're on 40 per cent compared to 43 per cent for Cons/ UKIP. Liberals are on 9 per cent.

Labour should be doing much better and come the election presumably their lead will narrow. As I've said before - ditch Cameron, get Davis and you could see a resurgent Tory Party or Tory-UKIP ticket.

As the poll also suggests, most people will vote to leave the EU (although paradoxically they don't think it's important).

I think that over the next decade we could see a major realignment of UK politics - Scotland all the more likely to go if the UK ditches the EU and England could move irreversibly to the right.

The UK is in the centre of a political whirlwind and I'm not sure it has noticed yet. Detached from the EU there will be no stopping the rightward drift.

By 2023 - England in EFTA and maybe NAFTA too. NHS thing of fond memory (we could never afford it! myth), along with much public sector. High unemployment and riots. Populism rife, death penalty reinstated. Eton PM. Well, some things never change...

Much of this is New Labour's fault by the way. Not the spending, the policies that fundamentally lost sight of the class struggle for all your talk about links with the unions.

Chris said...

I disagree with the idea that Neo Liberalism is a myth and is simply a shift to the right, to reflect the dominance of money capital. Part of the Neo Liberal project was to de-regulate the finance sector (e.g. Thatcher government’s repeal of currency and capital export controls). Neo Liberalism reflects the historical developments of the 20th century, rise of the USA as the dominant empire, loss of direct colonial power, introduction of transnational institutions etc etc. The reason that the response to the breakdown of the Neo Liberal model is a greater dose of Neo Liberalism reflects the fact that we are living in a Neo Liberal age and that a return to Social Democracy cannot be on the agenda in this dynamic period of globalisation. A return to Social Democracy could only take place at the transnational level but because we are in the dynamic phase, i.e. development of transnational institutions is still a work-in-progress; there cannot be Social Democratic policy options on the table.

I am not surprised that New Labour are still languishing in the polls as many people still blame them for the 2007 crash. So these are special circumstances. I would expect that New Labour and the Liberals will form an alliance at the next election, as the Liberals claimed they would align with whoever is the majority party. If they break that promise at the next election then it could certainly be accepted that the Liberals are nothing but Tories with pinko platitudes. But you might want to say so are New Labour!

From an electoral point of view, i see little to shout about. There is no socialist alternative, and if we consider New Labour, the Liberals and the Tories as the parties of business then business still have a strong grip on the masses. I.e. the masses still obey their masters. UKIP are certainly a protest vote against the status quo, but an obviously reactionary one.

Gary Elsby said...

I believe what is happening, if I'm observing correctly, is that Churchill(USE),MacMillan, Heath(EEC), Thatcher, Major(EU) and now Dave (EU), brackets showing their allegiances to the cause, has now boiled down to opportunism and idealism.
Known factors that bring results.

The Tories are suffering their turn at decline and need to shore things up a bit.
Do they let their anti EU brigade loose for a while. UKip is just the deciding factor that is intended to restore order in the Shires.

Labour (clueless) appears not know how to fight back. If they don't, it is they who will suffer short term membership loss (followed by a resurgence down the line).

As I see it, Dave is telling us of an 'in-out' referendum after a round of to-ing and fro-ing aroung the big EU table.

Labour needs to hit back and ask for a referendum on the amendment (to our EU membership) before we have the 'in-out' Tory recruitment drive referendum.

That is a winnable issue of which we should fight our corner. The 'in-out' referendum may not needed if the British public reject what they have in store for us.

To be honest, I have never seen such an issue completely dominate the political horizon outside of a war.
Labour really are useless.

Big Bill said...

There's no longer a Tory party that's really about the small shopkeeper or businessman, and there's no longer a Labour party that's really about the working man. Both parties are now,having been successfully infiltrated, primarily about neoliberalism, and both parties need to split into their factions, neoliberal and anti-neoliberal, and form new parties openly based upon those principles. It's simply not about left and right any more.

Phil said...

I accept your points, Boffy. But I am referring to recent history. In my life time up to 1997, the Tories were the preferred party of business as a whole. Part of their crisis stems from their having surrendered that mantle to New Labour, and the appalling job they've done representing what Marx would have called "the common affairs of the bourgeoisie".

Phil said...

You're right Speedy about a Scottish exit making an EU exit more likely. And the more UKIP and the English press ramp up their rhetoric, the more likely Scotland will leave the union. But I do not believe England is an irredeemably right wing hell hole. Just as the strength fundamentalist Christianity in America is paradoxically symptomatic of strata and values in terminal decline, the same is true of UKIP.