Monday 25 March 2019

Why Don't People Write About the Tories?

There is a weird discrepancy in the politics literature. Go into a good university library and you will find many more books about the Labour Party than you would the Conservatives. Check out academic specialists in politics, and there are more writing about Labour than the Tories. Go to Amazon and see the number of items available - 4,000 for the Conservatives but 7,000 for Labour, And why is there a burgeoning mini-industry of books published about Jeremy Corbyn, including a couple of biographies, but nothing as yet about Theresa May? Why this difference? Why are academia and writers on matters politics more incurious when it comes to the Tories? Here are three suggestions.

1. Consider media coverage. There is a huge focus on the Tories right now because of, well, Brexit. But stretch out these last four years - how much time has broadcast and print media spent poring over Labour's internal division versus those afflicting the Tories. You only have to compare the respective coverage of anti-semitism in Labour and Islamophobia in the Conservatives to know there is much more media interest in the former. Lazy defenders of the media might counter there is more of an interest in what goes on in Labour, and so they are reflecting audience preferences. The more astute will note that broadcast media take newsworthiness cues from the press, which is overly right wing (to all intents and purposes, part of the Tory party according to its most recent decorated historian, Tim Bale) and therefore slanted against Labour. It doesn't take too much to suppose academic output as well as so-called popular politics titles reflect this established emphasis.

2. Familiarity. Bourgeois politics are called bourgeois politics because, um, they're bourgeois politics. The Westminster system is their system, and they determined the rules of the parliamentary game long before the House of Commons was troubled by the intrusion of worker representatives. If we date Parliament to the 1800 Act of Union, Labour has only been around for about half of its political history. If you want to go back to 1604, as per the precedent recently restated by the Speaker, or even further to its misty origins in feudal England Labour represents even more of a newcomer, a positive novelty. From the Tory standpoint of statecraft and managing the country, knowing what the party of the plebeian masses is thinking and doing always has to be a top priority, not just because of electoral competition but to protect their system and privileges from what the Labour Party implicitly threatens. Despite a century of what you might euphemistically describe as a mixed record, Labour politicians have a demonstrable capacity to win elections, form governments, and occasionally pursue politics involving the imposition of aspirations from below on the interests from above. Labour terrifies them because liberal democratic politics has incubated a proletarian party capable of permanently relegating the Tories to the margins and tilt calls power decisively away from them. The Tories are a known quantity, so why encourage an intellectual culture that privileges the study of the Conservative Party?

3. The left also neglect the Tories. During the 1980s Stuart Hall's work stimulated a wide-ranging debate about the state, the Thatcherite project, and the contemporary relevance of Gramsci's concepts. This was also alongside attempts by the left in Britain to think through socialist strategy in the context of changing class structures, the demobilisation and fragmentation of the industrial working class, the place of ethnic minorities and 'new' social movements in the progressive firmament, and a politics appropriate to the emerging post-industrial economy. After Thatcher, analytical concerns with the Tories diminished. Partly, because the rise of New Labour meant bourgeois politics had (temporarily) found a new natural home, and partly because the Tories were a busted flush - despite the unexpected triumph of the 1992 general election. Furthermore, the left have always taken strategic questions seriously and a great deal of debate about class, economics, and the relationship between them and Labour and/or alternative left vehicles are always strategic debates. For the Labour right, in as far as they've participated in such discussions, it's been about what they regard as necessary to guarantee Labour's electability. For the left it has been as much concerned with the possibility of transforming Labour as an instrument of socialist policy and class struggle as taking power. Therefore the Tories have tended to be crowded out. We know they're the enemy, so why pay them special attention?


Johny Conspiranoid. said...

You don't want to start looking into what your enemy is up to, that way lies madness.

Ken said...

Many years ago, I had an interest in local Labour activists, their background and orientation. To my amazement, I found a ton of books on Labour at the National Labour Party but only three, yes three, studies on members at the local level. One of them was a PhD thesis held securely in the University of Manchester library. I had to get a special pass to get it out of it’s hiding place in order to read it in the library. Was it not astonishing that nearly all academic writing ignored the activity of thousands of members in favour of those in parliament?