Tuesday 1 May 2018

Theorising Conservative Catastrophe

As you may or may not know, I'm interested in and presently reading around the political sociology of the Conservative Party, a pursuit that has earned me a few funny looks on the train to and from work. Long time readers will also know I'm particularly concerned with thinking about the possibility of a terminal crisis facing the party. With membership below 100,000, an appeal largely confined to older and declining sections of the electorate, it's difficult now to see how they can reinvent themselves without serious bloodletting and splits.

None of this was inevitable, but their structural problems were certainly a long time coming. The Tories didn't, for example, need to relentlessly hammer the young, turn a blind eye to whole swathes of the population, to whole regions, nor retrench market fundamentalism after the 2008 crash. But they did anyway, and one of its happy by-products has been an acceleration of their demise. Factor in what's going on in the guts of capitalism, and it's more than possible the Tories now are showing the centre right everywhere the difficulties that are coming to them.

In trying to come to grips with the problems facing the Tories, we have to differentiate between their purchase with the electorate and the declining party organisation. I've expended thousands upon thousands of words on the former so, just this once, they don't bear repeating. What then does the literature say so far? Geoffrey Wheatcroft's The Strange Death of Tory England sounds like a good place to start. Writing in 2005 and after three thumping general election defeats, but before Dave effortlessly drifted onto the scene, Wheatcroft was interested in how the Tories went from the most successful liberal democratic party in the world to, well, the carve up it suffered at the hands of New Labour. This had a lot had to do with how the Tory Party changed over the course of the 20th century from a body that counted literal representatives of capital among the bulk of its parliamentary cadres to their displacement and elbowing aside by professional politicians - best exemplified by Margaret Thatcher and the coterie who rose with her.

Wheatcroft argues, via an entertaining and waspish safari of (parliamentary) Conservative Party history, is this cohort of MPs were more in tune with the political rhythms of the country than either Labour or the old school patricians. Tony Blair's genius was to annex this programme in its entirety, selling back to the British people a politics that respected aspiration, individuality, and success. With this ground so thoroughly colonised and locked down, what was left for the Tories? Tacking to the right and point away from where the electorate were made little headway. As he noted, though Labour's majority fell from 413 to 355 seats and the Tories put on 33, their vote only nudged up by 0.7%. The Tories didn't win voters, rather Labour lost them as they stayed at home. Nevertheless, from Wheatcroft's point of view and, remember, pre-Dave, there was nowhere for them to go.

You can understand Wheatcroft's argument making sense at the time, but ultimately what happened after the crash and under Ed Miliband showed the limits of Labour's capacity to huddle the political centre. And, also, the Tories'. Theresa May, for instance, did not pursue a centre ground strategy and polled a vote comparable to anything Thatcher pulled off. Her unfortunate fate was to be up against Jeremy Corbyn's Labour.

Yet there is something to his argument that change came along with the displacement of the patricians. As a number of academic commentators on the Tories noted throughout the 1990s, the one nation approach we most associate with MacMillan and the aristocratic grandees of old found less favour on the party's benches as the 1970s wore on. As inflation rose and strikes along with it, most leading Tories were of the view that more consultation and negotiation between themselves, when they were in government, and the unions were necessary. Ted Heath, for example, was initially bullish before being forced to climb down on the provisions of his Industrial Relations Act. The view was if unions knew the facts of economic life and were integrated into industrial decision making, this would discipline the organised working class and the whole country could stride along to a future characterised by partnership rather than conflict. This consensual approach was rejected by the rising generation of neoliberal MPs who agitated for tough legislation aimed at the unions, and - arse about tit - argued price inflation was driven by rising wages, as opposed to rising prices spurring wage militancy.

The received academic wisdom (for instance, see Pete Dorey's The Conservative Party and the Trade Unions), is this generation of MPs were drawn from outside big business and had prior careers either in the professions (the law, mostly), small and medium sized enterprise, and other backgrounds. Norman Tebbit, for example, entered Parliament in 1970 after a career as a pilot and a trade union official. Because few had experience of managing large numbers of staff and of negotiating with workforces subject to collective bargaining, this lack of experience manifested as a more gung ho attitude to industrial conflict. They didn't have a personal stake in good industrial relations.

The petit bourgeoisie is the class caught in a vice between the contending forces of capital and labour, and occasionally flatters itself into thinking this is a privileged standpoint separate from and above the daily grind of class struggle. The attitude of Thatcher, petit bourgeois to a tee, and her rising faction was one of contempt toward their so-called betters. Thatcher hated the unions, but she also hated the conciliators and hoorays for whom their standing in the Tories was by virtue of position and favour. The struggle within the Tory party in the 1970s was a class struggle in which, ultimately, the big capital tied to the post-war order lost and was sidelined. Thatcher was able to dismantle the received consensus not just because she fought and won pitched battles with the labour movement, but also because she was largely independent from the sections of capital that lost out as the neoliberal settlement came into bloodied being. Therefore, contrary to arguments previously made here, it wasn't Blairism that broke the Tory hold over capital-in-general, it was Thatcher.

The question then is whether there's a relationship between what Thatcher did and the million member decline between the party's assumption of office and its relinquishing by John Major in 1997. After all, it wasn't just big business that was routinely ignored unless it was onside - restructuring British capitalism sent thousands upon thousands of family firms and family stores to the knackers yard. It would be a surprise if there wasn't a link between the two. But nevertheless, the collapse of party organisation might have more mundane explanations. Parties, for example, tend not to grow when they are in government and they were in office for a long time. However, the problem is their membership still hasn't begun to recover. Another might be located in the generalised antipathy to official politics that really took root in the Blair years. All parties suffered a partial collapse in organising capacity and it's only recently that the political party has seen a strange return - it's just that the stars have aligned for everyone but the Tories, so far.

No firm conclusions yet then, but there's a scent of something on the ground worth trailing.

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