Monday, 8 January 2018

The Last Days of the Conservative Party?

I love it when a Tory shambles comes together. Watching Theresa May's ridiculous cabinet reshuffle unfold on Twitter provided for some wry amusement in-between marking papers. Chris Grayling as party chair, and then 27 seconds later he was dumped for Brandon Lewis. The awful Jeremy Hunt, fresh from the NHS debacle, said no to a move to business and ended up coming out of it with social care added to his portfolio. Or, depending on who you believe, Greg Clark said no to his sacking at BIS, and that meant a fudge for Hunt. Just when the people of Staffordshire Moorlands thought they couldn't see their MP any less, Karen Bradley is moved from culture to Northern Ireland. Sajid Javid stays where he is, but gets a new name for his brief. And there is Justine Greening. May wanted to move her to the DWP and she said no and so quit, ostensibly strengthening the relatively sensible, centrist-bordering awkwards ensconced on the back benches.

To coin a phrase, nothing has changed, nothing has changed. At least in the grand scheme of things. The most odious and despicable of this government went untouched, and remains as much a miserable mess of dysfunction this evening as it was yesterday. The permanent instability on which the government is poised teeters a little, but not threateningly so. Of more interest, and more pertinent to the party's survival, comes the news the Tories have fewer than 70,000 members, at least according to the chair for the Campaign for Conservative Democracy. Putting that in context, that's half-a-million fewer than Labour, almost half the size of the SNP, smaller than the Liberal Democrats and about where the Greens were at the height of their pre-Corbyn surge.

Does this matter? Labour as the party of the 21st century working class needs numbers to represent. Its politics depend on collective mobilisation and the aggregation of the collective interests of millions of people. The Tories, as an elite party, do not. Labour needs big numbers to be able to spend big on campaigning. The Tories do not. With nearly 600,000 members Labour performed the sharpest turn around in political fortunes in modern times, and yet with a smaller, more decrepit operation the Tories managed to form the largest party. Do they even need a political organisation?

In one sense, they don't. It's much easier to be a politician on the right because your political messages and assumptions about the world are transmitted by your powerful media allies. It is, after all, less difficult to blame than explain. Yes, not having members can be a pain. But as long as people can still be found to stand in elections (the Tories fielded more by-election candidates last year than any other party), delivery people can be bought and campaigning outsourced to call centres. So if you were a Conservative, you might find the collapse of the party embarrassing but it doesn't mean curtains. And indeed, it doesn't. But it presents the Tories some severe difficulties that are going to harm their prospects in the long run.

The lack of bodies for instance. By-elections are one thing, but actual elections another. Regardless of membership, there will always be people prepared to vote Conservative. Just as capitalism creates its own gravediggers, it summons squads of cheerleaders too. The problem is if there aren't Tory candidates to vote for, where are those votes going to go? This isn't an abstract question. In Stoke the BNP was able to build its vote support base in wards the Tories couldn't find anyone to stand in. If the mainstream right collapses, so the hard right and far right might fill the gap. The BNP, UKIP, there might yet be a twilight of unlife flickering through their stiffening corpses, and with it the prospect - again - of a semi-viable alternative on the Conservatives' right. And we all know what drastic measures were taken to deal with them last time.

The second problem goes to the heart of their difficulties. Over the last five or so years, this blog has documented the decline of the Tories, and the relationship between this, their decadence, and a certain autonomy from the interests the Tories have traditionally represented, which contributes to their extreme short-termism. The member collapse hasn't affected the transmission belt of anonymous donations via their not-dodgy-at-all dining clubs for spectrum of ruling class riff raff - hedge fund managers, nondoms, "naturalised" oligarchs, ad nauseum - and privileged access for big business and the old media are still there. But two things are wrong. While a small section of British capital has always, for whatever reason, supported Labour, in the 90s and up to the crash New Labour were the go-to party. This cracked the permanent hegemony the Tories had over business, and so just as voters have tended to become more mercenary and choosy about who to support so a large section of formerly Conservative-loyal business has as well. In the grand scheme, it means whole sections of British capital are not regularly and directly feeding their interests into their party.

The second is the absence of a mass base. Parties are expressions of interests, their organisation aggregating the experiences of and articulating policies that speak to masses of voters. Labour's job is to encourage as many of them into active political participation as possible. The Tories are a-okay with them being passive observers and four-yearly ballot scratchers. Minus a mass base feeding in to the associations (even if they are disproportionately petit bourgeois-types, managers and self-styled socially mobile working class people), the party is cut off from and no longer knows how to talk to ordinary people who might be sympathetic to Conservative values. Indeed, as Tim Bale's recent party members' survey shows, Tory activists are out of step with the values motivating other parties, which tend to be more in line with the ever growing cultural trend to social liberalism. There is every danger of the party becoming a sect, and if it cannot represent the interests of capital effectively then capital will start looking elsewhere. Those lovely centrists, for instance, the touchy feely types who are all loved up as far as capital is concerned suddenly start looking like a more attractive proposition versus the growing animus toward the system itself. Ultimately, the utility of the Tories lies in their command of millions of votes, which is jeopardised by their increasing social isolation thanks to the fast diminishing membership.

Can the Tories sort themselves out? One would be foolish to bet against the most successful political party in the democratic world, but it is hard to see how they can turn the situation around and look like an attractive proposition now they're inextricably invested in a political deadlock that puts them fundamentally at odds with a rising generation of voters. Too much to hope I know, but it might just be that we're in the final days of the Conservative Party as we understand it.


Dave Kirk said...

The lack of members or an organic links with a class faction doesn't matter for the Tories as long as they are in power or on the cusp of power. They will still get careerists to stand, newspapers to support them and hedge fund to fund them.
Its when they are put out of power with no immediate chance of getting back in.
The Tories survived The 1997 and 2001 defeats because they could rely on long term donors who were ideologically committed and a membership that kept there party machinery going in the shires.
If even while they are in power (just about) they have less then half the members they had in the salad days of William Hague and IDS, An out of power tory party could find itself quickly collapsing. Especially if faced by a revitalised UKIP to the right and centerists to the left.

Unfortunately I don't think UKIP is finished. On the face of it UKIP did even worse in the 2017 election (1.8%)then the BNP did in the 2010 election (1.9%). The 2010 result destroyed the BNP. I don't think this will happen to UKIP as it is a different case for a number of reasons.

Firstly by 2010 I think the BNP was discredited even in the eyes of those voters who had been sympathetic. Whereas this never happened with UKIP. My experience on the doorstep is that there were plenty of people who had been flirting with UKIP who were won over by Theresa May's come on to "lend" their vote to her to let her finish Brexit. These people still said they were UKIP supporters just were "going tory" this time round. UKIP even abetted this by not standing against pro brexit tories.

Secondly the activist base of UKIP is much more solid then the BNP. The BNPs active membership always remained primarily selection of cranks, pub racists and hardened street fascists. They were convinced to don suits in to noughties due to the BNPs unprecedented electoral success, but were not very comfortable or competent doing it. UKIP has its share of this but they also managed to win a layer of activists with experience in mainstream parties including people who used to be chairs, secretaries and Treasurers of Tory associations. People who know how to run elections and are happy to plug away of this. Whilst on the surface UKIP will lose seats in the 2018 local elections (2014/15 was a highpoint for them), I think there results will be an improvement on 2017 and a base for them to build on.

Thirdly there is the class aspect. The BNP votes class composition was very much based on the most economically and culturally marginalised. Parts of the working class that were totally alienated from the labour movement and politics, the self employed who earn less then many workers with a steady wage. owners of dusty shops and landlords of pubs clinging on by the skin of their teeth.
UKIP won that vote but they also won large sections of the better off private sector working class, the older parts of the classic British middle class and even small bourgeoisie. some people doing ok economically, people with some cultural capital. i.e. exactly the classes that the mass base of the tory party won over and hegemonised from the late 19th century onwards. They retain some support there. A recovery of fortune and UKIP could expand on this,

Finally UKIP has access to the media in a way the BNP never did. Although the Sun, Mail, Express and Star remained Tory Papers they shared much of UKIPs politics and were hardly hostile to them. Sure they don't have the Farage Carnival anymore but if they find new spokespeople who make good copy they will get back the column inches.

Blissex said...

«The lack of members or an organic links with a class faction doesn't matter for the Tories as long as they are in power or on the cusp of power. They will still get careerists to stand, newspapers to support them and hedge fund to fund them.»

That is what I think too: by and large the Conservative party is a marketing operation, and they have a single product to sell: bigger asset prices. It is a very simple "value proposition" that 30-40% of voters strenuously support.

The only problem is indeed the poverty of the base from which the careerists cadres can be drawn. But the cadres walk in and out of the corporate world, like D Cameron etc. did, with the greatest ease.

«and a membership that kept there party machinery going in the shires.»

The membership is not useful, and the party machine is largely irrelevant.

«An out of power tory party could find itself quickly collapsing»

Oh no, because when they out of power the cadres just walk into corporate sinecures. A modern corporate party can be composed entirely of cadres, the membership is just for show or for raising funds. Same as for example the National Trust.
The main role of the membership currently in Labour, and it is pretty important, is to make its budget independent of sponsors by paying their dues and helping with election work for free.

Anonymous said...

More generally speaking I'll try to be a sociologist for a bit and then I draw far less optimistic conclusions than our author. The starting point is my usual quote from Lance Price, (A Campbell's deputy), dated 1999-10-19:

Philip Gould analysed our problem very clearly. We don’t know what we are. Gordon wants us to be a radical progressive, movement, but wants us to keep our heads down on Europe. Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe.

The consequent points for me are:

* A party can be a movement with (or rarely without) an organization or an organization with (or sometimes without) a movement.

* A party is like the National Trust or UNITE or Wikipedia or Facebook made of cadres (organization) and members (movement). The members can be more active (UNITE, Wikipedia), in which it is mostly a movement, or more passive (National Trust, Facebook), to the point of becoming effectively customers, in which case it is mostly an organization.

* The Conservatives have a simple product/message: bigger asset prices plus lower labour costs. They don't need to be a movement with an active membership, or even a membership except to fund them, but they don't need the membership for funding either. Their problem, alluded to in the article, is where they would get their cadres from if not the membership, but that is not a problem: the Conservative cadres are in effect PR professionals that can like D Cameron switch smoothly between the corporate and political worlds. Anyhow the Conservatives (and Labour too to some extent) have always had two layers of membership: some people join the cadres directly (because of family or other entitlment), very few rise up "accidentally" from the general membership.

* A party that takes more than 13m votes (and those votes have been going up for 3 consecutive elections) is a resource that won't be allowed to go waste by its sponsors. Perhaps they will just recreate it with a slightly different name, or will just do a takeover of the current failing one with a new wave of more professional cadres, but there will still be a "conservative" party with the same policies as the current Conservative and Unionist party.

«There is every danger of the party becoming a sect, and if it cannot represent the interests of capital effectively then capital will start looking elsewhere. Those lovely centrists, for instance, the touchy feely types who are all loved up as far as capital is concerned suddenly start looking like a more attractive proposition versus the growing animus toward the system itself.»

In that case the "centrists" will be recruited as entryst cadres for a takeover of the Conservative and Unionist party, as the current brand is still valuable and not fully tarnished. There will be a new brand if the PR strategy is to create a "new, improved" feeling with a new brand.

«Ultimately, the utility of the Tories lies in their command of millions of votes, which is jeopardised by their increasing social isolation thanks to the fast diminishing membership.»

Their millions of votes depend on the value proposition, well tested with focus groups and by years of success, which is very popular with many southern older richer voters, regardless of their being members; they do not depend on the membership or their political activism or their funding of the party, which have been irrelevant for decades.

The sponsors of the Conservatives tend to be marxist to a fault, and they surely remember Brecht's suggestion and how it could be applied to the Conservative membership:

"Some party hack decreed that the people had lost the government's confidence and could only regain it with redoubled effort. If that is the case, would it not be be simpler, if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?"

Anonymous said...

«There is every danger of the party becoming a sect»

That's a fully ridiculous hypothesis: it is *already* a sect as far as the membership goes:
About 7 years ago, I toyed with going into politics. Maybe I could make a difference, I thought (I was young & na├»ve, okay?) So I took some advice, joined a few things, went to a few Tory party events. It was… fucking awful.
Most of the people involved in central party / grass-roots politics that I met were *awful*. (The only good thing that happened in a year of this was I met a girl who I had a great date with at Winter Wonderland… but I digress) In all that time, I met 3 people who I thought were kind, thoughtful and decent people. The first was a guy called Jon. We didn’t keep in touch, largely because that girl I went on a date with turned out to be his ex(!).
The second was actually Gavin Barwell. Genuinely one of the most down-to-earth, good people I met. And an MP! Winner, glad he’s doing well. The third was @katemaltby. I spoke to her once I think, recognised her at a couple of other events. My thoughts about Kate were that she was kind, intelligent, pleasant (do not underrate this virtue in life) and strikingly – normal.
I cannot stress how many weirdos and oddballs I met in the Tory party. North of 80% (though that might not be representative). Proper rah-rah crews. Totally in their own world, apart from reality and real people across the country. I knew they weren’t like real people because I was a state school kid and had some solid experience of non-elite, real people
And I was doing focus groups for years across the country, so met a good range of other ordinary people These ordinary people were a mix of amazing and god-awful, but at least they were pretty *normal* human beings - unlike many party folk So I pretty soon gave up on politics due to the oddballs.
I have the tiniest smidge of sympathy for May because the party her leadership is supposed to corral in to some semblance of coherent, logical thinking (a necessary precursor to a strategy which isn’t a dingbat delusional) is in a world of its own.
I spent the holiday weekend at my mother-in-law’s and went to a garden party hosted by her neighbour who is a bit of a leading light, as so often haughty well-heeled women are, in the local constituency Conservative Party Association.
The Constituency itself is hard line swivel-eyed Brexit-land.
I attempted to engage some of the other guests (a lot of party members) in conversation about what compromises they were willing to make for Brexit, what the trade-offs should be, what the electoral implications were and so on. [ ... ]
In the end, I got told to stop making conversation awkward as people were beginning to stare. I listened in on their conversations, they were merely talking the Brexit book with self-reinforcing beliefs that we just need to tell the EU to sod off. Little chance, then, of May being able to get anywhere with that lot. Daily Mail land isn’t a handy cheap-laugh metaphor; I just spent the weekend there.

Note that these people have been the big winners of 35 years of thatcherism: the prices of their properties, of their shares have ballooned, their salaries in the quangos and their bonuses in the City have zoomed up, the margins of their businesses have massively benefited from large falls in the total cost of labour.

George Carty said...

Dave Kirk: "Although the Sun, Mail, Express and Star remained Tory Papers"

Actually the Express explicitly supported UKIP in the 2015 General Election.

Dave K said...

George. Your right about the express I stand corrected.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the influence of the Henry Jackson Society and similar, has had the effect of driving away members and promoting incompetance.