Sunday 7 April 2019

Is a New Conservative Party Possible?

What links the difficulties Dominic Grieve had with his Conservative Association, CHUKa's application to become a proper political party, and the resignation of Nick Boles? It might not be anything. Conversely, it could be everything. You don't need me to tell you mainstream politics is in crisis. Or let me rephrase that, bourgeois politics is in a state of panic. Liberalism as a movement of elites has collapsed, though running continuity remain and retaining access to the media means the illusion hasn't quite broken for them yet. As we have seen, the Labour right have done a good job of marginalising themselves in their scorched earth retreat before the left. And the Tories? Ah, the Tories. They're screwed.

In the mountain of analysis about the 2017 general election, it was Labour's polling figures that got the lion's share of discussion. But it is also worth remembering that under Theresa May, the Conservatives got their best popular vote result since 1992, surpassing even the efforts of His Blairness in 1997, and is roughly on a par with what Thatcher got in 1979 and 1987. What happened then, upon which Thatcher relied on during her time, was a split opposition (though some interesting revisionism has recently emerged). May was not so blessed as the bulk of the opposition vote coalesced behind Labour. However, to see the Tories do this well would make a nonsense of any argument they're in long-term decline, surely?

Well, no. As argued previously, what the Tories did was pile up votes from declining sections of the voting population. Declining because they are disproportionately older voters, or hail from constituencies that are in their twilight years - such as unionism (in the sectarian sense) in Scotland. This wouldn't ordinarily matter because as older voters pass on they're replaced by younger cohorts. Alas, not any more. Tories and their supporters are starting to realise this, as this delicious tweet from "Shippers" indicates, as well as this (clueless) edited collection. The bad news for them are the breakdown of the conservatising effects of old age, chiefly because Tory policy is not allowing young people to acquire property. And so younger people who, according to various values surveys are socially liberal and economically (neo)liberal, find Corbyn's Labour more congenial to their interests. Wouldn't it be ironic if, in the long-term, Corbyn's policies create the basis for a renewed Toryism decades from now?

But this has to be placed in context. The circumstances the Tories find themselves in now is after 60 years of decline in terms of an evaporating organisation, a declining depth and breadth of the Tory voter coalition, the formation of and success (for a while) of UKIP, a viable electoral competitor to the right, and cultural purchase. Like the tendency to global warming, the trend isn't linear. Balmy summers bump along with horrid winters, but the line of direction is clear. The left should be thankful that in Theresa May we have a Prime Minister shaking the Tory party apart with an accelerationist's zeal. If somehow it holds together after May, it is likely the next leader is going to come from the right, and that increases the possibility of their being beholden to the delusions of the Hague/IDS/Howard wilderness years. That is bang on about Europe, promise tax cuts, and demonise refugees and migrant workers - the kind of approach that didn't cut the mustard 15 years ago, and certainly would not now because they're speaking to the hobby horses of a contracting base and not reaching out or offering anything to anyone else.

However, in politics what decomposes one day might recompose the next. Consider all those awful leftists Labour threw off under Kinnock and Blair. They disappeared from the scene for a bit only to come roaring back when the window of opportunity opened. By losing three Tories to CHUKa, Nick Boles to independence, and a routine of threats circulating through the hard right press, the Facebook fora and Twitter feeds making centrist(ish) Tories nervous, might the progressive loss of their pro-EU liberal-leaning right so much a casting of seeds that could grow into something new? It's a possibility. As UKIP goes fash, and the Tories go UKIP where are the centrist Tories and their voters going to go? Stick with the party and weather the storms in their unhinged and unrepresentative associations? That's all very well, but what about the voters broadly aligned with this strand of opinion? Are they going to keep ticking the box on automatic pilot?

This is where CHUKa might have a future. By-election evidence over the last couple of years has found so-called centre parties - the Liberal Democrats and the recent remain-ultra positioning of the Greens - tend to do better picking up Conservative seats than Labour ones. And as John Major correctly observed on Andrew Marr a week ago, there will always be a space for a centre right party in British politics but that doesn't mean it has to be the Conservative Party. A socially liberal party that opposes itself to old-style conservatism, married to a watered down programme of Corbynism or, if you like, May's one nationism/blue Milibandism (without the racism) could in the medium to long-term pull off the trick. Especially if the Tory party proper continues to flounder in a fetid, bigoted puddle.

There are problems getting a new centre right party going though. First is opportunity. The UK might be contesting European elections, and CHUKa have announced they plan on standing. They could pick up a few seats as the debate is bound to be polarised around leave/remain. Who knows, if it's looking good perhaps Chuka or Chris Leslie might place themselves atop a list and ensure some continued half life in the media should a general election arrive and sweep them out of the Commons. That is assuming the elections go ahead. Second is, forgive the pun, momentum. A successful European election campaign would be a good time for any remaining Labour MPs to jump ship, and as the Tories spend the summer swirling about the plug hole, a move to the right could see one, two, well up to a dozen former Cameroons come aboard. Success breeds success, so they say. However, their biggest problem is message. As "something new" and with media hype behind them, they might find a segment of the electorate willing to listen to their wider offering - but if all they have is moaning about the referendum and their "radical programme" as it stands, they're going nowhere. They can have their market liberalism, but if they don't pledge to tackle insecurity, climate change, and resolve to so something about the rising generation's crisis of property they're not going to exploit the Tories' difficulties.

Is this a new party of the centre right possible? We're not talking about an over night thing here. First-past-the-post is a formidable, if not prohibitive obstacle for any party starting out. Though not impossible. Labour managed to supplant the Liberals over decades, and it was about 15 years before UKIP became a real threat to the Tory right flank. We like to flatter ourselves into thinking things move faster these days, but for a new centre right party, like CHUKa, to supplant the Tories means prising their coalition apart while annexing the existing withered centre and scooping up Blair-inflected flotsam and jetsam from the Labour right. And that takes time, patience, luck and real political skill - the last of which is in short supply as far as Team CHUKa are presently concerned.


Boffy said...

Not possible in the medium term. The Tories, in the 1950's and 60's, like similar parties in the US and the rest of Europe, were dominated by their conservative social-democratic wing, supporting welfarism, an extension of the social-democratic state's interventionism, precisely because during that period, large-scale socialised capital was dominant, and capital accumulation, and wealth generation occurred on that basis - Fordism.

In the 1970's that changed. The long wave cycle that began in 1949, reached the peak of the upswing in 1974, marked by the crisis of that year. The long wave cycle entered its crisis phase that lasted until around 1987, followed by its stagnation phase that ran until 1999, when the new upswing began, marked by the huge rise in global trade, growth and manifest in the sharp rise in primary product prices that goes with the start of every new long wave.

In 1974, the role of the traditional mainstay of progressive social-democracy - the professional day to managers, members of ASTMS, TASS and so on, along with the TU bureaucrats and their political equivalents - was undermined by the onset of the crisis phase. A route out of the crisis was for progressive social-democracy to step forward. To demand greater industrial democracy, remove the role of shareholders, increase the role of planning and regulation, especially as the EU was making possible on an international level. For reasons similar to permanent revolution, they baulked, and a section of that progressive social-democracy, got diverted down the road of nationalism (AES, opposition to EEC), much as is happening now.

That opened the door to conservative social democracy, based upon preventing any further advance in industrial democracy, enhancing the role of shareholders, basing growth on a rise in asset prices that led to the 2008 crash. And at the same time it meant the conservative social-democratic wing of the Tory Party came under attack from its reactionary wing that now looked to advance the cause of the Tory base.

2008 marked the end of that era. The new long wave upswing meant that global interest rates would rise, as real capital accumulation proceeded, and rising interest rates crush asset price bubbles. The material foundation of conservative social-democracy has gone. The choice is reaction or progressive social-democracy. A Macron, a conservative social-democratic Change UK, can benefit from the errors of progressive social-democracy, in the short term, as it again gets distracted by nationalism, but it will inevitably fail, and the danger then is that it opens the door for outright reaction, that seeks to overturn the social-democratic state that has dominated for the last century.

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

The Conservatives have neglected the interests of their core supporters. Small buisnesses have to compete with large buisnesses that don't pay taxes, new potential sopporters cannot become home owners. The coalition of interests the Conservatives used to represented has broken down in favour of the interets of big money,as transmitted through lobbying organisations and think tanks that like to keep their joint enterprises unknown to most of the population.

Andrew Curry said...

@johnny conspiranoid: The Conservatives’ financial base is no longer “big money”: it’s speculative finance. Look at all those hedge fund donations.