Saturday 6 October 2018

Three Conservative Futures

In his fun safari of the exotic and befuddled fauna at Conservative Party conference, Owen Jones argued this was a gathering devoid of ideas and lacking all purpose. Yet among the despondency, he warned against Labour complacency. As the most successful liberal democratic party in the Western world, it would be high folly to simply write them off. And he's right. But also, a proven track record of reinvention doesn't automatically mean the Tories can do it again. Just as there is nothing inevitable about the ends of socialism, there is no mechanism cranking out Tory wins. Every Conservative government is a struggle for them, an accomplishment for them. Their ability to win elections and drive through their programmes requires effort, but effort that in some way chimes with the balance of forces in wider society. Conservative victory does not grow on trees.

The problem the Tories have now is they're completely clapped out after 40 years of Thatcherism. The cohesiveness of their class has broken down and parts of the Tory party have become disarticulated from business interests, both in general and in particular. The programmes beloved of their leading figures, including Theresa May, are slave to the short-termism of the Daily Mail or Telegraph editorial, and the mass base of active Toryism in the country is a memory. This lack of social ballast, its dispersal is the ultimate dynamic behind their continuing division and factionalising. When would-be leadership contenders are too numerous to count you've got to wonder how it could ever possibly cohere as a disciplined force ever again. The situation is bad, and is certainly the most severe crisis for their party in our life times.

Yet on the surface their electoral coalition isn't looking too bad. Polling regularly gives them around 40%, 2017 saw their highest vote numbers since the 1980s glory days, and May still does better than Jeremy Corbyn as 'best PM' in most polls. But examine things a bit closer and there are severe difficulties. The voter coalition the Tories have got are mostly older, and where they are in work they tend to be clustered in occupations in decline. Plus ca change you might say. Such voters may have a greater propensity of becoming permanent non-voters than younger cohorts, but they're being replaced by other generations as they die. The problem here is the conservatising effects of age are breaking down. Tories past have depended on the acquisition of property and capital, or at the very least the feeling people are getting better off as they make their way through life. Not any more. The housing shortage and ridiculous prices. Stagnant living standards. No ability to save for a home, let alone for a pension. And, even worse, the Tories have gone out of their way to put the screws on working people and be seen doing it.

The Tories then are in deep trouble, and no lick of Dave-tinted socially liberal pain will save them this time. True, they could still win the next election. Their coalition currently constituted is big enough to win a numbers/turnout game, but winning just enough can only get harder as the years go by. And after Brexit, how many of their current voters are going to stick around? We have to ask the question then: whither the Conservative Party? What possible futures are they facing, whether they remain in or crash out of government? For my money, there are three.

1. Splits and self-destruction. Wouldn't it be a beautiful thing to see the Tory party splinter? You know, a small party of pro-EU luvvies and Cameroons over there with a dozen or so MPs, and a thin layer of youngish liberal centre right activists. Then there are the Moggites with their Haribo mix of europhobes, Colonel Blimps, and drawing room reactionaries - bolstered by a rag tag of former UKIP foot soldiers. One might spot a Boris Johnson party, as well as a myriad number of petty fiefdoms organised around the non-personality of a former cabinet member, and a rump continuity Tory party. Yes, it's a thing of dreams, and one not entirely implausible given the centrifugal forces tearing at them and the recent proven record of UKIP as a relatively viable alternative to the Tories' right.

2. Stagnation. That is the malaise afflicting them now continues indefinitely. Their electoral coalition does not rejuvenate itself, the forces it does still represent continue to block the adoption of policies that can intersect with the rising generation of voters, and its leading figures remain locked into the mental horizon nudge-nudge racist populism and of market fundamentalism. The splits, the infighting, the lack of cohesion is held together only by the party label which, most (rightly) reason, is the only reason why they get elected. But no matter what they say and regardless of how they try and gerrymander constituency boundaries, dwindling voters means dwindling numbers of MPs. An ignoble decline into angry and frustrated impotence, it couldn't happen to a nicer party.

3. Rejuvenation. They've done it before, can they do it again? The task the Tories have is to stop austerity, sort out housing, dump the dog whistle racism and be thoroughly socially liberal, and offer an economic plan that breaks decisively with the last 40 years. Rather than red in tooth and claw they have to tack toward the centre to reverse their long-term decline. Instead of the openly classist combat party of the rich, a sustainable long-term future of success would mean taking a leaf from Angela Merkel's book - a party that appears moderate, sensible, one nation-y and anything but reckless. They have potential figureheads who could fill these boots - Ruth Davidson is obvious. Heidi Allen, Tom Tugenhadt, Sarah Wollaston and, at a push, Rory Stewart - but these are peripheral to the main factionalising action at present. The problem of a centrist rejuvenation, however, isn't just a matter of dumping old policy and going for something new. It's structural. Within the Tory party itself, a real centrist makeover means taking on your Johnsons, your Goves, your Rees-Moggs, the Association chairs, significant sections of the dwindling membership, the press, and so on. Dave's sop to liberal Toryism was characteristically superficial, but that caused him enough ructions and contributed to the rise of UKIP. Presently there isn't a wide enough base in the Tory party to see this degenerate and decadent gang off. The second difficulty is taking up these issues cuts against vested interests who've stuck with the Tories. Build more houses? House prices fall. More rights for tenants? Landlord won't like that. Greater certainty in the workplace? Bosses scream blue murder. More economic planning and infrastructure investment? Fewer gambling opportunities for the money men. And so on. In other words, to succeed the Tories need to change but there are significant and, at present, insurmountable difficulties in the party and in its voter coalition preventing them from doing this.

Reading the runes, as neither fragmentation nor rejuvenation is on the cards stagnation is where the smart money's going to be. Fittingly, the Conservatives are conserving their own crisis and are left to hope something will come along. But as the balance of forces tilts against them with every passing day, waiting is going to exacerbate their weakness and making the necessary course correction that much harder to execute. Long may the dithering continue.


Ken said...

Has Ruth Davidson won a place in the Scottish Parliament on her own account? My recollection is that she won on the list system, which allows party leaders the chance to avoid the win or die option of standing in a constituency. I also think that this was the route taken by Kezia Dugdale. Speaking of whom, she had apparently been supported to the tune of £90k defending a libel case by Scottish Labour on a nod and a wink from a previous party official. This subventions has now stopped and this is now consuming Scottish Labour.
As for “Ruthie” big fish, small pond. She won’t want to jump to England and plunge not that imbroglio

Speedy said...

Your home ownership point is certainly a factor, but I'm not sure how much of one. Interestingly, if you look at the states, the UK is way down the league, and I'm not sure how many of these other countries have a predominance of right-wing parties in power.

And there's the rub - the right (not conservative party) will reinvent itself to appeal to other aspects of the electoral equation, be they reactionary, stability, or liberty. The Left (which is supposed to stand for something) has less flexibility because it will never be able to out-right the right.

1729torus said...

Over in Dublin, Fine Gael under Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have decided that pivoting to the centre is the lesser evil compared to FG being perpetually sidelined. Their loss of a third of their seats in 2016 was a real shock to them.

One big potent threat to the Tories the author hasn’t discussed is Proportional Representation.

If it weren’t for Irish Labour cosying up to FG (yes!) after the 2002 election where FG were nearly wiped out, FG would have lost loads of support and donations since they would have had no realistic prospect of holding office any time soon.

FPTP means there is less immediate pressure on parties to reform since they expect they’ll be in office at some point