Wednesday 11 October 2017

Can the Tories Detoxify?

The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting you have one. Amidst the divisions and despair of Tory party conference, and after that speech, precious few Tories are willing to concede they do have a problem. I mean, how else are we to take their plans to freeze tuition fees and bung mega cash into Help To Buy other than signs of structural denial? Yet there are a small number of MPs who've grasped the gravity of the situation, and one of them is "blue collar Tory" and self-styled friend of the trade unions, Robert Halfon.

He starts his assessment where, funnily enough, Theresa May began hers way back in 2002 with a recognition the party is tarnished and out of touch with the majority of people. He says, "I am always amazed when I hear of those talking abstractly about the merits of capitalism, totally removed from the lives of most of our fellow countrymen and women ... Going on about Venezuelan socialism may delight Conservatives in the Westminster village but it means little to most ordinary voters ... Every time the Conservatives engage in old-fashioned opposition attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, all we do is advance their cause." Ouch. There is also a groping toward an understanding of why people have flooded into Labour, though this is stuck on the level of ideas (romantic and noble identification with the underdog) than an appreciation of the role interests have played in the rejuvenation of the party. And on the young, well, their abysmal support here is "nothing short of a calamity".

These are words that should focus the minds of smart Tories, the sprinkling for whom decadence hasn't yet meant blindness beyond the next opinion poll and Daily Mail editorial. But there is precious little evidence of movement for internal Tory party reform and political repositioning. When you look over the non-entities squabbling over Number 10 there isn't a single one of them that can sort the party out. At the most perhaps a wee jump in the polls is likely by virtue of not being Theresa May, but swapping one leader out for another cannot solve their problems.

Here Halfon is on the right tracks for where the Tories need to go if they are to stand a chance of dominating the 21st century as surely they did the preceding hundred years. Instead of getting misty-eyed over St Margaret, they need to go back even further to the Tory governments of 1951-1964. Here, unfortunately, their party showed its chameleon-like ability to adapt to the times. Labour forged a new post-war settlement and laid the groundwork for a more stable and equitable capitalism than the ruin of the 1930s, but we forget now what became the post-war consensus was consolidated under Tory rule. Yes, there were plenty of horrible things about them then but nevertheless there was enough of an appreciation of speaking to and being seen to serve workers' interests. Instead of frustrating aspirations from below, which is pretty much the story of the Dave and May governments, the Tories worked hard to co-opt them and subsequently shape them. A lesson, it seems, not lost on Halfon and a handful of other Tories like Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston, and Ruth Davidson.

The problem the Tories have is this route is closed to them. A quick chop and change cannot undo the sectional inertia driving the party. The election underlined their dependence on ageing voters and declining occupational sectors, and as their record has persistently antagonised pretty much all constituencies outside of this grouping, it would take something pretty drastic for the rising class of networked/socialised workers to break for the Tories in their millions. That 'something drastic' would have to be a substantive reboot as a technocratic and relatively innocuous centre right party on the model of Angela Merkel's CDU (minus the export of economic violence a la Germany's relationship with Greece). Tearing out the fangs and ripping out the claws that have made life miserable for millions of people is the only way they can detoxify and get younger, antipathetic voters to give them another look. Doing so, however, would require Tory bloodletting on a scale that would dwarf its current difficulties and those John Major had with his "bastards". Yet they either do this, or they surrender to a future playing second fiddle in Britain's electoral politics. What's it going to be?


johnny conspiranoid said...

A lot of the older voters will be the same individuals who voted tory in the post war era.
Perhaps the inability to adjust is more to do with the influence of various barking mad think tanks with money to spend. "Who pays the piper" and all that.

David Timoney said...

The 1951-64 period saw two historic ironies that go a long way to explain the Tories success during the period.

The first was that the fledgling welfare state turned out to disproportionately benefit the middle classes, notably in the areas of health and education. The second was that the Tories were better able to oversee the retreat from empire and the first moves towards the EEC, which commanded widespread support in the political centre. This historic role reflected their accumulated political capital.

Of course these two tendencies contained inherent contradictions. The expansion of the public sector and the shift of the economy towards services targeting developed markets would both create a growing professional class that gradually swung towards Labour, at a time when the welfare state's delayed focus on housing in the 60s reinforced Labour's working class base.

We've probably reached a similar inflexion point in that the younger generation see their material interests better aligned with Labour (as you note), but another element in the mix is that the Tories are reducing their "historic role" to a regressive interpretation of Brexit that cannot command widespread support. I think it's the combination of the two that is going to prove fatal.

Smokeymon Green said...

All in all, I agree with much of your post. But please do speak to someone from Scotland about Ruth Davidson; she's not 'all that', however much she may be painted as such south of the Tweed. The lesson that one must move with the times in order to shape them most certainly is lost on her. Recall, if you can, May's maiden speech as Prime Minister. So must hot air wasted on claims of a 'one nation approach', instantly negated by dint of her actions in office. Davidson is cut in the same vein as that speech, her inextricable unwillingness to move with the times simply hasn't been revealed to greater Englandshire as yet; her sophistry and background as a lesbian council house gal has been taken at face value. Note that a great deal of the present 'recrudescence' of the Scottish Tories has been down to her courting the unsavoury sectarian 'no surrender' vote and as standing as the representative of the 'vote Ruth Davidson for a strong no surrendering Ruth Davidson Party', rather than as a liberal and forward thinking, yet admitted, Conservative. Most folk up here probably wouldn't be able to identify her as one of the hated Tories and it's plain that she garners a lot of support in spite of her party affiliation, rather than because of it.

Other than that passing reference, which prompted this comment, I have to agree with the majority of your analysis; it's certainly far better than that which is offered by the overwhelming majority of the paid commentariat. In essence: Long time reader, first time commenter - pushed over the edge by one two many positive references to Davidson!